Molinari: NHL draft lottery result = travesty


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The NHL has a draft lottery for the same reason doors have locks.

Not everyone can be trusted to do the right thing all of the time.

Just as there are burglars, there are hockey coaches and executives who, if not deterred, will make personnel decisions and moves with the intent of getting their team as high in the draft order as possible.

Heck, the Penguins probably have a franchise today because of how then-general manager Ed Johnston deftly orchestrated their nosedive past the equally wretched New Jersey Devils in 1983-84 to, in those pre-lottery days, lock up the right to draft Mario Lemieux, who went on to have moderate success in the NHL.

The Devils, who seemed to earnestly try to boost the points total that finally ended up at 41 -- three more than the Penguins -- were rewarded with the No. 2 pick in the draft, which they invested in Kirk Muller.

Muller had a long, productive career that validated the Devils' decision to claim him, but the bottom line is that between Muller and Lemieux, only one was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame within months of retiring and is a fixture in any discussion of the greatest players in the history of the game.

And it isn't Muller.

Whether Alexis Lafreniere, the Rimouski left winger who is a consensus choice as the top prospect in the 2020 draft -- does anyone know if any previous Oceanic captain was similarly regarded? -- will have a career that begins to approach Lemieux's is hard to say, but he is widely regarded as a talent around whom a franchise could build a competitive roster.

Which is why it is nothing less than as abomination that the Penguins, among others, have at least a possibility of ending up with him.

Never mind that they ended up tied for the seventh-most points in the NHL during the abbreviated regular season (and actually had the league's fifth-best points percentage, .623); if they get upset by Montreal in the best-of-five qualifying round, the Penguins will become one of eight play-in round losers that will have a 12.5 percent chances to get the No. 1 pick in the draft, thanks to the ridiculous format employed in the lottery Friday night.

The way it played out, Detroit -- which came by its place at the bottom of the overall standings honestly -- dropped to fourth in the draft order, while Los Angeles moved up to No. 2 and Ottawa slipped a spot to No. 3.

The top spot? That ended ended up going to Team Placeholder, which will be one of the clubs that doesn't make it out of the qualifying round. (The identity of that club will be determined by another lottery, to be conducted after the play-in competition.)

Drafts are intended to give weak teams a chance to strengthen themselves by securing the rights to players they regard as the best available in a given year. (Unless they trade away their first-rounder for a couple of washed-up veterans and a box of beads and trinkets, which thankfully doesn't happen as often as it did a few decades ago.)

How absurd is it, then, that a team like the Penguins -- or perennial lottery winner Edmonton, where the young core includes all-world center Connor McDavid and likely NHL MVP Leon Draisaitl -- could have Lafreniere on its payroll when next season begins?

Is it likely? No. The Penguins should get past Montreal, which would remove them from consideration, and even if they would get knocked off by the Canadiens, they'd have just a 1-in-8 chance of winning the second lottery.

That would be the aforementioned 12.5 percent possibility. Pretty remote, obviously. At least until you view it alongside the 6.3 percent chance the Penguins had of winning a differently structured lottery in 2005.

Turns out they did come out on top in that one and secured the right to draft another player who spent his major-junior career with Rimouski. Young man named Sidney Crosby who, if memory serves, still shows up on their major-league roster.

Having a system to discourage "tanking" -- which is to say, losing as many games as possible to secure the highest possible draft choice -- is an unfortunate necessity, simply to preserve the integrity of competition. But it should not be one that gives teams having the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup a shot at getting the top pick in the draft as a consolation prize for an opening-round defeat.

(For the record, it is not players who "tank." Forget that most guys have to be ultra-competitive simply to reach the NHL; tanking would go against their self-interest, because it could allow their team to bring in a prospect who would be more of a threat to take an established player's job. No, "tanking" is orchestrated by the GMs who construct rosters and the coaches who decide which players to use, and when. Late in the 1983-84 season, for example, Johnson sent arguably his best player, defenseman Randy Carlyle, to Winnipeg for no immediate return, although he did get the Jets' first-rounder and a capable player-to-be-named (Moe Mantha) in the deal. He also recalled goalie Vincent Tremblay from the Penguins' farm team in Baltimore late in the season to "see what he can do," knowing full well that stopping pucks at the NHL level wasn't high on the list.)

Detroit finished 2019-20 with 39 points, 23 fewer than Ottawa, which had the second-lowest total in the league. The Red Wings didn't get that kind of cushion by tanking; they got it by being an awful team.

The kind of club that could have accelerated its rebuilding process by adding a guy of Lafreniere's caliber.

Too bad the NHL felt compelled, with some justification, that it had to leave the door unlocked.

Or, more to the point, that it devised a system that will give eight undeserving clubs a chance to go through it and grab Lafreniere sometime later this summer.

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