With the Toronto Maple Leafs poised to make the playoffs under traditional circumstances, the fair assumption was that they had waved sayonara to their 2020 first-round draft pick and any faint hope of winning a stud prospect like Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield.
Suddenly, under the NHL’s return-to-play program and revised lottery format — a one-time response to unusual circumstances, commissioner Gary Bettman says — clubs who weren’t even contemplating a lottery windfall could end up with a top-three pick.
That could be one heck of a consolation prize for organizations that aren’t even thinking rebuild.
That bubble group of 16 is led by powerhouse Pittsburgh, which finished the season with a .623 points percentage, and includes six Canadian teams: Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal.
The seven clubs already eliminated from contention will have identical lottery odds as they would under normal circumstances, based on points percentage, and will be watching intently as Phase 1 of the lottery is conducted June 26.
The eight teams who fail to win their best-of-five playoff qualification series will all be granted equal odds — 12.5 per cent — of securing the No. 1, 2 or 3 choice in the 2020 draft.
Put plainly, if the Maple Leafs lose to Columbus, their consolation prize is a three per cent shot at the No. 1-overall pick.
“I hope to never have any discussions about the lottery with anybody again,” GM Kyle Dubas said Wednesday. The man paints himself as the glass-half-full type, and he will not be tempted by consolation prizes.
“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,” Dubas explained.
“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, in terms of health and guys injured and different guys that are having surgeries that are now out.”
That the possibility of the Leafs landing Lafreniere still exists is only because Dubas made his first-overall pick top-10 protected when he traded it to Carolina last summer as part of the Patrick Marleau salary-dump deal.
If the Leafs lose to the Blue Jackets and do secure a top-three pick, the first-rounder to Carolina will be pushed to 2021.
Sure, a Sweet 16 spot is no longer guaranteed, but we see this as a win-win for Toronto — which voted in favour of the format.
“It’s unprecedented for everybody,” Dubas said. “I talked to John [Tavares] a lot throughout the process and obviously talked to the league a lot throughout the process, and they bounce things off you, and you quickly realize that there’s no perfect way to do it. And regardless of how it all came out, everyone’s chances were going to be affected differently.
“So, 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? But that needs to be continually improved as it pertains to our mental dexterity, our fitness level, and our work ethic to set ourselves up to have success.”
Columbus is one of the best defensive squads in the game and should benefit greatly from a healthy lineup, but if the more talented Leafs can survive the play-in round, they’ll enter Round 1 hot with some hard-earned confidence and momentum against an opponent that hasn’t played games nearly as meaningful.
“One thing I really liked about our team is the way we really answered the bell when we were pushed with our backs against the wall for a bit. You saw some of our best games against some really good opponents,” goalie Frederik Andersen said. “You don’t want to be in that position very often, but the fact that we were able to push back and to answer was something I liked a lot.”
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Matthews comes painfully close to 50, Rocket, record
Robbed of a dozen games to make history and attempt to add a major NHL trophy to his mantle, Auston Matthews finishes with 47 goals.
With Commissioner Bettman announcing an end to regular-season bookkeeping, this means David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin (48 goals apiece) will share the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goal-getter.
Under normal circumstances, Matthews would have certainly hit 50 for the first time and taken a strong run at Rick Vaive’s dusty single-season club record of 54 goals (1981-82).
“Obviously, your mind wanders and you think about that,” Matthews admitted from quarantine in Arizona.
Vaive expressed his sympathies for Matthews on Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac Wednesday morning.
“I feel bad for him,” Vaive said. “With 12 games left, needing seven to tie and eight to break, I was hoping he was gonna do it. It would’ve been cool to hopefully be there and congratulate him, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen this year.”
Dubas expects Jake Muzzin (foot) and Ilya Mikheyev (wrist) to clear contact protocol when available and join the team for action…. Andreas Johnsson and Ian Scott will are still rehabbing after surgery and will not be available…. An estimated seven or eight prospects and Marlies will come back to Toronto for Phase 2 and serve on the expanded roster. OHL star Nick Robertson and Marlies leading scorer Kenny Agostino are among that group…. Since they broke into the league in 2016-17, Matthews and Mitch Marner have now won the team scoring crown twice each.… In addition to goals, Matthews set career highs in points (80) and plus/minus (plus-19).… William Nylander set a career high in goals (31) and led the club with seven game-winners.… Marner has registered a minimum of 61 points in each of his four seasons.… John Tavares led the Leafs with three overtime winners.… Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes become the first back-to-back rookie scoring leaders from the same team since Toronto’s Ron Ellis and Brit Selby won consecutive rookie scoring races in 1964-65 and 1965-66.… Andersen (29 wins) falls one victory short of his fourth-consecutive 30-win campaign for Toronto and finishes with the worst save percentage of his career (.909).