Toronto Maple Leafs win NHL Draft Lottery, Pick First at Draft
Not since 1985 have the Toronto Maple Leafs chosen first in the NHL entry draft, but that is all about to change.
After a season of longing, anticipation, hope and pain, the Leafs won the NHL draft lottery Saturday night, turning a 20 per cent chance at choosing first overall into the winning ticket.
For Toronto, the prize in this year’s draft was centre Auston Matthews, who hails from that hockey hotbed of Scottsdale, Arizona and chose to play professionally in Switzerland this past season for Zurich, a team coached by ex-NHL coach Marc Crawford.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly made the announcement just after 8 p.m. EDT in front of a national television audience that had been teased for days on end with the Sinatra standard “Luck Be a Lady (tonight).”
It was also a good night for the Winnipeg Jets, who moved up from sixth to second overall, while the Columbus Blue Jackets moved up one spot, from fourth to third.
Luck has mostly been on the side of the Edmonton Oilers in previous years – they earned the No. 1 choice in four of the last six seasons – but this year, they could do no better than fourth overall, dropping back two places.
It was a bad night overall for Canada’s three most Western teams. In addition to Edmonton, which went into the lottery with the second best odds to move up to first overall – 13.5 – Vancouver also fell back, from third to fifth; and Calgary, from fifth to sixth.
The other two Canadian teams – the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators – will select ninth and 12th respectively, which is where their lottery odds projected them to draft.
The Leafs did their part to earn the No. 1 draft choice by plotting a trajectory straight down the NHL standings this season, which saw them finish 30th – dead last. But that strategy – to put in plan a rebuilding strategy that would take a few years before they saw any tangible returns – also gave them the greatest odds of winning the lottery.
“I’m still a little bit rattled by this whole experience,” Leafs’ president Brendan Shanahan said. “That was a pretty tense moment for all of us. Just to get into the final three – Columbus, Winnipeg and us – we all felt good that we were going to get a great player. Again, it’s a deep draft; there are lots of guys who are going to do well.”
Shanahan revealed on the broadcast that he’d run a draft simulation just a single time – and it came up with Toronto as the winner. At that point, he closed his computer screen and didn’t ever try it again.
But winning the real lottery “was better than the simulator,” Shanahan said. “Coming here today, the odds were stacked that we would not win, so I was prepared for anywhere between 1 and 4. Certainly, as the lottery kept creeping ever closer, and we were down the last three and then the last two, obviously, it was a better feeling with each draw.”
Shanahan said he didn’t believe “validated” was the right word to describe his feeling after winning the lottery, suggesting: “Quite honestly, whether we ended up with the second, third, or fourth overall pick, I still felt that we had done what was needed to be done here in Toronto. We’re heading down a certain path. We explained to our fans beforehand we were going to move some players and move some contracts and in the course of doing that, we were maybe going to struggle a bit.
“The validation part isn’t in winning a lottery, because that’s up to fluke. I think we will feel satisfaction and validation, if and when we get to the point where we’re truly a Stanley Cup contending team. That’s really when we’re going to feel that the work we’ve done was done well,” Shanahan said. “It feels good to win the lottery, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘validation.’”
“We earned this the hard way. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun this year. But our guys, our coaching staff, did a lot of really good things in Toronto, but this will certainly help.”
Matthews was named the top draft-eligible skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting bureau, which provides an evaluation of draft-eligible players to its member clubs. Dan Marr, director of Central Scouting, described Mathews as “an extraordinary prospect, with NHL size, speed and smarts that combines with an exceptional work ethic and a relentless compete level.” Marr went on to describe Matthews as “the clear choice” among the eligible draft prospects.
The draft, according to experts, has two essential layers at the top end. Matthews, the consensus top player, may not be quite in Connor McDavid’s category, but he is a potential difference maker and future No. 1 centre.
The next two candidates are Finnish teenagers, Patrick Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, both of whom entered the greater hockey consciousness with star turns at last year’s world junior championship, which Finland won. Both are expected to play in the NHL next year.
After that, there is a group of players ranked fourth to 11th all of whom have attractive qualities.
Under changes to the draft lottery instituted for 2016 and designed to discourage teams from “tanking” their seasons, the three top picks in the lottery were decided by chance for the first time since the NHL started conducting a draft lottery.
Apart from Edmonton, no Canadian has earned the No. 1 selection in the entry draft since 1996, when the Ottawa Senators selected Chris Phillips. The previous incarnation of the Jets, the Atlanta Thrashers, had the No. 1 pick in 2001, when they selected Ilya Kovalchuk. Winnipeg had the first pick in 1981 (Dale Hawerchuk), while Montreal drafted first in 1980 (Doug Wickenheiser) and 1971 (Guy Lafleur).
Calgary and Vancouver have never previously had the first overall pick. The closest Vancouver ever came previously was 1999 when they drafted Daniel and Henrik Sedin with the second and third overall picks. Vancouver was run by Brian Burke in those days, now Calgary’s president of hockey operations.
For the first time, the 2016 NHL draft lottery assigned the top three slots in the first round of the NHL draft – a change from prior years, when the draft lottery was used to determine the winner of the first overall selection exclusively.
As a result of this change, the team earning the fewest points during the regular season was no longer guaranteed, at worst, the second overall pick. That club could fall as low as fourth overall.
In all, three draws were held: the first drawing to determine the club selecting first overall, Toronto, the second drawing to determine the club selecting second overall, Winnipeg, and the third drawing to determine the club selecting third overall, Columbus.
Matthews is said by Craig Button, TSN’s chief scout and former NHL general manager, to have many of the same skills as the Los Angeles Kings’ Anze Kopitar, a player who contributed greatly to two Stanley Cup championships over the past five seasons.