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The Senators' bet on themselves has backfired with top pick hanging in the balance

The Senators pushed their chips into the middle when they acquired Matt Duchene from Colorado two years ago. It was a bad gamble that could get a whole lot worse if the balls fall the Sens’ way.

This spring, we will be treated to one of the most gruesome draft lotteries ever to grace the NHL since the ping-pong balls first bounced in 1995. As with many tales of woe this year, the Ottawa Senators stand in the eye of the vortex thanks to the ill-fated 2017 trade that sent Kyle Turris to Nashville, Matt Duchene to Ottawa and a conditional first-round pick to Colorado, among other pieces.

At the time, the deal was seen as a very intriguing three-way swap – a win for the Avs, but not necessarily a bad one for Nashville or Ottawa. But with apologies to Kenny Rogers, let’s drop in to see what condition that conditional pick is in.

Yes, it is very possible that the lowly Senators could win the lottery only to surrender the first-overall pick to the Avalanche. Jack Hughes and Nathan MacKinnon on the same squad? Lower your sunglasses slowly and deliberately, Avs fans, because that would be smooth.

It would also be agonizing for Sens fans, as a potential first-line center would go really well with the organization’s efforts to rebuild. To twist the knife even further, Columbus sent Ottawa a conditional first-rounder at the deadline this year in exchange for Duchene. That pick becomes a 2020 first-rounder if the Blue Jackets get a top-three selection this year, which is improbable but not impossible – Columbus is likely to make the playoffs, which would take it out of the lottery altogether. But what if the Blue Jackets stumble before the finish line and miss the post-season? At that point, the lottery balls can make the unpredictable a reality. It was only two years ago that Philadelphia picked second overall (landing center Nolan Patrick) after finishing 19th in the league, after all.

In this nightmare scenario for Ottawa, it could see the first two picks in the 2019 draft slip through its fingers.

For me, it all comes down to the precarious practice of “betting on yourself,” and the Senators are not the first team to go down that path. The New York Islanders had a similar scenario play out a few years earlier as part of the Thomas Vanek trade with Buffalo in 2013. Matt Moulson was the name going the other way in that deal, but there was also a conditional 2014 first-rounder that could be deferred a year if the Isles were slated to pick in the top 10.

As it so happens, New York ended up with the fifth-overall selection in 2014, so it kept the pick and took left winger Michael Dal Colle (clunk!). The Islanders were much better the next season, and the pick surrendered to Buffalo ended up being 21st overall (and then traded to Ottawa for Robin Lehner and David Legwand).

Now, the Senators could’ve given last year’s first-rounder to Colorado, but Ottawa ended up with the fourth overall pick. Instead of handing it over to the Avs, the Sens selected left winger Brady Tkachuk, who by all measurements has been a solid NHL rookie with the long-term potential to be a great NHLer. But now they must hope that fate does not curse them with a lottery “win” in 2019. It would be, put simply, the deepest disgrace on a franchise that has suffered many indignities.

When then-Islanders GM Garth Snow decided to pick Dal Colle instead of giving up the selection to Buffalo, he believed his team would be better the next season. Could Ottawa have made the same claim last summer? Keep in mind, Mike Hoffman had already been traded and the draft seemed like the ideal time to deal Erik Karlsson, where the writing was on the wall for a departure. As it turned out, Karlsson wasn’t traded until September, but the result was the same.

Maybe Ottawa doesn’t get burned in the lottery this spring. Mathematically, there is an 81.5-percent chance some other team gets that No. 1 slot – but on the flip side, no other team has a greater shot than last-place Ottawa’s 18.5-percent odds.

There were a lot of conditional picks moved at the NHL trade deadline this year, and it appears to be a trend, in which a second-rounder becomes a first-rounder if a team wins a certain amount of playoff rounds or signs the marquee name in question to an extension. This all seems perfectly rational to me for both parties involved.

But the idea of potentially giving up the first overall pick when you’re not even close to being a playoff team? That makes me queasy. For the sake of their sanity, I hope Ottawa fans don’t have to go through that ordeal. Of course, if Murphy’s Law is really a thing, then we all know what’s going to happen when those ping-pong balls stop bouncing, don’t we?

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