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2015 NHL Draft Lottery: Don't Expect the First Pick to Lead Team Quickly Back to Playoffs

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The New Jersey Devils will enter the NHL Draft Lottery with the sixth worst record in hockey. But if they win the lottery, will they be able to turn their franchise around very quickly? With past history as a guide, I argue that they will not.

Aaron Ekblad had a very fine season with Florida and will be a very good player. But the fact that Florida's not going to the playoffs is consistent with history of past teams picking #1 overall.
Aaron Ekblad had a very fine season with Florida and will be a very good player. But the fact that Florida's not going to the playoffs is consistent with history of past teams picking #1 overall.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With last night's loss to Our Hated Rivals, the New Jersey Devils are guaranteed to pick in three possible positions in the first round.  They are sixth from last in the standings, which is their most likely position for the first round.  Should one of the non-playoff teams ahead of the Devils in the standings win the lottery, then the Devils will be bumped to seventh overall.  Then there's the possibility that some fans are dreaming of: winning the lottery.

Since 2013, whoever wins the lottery among the non-playoff teams will select first overall.  For this year's draft, that would be Connor McDavid, who was scoring (points per game) at a rate second only to Sidney Crosby among recent first overall selections. He's a player so talented, some teams have thrown away the 2014-15 season to get a better shot at the lottery. The lottery system will change for 2016, but right now, the Devils have a 7.5% chance of getting the opportunity to select a player who was crushing it in the OHL ever since he was 16.  For the sake of argument, let's assume McDavid will be a special player in the NHL. Surely, the Devils can hasten their rebuild with the right ball selected in the lottery.  Perhaps he'll turn things around for the Devils.  It's a seductive thought.

History says, "Not so fast."  More often than not, teams that select even a fantastic player first overall rarely make the playoffs right after drafting them.   For proof, here's a list of all NHL teams that have selected first overall in the draft lottery era.  Per About.com, the NHL has had a weighted lottery where the winning team can move up only four spots since 1995.  That was the the kind the Devils won in 2011.   I decided to check out who won the lottery, who picked first overall, the team's record before the pick (R.B.P. or Record Before Pick), the team's record after the pick (R.A.P. or Record After Pick), and whether or not they made the playoffs. (Sources: All records pulled from NHL.com, all draft pick history came from the team's Wikipedia pages, all lottery winners before 2013 from About.com)

Year Lottery Winner #1 Pick Team #1 Pick R.B.P. R.A.P. Playoffs After #1?
1995 Los Angeles Ottawa Bryan Berard 9-34-5 18-59-5 No
1996 Ottawa Ottawa Chris Phillips 18-59-5 31-36-15 Yes
1997 Boston Boston Joe Thornton 26-47-9 39-30-13 Yes
1998 San Jose Tampa Bay Vincent Lecavalier 17-55-10 19-54-9 No
1999 Chicago Atlanta Patrik Stefan N/A 14-57-7-4 No
2000 NY Islanders NY Islanders Rick DiPietro 24-49-8-1 21-51-7-3 No
2001 Atlanta Atlanta Ilya Kovalchuk 23-45-12-2 19-47-11-5 No
2002 Florida Columbus Rick Nash 22-47-8-5 29-42-8-3 No
2003 Florida Pittsburgh Marc-Andre Fleury 27-44-6-5 23-47-8-4 No
2004 Washington Washington Alex Ovechkin 23-46-10-3 29-41-12* No
2005 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Sidney Crosby N/A 22-46-14 No
2006 St. Louis St. Louis Erik Johnson 21-46-15 34-35-13 No
2007 Chicago Chicago Patrick Kane 31-42-9 40-34-8 No
2008 Tampa Bay Tampa Bay Steven Stamkos 31-42-9 24-40-18 No
2009 NY Islanders NY Islanders John Tavares 26-47-9 34-37-11 No
2010 Edmonton Edmonton Taylor Hall 27-47-8 25-42-12 No
2011 Devils Edmonton Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 25-45-12 32-40-10 No
2012 Edmonton Edmonton Nail Yakupov 32-40-10 19-22-7 No
2013 Colorado Colorado Nathan MacKinnon 16-25-7 52-22-8 Yes
2014 Florida Florida Aaron Ekblad 29-45-8 36-29-15** No

*This was Washington's 2005-06 record, obviously not their 2004-05 record - there was no season then.

**This is Florida's record as of 4/8/2015.

In twenty years of the NHL Draft Lottery, most of the lottery winners ended up being able to pick first overall. There were some seasons where a deal was made among the worst teams (e.g. 2003 where Pittsburgh moved up two spots), but there have only been a few lottery winners outside of the bottom five of the league.  More importantly, only three out of twenty teams went on to make the playoffs in the season after selecting first overall.  Let's take a quick look at each.

In the case of the 1996-97 Senators, it's arguable that hiring Jacques Martin as head coach was a bigger acquisition than picking Chris Phillips first overall.  With Martin's tactics and having acquired several players from being bad for multiple seasons, the team started to tighten up defensively. They dropped their goals against from 291 to 234, while increasing goals for from 191 to 226.  The goaltenders moved from a three-headed monster of a 88.8% save percentage to one led mostly by Damien Rhodes to a 89.1% team save percentage. Not a big improvement, but the drop in goals came with a drop in shots allowed - about 300 can make a difference.  As you'd expect, they'd win more games.  Even so, they had to win their final game of the season to sneak into the playoffs.  It wasn't as if they just became a solid squad. Still, it was the first of eleven straight playoff appearances for the franchise.  Phillips played throughout the 96-97 season, though he wasn't particularly productive in terms of points (5 goals, 11 assists) or minutes (he wouldn't be a 20+ minute defender until his fourth season or so). I'm sure he was an asset but not the significant one that turned things around.

As for the Bruins, not making the postseason in 1997 must have been a big deal. Before that, their last playoff-less season was in the mid-1960s.  The Bruins were bad, won the lottery, picked Joe Thornton, and then the B's went back to playoff-making ways.  Well, it wasn't that simple.  Thornton played for Boston right away but he was not even close to becoming the dominant playmaking center that we've seen for years.  He played 55 games, had three goals and four assists, and took 33 shots on net. So what happened from 1996-97 to 1997-98?   Well, the former team conceded 300 goals.  The 1997-98 team only conceded 194; a big gain even with the 1997-98 team scoring fewer goals.  That suggests improvement in net and that's the case.  They went from Bill Ranford rocking a 88.7%, leading a platoon that featured Robbie Tallas and Jim Carey posting sub-90% save percentages to Byron Dafoe as the starter with a 91.4% save percentage and a much better season from Tallas (92.6%!). That's a big improvement right there. Having Pat Burns join the team to run the bench also helped, as he earned another Jack Adams trophy for his efforts.  I'm sure there were other factors, but those were big.  Jumbo Joe, not so - not yet, at least.

Then there's the more recent example of the Colorado Avalanche, who went from the outhouse of 16 wins to the penthouse of over 50 wins.  And Nathan MacKinnon played a significant role as he led all rookies in scoring with 24 goals and 39 assists. He deservedly won the Calder Trophy in 2013-14 and finished fourth on his team in points.  However, there was more to it than that.  Starting goaltender Seymon Varlamov went from a 90.3% save percentage in 2012-13 to 92.7% in 2013-14. Back-up Jean-Sebastien Giguere had a better year. The team had other high draft picks developing along with Paul Stastny (he was 28) such as Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan O'Reilly.  Those four scored at least twenty goals and put up at least sixty points.  The team as a whole shot at 10.1%.  When a team is relatively hot at scoring and stopping pucks, that's going to lead to wins even if the possession isn't so good.  It bears mentioning that the hotness eventually cools.  It's partially why Colorado did not making the playoffs in 2014-15.

Across all three cases, I noticed two common threads.  New coaches and better goaltending. I didn't mention Patrick Roy becoming head coach in Colorado helped because I'm not sold that he's actually good at what he does. Martin and Burns had been successful in some coaching capacity (Martin was an assistant, Burns handled Montreal and Toronto of all teams) before their stops in Ottawa and Boston, respectively.  More important than perhaps the coaches was that all three teams saw improvements in the net.  In the case of Ottawa, it wasn't much of an improvement in terms of save percentage but facing an average of about five fewer shots per game leads to one in just raw goals against. Boston got a better starter and Colorado's starter just played out of his mind.  Such improvements can and will lead to wins. A deeper dive into these three may find more, but these two points are something to keep in mind. Namely, the Devils really can't count on both.

They will need a new head coach. Should they strike on the right one to fit the talent of the team, there can be some real improvements in how they move the puck, control the puck, function on special teams (namely, the power play), and how they defend when situations get tough.  That will help.  But better goaltending? The Devils' team save percentage in 2014-15 is 92.3%.  If there is an issue with this season's team, goaltending isn't it.  Based on these three teams, Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid would have to be somehow better than they have been.  A sharp uptick in shooting percentage can offset that need, but I highly doubt that Schneider and Kinkaid can repeat what they've done.  I think they'll be very good.  But as great again? That may be asking for too much.   Connor McDavid can't make all that happen.

It's not an accident that seventeen out of twenty teams didn't make the postseason after selecting first overall.  The records do tend to get better, though it's not a guarantee.  I've included the players selected to highlight that even a top-tier talent like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier, or John Tavares didn't lead to the team going from golfing in mid-April to playing hockey in mid-April right away.  Not that Phillips, Thornton, or MacKinnon weren't talented; just that selecting one of the best players of the draft isn't a golden ticket to the postseason.

In the cases like Washington, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and more recently the Islanders, those teams had the "glory" of being veterans of the lottery process for several seasons.  And once they had the talent to play with, the coaching to utilize them, and the management to make some difficult decisions with reasonable success, then those teams got good.  That took multiple years, some good fortune, and some risks that yielded rewards among other factors.  It's after all that, where Ovechkin, Crosby, Lecavalier, Tavares, etc. became aces on contending teams that made the playoffs.  And it has to be more than just talent; it's not a guarantee.  Otherwise, the Islanders wouldn't have spent much of the 2000s in a doldrum of poor play; or the Edmonton Oilers becoming veterans of the lottery process.  The Oilers alone are the perfect example that organizational success comes from more than just "Select first in a draft class for a number of years, throw them into the NHL right away, and then BAM! Stanley Cup!" (Shout out to Ben Massey) It takes a lot more research, scouting, analysis, luck, and hard work to see a rebuild from start to finish.   The Devils need to learn these lessons from other teams and the fans should understand this as well.

Would it be great if the Devils won the lottery and were able to draft McDavid first overall? Absolutely. I would be celebrating right with you and not just because we'd only have to have one (maybe two) first-round prospect profiles. Would it be great for business? Of course.  A top draft pick carries his own hype and people want to see him live up to it.  Would it make some of the decisions to rebuild the roster easier? You bet it will.  Would it lead the Devils to just a short rebuild?  No, and history shows that those picking first overall rarely make it to the postseason.  Seventeen out of the last twenty teams didn't make it and the three that did had other factors for their big bounce back beyond getting the first overall pick into the NHL.  The Devils will definitely need more than just McDavid to do that. They'll need bodies at a minimum to fill the roster, and ideally players who will fit the new coaches' way while providing what the Devils are missing at forward and defense.  McDavid will help and perhaps a lot, but he is only one man. The Devils, like past teams picking first overall in a draft, will need more than one man to turn things around.

The Devils will need more than just winning the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery to turn around the franchise; history backs that up for a reason.  If that's the case for teams picking first, then it will be the case for a team picking elsewhere, such as sixth or seventh overall.