Looking into how often the last overall team selects first in the NHL draft

With the Calgary Flames officially and Vancouver Canucks both eliminated from playoff contention, the last games of the year shouldn’t matter. Except in this case, because all are head-to-head between these two teams, these final games have huge implications on draft position.

The Flames, who had trouble winning crucial games all season long, have found a new way to torture fans by having trouble losing crucial games at this point of the season.

It’s never fun cheering for your favourite team to lose, but with how much emphasis has been placed on the Flames not having enough elite talent to compete in the North Division this season, getting a high draft pick is front and center of the minds of most Flames fans.

However, with the draft lottery system, is it really worth dropping a few games at the end? Does this really affect where teams draft? We looked at all the drafts since the 2005 lockout to see how the draft lottery has shaken out, how it has affected the last overall team, and whether you should be cheering for losses in these last three games of the season.

Last place, first pick frequency

Since the 2005 lockout, there have been 15 NHL drafts. 12 different teams have finished last overall, with the Sabres (twice) and the Oilers (three times) being the only teams with multiple last place finishes.

The first overall pick has gone to 11 different teams, with the Devils (twice) and the Oilers (four times) being the only teams with multiple first overall selections.

Out of these 15 drafts, the last place team has retained the first overall selection in fewer than half the drafts. Just seven times has this occurred, the other eight drafts have seen a different team select first overall.

Breaking it down further, the team in second last has drafted first overall three times, third last twice, fifth last twice, and 14th last once.

Draft Lottery Odds Rank Frequency of Lottery Wins

This incredible 14th last anomaly came last year but is a little misleading in this analysis due to how the draft lotter occurred. With Covid wiping out the end of the 2019-20 season, the lottery was actually won by an unnamed “Team E”, which was not the Rangers, but then prompted phase two of the lottery where every team that was eliminated from the play-in round received the same lottery odds. The Rangers were lucky enough to win this lottery.

You can see that the last place team, or team with the greatest lottery odds, has won the lottery more often than any other specific rank. But, teams not in last place have won the lottery more often than those in last place.

Last overall teams who retained the first overall pick

In general, the first overall pick is a superstar. Of course, there are some exceptions to this (we’re talking about you, Nail Yakupov), but they are few and far between.

Of all the teams who retained the first overall selection, this is how they did:

YearLast Overall, First Overall PickFirst Overall Pick
2017-18Buffalo SabresRasmus Dahlin
2015-16Toronto Maple LeafsAuston Matthews
2010-11Edmonton OilersRyan Nugent-Hopkins
2009-10Edmonton OilersTaylor Hall
2008-09New York IslandersJohn Tavares
2007-08Tampa Bay LightningSteven Stamkos
2005-06St. Louis BluesErik Johnson

Every single one of these players are impact NHLers with the exception of Dahlin who is still young, and perhaps Erik Johnson who is a solid top-four defender rather than a superstar. Regardless, all were worthy first overall selections.

There were some better players who went just after first in several of these drafts.

Jonathan Toews went third overall to the Blackhawks in 2006, Drew Doughty went second overall in 2008, Victor Hedman went second overall in 2009, and Jonathan Huberdeau went third overall in 2011. At the time though, all of the first overall selections were worthy picks at that spot.

Last overall teams who lost the draft lottery

On the flip side of the previous section, eight years saw the last overall team fail to retain the first overall pick due to bad luck in the draft lottery. Let’s just say this affected some teams more than others.

YearLast Overall TeamLottery WinnerLottery Winner OddsFirst Overall PickPick made by Last Overall Team
2019-20Detroit Red WingsNew York Rangers14Alexis LafreniereLucas Raymond
2018-19Ottawa Senators (pick traded to San Jose)New Jersey Devils3Jack HughesBowen Byram
2016-17Colorado AvalancheNew Jersey Devils5Nico HischierCale Makar
2014-15Buffalo SabresEdmonton Oilers3Connor McDavidJack Eichel
2013-14Buffalo SabresFlorida Panthers2Aaron EkbladSam Reinhart
2012-13Florida PanthersColorado Avalanche2Nathan MacKinnonAleksander Barkov
2011-12Columbus Blue JacketsEdmonton Oilers2Nail YakupovRyan Murray
2006-07Philadelphia FlyersChicago Blackhawks5Patrick KaneJames van Riemsdyk

This list features three bonafide NHL superstars and incredible misfortune for the teams who finished last overall in those years. The most unfortunate one is definitely 2015 where the Sabres lost the lottery and selected Eichel instead of McDavid who went to the Oilers. Second is probably the 2007 draft that saw the Blackhawks win the lottery to select Kane, pushing the Flyers down to second overall where they took Riemsdyk. And third is the 2013 draft where the Panthers slected Barkov second overall instead of MacKinnon who went first to Colorado.

The Avalanche have actually been incredibly lucky the last few years. Not only did they win the right to select MacKinnon in 2013, but when they didn’t retain the first pick back in 2017, they fell to fourth overall and ended up with Makar, a much more impactful player so far than Hischier who went first to the Devils.

Should you cheer for the tank?

The short answer is yes. The last overall team has a much better chance of picking first overall and the first overall pick is more likely a genuine superstar than any later pick.

The long answer is it depends. In a year like this one, where the draft is so unpredictable and it’s difficult to decipher the top tier from the next, it’s probably fine to just cheer for wins, try and enjoy the end of the season, and hope your team has lucky draft personnel.

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