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Wojo: Red Wings burned by the latest laughable lottery

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Steve Yzerman could’ve spewed some juicy expletives and fired a can of ginger ale at the TV screen. I mean, that’s what most Red Wings fans were doing Friday night.

But after the Wings suffered the sting of the NHL’s lottery buffoonery, Yzerman did the honorable thing, said he wasn’t surprised, and promised the Wings would get a great prospect with the fourth pick of the draft. And they probably will.

In dropping to No. 4 in the NHL Entry Draft, the Red Wings will miss out on potential generational talent Alexis Lafreniere, despite having the NHL's worst record.

But this is the treacherous nature of rebuilding in the NHL, NBA or anywhere. The Pistons are next, and with the fifth-worst record, they have a 10.5% chance of landing the No. 1 pick in the Aug. 25 lottery, only a 44.3% of staying in the top five and a small chance of falling to ninth. Lesson: You put your fate in random acts, prepare for random, inexplicable results.

In the NHL, the random acts too often are comical and dumb. The draft lottery was an embarrassment, and I know the rest of the sports world doesn’t care if a Detroit team got jobbed. And maybe it’s our fault too for not shrieking loudly about the possible consequences before the disaster unfolded.

But with one of the worst regular-season records in franchise history, the Wings dropped from the No. 1 slot — and prized prospect Alexis Lafreniere — to No. 4. And here’s the ridiculous part: It’s exactly what the NHL planned to happen.

How else do you explain the Wings had only an 18.5% chance of landing the top pick, yet the odds were a combined 24.5% that one of eight teams eliminated from the upcoming 24-team tournament would get the prize? That’s what transpired, turning the NHL’s little lottery show into a joke, when deputy commissioner Bill Daly was forced to reveal the No. 1 pick by holding up a card with a generic NHL logo.

Failed formula

So now the NHL has to explain how a team in the postseason will end up with the No. 1 pick. Congrats to the unnamed place-holder! And don’t parrot the nonsense that the first eight teams eliminated were participating in a qualifying round, not a playoff series. Is it a best-of-five? Does the winner advance toward a shot at the Stanley Cup? Shut up then. The lottery should’ve been the seven non-qualifying teams and that’s it.

I couldn’t tell on the Zoom call if Yzerman was biting his lip, but his restraint had to require facial gymnastics.  

 “Anything I say is gonna be self-serving,” he said. “Whether picking first or fourth, we feel we’re gonna get a very good prospect. … We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves, that doesn’t matter. And you know what, maybe we will get lucky. Colorado lost the lottery a couple years ago and ended up at the fourth spot and got Cale Makar, a player that definitely moves the needle. We’ll get our lucky breaks along the way and maybe this will be one of them in an odd-looking way.”

It was odd-looking back in 1983, when the Wings missed on the top prospects and at No. 4 settled for a kid named Steve Yzerman. Just like every Detroit team in this current stretch of misery, the Wings need a star that moves the needle, and Lafreniere could’ve been that. If they end up with the best available defenseman, Jamie Drysdale, it could work out anyway.

But this is why the Wings were right to push into the playoffs 25 straight years, at whatever cost. Once you slide into the lottery abyss, you’re basically relying on puck luck, the abstract force that decides so many things in hockey.

The Wings have participated in four consecutive lotteries, and in each, they dropped from their expected slot — by two spots, then one, then two, and now three spots. They’ve slipped eight total slots, the most in the league. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and in a pandemic-shortened season, something screwy was possible. We don’t just have to blame Gary Bettman, although that’s historically reliable.

Let’s blame the general state of draft lotteries. They’re lame a— just bereft of talent as a result of injuries and a quarter-century of trading future assets. Let’s be clear, too. Players in professional sports don’t intentionally try to lose games. Their individual reputations are at stake.

Yes, organizations and general managers have used the strategy to increase their lottery odds, by unloading veterans or playing more youngsters. But here’s the dirty little secret: Lotteries don’t decrease the possibility of tanking, but increase it. If the team with the worst record was the only one capable of landing the No. 1 pick, how many teams could reasonably make a run at the worst record? Three? Four? When the worst 15 teams have a chance at No. 1, a lot more will take the shot.

The NFL doesn’t have a lottery and somehow its draft remains wildly popular. And if you think tanking is a problem in the NFL, you’ve never watched bad teams go on bizarre winning streaks late in the season.

Major-league baseball is the same way, no lottery, no mess. Can you imagine the outcry if the Yankees or Dodgers didn’t make the playoffs, but whoa, one of them won the lottery over a 114-loss Tigers team?

I maintain the Tigers are farthest along in their rebuild because they haven’t had to deal with fickle fortune. Just like the Wings, the Tigers exited a stretch of annual contention with no choice but to rebuild. And now they have two No. 1 picks — Casey Mize, Spencer Torkelson — and other top prospects because they picked where they were supposed to pick.

Pistons seek needle-mover

Which brings us to the Pistons and their new GM, Troy Weaver. They’re just now rebuilding after years of patching and futile praying. Since the lottery was introduced in 1985, the Pistons have been in 13 and never moved up, not with their own pick, not even one spot, not even once. In 2003, they held Memphis’ pick, jumped from sixth to second and chose one of the biggest busts in NBA history, Darko Milicic.

Are they due some luck? Yeah. It truly is astonishing how little success the Pistons and Wings have experienced in their lotteries (Insert: Detroit Vs. Everybody). If the Pistons are still being punished by the karma gods for the Darko Disaster, maybe it’s time for the sentence to be commuted.

Tom Gores hired Weaver primarily because of his talent-evaluation acumen, displayed for 12 years in Oklahoma City. With a lottery pick and salary cap space, the Pistons finally, seemingly, have narrowed the plan. It’s not about specific positions (although they desperately need a point guard), or big names to sell tickets, or a three-year plan that gets rewritten every three years.

“What we need are big-time competitors, that’ll be the No. 1 trait in future Pistons,” Weaver said. “That’s how we’re gonna move the needle, to be consistent winners. My philosophy is, we don’t draft players, we draft people. More times than not, high picks that don’t pan out, you missed on the person.”

Weaver sounds intent on drafting the best player available, and so does Yzerman, as they should. A little luck helps when hunting for a needle-mover, but hoping for luck is a fool’s strategy. That’s why Yzerman downplayed the unlucky turn and Weaver probably will do the same when the Pistons get jobbed. (Just a guess!) The NBA’s lottery also is a pandemic-induced hodge-podge of 14 teams, including some from the 22-team playoff.

Draft lotteries can be fun and well-intentioned, but too often produce a terrible look. Cleveland landed LeBron James at No. 1 in 2003 and somehow won the lottery three more times. The NBA’s top prize this year isn’t generational — Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, Memphis’ James Wiseman or Australian pro LaMelo Ball — but the NHL’s could be. Even analyst and former GM Brian Burke called the Wings’ plummet to No. 4 “nothing short of a disgrace.”

Yzerman didn’t use such colorful language, and I doubt the low-key Weaver will either, if it happens. It’s hard for a franchise to complain about bad luck when it puts itself in that position. But it’s fair to complain when leagues turn the process into an utter farce.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski