The Montreal Canadiens are getting the best of both worlds from the NHL. They have a chance at the playoffs, and a chance at the first overall pick.
The Montreal Canadiens were headed down a dark path this season. Okay, maybe not a dark path, but certainly a dimly lit alleyway. When you consider scenarios for an NHL team at the beginning of a season, being just good enough to miss the playoffs is widely considered the worst fate possible.
Even the worst teams in the league are rewarded with higher draft picks. At least, those teams are rewarded with the highest odds in the draft lottery and the best chance at winning the first overall pick. When an NHL team finishes last in the standings, the worst draft pick they can end up with is 4th overall.
When a team grinds its way through an 82 game schedule, every player wants to be rewarded with some playoff hockey at the end of that long road. Playing three or four games every week for more than half of a year comes at a price. The player are physically and emotionally drained by the time their final games arrive.
However, if they are in the running for a playoff spot, it is much easier to battle through and continue to show up every night. A chance at the Stanley Cup is what every player wants when they wrap that shin pad tape around their socks for the first time every year. If that isn’t possible, the next best thing for an organization is a chance at the first overall pick. At least then, they have a much better chance the following year and experiencing some playoff action.
This season has been a weird one for the Montreal Canadiens. Though we can’t say for certain that the NHL can come back amidst the global pandemic and continue to play, the Habs currently still have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup. And, they also still have a chance at drafting first overall.
Their chances of winning the Stanley Cup in 2020 are minuscule at this point. They would have to defeat the deep and talented Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-five series before winning 16 playoff games in a gruelling postseason. Basically, they would have to become the first NHL team to ever win five playoff series en route to lifting the Stanley Cup, and they would have to do it with the roster that finished 24th in the standings over the course of five months of hockey.
Minuscule is too kind a word to describe those odds.
Of course, after an unusual draft lottery that took place on Friday night, there is quite the consolation prize waiting for teams that lose the play-in series. You see, the NHL does not consider the play-in series to be official playoff games. That means the eight teams that lose the play-in series are not considered playoff teams.
Normally, when a draft lottery is held, all 15 teams that missed the playoffs have a chance at being awarded the first overall pick. However, since the play-in series won’t begin until the final days of July, we only know seven of the 15 teams that won’t make the actual playoffs. Instead of waiting for the play-in round to be complete, the league held the lottery with eight placeholders sitting in for the teams that will eventually lose their best of five series.
Naturally, Team E was the winner of the draft lottery, and now there has to be another lottery to fill that void. However, that can’t take place until early August after the play-in series. Which of course means we don’t know who wins the lottery that already took place.
This actually led to this conversation in my house Friday night:
Wife: What were you watching? Is there actually sports on tv?
Me: No, it was the draft lottery.
Wife: The what?
Me: The draft lottery. It’s how they determine the order of the teams for the NHL Draft. Like, who gets the first pick, second pick and third pick are up for grabs. You have to win them via a lottery.
Wife: Who won?
Me: Wellll ….. we don’t know yet.
Wife: Is this like American Idol where you have to wait until the next day to find out who wins?
Me: We have to wait until like August 10th probably.
Wife: Wait. So what was the point of the show you just watched?
Me: Uhhhh, we know the L.A. Kings pick second.
Wife: That’s stupid.
Me: It … Yeah, it is.
So, basically the league held a lottery that didn’t have a winner. It would be like a giant fundraiser that is giving away a dream house as the grand prize as well as 100 other prizes. But then when the draw date comes they give away a seadoo, a Chevy and a lawn tractor and say we don’t know who gets the dream house yet.
I know the math and that this was a definite possibility heading into the draft lottery. However, holding a draft lottery just to say we don’t know who wins the lottery yet is a bad look for the NHL. Especially when you consider the consequences.
Right now, the Montreal Canadiens have a chance at winning the 2020 Stanley Cup. They also have chance at winning the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. The probability that the Habs can pull off 19 wins after the NHL restart is, as we mentioned, minuscule. Winning five playoff rounds as the 24th seed is less than unlikely.
However, if the Habs lose to the Penguins in the play-in series, they will have a 12.5% chance of winning the second draft lottery and picking first overall. Otherwise, they would pick 9th. If they beat the Penguins, they move into the traditional playoffs and their draft pick moves to 16th. If they make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, their pick moves to 28th. If they make the Stanley Cup Final and lose, they pick 30th. If they win the Stanley Cup, they pick 31st.
Obviously, moving back in the draft is worth it if you are in the Stanley Cup Final. The whole purpose of drafting early is to try and build a team around a great young player that is good enough to give you a chance at winning the Stanley Cup. The theory around this year’s Habs though, is they might be good enough to take out Pittsburgh in a short series, but they aren’t good enough to play winning hockey for more than two straight months.
So, if their chance of winning the Cup is tiny, fans would love that first overall pick. Since it is up for grabs among teams that lose the play-in series, there is going to be a whole lot of Habs fans cheering for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when the puck drops.
This is why the draft lottery is bad look for the NHL. First of all, we held a lottery that no one won. Second of all, teams that lose the play-in series have a chance of being awarded the first overall pick. So, fans have sat at home waiting for four months for hockey to return, and when it does they will be hoping for their favourite team to lose.
That is a bad look for the league. Die hard fans sitting in their basements with the walls painted bleu, blanc et rouge and cursing Carey Price for making a big save in a close game. It isn’t right. But I don’t blame the fan for wanting what is best for the organization in the long term. Beating Pittsburgh only to lose to the Washington Capitals would put the Habs in the dreaded middle ground where they pick 16th.
Losing to Pittsburgh guarantees a top ten pick, and gives them a chance of drafting Alexis Lafreniere, a French Canadian star. What Habs fan wouldn’t want the opportunity to watch Lafreniere play in Montreal for the next decade or two?
The time for the Habs to win a Stanley Cup is not upon us. It could be with Lafreniere leading the way offensively in the near future. That’s why Habs fans will be cheering for the Pittsburgh Penguins – after waiting months to see their beloved team take the ice. It won’t just be Habs fans either, all eight teams that lose in the play-in series will quickly point to the fact they now have a chance at drafting Lafreniere.
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Fanbases that are happy to lose a play-in series is a bad, bad look for the NHL. They set themselves up for this ridiculous scenario and now the Habs have more to lose by winning.