June 8, 2023

Brighton Journal

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NHL Lottery Explained: How 4 Ping Pong Balls Will Determine Conor Bedard’s Future

How much does a ping pong ball weigh?

In a literal sense, it weighs 2.7 grams, or less than a tenth of an ounce. But for many NHL franchises – this year especially – it’s the weight of the world, the future of their entire organization, and their best hope for getting out of their current doldrums.

The NHL Draft Lottery will be held May 8 in Secaucus, NJ, in a studio inside the NHL Network’s headquarters. It will determine who gets the next “generational” NHL talent in forward Conor Bedard, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, who rose to hockey celebrity status at just 17 years old.

The Anaheim Ducks, by virtue of having the worst record in the league, have the best chance, out of the 11 eligible non-playoff teams, of touchdown B├ędard’s 25.5%. Next up are the Columbus Blue Jackets (13.5 percent), followed by the Chicago Blackhawks (11.5), San Jose Sharks (9.5), and Montreal Canadiens (8.5).

The NHL has changed the format of its lottery several times over the years in an effort to achieve three different goals:

  • To reward clubs at the bottom of the league standings with the best chance of crafting the next wave of talent
  • To establish a process that is fair but not foolproof, hoping that clubs do not “lose” – intentionally lose – to ensure a particular draft pick
  • To have a process full of drama for as many clubs as possible

For this last goal…

From 2001 to 2014, the maximum any club could advance in the lottery was four places, so the five worst clubs in the league had a chance to pick the top spot.

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Thanks to changes made in the 2021 draft, a team can now jump 10 points via the lottery. This means that the bottom 11 teams – all the way to Vancouver (3 percent) – will have a chance to pick the top spot.

Teams that finished 12th to 16th in the standings cannot advance to first place via the lottery. If one of these five teams wins the lottery, up to 10 points will be transferred in order and Anaheim will be automatically declared the winner.

This is why ducks, which are listed in some places as having an 18.5 percent chance of winning the lottery, actually have a 25.5 percent chance. (If you add the percentage of chances for the 12th-place teams to the 16th-place, it adds another 7 percent.)

But while teams have a chance to jump up on the draft board, they can only hold back so far. No team can drop more than two places from where they finished in the standings, which means Anaheim will pick no lower than third, Columbus no lower than fourth, etc.

How is the lottery selection process? Well, it can sound like a puzzle, and it can sound more like math than most of us would welcome. The NHL hires an outside accounting firm to handle the process.

First, 14 ping pong balls are loaded into a lottery machine, each bearing a number between 1 and 14 (1, 2, 3, etc.). Why 14? Since there are 1,001 different combinations of four numbers between 1 and 14, and the league needs 1,000 different possible numbers to run the lottery.

One of the 1,001 sets of numbers is chosen at random and removed from the pool of possible numbers, leaving the process with 1,000 even numbers.

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Then, each NHL club in the lottery is assigned a series of randomly selected four-digit numbers according to their lottery odds. Anaheim has an 18.5 percent chance based on last place, thus 185 number combinations, but it also wins if teams from 12th to 16th place win and advance 10 spots. Combined, these five clubs have a 7 percent chance of winning (70 four-digit combinations), giving the Ducks 255 four-digit combination that would lead to first pick.
Columbus is next with 13.5 percent (135 four-digit combinations), followed by Chicago with 11.5 percent (115), San Jose with 9.5 percent (95), Montreal with 8.5 percent (85), etc.

The list of numbers is then announced by the league, as is the number 1001 previously chosen at random and set aside. Then comes the lottery draw, and there are already two draws.

The first is to select Pick #1. The combination of four numbers that pop up from the lottery machine is matched against a list of numbers to see which team wins. If any of the bottom 11 teams, this is the club that will pick No. 1 and presumably get Bedard.

If the winner is a team in No. 12- no. Within the range of 16, the first-ranked ducks will be awarded, and the “winning” team will receive 10 points from the predetermined lottery odds. (So, Ottawa could move all the way from No. 12 to No. 2, Buffalo from No. 13 to No. 3, etc.)

A second draw is then held to determine the second highest available spot. (This will be the #2 overall pick unless Ottawa wins the lottery.)

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In the 2022 Lottery, the “winning” numbers were 1-3-4-13, which corresponds to Montreal, which came in the draft with the best odds (18.5 percent). The Canadiens selected winger Juraj Slavkowski with the No. 1 pick.

The second set of numbers was 3-5-10-14, which corresponds to the state of New Jersey. The Devils climbed from No. 5 to No. 2 in the standings.

One can only imagine the drama behind the scenes when the numbers were revealed.

The NHL requires a representative from each team in the lottery to be present as a witness, and each of the witnesses is sworn to secrecy (their cell phones are held by security, no one is allowed to leave the room, etc.) until the TV air show after a while.

What fans see during the league’s primetime television show is a highly staged, made-for-television event hosted by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who stands behind a high table and holds up banners bearing each club’s logo to reveal them. Draft order.

Despite the independent accounting firm, multiple witnesses and a convoluted system, conspiracy theories reign supreme throughout the hockey world, claiming that the NHL has its fingers wide every year, and dictating which franchise can reach the best prospects.

To that end, the league has now for several seasons released a video showing the actual lottery drawing that determines the selection order.

(Photo by Gary Pittman in the 2022 Lottery Draft: Mike Stoop/NHLI via Getty Images)