The right to draft top hockey prospect Alexis Lafrenière came down this week to the eight teams that had made and exited the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Some of those teams were undoubtedly expecting to still be playing, but they all likely would have been happy with the highly touted winger as consolation.
Knocked-out fifth seed Pittsburgh would have loved to see Lafrenière playing alongside Sidney Crosby next year. Edmonton, another fifth seed that was upset in the qualifiers, would have jumped at the chance to put him with Connor McDavid. And in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs were fresh off a Game 5 elimination against Columbus, fans even tried to write into existence them getting the No. 1 pick.
Alas, the pingpong balls had different plans.
The NHL draft lottery gods decided the team on Broadway would get the first crack at the Quebecer, who could be the first of his province to be taken first overall since Pittsburgh selected goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. “I’m sure Ranger fans everywhere were pretty excited when the ball came up for the Rangers,” said New York Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton after Monday night’s lottery.
Lafrenière is one of two junior hockey players — along with Crosby — to have won the Canadian Hockey League’s Player of the Year Trophy twice. The winger has put up impressive point totals in nearly every level of hockey he has played at, including 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games with the Rimouski Océanic this past season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“It’s been a really long last couple of months, but it’s really fun to know who won the lottery today,” Lafrenière told the media Monday. “Really good team, obviously, with a lot of good players.”
The Rangers haven’t looked like a really good team recently, finishing the previous two seasons out of the playoffs and with below-average Simple Rating System marks.1 They’ve been in the midst of an open rebuild since February 2018, when Gorton and then-President Glen Sather sent a letter to fans signaling that the Rangers would gut the roster in the hopes of constructing a team for the future. “Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender,” the letter read.
The trade deadline later that month saw them part with the familiar faces of Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh. They selected Vitali Kravtsov and K’Andre Miller in that summer’s draft, and they used the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft on Kaapo Kakko. He joined a growing crop of highly touted Rangers prospects, including Filip Chytil and Igor Shesterkin. To further bolster its roster, the team even lured free agent Artemi Panarin from Columbus and signed Jacob Trouba, whom it had acquired in a trade with Winnipeg, to a seven-year deal.
But the rebuilding process might be complete after Monday night. The rebuild could have been nearly over already, with a successful playoff run to the Rangers’ name, if the puck had bounced just a little differently over the past few weeks.
According to our calculations, the Rangers saw their odds of winning the Stanley Cup increase by 0.8 percentage points under the league’s Return to Play format. That was the fifth-highest change among teams involved in the 24-team competition.
When comparing the odds of the Rangers’ chances of making the postseason on March 11 versus the eve of the play-in series, the Blueshirts saw their chances rise 26.5 percentage points, to 44.4 percent from 17.9 percent. It was the fourth-highest jump, trailing only Chicago, Montreal and Arizona.
|Toronto Maple Leafs||81||1.157|
|New York Rangers||79||1.129|
Prior to the restart, the Rangers were seventh in the Metropolitan Division and were 2 points out of a wild-card spot for the Eastern Conference playoffs. While they still had a chance at the playoffs in the East, the Rangers’ 79 points through 70 games were only the fifth-most points amassed by the teams eligible for Monday’s draft lottery and the sixth-most points per game.
Of course, the Rangers were still 40 points better than the hapless Detroit Red Wings, who finished with the league’s worst record (17-49-5) but will pick just fourth in the draft.
The Rangers had won only two of their final seven regular-season games before the year stopped abruptly. And their run of losing continued in the play-in round: They were swept in three games by the Carolina Hurricanes.
For those efforts, they now get first dibs at drafting a player who could bring them from the verge of success to consistent playoff appearances.