VANCOUVER – The 2019 National Hockey League entry draft will be great for Vancouver. Too bad it won’t be better for the Vancouver Canucks and the struggling teams that need it most.
The league’s draft lottery, which determines the draft order in connection with the final standings, began in 1995 as a failsafe mechanism to police the worst teams and ensure “tanking” and finishing last would not guarantee the first-overall pick.
But the NHL revised the lottery in 2013 and three years later turned it into an entertainment spectacle whose clear priority is not to steer top draft picks to the most needy teams but to engage fans in all the markets where teams have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So last year, the New Jersey Devils bolted from fifth (based on a 26th-place finish) to first in the draft order, the Philadelphia Flyers to second from 13th and the Dallas Stars to third from eighth.
The Canucks, meanwhile, who finished 29th after their worst season this century, fell three spots in the draft order and picked only fifth. The previous year, the Canucks fell to fifth from third, fulfilling the most likely mathematical outcome by losing two places.
The Canucks are headed towards another bottom-five finish this season. And in a year where as few as two Canadian teams may make the playoffs, other needy clubs like the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are also mathematically likely to lose the draft lottery and pick behind teams that finished ahead of them.
Never have draft picks and draft position been more important in the NHL, where elite entry-level players can expedite a rebuild by years. And never has the draft been so rigged against the poorest clubs.
Sure, the system worked for the Toronto Maple Leafs two years ago, when the team finished last in the regular season and also won the draft lottery, getting generational player Auston Matthews. But the Leafs, with only a 20 per cent chance that year of winning the lottery, still had to beat the odds to get the draft position they deserved.
How would the Leafs look now had they dropped two places and instead of getting Matthews or second-pick Patrik Laine, Toronto was left with Jesse Puljujarvi or Pierre-Luc DuBois? The Leafs would still be an up-and-coming team but wouldn’t be anywhere near the playoff threat they appear to be with Matthews as their best player and franchise cornerstone.
So, yes, it will be fun for the Canucks organization to stage the 2019 draft at Rogers Arena for their rabid, draft-pick-obsessed fans. But it would be better if the draft lottery actually helped the team as it staggers through its worst period since the 1990s.
“The biggest criticism has always been, quote, tanking,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday at the press conference announcing the draft’s return to Vancouver. “I don’t believe we’ve ever had it; it’s always been a matter of perception. (But) last year’s lottery should put that to rest forever because it doesn’t enhance your prospects by losing games. You’re better off trying to win all your games, have the right culture for your team and the chips will fall where they are.”
So the draft lottery is fair for teams like last year’s Colorado Avalanche, whose 48-point season was the worst by any NHL team in 20 years, yet allowed it to pick only fourth at the draft instead of first?
“Absolutely,” Bettman insisted. “They still pick near the front of the pack. And again, if you look at the standings, the differences among teams that don’t make the playoffs isn’t all that great.”
But the difference in draft position is immense.
The Canucks were awarded the draft in 1990 and 2006, and are getting the 2019 event as an early start to Vancouver’s 50th anniversary season in the NHL.
The 31 teams that will pick players in 16 months represent nearly a 50 per cent increase in the league’s footprint since the 1990 event was held at B.C. Place Stadium with 21 teams.
There could be 32 NHL teams by 2020-21. Seattle, given approval by the NHL to begin the expansion process, officially launches its ticket drive on Thursday under an ownership group headed by billionaire David Bonderman and Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
The 31st franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, are having the most successful expansion season in NHL history. The most generous expansion draft ever has helped the Knights build an astonishing 41-17-5 record and position Vegas as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in its first season.
Interestingly, Bettman said Wednesday he expects the same expansion-draft generosity – NHL teams were allowed to protect only seven eligible forwards, three defencemen and one goalie from the Knights – to apply to Seattle if it is granted a franchise.
“My guess is the perspective owners of a 32nd team wouldn’t want to have terms any different than what Las Vegas got,” Bettman said, “especially because they are going to be paying more.”
The NHL czar said there has been no blowback from owners over how the Knights were stocked and that Vegas’ spectacular success is good for the game.
Anyone who has been to a game this season at T-Mobile Arena, just off the famous Las Vegas strip, has been able to feel the rare connection between the first-year Knights and their fans. The Knights’ first home game last October came just nine days after a gunman used semi-automatic weapons to murder 58 people and injure 851 others at an outdoor music festival in the city.
“What is going on in Las Vegas is a phenomenon,” Bettman said. “There are probably a whole host of factors. Some of them are emotional. This is a team that came into being in the wake of a terrible tragedy. I think on some level the players are playing for some greater cause: unity, healing, you name it. I think you see it in the way the players have conducted themselves and the way the city has embraced this team.”