A series of stunning upsets rocked the hockey world over the weekend. The NHL front office was not immune to the shock, sitting by in horror as they watched many of its brightest stars eliminated from the playoffs.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were taken out by the upstart Montreal Canadiens Friday afternoon. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the undisputed best player in the world and presumptive MVP, respectively, were bounced mere hours later. And the NHL’s flagship franchise, the Toronto Maple Leafs, got eliminated Sunday night, removing Auston Matthews and John Tavares from the mix.
There are still four rounds to be played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All will be played without six of the league’s brightest, most marketable stars.
But that isn’t the end of the fallout from the playoff results. Multiple league sources have definitely confided to 10K Rinks that a massive wrench has been thrown into Monday’s Draft Lottery, which will include every team eliminated in the playoff qualifying round. The reverberations from the weekend are creating factions that threaten to spill over into the public and overshadow the event.
“[Commissioner] Gary [Bettman] doesn’t know who to rig it for,” an NHL executive put bluntly. “When we rigged Phase 1 of the lottery back in June to award a placeholder team the first overall pick, Gary had a plan. He was going to award it to the Chicago Blackhawks. Now that’s ruined.”
He added, “Do you know how hard it is to return eight custom ping-pong balls?”
Indeed, the NHL has a very difficult choice to make. Alexis Lafreniere is an offensive dynamo who scored 112 points in 52 QMJHL games, while also taking home a gold medal and MVP honors at the World Junior Championships. His hype is surpassed only by his skills, and he figures to make an immediate impact in the NHL.
“This kid is special,” says an NHL scout. “Anything you want, he can do. He can shoot, he can pass, he can be the focal point of a marketing push for a premier franchise. One team is going to be very, very lucky to have this lottery engineered so they get him.”
But which one? As of late Sunday night, there were no signs the league was closer to a final decision.
“This could not be a tougher position for me,” says a source familiar with being Gary Bettman. “My phone has been ringing off the hook all weekend. Pittsburgh’s been in my ear, so has Toronto and New York. And you would not believe how many calls I’ve ducked from Winnipeg.”
Beyond the usual jockeying from owners and general managers, intense arguments have broken out in the league office. The leading contenders are rumored to be the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I’ve told them over and over again,” one executive said. “Edmonton is only one or two first overall picks from getting this thing right. Connor is the biggest star in our league, and we need him playing in the biggest moments. We can’t afford to spend the next six years watching fail to qualify for the playoffs.”
A marketing manager disagreed, “People are going to watch McDavid. They’re going to watch the Rangers because we’re putting them on NBCSN 30 games a year. And they’ll watch Toronto find new ways to lose big games. It’s Pittsburgh that needs the help. All they have there is Crosby and Malkin — you can’t win with just those guys! If we don’t gift them this pick, they’ll be the Kansas City Penguins within five years.”
Though the arguments are contentious and bitter for now, there is hope that the league will come to an agreement.
“The reason this decision is hard is the same reason this should turn out great,” says a source that wishes to be only named by their job title, NHL Commissioner. “There are four fantastic franchises who we love more than anything to cater to. We really can’t lose. It’s almost enough to say ‘Forget the league politics, forget this complicated rigging process, we might as well just do it legitimately.’”
He smiled and added, “Almost.”