NHL draft lottery: Making sense of the confusing

There might be two lotteries this year. Then again, there might not be. The system isn’t cut and dried.
Back in 2018, everything went according to plan with the NHL Draft Lottery and draft. Teams were able to pack their staffs on to the event floor.
Back in 2018, everything went according to plan with the NHL Draft Lottery and draft. Teams were able to pack their staffs on to the event floor. [ ERICH SCHLEGEL | (2018) ]
Published May 29, 2020|Updated May 29, 2020

When the NHL announced its draft lottery format for this year, there was a resounding, unanimous response.


The league took the opportunity to shake things up for this coronavirus-affected season, and the results, announced Tuesday, are not easy to follow.

Reporter Darren Dreger of Canada’s TSN network, one of the ultimate hockey insiders, tweeted, “Good luck to all of us trying to explain/write how the draft lottery is going to work. Oh boy. (zany face emoji).”

Dallas Morning News reporter Matthew DeFranks kept it simple with four screenshots from commissioner Gary Bettman’s announcement and the caption, “The NHL Draft Lottery is confusing.”

Let’s see if we can break this down for the June 26 lottery.

Given that the Lightning have been in the lottery only once in the past seven years (and ended up with a not-too-exciting 14th pick), here’s a quick refresher on how things usually work: The 15 of the 31 teams not in the playoffs are in three separate draws for the top three picks, with odds descending based on their place in the final standings.

Why does that need to change?

We don’t know who will be in the playoffs yet under the league’s return-to-play plan. If the season does resume this summer, 24 teams will keep playing, 12 from each conference. The bottom eight in each conference, based on points percentage, will play a qualification round for the playoffs. Those winners will join the top four teams in each conference in a 16-team playoff. And the NHL doesn’t want to wait until, say, August to hold the lottery. (Just a theory, but the lottery might get a lot more attention if it’s held while people are still starved for sports.)

Related: What will 'Phase 2' look like for the Lightning?

What has changed?

On June 26, six of the teams out of the return-to-play format — Detroit, Ottawa (it has two lottery slots, its slot and eliminated San Jose’s), Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo — and eight placeholders (for the teams that will lose in the qualification round) will enter three draws for the top three picks. The odds for each slot are assigned just as they would be in a normal year.

If bottom-finishing teams are selected for the three top picks, that’s it, we’re done, no confusion. If at least one of the placeholders is selected, things get interesting.

A screenshot from the NHL's broadcast shows the odds for the first of two draft lotteries this year.
A screenshot from the NHL's broadcast shows the odds for the first of two draft lotteries this year. [ NHL ]

Then there would be a second phase of the lottery, held after the qualification round and before the playoffs’ first round, to include all eight eliminated teams (or the teams that acquired their first-round pick in a trade). That would mean that even if an eliminated team finished the abbreviated regular season No. 5 in its conference, it could be eligible for a lottery pick. (Lots of teams have lots of opinions on that, but we’ll stick to the facts here.)

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All the eliminated teams would have the same odds in the second phase. In the first Phase 2 drawing, the winner would get the pick granted to a placeholder in Phase 1. If that pick was the top pick, all eight teams-to-be-named-later would have identical 3.06 percent odds of getting it.

If more than one placeholder team got a lottery spot in Phase 1, Phase 2 would continue with draws until those spots were covered.

Are the Lightning in the running?

Sorry to dash your hopes, but no. The Lightning are one of eight teams we know have made the playoffs. Those teams are eliminated from the lottery. The latter half of the draft order will be determined by playoff results.

When is the draft?

The NHL floated the idea of holding the draft before the playoffs very seriously (again, there’s a lot of hype for sports content right now), but it got pretty universal negative reactions to that idea.

Related: What we know, and don't know, about the NHL's return to play plan

General managers reset their rosters based on how things go in the playoffs, and with a draft before the playoffs, they wouldn’t have had that chance to evaluate. Teams also wouldn’t have been able to trade players with playoff value — with the season still on and the trade deadline past, traded players wouldn’t have been eligible for the playoffs — and having games still to play would have put a damper on the draft-day trade excitement.

No date has been set.

Things are weird this year because they have to be. Like the rest of us, general managers want what shreds of normalcy they can hold on to.

What will the draft look like?

TBD. Bettman said that if the draft took place now, it would be virtual, but he’s not pinning anything down until he has to. Perhaps by September or October — likely when the offseason would fall if play resumes — an in-person version would be possible.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.

Related: Alex Killorn dropped a new video and the whole thing is a Mighty Ducks reference