VANCOUVER – The name Gilbert Perreault exists in Vancouver today not as a Hockey Hall of Fame immortal, but as a warning, as a kind of Murphy’s Law for the West Coast.
Many Vancouver Canucks fans are not old enough to remember Perreault actually playing in the NHL. Most were born after he was drafted first overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 1970. But Perreault was the harbinger for everything that has gone wrong for the Canucks in nearly half a century since.
Perreault, of course, was the superstar who got away on the whim of a roulette wheel, which was spun to determine which expansion team would pick first in 1970.
The Sabres got Perreault and played for the Stanley Cup five years later. The Canucks got Dale Tallon and made it past the first round of the playoffs once in their first two decades, which included a smooth span of 15 straight losing seasons.
So two years ago, when the Canucks went into the NHL Draft Lottery, itself a kind of hoax, and left with the fifth pick instead of the third, nobody in Vancouver was much surprised. Last year, after their worst season this century, the Canucks plummeted to fifth from second in the lottery. Figured. Because it’s the Canucks.
"I don’t believe the Canucks are cursed," president of hockey operations Trevor Linden told Sportsnet. "We’ve been to three Stanley Cup Finals, played in two Game 7s. There are other organizations that haven’t had those opportunities. I definitely don’t think we’re cursed. I think it’s just sports. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and it lives everywhere."
In Vancouver, the thrill is gone, baby.
Driven by the emotion of Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s final games in the NHL, the Canucks surged from the bottom of the NHL pile with a 6-1-2 finish to earn the sixth seed for Saturday’s draft lottery, which started as a policing mechanism against tanking but has expanded into a spectacle intended to engage fans of all non-playoff teams.
By design, the neediest teams no longer get the most help. The luckiest ones do. Last year, the three lottery winners were the 12th-from-worst Philadelphia Flyers, the seventh-worst Dallas Stars and fourth-worst New Jersey Devils. These three teams averaged 96 points this season, and the Flyers and Devils made the playoffs. See, the system works.
Mathematically, the most likely outcome for the Canucks on Saturday is that they will drop one place and pick seventh instead of sixth in the June draft. There is a 38.9 per cent chance of that. But the next most probable landing spot, at 19.4 per cent, is eighth. So, combined, there is a 58.3 per cent likelihood that Vancouver will fall one or two places.
By contrast, the Canucks’ chance of actually winning the lottery and right to choose franchise defenceman Rasmus Dahlin is only 7.5 per cent. The Canucks have a 23.3 per cent chance of moving into the top three.
Anything but more agony of defeat will stun Canuck Nation, which has come to expect the worst despite a 12-season run at the start of this century in which Vancouver made the playoffs 10 times and advanced past the first round five times.
"I’ve got to be honest, the first year (two years ago) I would say I was devastated," Linden said of the draft lottery. "I walked out of there and said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ From the studio to the airport, I didn’t say a word. I went into last year knowing full well it was likely we were going to back up.
"But last year, as opposed to the year before, the top of the draft wasn’t as clear cut. I said going into that draft that we could pick fifth and still get the best player. And it turned true. This year is different. You’re talking about a pretty special player in Rasmus Dahlin."
Left with the fifth pick last June, the Canucks selected a skinny offensive dynamo from Sweden named Elias Pettersson, who just won the Swedish League scoring title as a 19-year-old and shattered every record since the 1970s by a teenager in that country.
Pettersson is expected to play for the Canucks next season if he can get a little stronger this summer. Dahlin, 18, should play in the NHL next season for whichever team wins Saturday’s lottery.
Interestingly, Linden said losing the lottery would open more options for the Canucks, who desperately need a defenceman like Dahlin who can skate and carry the puck and run a power play.
"Perhaps we move back, perhaps we move up," Linden said. "There are lots of options. The lottery will have a huge effect on our strategy."
There are plenty of offensive defencemen projected to be drafted between fifth and 10th: Swede Adam Boqvist, Acadie-Bathurst Titan Noah Dobson, University of Michigan freshman Quinn Hughes, and London Knights defenceman Evan Bouchard.
If the Canucks win the lottery, they’re taking Dahlin. But if they move up to second or third – positions where the top-rated players are forwards – they could trade down for a defenceman.
Linden, however, won’t be in Toronto if there’s a rare thrill of victory for the Canucks on Saturday. He is sending general manager Jim Benning to grimace on live television for Sportsnet.
"Only because I’m feeling the sentiment from our fans, like: ‘Dude, you’re 0-for-2, maybe you should sit this one out,’" Linden said. "And I couldn’t agree with them more. We tried to send Finn (the team mascot) but Bill Daly and Gary Bettman weren’t too receptive to that idea so Jim’s going to go and represent us.
"I don’t know that it’s superstition as much as just changing things up."
Sounds like a good idea. What could possibly go wrong?