For months now, hockey fans have slowly built their anticipation for one of the most highly-consequential NHL draft lotteries since the process was introduced in 1995. And now it appears the league has settled on a date people can circle on their calendars.
According to a Sportsnet.ca report, the league has decided to hold this year’s draft lottery Apr. 18, as part of a Hockey Night In Canada playoff broadcast. That leaves a little more than three weeks for fans of sad-sack teams to firm up viewing party plans and binge on lottery simulation websites – and when you look at some of the teams with a decent chance of drafting nascent superstars Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel (and the stakes involved if they fail to win the lottery), you’ve got near-perfect conditions to deliver what could very well be hockey’s most drama-packed off-ice night in history.
For one thing, the increasingly-improving chance the Maple Leafs have at McDavid is going to push TV ratings to record levels. Like them or not, the Leafs have millions of fans, and after their brutal free-fall through the NHL standings this season those fans are going to try every superstitious trick in the book in the hope it allows fortune to smile on their beloved Buds. If that does happen, the city of Toronto is going to instantly explode in the biggest hockey-related celebration since a Stanley Cup was won here in 1967.
And for as dramatic as that result would be for the Leafs franchise – it would almost certainly tempt team management to fast-track their rebuild – think of the ripple effect it would have on the rest of the league, and on Toronto rivals in particular:
think of how fans in Buffalo (where they’ve stripped the roster of most veteran talent) would react after this year of misery, and how other Atlantic Division teams (including those in Montreal and Ottawa) would deal with the news. People will baselessly accuse the league of engaging in a conspiracy to get the Leafs the top pick. McDavid (who has already said he’s dreamed of playing for the Leafs) would become Toronto’s greatest athlete, and the rest of the league’s biggest target. In many ways, he’d replace Sidney Crosby as the new de facto depository for blind and impotent fan rage.
Of course, the draft lottery isn’t primarily about the Leafs. Every permutation of the lottery results has a drastically different impact on the league, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. If McDavid goes to the Sabres, he instantly brings that franchise its best talent since Gilbert Perreault was taken first overall in Buffalo’s first-ever draft. If the Coyotes win the lottery, McDavid becomes the savior for that team, either in Arizona, or wherever it may go (i.e. Seattle) in a relocation. If the lowly Hurricanes luck out and land the top pick, their struggles to sell out their arena will fade in a hurry.
You can continue down the list of non-playoff teams and project the incredible effect McDavid would have on each one: another lottery win for the Edmonton Oilers might lead to a blockbuster trade of one (or more) of their current core of stars to address other needs; the same goes for a Philadelphia Flyers squad that has a wealth of prominent young forwards, but not nearly as many top-end blueliners; a lottery victory for the Blue Jackets would give Columbus its best-ever player and push them up the ladder in the Metropolitan Division; and McDavid going to a high-internal-expectation team such as the New Jersey Devils or San Jose Sharks makes it easy to envision a scenario in which they’re able to make the playoffs in his first year on the roster.
But it isn’t just the league’s true have-not squads who would benefit from seeing their logo picked last by league officials on lottery day. Imagine McDavid going to Colorado and joining Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene to form a mini All-Star Avalanche team of up-and-coming dynamos. Imagine the Dallas Stars winning the lottery and adding McDavid to a lineup featuring Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. Picture the Florida Panthers winning it and putting McDavid alongside Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau. And think of one of the two teams closest to the playoffs at the moment – the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings – being gifted with McDavid, and what that would mean to each organization, not to mention hockey in each respective market.
The NHL has taken a fair amount of heat lately for its lottery system, and there are ways the process can be tweaked to improve on it. However, if you believe the lottery’s primary purposes are to disseminate talent and drum up interest and intrigue in the product, it’s rather difficult to argue the league isn’t succeeding spectacularly this season.