NHL GMs embrace ‘unique’ times: ‘We’re excited we have an opportunity’

David Amber checks in with Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston for the latest details on the NHL's Return to Play timeline. Plus, are Canadian cities still in the running to host NHL games?

Kyle Dubas has spent enough of his still-young career as an NHL executive worrying about the draft lottery.

He joined the Maple Leafs as an assistant general manager with the franchise in the throes of a rebuild, and was part of the front office that selected Mitch Marner fourth in 2015. After the organization completely tanked, Auston Matthews followed at No. 1 some 12 months later.

In the top job the last two years, Dubas is currently focused, and with good reason, on getting Toronto ready for the league’s 24-team plan to resume its pandemic-hit season _should things get off the ground this summer.

But along with 15 other general managers, he’s also in an unfamiliar position. It’s June and the Leafs could potentially win the Stanley Cup. Or at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, they might wind up picking first overall in the draft.

“It’s so hard to say how it’s all going to run,” Dubas said. “We’ve got a lot of real estate to cover. 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.”

Under the league’s return-to-play format unveiled last week aimed at completing the 2019-20 campaign halted in March by COVID-19, clubs ranked No. 8 through No. 24 on a points-per-game basis would participate in eight best-of-five qualifying round series before the usual post-season format begins.

The teams left standing — four each from the Eastern and Western Conference — would then be matched against the top-8 coming off a pair of separate tournaments to determine seeding.

“I think there are going to be a lot of interesting results in this qualifying round,” Dubas said. “Just given the nature of things and the delay between when teams last played and different (health-related) changes to the roster.”

And those eight franchises that lose out in the qualifying round, and by consequence miss the playoffs, could potentially end up with a nice consolation prize — right to select Alexis Lafreniere at No. 1 in the draft.

The NHL will hold its lottery with three separate weighted draws for the top-3 picks on June 26. The organizations with picks not included in the return-to-play plan — Detroit, Ottawa (which also owns San Jose’s pick as part of the Erik Karlsson trade), Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo — will be joined by eight “place-holders” representing the soon-to-be eliminated clubs from the play-in round.

The odds are stacked against a qualifying-round loser getting into the top-3, but there’s a chance.

“They’ve obviously put a ton of thought into it,” said Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland, whose club would face Chicago in the qualifying round. “I think that is fair for all the teams.”

If one, two or three of the “place-holders” win the original draws, a second lottery would take place between the qualifying round and playoffs among those eight teams. Before the pandemic hit, the draft itself was supposed to be held in Montreal, but will now take place at a later date.

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said he had to check his notes after the complicated formula was announced.

“It just really speaks to just the level of attention to detail and thought that went into this whole process,” he said. “We’re excited we have an opportunity to hopefully continue playing.”

Pleasing everyone was going to be impossible for the NHL with 189 games left in the regular season when the novel coronavirus outbreak forced the pause

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According to the sportsclubstats.com, Pittsburgh had a 97 per cent chance of making the playoffs back in March, but now would have to beat Montreal, which just snuck into the 24-team format, in a five-game series just to get in.

Montreal, meanwhile, might have been better off in the long run being on the outside looking in with an improved shot at a higher draft pick.

Edmonton had a 95 per cent chance of making the post-season, but would now have to beat Chicago (2.6 per cent). Winnipeg and Calgary (both around 60 per cent) would play each other, while Toronto (78 per cent) has Columbus (27 per cent) on its docket.

“There’s just no perfect way to do it,” Dubas said. “Regardless of how it all came out, everyone’s chances were going to be affected.

“I don’t really look at it as how our chances are affected. I look at it as, ‘What can we do to absolutely give ourselves the best chance to realize the potential that I think we all know we have based on talent?”’

Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen appreciated that the league asked for input from all teams.

“They didn’t just slam it on our face,” he said. “They listened, they gathered the information, and then they made the decision. We have to respect that.”

Nashville GM David Poile said seeing the plan gave him reason for optimism after months of doubt the NHL would be able to award the Cup in 2020.

“We’ve got a little bit of a road map,” said Poile, whose team would meet Arizona in its play-in series. “It feels like we’re working towards something.”

In truth, the NHL still has a long way to go.

The league wants to have players into practice facilities in small groups in the coming weeks, hold training camps in July, and then if all goes well, start the 24-team format later that month or in early August. And there’s plenty of questions about testing, hub cities to host each conference, and getting the green light from government and health officials.

It’s a winding path with plenty of hurdles, but there’s finally a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

“We certainly are going to embrace it as a unique experience, but also as a tremendous opportunity,” said Dubas. “That’s what we’re focused on now.

“And I hope to never have any discussions about the lottery with anybody again.”

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