20 Percent: A Leafs Fan’s Account of Winning the Draft Lottery
By: Aaron Greenfield
An agonizing one-hour left to wait. The 2016 season began with a stern warning from new Head Coach Mike Babcock that there will be pain. For me, hearing this as a lifelong fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs was a bit puzzling at first, because, well, what were the last 20 years all about? Now after waiting all season to see where the team would finish, there was just one more hour left to see if it all worked out in our favour.
Only ten more minutes to see if one of the least statistically successful seasons I’ve ever witnessed my favourite sports team endure was worth it or if it was all for naught. Losing one or two or even all three of the lotteries may not set them back as much as Leafs fans may think but winning one of them puts them in a great spot where they can soon shift their focus from rebuilding to contending. While the Leafs had the best odds at winning the lottery, just 20%, it meant that the Leafs had much better odds of not having the opportunity to draft a potentially franchise-altering player in Auston Matthews.
The big screen at Real Sports Bar & Grill in Toronto changes from showing the Blue Jays game to Sportsnet’s coverage of the Draft Lottery. Adrenaline picks up quickly and there’s a feeling of nervous excitement in the building.
The revealing of the order itself goes by very quickly.
“The 14th selection in the NHL Entry Draft belongs to… The Boston Bruins”.
A short but loud cheer erupts. Boston has not won one of the lotteries. Good. Carolina is called next meaning another positive result. After Ottawa, New Jersey and Colorado are all called respectively, there’s a sudden shift in the feeling around the room. Nothing is said between fans but it is understood that this night could be special as the more teams that get called in the order they finished the regular season, the more likely it is that the Leafs would remain on top. Next up, the Montreal Canadiens.
The nerves pick up again. If the envelope were to turn and the Montreal emblem was not shown, it would be devastating for Leafs fans as one of their top rivals who already have a decent group of players would therefore have won one of the three lottery picks and the Leafs would have to get used to seeing that franchise player scoring on them.
“The 9th selection in the NHL Entry Draft belongs to… The Montreal Canadiens”.
An explosive cheer. By this point I have lost my voice despite the fact that the Leafs still had a very real chance of losing all three lotteries and picking 4th. Who knew flipping envelopes with NHL logos could be this intense?
Large roars are then let out with the next two results: the Buffalo Sabres, a team that did everything in their power last season to try and get Connor McDavid but came up short and believed they deserved redemption this season, and the Arizona Coyotes, a team that many fans feared of a league-rigging in their favour, as top prospect Mathews is an Arizona native. Both were not meant to be.
But then fear returns in the building. The spot for the Winnipeg Jets was instead awarded to Calgary. We have a winner. This means Winnipeg is the first team to win one of the lotteries, but which one was yet to be determined. I was not too disappointed as Winnipeg is probably my second favourite Canadian team plus they have little to no rivalry with Toronto so it would not pain me too much to see them have success. That being said I didn’t come here to watch my team lose something yet again, so my mind began racing.
Right after this was another winner. The Vancouver Canucks were called meaning they had dropped from a lottery position, which instead was won by Columbus. Here’s where my mind was starting to spin. A second team that I really wouldn’t mind winning one of the lottery picks due to little connection to the Leafs had won, while teams I just couldn’t bear to win the lottery were dropping. Could everything be falling perfectly into place or was this all one sick joke that would end spectacularly with Edmonton picking first and the Leafs picking 4th? I was about to find out.
I glance over to one of the screens below where the Blue Jays game was being played. JA Happ had just given up a home run in the 7th inning, which blew the one-run lead the Jays had. Talk about a bad omen or foreshadow. This was Toronto sports in a nutshell. We simply can’t have nice things and tonight was just going to be another example of that.
“The 4th selection in the NHL Entry Draft belongs to…
Source: Global News/Shaw Media
The Edmonton Oilers”.
If you’ve already seen the reaction video from Real Sports (if not, video is further down below) where the confetti drops… well they may as well have dropped it here. The reaction in the building was not only as if the Leafs won the lottery but also if Drake was in the building and giving out free Views albums – it was that hectic and electrifying.
What this all meant was that the Leafs had won one of the three lotteries. The top three in the draft are projected to have talents that are far more remarkable than players taken 4th or later. It meant that at least some of that pain was worth. Whether it would truly be worth it would be determined in the next two announcements. So Sportsnet decides to go to a commercial and lets the agony play out for another two minutes.
A guy sitting next to me was much more calm but also warned me that he really did not want the Leafs to draft Jesse Puljujarvi, the prospect rated 3rd overall. He said the player is most likely to be a bust. Now this was not an expert in Finnish junior hockey sitting next to me but just some guy from Toronto who had no confidence in a player he’d seen play maybe once before but his words still stuck in the back of my head because if the Leafs were to win the 3rd lottery and were awarded the 3rd pick, we’d likely be hearing that narrative for a decade or so. We have to win it all tonight.
“The 3rd selection in the NHL Entry Draft belongs to… The Columbus Blue Jackets”.
I can’t really remember in detail was happened here but all I know was I was thinking, “We hit the jackpot.” Patrik Laine, projected to be drafted 2nd has been closing the gap on Matthews according to scouts so picking either of the two players would be a guaranteed “successful” season, or successful tank because it would mean they have secured an immense talent. But would it be a centre or winger who they land?
The moment I’ve waited my whole life for.
I’ve read and re-read the sentence above multiple times and realize it’s so quintessentially Toronto to wait your entire life to have the number one pick in a draft (rewarded to teams for their poor performance in the previous year’s season) so I decided to keep it. Also hopefully I only have to say it once and not eight straight seasons like the Edmonton Oilers. But it’s true. The team has only had one other first overall selection and it was before I was born so I’ve never witnessed the excitement of selecting the best rated prospect in a draft and the excitement and optimism that comes with it. Since 2004, the Leafs haven’t had a true number one centre and still haven’t managed to replace the last one they had, their former captain, number 13, Mats Sundin.
The final ball drawn for the #leafs to secure the No. 1 pick was No. 13.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 1, 2016>
“The 1st selection in the NHL Entry Draft belongs to… The Toronto Maple Leafs”.
Minutes later the Blue Jays lose the game. NOBODY in the room could care. There are maybe two or three Toronto sports events in my lifetime where I was as excited and cheered as much as I did when Toronto was called; the Blue Jays round 1 series victory last season was one of them but even that may now be a distant second to tonight’s performance. High fives, hugs, screams; a whirlwind of emotion. I had to take a second to calm down because I literally thought my heart would beat right out of my chest. My body simply wasn’t used to having a level of adrenaline that high.
I hope I never have to endure a season like 2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs season. By January I had completely lost interest to the point where I willingly chose not to tune in some nights because I already knew the result. This was not a development year, per se. It was a get to the bottom of the standings while implementing a structure and style of play year. The last 20 games were great, though, because there were glimpses of hope when a bunch of prospects got a short stint of NHL experience.
The Toronto Marlies are in round 2 of the playoffs and are doing something remarkable. Their roster is almost entirely made of homegrown talent, young players whom they drafted or acquired from other teams. Rarely does an American Hockey League champion win with a roster entirely made of youngsters – often there are three or four core veterans, at least, who at one time played in the NHL but got buried in the minors because their teams were deep enough that there was no longer room for them. They are often more experienced, sometimes bigger and stronger and are able to overpower younger smaller teams. This year’s Marlies are not that but should still be feared. What the Maple Leafs have been able to do in mainly two NHL drafts is incredible, to go from one of the bleakest prospect pools to one of the most envious. Leafs prospect Mitch Marner is on pace to break an OHL playoff scoring record. Many of the lesser-known prospects are also contributing at a high rate in their respective CHL playoffs. Andreas Johnson returned to North America fresh off a Swedish Hockey League championship to try and win a Calder Cup with the Marlies. And now, the number one pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft. Next season will be their first real season to see what they have. How will a full season take its toll on their young players? What will a full season from van Riemsdyk look like now, or Kadri who is fresh off a new contract? Then add in a full season for Nylander and Matthews as they both battle for the Calder trophy. Will Mitch Marner make the Leafs out of training camp and play well? What about wild cards like Connor Brown or Brendan Leipsic? And will the Leafs defence still be stingy and take another leap forward? Connor Carrick is looking like a great steal and should be a regular on the blueline next season.
Auston Matthews will be critiqued, criticized, reviewed and of course praised even before his name is called at the draft in June. An exceptional talent, Matthews managed to blow away the competition at the USHL level, the US National Development Program and in Switzerland, on the ZSC Lions, against men. He’s not Connor McDavid. He’s not Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews. He’s Auston Matthews. And he will be ours. The odds were in our favour that night but I’m willing to bet the odds of him succeeding in Toronto are higher than 20%.