Alexis Lafrenière will have to wait a little longer to find out where he’ll start his NHL career.
And a massive wrinkle has just been added to the league’s return-to-play plan for its pandemic-hit season.
Chaos was the word that came to mind at the NHL draft lottery Friday night as one of eight placeholder spots beat the odds to secure the No. 1 pick, meaning a second draw is now required later this summer — following the qualifying round and before the usual 16-team playoffs.
“We’ll still have to wait a little bit,” Lafrenière, the presumptive top selection, said on the live television broadcast after the draft order was unveiled.
The placeholders, representing the eight clubs that will eventually lose out in the NHL’s qualifying round, had a combined 24.5 per cent chance of selecting first.
“There was a process to this,” Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “We all knew this could happen.”
The placeholder team that actually won the lottery — designated Team E — had a 2.5 per cent chance, making the biggest jump in history for the top pick from the No. 12.
The eliminated clubs from eight separate best-of-five play-in series will each have a 12.5 per cent chance of securing the top choice in the second phase of the lottery.
That means Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers or Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs could conceivably pick first overall and select Lafrenière if they lose in the qualifying round of the 24-team plan to resume the 2019-20 campaign.
As things stand in late June, in what has been a year like no other in memory, 16 franchises still have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup or pick first overall.
“It definitely has been a different 2020 compared to every other year that I’ve been on the face of this earth,” Dorion said. “We’re living through something totally different. But at the same time, there was a process to this draft.”
The Los Angeles Kings moved up from fourth to pick second, while the Senators — who had the best combined odds of picking first at 25 per cent because they also owned the San Jose Sharks’ selection — will choose third and fifth.
“It’s an interesting night when you’re coming into this, because you know all the odds and the different scenarios,” Kings GM Rob Blake said. “Everything has kind of taken a different path since the pause and you manoeuvre your way around it.”
The Detroit Red Wings, who had the best singular odds to pick first at 18.5, fell to No. 4 after losing a trio of lotteries for the top-three picks.
“Realistically, I’m prepared to be sitting here not talking about the first pick,” Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman said. “I’m not really surprised.”
The league was originally scheduled to hold the first round of the 2020 draft Friday at the Bell Centre in Montreal, not far from Lafreniere’s hometown of St-Eustache, Que., before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause to the season in March.
Lafreniere — a winger for the Rimouski Oceanic and NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater — is expected to go first overall when the draft is eventually held at a later date.
The Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres round out the top eight in what is the most complicated lottery in NHL history.
Apart from its own pick, 30th-ranked Ottawa also possesses San Jose’s selection thanks to the blockbuster trade for star defenceman Erik Karlsson in September 2018. San Jose was 29th overall when the league went on hiatus.
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Despite the disappointment of seeing their own pick drop three spots from No. 2, the Senators are the first team in 20 years to own a pair of selections in the top five.
“It’s just continue on with the plan,” Dorion said of Ottawa’s rebuild. “We know that it’s such a deep draft, especially in the top five, that we’re going to get two impactful players.”
After the draw for the No. 1 pick later this summer, selections nine through 15 will be determined by regular-season points percentage of the other seven losers in the qualifying round at the time of the league’s pause on March 12.
Despite the drama in the first live NHL event in 106 days, there’s still no guarantee the league will be able to resume its season. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association continue to negotiate details related to the plan to resume — among them health and safety concerns, and where the two hub cities will be located — all while attempting to tie everything together with a possible extension to the current collective agreement.
“It’s been a very collaborative effort and I’m hopeful it all comes together very, very quickly,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a TV interview before Friday’s lottery. “The goal is get everybody back, get everybody tested, make sure the right protocols are in place because health and safety is paramount.
“And then hopefully as a group we can hold off COVID-19, get everybody together in the hub cities and then finish the season.”
Lafrenière, the two-time Canadian Hockey League player of the year, had 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games before the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season was cancelled because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. The 18-year-old was also named MVP of the 2020 world junior hockey championship after helping lead Canada to gold.
“He’s shown himself at every level, every event that he’s capable to be the difference maker,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “He knows what needs to be done, and he can go out and make that happen. There’s not too many players that can take control of a game, take control of a situation.
“He has the talent, the skills, the speed, the smarts, the compete, the battle, the perseverance, the will to be the best, and the will to win.”
Quinton Byfield, a centre for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves, is ranked No. 2 on the North American list, while German winger Tim Stutzle slots in as the No. 1 European skater.
“This is a hell of a draft, especially at the top,” said Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving, whose team is preparing to meet the Winnipeg Jets in the qualifying round. “There’s some big-time players.”
And now Treliving, along with 15 other managers, could be in line for quite a consolation prize in the event their clubs get bounced early this summer.