Unlike the other 12 National Hockey League franchises who are eligible to participate in Saturday night’s lottery drawing for the No.1 overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft, the Arizona Coyotes and the Buffalo Sabres do not have to win the top selection in order to win.
As hockey scouts and writers have reminded us at length during the course of the entire season, the 2015 draft features the rare opportunity to draft not just one, but two generational talents at the the center position — Connor McDavid of the OHL’s Erie Otters and Jack Eichel of the NCAA’s Boston University Terriers.
Both players are historic talents coming off historic seasons. Compared to Sidney Crosby by no less an authority than Crosby himself, McDavid possesses an otherworldly skill set that guarantees him the first overall selection even in an exemplary draft class. Eichel is often compared to Jonathan Toews, but possesses far more offensive upside, making him perhaps the most coveted second-overall selection in the history of the NHL draft.
By reverse virtue of finishing with the NHL’s worst record, Buffalo has guaranteed themselves the distinction of selecting no later than second in the draft, assuring themselves a franchise center to build a Stanley Cup contender around for the foreseeable future. Finishing with the second worst record in the league puts the Arizona Coyotes in a prime position to land the elite franchise center their organization has sorely lacked for pretty much their entire NHL history. The Coyotes’ situation, however, is without absolute assurance and is a mite more murky.
With the second-worst NHL record, the Coyotes have been granted a 13.5% chance of winning the lottery. Were this to happen, Connor McDavid jerseys would immediately start flying off the shelves in Arizona, the team would have an immediate air of respectability is has lacked for years in their unconventional desert market, and their on-ice prospects and future talent pool would go through the proverbial roof.
Were the Buffalo Sabres to win the McDavid sweepstakes, there would also be euphoria in the Coyotes’ front office. The Sabres have a 20% chance at the top overall pick, and this scenario would lock the Coyotes into the second overall selection. There, they would still have their franchise savior ready for the taking in Jack Eichel. The American-born Eichel would also not only easily rocket to the top of the Coyotes talent pool, but he would represent a McDavid-like marketing opportunity to inject credibility and excitement into a franchise which has traditionally struggled at the ticket box and in TV revenue.
For those who hate math, this gives the Coyotes a 33.5% chance of the superstar center and face of the franchise their organization is simply desperate for. Either player could be surrounded with the wealth of young talent Coyotes’ GM Don Maloney has accumulated at the wing (Christian Dvorak, Anthony Duclair, Ryan MacInnis, Brendan Perlini, Lucas Lessio) on the prospect level and on the blueline at the NHL and the prospect level (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Michael Stone, Connor Murphy, Brandon Gormley).
Though the Coyotes have depth of talent at the crucial center position in their organization, they do not have a surefire top center to build a Stanley Cup winner around. Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson, Laurent Dauphin and Maxim Letunov all offer very good NHL potential, but their talent levels are as far below McDavid’s and Eichel’s extraordinary ceilings as the average ECHL-players’ talent levels are below their own.
It is crucial not to misinterpret this point. While (the best of Arizona’s center prospects) Max Domi has the upside to be a very good NHL player, his defensive limitations and 5’9″ frame make him a better prospect as a second-line scoring pivot. In the highly competitive Pacific Division, a top center is forced to match up against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton and emerging superstar Sean Monahan each five times a year. Though no one doubts the hugeness of Domi’s heart and desire, all of the aforementioned Pacific pivots stand at least 6’3″ and weigh at least 220 pounds — Domi can simply not physically match up with these players over the fierce grind of an 82-game NHL season.
Moreover, look at the top line centers of the past five teams (in seven years) to win the Stanley Cup. It’s a future Hall of Fame who’s who: Anze Kopitar (twice), Jonathan Toews (twice), Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk. The top-line center position is crucial to success in today’s National Hockey League. The names Domi and Samuelsson and Dauphin and Letunov, although they could all be good players, are clearly out of place among the names of Toews and Crosby — the two players Eichel and McDavid are most often compared to.
Quite simply, the Arizona Coyotes future hinges on a 33.5% chance this Saturday night of landing a top two pick.
The word hinges was not used by accident. It is not as if, in the 66.5% chance the Coyotes are usurped by a team trailing them in the lottery standings and they wind up picking third overall, the Coyotes are dead in the water. No, the consensus third overall pick is a possible franchise defenseman in Boston College’s Noah Hanifin, comparable to Drew Doughty at the same age. Or they can take McDavid’s highly-touted teammate Dylan Strome, an Eric Staal-like two-way force who also projects to a top-line center at the NHL level, though still significantly below the rarefied generational talent of McDavid or Eichel. The Coyotes are known for draftng NHL legacies such as Strome (see: Domi, Samuelson, Perlini, Dvorak, etc.) Whichever route they chose, Hanifin or Strome, Arizona would still wind up with a terrific NHL talent. The Coyotes future will still be one which can be looked at with optimism.
Yet, in a market which struggles for fans on a franchise in notable need for a face, it would be a tremendously catastrophic lost opportunity.
To put it simply, what if the Pittsburgh Penguins had lost the 2005 lottery which landed them Sidney Crosby? What if Crosby had fallen to one of the two lottery runners-up, the Anaheim Ducks or the Carolina Hurricanes? It is safe to say the entire NHL landscape would be quite different today. What if the New Jersey Devils had not been passed up for worst record in 1983-84 by the obviously tanking Pittsburgh Penguins for the right to draft Mario Lemieux? It is quite possible that the city of Pittsburgh would not even have a hockey franchise today.
The Buffalo Sabres are not faced with such a dilemma. Win the lottery or lose the lottery, they get a generation talent to center their top line for seasons to come.
The Arizona Coyotes are indeed faced with such a proposition. Thus, the draft lottery on Saturday represents the most important day in the history of their franchise. By Sunday morning, we will know if the Coyotes are locked into a lengthy rebuild, or if they have turned the corner towards contention with the future centerpiece of their franchise.