Why 2020 NHL draft lottery could throw back to 2005 Crosby Sweepstakes

A card bearing the name of the Edmonton Oilers is placed in the No. 25 spot on the draft lottery board during the 2005 draft lottery. (Andy Marlin/AP)

Of the three paths the National Hockey League is exploring to hold its delayed 2020 draft, one stands head and shoulders above the others as the most intriguing — and, depending on your team of choice, infuriating or promising.

The typical arena-hosted gala, originally scheduled for June 26-27 at Montreal’s Bell Centre, feels increasingly like some sort of pandemic pipe dream.

A virtual draft, the likes of which the NFL will embark on next week, is the safest route, and would place as much pressure on each franchise’s IT guy as its general manager. As was the case with Saturday Night Live at Home or that hasty Tiger King & I special, we’ll surely tune in out of curiosity, but the big moments will be impossible to land with the same punch.

It’s the NHL’s third option — a compromise between stadium status and FaceTime with Pierre Dorion! — that has piqued our interest. Mostly because there’s a chance hockey could be throwing it back to the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.

“We’re certainly looking at options on the draft. Are we going to do the draft virtually? Are we going to end up doing the draft scaled-down like it was in Ottawa in 2005?” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer tells Sportsnet.

“That one came out of a lockout and was a scaled-down draft. We’re keeping our options open and absolutely planning as this pause is taking place, because we need to be immediately ready when we get to go. We have to activate as quickly as we can.”

A quick refresher on the unique circumstances of 2005, the summer those lucky Pittsburgh Penguins famously “won a goddamn lottery.”

Due to a labour dispute that wiped out the 2004-05 campaign, the 2005 draft, intended to take place in June at the Corel Centre, got pushed to July 30. The Senators’ home rink could not be used under short notice, so the draft was instead held at Ottawa’s Westin Hotel and shuttered to the public for the first time since 1980. (To make good, the league awarded the Senators the 2008 draft. If the Canadiens miss out on presenting full-scale draft this year, they too are expected to be compensated with an opportunity in the near future.)

Only the 20 highest-ranked prospects attended in-person.

Two recent surefire first-overall draftees, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, consider the effect a low-key draft day would have on projected No. 1 Alexis Lafrenière and the rest of the 2020 class.

“I was actually joking with my friends that they’re lucky they don’t have to do the Combine, but obviously they’re going to miss out a lot. It’s such a special experience — even the Combine is, as difficult as some of those bike tests are,” McDavid says.

“There’s lots of people missing out on lots of things right now. We all have to do our part, and unfortunately they may have to give up their draft experience, but the important thing is the draft and getting drafted.”

From Arizona quarantine, Matthews thinks back to the scene of his “incredible” night in 2016.

“Hearing your name called and going up there, getting your jersey, it’s all extremely surreal. It’s an experience that you dream of as a kid,” says Matthews, thinking of 2020’s top prospects. “If that’s not the case, it’s going to be tough, obviously. I think in the long run, they’re going to be great players in this league, and hopefully they’ll have more memories and experiences to cherish.”

Cherishing the upcoming draft are the Senators and Detroit Red Wings, two clubs that purposely tanked 2019-20 to up their odds of landing one of the potential franchise forwards at the top of the class. If the NHL completes this paused season, as is still commissioner Gary Bettman’s hope, the Sens (25 per cent) and Wings (18.5 per cent) hold the greatest odds of winning Lafreniere.

But if today’s playoff clubs aren’t granted a shot at the Stanley Cup and all that fan interest and gate revenue associated with a post-season run, certainly they should get some balls in the hopper, too.

Again, 2005 provides a template to work from.

Instead of going by the most recent standings, of 2003-04, which already rewarded basement dwellers like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington in the ’04 draft, 2005’s lottery odds were then weighted by number of playoff appearances in the previous three seasons and the number of first-overall picks in the previous four drafts.

Four teams (the Sabres, Blue Jackets, Rangers and Penguins) were granted three balls, 10 teams got two balls, and the remaining 16 got one ball each, for a total of 48.

The three-ball teams had a 6.3 per cent shot at Crosby, the two-ball teams had a 4.2 per cent chance, and the rest of the field 2.1 per cent.

To further even the rules, the league also implemented a fantasy-style snake draft, meaning the club that picked last in Round 1 went to the podium first in Round 2.

Of course, a rebuilding organization like Ottawa, which has made a series of decisions based around building through this lottery, may have a bone to pick.

“We want to make sure we have a voice in this,” GM Dorion said Tuesday on a conference call. “Our hockey operations group worked really hard in making three different kind of proposals for resumptions of regular season play, the playoffs and draft lottery – all items that are related to hockey personnel decisions.”

“I think our game is in good hands with Gary Bettman. I think the integrity of the regular season, the playoffs, the awarding of the Stanley Cup and the draft lottery will all be decided well and with a lot of integrity.”

Lurking in the shadows of the draft lottery predicament as it pertains to 2020’s unsettled season is the potential (hope?) for a new collective bargaining agreement to spring out of this mess.

Any rejigging of the format would require the players’ approval, and the sides have been working amicably amidst this crisis.

“That’s been really unique in this period of time — the cooperation between the NHLPA, the teams, the players and the league,” Mayer notes.

Upon tweaking the ’05 lottery, Bettman explained the format at the time as a response to “a unique circumstance… taking into account as well that nobody knows exactly what the new world is going to look like.”

Sound familiar?

“Half the league probably wanted everybody to have an equal chance, and the other half wanted all the teams that didn’t make the playoffs to have the only chances — weighted or unweighted. And if you look at the statistical odds of both scenarios what we did is about in the middle,” Bettman said 15 years ago.

“Nobody was particularly thrilled, but everyone understood that on balance it was probably the fairest way to approach it.”

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