The NHL held its draft lottery Saturday and you probably heard about the results, assuming you know any hockey fans and were wondering why they were swearing loudly while punching holes into their TV screens.
Yes, the perpetually awful Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery yet again, “earning” the first overall pick for the fourth time in six years. And this year, it’s a big one; the Oilers will get the chance to pick Connor McDavid, the teenage prodigy who almost everyone views as the best prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby.
Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled about this. So let’s take some time to sort out the winners and losers from an evening of Ping-Pong balls and bitter tears.
Winner: Edmonton Oilers — McDavid is a very good hockey player, and he will probably make the Oilers a better hockey team. This is the kind of hard-hitting analysis you look to me for.
There’s honestly not much more to add here; McDavid projects as a generational player, the kind who turns franchises around almost single-handedly. The Oilers still have holes all over their lineup, most notably in net and along the blue line, and the team will someday have to figure out how to surround their talented young forwards with the right depth pieces. So yes, there’s work still to be done in Edmonton. But the hockey gods just gave the Oilers’ perpetual rebuild a great big boost.
Winner: Oilers fans — Another obvious one. After all, no fan base in the league has suffered as much over the last quarter-century. Since winning their last Stanley Cup in 1990, the Oilers went from powerhouse to glorified farm team under the league’s old financial system. Since the cap arrived, they’ve only made the playoffs once, a miracle run that went all the way to the Stanley Cup final in 2006 but ended with a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 after their star goalie got hurt. Since then, they’ve been stuck in rebuilding mode for nine consecutive years. It’s not Oilers fans’ fault that management and ownership was incompetent, the argument goes, and they deserve to have something good happen to them for a change. All of which is true. Except …
Winner: Oilers management — … you have to wonder if winning the lottery hasn’t also doomed Oilers fans to that same awful management group for a while longer. After years of failure, Kevin Lowe and friends had to be hanging by a thread — if the team wasn’t going to clean house in the summer, it was only one more lost season away, at most. Now they have McDavid, and the heat gets turned way down. So Oilers fans end up with a franchise player, but it could come at the cost of a few more years of the status quo in the front office.
If you’re an Oilers fan, do you take that trade-off? Uh, yeah. In a second. But it’s probably the only flaw in the McDavid diamond, so it’s worth a mention.
Loser: The NHL — Oilers fans won’t want to hear it, but the truth is that McDavid winding up where he did is probably the worst-case scenario for the league, and everyone outside of Edmonton knows it. He doesn’t go to a major media center where his presence would be most likely to generate a revenue surge for the league. But he also doesn’t go to a struggling market where he can be the savior who brings stability to a franchise that needs it. He’s not exactly going to disappear into obscurity — it’s worth remembering that Wayne Gretzky did just fine in Edmonton — but this wasn’t the result the league would have wanted.
All of which leads us to …
Loser: Conspiracy theorists — There was a ready-made conspiracy all set to go for just about any lottery winner — except Edmonton. Say what you want about the NHL, but at least we know one thing for sure: The league absolutely positively did not rig the lottery.
Loser, but only a little: Buffalo Sabres — The Sabres tanked their entire season to get the no. 1 pick and came away without it, so it’s tempting to view them as the night’s big losers. Even GM Tim Murray didn’t hide his disappointment. But the Sabres still come away with the no. 2 pick, and this year that means Jack Eichel, a player who’d be the clear no. 1 in just about any other year. He’s not McDavid, but he’s a hell of a consolation prize. And since the NHL stupidly insisted on going with a system that guaranteed the 30th-place team a top-two pick, the Sabres were never at risk of losing out on a franchise player. They didn’t win the lottery, but their lost season still ended up as mission accomplished.