The Montreal Canadiens look like they will be playing a play-in series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. How will this affect their draft position?
The Montreal Canadiens started the 2019-20 season well, but a pair of separate eight game losing streaks ultimately doomed them. They headed into the trade deadline clearly waving the white flag as sellers and shipped out several veterans for draft picks. They were ten points back of the playoffs in mid March when The NHL pressed pause on its season.
The possibility of making the playoffs was about the same possibility of the Toronto Maple Leafs beating the Boston Bruins in a playoff series. It just wasn’t going to happen, and no matter how many times between Christmas and March we tried to convince ourselves it was possible, a couple of losses in a row would snap us back into reality.
The reward for being a bad team in the NHL is a great draft pick. The worse you play during the year, the better your chances of getting the first overall selection in the next draft. The Canadiens were not going to finish last in the standings, but they were well on their way to finding another top ten draft pick.
When we last saw the Habs in action, they lost 4-2 to the Nashville Predators. This dropped their record to 31-31-9, good for 71 points in 71 games. This had them 24th in the NHL standings, or conversely, 8th in the draft lottery standings. With the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils just three points back and both having played two less games than Montreal, we could have seen them move into the 6th best spot to land the first overall pick. Of course, a late season winning streak would have seen them jump to 10th possibly.
Now, all of that is thrown out the window because there will not be a normal conclusion to the regular season. When the league returns to action, it looks like there will be four teams in each conference getting a bye to the playoffs and then four play-in series to determine the remaining playoff teams.
This gives the Habs a chance to jump from 24th seed in the league to playoff team with three wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Best-of-5 play-in series. This is a generous opportunity for a team that really had no chance of making the playoffs the old fashioned way. Going 3-2-0 in their next five regular season games would have given the Habs 77 points in 75 games and probably mathematically eliminated them from the playoffs. Now, a 3-2-0 record will put them into the postseason.
That’s great, expect it could have one awful side effect. Playoff teams in the NHL do not get to draft in the top 15. Last year, the Habs were the best team in the league to miss the playoffs and they had the 15th overall selection. So, if they were to beat Pittsburgh and make the playoffs, does that mean their draft pick moves from 8th to 16th?
If so, would the playoffs in this wacky scenario even be worth it? I mean, chances are the Canadiens would lose to the Penguins who were 15 points ahead of them in the standings, but chances were the Tampa Bay Lightning would beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round last year.
It is pretty clear that the worst case scenario for the Habs here would be to beat the Penguins, move from 8th to 16th in the draft and then get swept by whoever they play in the opening round of the actual playoffs. That would be whoever gets ranked 4th out of the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. The league hasn’t really announced what they will do with those four teams who receive a bye.
The league has not officially said if an underdog team wins the play-in round it changes their draft position. However, playoff seeding and draft position have always been tied together. The big difference here is there are kind of 24 teams in the playoffs. So, is it a 24-team NHL Playoffs? Or are 24 teams still alive and playing to make the regular 16 team playoffs?
If it is considered a 24-team playoff then draft positioning shouldn’t change based on a Best-of-5 Play-In series. This would be best case scenario for the Canadiens. It would mean they could beat the Penguins, then lose in the next round but still draft 8th overall. That would be awesome. Guilt free playoff games for the 24th best team in the league!
However, if the play-in series are not considered playoff games, then winning that opening round would likely mean sacrificing draft position by eight picks. Of course, the four teams that make the conference finals always have the last four picks, so if the Habs were to win the play-in series plus two more series after that, they would pick 28th. If they were to win the Stanley Cup, they would pick 31st.
I mean, I guess that would be the actual best case scenario.
The worst case scenario sees them win the play-in series (if it is not considered playoffs) and then get blown away in the first Best-of-7 series. This would mean they draft 16th overall instead of 8th, just because they had the pleasure of losing the first round of the playoffs.
The league has not confirmed whether the play-in series is considered playoffs, and therefore doesn’t affect draft positioning, or if it is considered the conclusion of the regular season, and therefore definitely affects draft positioning. They also haven’t stated when the draft lottery, or even the draft is going to be held. If losing to Pittsburgh keeps the Habs in the regular draft lottery and gives them a 6% chance of jumping to the first overall pick, Habs fans won’t be that upset to see them bow out in the play-in series.
How the play-in series affects draft positioning will be an important distinction to watch for in the next few days as the league lays out its plan to continue the season. Watching the Montreal Canadiens return just to lose to Pittsburgh in a few games wouldn’t be all that fun, but would have the silver lining of a guaranteed top ten draft pick.
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Winning is its own reward and watching the Habs go an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final would obviously be worth moving back in the draft. Winning a play-in series and then losing in the first round of the playoffs likely isn’t worth moving back from the 8th overall pick with a slight chance to jump higher, to the 16th pick. Hopefully the Habs do a lot of winning over the course of this unprecedented format. If not, it’s best if they do none at all.