Dear NHL:

As your leagues’ game theory is currently constructed, the teams that collect the fewest points in the first two thirds of your regular season—and so are unlikely to qualify for your playoffs—are better off faring even more poorly in the final third of their seasons. After all, if they fall to the bottom few spots in your league, they will be rewarded with the highest chance of attaining a future star in your weighted draft lottery.

I appreciate your reason for rewarding your worst teams with high draft lottery odds: you want to give them a chance of rejuvenating themselves relatively soon so that their fans don’t look elsewhere.

However, this noble sporting welfare system has an obvious and troubling consequence. Some below-par teams may purposely stub their own toes so that they can get access to your best services.

Indeed, you may recall that the similarly constructed NBA recently fined Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban for admitting to telling his players to “tank” the rest of their season. Well, yes, that was wrong of him as it was very unsportsmanlike, but it was also right of him from a strategic point of view.

I doubt any NHL owners actually tell their players to take a dive; however, their general managers are able to take the dive on their behalf. As you know, every year at your trade deadline, two thirds through the season, your lesser teams will trade away good players near the ends of their contracts for future prospects. I understand that sometimes a future asset is worth more than a current one, but it seems that some teams are a little too eager to part with players who are playing well for them, only to get back questionable value.

So, dear NHL, I have an idea. Please stop incentivizing losing. Instead, give those teams something to play for so they have good reason to try to win as much as they can.

Here are two ideas:

(1) Increase the number of wildcard teams who are given entry into your playoffs by adding in a short wildcard playoff round. This would mean that there would be more teams on the bubble or near the bubble of making those playoffs. These teams would thus have less reason to throw away their seasons.

(2) For the teams that don’t make the playoffs, instead of rewarding the worst-faring teams with the best chance of winning the draft lottery, invert that, and give the best-faring non-playoff teams the highest chance of landing the next star. Consequently, the rest of the season will have value to the subpar teams and their fans, because we’ll be fighting for our future even if we’re out of the playoffs.

I see your objection to the second suggestion. If we don’t help out the very worst teams with draft lottery rewards, you worry that they’ll never get out of the league cellar. I understand your point. However:

(A) There’s not that much difference between the worst teams and the next-to-worst teams, so you’ll still be helping out bad teams first no matter what happens in the draft lottery. And, since it’s a weighted lottery, you could still give the very worst teams a reasonable possibility of winning the lottery, just not quite as good a chance as they’d get if they’d fared a little better in their games.

(B) With this new system, by reducing the incentive for the bad teams to give away “rental” players to the good teams, those playoff-bound teams could still try to acquire players at the trade deadline; however, they would have to offer a lot more to entice the losing teams to give up their end-of-contract players. This new incentive plan would benefit those lowest teams who would only give away good players if the future considerations offered were of high quality.

And, with the notion of purposely tanking now obsolete, your game theory will be repaired.

Sincerely, your fan and (unpaid) advisor,

Seth McDonough


  1. Excellent suggestions! The mini-playoff at the end of the season for a
    wildcard spot would be very exciting.

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