Well I’ve had some interesting birthdays as a Devils fan…the two I remember most vividly until tonight were when we lost to the Rangers ironically enough in Game #1 of the 2008 playoffs at home, a bad birthday to be sure. My other vivid Devil fan birthday memory was a few years back when we played Fan Appreciation against the Leafs and it was thought to be a passing of the torch from a Czech legend (Patrik Elias) to the prince in waiting (Pavel Zacha) at the end of the 2015-16 season. Albeit that was a meaningless game, but still a nice memory as one of my all-time favorite Devils went out on a spectacular note. Tonight’s hilarity – and that’s really the emotion I’m feeling right now – tops all that.
Honestly I was prepared for the worst tonight. After all, the Devils had already won two lotteries against the odds, in 2011 jumping four spots from #8 to #4 and drafting Adam Larsson, eventually flipping him for the now self-proclaimed lottery ball specialist Taylor Hall. Why lottery ball specialist? When he was in Edmonton, they won multiple lotteries to get the top pick in the draft (including Hall himself), and once again in 2017 after joining the Devils when they moved up from #5 to #1 to draft Nico Hischier. You would think we were due for some bad luck and it certainly seemed that way when first the Hawks, then the Rangers of all teams jumped into the top three. It seemed we were about to pay the piper in a big way.
But nobody circles the lottery wagons like Taylor Hall!
Once again Devil fans got a last-minute surprise in the lotto when the Kings drew the fifth slot, signaling the Devils had in fact won one of the three lotteries and were now in the top three with the Blackhawks and rival Rangers. Visions of 2017 started dancing around in my head…was this really going to come down to us and one of our bitter rivals again for the #1 pick?! Indeed it did as the Blackhawks’ card was drawn first after the commercial break. Then when the Devils card came up I just broke out laughing, quite literally. I didn’t even listen to the TV interview with GM Ray Shero, I was too busy texting a couple of friends and just laughing at the absurdity of it all.
And sure you can’t really accuse the lotteries of being fixed, although I’m sure some bitter fans of other NHL teams will wonder why we keep winning lotteries all of a sudden. Still, it’s interesting that karma was once again rewarded as it seems so often to be during these NHL lottos. Chicago was in the playoff chase till the final weeks after a bad start that got longtime coach Joel Quenneville fired, and while I’m not thrilled a still talented team will get a top three pick I’ll take it all things considered. Say what you will about both the Devils’ and Rangers’ seasons, but they played hard most of the time despite talent and experience deficiencies, each winning games down the stretch that could have screwed their odds but in the end actually helped them in this weighted randomness that is the NHL lottery.
I wasn’t kidding a while back when I said in one of Derek’s blogs that I thought the Rangers had a real shot of winning the lottery. It just seems to be the new norm now that a team outside the bottom three wins. In fact of the four years of the current lotto system no more than one team in the bottom three has actually wound up with a top three pick in any of those lotteries, and in this lotto it was only the 3rd-worst Devils that wound up with a top three pick. In the Hischier lottery they finished 5th from the bottom but like this year actually had the best odds of any of the three teams in the bottom three.
With what appears to be a clear top pick in Jack Hughes and a clear #2 in Kaapo Kaako (both forwards), the Battle of the Hudson is set to heat up again in a big way after a dull 2018-19 between the two rivals. Just like Nico vs. Nolan forever linked the top two picks of the 2017 draft so will Hughes vs. Kaako be linked in 2019, both by their draft position and the fact they’ll be on rival teams for years to come. I’m not going to get into a full draft preview or comparison even though it’s almost certain both of these players will be in the top two. As we learned from 2017, the top pick at the beginning of the process isn’t always the top pick at the end of it since if you asked the majority of Devil fans on the night of that lottery win they would have expected to be taking Nolan Patrick, the consensus #1 pick for the previous eighteen months.
And just like 2017 while it stinks the Rangers will also be getting a very good player, the trade-off is worth it. Not to mention having to wait nearly an hour to find out the result with the lottery ostensibly starting at 8, although unlike most of the viewers I’d gotten a heads up that the first half hour was going to be a playoff preview so I refused to turn on the coverage till 8:30. Winning the lottery changes everything for the Devils, needless to say. Having our top two centers for the forseeable future being Nico and Hughes, or adding a guy like Kaako to a top six that could use another power winger is a potential game-changer and yet another enticer for Hall to sign long-term this summer. Not to mention a potential enticer for free agents, and spur for Shero to make more moves to get this team into consistent contender mode.