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NHL Clarifies Playoff Definition for Conditional Draft Picks; How it Impacts the New Jersey Devils

Pierre LeBrun at The Athletic reported on memo from the NHL that clarified how playoffs are defined with respect to conditional draft picks. This post is a quick reaction to the news plus what are now the best and worse case scenarios for the New Jersey Devils and their two conditional first round picks.

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Minnesota Wild v Vancouver Canucks
What we should be cheering for in months.

Earlier this evening, Pierre LeBrun reported at The Athletic ($) that the NHL has made a ruling clarifying how playoffs are defined for conditional picks this week. The NHL’s Return to Play format involves 24 teams where the top four in each conference are in the round of 16 already, and the fifth through twelfth place teams will play a qualifying round to get in. It was not clear whether being in the qualifying round would count the same as being in the playoffs. The answer from the league, via LeBrun, is no, it is not. Here is the key quote from that article which cites a memo from the league:

“More specifically, for Trade condition purposes, a Club will not be deemed to have qualified for the Playoffs unless or until they have progressed into the Round of 16, and ‘Playoff Games/Rounds’ will only include the games/rounds played in the Round of 16 or later. We believe this interpretation will best reflect the intentions of the parties at the time of the Trade,” the league stipulated.

I am not terribly surprised at this news. I had a feeling this would be the case as per my own reaction to the league’s Return to Play announcement. The Devilswebsite had it right from the beginning. That both the Devils and Canucks requested clarification from the league left some room for doubt. Now it is official. For the Devils to have Vancouver’s first round pick in 2020, then they need to beat the Minnesota Wild in their qualifying round matchup.

This memo also clarifies the 2021 conditional third round pick from Arizona that the Devils received in the Taylor Hall trade back in 2019. There are two conditions: Hall re-signing with Arizona and Arizona winning a playoff round. For that second condition to be even possible, then Arizona needs to beat Nashville in their qualifying round. If they do and they go on to the second round, then that pick will upgrade to a second rounder in 2021. And it will become a first if Hall does re-sign. That is a longer shot, but it is in play.

Now that is confirmed, what is the best case scenario for the Devils fan for this Return to Play format, whenever it happens? What should the Devils faithful hope for? Well, this is my view of what the ideal situation would be:

  • First, the first phase of the lottery on June 26 will have all three spots go to the seven teams that are will not resume play later this Summer (or Fall). Ideally, New Jersey would be one of those three but the key here is that none of the placeholder spots for the losers of the qualifying rounds wins a lottery. This will ensure that Arizona cannot win the lottery, which means New Jersey will get their first round pick in 2020. It will also ensure that the Devils’ own first round pick would be no later than seventh overall, which would only happen if Buffalo wins a lottery.
  • Second, Arizona loses to Nashville. This means Arizona’s first rounder would be at tenth overall. The Devils would have two top-ten picks in a draft class where the top eleven or so prospects have fantastic skill and potential for the future. That’s why I do not mind if the Devils do not win a lottery just as long as Arizona cannot possibly win one.
  • Third, as Arizona gets eliminated by Nashville, Vancouver beats Minnesota. This will mean the Devils will get Vancouver’s first round pick this year.
  • Fourth, Vancouver loses in the first round, so the pick ends up in the lower teens as opposed to the high or mid-twenties. The 2020 draft class starts to get more variable at around the 15-20 mark, so the higher this pick, the better.

From a fan’s standpoint, the degree of difficulty for this should be easy. While Nashville is coached by John Hynes, I do not think there is any actual animosity between New Jersey and Nashville as hockey teams or fanbases. Nothing personal, Coyotes fans, but business is business and what is best for business is for you to fail again. As for the Vancouver series, fans still boo Zach Parise at the Rock for leaving eight years ago. Wishing for Minnesota to suffer is not an issue.

This will require some harder-core hoping, wishing, and maybe breath-holding for the lottery draw on June 26. If a placeholder team does win one of three lotteries, then you would have to hope Arizona either loses and does not win the second lottery for that placeholder spot, or they win and get bounced in the first round to minimize that pick dropping deeper. The latter is “safer” but it would mean two mid-first rounders at best. The former makes it possible for the Devils to still have two top-ten picks. But if you truly believe in Taylor Hall’s lottery magic, then it is going to be an agonizing draw in the second phase.

What would be the worst case scenario? Again, this is my view of the situation:

The worst case scenario is not either team going deep in the playoffs. The worst case scenario is that the Devils lose out on the June 26 lottery (which honestly is not so bad), Minnesota beats Vancouver, and Arizona loses to Nashville and does indeed win a lottery with or without Hall’s magic. This means the Devils would have two unprotected first round picks in 2021 and their own first rounder in 2020 would be pushed back at least one spot due to Arizona winning a lottery at minimum. If other placeholders win lotteries, then 6th overall could quickly become 8th or 9th overall. While the 2021 class is still in development, that there is more hype for 2022’s draft class now (Shane Wright! Brad Lambert! Matthew Savoie! The other Jack Hughes!) than 2021’s is a bit telling. Further, both Arizona and Vancouver could be better teams in 2020-21 so those extra firsts, while unprotected, may not be that high at the end. The Devils are in a state of uncertainty in terms of management and direction. They clearly could use more players with high upside for the future. Getting that this year with extra first rounders means waiting less for that upside to be realized, which is important as Hughes’ ELC will be ending soon and Hischier’s extension will kick in. I would hate for the Devils to still be lost in the proverbial woods while Hughes and Hischier are enjoying their peak years. Having two or three first rounders in 2020 will be more helpful to avoid that fate than having three in 2021.

Thank you to LeBrun for confirming the situation with the conditional picks with respect to how the league is defining playoffs for it. If you are interested in providing moral support for Vancouver to beat Minnesota, then please visit Nucks Misconduct. If you would like to do the same for Nashville beating Arizona, then please visit On the Forecheck. June 26 is going to be a big day for the Devils and the league. Let us hope the balls bounce in New Jersey’s favor and not in what would be potentially Arizona’s favor.

How do you feel about the league’s clarifying memo to New Jersey and Vancouver? Do you agree with this being the best and worst case scenarios? Who or what would you be rooting for in the qualifying round? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this situation in the comments. Thank you for reading.