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Gordo: NHL gets weird, gives playoff teams shot at No. 1 draft pick

Gordo: NHL gets weird, gives playoff teams shot at No. 1 draft pick

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Czech Republic U20 Hockey Worlds

Canada's Alexis Lafreniere, right, scores against Finland's Justus Annunen during a U20 Ice Hockey Worlds semifinal match in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The NHL has done many curious things in its history, but it pulled an epic head-scratcher while facing the global pandemic.

The league expanded its postseason to give 24 teams a chance to win the Stanley Cup. As luck would have it, 16 of them also will have a shot at landing high-scoring center Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 draft pick.

That’s insane.

Only the top eight playoff seeds, including the Blues, were kept out of the latter equation. We’ll walk you through the full explanation in a moment.

But first, ponder the possibility of the talent-laden Pittsburgh Penguins or Toronto Maple Leafs adding a potential superstar to their mix. Scouts love Lafreniere.

He can’t miss at No. 1, as defenseman Erik Johnson did for the Blues or poor Nail Yakupov did for the Edmonton Oilers.

Imagine the explosive Oilers getting another mulligan to add Lafreniere to their front lines featuring Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames have strong rosters. Normally they would have no shot at a generational talent.

If one of those teams luck into Lafreniere, the hyper-competitive Western Conference would get even tougher.

With Lafreniere in play, many fans will feel conflicted ahead of the best-of-five playoff qualifying round. Would a rebuilding team such as the Minnesota Wild or Chicago Blackhawks prefer to advance in the playoffs or expedite their overhaul?

Would the up-and-coming Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes rather win some playoff games with zero home-arena financial reward or add to their impressive young talent corps?

The players will try to win, of course, but we wouldn’t blame fans for taking a “Lose for Lafreniere” mindset while hoping for the worst.

The pandemic made all of this possible.

When the coronavirus cut short the season with several teams just outside of the usual 16-team playoff bracket, the NHL gave eight additional squads an opportunity out of fairness.

This charity forced a qualifying round, which in turn created a problem for the NHL draft lottery.

Normally the weighted lottery features the 15 nonplayoff teams. Rather than limit this year’s event to the seven nonplayoff teams, the NHL opted to include the eight play-in round losers as well.

Again, the league was just trying to be fair.

But rather than wait until after the qualifying round to hold the lottery, the NHL split it in two and held Phase 1 last Friday.

Because the play-in losers are unknown, the league put eight placeholders in Phase 1. That invited chaos . . . and sure enough, chaos ensued.

Each placeholder team had a meager 2.5% chance of winning, compared with the 18.5% chance the Detroit Red Wings enjoyed after their miserable 17-54-5 finish.

And yet placeholder “Team E” beat the odds to win the No. 1 pick. So after the play-in round the eight losers will enter the Phase 2 lottery with equal 12.5% chances of getting Lafreniere.

The Los Angeles Kings moved up to the No. 2 spot in Phase 1 and the star-crossed Red Wings fell to No. 4. The Ottawa Senators will pick third and fifth (thanks to a draft pick acquired from San Jose), then the Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres will follow.

The seven teams that don’t get the No. 1 pick in Phase 2 will fall to picks No. 9 through 15 in the draft.

All of that sounds confusing because it is confusing. Leave it to the NHL to come up with something truly twisted.

“It definitely has been a different 2020 compared to every other year that I’ve been on the face of this earth,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “We’re living through something totally different. But at the same time, there was a process to this draft. We all knew this could happen.”

If the Montreal Canadiens end up with Lafreniere, there will be less squawking. The Habs finished 31-40-9 this season and were virtually certain to miss the playoffs had the season kept going.

That is the sort of also-ran you expect to see hoping for the first pick, not a Cup contender like the Penguins. If Lafreniere ends up playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, that could become an historic stroke of franchise fortune.

The Penguins, who finished 40-29-6 this season, could avoid a painful rebuilding job once Sid the Kid finally turns gray.

Meanwhile, Red Wings fans are wallowing in their pit of misery. The Winged Wheel rolled into the last four NHL lotteries — and each outcome was bad.

“We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves, that doesn’t matter,” stoical Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman told reporters. “And you know what, maybe we will get lucky. Colorado lost the lottery a couple years ago and ended up at the fourth spot and got Cale Makar, a player that definitely moves the needle. We’ll get our lucky breaks along the way and maybe this will be one of them in an odd-looking way.”

Blues fans don’t feel bad for the Red Wings — given all the misfortune their own franchise suffered over the years — but they certainly can relate.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the NHL topped itself.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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