Three points. That’s the gap between the Winnipeg Jets and a spot in the NHL lottery entering action on Friday. It isn’t a big gap.
There are going to be some funny things that happen with the draft order this summer. As it stands, there are seven teams in the span between 21st and 27th overall separated by just four points. That means seven teams having similarly disappointing seasons are all almost indistinguishable from each other. One of them will likely end up with the fourth overall pick. Another will likely end up at 10th overall.
How the Jets play the rest of the way is going to have a major impact on where they finish. They play Carolina this evening, a team one point behind them. They play Tampa Bay tomorrow, a team in the same position. They’ll play the Islanders (yet another team in the same spot today) and then the Lightning again before closing out the season. The only game in their final five that won’t see them going head-to-head with an opponent in a similar position is their April 3rd contest against Florida.
I very much doubt that Claude Noel and the organization plans to lose. However much the difference in that draft pick might matter to the team, both the coach and the players will only look bad if they relent at this point. History doesn’t care for the nuance of Noel’s situation – if he doesn’t coach to the best of his ability every game, it could very well come back to haunt him.
Still, the gap between 4th and 10th overall can be a huge one in terms of talent. Sometimes it isn’t a big one. Sometimes a team does something crazy, like draft Thomas Hickey. But other times, there’s a huge difference – the difference between Backstrom and Frolik, Kane and Paajarvi, Pitkanen and Nystrom.
If, then, things go sideways the rest of the way – like how they did against the Rangers on Wednesday night, or if the Jets replicate their run of the last few games (they’ve been outscored 28-to-18 and lost five of six) that doesn’t mean players or coaches shouldn’t be judged on the outcome. It does mean that a losing streak here probably isn’t going to hurt the team in the long haul.
And hey, there’s always the example of Chicago. The Edmonton Oilers won their last game of the 2006-07 season, sliding past the Blackhawks in the standings and finishing with the sixth overall pick (Sam Gagner). Chicago rose to fifth, and then something lucky happened: they won the draft lottery. Three summers later, Patrick Kane scored 28 points in 22 playoff games, and Chicago won the Stanley Cup.