EDMONTON – The prize is substantial and a little lottery luck would go a long way when it comes to the Winnipeg Jets reload.
After being bounced in the Stanley Cup qualifying round in four games by the Calgary Flames, coupled with several upsets in the other series, the Jets will choose no lower than 10th overall in the opening round in October.
The Jets are one of eight teams with the opportunity to pick first, meaning they have a 12.5 per cent chance when Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery is held Monday.
If the ping-pong balls bounce their way, the Jets would have the ability to select Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic, who is the consensus No. 1 pick.
The talented left-winger piled up 35 goals and 112 points in 52 QMJHL games with the Rimouski Oceanic this season and chipped four goals and 10 points in six games as Canada captured the gold medal over Russia at the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic.
Deeper than that, Lafreniere is a great leader who overcame a knee injury on his way to earning tournament MVP honours.
Lafreniere, who also captained Canada to the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in 2018, is a game-breaker and would immediately add to a highly skilled Jets forward group that includes Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and captain Blake Wheeler, among others.
The Jets top-two prospects are defencemen Ville Heinola (first round, 2019) and Dylan Samberg (second round, 2017), both of whom are expected to challenge for a roster spot as early as next season.
But outside of checking-line centre David Gustafsson (second round, 2018) and 2017 first-rounder Kristian Vesalainen, the Jets don’t have many forward prospects that are expected to compete for NHL duty.
It’s going to be an interesting off-season ahead for the Jets, no matter what happens Monday.
After the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes all advanced to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Jets learned they would be selecting first, ninth or 10th (if one of the teams that finished ahead of them in the standings) wins the lottery.
That’s important in itself, since the Jets have only four picks in this draft (first, second, fifth and six) because of trades made while loading up for playoff runs over the past several years.
Even if the Jets don’t win the lottery and pick first, they’ll be able to land an impact player — but that individual is likely to need another year of seasoning before he’s ready to compete for an NHL roster spot.
However, having the opportunity to bring someone like Lafreniere into the fold would be a game-changer for the Jets.
There has been some speculation the Ottawa Senators may try and put together a package that includes the third and fifth overall picks in order to move up in the 2020 NHL Draft, but that probably wouldn’t be enough to convince Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to take the deal.
Having the opportunity to select a centre like Quinton Byfield or Tim Stutzle, plus a defenceman like Jamie Drysdale or Jake Sanderson (who has committed to playing next season for the University of North Dakota) would obviously have its benefits and upgrade two positions, but Lafreniere is considered to be NHL ready and would likely be able to jump right into a top-six role with the Jets.
Although the Jets’ top priorities for this off-season include bolstering the defence corps and adding a No. 2 centre, the opportunity to select Lafreniere is simply too good to pass up.
Landing Lafreniere will also help make the Jets a more appealing destination for high-end forwards and defencemen alike via free agency or trade.
It would also provide Cheveldayoff with some flexibility, should he decide to move one of his talented forwards in an off-season deal to provide a boost to the back end.
Depending on what happens with veteran centre Bryan Little, who has been out of action since November with a perforated eardrum and concussion and was unable to return for the qualifying round, Jets head coach Paul Maurice could consider making Wheeler a full-time centre.
Wheeler handled the role admirably while filling in for Little, essentially producing at a point-per-game rate for an extended period before moving back to his familiar spot at right wing on the top line late in the season and into the qualifying round.
The Jets have some recent history with lottery luck dating back to 2016, when they jumped from the sixth overall pick to second.
Although the Toronto Maple Leafs won the lottery that year and chose Auston Matthews, moving up four spots allowed the Jets to add Patrik Laine, who made an immediate impact and was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy.
The prospect of having Lafreniere on a line with Scheifele or Wheeler and Laine or Ehlers for years to come is a tantalizing one for many Jets fans.
With core players like Wheeler, Scheifele, Ehlers, Connor, defenceman Josh Morrissey (whose eight-year extension kicks in next season) and goalie Connor Hellebuyck all under contract for a minimum of four more seasons, the Jets window to win remains open.
But being able to bring Lafreniere into the fold would certainly expedite the process of moving back from bubble team to Stanley Cup contender status.