NHL Draft Lottery Explained: How 4 Ping Pong Balls Will Define Connor Bedard’s Future

How much does a ping pong ball weigh?

Literally, it weighs 2.7 grams, or less than a tenth of an ounce. But for many NHL franchises — especially this year — it’s the weight of the world, the future of their entire organization, and their best hope of emerging from their current slump.

The NHL Draft Lottery will take place May 8 in Secaucus, NJ, in a studio at NHL Network headquarters. That will determine who gets the NHL’s next “generational” talent in forward Connor Bedard, a native of Vancouver, B.C., who became a hockey star at just 17 years old.

The Anaheim Ducks, by virtue of finishing with the league’s worst record, have the best chance, of the 11 non-playoff eligible teams, of landing Bedard at 25.5%. The Columbus Blue Jackets (13.5%) follow, followed by the Chicago Blackhawks (11.5), San Jose Sharks (9.5) and Montreal Canadiens (8.5).

The NHL has changed its lottery format several times over the years in its attempt to achieve three different goals:

  • to reward clubs at the bottom of the league table with the best shot at drafting the next wave of talent
  • to establish a fair but not guaranteed process, in the hope that clubs will not “pool” – intentionally lose – to guarantee some draft pick
  • have a process full of drama for as many clubs as possible

As for that last goal…

From 2001 to 2014, the maximum a club could climb in the lottery was four places, so only the five worst clubs in the league had a chance of picking No.1.

Thanks to changes instituted with the 2021 draft, a team can now jump 10 spots via the lottery. This means the 11 teams that finished bottom of the standings – down to Vancouver (3%) – will have a chance to pick No. 1.

Teams that finished 12th through 16th in the standings cannot advance to the No. 1 pick through the lottery. If one of those five teams wins the lottery, they will move up 10 spots in order and Anaheim will automatically be declared the winner.

That’s why the Ducks, listed in some places as having an 18.5% chance of winning the lottery, actually have a 25.5% chance. (If you add the percentage chances of the teams from 12th to 16th place, that adds another 7%.)

But while the teams have a chance to move up the draft board, they can only fall back so far. No team can drop more than two spots from where they finished in the standings, meaning Anaheim will pick no lower than third, Columbus no lower than fourth, and so on.

How does the lottery selection process work? Well, that may sound like a riddle, and it may sound like more math than most of us would like. The NHL hires an outside accounting firm to manage the process.

First, 14 ping pong balls are loaded into a lottery machine, each labeled with a number between 1 and 14 (1, 2, 3, etc.). Why 14? Because there are 1,001 different four-digit number combinations between 1 and 14, and the league needs 1,000 different possible numbers to run its lottery.

One of 1001 number combinations is chosen at random and is removed from the pool of possible numbers, leaving the process with 1000 even numbers.

Then, each NHL club participating in the lottery is assigned a series of randomly selected four-digit numbers based on their lottery odds. Anaheim (25.5%) will get 255 different combinations, Columbus (13.5) will get 135, and so on, all the way to Calgary (0.5%) and Nashville (0.5%) with five combinations each.

The list of numbers is then made public by the league, as is the 1,001st number which was previously drawn and set aside. Next is the lottery draw, and there are actually two draws.

The first is to select choice #1. The four number combination that appears from the lottery machine is matched against the list of numbers to see which team wins. If it is one of the last 11 teams, the club chooses the No 1 and presumably gets Bedard.

If the winner is a team from No. 12-No. 16, the Ducks will be awarded the No. 1 pick and that “winning” team will earn 10 spots from their predefined lottery odds. (So ​​Ottawa could drop from No. 12 to No. 2, Buffalo from No. 13 to No. 3, etc.)

A second draw is then held to determine the next highest available place. (It would be the No. 2 overall selection unless Ottawa won the lottery.)

In the 2022 lottery, the “winning” numbers were 1-3-4-13, which corresponded to Montreal, which entered the repechage with the best odds (18.5%). The Canadiens selected winger Juraj Slafkovsky with the first pick.

The second number combination was 3-5-10-14, which matched New Jersey. The Devils went from No. 5 to No. 2 in order.

One can only imagine the drama behind the scenes when the numbers are revealed.

The NHL requires a representative from each lottery team to be present as a witness, and each witness is sworn to secrecy (their cell phones are guarded by security, no one is allowed to leave the room, etc. ) until TV show tunes a bit later.

What fans see during the league’s prime-time TV show is a highly orchestrated, made-for-TV event hosted by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who stands behind a high table and lift the signs with each club’s logo to reveal the draft order.

Despite the independent accounting firm, the multiple witnesses and the convoluted system, conspiracy theories prevail in the hockey world, claiming the NHL has its finger on the scales every year, dictating which franchise has access to top prospects.

To that end, the league has been releasing a video for several seasons that shows the actual coin toss that determines the pick order.

(Photo of Gary Bettman in the 2022 Draft Lottery: Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

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