TORONTO — The morning after yet another swift and painful postseason exit strangely brings a ray of hope to Leafs Nation.
A 12.5 per cent chance to land a sure-thing star forward in Alexis Lafreniere and energize GM Kyle Dubas’ options for a reset.
The NHL Draft Lottery goes tonight on Sportsnet at 6 p.m. ET. And for the first year since 2016, Toronto is in the running for the No. 1–overall pick.
Worked out pretty good last time, eh?
A mere 19 hours after hanging heads and shaking hands with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Maple Leafs join the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Winnipeg Jets with a ball in the hopper and a prayer to the hockey gods.
As evidenced by some of the logos stamped on tonight’s eight ping-pong balls — together Pittsburgh, Edmonton and Toronto represent a 37.5 per cent chance of sending social media into a firestorm — and some of the logos that won’t be (Montreal and Chicago), the hockey gods have a devilish sense of humour.
Make no mistake: This is not the Elite Eight the Leafs wanted to be part of.
When the NHL announced its creative and chaotic return-to-play and two-phase lottery formats, with more moving parts than a Professor’s Cube, Dubas was clear his mind would not be wandering to Lafreniere’s cherished blend of creativity and physicality.
“I hope to never have any discussions about the lottery with anybody again,” Dubas said prior to restart camp.
“Not to say that it would be a horrible scenario to win the lottery or anything like that, but I tend to focus more on the optimistic view, which is getting our team ready to… be able to have success.
“I think there are going to be a lot of interesting results in this qualifying round, just given the nature of things and the delay between when teams last played and different changes to the roster in that meantime.”
Dubas was in regular communication with the NHL as it designed both these unique lottery odds and tournament format.
“They bounce things off you, and you quickly realize that there’s no perfect way to do it,” Dubas said. “And regardless of how it all came out, everyone’s chances were going to be affected differently.”
The possibility of the Leafs landing Lafreniere only exists because Dubas made certain his 2020 first-overall pick was top-10 protected when he traded it to Carolina last summer as part of the Patrick Marleau salary-dump deal.
If one of the seven other teams claims Monday’s lottery, Toronto’s 2020 first-rounder transfers to Carolina and results in a 13th- or 14th-overall choice for the Hurricanes. Consider that a cap-weaponized trade win for Don Waddell.
So, after blaming bad fortune on the ice Sunday night, some good lottery luck Monday will alleviate two per cent of the sting Sheldon Keefe is feeling.
“I’m obviously not focused on it one bit, but it’s the next thing on the calendar for us, so I’ll be paying attention to it,” said Keefe, before shifting his focus back to Game 5’s disappointment. “I’ll be thinking about this one for quite a while.”
As the Maple Leafs’ freshest failure dusts off old concerns about roster construction, a Lafreniere win could do wonders here.
Essentially, the kid is a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Keep him. Move some money.
Three years of an elite winger on entry-level money gives the brass no excuse to not trade one of the Big 4 and use that freed cap space to address its defensive deficiencies in a meaningful way.
This wildly unlikely scenario, this 12.5 per cent Hail Mary, has made us think of something the general manager said about fixing his team’s problems at the trade deadline.
“I’m not gonna come up and bulls— and tell you I have some magical solution,” Dubas said that day, standing pat and scratching his head.
Finding yourself lucky enough to win Alexis Lafreniere after finishing 13th overall in the regular season is about as close to a magical solution as one could get.