Instead of being enemies, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin would be teammates in Pittsburgh if Washington hadn't won the draft lottery in 2004 (Getty Images)
As we move into the time of year when the Stanley Cup playoffs reach its resolution and the NHL draft approaches, it’s interesting to reflect on an era when the game was less controlled.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the NHL decided to implement a draft lottery system. Before then, the team finishing in last place automatically got first pick in the draft.
But then a couple events occurred that had some teams quietly accusing others of tanking games late in the season in order to finish last. The Pittsburgh Penguins won just two of 14 games down the stretch in 1984 to finish last (three points behind New Jersey) and select Mario Lemieux first overall. In 1993, the Ottawa Senators were accused of purposely finishing last in order to select Alexandre Daigle first overall.
Whether it was pre-meditated or not, the league brought in the draft lottery in 1995 that gave the last-place team the best chance to secure first pick, but still less than a 50-50 chance.
It’s a terrific system. In its 15 years of use, there has been nary a mention of struggling teams going into the tank. Finishing last doesn’t guarantee a thing. In fact, just seven times in 14 drafts (the 2005 lockout draft was a different entity) has the team finishing last gotten the right to pick first.
So let’s imagine the Daigle incident didn’t happen and the lottery system was never adopted. Here are some things that would look differently in the NHL:
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin would be teammates in Pittsburgh. The Washington Capitals won the 2004 draft lottery and moved from third pick to first. Had that not happened, the Penguins surely would have taken Ovechkin first, Chicago would have taken Evgeni Malkin second and the Capitals would have had to settle for Cam Barker third. Would the Hawks be in the Cup final now with Malkin in the lineup? Would the Capitals have even made the playoffs with Barker and no Ovechkin?
Because of the lockout in 2004-05, the Penguins won a special weighted lottery in 2005 and got the right to select Crosby. Ovechkin and Crosby would have been rookie teammates for the Pens in 2005-06.
Patrick Kane would be a Philadelphia Flyer and not a Blackhawk. Chicago won the 2007 lottery and moved from fifth pick to first. Had that not happened, the Flyers would have wound up with Kane rather than James van Riemsdyk. Picking fifth, the Hawks would have had their choice of Sam Gagner, Jakub Voracek or Zach Hamill. They’re no Kane, but then again the Hawks have Malkin, right?
Ilya Kovalchuk would be a New York Islander. The Atlanta Thrashers moved from third pick to first when they won the 2001 lottery. Had the Isles retained first pick, they probably would not have traded it to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. Instead, they’d have Kovalchuk, Tampa Bay would have taken Jason Spezza second and Atlanta would be choosing between Alexander Svitov, Stephen Weiss and Stanislav Chistov with the third pick. Safe to say the Thrashers likely wouldn’t have survived in Atlanta had that unfolded.
Of course, selections and history might have unfolded differently under these alternate scenarios in a parallel universe, but it’s safe to say the draft lottery has changed our hockey world in a huge way.
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Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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