As the season winds down, more and more teams are seeing their playoff chances fade. And as they do, their fans will turn their attention to the draft lottery, rooting for better odds in hopes that their team will be the lucky one that wins the first overall pick.
But in a sense, that’s not quite the right way to think of things. Teams themselves don’t win the lottery; a spot in the standings does. After all, the ping pong balls have no idea what team finished where. They just cough up a combination that matches a particular slot, and whichever team happens to have landed there is the winner. And that adds an intriguing wrinkle to things, because it means that the loss you’re rooting for your team to take tonight could be the one that drops it out of what ultimately turns out to be the winning spot.
We don’t know that at the time, of course. But in hindsight, it means that a single win or loss can change everything, and we can torture ourselves with what might have been. And that’s what we’re going to do today.
You can’t do it for every lottery. For example, last year’s Oilers finished with a six-point cushion on either side, so no single game would have kept them out of the 28th overall spot that ended up turning into Connor McDavid. But for some seasons, you can pinpoint one game – sometimes even one moment – that changed who was holding the winning ticket. And that can open up a world of “what if” for the team that just missed.
Here are five times that one forgotten game flipped the lottery results and (maybe) changed the destination for a superstar player.
1998: Vincent Lecavalier as a Vancouver Canuck
What actually happened: The 1998 lottery was a weird one. In one of the most confusing sets of transactions in NHL history, the Sharks ended up owning the Panthers pick and won the lottery, leapfrogging the Lightning. But thanks to a previous trade, the Lightning held the right to flip picks with the Sharks, so they leapfrogged right back into the top spot. In hindsight, it was one of the most successful insurance policies in recent memory, one that landed Lecavalier in Tampa Bay for the next 14 seasons.
But change just one game: The 1997-98 Canucks were a disaster. It was the first year of the Mark Messier/Mike Keenan era, one that soon saw fan favorites like Trevor Linden shipped out of town. An early 10-game losing streak dropped them out of playoff contention before mid-November, GM Pat Quinn was fired, and Pavel Bure would never play another game for the team. And the only consolation prize for a lost year was the fourth overall pick, one they used on the underwhelming Bryan Allen.
One of the season’s few highlight came at the very beginning, when the Canucks travelled to Tokyo to open the season with a pair of games against the Ducks. The games were the first regular season matchups ever played outside North America, and the Canucks took the historic opener by a 3-2 final, with Bure scoring the winner. It was October 3, 1997.
That date is already a dark one in Canucks history, remembered as the fateful day that Linden handed over the captaincy to Messier. But in hindsight it may have been even more costly. Take away that win, and the Canucks drop to 62 points for the season, one back of the Panthers and into the second last overall spot that turned out to be holding draft lottery gold.
Vincent Lecavalier in Vancouver? Gosh, Canucks fans, just think how much he could have learned about leadership from playing with Messier.