And the words of Gary Bettman changed the lives of Penguins fans everywhere:
"With the second overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins select Evgeni Malkin, out of Russia."
Ahem. Sorry. I actually meant:
"With the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins select Marc-André Fleury, from the Cape Brenton Screaming Eagles."
I think it was actually a bit later than that.
"With the first overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins select Sidney Crosby, from Rimouski Oceanic!"
A little further...
"With the second overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins select Jordan Staal, of the Peterborough Petes."
Cue rowdy applause. High fives in the Penguins' board room. Analysts saying, "The Pens definitely got it right with this one," and "The fans definitely deserved this."
And the fans did deserve it. The Pittsburgh Penguins had had a top five pick for the last five years (Ryan Whitney being the first) and it was about damn time that the storied franchise stopped the bleeding.
Granted, Gary Bettman's words may have not have been IDENTICAL every time, and the venues had changed, but otherwise it was becoming a familiar feeling for Penguins fans. The player who the analysts promised would turn the Penguins around immediately; who would finally lead them back to the finals.
And in 2008, he did. Well...They did. Looking at the Penguins' roster from their run to the cup, their two best players were undeniably Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Their goaltender? Marc-André Fleury. Best 2-way forward? Jordan Staal. And best defenseman? Ryan Whitney, their fifth overall pick from the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
In their cup-winning season of 2009, their core was almost identical, save that they had dealt Whitney for Chris Kunitz, who has, of course, become a new core player for them.
The point I am making here is that the Penguins lost to win. This Cup would not have come about without the five years of bottom five finishes.
The problem with the NHL Entry Draft is that it is almost a guarantee that if you lose enough, you end up with a franchise player. This is not fair to the rest of the teams in the league, and this is not fair to the fans. Do you think that a team with five consecutive bottom five finishes would survive in a smaller hockey market than Pittsburgh?
Another problem is that other teams are emulating this strategy. Take the Washington Capitals for example. While they are not nearly as notorious as the Penguins at this strategy, it still took three years of top five picks to give them three of their key pieces: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Karl Alzner.
Teams in the NHL are making one thing clear: if they know they aren't going to make the playoffs, they have no reason to try and win. In fact, teams that do try and win at this point are punished by being assigned a lower pick than teams below them. No team with a brain and a draft pick would prefer finishing ninth over finishing 15th.
Just look at the Edmonton Oilers this year. I bet that if they could do it without losing fans, they would forfeit the rest of their games this year, just to win the "Taylor Hall Sweepstakes."
And believe me, I understand the benefit of the current system. It promotes parity. It makes sure all teams are competitive.
My problem is that it can win teams Stanley Cups.
And, worst of all, at a time in which the NHL and its franchises are bleeding money, no self-respecting fan would pay to consistently go and see a consistent loser.
My plan to fix this is simple, though it may outrage some of the weaker franchises in the league: Turn the lottery into a real lottery .
Hear me out. We can leave every pick after No. 14 the way it is now. The teams that make the playoffs can be ranked with the current combination of season and postseason success. Rounds 2-7 can be entirely based on record. Pick location is less of a factor at that point anyway.
But for the first 14 picks, every team that doesn't make the playoffs should have an equal shot at the 1st pick, and therefore the same shot at the 14th. This would take out the "losing to win" element of the game completely, unless you can honestly see a team in a playoff spot trying to lose their way out so they have a shot at first. In a league as competitive as the NHL, no team should ever be benefited by losing.
I understand that this would create serious complications, such as sacrificing the interests of the teams who are close to last place. It could theoretically turn them into subpar teams for years to come, and slow down the rebuilding process. This could theoretically lose them fans and money.
But one thing is for sure: the team will be playing their heart out in every game until the season is over. This is what would keep the fans around. If the fans are willing to show up at games for teams that lose under the current system, where they pretty much know that the team doesn't care about the outcome, why wouldn't they be willing to show up at hard-fought, competitive games?
Even teams that were perennial losers would eventually fight their way out, be it through a draft pick, or simply the team's effort.
The NBA tried this for a couple of years, and it actually proved effective, save for conspiracy theorists. In the 1985 NBA Entry Draft, the New York Knicks won the lottery and took a man named Patrick Ewing first overall.
However, people cried foul, and claimed that the NBA introduced this lottery system that year only in order to make sure that their most important franchise stayed competitive.
My solution to this for the NHL is also simple: announce this before the season. Going into the 2010-2011 campaign, announce that there shall no longer be any glory drawn from losing.
Be fair to the teams that actually try to make the postseason and fall just short. Stop defending the mediocre. The NHL has always argued that parity is the most important thing in their league, but they entirely neglected the fans along the way. The draft system needs to be redone before they lose the fans completely.