NHL’s unusual draft lottery could mean ‘a lot of intrigue,’ and a question mark for Lafrenière

Alexis Lafrenière could have a clear picture of where he’ll start his NHL career before going to bed Friday.

Then again, maybe not.

In a world dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic — one where life for countless people and businesses has been turned upside down — the NHL will hold the most unusual draft lottery in its history the same night the first round was originally supposed to go ahead in Montreal.

Instead of hearing his name called out first at the Bell Centre in front of family and friends a short drive from where he grew up in St-Eustache, Que., Lafrenière, the presumptive No. 1 pick in 2020, will have to watch and wait like the rest of the hockey world to find out where the lottery balls drop.

The seven franchises outside the league’s 24-team plan to resume the season later this summer are confirmed as part of the lottery, with the last-place Detroit Red Wings coming in with the best singular odds at 18.5 per cent through to the Buffalo Sabres at 6.5 per cent.

The Ottawa Senators own the second-best odds at 13.5 per cent after sitting 30th overall at the time the NHL season was paused on March 12, but also possess the San Jose Sharks’ first-round pick (11.5 per cent) for a combined 25 per cent chance at picking Lafrenière, a flashy winger and two-time Canadian Hockey League player of the year.

So if some combination of Detroit, Ottawa, Ottawa (from San Jose), Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo win the separate lotteries for picks one through three, everything will be set in the top seven.

The draft lottery is usually held in April at the conclusion of the regular season and before the playoffs, but was pushed back because of the pandemic before the NHL came up with this format last month.

“We’re very happy with how it will proceed,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “We know we’re going to get two players in the top six in the worst-case scenario. Or, best case, one and two.”

Things will get interesting, however, if at least one of the top three picks is secured by one of eight placeholders — at odds of between six and one per cent — that round out the 15 clubs in the lottery.

That’s because we don’t know the eight yet-to-be-determined clubs (the NHL is defining them as Team A through Team H) that will be filled out by the losing sides of eight best-of-five series set to make up the league’s qualifying round ahead of the playoffs.

For example, if Detroit wins the right to pick first, Ottawa gets second, but Team A beats the odds and secures third, a second lottery will be held following the league’s play-in round with each of the eight clubs eliminated having an equal 12.5 per cent shot at the vacant pick.

The same would be true if one of teams A through H secures any combination of picks one, two and three. If none of the placeholder spots grab a top-three slot, there won’t be a need for a second lottery, and picks eight through 15 will be determined by the regular-season points percentage of the losing teams from the qualifying round.

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“Very creative solution that the league came up with,” said Nashville Predators GM David Poile, whose club will take on the Arizona Coyotes in the qualifying round. “I either wanted to be a playoff team or a lottery team, but I didn’t want to be both and I didn’t want anybody else to be both.

“This complicated (two-phase) lottery system actually does make a lot of sense, and it could mean a lot of intrigue.”

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