The "race" for the best 2011 draft picks should have an interesting conclusion, even if the Edmonton Oilers finish dead last for a second straight season.
There is a possibility that final-week jockeying at the bottom of the NHL standings -- mixed with some draft-lottery rules -- winds up costing the Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers or New York Islanders. Let's explain:
Edmonton is on the verge of finishing in 30th place, while the Colorado Avalanche has a grasp on 29th so long as it doesn't earn too many points in five remaining games. The Senators, Panthers and Islanders are "battling" for 28th, which would significantly increase their odds of landing on the draft-day podium.
That could prove franchise-changing.
For much of this year, the prevailing scouting wisdom was that four prospects -- Red Deer centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Skelleftea defenceman Adam Larsson, Kitchener winger Gabriel Landeskog, and Drummondville centre Sean Couturier -- were vying for No. 1, with little separating them.
But recently, reports have emerged that Couturier, once the consensus best player available in this class, is slipping and being challenged by Saint John centre Jonathan Huberdeau, a rival in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Some doubt Couturier's upside, including an opinion that his ceiling might make him a very good NHLer, but not a superstar.
It is conceivable that some NHL teams have Nugent-Hopkins, Landeskog and Larsson in a tier of their own -- some may slice it even thinner than that -- with the QMJHL pivots rated in the next group, alongside centre Ryan Strome and defenceman Dougie Hamilton of Niagara, Kitchener defenceman Ryan Murphy, and Saginaw power forward Brandon Saad.
If the Senators, Panthers and Islanders are among them, they'd do well to lose out this week.
In the lottery, no team can improve its draft position by more than four places (meaning only the five worst finishers have a crack at No. 1), and no team can slide more than one spot. So only the five teams mentioned above, plus the New Jersey Devils and Atlanta Thrashers, currently hold a hope of getting a top-three selection.
The team finishing 28th, however, will have an enormous advantage over the others, with a 58 per cent chance of landing a top-three choice (a 14.2 per cent chance of winning the lottery and the first pick, plus a 43.8 combined chance that the lottery is won by Edmonton or Colorado, allowing it to retain No. 3).
The 27th place club has just a 10.7 per cent shot of winning the lottery and getting its choice of Nugent-Hopkins, Larsson or Landeskog.
As of Sunday morning, Florida is in 28th place (70 points, three game remaining), Ottawa is 27th (70, 3) and the Islanders are 26th (72, 3). The Senators have the most regulation and overtime wins, and would "win" tiebreakers.