One of the enduring legacies of the NHL's salary-cap era is the concept of extreme parity.
The league wants fan-bases to stay engaged as long as possible and teams to feel that they're always in the hunt for the playoffs. Every now and again, a team will even, well, beat the President's Trophy-winning team in a four-game sweep and shock the world.
Off the ice, the NHL gives basement-dwelling teams to improve somewhat rapidly through franchise-changing prospects at the NHL Draft and the ability to use the salary cap as a weapon. Conversely, even the best of them eventually fall on hard times (cough Detroit). A quick glance at the seven teams who won't be competing for the duration of the 2019-20 season reveals a list of teams that (for the most part) had a successful decade. After all, only one team can win the Stanley Cup. Take the Los Angeles Kings, who won it all in 2012 and 2014, or the San Jose Sharks, who lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals. The Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators reached Game 7 of their particular Conference Final in 2015 and 2017, respectively (sorry, Buffalo. I got nothing).
All of that is to say that being mediocre is typically the worst place to be. For starters, it's difficult to find elite talent at the mid-way point of the first round. It leads to more challenging playoff matchups, if playoffs are even on the table. Worst of all, it can become culturally acceptable, as self-preservation becomes more important than taking calculated risks. Put simply, a lot of average teams stay average for a long time.
But for the first time in my life, I'm pleased that the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in the middle-of-the-road. For in this bizarre instance, being average grants them an unanticipated advantage.
Living Large In A 24-Team Playoff Field
We may be down to 24 teams, but, as we learned on Tuesday, the playoff field itself will still be the traditional 16. That means that the eight teams that are eliminated from the first-first round (henceforth called the 'play-in games') are also potentially eligible to participate in the NHL Draft Lottery. Here is a primer on the "unique" draft lottery rules.
It's true. A team like Columbus could win its play-in games and then get a shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But should they lose to Toronto, they'd also have a chance at a top-three pick. How much of a chance? Glad you asked. Using The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn's model, somewhere in the neighborhood of a 6.4% chance of landing a top-three pick. It may not sound like a huge change, but it's a 3.1% greater chance than had they missed the playoffs entirely.
That assumes that the Phase 1 lottery lands with all three winners coming from the already-eliminated teams. If by some stroke of luck an NHL logo pops up as a winner of any of those three picks, all teams that lose in the play-in games have a 12.5% chance at a top-three pick. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
Simply put, the Blue Jackets will likely have higher odds of picking in the lottery even if they lose to Toronto than they would have had they missed the playoffs entirely. So by expanding the playoff field, the NHL has gifted them a slight few percentage points.
What About The Top And Bottom Teams?
For the bottom seven teams, Tuesday's announcement means their players and prospects will see no game action for what could end up being a full year, Meanwhile, an expanded field of teams will have training camps and playoff hockey repetitions. In a league that is always inching younger, those reps are valuable.
For the top four teams in each conference, I would wager that playing each other in a somewhat meaningless (Mr. Bettman would disagree) round-robin will fail to fully prepare them for the fury of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Would a battle-tested but lower-ranked team coming off a confidence-inducing series victory have the edge over a lame-duck opponent? I tend to lean yes.
Further, those eight teams don't have an opportunity to partake in the lottery, no matter how slim their odds.
I can practically hear it through your screen. You don't care that the Blue Jackets have a theoretical chance at landing a potentially high draft pick if they are hypothetically knocked out of the play-in games. I'm with you - it would be best if Columbus just beat Toronto.
But wouldn't you rather have that to fall back on than the top eight teams?
As The Athletic's Craig Custance put nicely in his roundtable piece:
This becomes one of the rare times it’s good to be in the middle of the pack in the NHL. Those are the winners here. You get a crack at the Stanley Cup and, if that flames out, there might be a shot at the top pick waiting for you.
It's a win-win for the Blue Jackets, who have the lottery to fall back on should they fail to keep their season alive against the Maple Leafs.