TORONTO – Time has run out on any concerns that the Toronto Maple Leafs might submarine their draft lottery odds with a late surge at the end of a long season.
Even an extra win or two can’t really do that now.
With the Columbus Blue Jackets in town on Wednesday night, the only lingering question at Air Canada Centre will be how low they can go.
Toronto would be assured of finishing no better than 29th overall with a loss to Columbus – be it in regulation, overtime or a shootout. As it stands now, the Leafs are already guaranteed to be 28th or worse.
Of course, a 30th-place finish and the best odds of winning the Auston Matthews lottery are still very much in play with five days left in the season. At this point that’s the best-case scenario. Discussion on that topic is growing steadily louder around the team, but has largely been kept out of the dressing room.
“I don’t hear (it), so I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about that,” coach Mike Babcock said this week. “And it doesn’t much matter. We’re going to do what we need to do to help our situation and get our guys to play as hard as we possibly can and keep working on our plan.”
For a time in March that plan appeared to have the Leafs on track to climb up a few spots in the standings, but they’ve now dropped five of the last six games. Meanwhile, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg have been picking up points out West – with the Flames and Jets each putting themselves out of reach for Toronto on Tuesday night.
Changes to the draft lottery system this season have lessened the importance of finishing in the basement, but there is still some incentive to do so.
The top three picks in the draft – expected to be used on Matthews, the Arizona-born centre who spent the season in Switzerland, and Finnish wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi – will all be determined by lottery balls on April 30.
The absolute worst the Leafs will be picking is sixth. The odds suggest it’ll very likely be higher than that.
It’s a sign that this season has gone exactly as planned, with the requisite amount of “pain” Babcock forecasted when he was hired last May. One of the major rewards for the struggle is getting to add another highly rated prospect to the system.
A late surge could have derailed those plans somewhat, but the Leafs now appear to be relatively safe – guaranteed at minimum an 11.5 per cent chance of winning the No. 1 pick and at least a 34.2 per cent chance of landing one of the top three.
Should they fall to 29th, those numbers become 13.5 per cent and 39.1 per cent. If they’re dead last, it’s 20 per cent and 52.5 per cent.
The team most likely to usurp them for 30th overall is Edmonton, but Columbus still has an outside shot as well. It’s a difficult fact to ignore with the Leafs and Blue Jackets set to face one another in Toronto’s home finale and a loss arguably the best result for both.
At least that’s how it’ll be viewed by many fans and observers, if not those in the heat of battle.
“Coaches who are preparing and players who are playing know just one way: And that’s try to win,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday.
No matter how Toronto fares in its final three games, this will be the franchise’s lowest finish in the NHL’s overall standings since 1990-91 – when only Quebec was worse.
That’s going to tilt the odds in their direction, but it won’t change the fact that they’ll still need to find some luck in the lottery.