The NHL draft lottery was won by the Toronto Maple Leafs. But who really won? Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun weigh in.
Burnside: Well, my friend, I have to admit there was nervous anticipation even among the media group watching the draft lottery Saturday night, so I can’t imagine the nerves for the representatives of the three final teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets. And in the end the Leafs were rewarded -- if that’s the right term for being the NHL’s worst team this season -- with the first overall draft pick in June’s draft. That will give them the opportunity to draft Arizona-born Auston Matthews, a player many have compared favorably with Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid, the two super prospects who made last year’s draft lottery such compelling theater.
LeBrun: For Leafs fans, it makes up a bit for last year’s lottery when, at one point during the actual drawing that night, it was revealed Toronto had the best odds left of any team to win the top pick but it still ended up going to the Edmonton Oilers -- such is the randomness of course of which ball gets picked despite said odds. And while McDavid stands in a class by himself, Toronto gets a whale of a prize a year later in a franchise No. 1 center, if indeed they pick Matthews -- which you have to assume they will. The rebuild in Toronto has a pretty good look to it when you consider what we’ve seen from William Nylander already, what Mitch Marner is doing in the OHL playoffs and, of course, the potential of Matthews now. What’s interesting to me is the chatter of late that Finnish goal-scoring winger Patrik Laine is closing the gap on Matthews. "Auston is an elite, complete center. The foundation of a winning team requires a center like Auston," former NHL general manager Craig Button, TSN’s scouting director, said Saturday night via email. "Patrik is an exciting, electrifying scoring winger. Has to be the new Finnish Flash." But push comes to shove, Matthews is No. 1 for Button. "Center over wing when it's close every time for me," wrote Button. "I think Auston is the best player." Said a Western Conference hockey executive Saturday night via text message: "It’s not undisputed. But in order of what is coveted and truly hard to find/develop. If Laine played center it would be a 50-50 split." An Eastern Conference GM had Matthews still ranked ahead of Laine, but when asked how much of a gap there existed in his estimation between the two prospects, he responded via text: "Not much."
Burnside: It would have been interesting had the Oilers, who have had four first-overall picks since 2010, earned another one given the grumbling from teams at the recent GMs' meetings in Florida, where there was discussion about tinkering with the draft lottery to prevent teams such as the Oilers from getting multiple first-overall picks. But I liked the triple-layer lottery system, which is in place for the first time this year. What are your thoughts on that? It would have been perfect for Columbus had they ended up with the first pick, given their midseason trade of No. 1 center Ryan Johansen, but they'll still get a top-end player at No. 3. It will be interesting to see how those top three picks shake down, but I think it’s fair to say both Columbus and Winnipeg are further along the evolutionary path than the Leafs. And we saw this season in Edmonton that even a cornerstone player such as Connor McDavid, who missed part of the season with a shoulder injury, isn’t enough to turn a team’s fortunes in the short term, something that Leaf fans will have to be cognizant of in spite of their tentative steps toward respectability taken this season.
LeBrun: To me, I think all 14 non-playoff teams should have the exact same odds in the lottery. That’s how you eliminate tanking. As for Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, he will end up with a pretty good player from his native country. If Laine does indeed goes No. 2 to Winnipeg, then the Jackets could take winger Jesse Puljujarvi at No. 3. The Oilers at No. 4 can address their urgent, desperate need for blue-line help. Whether they take Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev or Jakob Chychrun, those defensemen are all solid options for them. Mind you, they can probably get those guys a few picks lower, so perhaps the Oilers will entertain trading down? I also wonder if the Arizona Coyotes will muster up a blockbuster offer to Toronto for the No. 1 pick and the chance to draft their native son. It would have to be a pretty special deal for the Leafs to ever consider that. A No. 1 franchise center is exactly what the Leafs have needed ever since Mats Sundin departed.