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The NHL logo is seen on a goal at a Nashville Predators practice rink in this September 2012 file photo.
The NHL logo is seen on a goal at a Nashville Predators practice rink in this September 2012 file photo.

NHL draft: Canadian teams have rarely picked first

The two Canadian teams never to pick first overall will have their own special lucky charms for the upcoming NHL draft lottery.

“We’re sending hopefully what will be a lucky Irishman,” Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving said of team president Brian Burke. “We’re just banking on him.”

“Our lucky charm is Trevor,” Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said of team president and former captain Trevor Linden. “We’re due for some good luck.”

Canadian teams have a 68.5 per cent chance of landing the top pick at Saturday’s lottery, led by the Toronto Maple Leafs at 20 per cent and Edmonton Oilers at 13.5 per cent.

Beyond the Oilers, who have secured the first overall pick four times in the past six years, Canadian NHL teams have rarely picked first historically.

The Flames and Canucks have never done so.

Calgary’s highest pick was fourth overall in 2014 (Sam Bennett) while Vancouver has picked as high as second, including in 1988 with the selection of Linden. Two other teams, the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets (as the Jets and not the Atlanta Thrashers), have picked first only once in their respective histories, but neither in more than 30 years.

Montreal and Ottawa have owned the top selection multiple times, but not since 1980 for the Canadiens and 1996 for the Senators.

The two GMs of the clubs never to pick first are approaching the lottery well aware that the odds are stacked firmly against them. Vancouver has only an 11.5 per cent chance of landing the top spot, Calgary a touch below that at 8.5 per cent.

“That translates into a 91 per cent chance you’re not going to be there,” Treliving said in an interview. “And so I’ve tried to look at things in the realm of percentages and odds of things taking place. You’ve got to be prepared for the more likely scenario of not being there.”

Benning concurred, noting the possibility of the Canucks falling as low as the sixth overall pick and the preparation that comes with potentially picking lower.

The NHL will use the lottery system to draw the first three picks for the first time.

The Canucks GM has seen each of the top three projected prospects, Auston Matthews as well as Finnish wingers Patrick Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, eight to 10 times in person and has a good handle on what each might bring.

“I know those guys very well,” he said, describing each as an immediate NHL contributor.

Matthews, an American centre who played this past season in Switzerland, is generally thought to be a foregone conclusion at No. 1.

“Would it surprise me if Auston went first? No, it wouldn’t,” Treliving said with a touch of sarcasm. “He’s a wonderful player. He’s a talent. (But) he’s not the only talented player in this draft, there’s others. So we’ll see how it all plays out.”

“For us, he’s going to be a No. 1 centre-ice man going forward,” Benning said. “That’s an attractive thing to us.

“But some teams maybe that are set up the middle, maybe they like the wingers better as the No. 1 pick. Some teams like the best player, other teams will pick the guy that’s the best fit. Like if you look at the Edmonton Oilers (at) centre ice with (Connor) McDavid, (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins, (Leon) Draisaitl, they’re pretty set up the middle so maybe another piece is what they value more (than Matthews) because it’s a better fit for their group.”

Prior to 1995, the draft order was determined by the standings with the worst team from the regular season picking first. Periodical expansion from the late 1960’s onward as well as the implementation of the lottery in ’95 meant that Canadian teams, even if mediocre, often weren’t mediocre enough to draw the first pick.

As both Treliving and Benning acknowledge, success at the draft is about much more than just a first-round pick or even the first overall selection. Stanley Cup-winning outfits in Chicago and Los Angeles have shown that it’s nailing picks in deeper rounds that truly turns a team’s fortunes around.

The Flames, Treliving noted, have 10 picks for this year’s draft, including three in the second round. They’ll need to hit on a few to rise up after a disappointing 2015-16 season.

“This is just another chance to add one more piece to the puzzle,” Benning said of the No. 1 pick.

A mighty big piece though and a rare opportunity for most teams in Canada.

About Krishna Ponnampalam

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