We’re headed towards the second round of the playoffs, where eight teams will continue their quest to play for the Stanley Cup in June. But for almost half the league, the season culminates on Saturday. That’s when we’ll get the annual draft lottery, in which all the league’s non-playoff teams gather to find out which ones will luck their way into top-three picks at this year’s entry draft.
After last year’s Nolan-vs.-Nico debate, we’re back to having a clear-cut first-overall pick. Rasmus Dahlin will be the first defenceman taken with the top pick since Aaron Ekblad in 2014, and he’s already being hyped as the sort of prospect who could turn a struggling franchise around. That’s good news, because there are plenty of struggling franchises to be found. Fifteen teams are entered in this year’s lottery, and all of them will be hoping their logo comes up in the top spot. Well, all of them except one. We’ll get to that.
You can find the full set of weighted odds here. This is the third year under the new system, in which the top three spots are up for grabs and teams can move all the way up if the ping pong balls bounce their way.
The first year of the system saw a predictable outcome, when last-place Toronto kept the top spot. Last year was big for the long shots, with the worst four teams all falling out of the top three. What will this year bring? We don’t know yet, but we’ll take our annual look at the possibilities from a few different angles.
The “Which Team Needs It Most?” Ranking
We’ll start with the obvious category. Every team that missed the playoffs would love to add Dahlin — heck, every team in the league would. But some teams certainly need him more than others.
Not ranked: Florida Panthers: No doubt they’d love to add a talent like Dahlin. But they’re already a good young team built around a No. 1–overall pick on the blue line.
5. Arizona Coyotes: After suffering through yet another miserable year, they head into the last year of Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s deal wondering what the future might look like without him. The answer is probably “not good,” but adding another elite offensive defenceman would help.
4. Vancouver Canucks: Between Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, the future looks reasonably bright up front, and Thatcher Demko appears to be the goalie of the future. But with Olli Juolevi off to a somewhat-underwhelming start, the defence could use a future stud. (Also, can we talk about how weird it is that the Canucks have been around for nearly 50 years and have never really had an elite defenceman?)
3. Buffalo Sabres: Their blue line is terrible, and there isn’t much in the way of elite help coming from their prospect pipeline beyond maybe Brendan Guhle. Plus, their fans are completely miserable and could desperately use some good news.
2. Ottawa Senators: Despite half-hearted denials, the Erik Karlsson situation seems set to drag on into the off-season. Adding an elite Swedish blueliner might help nudge Karlsson towards sticking around. And even if it didn’t, there’s no better way to ease the pain of losing today’s Karlsson than by adding the next version.
1. Edmonton Oilers: Yes, I know, the thought of the Oilers winning yet another lottery is a touchy one, and we’ll get to that. But they’ve been chasing a top blue line presence for years, and adding Dahlin to the Connor McDavid show for the next decade would just about guarantee a Stanley Cup or two. Nobody could screw that up. [Thinks for a minute.] Almost nobody could screw that up.
The “Who Actually Deserves It?” Rankings
The short answer: Nobody, since we’re relying on a system of ping pong balls and random chance that’s designed to reward failure. Here’s the longer answer.
Not ranked: Chicago Blackhawks: Yes, yes, your Stanley Cup mini-dynasty finally missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Hearts are breaking for you all around the league.
5. Ottawa Senators: The team itself probably doesn’t deserve it, given the mess they’ve made of just about everything over the course of the season. But the fan base? Yeah, they could probably use a break these days.
4. New York Islanders: They make the list for pretty much the same reasons as the Senators. But we’ll move them one spot higher, since a lottery win will help ease the pain when John Tavares signs with the Rangers.
3. Arizona Coyotes: They haven’t had much lottery luck, missing out on McDavid and local boy Auston Matthews among others. They were this year’s worst team early on, with a record-setting start that had them out of contention by November, and you could have forgiven them for going in the tank to protect their top odds. Instead, they won their way up a few spots in the standings. It would be nice to see that rewarded.
2. Vancouver Canucks: In an alternate universe where the NHL used the far superior Gold Plan to make teams earn the first-overall pick, the Canucks would have won a thrilling race against the Coyotes.
1. Buffalo Sabres: They finished dead last, and for a change they weren’t even tanking to do it, so they certainly need the help. They’ve also built up some lottery karma over the years, seeing teams pass them for the first-overall pick in both 2014 and 2015. This is their seventh straight year in the lottery, and 13th overall since the system was introduced in 1995, but they’ve never won. Surely they have to get at least one of the top three picks this year, right?
The “What’s Best for Rasmus Dahlin?” Ranking
This is always a tricky category, since you never know exactly which factors an 18-year-old kid is going to prioritize. But ideally we’re looking for a fun market where the team is well-run and has a chance to be good again relatively quickly.
Not ranked: Ottawa Senators: So he’d get to join a struggling team engaged in an ongoing battle with its own fan base, and there’s a good chance he’d have the pressure of immediately being asked to step in and save the franchise by replacing a beloved franchise player. No thanks.
5. Florida Panthers: Florida is nice — it’s warm, the pressure is low, and the golf is good. The Panthers might be, too.
4. Detroit Red Wings: I’m honestly not sure whether the Nicklas Lidstrom factor helps or hurts here. But with the Red Wings apparently eschewing a full-scale rebuild, Dahlin could do worse than starting his career in an old-school hockey town.
3. Dallas Stars: Of all the teams in this year’s lottery, the Stars stand out as one of the few that could make a quick turnaround to contender status. Pairing Dahlin with countryman John Klingberg would go a long way to helping that happen.
2. Chicago Blackhawks: He’d get to learn from Duncan Keith while playing in a great market and contending for a playoff spot, if not more.
1. New York Rangers: Big markets aren’t for everyone, but we suspect Dahlin might enjoy being the centrepiece of the Rangers’ rebuild while playing in front of the greatest goaltender in Swedish hockey history.
The “Maximum Chaos” Ranking
When in doubt, root for whichever outcome would result in the biggest meltdown.
Not ranked: Carolina Hurricanes: This is the one result that would leave everyone else in the league to just kind of shrug and go “Sure, I guess that’s fine.”
5. Florida Panthers: Eventually, a team with one per cent odds is going to win the lottery, and people who don’t understand probabilities will flip out. This might as well be the year.
4. Buffalo Sabres: Just an entire city full of sports fans wandering around, confused, asking each other to explain the concept of actually winning something.
3. Ottawa Senators: The Senators are facing a tricky decision when it comes to this year’s pick, since they’ll have to figure out whether to send it to Colorado or hold onto it and lose next year’s pick instead. Winning the lottery would make that an easy call. But it would also leave the Senators as a rebuilding team without their own first-round pick for next season, which is always a recipe for hilarious disaster.
2. Montreal Canadiens: Marc Bergevin with a franchise-quality young defenceman? What could go wrong?
1. Edmonton Oilers: People were mad when the Oilers “earned” three consecutive first-overall picks and suggested the rules be changed to prevent the same team from winning multiple lotteries, but the league didn’t do anything. People were furious when the Oilers wound up with McDavid, too, but the league still didn’t do anything. If they get Dahlin, too, people will absolutely lose their minds. And not just fans — GMs, media, players… everyone. It will be a leaguewide meltdown at a level we’ve never seen before.
And knowing the league, that’s when they’ll step in to change the rules, under their longstanding policy of never taking action on anything until five years after it’s become obvious they needed to. And that will just make everyone even madder, since by then the Oilers will be good enough that they won’t be in the lottery anymore and some other team will end up paying the price.
Honestly, I’m halfway to talking myself into wanting this to happen.
The “Conspiracy Theories Are Fun” Ranking
Seeing McDavid wind up in Edmonton and Matthews avoid Arizona should have put a permanent end to any draft-lottery conspiracy talk for any reasonable person. But maybe that’s just what the league wants you to think, man.
Not ranked: Edmonton Oilers: There’s no way the NHL wants to deal with this.
5. Ottawa Senators: Normally, teams that need new arenas would rank higher, but there’s some question as to how the league views the current situation in Ottawa. Still, Dahlin showing up just as talks around the LeBreton Flats project get serious would be awfully convenient.
4. Carolina Hurricanes: Why would a successful billionaire businessman buy a struggling hockey team and immediately promise not to even consider moving it? Maybe because the purchase came with an under-the-table promise of some lottery luck.
3. New York Rangers: Jeff Gorton seems willing to patiently rebuild. But wouldn’t it make sense for the league to give one of its most lucrative markets a little boost?
2. New York Islanders: They’re a shaky market with relatively new ownership that might be about to see their franchise player walk away in free agency just as they get ready to break ground on a new arena they’ve spent years chasing. The Islanders are pretty much the perfect conspiracy-theory candidate, and only the presence of Gary Bettman’s personal favourite team could get in the way of… oh, what do we have here?
1. Chicago Blackhawks: Of course.
The “Unintentional Comedy” Ranking
We could all use a laugh. Here are the results that could provide it.
Not ranked: St. Louis Blues: The Blues haven’t been fun since Ron Caron was around.
5. Either of the Chicago Blackhawks or Edmonton Oilers: Seriously, everyone would be so angry with either of these teams winning that it really would be kind of entertaining.
4. Ottawa Senators: How much fun would it be to watch Eugene Melnyk pretend this was all part of his master plan all along? “When I said the team was moving, what I meant was moving up to the first-overall pick, but you didn’t hear that from the dishonest fake-news media.”
3. Florida Panthers: Just to see how long it takes for Dahlin to wind up in Las Vegas.
2. Both of the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers: Remember, it can happen now. Imagine these are the last two teams standing at the end of the lottery. Just Bill Daly standing there waiting to flip over the final card while a flaming trash can flies in through the window behind him.
1. The Islanders, but with the Flames’ pick: In the lottery era, we’ve never seen a team win the first-overall choice with a pick they acquired in trade. Given the recent trend towards adding lottery protection to traded picks, we probably won’t. But while the odds are only 2.5 percent, it could happen this year thanks to last summer’s Travis Hamonic trade.
By the way, the league is going to split out the Islanders’ original odds from Calgary’s chances when they do the draw, right? That seems obvious, but combining everything together to save the Flames’ front office from potential embarrassment seems like a really NHL thing to do. I’m already mad about this and it hasn’t even happened yet.
The “Who’s actually going to win?” Ranking
Don’t ask how I know. And don’t read any further in you want to be surprised.
Not ranked: New Jersey Devils: On the one hand, they made the playoffs so they’re not actually in the lottery. On the other, they have Taylor Hall. Honestly, they should probably be listed as 50/50 shot.
5. Ottawa Senators: Dropping to fifth would sting, but it would also feel like karma for the team that’s indirectly responsible for us having a lottery in the first place.
4. Buffalo Sabres: They’re going to win the fourth pick. Which is to say, they’re going to lose all three lotteries and move down from first to fourth. Sorry to get your hopes up, Sabres fans.
3. Montreal Canadiens: This may also be wishful thinking because I want to see how they’d still manage not to take a centre.
2. Edmonton Oilers: I know, you were expecting them to be listed first. Maybe they should be. The Oilers may not win much on the ice, but the draft lottery is their house, so much so that everyone has already prepared their post-lottery outrage in advance.
But then again, winning the lottery would be a good thing, and that would seem out of character for how the last year or so has gone in Edmonton. So how do you square the team’s unbeatable lottery track record with the sense of foreboding that hangs over just about everything the team touches these days?
Simple – by having them “win” the second pick in a year with one sure-thing franchise player. Based on the current prospect rankings, that would force Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers to either draft yet another forward, reach for a defenceman, or (most fun of all) work out a trade. Enjoy that thought, Edmonton fans.
Winning the lottery while still being sad about it would be the most Oiler outcome possible, so that’s our pick. And to top it off, they’d need to see Dahlin wind up with a division rival, so…
1. Vancouver Canucks: Call it a hunch.