How NHL ultimately handles draft lottery of great interest to Senators fans

After putting the season on pause the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement.

The larger story, of course, extends far beyond the games people play.

Lives are at stake and health care systems threatened in the coronavirus pandemic. Schools are being closed. Public gatherings are either under scrutiny or outright banned.

The irony for the impacted sports fan: If we are to face widespread quarantine at some point during this global crisis, how on earth are we supposed to pass the time indoors if the sports leagues are all shut down? The greatest reality TV shows of all are on pause, for who knows how long. Time for the networks to get creative.

The NHL announced Thursday it would follow the NBA’s lead and put its regular season on hold.

“Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement.

It would be sweet if a simple “pause” for a couple of weeks would permit things to improve and the season to be back on.

The problem is the opposition, this virus, is tougher and more sustainable than an all-star team of the best NHL players. It will relent when it relents. And, while the league’s goal is to award the Stanley Cup this season, given the growth in positive cases in North America in recent days, there is at least a chance that there may be no more regular season hockey games, no playoff series for which teams have battled for nearly six months.

The last time the NHL didn’t award the Stanley Cup, due to the 2004-05 lockout, it was easy to blame a league and its players for a cold-hearted business miss.

This stoppage is closer to the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic which halted the Cup series between Montreal and Seattle after five games. Several members of the Canadiens were sick with the flu and one of them, defenceman Joe Hall, 37, died of pneumonia after contracting
the illness.

When the NBA learned on Wednesday evening that one of its players (and now more) had contracted the coronavirus, it reacted swiftly, suspending its season.

LeBron James tweeted, can we just cancel 2020 altogether?

“Damn it’s been a rough three months,” LeBron said. “God bless and stay safe.”

In hockey circles, things have changed a little since that last Cup-busting flu pandemic.

Instead of interrupting a comparatively quaint final series of 101 years ago, today’s pandemic threatens a multi-billion dollar business and multi-layered economic models that depend on ticket sales, playoff revenues and sponsorship deals.

If it loses the rest of the regular season and playoffs the NHL would be taking a hit, the ramifications of which will be widespread, impacting revenue sharing, salary caps and the bottom lines of individual, cash-flow dependent franchises (hello from Ottawa).

It will also, eventually, get back to regular business, and when it does the draft lottery, tentatively scheduled for April, will sort out which teams get the choice picks in the 2020 NHL draft in June. These dates are no longer certain as the NHL attempts to
finish its season, asking clubs to check on arena availability through the month of July.

If the playoffs get cancelled, the focus shifts away from the best teams in the NHL, the true Cup contenders for April and May playoffs, to the worst teams in the league.

In other words, the Ottawa Senators, with three first-round picks, might become relevant players in the league’s biggest show — the draft lottery and draft, which could become all there is to get excited about hockey-wise this spring.

As the NHL declared the season on hold, the Ottawa Senators were frozen in 30th overall in a 31-team league. Whether the league is able to resume the regular season or not, it seems likely Ottawa will remain in penultimate place, high above the Detroit Red Wings, who cannot be out-tanked.

The draft rankings will depend on what the NHL opts to do to sort things out. If all teams can play 82 games, great. That is the best-case scenario for hockey. More likely, the league will either go to a points-per-game formula or roll the standings back to 68
games, so that each team will have played the same number.

In a points per game case, Ottawa would remain 30th. If the league rolled the standings back to Game 68, the Senators would climb to 29th with 62 points and Los Angeles would slip to 30th with 60.

Welcome to Tankville, an upside down world where bad is good and losing brings a team closer to draft nirvana. Unlike last year, when Colorado owned Ottawa’s first draft pick, the Senators have their own first choice in 2020 plus the top picks of the San Jose Sharks
and the New York Islanders.

Assuming the standings remain closer to their frozen state, or a points-per game basis, on their own, the Senators only have a 13.5 per cent chance of selecting first overall. But, add in the pick of the Sharks (currently 29th) and they have an additional 11.5 per cent
shot at picking No. 1, or 25 per cent overall. In other words, better odds than the Red Wings. [sidebar]

In many respects, the draft has come full circle, with Ottawa holding such a prominent place in the proceedings. After all, it was largely because of the Senators that a draft lottery exists today.

In 1993, Senators founder Bruce Firestone let it slip to reporters that Ottawa was happily tanking in order to select Alexandre Daigle with the first overall pick. Firestone was fined $100,000 by the NHL for his temerity and by 1995 a draft lottery was put into place to dissuade teams from finishing last on purpose.

Today, teams tank more discreetly and face tougher odds, even worse than they were six years ago, when a last-place team had a 25 per cent shot at winning the lottery.

The Senators will take their chances with 25 per cent odds in April – or whenever the draft lottery gets the green light.


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