For all the non-playoff teams including the Devils, as well as expansion newbie Vegas, tonight’s the first big night of their offseason with the draft lottery being held at 7:30 in Toronto. This year’s top selection is expected to be the WHL’s Nolan Patrick (above). Despite previous injuries and coming off a sports hernia last offseason, Patrick still put up 20 goals and 46 points in just 33 games. Only time will tell if Patrick can have a similar impact to recent #1 overalls such as Auston Mathews and Connor McDavid – now just two wins away from reaching the Conference Finals with a resurgent Edmonton team. Either way, the draft is a lot more about hope than certainty. Tonight fifteen teams will finally know where they pick and can in some cases shape their offseason plans around it. Maybe teams at the back in the teens who don’t win the lottery consider trading their first round, or teams farther up consider a little extra jump forward or backward.
While I’m glad the lottery now isn’t a straight reward for tanking, I do think it’s pretty craven if the Colorado Avalanche actually have more of a chance to pick #4 than they do of winning the top overall selection (18% odds). In fact the lottery is three lotteries for the top three selections, so every team will have three chances to win the rights to pick a top three prospect. Almost all of these guys are names on a computer screen to me at the moment though. As little as I care about mock drafts – just ask all the NFL guys whose mocks totally blew up in the first round on Thursday night – and perceived ranking, it will be good to have some closure and know exactly where we’re picking.
Obviously the worst-case scenario for the Devils is if one or two teams behind them jump into the top three, particularly if it’s a division rival. Almost as bad from my point of view would be if #2 Vancouver or #3 Arizona got one of the top three picks, since the self-loathing Devil fans would complain about why we had to get that one extra point to cost us three spots in the lottery (despite having a horrid 3-17-4 record in their last 24 games after the season-torpedoing loss to the Isles at Barclays in mid-February). Clearly not everyone’s gotten the memo that this is a true lottery, and all places in the standings do are marginally increase or decrease the odds. It would serve them right in a sense if a team behind us did jump the line to get a higher pick, although the best way to quiet the cynics would be to win the lottery ourselves. Our odds are at 8.5% to win the top pick and increase proportionally for picks #2 and #3 depending on who wins the top slot, if not us.
There is other Devils ‘news’ at the moment if you’re one of the lemmings that lives and dies with every tease from Russian diva Ilya Kovalchuk. Insiders like Darren Dreger are reporting there’s been discussion about Kovalchuk returning to the NHL after four years overseas, stop me if you’ve heard this before. While the sojourn’s proven profitable for SKA with two Gagarin Cups, it’s been less so for the player himself as the value of the ruble tanked, and with that the big money the KHL All-Star skipped out on his twelve remaining contract years for. Part of me thinks he’s obviously considering returning after doing all he wanted to do with SKA to get one or two more big paydays in the NHL, and part of me thinks his interest in returning is a cynical negotiaton ploy to get more money out of Russia. Especially in an Olympic year, hard for me to believe he wants to leave Russia now that the NHL players aren’t going to be competing in the 2018 Olympics. Plus if Kovalchuk doesn’t want to be here for a rebuliding team his best move is to wait another year in Russia then come back when the Devils no longer have the right of first negotiation (though conversely it’ll be harder for him to negotiate a long-term deal as a 35+ player). Guess time will tell on that, especially since we’re unlikely to sign him before the expansion draft if that’s even an option.
One option being discussed is a sign-and-trade a la recent years in the NBA. While I’d be in favor of ridding ourselves of the drama once and for all I don’t even know what you could get for the player in a trade, coming off four years abroad and with more scuttlebutt he’s having knee surgery this offseason. If you want to get max value for Kovalchuk you might have to sign and play him for a while, assuming he actually shows enough early in the season to be worth it for a contending team. Any contract he signs likely won’t be long-term anyway so you could conceivably flip him at the deadline if the Devils are out of the running yet again. It’s really unlikely GM Ray Shero signs a 34-year old Kovalchuk to more than a one or two-year deal at most, so either way I’m not getting hyped up over a short-term patch with a bigger name than other short-term patches like Lee Stempniak.
Other than speculation all’s still quiet on the Devils front with only a prospect watch as AHL/OHL/WHL playoffs are still ongoing. For the good news, 2016 top pick Mike McLeod has been lighting it up for Mississauga as they’ve swept through the first three rounds of theh OHL playoffs going 12-2 to the Finals, with the winner of the Finals playing in the Memorial Cup. By all accounts McLeod’s been beastly in the second half of the season plus playoffs, showing he may well be ready to play a contributing role on the 2017-18 Devils. On the more melancholy end, Albany’s final AHL playoffs ended with a whimper, losing to Toronto (again), this time in a four-game first round though at least 2015 second-rounder Mackenzie Blackwood ended on a high note with a good terrific second half of the season – and a fine showing in a 3OT elimination game where Albany was outplayed by a wide margin.
Next year the Devils’ AHL affiliate will be located in Binghamton, with Albany’s future uncertain after 24 years of AHL hockey. I liked going to Albany the few times I was there, though I never saw a Devils win at least it was easy enough to get to, practically a straight shot on the highway 2 1/2 hours from North Jersey. My first memories of hockey were in the mid ’90’s when both the Devils and Albany won their respective championships in the same year (1995). Back then Albany churned out prospects for the Devils and was a winner until the early 2000’s when then-GM Lou Lamoriello started neglecting the AHL and Albany fell on hard times, at one point switching affiliations from the Devils to Hurricanes before the Devils moved back briefly. 2015-16 was one of the best years Albany had in fifteen seasons but it ended in the second round in a classic seven-game series from the same Marlies team that eliminated them this year. This year Albany struggled to make the playoffs amidst the news the team was moving beginning next season, and injuries to Joseph Blandisi and Miles Wood didn’t help the playoff push either.