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After missing out as favorites, Sabres head to NHL Draft Lottery as longshots

Graphic via Sportsnet.ca

Graphic via Sportsnet.ca

After losing the last two NHL Draft Lotteries, the Sabres wound up with impressive consolation prizes. No. 2 selections Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart have proved they can excel in the NHL.

Imagine adding a No. 1 overall pick to those cornerstones. The vibe in Sabreland would skyrocket from positive to positively outrageous.

It’s a long shot, but lotteries are about dreaming big, right?

The NHL will unveil the results of the 2016 Draft Lottery on Saturday night in Toronto (8 p.m., NBC, CBC). Unlike the previous two years, when last-place Buffalo had the best odds of winning the top pick, the organization is in the middle of the 14-team pack. The Sabres, slated to draft eighth overall in June, have a 6 percent chance of vaulting to No. 1.

For the first time, there’s more up for grabs than the top pick. The second and third selections will also be doled out via lottery. The league will conduct the three lotteries in order, starting with the first pick and finishing with the third.

The Sabres have a 19.2 chance of moving into the top three.  They have a 39.2 percent chance of remaining eighth, a 34.8 percent chance of falling to ninth and a 6.6 percent chance of dropping to 10th. The furthest Buffalo can fall is 11th, but there’s only a 0.3 percent chance of that happening.

The lotteries will be conducted prior to the live television broadcast. Fans will see only the unveiling of the first 14 picks, done in reverse order. If picks 11 through eight pass by without the Sabres’ logo appearing, it will mean they’ve won one of the lotteries.

Last-place Toronto has the best odds (20 percent) of winning the top pick. Unlike the Sabres, who dropped to No. 2 after not winning, the Maple Leafs can fall all the way to fourth.

“When you’re in our situation, you’re excited about every draft,” Leafs President Brendan Shanahan told Toronto media. “The odds are stacked against us that we’ll pick first. We understand that.”

Sabres General Manager Tim Murray understood it, too, but that didn’t make losing out on the top pick any more palatable. Murray expressed disappointment in the lottery process after failing to get the No. 1 selection last year, and it was perceived as a slight to Eichel and an endorsement of Connor McDavid.

There won’t be any waves made by Murray this year. He said on his radio show earlier this month that he had no desire to attend the lottery, and the Sabres confirmed this week the GM is staying away. Greg Royce, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting, will represent the team in the CBC studios.

Auston Matthews at a game in Zurich. (New York Times)

Auston Matthews at a game in Zurich. (New York Times)

This year’s draft will be held June 24-25 in First Niagara Center. Auston Matthews, who played professionally in Switzerland this season, is the favorite to hear his name called first. The center totaled 24 goals and 49 points in 40 games with Zurich.

“Auston Matthews is an extraordinary prospect with NHL size, speed and smarts, combined with an exceptional work ethic and a relentless compete level,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “The other players in the mix for the top five selections have all improved their stock, but Matthews is our clear choice as the top prospect available for the 2016 NHL Draft.”

Matthews is a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., so the fan-starved Arizona Coyotes are salivating over the prospect of a hometown kid boosting the franchise. The Coyotes have a 6.5 percent chance of winning the top pick.

“Ask anybody if they’d love to play for their hometown team, it would be pretty special,” Matthews told Arizona media while attending the Coyotes’ home finale. “The Coyotes are the reason I started playing hockey.”

The Coyotes’ odds of getting Matthews are just seventh best. Behind Toronto are Edmonton (13.5 percent), Vancouver (11.5 percent), Columbus (9.5 percent), Calgary (8.8 percent), Winnipeg (7.5 percent), Arizona, Buffalo, Montreal (5 percent), Colorado (3.5 percent), New Jersey (3 percent), Ottawa (2.5 percent), Carolina (2 percent) and Boston (1 percent).

Canadian teams have a 68.5 percent chance of landing the top pick. Vancouver and Calgary have never held the No. 1 selection. Edmonton has picked first in four of the last six drafts.

“We’re due for some good luck,” Canucks GM Jim Benning said in Vancouver. “This is just another chance to add one more piece to the puzzle.”

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