In a few years New York Rangers fans might look back at this year’s three-game qualifying round sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes as a major turning point for the franchise.
Perhaps the turning point for the franchise.
It was that loss that put the Rangers back in the running for the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, which they won on Monday night.
In a normal season, the Rangers, who finished the regular season with the 18th best record in the league, would have had less than a 2 percent chance of winning the top pick in the lottery and would have most likely picked 14th overall.
But because of a perfect storm of events that included them being included in the 24-team return to play format, a “placeholder team” winning the first phase of the draft lottery, and their qualifying round loss, their chances jumped up to 12.5 percent for Monday’s drawing. It was there that their lottery ball came up.
With that comes the opportunity to add another massive piece to an already promising rebuild.
[Related: Rangers win 2020 NHL Draft Lottery]
Assuming the Rangers keep the pick (the No. 1 overall pick has not been traded since 2003) it is expected that they will use it on Alexis Lafreniere, a potential top-line winger that has spent the past three years completely dominating the QMJHL.
It will continue a rather impressive two-year run that has seen them significantly add to the high-end talent throughout the organization, and give them what should be an outstanding core of high-level players to build around. This is not a case where a No. 1 overall pick is going to a team that is starting from scratch and has to completely rebuild. This is a team that could (and perhaps should) be a playoff team as soon as this upcoming season.
They already have an MVP-level player in place after the addition of Artemi Panarin this past summer. His first year in New York was one of the finest offensive seasons in the history of the franchise, and while he does turn 29 next season he should still have several impact years ahead of him. Along with Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider remain top-line players and are signed long-term.
But it’s the young talent on the roster that is perhaps most exciting.
This is the second year in a row the Rangers had draft lottery luck on their side. A year ago they moved from sixth to second in the lottery, getting the right to select Kaapo Kakko. While he struggled through his rookie season and did not make an immediate impact, he is still only 19 years old, loaded with talent, and has top-line potential.
They also have a potential building block on their blue line in Adam Fox, one of the most impressive rookies in what turned out to be a fantastic 2020 class across the league. If he continues on his current trajectory he should be a top-pairing defender for years.
While the book seems to be closing (and is perhaps entirely closed) on Henrik Lundqvist‘s time with the team, they have two in-house replacements in Alexander Georgiev and the emergence this year of Igor Shesterkin, who had already taken over the starting job down the stretch.
Now they are adding what could end up being the best player of the bunch in Lafreniere.
This does not guarantee the Rangers anything next season or five seasons from now or at any point down the road. It does not mean a Stanley Cup is immediately on the horizon or a foregone conclusion. It not a perfect team by any stretch at this point.
There is still a pretty big hole at center beyond Zibanejad, and the defense needs a lot work after Fox.
But you can find a No. 2 center or a second defense pairing a hell of a lot easier than you can find potential franchise-changing players.
It is the franchise players that you need — emphasis on need — to win a championship. They are always the players that are most difficult to find and acquire. It usually requires a significant amount of luck, good fortune and perfect timing, something the Rangers have now had on their side in two consecutive years with the draft lottery to land Kakko and (potentially) Lafreniere.
Almost every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era has at least one top-two pick on their roster, with the only exceptions being the 2018-19 Blues, the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, and the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks (Chris Pronger was a No. 2 pick, but he was not picked by Anaheim). Many of them have had multiple picks in that area.
The rebuild is not over by any stretch, but the amount of potential superstar talent the Rangers have added in the span of one year has certainly accelerated the process.