The prize was Sidney Crosby, one of the greatest prospects anyone had seen since Wayne Gretzky. And the method to determine who got him, as best as then-Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean can recall, was hashed out over a few meetings as the NHL negotiated a new labor agreement to end the 2004-05 lockout.
MacLean's Blue Jackets had the fourth-worst record the year before the NHL shut down for a full season, and he and representatives for some of the other teams near the bottom of the standings - the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks - wanted to ensure they had a chance to land the generational, franchise-altering talent at the top of the 2005 draft.
The problem, MacLean recalls, is that everyone else wanted that chance, too.
"I would shoot my mouth off because where I was from and then somebody else would shoot their mouth off because, 'Hey, we didn't play, how do we know where we finished?' " MacLean said. "And I really had a hard time arguing with them. But I had to. I had no choice but to argue about it, but I knew I was - when you're the bottom five or six teams, you're fighting an uphill battle when everybody else wants a crack at him. You knew you had no chance to win it, I guarantee you that."
The NHL has long held a lottery to determine who gets the first pick in its draft. The lottery is weighted so that the worse a team finishes, the better its chances are of landing the No. 1 pick.
When a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season, with no new standings to go on, the league came up with an alternate way to weigh its lottery.
Rather than take a single season into account, the NHL used composite records from its three previous full seasons - 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 - to slot teams into different categories. Teams with no playoff appearances in that time, and no No. 1 overall picks in the previous four drafts, were given three lottery balls. Teams with one playoff appearance or No. 1 pick were given two. And everyone else had one of the 48 balls in the hopper, or approximately a 2% chance of landing the greatest prospect of his generation.
"Half the league probably wanted everybody to have an equal chance and the other half wanted all the teams that didn't make the playoffs to have the only chances, weighted or unweighted," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman explained in a news conference announcing the end of the lockout in July 2005. "And if you look at the statistical odds of both scenarios, what we did is about in the middle. And so actually nobody was particularly thrilled, but everybody understood that on balance it was probably the fairest way to approach it."
With the coronavirus pandemic shuttering sports across North America, the 2005 NHL draft could serve as a blueprint for other professional sports in a worst-case scenario - if COVID-19 forces their leagues to cancel an entire season.
The NBA and NHL played nearly full regular seasons before suspending play last month. Even if they don't hold postseasons later this summer, they could use those standings to formulate an order for drafts that are scheduled for later this year.
Major League Baseball has delayed its season, with no firm start date in sight. And while NFL officials said in a conference call last week they plan on having a traditional season this fall, the possibility exists, based on comments from government and health officials across the country, that no games will be played.
Both sports have drafts upcoming with the order of selection set long ago. The Detroit Lions pick third in this month's NFL draft and the Detroit Tigers have the first pick in June's MLB draft.
But using the NHL model, there's no guarantee either will pick as high again next year in the event the season is canceled.
The Penguins, one of four teams with three balls (and a 6.3% chance of landing the first pick), won the 2005 NHL draft lottery and have gone on to win three Stanley Cups with Crosby in the lineup. The Anaheim Ducks, one of 10 teams with two balls in the hopper (and a 4.2% chance of winning the drawing) got the second pick. And MacLean's Blue Jackets, with three balls, fell all the way to No. 6.
"I think it was fair," MacLean said Thursday. "If I would have been like you watching the draft, I would have thought it's fair. I just didn't like it for me and my organization, that's all."
Just like Crosby was the no-doubt No. 1 pick 15 years ago, the NFL is expected to have a generational talent atop its draft next spring.
Clemson's Trevor Lawrence already is considered the best college quarterback since at least Andrew Luck. He won a national championship as a freshman, took the Tigers to the title game as a sophomore, and has the arm talent, size and charm to be the face of a franchise.
If the football season were canceled this fall, there'd be no shortage of teams angling for their chance to take him with the No. 1 pick.
That's one reason repeating this year's draft order, with the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 1, is an unlikely solution for a worst-case-scenario 2021 draft. History, former NFL general manager Charley Casserly said, is another.
In 1984, the NFL held two drafts, its regular college-entry draft in early May and a second supplemental draft a month later for college players who signed with the upstart USFL or Canadian Football League.
The league used the previous year's standings to determine the order for both drafts, and that angered many people.
"They repeated the same order, which means you in effect had two first-round picks to go into one season," said Casserly, then the assistant general manager with Washington. "And that, in retrospect, everyone thought was wrong. What the right system is, there was no use even talking about it because it was done, but I know that was something that teams were very upset about after the fact. So my history says you don't do that, based on the USFL."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had the first pick in both drafts - they traded their first-round pick in the common draft to the Cincinnati Bengals during the 1983 season and took quarterback Steve Young with the first pick of the supplemental draft - weren't able to capitalize on their fortune, but other, better-managed teams did.
The New York Giants took Carl Banks with the third pick of the college draft and Hall of Fame lineman Gary Zimmerman No. 3 in the supplemental draft. They traded the rights to Zimmerman to the Minnesota Vikings for two second-round picks in 1986, and won Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991.
"Without thinking about it, I think the NHL had a good concept, to go back over a period of years," said Casserly, now an analyst for NFL Network. "You either do that or you do a lottery. And you decide, the lottery could be weighted and maybe a lottery is the fairest thing to do anyway, because no one knows. Just because a team was good, who knows what's going to happen with free agency and injuries.
"So it's a good point, it's a good discussion. I know what I would not do based on the USFL."
So what would the 2021 NFL draft look like if no season was played this fall? No one knows for sure.
The NFL must have a seven-round draft annually, according to terms of the new collective bargaining agreement. And while the league's operations website specifies that "the order of selection is determined by the reverse order of finish in the previous season," the league does not have any provisions in place for drafting after a missed season.
Casserly said he expects a college football season to take place regardless of what happens with the NFL, even if schools wait until next spring to get games in.
"They're not going to miss a year," he said. "They'll just come back and play in the spring and then you'll scout them, and then you'll have to decide when your draft is going to be in relationship to when they finish their season. So you can do what you want. If they end in May, then you could have your draft in June so at least you get physicals on the guys, maybe have a combine and then you'll have scouted them all spring. So you can work through that part."
There would be other issues to work through, though.
According to the CBA, no player can be eligible for the draft "until three NFL regular seasons have begun and ended following" the graduation of that player's high school class.
That would leave players such as Lawrence, who's entering his third year at Clemson, and other potential top-five picks such as LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell ineligible for the 2021 draft.
Certainly, the NFL and NFL Players Association could amend draft rules, and the NHL's arbitrary three-year time frame seems like as good a period as any to replicate.
Eleven NFL teams have failed to qualify for the playoffs the past three seasons, and those teams have the cumulative 11 worst records in the league over that span. The Giants, at 12-36, have the league's worst winning percentage since 2017. The Lions, at 18-29-1, are 11th on the list.
The NFL does not use a lottery for its regular drafts, so perhaps it would slot teams in reverse order of their three-year records, leaving the Giants, Cleveland Browns and Bengals with the top three picks.
If the league instituted a weighted NHL-like lottery, the 11 teams without a playoff appearance the last three seasons could be in one tier, the nine teams to play in a Super Bowl or conference championship game could be in another (though the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers, with sub-.500 records since 2017, would be outliers in that group), and everyone else could be in the middle.
Or perhaps every team would have the same 1/32nd chance to get the first pick.
Casserly said the NHL's 2005 plan, which included the "snake" concept with the draft order reversing every round, seems reasonable. And while no one wants it to happen again, Bettman's news conference from 15 years ago seems prophetic now.
"The draft and order of the draft traditionally reflects how teams finish the particular season," Bettman said at the time. "We already had that draft for '03-04. But we also wanted to take into account how some teams have performed over time and need help, but taking into account as well that nobody knows exactly what the new world is going to look like."
Potential 2021 draft order
Based solely on 2017-19 records:
1. Giants; 2. Browns; 3. Bengals; 4. Cardinals; 5. Jets; T-6. Washington, Raiders, Buccaneers; T-9. Dolphins, Broncos; 11. Lions; T-12. Colts, Jaguars; T-14. 49ers, Panthers; 16. Falcons; T-17. Bears, Bills, Texans; 20. Chargers; 21. Packers; T-22. Cowboys, Titans; 24. Seahawks; 25. Steelers; 26. Eagles; 27. Vikings; T-28. Rams, Ravens; 30. Chiefs; 31. Patriots; 32. Saints.
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