The 2022-23 NHL regular season ends on April 14, but quite a few teams have had their sights set on the draft lottery for a while now. Yet, a team that telegraphed its tank job heading into this season forgot to hand its own players that memo.
You’d think the Arizona Coyotes would be failing hard for Connor Bedard (or embracing dishonor for Connor?), but instead, they’re red hot. Back in mid-February, Clayton Keller’s comment about making Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong grit his teeth seemed funny.
I asked Clayton Keller about this seven-game unbeaten streak:
“We got a good burst of energy there over the break,” he said, then laughed. “I’m sure the GM’s not too happy about it.”
— Craig Morgan (@CraigSMorgan) February 16, 2023
A month later, it instead feels like Keller called the Coyotes’ shot.
Amid a four-game winning streak and a seven-game point streak (6-0-1), the Coyotes entered Tuesday with 65 points in 70 games, leaving them as the seventh-worst team in the NHL. If that’s not remarkable enough, consider that they could rise above the also-hot Vancouver Canucks and up-and-down St. Louis Blues (both teams are at 67 points in 69 GP). While unlikely, the Detroit Red Wings (69 points in 69 GP) could also see their lottery odds improve with poor play and continued competence from one or more of the Coyotes, Canucks and Blues.
If you needed a reminder that rebuilding isn’t always simple, just remember this surge from the Coyotes. Then consider that the team with the best chance of landing the highest 2023 NHL Draft Lottery odds barely has any salary cap space.
In other words, there’s room for strange bounces even before the lottery odds decide where Bedard ends up, not to mention other top prospects such as Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson and Matvei Michkov.
At the moment, the Canadiens (60 points in 70 GP) could move down to the sixth-best odds if the Philadelphia Flyers (62 points in 69 GP) out-bungle them. Both the Flyers and Habs are playing suitably poorly, with Montreal on a dreadful 1-7-2 stretch in its past 10 games. The Canadiens are hoping they luck out in the lottery a year after getting the chance to pick Juraj Slafkovský first overall. (The Habs would have to hope that Bedard’s development is foolproof compared to a bumpy rookie campaign for Slafkovský.)
The Canadiens also own the Panthers’ first-rounder, which could leave Montreal rooting for the Penguins and the Islanders for a few weeks.
Currently, the Habs are more likely to stay at fifth or slip to sixth than “pass” the Ducks for the fourth-best lottery odds.
For about a month, the Ducks (56 points in 70 GP) have been junior Coyotes in foiling deeper tanking plans. From Feb. 23 - March 3, Anaheim won three in a row and rattled off a five-game point streak (4-0-1). Lately, they’ve pulled off upsets (over the Flames and Hurricanes) and GM-upsetting wins over other cellar dwellers (regulation wins against Columbus, Montreal and Chicago).
Because of that burst of semi-competence, the Ducks sit pretty conclusively in fourth. Assuming the Canucks don’t really fall, the Ducks’ most relevant head-to-head game happens in Arizona on April 8 against the Coyotes. Might we get a situation where rowdy Coyotes fans root for the Ducks?
Speaking of tanking not going to plan, GM Pat Verbeek could only squeeze a fourth-rounder out of John Klingberg’s rental fees at the trade deadline, so Anaheim’s scoreboard watching should be limited.
Like the Ducks, the Blackhawks didn’t get to add 2023 first-rounders at the deadline. They’ve also pulled off some upsets, including handing the Bruins a rare loss. The Blackhawks even ran off a five-game winning streak in February.
So, not every shot has been on the mark with this tanking effort, but the larger plan is mostly on track. The Blackhawks (54 points in 70 GP) are in range of the Sharks (53 points in 71 GP), and they extracted quantity from the trade deadline after things fell in a way that quality eluded them. As far as the rebuild goes, the work has also already begun, so that helps.
With a pretty challenging closing schedule, Chicago could conceivably finish with the second-best lottery odds.
Now this is a tank job — lately, at least.
Since Feb. 14, the Sharks have only won two games (2-11-4). No doubt, nitpickers can quibble about the contents of the Timo Meier trade but the bottom line is the Sharks took the plunge. If the Sharks play their cards right, perhaps they can also get out of Erik Karlsson’s contract in a relatively team-friendly way. Time will tell if the Oilers’ reported interest ends up being the Sharks’ best chance to shake loose from Karlsson, or if something else might crop up during the summer (or later).
Via the Meier trade, the Sharks hold the Devils’ 2023 first-rounder, which is likely to end up late, so it’s all about that top pick, which is almost certainly to revolve around the second- or third-best lottery odds.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
There’s clear distance between the lowly Blue Jackets (49 points in 69 GP) and everyone else, though the gap could shrink if Columbus “took advantage” of a small games-in-hand edge over Chicago and San Jose.
Either way, the Blue Jackets are pretty mind-blowing, and their situation serves up a tough question: how do you view the work of Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen? On one hand, Kekäläinen has been GM for slightly more than a decade, and the Blue Jackets spent like a contender — close to the salary cap ceiling. On the other hand, he’s enjoyed his victories, and could hardly be blamed for embracing Johnny Gaudreau’s still-baffling interest in signing with the team.
Not that long ago, the Blue Jackets gambled serious futures to rent the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That train of thought remains debatable and the Blue Jackets fell apart soon after. Columbus pivoted, and already boasts one of the NHL's best prospect pools. Bedard would dramatically alter the course of this franchise, and some might feel a lot better about the potential wunderkind falling to a team that “tried” instead of a tanking franchise like Chicago or Arizona.
Either way, the Blue Jackets linger as a fascinating team in this mix. The Blue Jackets also added the Kings' first-rounder via the Joonas Korpisalo-Vladislav Gavrikov trade, so they figure to have a busy draft weekend.
This team is in an odd spot, and may be looking at another fork in the road, but right now, it also seems likely to own the best odds in the lottery.