Connor McDavid’s recent injury was a devastating blow to both his Calder chances and the Oilers already shaky playoff hopes. It also hit the pause button on his rookie rivalry with Jack Eichel, temporarily shutting down a storyline that figured to be one of the season’s best. After all, those two players will be forever linked by hype, circumstance, and, of course, those four ping pong balls that determined their futures.
That would be the April draft lottery, one that saw the Oilers leap past the last place Sabres for the top overall pick. With McDavid ranked as the consensus number one, that moment felt like a brutal loss for the Sabres, a perception that was only reinforced by their own GM. (Not everyone sees it that way; many Sabres fans insist they were just fine with getting either player all along. These people are crazy, but they’ll burn my house down if I don’t mention them.)
While McDavid’s injury puts the Eichel comparison on hold, it does lead to a fun question: Which draft lottery loss was the most painful in league history? Which last place team took the worst hit by dropping down to number two?
The NHL introduced the draft lottery in 1995. Not counting last year, that leaves us with an even ten instances where a team has “lost” the lottery, which we’ll define as the last place overall team getting passed over for the top pick. (So we’re not counting 1995, 1999 or 2011, when the winning team didn’t move up to first.) With the benefit of some hindsight, we can look back at the teams involved, the eventual top pick, and the player who fell to number two, and try to figure out which loss hurt the most.
We’ll work our way down from best to worst. And we’ll start in 1998, the first time the lottery ever resulted in the top pick changing hands… sort of.
#10 - 1998
Last place team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Lottery winning team: San Jose Sharks, by virtue of owning the Florida Panthers’ pick
First overall pick: Vincent Lecavalier
How much did it hurt?: This is the easiest call on the list, because it didn’t hurt at all. Literally. It had no impact on anything, as you may already suspect if you’re thinking “Uh, I don’t remember Lecavalier being drafted by the Sharks.”
That’s because the last place Lightning went into the lottery with an insurance policy in their back pocket. At that year’s deadline, they’d traded Bryan Marchment and David Shaw to San Jose for Andrei Nazarov, and convinced the Sharks to toss in a sweetener: the right to swap their first round pick for the Panthers’, which San Jose had acquired earlier in the season. With the Lightning well back of the Panthers in the standings, the swap option wouldn’t matter… unless Florida won the lottery.
They did, and the Lightning moved back up to first. The Sharks got the second pick, flipped it to Nashville (who took David Legwand), and ended up getting Brad Stuart third overall. And Lecavalier headed to Tampa Bay to become “the Michael Jordan of hockey”.
#9 – 2000
Last place team: Atlanta Thrashers
Lottery winning team: New York Islanders
First overall pick: Rick DiPietro
How much did it hurt?: A ton – for the Islanders. It’s not often that you can use the phrases “disastrous lottery win”, but such was the Mike Milbury era. The Isles jumped from fifth to first and did a jig about it, then used the top pick on DiPietro. It’s fair to say it didn’t work out. Not only did DiPietro eventually get one of the worst contracts (and later one of the most expensive buyouts) in NHL history, but the Islanders made room for him by trading a young Roberto Luongo to Florida.
Meanwhile, the Thrashers dropped down to the second pick and wound up with Dany Heatley, who they probably would have taken anyway. And Atlanta even got some karmic payback against the Islanders the following year, which we’ll get to further down this list.