Saturday night’s lottery certainly shook up the draft order, with four of the league’s worst teams suffering the dreaded three-spot drop while the Devils, Flyers and Stars all moved up.
We probably should have seen at least part of that coming. Earlier in the week, I predicted that the Devils would win because they had the lottery’s most unbeatable good luck charm: Taylor Hall. He was drafted with a lottery-winning choice, he stuck around Edmonton for multiple lottery wins, he was eventually traded for another player taken with a lottery-winning choice, and now he’s willed his team to yet another one. By the time it was made official, even Hall himself was having some fun with it.
Officially adding “NHL lottery ball specialist” to my hockey resume.
— Taylor Hall (@hallsy09) April 30, 2017
But were Saturday night’s results really inevitable? Maybe not. The beauty of the NHL system is that once you know which spots in the standings held ended up holding the winning combos, you can go back and play “what if?” with certain games during the season. That’s how you get Patrik Stefan’s empty net miss costing the Oilers the Patrick Kane pick, or how a comical Ryan Getzlaf giveaway ends up costing the Coyotes the services of Patrik Laine.
Now that we know which spots in this year’s standings turned out to be the lucky ones – 27th, 19th and 24th if you’re keeping track – let’s take another run at some alternate history with five games that may have single-handedly changed the lottery results. Warning: This can get painful for certain teams. You’ve been warned, Canucks fans.
March 19, 2017 – Hurricanes at Flyers
The Flyers and Hurricanes both went into this late-season matchup desperately needing a win. Tied at 72 points, both teams were seven back of the Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot and needed to all but run the table to have a shot at the postseason.
It turned out to be a good game, with the Flyers taking a 2-0 lead early in the second before the Hurricanes pushed back to tie it. It stayed that way until a Jordan Staal goal midway through the third gave Carolina a 3-2 lead, and a shot a crucial road win.
But with the goalie pulled in the final minute, the Flyers tied it up on a fluke. Travis Konecny’s attempt at a centering pass got caught in the feet of Hurricanes’ defenseman Brett Pesce, who accidentally kicked it into this own net. That sent the game to overtime, where Brayden Schenn won it for Philadelphia less than 40 seconds in.
At the time, the loss seemed like one more blow to the Hurricanes fading playoff hopes. But it ended up being something more. If Carolina avoids Pesce’s accidental own goal and holds on for a regulation win, they finish the year with 88 points, passing the Flyers for 19th spot. That would have made it a Hurricanes logo that Bill Daly flipped over for the second overall pick, the first lottery win in Carolina franchise history.
January 24, 2017 – Sharks at Jets
The Jets are a fun team to play the what-if game with. They hung around the fringe of the playoff race for much of the season, but were basically done by the time the season’s final few weeks rolled around. With nothing to play for, the Jets infuriated their fans by going on a late-season win streak, rattling off seven straight. That would be great news is the NHL used the far superior Gold Plan system, but all it did for the Jets was torpedo their lottery odds.
Or so we thought. As it turns out, that late-season streak left the Jets just one point short of catching the Flyers for that 19th spot. That means we could technically take any Jets loss from the season as the one that cost them a second straight lottery win. So let’s go with one of the most painful.
This January meeting with the Sharks marked the return of Patrik Laine, who’d missed time with a concussion. But it was remembered for a controversial third-period play that saw Jacob Trouba knock the puck away from Melker Karlsson on a partial breakaway with the Jets up by one. Replays seemed to show Trouba making a nice stick-on-stick defensive play, but Karlsson was awarded a penalty shot. He converted to tie the game, and the Sharks went on to a 4-3 win. To make matters worse, the Jets appeared to tie the game in the dying seconds, only to have the goal waved off.
Paul Maurice and the Jets were fuming about the calls after the game. They might have been even more upset if they’d known the loss would eventually cost them the second overall pick.
April 4, 2017 – Coyotes at Stars
This game, played with less than a week left in the season and featuring two teams with no playoff hopes, didn’t get much attention at the time. It ended up being a decent game, though, with the Coyotes rallying from a 2-0 deficit to force overtime, where rookie defenseman Julius Honka went all Harlem Globetrotters to score his first career goal and win it for Dallas.
That ended up being a tougher loss for the Coyotes than any of us realized. If Arizona had managed a win, they’d have finished the season with 71 points, sneaking past the Devils for 27th spot and winning the first overall pick at the lottery. Instead, they capped off a miserable season by sliding all the way down to seventh, behind Vegas.
But there’s more, because this game serves up a lottery what-if two-for. Honka’s Bobby Orr impression gave the Stars two points they’d end up needing. Give them a loss in this one, and they drop down to 25th in the final standings. The Red Wings would have wound up in 24th, where they’d have been the team taking home the third overall pick once the lottery balls stopped bouncing.
One game, one goal, and four teams’ lottery fate sealed. Thanks, Julius Honka.
January 26, 2017 – Sabres at Stars
Sabres fans must hate the draft lottery by now. It’s already cost them Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid. And this year, they finished just one point back of the Stars’ winning spot. Even in a weak draft year, the lottery gods couldn’t throw the Sabres a pity win.
Because the Sabres were so close to Dallas, we could highlight any Buffalo loss on the year as the one that cost them a lottery win. But we might as well go with one that features the Stars, because this one held a special kind of pain for long-suffering Sabres fans.
The two teams got all the scoring out of the way in the first two periods, with the Sabres jumping out to a 2-0 lead, the Stars answering with four straight, and Evander Kane cutting the Dallas lead to 4-3 at the end of the second. That was it for goals in the game. Sort of.
With nine minutes left, a Sabres goalmouth scramble was whistled dead. But when Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen got up, he left something interesting in the net: The puck. After a lengthy review – is there any other kind? – the play was ruled no goal. To make matters even worse, the Sabres may have got the puck past the line in the dying seconds, only to have yet another review result in yet another no-goal call.
Combine those two calls with a failed offside challenge earlier in the game, and the Sabres went 0-for-3 on reviews, and were left feeling robbed. Give the Sabres a win in this one, and they move past the Stars and into the winning 24th overall spot at season’s end.
The Buffalo Sabres getting robbed by shady video reviews in a game against the Dallas Stars? Nice one, hockey gods. Real subtle.
January 15, 2017 – Devils at Canucks
You could make a good case that no team suffered a worse lottery fate than the Canucks, who endured a miserable year, finished 29th, then watched the lottery drop them down multiple spots to the fifth pick for the second straight year.
But their season would have had a much nicer ending if it weren’t for this long-forgotten mid-season contest in Vancouver. The game itself wasn’t especially memorable, with the Devils and Canucks exchanging second-period goals. That was it for regulation, and the two teams headed to overtime.
In hindsight, a Canucks win would have flipped them with New Jersey in the final standings, moving Vancouver up to 27th and dropping the Devils behind the Coyotes. But it wasn’t to be, as the Devils picked up the winner roughly 90 seconds into sudden death. While we didn’t know it at the time, the goal ended up clinching the first overall pick.
And who scored that lottery-winning goal? Who else…
Lesson learned, Vancouver. Nobody beats Taylor Hall when it comes to the draft lottery.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.