One of the running themes of the season has been the eventual destination of Connor McDavid. As the first sure-thing franchise player the league has welcomed since Sidney Crosby, McDavid has earned plenty of attention toward the bottom of the standings, and that will only intensify as the season goes on.1
The consensus no. 2 pick, Boston University center Jack Eichel, is also viewed as a potential franchise player, although not quite at the same level as McDavid.
But today, let’s forget about who will get McDavid, since we won’t actually know that for several months. Let’s talk about who should get him. After all, we can fight about that right now!
All 14 non-playoff teams will have a shot at the first overall pick in a lottery that’s heavily weighted toward the worst teams, with the odds starting at 20 percent for the last-place team and dropping to as low as 1 percent. Every team that misses the postseason has at least a shot at the top pick, and since it’s far too early for anyone to have clinched a playoff spot, that means every team in the league technically still has a shot at winning the McDavid lottery.
So whose number should we want to see come up? And maybe more importantly, who should we be collectively rooting against?
Here are the factors we’ll be weighing:
Current team quality: This works in a couple of ways. Obviously, the league’s better teams should expect to make the playoffs and skip the lottery, so there’s not much point getting our hopes up for McDavid landing on a team that’s sitting in first place. Besides, McDavid should quickly emerge as an MVP candidate — if he goes to a team that’s already stacked, the rest of the league would be screwed. On the other hand, we also don’t want him going to a total disaster; he’s going to be a fun player to watch, and it would be nice for him to have at least a little bit of talent to play with early on.
Market: The league would certainly like to see McDavid go to a big market where he’ll get more attention. But we won’t overdo it here — the league did just fine in the 1980s with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing in smaller markets, and there’s something to be said for giving relatively new markets a boost.
Fan base: A player like McDavid would be a blessing for a long-suffering fan base desperate for something to cheer about. The last thing we should want is to see him go to some city that’s still cleaning up from a Cup parade. And of course, when in doubt, ask yourself the key question: How intolerable would this fan base become the second they knew they were getting McDavid?
Karma: There’s only so much good fortune to go around, so if a team has a history of winning the draft lottery or otherwise lucking out in important ways, we’ll happily hold that against it.
Other stuff: In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m pretty much making this up as I go along.
Make sense? Good. On to the countdown …
30. Pittsburgh Penguins
We can all agree on this one, right? Not only did they win a leaguewide lottery for Sidney Crosby in 2005, but they blatantly tanked to get Mario Lemieux in 1984. Two all-time legends drafted with shady first overall picks are quite enough for one franchise, thanks.
Luckily, they’re a good team in a bad division, so their odds of falling into the lottery are basically zero. But if it somehow happened and the Penguins lucked into McDavid, let’s all just agree to fold the NHL and start a new league without them.
27-29: Boston Bruins/Chicago Blackhawks/Los Angeles Kings (tied)
All very good teams with recent Stanley Cups and essentially no chance of being in the lottery this year. Next.
26. Anaheim Ducks
They belong in the same group with the three teams above, but we’ll nudge them up one notch based on their fans suffering the trauma of having to watch Brian Burke pretend to be OK with coming in second during the Crosby lottery.
25. Detroit Red Wings
The Wings have won four Cups in the last 20 years, most recently in 2008, and have made the playoffs every year since 1991. In a way, that’s part of their appeal — Detroit being good has become a permanent fixture of the league at this point. They’re also the best franchise in the league when it comes to keeping their superstars long term, having given us Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, and Nicklas Lidstrom. Who better to take that torch than McDavid?
On the other hand, go back and read those names again. The Wings have been spoiled with first-ballot Hall of Fame franchise players for decades. And recently, they’ve even lucked into guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and now Gustav Nyquist in the late rounds. You know what, screw these guys.
24. New York Islanders
On the surface, the Islanders seem like an ideal pick. They’ve already got a good young roster with plenty of exciting talent, and McDavid would probably immediately make them the most entertaining team in the league. They’re moving to Brooklyn next year, so the marketing opportunity is there, and there isn’t a fan base in the league that deserves some good news more that the Islanders’ does.
But here’s the problem: They have no chance of winning the first overall pick. That’s not bravado over their admittedly impressive start this season — they literally have no chance, because they traded this year’s first-round pick to the Sabres. The Isles could “win” the lottery and not get the pick, and that would be almost unbearably cruel. Funny, sure, but also cruel, so let’s all at least have the courtesy to pretend we’re not secretly rooting for it.
23. St. Louis Blues
The Blues have been in the league for almost 50 years and still haven’t won the Cup, and they’ve only picked first overall once (and kind of whiffed on that one). But they’re not missing the playoffs this year, and the Sabres own their first-round pick, too, so let’s just move on.
22. New York Rangers
Good-but-not-great team. Huge market. Only one Stanley Cup since Bob Feller’s first no-hitter. With virtually every other New York pro sports team in a down cycle, having McDavid land with the Rangers would pretty much be the NHL’s perfect scenario. Unfortunately, they’re not in the running because they traded their first-round pick to Tampa Bay. Speaking of whom …
21. Tampa Bay Lightning
Other than the Sabres, the Lightning are the only other team with multiple shots at McDavid, and the Rangers’ pick would actually be in the lottery if the season ended today. That’s some frightening news, because have you seen how much young talent the Lightning have, both already on the roster and on the way? If they wound up with McDavid, they might never lose another game. It’s not too early to start cheering hard for the Rangers to make the playoffs, just to eliminate any small chance of McDavid winding up in Tampa Bay.
20. Florida Panthers
The Panthers have basically overtaken the Coyotes as the league’s go-to “terrible market” punch line, largely thanks to a steady stream of crowd shots like this. The counterargument is that the team hasn’t been good in recent years, and with the exception of one deep playoff run in 1996 has never been especially good at all, so we don’t really know what kind of market Miami could be.
So, sure, maybe McDavid takes his talents to South Beach and saves the franchise, like Lemieux did for Pittsburgh all of those years ago.2 On the other hand, maybe the building stays half-empty and McDavid ends up being a bargaining chip in relocation rumors. Nobody wants that, which is why we should probably keep our fingers crossed that the Panthers don’t win the pick. (And if you feel bad about that, remember that they won the lottery last season.)
As an added bonus, the draft is in Sunrise, Florida, this year.
19. Washington Capitals
They won the lottery in 2004, jumping from the third pick to first overall and drafting Alexander Ovechkin, who’s won three Hart Trophies and counting. They’re a fun team, but that’s probably enough lottery luck for one generation.
18. Montreal Canadiens
They’re one of the league’s best markets, but they’ve spent the entire season hovering around first place overall, so their odds of being in the lottery are just about zero. Besides, you saw the part in our criteria about “insufferable fans,” right?
17. Nashville Predators
They’ve never really had a franchise forward in his prime — their highest pick was David “Ho-Hum” Legwand, and they only caught the tail end of Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya. They’d be a fun pick if they were bad this year, but as their surprisingly feisty fans love to repeatedly remind me, they’re not.
16. Arizona Coyotes
After stealing the Jets and then producing years of never-ending relocation teases, the Coyotes getting McDavid would drive Canadian fans absolutely crazy. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing.
15. Ottawa Senators
Argument against: Their blatant tank job to get Alexandre Daigle in 1993 is the reason the league had to create a draft lottery in the first place.
Argument for: They were already punished for that, in the sense that they drafted Alexandre Daigle.
14. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks have never had the first overall choice in their 45 years, a history that includes losing out on Gilbert Perreault in the ridiculous “spinning wheel” fiasco of 1970. They’ve also never won a Cup, so the karma argument is strong here. But they’ve been one of the league’s biggest surprises over the first third of the season, so it would take a mini-collapse to drop them into the lottery.
13. Carolina Hurricanes
They’re pretty bad this year, so they have a relatively good shot at McDavid. And with apologies to Eric Staal, they haven’t had a true franchise player since the Hartford heyday of Ron Francis. He’s now the GM, so there’s some fun symmetry there.
No, they’re not a traditional market, or even an especially good one. But as we saw in 2006, the fans will be there when the team is contending, and they’ll be loud. The Canes probably aren’t anyone’s idea of an ideal McDavid destination, but there are worse spots he could wind up.
12. Colorado Avalanche
They’ve already had a string of recent high picks, including the top overall selection just two years ago, so I could understand if you didn’t want to see them land another one. But if you’re going to pick a bad team with a realistic lottery shot, one that’s already loaded with as much offensive talent as the Avs would have a certain appeal. Plus, the “McDavid being coached by Patrick Roy” factor is hard to ignore.
11. Minnesota Wild
They’re arguably the best pure hockey market in the United States, and despite a good roster they’re hovering dangerously close to long-shot lottery territory. Plus, if they did wind up with McDavid, maybe the league would even remember to give them an outdoor game.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs
Let’s go down the checklist. A decent chance at being in the lottery? Check. A huge market? Check. A team that’s never all that good, but also hasn’t had any especially high picks lately? Check. Phil Kessel? Check. Long-suffering fans who deserve some small piece of good news just once in their lives before they all wither and die? [Makes check mark so hard it tears through the paper and carves into the table below.]
The Leafs are also McDavid’s hometown team, and he grew up dreaming of playing for them. Add it all up, and Toronto is damn near the ideal McDavid destination.
Except, here’s the thing: There is zero chance the Maple Leafs would win the lottery. Seriously, find a die-hard Leafs fan and ask them what would happen if Toronto won. They’ll laugh at you, and then maybe pat you on the head for being adorable. The hockey gods aren’t going to let something that good happen to the Maple Leafs. We need to just accept that.
Plus, the occasionally insane Toronto market would take about three seconds to find a way to ruin the McDavid era for everyone. The Leafs would win the lottery, and the next day at least one Toronto newspaper would have a front-page story about how they should draft a goaltender instead, another one would have a 4,000-word essay questioning McDavid’s compete level, and another would Photoshop his face with Wendel Clark’s mustache.3
Ha-ha, just kidding, they already did that for David Clarkson. No, really.
Sorry, Toronto. This is why you can’t have nice things.
9. San Jose Sharks
They’ve been surprisingly mediocre this year and could realistically find themselves in lottery territory. Granted, a lot of this year’s wounds have been self-inflicted thanks to a truly bizarre offseason, but the idea of McDavid dropping into a lineup that already features young stars like Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture is intriguing.
Adding a new franchise player into the Sharks’ mix would also up the ante in a three-way California rivalry that’s slowly but surely becoming one of the league’s best. Plus, it would be fun to watch Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau spend the entire introductory press conference blinking “Run while you still can” at McDavid in Morse code.
8. New Jersey Devils
They’re a good team, kind of. They’re a New York market, kind of. And while they won three Stanley Cups in the last 20 years, they did it without ever finishing low enough in the standings to draft a franchise player.4
They did get Scott Niedermayer with the third overall pick in 1991, but that was because the Maple Leafs were dumb.
More importantly, they lost out on the chance to draft Lemieux in 1984 when the Penguins spent the last few weeks of the season doing everything short of shooting the puck into their own net. Getting McDavid would be some nice payback for that travesty. And it would be fun to see him play on a line with Jaromir Jagr for the next five or six years.
Besides, they went 0-13 in the shootout last year. They’re obviously saving up their luck for something.
7. Winnipeg Jets
They lost their whole franchise for more than a decade, and when we finally gave them one back, it was the Atlanta Thrashers. We at least owe them some good vibes, right?
6. Calgary Flames
Great market, long-suffering fans, and we still owe them some karmic payback for the whole “not noticing when they scored a Cup-winning goal” thing. Also, the Brian Burke wins a goddamn lottery stories would write themselves. If I’d done this post before the season started, the Flames probably would have taken the top spot.
But that was before they ruined everything by getting off to a stunningly good start that has them comfortably outside the lottery. There’s still plenty of time for the inevitable collapse, and I’ve already reserved a spot on the McDavid-to-Calgary bandwagon if that happens. But for now they’ll have to settle for being the highest current playoff team on the list.
5. Edmonton Oilers
I’m not sure there’s a tougher team to slot in than the Oilers. On the one hand, this is a great hockey town that’s been starved for anything resembling success for years. Their recent struggles are bordering on abject cruelty, and if anyone deserves a break it’s an Oilers fan. I cheer for the Maple Leafs, and I feel sorry for these guys.
On the other hand, they’ve already had the first overall pick three times in recent years and haven’t been able to turn that windfall into anything resembling success, so we need to at least consider the possibility that the entire franchise is cursed. For all the talk of McDavid being an absolute can’t-miss, if he goes to Edmonton, what are the odds he immediately turns into Patrik Stefan? At least 60 percent, right?
Besides, the Oilers already had the greatest player in the sport’s history during his prime, and they got him by skipping the draft altogether via a shady personal services contract. Wayne Gretzky and friends helped the team become the league’s last great dynasty, so maybe they’ve already had their share of good fortune.
That’s all ancient history if you’re an Oilers fan under the age of 25, and may the hockey gods have mercy on your soul if you are. I’m just not sure how I can put Edmonton any higher than this.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
There have only been a handful of prospects with McDavid-level hype in league history, and the Flyers wound up with one of them in Eric Lindros. But they didn’t tank to get him, and in fact they paid such a high premium to land him via trade that we can probably wipe out any karma concerns.
Beyond that, they’re a big market the NHL would probably love to see land a guy like McDavid. They’re also bad this year and will probably have decent lottery odds working for them. And most importantly, their rivalry with the Penguins would lead to a natural Crosby vs. McDavid narrative that could end up being everything the league so desperately wanted Crosby vs. Ovechkin to be, and more.
The Flyers would be a darn near perfect destination for McDavid, and the whole thing would be just about impossible to screw up. (But if it happens, maybe hire Keith Jones to follow him around just in case.)
3. Buffalo Sabres
Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, the Sabres organization sure seemed to be tanking for McDavid. They weren’t even especially subtle about it, assembling a team that’s just about as bad as one can be in the salary-floor era, and the goal sure seems to be finishing last by a mile for a second straight year. That’s shady, nobody should support it, and it’s why they can’t be in the top spot just on principle.
All of that said, there are plenty of positives, starting with the fact that they haven’t been all that bad recently. Buffalo isn’t a big market, but it’s a great hockey town, and it’s certainly about time the city’s sports fans had some something to cheer about. The Sabres have stockpiled a ton of draft picks and prospects, and Tim Murray is one of the best young GMs in the game, so he could probably flush out all the tanking stench fairly quickly and surround McDavid with an actual team.
Also, we probably all still owe them for this. As long as they agree to stop screwing around with the uniforms, the tanking Sabres would be a grudgingly acceptable pick.
2. Dallas Stars
The Stars haven’t had a first overall pick since moving to Dallas.5 They weren’t supposed to be in the running for one this year either, with most experts picking them as a potential breakthrough team after back-to-back offseasons spent loading up offensively.
They had three as the Minnesota North Stars, most notably Mike Modano.
Instead, they’ve been one of the season’s biggest disappointments, thanks largely to shoddy goaltending and a weak blue line. But while they may not be very good, they’re still an awful lot of fun to watch. The Stars are never going to be the Cowboys, but Dallas is a big market the NHL would probably love to have a larger chunk of, and the fan base is reasonably strong.
Drop McDavid into the mix alongside Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and friends and every Stars game would instantly become must-see viewing. Sure, they might lose 8-7, but you’d be watching.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
Huh. No, this isn’t where I thought we’d wind up either, but hear me out …
First of all, the Blue Jackets are terrible this year, so they’ve got a great shot at winning the pick. But there’s still enough talent here that they’re not a total lost cause — it’s easy to forget right now, but they were a playoff team last year. And while the market isn’t great, it’s not as bad as you probably think it is, and has never really had anything to cheer about. Think of it this way: Have you ever encountered an unlikable Blue Jackets fan? I’m not sure they exist.
More importantly, from a karma perspective, there’s no team that deserves a break more than the Blue Jackets. Their season has basically been derailed by an almost ridiculous string of injuries. They’ve had one no. 1 pick in franchise history, Rick Nash, who bailed on them a few years ago and forced a trade to the Rangers. They were bumped out of the top spot in 2012 after the Oilers won the lottery, then used the second pick on a guy who almost immediately blew out his shoulder and missed the season. And no team has had less postseason success since Columbus came into the league; it hadn’t even won a playoff game until last year.
If the Blue Jackets landed McDavid and emerged as a contender, it would finally give the franchise a chance to thrive, not to mention giving the Metro a new set of rivalries to break up the never-ending Penguins/Rangers/Flyers trifecta that the league is constantly pushing. He’d make them a good team, but not so good that they’d be a risk to steamroll the rest of the league. And he might even be the guy to bring the long-suffering fans in the state of Ohio their first pro sports championship since the 1990 Reds.
And if none of that convinces you … well, just think how good McDavid would look winning the Cup in a Kings uniform in a few years.