The National Hockey League finds itself in a bizarre scenario, partly self-administered, where the lottery winner for a draft with a clear-cut top player is an unspecific team among a field of 16. They have undermined the purpose of the play-in series, with many teams surely thinking that landing a potential franchise player would be worth more to them than a quirky playoff appearance. And there’s no particular rhyme or reason to which teams are eligible for this player. It’s just as likely that projected number-one overall pick Alexis Lafreniere lands with a contender as he does a team approaching a total rebuild.
Any team that lands the pick will be absolutely thrilled. Some teams need Lafreniere more than others. Not every team deserves him.
16. Edmonton Oilers
No. No no no. Absolutely not. The Edmonton Oilers deserve this pick as much as Bernie Madoff deserves an interest-free business loan from the government. I’m not going to entertain this further.
Ranking the Islanders this low is convenient for a website centered around New York Rangers content, and the inherently subjective nature of a list like this invites partisan influence. However, I truly think this assessment is justified.
The Islanders had their chance. They got their franchise guy in John Tavares and they completely wasted it. It’s not as if they didn’t have ample time and resources to build around him, either. From 2006 through 2018, aside from Tavares, the Islanders had seven total top-10 picks, including four in the top-five. The result? Ten total playoff wins and one series win. Currently, the Islanders are a good-but-not-great team that put all its eggs in the basket of John Gabriel Pageau and was a fraction of a second away from intentionally trading for Zach Parise’s albatross contract. Their salary cap situation is an approaching disaster. The organization’s prospect pool isn’t very good. They still don’t have a real modern home arena quite yet.
Barzal and Lafreniere would be incredibly fun to watch. Nonetheless, no, you don’t deserve Alexis Lafreniere.
In 2015, Canucks’ General Manager Jim Benning signed center Brandon Sutter to a massive contract and deemed him a “foundation piece” who “gives us the edge we need to compete in the playoffs.”
Since then, Sutter has surpassed the 30-point mark exactly once and the Canucks have played in zero playoff games.
That more or less sums it up for the Canucks. This is not a team that needs elite talent. Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser are a phenomenal core group to build around. It’s not a small-market team facing an uphill battle. The Canucks have failed largely because they refuse to stop paying ridiculous prices to replaceable free agents. Loui Eriksson. Tim Schaller. Jay Beagle. Antoine Roussel. Tyler Myers. The list goes on. The Canucks have some young superstars, a goaltender performing at Vezina levels in Jacob Markstrom, and play in the weakest division in the league. Even with all of that, they rank 17th in the league by points percentage. Alexis Lafreniere does not address the Canucks’ problems, nor do they deserve to add another young player forced into bailing out a fundamentally broken roster.
The Blackhawks were the envy of the league not too long ago. Three Stanley Cups and some talented stars made them the marketing darling of the league; Commercials, national broadcasts, outdoor games, etc.
Not that the Blackhawks’ run of success was brief, but their rapid plummet the past two seasons will leave them short of chronic contenders like the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs. Unlike those teams, who knew when and what to change before things grew stale, the Blackhawks rode their horses into the ground. They’ve begun to realize the problem, only it’s a little late for that. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still great players but they’re on the wrong side of 30. Beyond them, it’s fairly bleak. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook are long past their primes and they have tens of millions tied up in defensemen who aren’t up to par. Corey Crawford is 35, injury-prone, and a free agent.
The Blackhawks do need young talent and Lafreniere would be a massive help, but they’re not done coming to terms with their Icarian descent. They need to humbly sit with the reality of their situation for a little longer.
12. Florida Panthers
In some ways, one does have to feel bad for the Panthers. Florida is a small-market team that has struggled to find traction on the ice and mainstream presence in the Florida area. The few times they’ve gotten lottery picks have been in (relatively) weak drafts. Aaron Ekblad looked like he had a shot at being a special player before concussions subdued his impact.
But this isn’t about who needs Lafreniere. It’s about who deserves him. The economics have no-doubt hurt the Panthers, but that hasn’t stopped the Nashville Predators or Carolina Hurricanes from building competitive teams. Even the Ottawa Senators have found a way to contend once in a while. What’s more, the Panthers aren’t really trying anything new. Dale Tallon has been General Manager for a decade now, save for a short spell in 2016-2017 where he was in a tug-of-war with some statistical gurus that he successfully ousted.
On the surface, Florida is screaming out for an exciting, marketable franchise player like Lafreniere. But they don’t deserve a fluke lifeline for a vision they refuse to admit has failed and should have been scrapped long ago.
11. Calgary Flames
There is nothing particularly unsavory about the Calgary Flames and, geographic rivalries aside, I don’t think anyone would be particularly perturbed if Calgary does win Lafreniere. Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk are a quality young duo Lafreniere could grow with. He and Gaudreau could be a hell of a left-wing combination. Or maybe Gaudreau becomes expendable. Who knows? They could use the talent infusion for sure and there’s nothing overtly unpalatable about how the team is being built.
I just don’t see any particular selling points for why Calgary actively deserves Lafreniere. They’ve had a superstar winger in Gaudreau. They’ve had a few top-five picks in recent years. I wouldn’t exactly say they’re due. If Calgary lands the top pick then so be it. I don’t know. Whatever.
10. Winnipeg Jets
Would Lafreniere landing in Winnipeg be good news for NHL’s marketing aspirations? No, probably not. But that’s not their problem. Winnipeg had the burden of taking the remnants of an Atlanta Thrashers roster and building that into a competitive team despite nobody wanting to play for them. And they sort of pulled it off. This season they suffered an egregious number of injuries that sabotaged their season.
On the other hand, Connor Hellebuyck elevated them to levels they didn’t really deserve. Winnipeg has had their share of top picks, most recently Patrik Laine in 2016. They’ve had access to top talent at forward.
Like Calgary, I wouldn’t say that it’s Winnipeg time. It is fair to point out that they have a massive competitive disadvantage in trying to recruit players, so maybe Winnipeg deserves a break.
I would guess that the instinctive reaction from many will be that Toronto is ranked way too high here. And I get it. For one, it’s the Leafs. They’re hardly starved for attention as is. They had a superstar in John Tavares come home recently to add to a roster already loaded with young phenoms and top draft picks in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly.
I do think they’ve gotten the short end of the stick in some ways, though, at no fault of their own. For one, the NHL decided to change the divisional and playoff format just in time for it to screw over the Leafs with unfavorable perennial matchups against the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Also, the trend of young restricted free agent superstars signing laughably cheap deals ended just as the Leafs’ young corps were for new contracts, with their top guys being the first of a generation to know their worth and demand premium compensation. Some of the problems they do have were inherited from the previously instilled General Manager. Now the pandemic is likely to stunt any salary cap growth and the Leafs are going to pay the price. The timing of their organizational ascent could not have been worse.
The Leafs are firmly a playoff team if not for these bizarre circumstances and a terrible playoff format whose problems are exacerbated by the pandemic. If the Leafs end up with Lafreniere there it will only be due to a dumb situation that unfairly kept them out of the playoffs in the first place.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes check off a lot of boxes for a deserving lottery winner. A small-market team that has built itself into a healthy competitor largely through progressive thinking and shrewd decisions. For a while they were one of the best tactical teams in the league but lacked any meaningful star power. And ever since Eric Staal left they’ve lacked a true Face of the Franchise. Even despite a Conference Final run last season, the Hurricanes still lack mainstream appeal. They’re not going to get attention from NBC, for instance. Lafreniere could be the player that nudges them rightfully into the spotlight.
They’ve also been screwed over by the playoff format. Already unfairly burdened with the toughest division in hockey, the Hurricanes were runaway favorites to make the playoffs in the East before the pandemic sabotaged the regular season. Now they have to win a five-game coinflip against the Rangers, who are a better team than their seeding suggests. Like Toronto, any lottery luck will only have come because unfair circumstances put them in the mix for Lafreniere in the first place.
The only problem with Carolina’s bid? They’ve already had their lottery luck. They got Andrei Svechnikov just two seasons ago at second overall and it won’t be long before he’s viewed as a bonafide NHL superstar. Even before that the Hurricanes grabbed Elias Lindholm, Haydn Fleury, and Noah Hanifin in three-straight drafts with top-seven picks. The Canes getting Lafreniere wouldn’t be overkill, but they’re going to be just fine and wouldn’t be in a place to demand pity if they don’t land him.
For a lot of reasons, the Wild are potentially a terrible team for Lafreniere to go to. They’re not a very good team right now and it’s headed further downhill. They have four players (Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mats Zuccarello, and Jared Spurgeon) who are over the age of 30 and signed for at least the next four seasons. They traded Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, which has become a disaster. They’re stuck with his $4-million cap hit for another season. The current NHL roster possesses few impact players under the age of 28 who will be around in a few years.
What’s worse is that the organization has ignored the writing on the wall. They have no clear path to contention but also refuse to admit defeat and build something new. They’ve clung to the idea of winning with the current group. Now they’ve dug themselves in a deep hole and it’s not going to be easy to get out. They’re not nearly as bad as Detroit, but it’s a similar situation where they have to wait for the clock to expire on some of their bad contracts before they can really even start building upwards again.
But the Wild did have a good run as a competitive team in the West and they’re due for some lottery luck. They haven’t drafted in the top-10 since they took Matt Dumba in 2012 and their last top-five pick was Benoit Pouliot in 2005. Marian Gaborik at third-overall was the first and highest selection in franchise history.
General Manager Bill Guerin also inherited most of this mess when he got the job last August. To his credit, he has attempted to tear down the rotting structure. Jason Zucker was traded to Pittsburgh for futures, while Zach Parise was somehow nearly moved to the Islanders at the trading deadline.
Minnesota has been stale for a while and, more than most teams, they would benefit from a fresh face like Lafreniere. But the NHL can’t afford for him to go to a directionless team. We’ve seen enough of Jack Eichel’s, Connor McDavid’s, and Taylor Hall’s careers wasted in similar circumstances. So let’s make a deal, Minnesota. You can have Alexis Lafreniere but only on the condition that you finally commit to a true rebuild.
I’m hesitant to proclaim the Habs’ organization as deserving of Lafreniere as they possess a lot of the same problems as Minnesota. They’re a boring team going nowhere in particular with a number of unappealing contracts on the books. Carey Price and Shea Weber, injury-prone and declining, are both on the books for a combined $18.4 million for the next six years. The defense on the whole is overpaid. Unlike with Minnesota, current Habs’ General Manager Marc Bergevin is mostly responsible for the current predicament. And despite the Habs’ steady decline over the last four seasons, his job appears safe.
Yet you know who does deserve Lafreniere? Habs fans and the city of Montreal. The emphasis on where people are from is delicate because it’s often weaponized for ugly, discriminatory purposes, but at the most basic level it’s always a nice story when a player fulfills a childhood dream and joins his hometown club. It’s been a while since Montreal had a true homegrown star on the team.
It’s fair to worry that Lafreniere would be burdened with overwhelming pressure, but the setup for a great story is there, especially with some other talented forwards like Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield there to grow with him.
I hear you, and even if I didn’t, it would be impossible to escape all of the tomatoes you’re currently throwing at me.
But in the immortal words of Hannibal Burress:
In some ways, the Penguins are the one team that doesn’t need any gifts from the ping pong ball machine. They barely attempted to hide their tanking in 1984 before landing Mario Lemieux first overall. They got probably the best player of this generation, Sidney Crosby during a sketchy 2005 draft lottery. Even when they “lost” the lottery in 2004 and dropped to second overall, their “consolation” was Evgeni Malkin.
Not to mention Marc-Andre Fleury at first overall in 2002 and Jordan Staal at second overall in 2006.
Obviously, the most important step in the Penguins becoming a perennial contender was, “have two of the greatest players ever fall into your lap, then sign them to hilariously cheap long-term deals before the NHL banned the practice.” The Penguins have done a near immaculate job of building teams around that duo for 15 years now. They’ve been stable even when enduring their many injury spells. And unlike many other Cup winners who had their moment before fading, the Penguins have typically bought low and sold high on the right players at the right times, which has enabled them to avoid any sort of major retool.
Do you know which Penguins forwards accumulated the most icetime this season? Teddy Blueger, Steve Holt, Dominik Simon, and Brandon Tanev. Also, one of those names is fake. Did you even notice? Be honest.
No team better represents the absurdity of the NHL’s playoff format, both under normal circumstances and during the pandemic. The Penguins had the seventh-best record in the NHL despite missing Crosby and Malkin for long stretches of the season, but because they are third in the Metropolitan Division, they now have to face the Montreal Canadiens in a coin-flip series just to make the playoffs. If they do make it, they’ll likely be handed an unfair first-round matchup.
Of NHL teams that deserve a break their way, the Penguins are at the bottom of the list. No doubt the average fan would prefer for Lafreniere to end up just about anywhere else. But the Penguins have made the most out of nothing on the wings for years. Like it or not, the Penguins have earned a player like Lafreniere far more than bottom-dwellers who stand to get rewarded for incompetence.
4. New York Rangers
Let’s be honest, Rangers fans. The team can’t claim injustice when it comes to catching breaks. The deserving MVP of the league, Artemi Panarin, ignored better teams offering more money in order to sign with the Rangers. Adam Fox, the team’s top defenseman, effectively forced his way to New York. Before those two, it was Kevin Shattenkirk, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, and so on. There will inevitably be more names to add to the list in future seasons.
Yet for all of the talk of the Rangers’ rebuild, they really haven’t reaped the benefits of tanking. Yes, they got Kakko at second-overall in 2019, but other than than all of the top young players they have accumulated (Fox aside) have been the result of their own hard work on the trade front, plus one free agent in Georgiev. Dropping from eighth- to ninth-overall in 2018 (Kravtsov) represents the only other time the Rangers have been involved in a draft lottery.
That strategy could undermine the Rangers’ long term goals. Recent history has proven demonstrably that the best way to build a top NHL team is by sucking for many years and accumulating lottery picks. The Rangers may have rebuilt too quickly for their own good. But you know what? That’s ridiculous. It’s absurd that the Rangers will be severely punished for refusing to employ such a cynical strategy while Buffalo and New Jersey get the benefit of handouts for their repeated failures. And while the Rangers nonetheless can find superstars like Artemi Panarin, getting that caliber of player as a teenager adds a decade to the team’s viability.
Yes, the Rangers deserve Alexis Lafreniere. Consider it a graduation present, of sorts, as they leave behind the rebuilding phase as quickly as they entered it.
If you want proof that the NHL doesn’t rig its draft lotteries then look no further than the Coyotes. In 2016, the NHL Draft lottery was in its second season of an improved draft lottery format that would allow any non-playoff team to earn a top-three spot. The Arizona Coyotes had the seventh-best odds, and the obvious first-overall pick was a presumed future superstar in Auston Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale watching the Coyotes. The team had fairly new ownership and the league was desperate for them to become financially viable and relevant in the Arizona market. If there was ever a time for not-devine intervention, that was it.
The Coyotes got the seventh-overall pick.
In fact, despite a long history of not being very good, the Coyotes haven’t been major draft leeches. They have had their share of top-ten and top-5 selections, yes, and they’ve made some poor decisions recently when they chose to pass on Quinn Hughes (2018) and Mitch Marner (2015). A lot of their other selection came at a time where, in hindsight, there weren’t any top talents available at their pick. The one time they did nail it, taking Blake Wheeler fifth in 2004, he waited until his rights expired and signed with Boston. I was shocked to discover that the Coyotes have never drafted higher than third overall.
Coyotes’ management hasn’t exactly helped the cause. There were those two recent sub-optimal draft decisions plus a lot of trades and signings that haven’t really worked out. Still, the organization hasn’t really had a chance to get off the ground. It says a lot that the two most prominent players in franchise history are Shane Doan and Oliver-Ekman Larsson; two quality players who hardly have (or had) the elite talent or broad appeal necessary to lure in casual Arizona sports fans nor national broadcast attention.
The Coyotes deserve their chance to draft an obvious superstar for the first time in franchise history. They deserve someone to build the team around, both on the ice and in the marketing department. Should there be any particular confidence in their ability to make the most of a player like Lafreniere and build a contender around him? Perhaps not. But if other teams like Buffalo and Edmonton are going to earn repeated attempts to fail in that regard, then the Coyotes deserve their firstever chance to get it right.
A lot of Columbus’ problems are similar to Arizona’s. It’s a relatively new NHL team in a small market where players aren’t particularly eager to move. It creates a Catch-22 where to be a great team, they have to attract great players, but to attract great players, they need to be a great team.
Unlike Arizona, Columbus had its chance. They drafted Rick Nash first overall in 2002, and while he may not have been a Crosby or McDavid, he was absolutely a superstar the team could have been built around. They had a number of other high selections as well in future years but never built a fully competent team. By 2013, Nash had seen enough and forced his way out.
In a way, that was a blessing in disguise for Columbus. The trade itself actually didn’t get them much back, but it forced the team to reassess and start over. President John Davidson hired Jarmo Kekkalainen to be the first European General Manager in NHL history and together they built a healthier organization that made up for its economic and geographic disadvantages with smart investments in scouting, drafting, and trading.
Columbus has become a competitive team. They’ve made the playoffs in three-straight seasons and stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning last April to win their first playoff series before making things interesting in the second round against Boston. Unfortunately for them, they were decimated in the summer with departures to Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene.
Which is why the 2019-2020 season serves as the best testament yet to what Columbus as built. Despite losing their starting goaltender and two All-Star forwards, they were still in the hunt this season. By points percentage they’re tied with Toronto for 13th in the NHL. The Blue Jackets simply haven’t been able to find a way to get over the hump despite largely doing things the correct way. Some injuries, player losses they couldn’t prevent, and a tough division have plagued them.
Do I love the idea of John Tortorella forcing Lafreniere to block shots deep in the defensive zone rather than try to spring transition rushes? Reader, I do not. But they need a new superstar up front and it will be hard for them to buy one in free agency. They’ve built a solid foundation and they’ve battled some ugly storms to remain in the mix. Yes, Columbus, we forgive you for wasting half of Rick Nash’s career because we see you’ve learned your lesson and are better prepared this time around. You deserve Alexis Lafreniere.
1. Nashville Predators
You have to respect what General Manager David Poile has done with the Predators. He took over the expansion team upon its inception and has remained since, building a consistently competitive team and turning an extremely non-traditional hockey market into one with a passionate hockey fanbase.
In the last 15 drafts since the locked out 2004-05 season, the Predators have drafted in the top-10 just twice and in the top-five just once, picking Seth Jones at fourth-overall back in 2013.
In fact, the Predators have only had a top-three selection once in their entire history. In 1998, at their first draft as an NHL franchise, they lost the lottery to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning got a franchise-altering superstar in Vincent Lecavalier. The Predators were left with David Legwand, who turned into a solid middle-six center but hardly the cornerstone they needed.
The Predators didn’t slump around with the league’s worst and wait for the ping pong balls to bail them out. They’ve become as legitimate of a franchise as any nonetheless. The one thing they’ve been missing for their entire existence is a true superstar forward. So you know what? You may not be even remotely close to the most desolate team in the running for Lafreniere, but you deserve some lottery luck for once, Nashville. What a way it would be to earn the top pick for the first time in franchise history.