July 14, 2020

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Opinion

Silver chalice or silver lining?

Lafrenière sweepstakes add extra intrigue to unusual NHL playoffs

Alexis Lafrenière is the undisputed first-overall draft pick this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Alexis Lafrenière is the undisputed first-overall draft pick this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Dare to dream, Winnipeg Jets fans.

With Canada Day on deck, a pair of tantalizing outcomes remain in play for the local hockey club in this most absurd of seasons. Both would bring instant joy around here, for very different reasons.

One involves a silver chalice. The other a silver lining.

Behind door No. 1 you have the Stanley Cup, the ultimate prize in the sport. The Jets are among 24 teams still standing under the sizzling summer sun. It won’t be easy, with Winnipeg first having to beat the Calgary Flames in a best-of-five series, then win four traditional best-of-seven rounds. But with a Vezina Trophy candidate in net, a potent offensive group and a roster that’s as healthy and deep as at any point in the season, they’re going to be a tough out.

Behind door No. 2 is Alexis Lafrenière, the undisputed first-overall draft pick seen by many pundits as a generational talent. Hard as it may be to believe, there are actually two scenarios that could see him suiting up with the likes of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler with the Jets next season, which would be the stuff of nightmares for opposing goaltenders and goal-light operators.

If the puck drops on the most unique playoffs in league history, Winnipeg has a one-in-eight chance (12.5 per cent) if they can’t get by the Flames, as all eight "play-in" losers are eligible for Lafrenière. And if COVID-19 prevents the NHL from finishing what it started, Winnipeg has those same odds (along with Minnesota, Chicago, Arizona, Montreal, Florida, Columbus and the New York Rangers) based on their win percentage that had them outside the top 16 at the time the league paused in mid-March.

To quote the great Lloyd Christmas from Dumb & Dumber: "So you’re telling me there’s a chance." Which might be a perfect movie to cite, considering the NHL is taking some lumps for the sheer stupidity of their draft lottery.

Case in point: the Detroit Red Wings were really bad this season, historically bad. Their record of 17-49-5, with a winning percentage of .275, was the worst in the NHL’s salary-cap era dating back to 2004. If any team could use a budding young superstar, it’s them.

Their reward for such futility? Not Lafrenière. Not even the second-best prospect, or even the third-best. Instead, they get the fourth-overall pick.

Team "E" (the yet-to-be determined squad that won the No. 1 spot in Friday night’s draft lottery), the Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators (via a previous trade with San Jose) all jumped the sad-sack squad from Motor City. General manager Steve Yzerman could barely hide his disdain at the development. Who can blame him?

Yet a team like the Jets, which finished with 41 more points than the Red Wings, are among the 16 still alive in the running for Lafrenière’s services. The seven worst teams that had no lotto luck are eliminated, as are the eight best teams that get a bye through the play-in series.

Imagine the hue and cry if the Pittsburgh Penguins, with 47 more points than Detroit, fail to get by Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, only to have the ping pong ball bounce their way and land them Lafrenière to go with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Or how about if the Edmonton Oilers, with 44 more points than Detroit, bows out to a playoff-savvy Chicago Blackhawks squad in the best-of-five, only to win yet another top pick to skate with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

That sound you hear is hockey fans losing their collective lunches, along with their minds.

All of this was created by a system clearly in need of an overhaul, given the most putrid teams rarely win the top pick. In fact, of the six biggest bottom-feeders in the salary-cap era, not a single one landed the biggest fish. The idea was to discourage deliberate tanking once a season starts to go south, but it seems the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

However, if complete chaos and maximum intrigue are your thing, the NHL has stumbled into something pretty great. As if there weren’t enough storylines in play, you now have the added drama of the Lafrenière sweepstakes thrown into the mix.

It’s so juicy, you wonder if some general managers aren’t secretly hoping to see their team lose their one-in-24 shot at Lord Stanley by getting wiped out during the play-in series in favour of the more lucrative one-in-eight chance at Lafrenière? A team like Montreal, for example, is only included in this unprecedented playoff because the NHL has expanded the field beyond the normal 16. They are long shots at best. You think winning a round or two would trump getting the homegrown phenom on their roster? No chance.

Unless you go all the way, bowing out quickly — or not playing at all — could lead to a hell of a consolation prize.

By the way, I should note "Team E" had the 12th best odds (2.5 per cent) of winning the draft lottery. Guess who would have been in the 12-hole based on win percentage at the time the NHL shut down? None other than your Winnipeg Jets.

Dare to dream, indeed.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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