Not the most poetic lede, is it? But it’s an honest one. The most hilarious, fascinating, chaotic scenario managed to play out during Friday night’s NHL draft lottery. The Ottawa Senators, representing the 29th- and 30th-best points percentages in the league with their pick and the San Jose Sharks’ pick, held a 25-percent chance at winning the lottery. They wound up with the No. 3 and No. 5 picks. The last-place Detroit Red Wings held 18.5 percent odds. Their worst-case scenario became a reality, as they whiffed on the top three lottery spots and fell to fourth.
The Los Angeles Kings made out great, winning the No. 2 spot and the potential to add a difference-making talent such as center Quinton Byfield to an already-loaded prospect pool. But the wildest possible winner landed the No. 1 pick and the right to draft mega-talent left winger Alexis Lafreniere.
Give it up for…mystery team!
That’s right. One of the eight losing teams of the play-in qualifier round now holds the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. Each of those defeated squads will have a 12.5-percent chance of winning.
There’s so much to unpack here, morally. Will teams who barely squeaked into the 24-team bracket and have little chance to win the Stanley Cup have any motivation to win their series? They’ll have a 12.5 percent chance at Lafreniere. Do you think the Montreal Canadiens or Arizona Coyotes have a 12.5 percent chance at the Stanley Cup?
There’s a very real chance a team who never would’ve sniffed Lafreniere under normal NHL draft circumstances lands him, sending fans around the league into a fury. Who would be the most offensive potential lottery winners? Here are my top five.
1. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
“The hockey gods declare that the Penguins of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania shall draft a superstar player first overall every second decade for the rest of eternity” is probably written in a dusty book in a spooky library somewhere.
The Pens landed Mario Lemieux first overall in 1984, then took a break in the 1990s. They landed Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005, then took a break in the 2010s. It’s a new decade, meaning we know the Pens will land a No. 1 selection between now and 2029. And there’s already a built-in narrative for an upset in Round 1: Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. He was the reason the Penguins’ players reportedly pushed for a best-of-five qualifying round over a best-of-three. If he steals some games and causes an upset…the Penguins, who held the seventh-best record in the NHL this season, would have a 12.5 percent shot at the lottery. Oh, baby.
2. EDMONTON OILERS
Taylor Hall, 2010.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2011.
Nail Yakupov, 2012.
Connor McDavid, 2015.
…Alexis Lafreniere, 2020?
Could the Oilers win the No. 1 pick for the fifth time in 11 drafts? That would mean hoarding 45.45 percent of the top-overall picks over that stretch – not to mention getting Leon Draisaitl third overall in 2014. You could make a case the Oilers already have the top two hockey players on Earth at the moment in McDavid and Draisaitl. Adding Lafreniere would great a cheat-code configuration. A crucial development this season was Draisaitl discovering tremendous chemistry with Kailer Yamamoto on the second line. With Draisaitl spending less time on McDavid’s left wing, there’s an open spot for a difference maker.
Lafreniere on McDavid’s left wing would have a chance to post the highest rookie point total since Crosby’s and Alex Ovechkin’s debut seasons in 2005-06 . The Oilers picking Lafreniere after opening the play-in round as the top Western Conference seed would cause quite the outrage.
3. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Sure, the Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and they’ve squandered the early years of the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner era with three consecutive first-round playoff exits, so they at least have some sympathizers out there. But they have far more haters – more than any other NHL franchise. The Leafs are the New York Knicks of hockey, a team fans love to see suffer despite its failing to win a championship for decades. The Leaf hatred is so strong that a significant portion of the hockey world would cry its collective tear ducts empty if Toronto landed Lafreniere.
A Leafs win would also send the tinfoil-hat crowd into a frenzy with conspiracy theories of the NHL fixing the lottery to hand Toronto a Stanley Cup.
4. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Few if any franchises have inspired more envy over the past decade or so than the Blackhawks. Their three Stanley Cups are the most of any team since 2010. They regularly rank among the league leaders in attendance. They’ve had it good for a while. Hockey is cyclical, and Chicago finally fell on hard times in the standings over the past few seasons as years of GM Stan Bowman’s salary-cap tapdancing and trading away draft picks during championship chases finally caught up to him. But now, the Hawks, who are the lowest seed in the West play-in bracket, could essentially skip the bottoming-out phase of their rebuild and start inching toward contender status again with Lafreniere. He’d be joining the team while Patrick Kane still has good years left, too, and with other young guns to build around, from Alex DeBrincat to Dylan Strome to Kirby Dach to Adam Boqvist, The Hawks could get good again fast.
Imagine what it would feel like to be a Buffalo Sabres fan, having missed the post-season nine straight years, watching a team with three Cup wins in the past 11 seasons scoring the No. 1 pick.
5. MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Habs finished with the 24th-best record in the NHL, so the fact they’re slated to compete in the play-in tournament could be construed as more laughable than their 12.5-percent shot at the No. 1 pick. Still, under normal, non-COVID circumstances, the 24th-place team would have just a 6.0-percent chance at wining the lottery. So it’s a major win that the Habs, who have arguably the toughest opponent of any team in the play-in, will likely lose and get a real chance to score Lafreniere. A star francophone forward hasn’t gone first overall in the NHL draft since Vincent Lecavalier in 1998.
Lafreniere-to-Montreal would send the conspiracy theorists into another frenzy. Like with Toronto, they’d be convinced the fix was on. Lafreniere would be a dream come true for the Habs, who haven’t had a star francophone scorer since Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse.
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