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Understanding The NHL Draft Lottery

The first time the Vegas Golden Knights will officially participate in an NHL sanctioned “competition” will be at the NHL Draft Lottery on April 29th. With a little help from TSN’s finest Frank Seravalli, the math wizards at HockeyViz.com, and this thing called Twitter, we unearthed the exact odds the NHL will be using for the 2017 lottery.

For those who are new to the NHL, the lottery is a system that was implemented in 1995 to curb the appeal of tanking. Rather than awarding the team with the worst record in the league the first overall pick (like NFL and MLB) the league instead gives them the best chance to win the lottery. All non-playoff teams are entered into the lottery with their odds to win corresponding to their record; worse the team, better the odds.

The NHL Lottery is actually a series of three lotteries using identical odds to determine the top three selections in the NHL Draft. After the lotteries decide the first three picks, teams are slotted in to the draft order based on their record. Therefore, the worst team can select no lower than fourth in the first round, and are guaranteed the first pick in the second round.

Still with me?

Now let’s move into how the Vegas Golden Knights fit into this year’s lottery.

The Las Vegas franchise will be given the same odds in the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery as the team finishing with the third-fewest points during the 2016-17 regular season. –NHL Expansion Draft Rules

Thus, two teams have better odds than the Golden Knights. After the lotteries, Vegas is technically the third worst team meaning they can select no worse than sixth (will explain how in a moment), and are guaranteed to pick third in the second through seventh rounds.

NHL Draft Lottery Odds (courtesy of HockeyViz.com)

The far left column indicates the exact percentages each team has to win the first overall selection on April 29th. As you can see, Vegas has a 10.3% chance to strike it rich.

To truly understand the odds you must first grasp the actual process the league uses to conduct the lottery. The lottery takes place at the SportsNet TV studios in Toronto. The NHL uses a 14-ball, 1001 combination system. This means they place ping pong balls numbered 1-14 into one hopper. They are drawn one at a time to create a four digit sequence (i.e 2-4-5-11 or 8-2-11-4). There are a total of 1001 possible outcomes using 14 balls to draw a four digit sequence.

Using the odds above, a chart is created to indicate which team wins on each of the 1001 combinations. To simply the process, the combo of 11-12-13-14 is not assigned to a team leaving 1000 total outcomes. The worst team is assigned 179 of the 1000 outcomes. Vegas will be assigned 103 of the 1000, making for the 10.3% chance.

Each combination is assigned randomly, so the Golden Knights winning combos will be all over the map. They could have 1-2-3-4, 14-9-11-1, and 2-7-1-3, it could be any 103 of the 1000 available combos. Here’s what the list looked like last year by number and by team. The winning combination last year was 6-8-5-13, which was assigned to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But that’s just the first lottery. There is then a second and a third lottery to determine the next two picks. Once a team wins, they obviously cannot win again. So, say the worst team wins, their 179 combinations are now null. If the team with the best record wins, only nine combinations become null. The league draws until they have an acceptable combination for the second pick, and then again for the third pick.

Got it? Good. Now let’s talk about what we want to see with the Golden Knights.

Of course, best case scenario, one of the 103 combinations assigned to Vegas is drawn in the first lottery and the Golden Knights win the first pick. But let’s be realistic, a 10.3% chance is actually worse than the dealer busting when they have a ace showing in blackjack. So if it’s not Vegas, then what’s best? The answer is the team with the highest odds, for two reasons.

First, taking out 179 combinations means the Golden Knights go from a 10.3% chance (103/1000) to a 12.5% chance (103/821) of winning the second pick. If a lesser odds team wins the first, say the team with the smallest chance, which is just nine combinations, Vegas goes from a 10.3% to 10.4% (103/991) chance. So if it’s not Vegas, the Golden Knights want it to be one of the two teams with better odds.

Second, Vegas does not want to see a team move ahead of them in case the Golden Knights do not win any of the three lotteries. Remember, after the lotteries are completed, teams are slotted in based on record, which Vegas is deemed to be the third worst. So, if the worst team, the second worst team win two of the three lotteries, the Golden Knights are next up, and pick 4th. But, if three teams below Vegas win the lotteries, the Golden Knights can drop as low as 6th.

When the mathematicians really dive in to the probabilities, the most likely scenario, at about 39.3%, is the Golden Knights will select 5th.

So, now that you understand the lottery, be sure to join us at Miller’s Ale House at Town Square on Saturday, April 29th (expected time 5 PM) to watch the NHL Draft Lottery and cheer on the Golden Knights for the first time ever. Many more details coming soon.

And as always with the lottery, may Bettman’s balls have our name on them!

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