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Top Shelf: NHL takes on tanking with new lottery rules

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Updated: 8/21 2:01 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Although it's not a strategy any team will openly admit to employing, there is no question tanking for a higher draft pick is a part of professional sports.

The NHL, however, is hoping to discourage the practice by introducing a new set of rules for the annual draft lottery. It's an attempt by the league to level the playing field and make the lottery a fairer system in the long run, but there is no question it could hurt rebuilding clubs like the Buffalo Sabres in the short term.

Beginning with the 2015 lottery, the team with the worst record in the league will face longer odds to land the top overall pick. Under the previous system the team finishing 30th in the league standings held a 25 percent shot at grabbing the coveted No. 1 selection, but that club will now have a 20 percent chance at picking first.

There was a time in the mid-1990s when the league's basement dwellers were almost a lock to land the top pick. In fact, when the lottery was instituted in 1995, the worst team owned a 48.3 percent chance at winning the prize, but those days are lone gone.

The format introduced on Wednesday is an attempt to balance the odds more evenly among the NHL's non-playoff teams. The 10 highest-finishing teams which fail to qualify for the postseason now have better odds at the No. 1 spot, while the four lowest-finishing clubs have slimmer chances.

A table with the newly unveiled odds plus additional lottery changes scheduled for 2016 can be found here: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=728795&navid=nhl:topheads

While the goal is to allow more teams in on the action come lottery time, the immediate implications are not good for a team like the Sabres. The Sabres, of course, are in the midst of a major rebuilding project and there is a strong chance they will finish 30th in 2014-15, one year after placing dead last in the NHL standings.

Buffalo's cellar dweller status in 2013-14 wasn't good enough to land them No. 1 and the club will see its odds of winning the lottery lessen if they place 30th in the league again.

The Sabres placed second to Florida for the top selection at the 2014 draft even though the Panthers finished 14 points ahead of Buffalo in the standings. Florida's lottery win allowed them to select Aaron Ekblad -- the draft's top defensive prospect. Now there's an even better chance of that happening to the Sabres in 2015 (when centerman Connor McDavid expects to be the top prize) if they finish last like the oddsmakers are predicting.

Tanking is widely considered to be a bigger problem in the NBA and NFL than it is in hockey, but it's still wise for the NHL to treat the issue with a proactive stance. Meanwhile, in the NBA -- where the No. 1 pick offers a much better shot at immediately changing a franchise's fortunes -- there is still only talk of changing a lottery system that practically dares moribund clubs like the Philadelphia 76ers to lose on purpose to increase their odds at gaining the top draft selection.

Unlike the NBA and NFL, where draftees are usually expected to jump right in and make an impact for a team, the overwhelming majority of hockey's draft- eligible prospects are a few years away from contributing to the NHL club.

Also, the fact that an eighth-seeded NHL team stands a much better chance of actually winning a championship (e.g. the 2011 Los Angeles Kings) makes tanking even less attractive to hockey clubs than it does for their NBA equivalents. What the NHL is doing with these lottery changes is taking further action to ensure even fewer teams employ the strategy of losing now for future gain.

The NHL brass love to brag about their league's competitive balance and how it makes the Stanley Cup playoffs such a special event. By discouraging teams from tanking for a higher pick, the league is simply hoping to strengthen one of its biggest selling points -- parity.

The Sabres and a few other NHL teams may not like the short-term implications brought about by the changes, but it's unlikely we'll hear any of those clubs complain. After all, protesting the new rules would be a strong indication a club was planning on tanking and it's pretty clear that isn't something any team wants to admit.

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