The New York Rangers were the first team to see their NHL restart bubble burst.
They got a pretty nice consolation prize Monday.
The Rangers won the second phase of the league’s draft lottery, all but assuring star winger and presumptive No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere will be heading to the Big Apple.
“Leaving the bubble first hurts,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said. ”There’s still seven teams in the hotel and you’re walking by them all. They’re all getting coffee and you’re getting on your bus. Usually you lose, you walk out of the rink, you fly home.
“This one year, you’re right in there with all these teams and you’re the first one out.”
Now they’ll be the first to the microphone when the draft, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10, is held at the conclusion of the pandemic-delayed season.
New York had a 1/8 shot — or 12.5 per cent — of grabbing the top pick after a placeholder secured the No. 1 slot back in June.
Swept by the Carolina Hurricanes three straight in the best-of-five qualifying round, the Rangers were one of the eight clubs eliminated from the 24-team restart included in the second phase of the lottery.
“It’s been really long the last couple months,” said Lafreniere, who’s played three seasons with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rimouski Oceanic. ”But really fun to know who won the lottery.
“It’s pretty good news and I’m really happy.”
New York selected Finnish winner Kaapo Kakko in 2019 after jumping from No. 6 to No. 2 in the draft order, and has lots of firepower up front, including Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad.
The Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets were the other franchises in the mix for this year’s top pick.
Lafreniere said he let his mind wander as players like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were eliminated from the qualifying round over the last number of days, narrowing where he might end up.
“The lottery had a couple of really good teams,” he said. ”It was a really exciting.”
The placeholder — designated as Team E — that won the lottery back in June to set the stage for the Rangers’ ball being selected Monday had just a 2.5 per cent shot at the No. 1 pick. The league went with a modified format after the season was halted in mid-March because of COVID-19, with the seven teams not included in the restart and eight placeholders representing franchises that would eventually be eliminated before the usual 16-slot playoff bracket.
New York has been in the middle of a rebuild that was accelerated by drafting Kakko and signing Panarin in free agency last year. Getting to add another talent of that calibre should speed the process up even further.
“You’re trying to gather as much talent as you can,” Gorton said. ”If you look through some of the best players in the league, some of the star players in this league, it’s not a huge secret where the teams are getting them.
“It’s lottery picks, it’s the very high-end parts of the draft.”
The Los Angeles Kings will choose second, while the Ottawa Senators own the third — as part of the Erik Karlsson trade — and fifth selections. The Detroit Red Wings, who had the best singular odds at winning the lottery the first time around, possess the fourth pick.
Selections nine through 15 are based on the regular-season points percentage of t
he other seven losers in the qualifying round at the time the league’s suspended play March 12. Minnesota will pick ninth followed by Winnipeg (10th), Nashville (11th) and Florida (12th).
Carolina owns Toronto’s selection — which was part of the Patrick Marleau trade, but top-10 protected — and will choose 13th, followed by Edmonton at No. 14. Pittsburgh currently holds the 15th pick, but has seven days to decide whether or not it will keep the selection or give it to Minnesota as part of the Jason Zucker deal. If the Penguins hold onto the selection, the Wild will get their first-rounder in 2021.
The next 16 spots in the first round of the draft will be determined by the reverse order of playoff results.
The NHL was originally scheduled to hold the 2020 draft at the Bell Centre in Montreal, not far from Lafreniere’s hometown of St-Eustache, Que.
“It was really disappointing,” said Lafreniere, who is set to become the first Quebec-born player to go No. 1 since Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. ”It’s gonna be different.”
The six-foot-one, 193-pound forward and NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater, the 18-year-old is the two-time Canadian Hockey League player of the year. Lafreniere had 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games before the QMJHL season was cancelled because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Lafreniere, who said he might start next season in Rimouski since the NHL won’t get going until at least December, was also named MVP of the 2020 world junior hockey championship in the Czech Republic after leading Canada to gold.
Gorton, who didn’t want to tip his hand even though Lafreniere is viewed as a slam-dunk No. 1, said he hasn’t spoken to the player, but that process — over video conferencing — will commence in short order.
“We didn’t want to jinx ourselves and do our interview with Alexis until we had the good fortune of winning the lottery,” he said. ”I didn’t want to waste his time.”
The Rangers have picked first overall just once, when they took Andre Veilleux in 1965, but that was before all junior players were eligible.
“It’s huge excitement for an organization to get the first pick on any year,” Gorton said. ”And I think this one’s even more special.”
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
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