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When did NHL go to lottery draft?

The National Hockey League (NHL) first instituted a draft lottery system in 1995 to determine the order of selection for the entry draft. Prior to 1995, the NHL draft order was determined solely by the reverse order of the previous season’s standings. With the implementation of the draft lottery, the team with the worst record is no longer guaranteed the first overall pick. Instead, all teams that miss the playoffs have a weighted chance at securing the top pick based on their regular season record and draft lottery odds.

When Was the NHL Draft Lottery First Instituted?

The NHL draft lottery was first used in 1995 ahead of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. This change to the draft order system was proposed in 1993 by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors on May 25, 1994. The stated purpose was to reduce the incentive for teams to purposely lose games in order to secure a higher draft pick. This had been an issue in the NHL, as some teams would “tank” their seasons once they were out of playoff contention in order to improve their draft position.

The first NHL draft lottery took place on April 8, 1995. At that time, only the first overall pick was determined by the lottery system. Picks 2-9 remained ordered by the previous season’s standings. Beginning with the 2013 NHL Draft, all 14 lottery picks were determined by the draft lottery system.

Why Did the NHL Change to a Draft Lottery?

There were a few key reasons the NHL decided to implement a draft lottery ahead of the 1995 draft:

  • Prevent teams from intentionally losing games (“tanking”) – With the previous system, the team with the worst record was guaranteed the 1st overall pick. This encouraged teams out of contention to lose games on purpose to try to secure the top pick.
  • Maintain competitiveness – Related to tanking, the draft lottery was intended to promote competitive integrity by removing the incentive to lose. Teams are now encouraged to continue trying to win games even if eliminated from playoff contention.
  • Parity – Giving non-playoff teams better odds at the top pick, not just the worst team, aimed to help struggling franchises improve through the draft.
  • Excitement – Draft lottery adds excitement, speculation and unpredictability to the draft order proceedings.

The NHL faced tanking issues in the early 1990s, including allegations that the Ottawa Senators intentionally lost games in the 1992-93 season in order to try to draft Alexandre Daigle first overall in 1993. This type of losing on purpose went against the competitive spirit the NHL wanted to promote.

How Does the NHL Draft Lottery Work?

Under the current draft lottery system, all 16 NHL teams that do not make the playoffs qualify for a weighted chance at the first overall pick in that year’s entry draft. The team with the worst regular season record has the best lottery odds, with diminishing odds for better performing teams. Only the first overall pick is determined by the lottery, with picks 2-15 ordered by regular season standing.

The lottery odds are as follows for the 16 non-playoff teams:

Standing Lottery Odds
30th 18.5%
29th 13.5%
28th 11.5%
27th 9.5%
26th 8.5%
25th 7.5%
24th 6.5%
23rd 6.0%
22nd 5.0%
21st 3.5%
20th 3.0%
19th 2.5%
18th 2.0%
17th 1.0%
16th 1.0%

The lottery odds drop significantly after the first few spots, clearly giving struggling teams at the bottom of the standings the best chance at picking first overall. The NHL conducts the draft lottery ahead of the entry draft, typically in April, through a randomized drawing procedure to assign the first overall pick to one of the lottery teams.

Draft Lottery Procedure

The current NHL draft lottery procedure conducted by the league is as follows:

  1. All teams who missed the playoffs are assigned lottery odds based on regular season points and standings.
  2. A table of 1,000 numbered lottery balls is generated based on the assigned odds. For example, the 30th place team has 185 balls, 29th has 135 balls, etc.
  3. In the televised lottery drawing, balls are randomly selected one at a time, eliminating teams as their numbers are drawn.
  4. The last ball remaining represents the team who will pick first overall.
  5. Two additional drawings take place to determine the 2nd and 3rd overall picks.
  6. The remaining picks 1-15 are ordered based on regular season standings.

This carefully designed system allows all non-playoff teams to have a shot at the top pick, with the worst teams having much better odds. The lottery only determines the first three selections, avoiding excessive randomness in the rest of the first round order.

When Has the Draft Lottery Resulted in the Team with the Worst Record Not Picking First Overall?

Since the inception of the draft lottery in 1995, there have been 7 times where the team with the worst regular season record did not end up with the first overall pick:

  • 1995 – Ottawa Senators (worst record) pick 3rd, Los Angeles Kings win lottery
  • 1996 – Ottawa Senators (worst record) pick 2nd, Winnipeg Jets win lottery
  • 2007 – Philadelphia Flyers (worst record) pick 2nd, Chicago Blackhawks win lottery
  • 2012 – Columbus Blue Jackets (worst record) pick 2nd, Edmonton Oilers win lottery
  • 2013 – Florida Panthers (worst record) pick 2nd, Colorado Avalanche win lottery
  • 2017 – Colorado Avalanche (worst record) pick 4th, New Jersey Devils win lottery
  • 2018 – Buffalo Sabres (worst record) pick 1st and 2nd, Carolina Hurricanes win 2nd overall pick

The Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres were the only teams with the worst standing to pick first overall in their draft year despite the lottery. All other teams picked 2nd or lower. This illustrates that the lottery is achieving its purpose of spreading talent by preventing the worst teams from automatically picking first.

Big Draft Lottery Winners

Some notable draft lottery wins by teams who significantly jumped spots include:

  • 2005 – Pittsburgh Penguins win lottery, pick Sidney Crosby 1st overall after finishing 5th last
  • 2007 – Chicago Blackhawks win lottery, pick Patrick Kane 1st overall after finishing 9th last
  • 2015 – Edmonton Oilers win lottery, pick Connor McDavid 1st overall after finishing 3rd last
  • 2019 – New Jersey Devils win lottery, pick Jack Hughes 1st overall after finishing 8th last

These windfall lottery wins propelled struggling franchises by allowing them to pick generational, franchise-changing talents out of their expected draft positions. The lottery has helped many teams secure superstar players they likely would not have gotten based on standings alone.

What Was the Biggest Draft Lottery Upset?

The biggest upset in terms of lottery odds and draft positions switched came in 2017. The Colorado Avalanche had the worst record in 2016-17 and had a 20% chance at the first overall pick. However, the New Jersey Devils jumped from the 5th spot in the standings all the way to the 1st pick in the lottery, securing a 17.2% long shot win. The Devils selected Nico Hischier 1st overall, while the Avalanche picked 4th.

For Colorado, this was a crushing lottery loss after a historically bad season. But lottery upsets like these help maintain interest in the proceedings and give more teams chances improve through the draft.

What Changes Have Occurred to the NHL Draft Lottery System Over Time?

While the fundamental lottery concept has remained in place since 1995, the NHL has expanded and adjusted the lottery odds and procedures a few times, including:

  • Starting in 2013, the lottery was expanded to include the 1st through 14th overall picks, rather than just the first pick.
  • In 2016, the lottery odds were changed to more heavily weight the lowest standings teams.
  • Beginning in 2019, only the top 3 picks were awarded by the lottery, with remaining picks ordered by regular season points.
  • Also in 2019, “draws” were eliminated so each number combination can only be selected once.

These changes aimed to strike the optimal balance between maintaining draft lottery competitiveness and opportunity while still giving the weakest teams the best odds at top picks. The NHL continues to tweak the system, including further odds adjustments made in 2022.

Recent Draft Lottery Odds Changes (Effective 2022)

For the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, the odds changed once again in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of the worst teams picking outside the top 5 selections:

Standing New Lottery Odds Previous Odds
32nd 16.6% 18.5%
31st 13.5% 13.5%
30th 11.4% 11.5%
29th 9.7% 9.5%
28th 8.9% 8.5%
27th 7.6% 7.5%

The odds at the very bottom were reduced slightly, while the middle odds increased in order to prevent the worst teams from dropping as far down the order. Further tweaks to NHL draft lottery system can be expected in the future.

What Are the Odds of Winning the Draft Lottery for the League’s Worst Team?

The odds of winning the draft lottery for the team that finishes dead last in the NHL standings are:

  • As of 2022 – 16.6%, or about a 1-in-6 chance
  • From 2016 to 2021 – 18.5%, or about a 1-in-5 chance
  • From 1995 to 2015 – 25.0%, or a 1-in-4 chance

So while the worst team’s odds are the highest of any lottery team, there is still well over a 50% chance that a team other than the last place squad ends up picking first overall. This uncertainty is intentional in the lottery system’s design.

What Team Has Won the Draft Lottery the Most?

Through the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery, the Edmonton Oilers have won the 1st overall pick through the lottery the most times, with 5 lottery wins:

  • 2010 – Won lottery and picked Taylor Hall 1st overall
  • 2011 – Won lottery and picked Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 1st overall
  • 2012 – Won lottery and picked Nail Yakupov 1st overall
  • 2015 – Won lottery and picked Connor McDavid 1st overall
  • 2022 – Won lottery and picked TBD 1st overall

The Oilers’ repeated lottery luck has allowed them to pick a generation of elite talent including Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid and others. Some critics argue the Oilers’ frequency of lottery wins points to issues with the lottery system itself.

What Team Has Dropped the Furthest in the Draft Lottery?

The most a team has ever dropped from its expected draft position based on standings is 5 spots, which has happened twice:

  • Colorado Avalanche – Finished last in 2016-17 but fell from 1st to 4th in 2017 lottery
  • Philadelphia Flyers – Finished last in 2006-07 but fell from 1st to 2nd in 2007 lottery

In both cases, these teams had hoped their last place finishes would be rewarded with the right to draft superstars in Sidney Crosby (2007) and Auston Matthews (2017). Instead they dropped multiple spots while other teams leaped up the order.


The NHL Draft Lottery system has had a significant influence on determining the order of selections and the futures of NHL franchises since its origins in 1995. While imperfect, the weighted lottery concept has succeeded in promoting parity, reducing the incentive for intentional losing, and injecting excitement into the draft order proceedings. There have been many surprise lottery outcomes over the years that have shaken up drafts and given struggling teams chances to select franchise-changing players. As the NHL continues to monitor the impacts of lottery results and potential changes to the system, the inherent randomness and unpredictability of the lottery draws will continue to be a major storyline ahead of the NHL Entry Draft for years to come.