Karri Ramo and the Lightning and Alex Steen and the Maple Leafs may be down and out now, but finishing last overall doesn't mean they'll get the No. 1 draft pick. (Photo by Graig Abel/ NHLI via Getty Images)
You’re the GM of a foundering NHL team in mid-February, your club’s chances of making the playoffs are about as good as Sean Avery winning a congeniality competition and your franchise’s fandom is clamoring for trades before the deadline. What to do?
Naturally, you make inquiries and listen to all offers that will help your team in the long run. What you shouldn’t do is blow up the entire model based on the premise that finishing last overall is a guarantee of eventual salvation. Recent history suggests otherwise.
The “you gotta be bad to be good” approach has merit. It allows teams to acquire blue-chip young assets via the draft. But being the biggest loser and finishing 30th out of 30 teams isn’t a foolproof elixir.
We examined the standings from 1995 thorough 2004 to determine the fate of the club that finished dead last, omitting the most recent seasons because not enough time has elapsed to fairly judge them. Here’s what we discovered:
• The team finishing last retained the first overall pick just four times, but none in the final six years of the period.
• On six occasions, a lottery winner leapfrogged all clubs ahead of them in the draft order to secure the first overall pick (non-playoff teams can move up a maximum of four draft positions, as per the draft lottery rules).
• Just two of the teams finishing last overall in our 10-year study (Tampa Bay and Carolina) eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup.
• Among the others, Ottawa and Pittsburgh have evolved into elite teams that haven’t yet experienced ultimate playoff success.
• The remainder – Atlanta, Boston and the Islanders – have won a combined one playoff round (the Bruins) since finishing in the league basement.
So if you’re the Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team within spitting distance of the last and you’re eyeing Steven Stamkos as the prize for your futility, don’t bank on getting him. And even if you do, don’t start looking for a jeweler who can make Stanley Cup rings. There’s still a huge divide between rock bottom and the summit peak and plenty of places to slip up in between.
The table below identifies the 10 last overall finishers from 1995-2004. Their cumulative playoff round victories following the year they finished in the basement, and through 2007, is listed in the last column, with Stanley Cup winners italicized.
Subsequent playoff round wins
|1995||Ottawa||Bryan Berard||1st overall|| |
|1996||Ottawa||Chris Phillips||1st overall|| |
|1997||Boston||Joe Thonrton||1st overall|| |
|1998||Tampa Bay||Vincent Lecavalier||1st overall|| |
|1999||Tampa Bay||no first-rounder||traded pick|| |
|2000||Atlanta||Dany Heatley||2nd overall|| |
|2001||Islanders||no first-rounder||traded pick|| |
|2002||Atlanta||Kari Lehtonen||2nd overall|| |
|2003||Carolina||Eric Staal||2nd overall|| |
|2004||Pittsburgh||Evgeni Malkin||2nd overall|| |
Jason Kay is the editor of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend.
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