After last night’s pivotal tank game against Detroit, one that saw our favorite team actually looking like they wanted to straight up lose and the other team looking like they still had some pride left, the New Jersey Devils have only four games remaining to their disappointing 2018-19 regular season. Disappointing, of course, considering the successes this team saw last year, and the feeling before the season started that a repeat of last year’s feats was at least decently plausible.
For months now, it has been clear that if there was a race anywhere in the standings for New Jersey, it was towards the bottom. The Devils and their fans should be especially aware of the benefits of winning the lottery and gaining the first overall pick, as the exploits of Nico Hischier have shown us all too well. New Jersey was the 5th worst team that season, which gave them an 8.5% chance to win the first overall pick, and thanks to Taylor Hall’s title of “Lottery Ball Specialist,” that played out perfectly.
This season, even with only four games left, there are still several places the Devils could land in the standings by season’s end. Apart from Ottawa, who still holds a commanding lead of worst NHL team despite some recent victories, the rest of the worst have bunched up. The bottom teams, Detroit, Los Angeles, and even New Jersey, have won recently, Detroit holding a 6-4-0 record in their last 10, LA with a 4-5-1 record, and NJ with a 4-6-0 record. None of those are particularly excellent, but considering their overall records and poor rosters they are icing night in and night out, it is better than expected.
This is in stark contrast with the teams just above them but extremely close in the standings. New York and Buffalo have all but forgotten how to play hockey recently. The worst New York team has gone 3-6-1 in their last 10, and Buffalo has gone a miserable 1-8-1. Both teams managed to leapfrog Anaheim down in the standings, as like with Detroit, Anaheim has decided to play all of a sudden, with a 5-4-1 record in their last 10.
So, with four games left for the Devils, what is the spread of possible outcomes for them in the standings come next weekend? Given the standings and number of games left, here are all the possibilities, and the teams that currently occupy them:
Now, some of these outcomes for New Jersey are extremely unlikely. For NJ to make it to 25th, they would need to win out, and Anaheim would need to lose out while Buffalo only gets 2 more points on the season and New York only gets 1. In truth, after last night’s loss, it is unlikely that New Jersey moves up at all, given the three point gap between them and Detroit with four to play. That isn’t even to mention going higher. However, in the interest of pure clarity, these are possible finishing positions for NJ, no matter how likely or unlikely.
The question is, what are the percentage differences between these positions in terms of winning the draft lottery? How much is actually at stake in the tankathon that will be the last week of the regular season? According to an odds update from TSN a few days ago, here are the odds to win the top pick for each position in the standings in the chart above:
30th - 13.5%
29th - 11.5%
28th - 9.5%
27th - 8.5%
26th - 7.5%
25th - 6.5%
So, assuming these are right, the Devils are playing for a swing of anywhere up to 7% added or lost odds at winning the top pick. At the moment, if nothing changed, the Devils would end up with an 11.5% chance of the top overall pick, whether that ends up being Jack Hughes or someone else. That could increase 2% if they manage to fall below Los Angeles, or could fall all the way to 6.5% should the near impossible happen and they end up 25th.
Are these percentages major? Not exactly, yet they are not insignificant. Remember, the Devils won the right to draft Hischier with an 8.5% chance. A couple percentage points here or there could make the difference between drafting in the top three, or drafting potentially outside the top 5. At the moment, if the season ended today, the Devils would have the third pick before the lottery. Not hitting any of the lottery picks would have them end up at 6th, where they took Pavel Zacha a few years ago...
On Monday, the Devils play their final game against New York, who has been tanking pretty well recently despite that win last night against St. Louis, and is not much farther above them in the standings. So these last games really can make a difference one way or another for the upcoming draft, both for the Devils themselves and those teams around them in the standings. Watching them play like they did last night is never fun, and never desirable, but who knows what the lottery will turn up when Taylor Hall is on your team.