BY MATT COSMAN
Hockey is a game of numbers, with a little luck mixed in, and nowhere is that more evident than at the NHL draft. Lottery balls determine which team gets first dibs on the player they think is the best available. Randomness is heavily incorporated into the system, and while it’s fair, it leaves us with an endless string of possibilities of who could have ended up where.
From 1995 to 2013, all 14 non-playoff teams were entered into a lottery and had the chance of moving up a maximum of four spots in the draft. Thus, only the top five teams had a shot at the first-overall pick. But as of the 2013 draft, all 14 teams have a shot at it. The last-place team has the best chance (25 percent) at the first-overall pick, while each following non-playoff team has decreasing odds.
In the 18 draft lotteries, the pick has been robbed from the last-place team 10 times. These are the players they chose, and the other teams they almost went to.
1998 – Vincent Lecavalier
While the San Jose Sharks were the victors of the 1998 draft lottery, the Tampa Bay Lightning had previously acquired the right to swap picks with them. With hyped-up prospect Vincent Lecavalier within their reach, the Lightning pulled the trigger and claimed him with the first-overall pick. As close as he was to becoming a Shark, it was originally the Florida Panthers’ pick the Sharks had picked up. Unfortunately for the Panthers, that’s just one of the plethora of bad decisions they’ve made with high draft picks.
2000 – Rick DiPietro
The only thing worse than the 15-year, $67.5-million contract the New York Islanders gave to Rick DiPietro was the trade they made to get him. The Islanders were the 2000 draft lottery winners and turned heads when they chose a goalie first overall – something that, until that point, had only been done once before (Michel Plasse by Montreal in 1968). Convinced DiPietro was the goalie of the future, GM Mike Milbury packaged youngsters Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen to Florida for a pair of forwards to make room for him. Impatience in his development and a lengthy bout with injuries destroyed his once-hopeful career and led to his buyout in 2013. The Atlanta Thrashers used their second-overall pick on Dany Heatley, and in third, Minnesota took Marian Gaborik. Oh, the possibilities.
2001 – Ilya Kovalchuk
Kovalchuk was an outstanding talent at the top of the 2001 draft class. Atlanta won the lottery and selected him with the No. 1 pick, but he was very close to becoming an Ottawa Senator. The New York Islanders finished last in 2000-01, but their first-round pick belonged to the Senators, who acquired it in a trade that also brought gargantuan defenseman Zdeno Chara to the nation’s capital. Kovalchuk would have created a winger logjam in Ottawa, however, as Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Marty Havlat were in their prime. The Sens took Jason Spezza at No. 2, who, with Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, comprised one of the most intimidating lines in modern-day hockey.
2002 – Rick Nash
Florida won the draft lottery, but with no consensus on the No. 1 pick, they traded it to Columbus to move down to the third spot. The Blue Jackets chose power forward Rick Nash and the Panthers got defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. (Atlanta took goaltender Kari Lehtonen second). The Panthers and Jackets each filled their needs, so in the end the shuffling of picks didn’t change anything for those two clubs. But if the Panthers could do it all over again, would they have kept the pick to take Nash? The former Blue Jackets captain scored seven 30-goal seasons with Columbus, but would’ve had a solid center to work with in Olli Jokinen, who was just beginning to blossom.
2003 – Marc-Andre Fleury
Picking goalies high in the draft is always risky, but Fleury panned out for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who acquired the 2003 first-overall pick in a trade with Florida. The 27th-place Panthers won the draft lottery for the second straight year, but with a young Roberto Luongo in their system, and their eyes on Nathan Horton, they decided to swap picks with the Penguins at No. 3. Pittsburgh desperately needed a prospect goalie, and Fleury fit the bill. But this draft was stacked with talent. Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Corey Crawford and David Backes were all selected in the first two rounds. The last-place team that year was the Carolina Hurricanes, who picked up Eric Staal at No. 2.
2004 – Alex Ovechkin
To call Evgeni Malkin a consolation prize would be a stretch, but when the Penguins finished last in the 2003-04 season, they had Alex Ovechkin in their crosshairs. However, it was the Washington Capitals who won the draft lottery and moved from No. 3 to No. 1. Pittsburgh got Malkin second overall. As wrong as it is to picture ‘Ovie’ in a Penguins jersey, he and Sidney Crosby would have made a deadly combo. A measly lottery ball was the difference between linemates and rivals. Often lost in the 2004 shuffle is the Blackhawks, who finished sandwiched in the standings between Washington and Pittsburgh and struck out with Cam Barker at the No. 3 pick.
2005 – Sidney Crosby
The 2005 draft, better known as the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes, was the first draft following the cancelled 2004-05 season. To determine the order of selection, each NHL team started with three lottery balls and had one subtracted for every playoff appearance or first-overall pick in the previous three seasons. The Penguins, Sabres, Blue Jackets and Rangers were the four teams with three balls, and therefore had the best chance to be awarded the first pick. Of course, Pittsburgh won, but what if Crosby had landed with, say, Columbus? How different the entire league would look.
2007 – Patrick Kane
Kane scored Chicago’s Stanley Cup-clinching goal in the 2010 playoffs against the Flyers, but he could have easily been on the other side. The Hawks finished fifth last in 2006-07, but they defied 8.1 percent odds by knocking the Flyers off the top spot and claiming the first-overall pick. The Hawks took Kane, who, along with Jonathan Toews (third overall in 2006), helped resurrect hockey in Chicago. The Flyers settled for James van Riemsdyk at No. 2, but traded him to Toronto for Luke Schenn after three mediocre seasons in Philly.
2012 – Nail Yakupov
When the 29th-place Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery for the third straight year in 2012, they chose Nail Yakupov, a speedy right winger who was regarded as the top skater available. That left the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets to pick defenseman Ryan Murray. This may have worked out in the Blue Jackets’ favor, however. In his rookie year last season, Murray was a solid two-way defender and has a high ceiling to improve further. The Oilers continue to look for help on ‘D.’
2013 – Nathan MacKinnon
Colorado won the draft lottery in 2013, moving from second to first, and selected Nathan MacKinnon, leaving Florida to take Aleksander Barkov. Blue chip blueliner Seth Jones, to the surprise of many, fell to Nashville’s at No. 4 after Tampa Bay took Jonathan Drouin at No. 3. But had Florida won the first-overall pick – and didn’t trade it like they have a habit of doing – MacKinnon could very well be a Panther.
2014 – Aaron Ekblad
The talk of this year’s draft was, surprise, the Panthers, after they grabbed the No. 1 spot after finishing 29th overall, ahead of Buffalo. After much talk of dealing the top pick, Florida kept it and took Aaron Ekblad, with the Sabres grabbing Sam Reinhart at No. 2. Would the Sabres have taken Ekblad had they held the No. 1 spot?