With only two games left in the NHL season for most teams, for 16 NHL markets the imminent arrival of playoff hockey has fans buzzing. In markets like Toronto and Long Island, the upcoming second season must feel like the clouds parting after a decade of darkness. Even if both teams still have signficant issues to address before becoming legitimate contenders, the fact remains they made it, and their fans deserve a moment to relish the accomplishment.
For a group of seven teams however, the NHL's massively broken lottery system is encouraging fans to cheer for their favourite teams to lose as much as possible in order to improve their draft position and increase their odds of winning the draft lottery. (For more information on a proposed solution to the "race to the bottom" issue, check out Jonathan Willis' article here that lays out "the Gold System").
I'm not a huge fan of the "Fall for Hall"/"Fail for Nail"/"No Winnin' for MacKinnon" concept, but I understand it. Building through the draft is a legitmate method to attempt to turn a franchise plagued with poor players and bad contracts into a contender. Brian Burke likes to say that the Pittsbugh Penguins (the franchise most commonly cited as a team successfully "re-built" through the draft) "won a god-damned lottery" and got the best player of his generation. He's not wrong in that instance, but the process also garnered them pieces like Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney who have all had significant NHL careers, even if they weren't all in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and St. Louis all took similar routes even if they didn't all manage to obtain #1 overall picks in the process. Looking at them now, 3 of those 5 teams have won a Stanley Cup, a the fourth is just entering their window of being a contender to win one within the next few seasons and the last team has been considered a Stanley Cup favourite for a number of years but has been unable to string together a successful playoff run.
Of course, the draft-focused rebuild isn't a given to succeed. The Islanders, Thrashers (before moving to WPG), Blue Jackets and Panthers have had numerous high picks over the last decade and have been unable as of yet to achieve sustained competitiveness.
Still, the logic behind the decision is one that teams and their fans understand: "Get more good, young, affordable players and as they improve, so should the team."
With that said, there are a number of teams whose fans have been hoping for failure for a number of weeks with an eye on Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. The Oilers weren't supposed to be part of that discussion this year...but if the last three years have taught us anything when it comes to the draft and the draft lottery...NEVER count out the Edmonton Oilers in the Steve Tambellini era.
A little while ago, I endorsed this team losing every game for the rest of the season, but I had a different goal in mind...a new GM. Christmas came early for me and while it remains to be seen what the new GM will accomplish, the move was made and the Tambellini era is officially over. I would argue the last after-shocks to be felt from his natural disaster-like tenure as General Manager will be felt at this year's NHL draft. The team on the ice is still Tambellini's team and with trades frozen until the off-season, Craig MacTavish won't be able to make his mark on the roster until the summer.
Tambellini's parting gift to the city of Edmonton is a seemingly miraculous run to get into the conversation for earning another elite prospect at the draft. On the day of the NHL trade deadline, the Oilers defeated the Calgary Flames to temporarily move into 8th place in the West. While I never really believed they had legit reason to consider themselves a playoff contender, I also didn't believe that they would find themselves in a position to pick in the top 5 for the 4th straight season. I should have known better than to over-estimate this team.
Over the last 10 games, the Oilers are an unimaginable 1-9-0 for a total of two points in the standings. This puts them a minimum of three points below every other team in the league over that period, and in many cases, much more than that. With the team facing two games against opponents that are either playoff bound or fighting for their lives to get in, and considering that both have had great success against the Oilers in recent years, it stands to reason the Oilers could very possibly not earn another point this season.
On April 4th, the Oilers had 39 points and a 9 point lead over the Calgary Flames. Their performance since then has seen the Flames make up that ground to sit one point ahead of Edmonton with two games to play. The team has also been passed during that same period by Columbus, Dallas, St. Louis and Phoenix...and that's just in the Western Conference. In the overall standings, the Oilers were also passed by NJD, NYI, WPG, WAS, PHI, CAR and BUF from the Eastern Conference during that same timespan. Yes, a full dozen teams in less than a month.
Nashville is clinging to their draft spot for dear life as Edmonton has tied them for 14th in the West, but NSH still holds the tie-breaker. One more point over their last two games could see the Predators move down the draft chart while the Oilers' suck their way into another elite prospect. The Oilers have now assured themselved no worse than the #7 slot heading into Monday's draft lottery, with an outside chance at moving up all the way to #2 by Saturday.
Here is a look at the remaining schedule for each of the teams in the bottom seven.
Florida is assured the #30 overall spot, and Colorado certainly seems to have #29 all but locked up, but it is very tight grouping for slots 28 - 24. If the Oilers fail to earn another point, and both NSH and TBL earn even a single point over their last two contests, then the Oilers would drop to 28th. If Colorado were to magically win their last two games in regulation or overtime, they too would surpass Edmonton and the Oilers would drop back to 29th spot. Looking at the table above, the Avs certainly have two winnable games to close out their schedule, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
I'm long over the "lose for draft position" strategy as this team should be above that now, but with the season essentially over, draft position is the last thing to be decided, and another elite prospect isn't exactly a bad thing.
For those who have avoided the discussions to this point, the draft has a pretty well defined top 5 according to many. Seth Jones is the consensus #1 and is likely to go to Florida (or the team who wins the lottery...more on that before Monday). The next two prospects have been pretty clear for most of the season...Halifax Moosehead teammates Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon are expected to go at #2 and #3 overall in some order. Beyond that, Finnish centre Alex Barkov and Russian C/LW Valeri Nichushkin seem to have established themselves as the next top prospects. There is some variance on that depending on where you look, but those five names are the most frequently listed.
The Oilers had not been expected to have a shot at adding one of those players this season, though it now appears a legitimate possibility. Of the 5, four of them fit very nicely into the team's needs. Jones, the most natural fit, but least likely player available, would help the obvious weaknesses on the blueline, while Barkov is a 6'2" 205 lbs. centre lauded for his combination of offensive ability and defensive reliability. Nichushkin is a 6'4" 200 lbs. power forward who would add some size to the Oilers' top six down the road. MacKinnon and Drouin are both elite offensive talents, though Drouin is a small-ish skilled winger, something the Oilers already have an abundance of. MacKinnon is also not overly large, just under 6', but as a highly skilled centre who will be affordable for at least three seasons, his addition would certainly incerase the likelihood of the team trading Sam Gagner to address needs in other areas.
There will be lots of time to debate who the team should pick and whether that player should be rushed to the NHL immediately as the Oilers have done in the past, but for the next 72 hours, the watch is clearly on these seven teams and how their final two games apiece affect the standings. By Sunday morning, the Oilers and their fans will know where they will land in the final standings, what their odds are in the lottery and by Monday night, they'll know where they are selecting in the first round of the entry draft.
It's frustratingly familiar territory for the Oilers, and the fact that they find themselves in this conversation has already cost the General Manager his job, but since they're here, it will be interesting to see where the find themselves by the time Tuesday morning arrives. After all, this next few days is the one time of year where the Oilers are almost unbeatable...off the ice that is.