If Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly’s face didn’t give it away during Friday night’s NHL Draft Lottery, this result was not what the league was expecting or hoping for. In a season when a decorated Original Six franchise, the Detroit Red Wings, had one of the worst campaigns of all-time and the league’s most downtrodden franchise, the Ottawa Senators, had not one but two high-percentage chances of winning the top pick, the No. 1 overall selection will instead go to a to-be-determined “playoff” team.
With the league expanding the postseason field to 24 teams this season as a result of COVID-19 cutting the regular season short, 16 teams will vie for a chance to move through a “knockout round” onto a more standard version of the NHL playoffs. However, now those same 16 teams, all of whom finished above .500 this season, will also be in the running to win the top overall pick and the right to select a generational talent in forward Alexis Lafreniere. All eight losers of the qualifying round will have even odds in a second running of the lottery and one lucky team will get playoff experience and an elite young player this season. No one is going to be truly happy with the result (apart from the lottery winner and their fans of course) but who would you least like to see win the top overall pick?
The Pittsburgh Penguins might be at the top of many peoples’ lists. The franchise has won three Stanley Cups in the last decade and no one would be surprised to see them win again this year, especially given the fact that they finished the regular season in seventh league-wide in points percentage. The Penguins are the best team slated to play in the knockout round, but if by some chance they lose to the Montreal Canadiens, Lafreniere could potentially join Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company in a move that could extend the dynasty for years still to come. The thought of the talented young winger playing beside either of those superstars would be daunting to every other team in the league.
Finishing just behind Pittsburgh with the ninth-best points percentage in the league this year were the Carolina Hurricanes. The club has quietly accumulated a deep, talented roster including a number of elite young players. Carolina is set to contend for titles for many years to come, but Lafreniere would make them truly dangerous. Like the Penguins, the Hurricanes simply do not need the best player in the draft. Keep in mind that they were also one of just two teams to vote against the expanded postseason model, making it especially twisted if they were to reap the benefits of this one-off lottery structure. As good as the Hurricanes were at times this season, they are a popular upset pick in the qualifying round against the New York Rangers and could wind up in the lottery.
The New York Islanders finished just outside the top-ten in points percentage this season and have a deep, experienced team. They also play a sound defensive system. While it works to win games, it isn’t the most exciting strategy and could limit the upside of an explosive offensive talent like Lafreniere. On top of that, the Isles don’t even know where they will be playing their home games next season and have suffered from poor attendance in recent years. It doesn’t exactly sound like an ideal landing spot for an exciting top prospect. Fortunately, the Islanders drew a plus matchup against the Florida Panthers and should advance past the knockout round if they can stick to their smothering defensive game.
Given their luck in the draft lottery over the past decade, it’s pretty gross to think about the Edmonton Oilers being in the running for another No. 1 pick. Likely soon to be the home of two MVP’s in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers landing Lafreniere as their fifth first overall pick and ninth top-ten pick since 2010 would really be something. With an improved NHL roster and a strong pipeline of talent, the Oilers are finally starting to be self-sufficient and don’t need Lafreniere like they might have in recent year. However, if the team can’t hold off a poor Chicago Blackhawks club in the knockout round, maybe they do need the pick.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are another team that is chock full of young talent and it would be an embarrassment of riches (and embarrassing for the league) to see them land Lafreniere. While the team would be in prime shape to finally snap their Stanley Cup drought with the addition, the Leafs are already well on their way and will be contenders for years and years to come even without the top pick. Additionally, should Toronto win the lottery, there would certainly be those that would cry foul about the whole situation. The Maple Leafs face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round in one of the more evenly matched of the upcoming series. Toronto is likely the slight favorite, but could just as easily wind up in the lottery.
The current iteration of the Chicago Blackhawks is not good. However, they are also the most dominant franchise of this decade with three Stanley Cups. It’s not east to find many outside of Chicago who have pity for the current Blackhawks given their sustained success of late. With some of those core players still in place and some exciting young pieces starting to build up, the Blackhawks may already be back on the rebound without the assistance of Lafreniere. If they make it a series with the star-studded Oilers, it will be even more evident that they don’t need a top pick to stay relevant. Like the Maple Leafs, some will also be outraged if the Blackhawks win the lottery due to the perceived favoritism shown by the league on a number of occasions in recent years.
If you really want to hear conspiracy theories though, look no further than the possibility of the Montreal Canadiens winding up with No. 1 overall. Yes, the Canadiens have no business in a playoff series and would have been in the standard draft lottery anyway, but there will be plenty who think that it is far too convenient if the Habs win the top pick when a Francophone and Quebec native is the best player on the board. It used to be that Montreal – who don’t forget have more Stanley Cups than any NHL franchise – was able to claim the best French Canadian players in the draft regardless of draft order. If that opportunity should inadvertently occur once again, plenty of people might get upset at the league despite the fact that Montreal technically is the most deserving (read: worst) of the qualifying round teams. The NHL does not want that drama right now and its most decorated club frankly does not need special treatment, perceived or otherwise.
As for the remaining teams, the Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, and Vancouver Canucks were all better than their records implied this season and already have elite young players, the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes may not have the fan bases to support a young star like Lafreniere, and I’m sure there are reasons to root against the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, and Minnesota Wild as well. If you can think of a valid reason why the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have one playoff series win in franchise history, don’t deserve a stroke of good luck, that’s fine too.
What do you think? Which team do you absolutely not want to see Lafreniere go to, either because of existing talent or complaints of foul play or for any other reason? The reality is that one of these 16 will end up with the best player on the board, which in many ways is already a loss for the league, but it can get much worse from here.