Free Market NHL

M.G. McIntosh





The Draft system in the NHL has long been talked about for its constantly changing rules. It seems like every year there is a different set of draft rules being trialled and none of them gets the desired results. The Edmonton Oilers got four straight first overall draft-picks and still weren’t a very good team. They are looking good now but it’s been a long wait for Oilers’ fans. Perhaps we need to change the draft entirely, top-to-bottom. Here’s how we can do that and change the game for the better. 


I propose we introduce a “free market” system to the NHL. This will be comprised of several parts as follows: 

  1. Abolish the lottery system
  2. NHL Trade Day
  3. Ban on trades during the NHL Draft

The goal of these changes overall is to create a level playing field and increase the competitiveness of NHL teams by encouraging teams to invest in scouting, player development and coaching. In other words, to change the focus of the General Managers from “what am I giving up?” (cost certainty) to “Am I getting bang for my buck?” (return on investment). I’ll talk about this more in a moment, but for now let’s talk about the lottery system.


This part of the plan addresses the focus on cost certainty. When a GM is thinking about trading for a high draft pick (top four, we’ll say) the question becomes “what am I giving up?” largely because the lottery system makes it impossible to tell if a low ranking team will actually be drafting in that position. As we know, the last place team (for example) could actually lose the lottery and end up picking lower in the draft. The team that wins the lottery suddenly has a very valuable pick and it’s only available via trade for a very limited time, if at all. This basically discourages trading up in the draft. It also discourages trading the 1st overall pick for immediate roster help since there is always a very small chance on a very big return. Take the Buffalo Sabres for example, you’ll see that the first overall draft pick (Jack Eichel) is wasted on this team. And Buffalo Sabres are likely going to draft high again this year, with no incentive to shorten the “rebuild”, hence they will probably keep their pick. As long as the lottery system completely discourages the use of the draft pick, GM’s will plan accordingly and that means very little trading and a long wait for a team to be competitive. In other words, it is conceivable that the Buffalo Sabres will NEVER BE GOOD. After all, they could lose the lottery every year and never really get out of the cellar. No guarantees of success with this system. Worse yet, only three or four teams get franchise-type players each year. Any team that finishes 5th, 6th or 7th gets very little benefit out of the draft and much less from the lottery system. In the meantime, the Buffalo Sabres clearly don’t have the player development to maximize the return on draft picks, further adding to the waste. In abolishing the lottery system, you create cost certainty. We know the Buffalo Sabres will finish in the bottom four – it’s a given, even this early. We now know exactly what we are going to offer for their draft pick. As a GM the trade becomes more attractive, if you are looking to shore up your team via the draft. It also means that Buffalo knows exactly what it’s going to get – increasing the odds of a trade. Speaking of trades, there is a good reason for wanting to see more of them.


Excitement sells – and trades are exciting. As a long time fan of hockey and a pretty average person, I can tell you that there is nothing less exciting than Draft Day. You won’t see the reward for years. We humans are just not hardwired to get excited about a future we can’t know. You know what is exciting? Trades. Every year fans from all around the league tune in to see who was traded and what it will mean for their team. Trades can be for the future (draft picks) or for now (roster players). Sometimes both at once. Prospects could be ready this year or next and add a big impact to a team looking to get better. All this is packed into the trades each team completes each season. I can think of several reasons why NHL Trade Day would be huge:

  1. Immediate impact of trades. Humans are hardwired to react to the short term so we gravitate to current events more than future ones.
  2. T.V. Ratings. As I stated earlier, excitement sells. The short term nature of trades makes them much more exciting than any Draft will ever be. Fans are literally glued to the news on the final day of trading, just to see if their team will get the help it needs.
  3. Increased ad revenue. Excitement sells and that means eyeballs. Eyeballs mean higher ad revenue. Need I say more?
  4. Horse trading is back. If the league abolishes the lottery system, I can see trades coming back in a big way. With cost certainty addressed permanently, teams are free to seek out the deals they want – and get creative. There’s nothing to hold them back.
  5. Ownership changes will happen. We’ve all heard of “bad owners” ruining NHL teams. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pressure on certain teams’ ownership (to sell) grows exponentially – after all teams will be reliant on their own internal development and how can you possibly attract fans when no one wants to play in your city?
  6. Toxic players are demoted. Again, look at Buffalo as an example. If they are doing poorly maybe there are dressing room problems. Maybe those players are being kept for the wrong reasons. Right now the fans are told it’s a 5-year rebuild, which basically means we don’t buy out contracts of toxic players and we won’t bury them in the minors. If you want any kind of return on your players, they kind of have to earn it. If you don’t want to give a rival a good deal on your 1st overall draft pick then fix the dressing room. Your pick just got a whole lot lower – and your trade just became a better deal. Incentive.
  7. Teams are more likely to take the best player available. Ever wonder why certain teams are perpetually in 12th place? Well, when the draft is lottery driven there is no incentive to take the best player because no one ever trades top four picks anyway. Each team picks whatever they think fits their team identity. Hence, the top draft pick each year is almost always a centre and usually a pure goal scorer. Someone the team can pretend is a bonafide franchise player even if they aren’t. After all, if the pick has no value on the trading block then the player doesn’t need to have value either. So the skilled winger is passed over in favour of a less skilled centre. The team stays in 12th place.
  8. No more subsidizing teams with issues. Whether it’s ownership, the dressing room or the coaches, no team should be rewarded for failure. In pop culture it’s known as “failing up”. Why the hell are the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres “failing up”? They should have to fix their issues and become competitive, it’s only fair. No franchise player should be wasted on teams with issues.

All of this to say, the league would be improved by a ton.


This is really just about consolidating trades on one single day to amp up the excitement of NHL Trade Day. This way all deals take place between July 1st (Free Agency) and the trade deadline (NHL Trade Day). As we all know, the majority of deals happen near the deadline anyway.


A free market NHL could resolve a lot of issues in one shot. I think it’s about time that the NHL gave it a go. It would add a level of excitement that’s been missing from the game for while now. And create a truly competitive league.


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