TORONTO – With only a 20 percent chance of success, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Tim Murray came here Saturday fully expecting to lose the NHL Draft Lottery. And the Sabres did, as the Edmonton Oilers won the draw for the No. 1 pick in the June draft and the right to take Erie Otters sensation Connor McDavid.
So Buffalo gets the No. 2 pick for the second straight year, and almost certainly will use it to take Boston University star Jack Eichel.
Even though the Sabres will get their generational player, it was hard for Murray to mask his disappointment. He’ll love Eichel, but he wanted McDavid.
“If you can pick 1 or 2, you’re going to choose 1,” Murray told reporters in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel after the lottery draw was held next door in the Sportsnet studios. "If you’re going to make a trade and they offer you the best defenseman in the league or the second-best defenseman in the league, you’re going to want the best. Anytime you can get 1 vs. 2 in any walk of life, you’re going to want one. But we came up here with an expectation we’d probably be picking No. 2 and we’re going to deal with it. There’s no issue there.”
Still, getting the rights to draft Eichel is a pretty good consolation prize. In almost any other draft year, Eichel would be the top pick.
Eichel harnessed his game of speed and power to post one of the best seasons ever by a freshman in college hockey this season. He had 26 goals, 45 assists and 71 points in just 40 games as Boston U. got all the way to the championship game of the NCAA Frozen Four before falling to Providence.
Eichel also became the first freshman since 1993 to win the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
“He’s as ready as 99 percent of the 18-year-old kids that have jumped into the National Hockey League,” Murray said. “You could say Sidney Crosby was more ready. You could. I’m a scout. I’ve scouted all my life. But these guys are guys anybody can see are special. It doesn’t take me as the GM of the Buffalo Sabres to tell you guys these guys are special.”
“It’s hard to talk about playing for a team next year when the draft hasn’t happened,” Eichel said of the Sabres via conference call. “A lot of things can happen on draft day. Nothing is set in stone right now, but obviously it would be really nice to play there. There’s so much tradition there and it’s a great hockey city.”
Eichel can return to college and not turn pro immediately, although that’s considered unlikely. The Sabres would retain his rights if he did.
“I’m sure the decision will be made at the right time,” Eichel said. “Right now I’ve got a long way to go. With that being said, it’s a dream for me and I’d love to play in the National Hockey League. I wanted to take a week or so to kind of wind down, reflect on my season so I haven’t put much thought into it. It’s something where I will sit down after the draft with my family and with people close to me. I’m really excited for the future and wherever that may be, I’ll be very happy.”
The Sabres had the best odds among the 14 nonplayoff teams to get McDavid, considered the best prospect since Sidney Crosby was selected first overall by Pittsburgh in 2005.
From a machine that spouted four ping-pong balls, one of Edmonton’s 115 combinations was drawn and the Oilers were named the winner during the brief ceremony that was nationally televised in both the United States and Canada. Team president Ted Black represented the Sabres in the lottery drawing room, and a clearly disappointed Black declined reporters’ inquiries for a comment on the proceedings.
The process to draw the balls took less than a minute and the winning combination was 1-5-6-14. Out of the 1,001 combinations, that was No. 174. How close did the Sabres come? They had combination No. 172 – 1-5-6-12.
Edmonton has not made the playoffs since it made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup final in 2006. This will mark the fourth time in six years it has had the No. 1 pick, as the Oilers took Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov from 2010-12. McDavid will become the centerpiece of the Oilers’ move to a new downtown arena, Rogers Place, for the 2016-17 season. McDavid’s rookie year will be Edmonton’s final season in Rexall Place, its home since it joined the NHL in 1979 and the site of the Oilers’ Stanley Cup triumphs in the 1980s and 90s.
McDavid, who is from suburban Toronto, openly talked during the season about potentially playing for the Sabres or Toronto Maple Leafs. That won’t happen now, but he insisted he was not upset that Edmonton is apparently going to be his destination.
“I don’t think there’s anyway you’d be disappointed,” McDavid said. “Any of those 14 teams would be an honor. Honestly with Buffalo there was a little bit more hype being so close in Erie. I’m not too sure how they’re reacting there, but Edmonton won and if I’m selected there, it would be an absolute honor.”
“I feel for our fans,” Murray said. “I mean, we went through a tough year, and I think that they were extremely excited about Connor, certainly because he plays in Erie. … I do feel bad for them.”
Murray reaffirmed his belief that the lottery system is not fair for rebuilding teams, saying the worst team should get the No. 1 pick. The league does not agree, because of clear concerns of teams tanking for draft picks. In fact, the rules are tightening for bottom-feeders as the lottery will select the top three choices in the draft starting next year.
“It’s not the disappointment in the player. It’s just the process for me,” Murray said. “... It would be fine with me if they phoned me and told me you didn’t win. But this is what they do. Thankfully it’s a short drive from Buffalo. I’d hate like hell to be flying across the country to take part in it. It’s part of what our league does, and it’s created a lot of buzz. So I don’t want to be a buzz-kill on this. The disappointment is not getting one as much as we wanted.”
Since Edmonton came from the No. 3 spot in the order to No. 1, Arizona dropped from No. 2 to 3. The rest of the order is Toronto, Carolina, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Columbus, San Jose, Colorado, Florida, Dallas, Los Angeles and Boston.