NHL Column: Give the Devil his Due

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) pursues New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick (5) as he circles the net during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla. The Devils defeated the Panthers 4-3 in overtime. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach

A game after the games are over, a fear of the odds and a prayer to the hockey gods make up what can be a stomach-wrenching draft lottery day for hockey fans across North America. After misery for an endless six month span, hope lays in a 10-20 percent chance that your team will be blessed with the NHL’s first overall draft pick in June.

On Tuesday night, the lottery results were officially announced, with each of the top three spots up for grabs among the teams that did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dreams were to be destroyed and fulfilled all in a 20-minute period.

To maximize the anxiety of NHL fans, NBC Sports ran a playoff preview show in the half hour leading up to the reveal. Just to add insult to injury for fans of those teams whose seasons are already over.

That is, of course, for every team except the Colorado Avalanche, who fleeced the Ottawa Senators of their 2019 first round pick in the Matt Duchene trade last year. The Senators finished last in the league, giving them the best odds to win the lottery. So not only does Colorado get to enjoy some playoff hockey, they also had the best chance to win the rights to another franchise player. Nothing would make other fans sicker than seeing a playoff team win the lottery and the opportunity to add projected first overall pick, Jack Hughes.

But the commencement of the lottery proved that the best odds provide no guarantees. The New Jersey Devils, who finished 29th in the league, moved up from third to first overall. The Rangers sprung from sixth to second. And the Chicago Blackhawks catapulted from twelfth to third.

The Devils came up lucky for the second time in three years, as the franchise won the first overall pick in 2017 as well. That year they jumped up from fifth and selected Nico Hischier first overall. Although the odds of winning the lottery in back to back attempts are extremely slim, New Jersey somehow was blessed with such luck.

Right before the lottery reveal began, a live image of each hopeful general manager appeared on the screen. Devils general manager, Ray Shero, sat grinning amidst a slew of stone cold faces. It was an omen of what was about to occur.

Shero appears to be on the right side of luck, but New Jersey’s true lucky charm is its superstar and reigning MVP, Taylor Hall. Besides his spectacular on ice talent, Hall has brought the luck of the lottery balls every time his team missed the playoffs.

In his nine seasons in the NHL, Hall’s teams have won the draft lottery five times. His Oilers won it three times, and the Devils have won it twice.

After the Devils’ lottery victory in 2017, Hall tweeted, “Officially adding ‘NHL lottery ball specialist’ to my hockey resume.” At that point, it certainly seemed like Hall was flashing luck everywhere he went, but now it is hard to even call it a coincidence.

Following his fifth lottery win, he joked via twitter, “They talk about Gretzky’s 92 goals or Sittler’s 10 pts in one game as records that may never be broken. But winning five draft lotteries in your first nine. years in the league? In two different draft lottery eras, no less. That is a record that will stand forever.”

Talk about luck all you wish, but if some minor things were different during the Devils’ season, they could have ended up picking fifth. On the final day of the regular season, in a seemingly meaningless game against the Florida Panthers, the outlook of the franchise was changed forever.

With exactly one second remaining in the third period of a 3-3 game, Jonathan Huberdeau took a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass. The penalty carried over into overtime, where Travis Zajac scored to win 4-3. At the time, this appeared to only worsen the Devils’ chances of winning the draft lottery, as it gave them 72 points to finish the season. With the Los Angeles Kings ending the year with 71 points, the last game win for the Devils was the difference between finishing 29th and 30th.

But had Huberdeau not taken that penalty, and Zajac not scored that goal, the Devils may have never won that game, and thus lost the draft lottery. It is amazing how a game between two non-playoff teams could change the course of history. If the game did not finish how it did, Hughes would have ended up on Kings, and NHL history for the next twenty years may have ended up being completely different. Shero laughed about this after the reveal, saying that the team will have to send Zajac a “Thank You” basket.

Just a few games earlier for the Devils, in a game between the Devils and Rangers, Connor Carrick scored a goal late in the third period. The goal sent New Jersey towards victory in regulation. Another game that appeared to mean nothing may have actually altered the future. Not only did the win push the Devils to their eventual point total, it also ensured that the Rangers would not pass 78 points in the standings.

Because of this, the Rangers finished 26th in the league instead of 25th. Had that game even gone to overtime, New York would have finished with as many or more points than the Edmonton Oilers.With this, Edmonton would have been awarded the draft’s second pick. Instead, the Rangers’ selection will fall in the top three for the first time in their history.

So with that, it is fitting that the Devils and Rangers, the Hudson River rivals, will pick sequentially to begin this year’s entry draft on June 21. The addition of Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the anticipated second overall pick, will reignite a rivalry that has seen plenty of bad blood over the years. Could a playoff rematch be approaching?

The Avalanche ended up with the fourth pick in the draft, relieving the sting for Senators fans just a bit. Certainly, no one is feeling sorry for Colorado, who begins its playoff series with the Calgary Flames Thursday night. But let’s not forget the Devils have stolen that top pick from the Avalanche twice now. In 2017, Colorado also had the best odds to win the selection, and that time they had actually finished as the worst team in the league. But just like this year, New Jersey won the lottery, and Colorado dropped from first to fourth. Deja vu all over again.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.