The NHL's 2020 draft lottery explained: Everything you need to know

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 26. It has been updated.

The NHL will hold its annual draft lottery Friday. Like in previous years, there’s a top prospect prize for the team that wins the first overall pick: Alexis Lafrenière, the high-scoring left wing from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

But that’s just about where comparisons to previous drafts end. With the NHL’s season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, pending a possible return to play this summer, the draft lottery process will be like nothing teams and fans have seen before. You probably have some questions, and we’re here to provide the answers:

When and where is the NHL draft lottery being held?

The NHL draft lottery will be held on Friday, June 26. Rather than in Toronto, the lottery will be held at the NHL Network studios in Secaucus, New Jersey.

The picks will be presented on NBCSN, NHL Network, Sportsnet and TVA Sports beginning at 8 p.m. ET. This is the first studio show the NHL has attempted since the league shut down for the coronavirus pandemic on March 12, but it’ll look different: Representatives from the lottery teams will join the broadcast remotely rather than in studio as is tradition.

How many picks are determined by this new lottery format?

The NHL announced that the top three picks in the 2020 draft will be determined in three separate draws, which has been the format for the draft since 2016. After much debate about how to handle the lottery in light of the 24-team postseason format, the NHL essentially stuck with its current format for the top three picks.

How many teams are in the 2020 NHL draft lottery?

There are 15 teams in the lottery. They include the seven teams that would not take part in the 24-team, conference-based tournament should the NHL return this summer to complete its season: the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks (whose pick belongs to Ottawa), Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres.

The other eight teams eligible for the top picks are the ones that lose in the “qualification round” of the postseason, i.e. the No. 5 seed through the No. 12 seed in each conference. Those teams will take part in a second draft lottery before the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs begin, if necessary.

Wait, there are two draft lotteries?

Maybe! The NHL is going to hold one draft lottery Friday. There will be three draws. The seven teams that aren’t returning to play will take part. There will also be eight “placeholder” spots eligible to win the lotteries, too. The involvement of 15 teams will maintain previously established lottery odds.

As usual, the winning team from the first draw will no longer be eligible for the second or third draws. All number combinations originally assigned to this team will become “re-draw combinations” for the second and third draws. The remaining teams’ odds will increase on a proportionate basis for the second draw based on which team wins the first draw.

If three non-qualification-round teams win all three of the top picks, we end there, with only one lottery drawing. Those teams would own the top three picks, and the rest of the draft order would be determined by the current standings points percentages of non-return-to-play teams followed by the teams eliminated in the qualification round.

However, if any of the “placeholder” spots win a draw for one of the top three picks, then we’re going to have a second draft lottery, which will be held between the end of the qualification round and the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinals. That draft would feature the eight teams eliminated in the qualifying round. In each Phase 2 draw, all participants will have the same odds of winning. The team that wins that lottery would then win the highest “placeholder” spot in the top three. If another “Phase 2” draw is necessary, the first team’s numbered lottery ball will be removed.

Can we have an example?

Let’s say, for the sake of Red Wings fans, that Detroit wins the lottery on Friday night, but the winners for the second and third overall picks are “placeholders” for teams in the qualification round. A second draft will be held after those teams are eliminated, and only those eight eliminated teams would be eligible for the second and third overall picks … which brings us to a potential problem with this format.

What’s the problem with the format?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are fifth in the Eastern Conference, with a .623 points percentage, which is seventh in the NHL. They had a 92% chance of making the playoffs if the regular season had been completed, per Moneypuck. The Edmonton Oilers are fifth in the Western Conference, with a .585 points percentage. They had a 93.3% chance of making the playoffs had the season been completed.

If Pittsburgh loses in the qualification round to the Montreal Canadiens, and the Oilers lose to the Chicago Blackhawks — and neither of those results is that outlandish — there’s a chance that presumptive No. 1 overall pick Lafrenière could be receiving passes from either Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid next season, rather than serving as a foundational piece for a rebuild in Detroit or Ottawa.

This is not what the draft, nor the draft lottery, intends to do in a typical season. But this season is anything but typical.

What are the draft lottery odds for the first draw on Friday?

Via the NHL, here they are:

1. Detroit Red Wings: 18.5%
2. Ottawa Senators: 13.5%
3. Ottawa Senators*: 11.5%
4. Los Angeles Kings: 9.5%
5. Anaheim Ducks: 8.5%
6. New Jersey Devils: 7.5%
7. Buffalo Sabres: 6.5%
8. Team A: 6.0%
9. Team B: 5.0%
10. Team C: 3.5%
11. Team D: 3.0%
12. Team E: 2.5%
13. Team F: 2.0%
14. Team G: 1.5%
15. Team H: 1.0%

Keep in mind that Ottawa owns the San Jose’s No. 1 pick. The Sabres have a higher regulation/overtime winning percentage than the Devils, to break their points percentage tie (.493).

This seems like a lot of trouble to go through. Why not just hold a lottery for the non-qualification-round teams?

Two reasons. While no doubt excited to play in the qualification round, teams such as Montreal (.500 points percentage) and Chicago (.514) would rather swap a chance at a top prospect for the honor of losing three more games in their seasons. It was important to include in the process teams that probably would have missed the playoffs if the season had been completed.

However, some of the NHL’s general managers were adamant about not creating a format in which a team could win the lottery and win the Stanley Cup in the same season, as slim as those odds are. This tracks back to the NHL’s desire to hold the entry draft before the season was restarted, following the NFL’s success with its virtual draft. This new lottery format ensures that none of the teams that advance to the round of 16 Stanley Cup tournament can win one of the first three picks, unless they hold an eliminated team’s first-round pick. Which brings us to the New York Rangers.

What about the Rangers?

Here’s a wild one, dug up by Sean McIndoe of The Athletic: The Rangers own a Carolina Hurricanes’ first-round pick from the Brady Skjei trade. Carolina has two of them: Their own, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top pick. Whichever one is lower, the Rangers get that one.

So here’s the scenario: The Rangers beat the Hurricanes in the qualification round, and Maple Leafs also lose in the opening round (but their pick is top-10 protected). So let’s say the Leafs win that second lottery for either the No. 2 or No. 3 overall pick, and hence keep this year’s lottery-protected pick. If the Hurricanes then won the first overall pick in that second lottery, their pick would have to go to the Rangers.

Therefore, in what would be the unlikeliest of unlikely scenarios, the Rangers could end up with the first overall pick and win the Stanley Cup in the same season, which was the NHL’s worst fear. Hockey mathematician Micah Blake McCurdy ran the numbers, and there’s a 1-in-36,328 chance this plays out.

What happens if the postseason doesn’t happen, but there’s a need for a second lottery?

That’s a great, albeit pessimistic, question. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said in late May that he was under the impression the lottery would revert back to points percentage in the standings as of March 11 if there’s no qualification round played.

That would mean the next eight worst teams in the NHL would enter that second drawing: Montreal (.500), Chicago (.514), Arizona (.529), Minnesota (.558), Winnipeg (.563), N.Y. Rangers (.564) and Calgary (.564). Florida and Vancouver finished with the same points percentage (.565) in 69 games, but the Canucks had three fewer regulation wins, so one assumes they would be in the lottery drawing if Bergevin is accurate. But again, the NHL plans on playing this season.

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