Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen knows if the season ended today, his team would have the best odds to land who many consider the next generational talent in the NHL.
He is also keenly aware that the odds remain higher not to win the NHL’s draft lottery – and the chance to select Connor Bedard on May 8.
“Look, there’s a 25.5 per cent chance for the team to finish last, but it’s still a 74.5 per cent chance that you don’t get it. That’s much greater than 25.5,” Kekalainen said recently. “But we’ll see where it takes us. Wherever we end up in the standings, we get the odds the league gave, and then we hope for the best of luck.”
While the race for the league’s top record was done by midseason thanks to the Boston Bruins’ potential record-setting run, the chase for the worst mark remains up for grabs in the final three weeks.
Columbus is in “first” at 51 points, followed by San Jose (53), Chicago (54) and Anaheim (56).
Even though half of the league’s 32 teams do not make the playoffs, only 11 are eligible for the lottery. The rules instituted in 2022 state a team can move up a maximum of 10 spots.
For the last two years, the team with the worst record has won the lottery, but that often isn’t the case. In 2012, the Blue Jackets had the worst record and lost the top pick to Edmonton.
The last thing any of the coaches at the bottom want to hear, though, is lottery odds – especially if you’re Dallas Eakins, who is in the final year of his contract with the Ducks.
“We want to have development and progress every night,” said Eakins, who is in his fourth season with Anaheim. “We’re not the Boston Bruins right now. That’s why we have to play a perfect game to be in the game. I don’t understand the lottery, to be honest with you. Finishing at the very bottom guarantees you nothing. I’ve seen teams lose the lottery and end up with the best player in the draft.”
San Jose coach David Quinn agreed with Eakins’ assessment. And he knows firsthand about the lottery as an NHL and college coach.
Quinn was with the Rangers when they benefitted in 2020. He also coached Jack Eichel at Boston University when Eichel was the second choice in the 2015 draft by Buffalo – after Edmonton won the lottery and selected Connor McDavid.
“When you’re in the situation that Edmonton and Buffalo were in back then and we are in right now, people are paying attention for various reasons,” he said. “Back then, it was Eichel and McDavid. It was pretty clear McDavid would be the No. 1 pick, but Jack Eichel was going to get a hell of a consolation prize.”
No one expected the Blue Jackets to have the league’s worst record after they made one of the biggest splashes in free agency last year by signing Johnny Gaudreau. But having one of the highest injury rates has reduced them to using most of the season to assess their future.
Columbus, which already has 454 man-games lost to injury, suffered another blow this week when forward Patrik Laine strained a triceps muscle in practice. The Blue Jackets are also missing goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who is in Latvia to be with his family after his grandmother fell gravely ill.
“If you have 13 guys on injured reserve as we did at one point, it’s hard to expect to win,” Kekalainen said.
Besides measuring their performance during games, Kekalainen and his staff have kept a keen eye on practices to ensure everyone follows the right approach.
“We’ve got some bright young kids here within our group, and they can see a good future in front of them,” he said. “But for the team here, it’s about being professional every day and going on just like you would if you were getting ready for the playoffs. Nobody’s going to take it easy on you.”
While Columbus made some minor moves near the trade deadline, Chicago and San Jose went into liquidation mode to improve their lottery chances. The Blackhawks sent Patrick Kane to the Rangers, while the Sharks traded Timo Meier to New Jersey.
“It’s unfortunate, but I understand it,” Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson said after the Meier trade. “I’ve been around the game long enough to understand what needs to be done from an organizational perspective. It just sucks that I happen to be where I’m at at this stage of my career.”
Chicago coach Luke Richardson also hopes people realize that teams can build a foundation and be in the mix to draft a generational talent.
“I trust the organization and scouting staff with how they approach things,” he said. “I love the energy of our team. What we’re trying to do is starting to show, but we have a long way to go.”
Arizona was near the bottom three spots for most of the season, but a 6-1-3 run in the last 10 games has it at 66 points and tied for the sixth-fewest points in the league.
Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong is OK with his franchise’s chances of landing a top-three pick taking a significant hit.
“As a GM, you never want to take the fight from your team. And so you’ve got to continue that and enjoy what you’re going through and how hard your team is fighting,” he said. “I’ve been through so many drafts that you can’t control where you draft, but you can’t control who you pick, and that’s what you got to worry about. So at the end of the day, no matter where we lie, we’ve got to be good at picking.”