The Devils won a top spot in the NHL’s Draft Lottery once again this week, moving up from the #5 spot they occupied at the start of the proceedings to the #2 spot, behind the league’s last-place team, Montreal, who retained their #1 position. This is now the Devils’ third draft lottery win in the past six years (and actually fourth since 2011), making their selections in the last six drafts the following: 1st, 17th, 1st, 7th, 4th, 2nd. So, in six years that gives them five top-seven selections, four top-four selections, and, of course, three top-two selections. From a team-building standpoint, this is a good way to amass a whole lot of high-end talent in a hurry. From a “watching most of the hockey that preceded these many high picks” standpoint, it has been a slow-rolling freight train packed to the brim with suck.
In the lead up to the lottery on Tuesday, I found myself wrestling with the thought that I almost did not want the Devils to win the lottery. Being a reflection of the 2010s Oilers is not really a state of affairs I am comfortable with, and the Devils were already in a strong position to select a high-end player anyway. This is a bit of an irrational feeling, of course, as having the #1 pick is objectively better than having the #5, 6, or 7 pick. If you want the Devils to be good at playing hockey at some point in the future, the player selected at the top of the draft is more likely to be an elite player than the one you’d grab several picks later.
Still, there is an element of embarrassment to being so good at being terrible. If the Devils stayed around the fifth spot, we at least get the dignity of suffering through rooting for this team in relative anonymity as just another NHL also-ran. A lottery win turns the spotlight back on the persistent failures of the franchise. Part of being a sports fan is bantering with other sports fans and being the team that is constantly picking first overall gives your rivals a substantial cudgel to bludgeon you over the head with, especially if your team continues to land at the bottom of the standings in the aftermath.
Perhaps this is a fleeting worry, since if the Devils can ever manage to get their [expletive] together and contend, we probably won’t care a whole lot about getting a leg up to do it from some lottery luck. And for as much of a trash fire the Devils have been since 2014 or so, the Devils have never actually finished last-overall in the league or even bottom-two, they’ve just had a number of fortuitous bounces from the lottery balls. Whether there is an appreciable difference between being simply a very bad team and being the league’s absolute worst team (something the Oilers did frequently back in the day), well, your mileage may vary. The general point still stands, though: if you pick first all the time, everyone in the league gets a keen understanding of how much you suck and inevitably will resent the fact that all of the top picks are being wasted on your terrible organization.
The Devils did not win this year’s top pick, of course, they just won the second spot. There was some noticeable grousing on social media during the lottery that the Devils were again having the ping pong balls bounce their way, but them landing second instead of first blunted some of that grumbling. In the end, the Devils upped the value of their pick but avoided at least some of the stigma of being The New Oilers. Not a bad outcome, all things considered. Now, the team gets to pick from a group of high-level prospects (and even potentially Shane Wright if Montreal overthinks things a bit) without the glare of the spotlight that comes with #1.
Here’s the crucial part, though, I need this to be the last top-two pick we see for some time in New Jersey. Hell, I need it to be the last top-five or even top-ten pick. This season happened, the Devils got themselves another high draft pick to bolster the core (or trade for an established impact player(s)). Huzzah, bully for us. The time for building through the draft has come and gone with core pieces like Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt starting to enter their primes, though. The general feeling around the Devils fanbase leading up to the 2022 lottery was apathy, if they find themselves high in the odds again next year, I suspect that feeling will be even more pronounced (although the presence of Connor Bedard could get people caring, I suppose).
So, where I’m at is here: it’s good the Devils moved up at the draft lottery. They will have a higher chance at an elite player than they would have at fifth or sixth spot. I also do not want to have to care about the results of a draft lottery again for a long time. The Devils have drafted high enough for long enough that we should not have to do this anymore. If Tom Fitzgerald cannot manage to build a team in 2022-23 that can make the lottery irrelevant, especially if he moves forward with the same head coach that delivered abysmal results in the past two seasons, the team should move on and let someone else try to build something with all of the fortuitous lottery picks the Devils have received. I want to not care about the lottery anymore. Please make this happen for me, Devils.