As the season winds down, more and more teams are seeing their playoff chances fade. And as they do, their fans will turn their attention to the draft lottery, rooting for better odds in hopes that their team will be the lucky one that wins the first overall pick.
But in a sense, that’s not quite the right way to think of things. Teams themselves don’t win the lottery; a spot in the standings does. After all, the ping pong balls have no idea what team finished where. They just cough up a combination that matches a particular slot, and whichever team happens to have landed there is the winner. And that adds an intriguing wrinkle to things, because it means that the loss you’re rooting for your team to take tonight could be the one that drops it out of what ultimately turns out to be the winning spot.
We don’t know that at the time, of course. But in hindsight, it means that a single win or loss can change everything, and we can torture ourselves with what might have been. And that’s what we’re going to do today.
You can’t do it for every lottery. For example, last year’s Oilers finished with a six-point cushion on either side, so no single game would have kept them out of the 28th overall spot that ended up turning into Connor McDavid. But for some seasons, you can pinpoint one game – sometimes even one moment – that changed who was holding the winning ticket. And that can open up a world of “what if” for the team that just missed.
Here are five times that one forgotten game flipped the lottery results and (maybe) changed the destination for a superstar player.
1998: Vincent Lecavalier as a Vancouver Canuck
What actually happened: The 1998 lottery was a weird one. In one of the most confusing sets of transactions in NHL history, the Sharks ended up owning the Panthers pick and won the lottery, leapfrogging the Lightning. But thanks to a previous trade, the Lightning held the right to flip picks with the Sharks, so they leapfrogged right back into the top spot. In hindsight, it was one of the most successful insurance policies in recent memory, one that landed Lecavalier in Tampa Bay for the next 14 seasons.
But change just one game: The 1997-98 Canucks were a disaster. It was the first year of the Mark Messier/Mike Keenan era, one that soon saw fan favorites like Trevor Linden shipped out of town. An early 10-game losing streak dropped them out of playoff contention before mid-November, GM Pat Quinn was fired, and Pavel Bure would never play another game for the team. And the only consolation prize for a lost year was the fourth overall pick, one they used on the underwhelming Bryan Allen.
One of the season’s few highlight came at the very beginning, when the Canucks travelled to Tokyo to open the season with a pair of games against the Ducks. The games were the first regular season matchups ever played outside North America, and the Canucks took the historic opener by a 3-2 final, with Bure scoring the winner. It was October 3, 1997.
That date is already a dark one in Canucks history, remembered as the fateful day that Linden handed over the captaincy to Messier. But in hindsight it may have been even more costly. Take away that win, and the Canucks drop to 62 points for the season, one back of the Panthers and into the second last overall spot that turned out to be holding draft lottery gold.
Vincent Lecavalier in Vancouver? Gosh, Canucks fans, just think how much he could have learned about leadership from playing with Messier.
2001: Ilya Kovalchuk as a Tampa Bay Lightning
What actually happened: In 2000, the Thrashers finished in last place only to see the Islanders win the lottery. It didn’t really work out for the Isles (they took Rick DiPietro), but the lottery gods offered up some karmic payback in 2001 anyway. The Thrashers finished with 60 points, good for the league’s third worst record, then won the lottery and jumped past the last-place Islanders.
But change just one game: The Thrashers didn’t exactly finish strong, losing six of their last seven to close out the season. But the one win was a strange one. It came at home against a Senators’ team that was fighting for the top seed in the conference. Despite having nothing to play for, the Thrashers played spoilers by scoring three goals in the third period to break open a 2-2 tie. Ironically, the hero was a former first overall pick: Patrik Stefan, who scored two goals in one of the few memorable moments of an otherwise forgettable career.
But take away that Thrashers win, and they drop to 58 points and the second worst record overall. The Lightning move up to third worst, win the lottery, and Kovalchuk potentially starts his career playing on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.
(If you’d like to double-down on the “what if” factor from this game, the loss did indeed cost the Senators top spot in the East and a first round matchup with the Hurricanes. They dropped down to the second seed, earning them a meeting with the Maple Leafs. You can probably guess how that turned out.)
2003 – Marc-Andre Fleury as a Buffalo Sabre
What actually happened: Heading into what was widely considered to be one of the best drafts in recent memory (and turned out to be even better than expected), the Hurricanes plummeted to dead last just one year after going to the Stanley Cup final. But it was the 70-point Panthers who won the lottery; they’d ultimately trade the pick to the Penguins, who took Fleury.
But change just one game: On March 26, the Panthers travelled to Buffalo to face the Sabres in a meaningless late-season game. Mika Noronen outdueled Roberto Luongo, and newly acquired Daniel Briere’s second-period powerplay goal held up as the winner in a 2-1 Sabres win. The goal came with Florida’s Olli Jokinen off for hooking, a penalty drawn by Briere on what the Panthers claimed was an obvious dive.
The NHL didn’t fine divers back then, but Briere’s flop may have been costly. If the Panthers had won the game, they would have finished the season two points ahead of the Sabres, who would have won the lottery and earned the first pick in arguably the best draft in NHL history.
Would they have taken Fleury? It’s possible. This was Ryan Miller’s first NHL season, and the former fifth-round pick wouldn’t establish himself as a starter until 2005-06, so maybe the Sabres grab Fleury as the heir to Dominik Hasek. Or maybe they take the best forward available, center Eric Staal. Or the top defenseman, Ryan Suter. Or maybe they go off the board and grab someone else from that loaded draft, like Ryan Getzlaf or Zach Parise or Brent Burns or Corey Perry or Shea Weber or Patrice Bergeron or… you get the idea.
Or maybe they grab the guy they ended up picking with the fifth overall pick, Thomas Vanek, and none of this matters. We never got to find out, at least partly because of one well-timed dive.
2004: Alex Ovechkin as a Columbus Blue Jacket
What actually happened: The race for last place came down to the wire, with the Penguins claiming the spot with 58 points. The Blackhawks and Capitals were next, tied with 59 points, with the Blackhawks taking second last spot on the tie-breaker and the Caps ending up third. The Blue Jackets weren’t far behind, finishing with 62 points.
The third slot was the lucky one. The Capitals had it, and moved up to first spot overall, where they took Ovechkin.
But change just one game: On February 27, the Blackhawks hosted the Blue Jackets in the back half of a home-and-home. Chicago had won the first game, and on this night they held a 3-2 lead midway through the third. But the Jackets came back, getting a late goal from Geoff Sanderson to tie the game and then the winner from Luke Richardson with less than three minutes left.
If the Blackhawks had held on for the regulation win, they would have finished the season with 61 points, while the Blue Jackets would have dropped to 60. That would have nudged the 59-point Caps up to second last, and left Columbus all alone holding the winning ticket in third spot.
By the way, that winning goal that ended up costing the Blue Jackets the chance to draft Ovechkin was the only one Richardson scored all season.
2007: Patrick Kane as an Edmonton Oiler
What actually happened: The Flyers suffered through a nightmare season, finishing in last place by a double-digit cushion. But fortune favored the Blackhawks, who finished tied with the Oilers at 71 points and then won the lottery to jump up from fifth. The ‘Hawks took Kane, while the Flyers had to settle for James van Riemsdyk in what I’ve argued was the worst draft lottery loss in NHL history.
But change just one game: In the season finale, the ‘Hawks travelled to Dallas to face the Stars. The game was scoreless through two, but the Stars broke the deadlock early in the third. Chicago responded with a pair of goals, and led 2-1 with seven minutes to play. But Sergei Zubov tied it up, setting up a dramatic finish that saw Mike Modano score the winner with less than four minutes to play.
Forget about winning the game – all the ‘Hawks needed to do to change history here was make it to overtime. Take Modano’s late-game heroics off the board, and that single point would have given Chicago 72 on the year, moving them ahead of Edmonton into sixth spot and leaving the Oilers holding the winning five slot when lottery day arrived.
Take Kane out of Chicago, and do the Blackhawks still win three Cups? Do they win any? Is Kane still heading toward this year’s MVP? If so, how much better are the Oilers today? And if Kane has turned the Oilers into a contender by the 2014-15 season, where does Connor McDavid wind up?
We’ll never know, because this happened. And nobody realized we were watching history change at the time.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.