The last couple columns in this series have paid special attention to the Wild Card race for obvious reasons, but there is another battle that more tepidly goes on this time of year: The “fight” for last place and thus the best chance to win the NHL draft lottery. This year has been has been a bit different in that regard though.
The Ottawa Senators are firmly in the basement with a 23-41-6 (52 points) record. The next worst teams are the Detroit Red Wings at 24-36-10 (58 points) and Los Angeles at 25-36-8 (58 points). However, as has been discussed a lot at this point, Ottawa doesn’t have its first overall pick, so there isn’t the usual silver lining for the Senators as they limp towards the end of the season. The idea that Ottawa could end up winning the lottery and then have to surrender that pick to Colorado is embarrassing, but it’s also been talked about to death at this point.
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What might be a little less well known to those who haven’t really looked into the 2019 NHL Draft yet is that this is one of those years where there might not be a huge gap between the first and second overall picks. Jack Hughes tends to consistently place number one in draft rankings and it would be surprising if he didn’t get picked first, but Kaapo Kakko has earned a lot of praise too. Kakko has excelled in the top Finnish league with 21 goals and 36 points in 44 games. To give those numbers a bit of context, Patrik Laine had 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games in the Finnish league in his final season before jumping to the Winnipeg Jets, where he scored 36 goals and 64 points in 73 games as a rookie.
It would still be a surprise if Kakko was taken with the first overall pick, but it wouldn’t be a shock. In fact, Sportsnet’s recent Mock Draft had Kakko going first. This all isn’t a knock on Hughes, who should also be a dominate player. Rather, it illustrates that this is really a draft where we might see two instant hits emerge.
It’s worth noting that Russian forward Vasily Podkolzin is the consensus number three pick, which means it’s entirely possible that none of the first three selections will come from the CHL. The last time that happened was in 2000 when Rick DiPietro, Dany Heatley, and Marian Gaborik were taken with the top-three selections.
The projected fourth overall pick and top CHL prospect might be forward Dylan Cozens, but there’s far less consensus there than when it comes to the top-three. For example, ISS Hockey ranks Vancouver Giants defenseman Bowen Byram over Cozens and HockeyProspects.com has Cozens all the way in eighth place. McKeen’s listed Cozens, Saskatoon Blades forward Kirby Dach, and Byram in fourth, fifth, and sixth place respectively back in January. NHL Central Scouting’s midseason rankings went with the order of Dach, Cozens, and Byram. For the Sportsnet’s Mock Draft I referenced earlier, Cozens was pegged as the fourth overall pick.
In other words, the draft is likely to go Hughes, Kakko, and Podkolzin in that order, with there being some potential of a surprise selection of Kakko over Hughes, but after that there’s a lot of debate as to who should be taken in those fourth through sixth slots.
When you’re looking at all this from a fantasy perspective for next season it gets a little tricky. Obviously rookies are always going to be a risk and where to take these players is tough to gauge. What you want to consider in a general sense is that Hughes and Kakko would be the ones worth selecting even in single-season leagues for 2019-20. This is extremely tentative because there’s still so much time left in the season and we don’t know what teams will be taking them, but if wanted to put some kind of projection on them, it might be worth thinking of them as having 60ish point potential as rookies in 2019-20. Podkolzin is an even bigger risk in the short-term, but he’s certainly worth keeping in mind too because he also has very high-end potential.
The NHL also announced that the draft lottery will be held on April 9. The rules of the lottery are the same as they were last year. If you’re not familiar with them, the worst place team has an 18.5% chance of getting the top pick, followed by 13.5% for the second worst team, and 11.5% for the third worst. Every team that misses the playoffs has a chance at winning the draft lottery, though the team that finishes with the best record among those that missed the postseason has just a 1% chance of winning the lottery. There are separate draws for the first through third overall picks. Beyond those draws for the top-three picks, the draft goes in order, which means for example that the team with the worst overall record can’t draft lower than fourth overall even if they defy the odds by losing the first-overall, second-overall, and then third-overall draws.
It’s worth adding that while the draft lottery has a potential additional wrinkle where the Ottawa Senators are concerned. While Ottawa did surrender its first round pick to Colorado, the Senators do partially control the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first round pick. I say partially because Columbus was able to provide itself with some protection in the event of the worst case scenario. Should the Blue Jackets miss the playoffs and then defy the odds by winning one of the top-three slots in the draft lottery, then Columbus will keep the pick and Ottawa will get Columbus’ first round pick in 2020 instead. It is possible though that the Blue Jackets’ 2020 selection will be quite good though, given that Sergei Bobrovsky, Adam McQuaid, Ryan Dzingel, Matt Duchene, and Artemi Panarin might all walk as unrestricted free agents this summer. So if Ottawa ends up with Columbus’ 2020 first round pick instead, that might not be the worst thing for the Senators.
Also, if you’re looking for something to be more optimistic about as a Senators fan, then you might want to watch tonight’s game. Erik Brannstrom is expected to make his NHL debut and he has the potential to develop into a great defenseman. The Senators got him in the Mark Stone trade with Vegas and while a lot of people criticized that move for Ottawa on the basis that there wasn’t a first round pick involved, those critics might have been undervaluing Brannstrom.
This year’s draft will be held in Vancouver with the first round being conducted on June 21.