The NHL’s Edmonton Oilers won Tuesday night’s entry draft lottery, meaning they will select no. 1 overall this June for the third consecutive year. In a very real sense, the Oil has earned this lottery (mis)fortune with dismal showings the past three seasons, and yet, don’t shed many tears for this former dynasty: Durably quality hockey clubs are assembled with such promiscuous lottery fortune — just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I emphasize this development because back in 2005, the NHL, unraveling itself from labor discord that obliterated the 2004-05 season, adopted a highly unconventional approach to conducting its entry draft that summer, at a time when the Washington Capitals were a league doormat. It was called the ‘Snake Draft’; in Washington, we grizzled veteran partisans still refer to it as the Python Mario putting the big squeeze on D.C.
It went like this: clubs were assigned from one to three ping pong balls based on their playoff appearances and whether or not they’d drafted first overall within the previous three years. The more ping pong balls, the greater the likelihood of your club getting selected early (toward the bottom) in the oddball draft’s opening round. The Caps of course had been in the midst of a vast rebuild; the Penguins had been recent lottery selectors for some years prior to 2005; you get one guess who this silly draft system principally screwed. In the 2003-04 season the Capitals finished with a record of 23-46-10-3, 14th in the Eastern conference. Who finished 15th? Why the Pittsburgh Penguins, not long removed from bankruptcy proceedings. Who then was the principal owner, Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO of the Pens? One Mario Lemieux.
Recall that in the summer of 2004 the Capitals enjoyed the good fortune of winning the draft lottery, after a horrid hockey season, selecting Alexander Ovechkin with the first overall pick. Think Mario had any say-sway in how the league conducted the 2005 entry draft, post-lockout, having just witnessed Washington score Ovi the previous summer? Of course, all that was at stake with the 2005 entry draft was the most anticipated and hyped prospect in the history of hockey, Sidney Crosby. In the labor resolution of early summer 2005 I remember widespread sentiment to this effect, especially bellowed from the hills of Western Pennsylvania: It wouldn’t possibly be fair for the Capitals to land consecutive no. 1 overall draft picks!
The draft order for the first round in 2005 worked its way up through all 30 teams, but then instead of repeating the order as with every previous entry draft, “snaked” back all the way down to the team with the first pick in round two. Rinse, screw, and repeat. Just bizarre. No other pro sports league has repeated such tomfoolery, before or since, with good reason. Another birthchild from the brain of Bettman. But with, from the vantage of my Pittsburgh-hating mind, a whisper or two of encouragement from Mulletville.
Crosby was viewed as so special a prospect that the league believed it important to give literally every member club a theoretical shot at landing him. The problem with the snake draft as it was conceived was that there was no floor for poor performing, authentically weak member clubs like the Caps; which is to say, by any reasonable view the Caps should have been assured a top-10 pick in the 2005 draft, based on their competitive standing then in the league. Instead, they ended up selecting 14th, and landing . . . Sasha Pokulok. Some like me would say they’re paying the price for it still today.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile . . .
All this has relevance to what happened Tuesday night with the Oil because there is, looming ahead, the very real possibility of another work stoppage next fall. Mr. Donald Fehr will be handling the Players Association side of the labor bargaining. Perhaps we should anticipate another lost hockey season. At some point there will be an entry draft conducted prior to the start of the hockey season under a new CBA. The wager here is that the Oil, bountiful as their contemporary draft fortunes have been, won’t be treated as the Caps were in 2005.