As Good Friday approaches, marking a time of contemplation in the Christian calendar, perhaps it's appropriate to spend some time this week thinking about saviours. With the Canadiens' OT loss to Washingon on Saturday and the Oilers' win over Anaheim a day later, the Habs sit in 29th place in the league. Technically, with both Montreal and Edmonton having played 79 games, they're tied with 73 points apiece, but the Habs get the edge in futility by virtue of having a total of only 29 wins, compared to the Oilers' 32. All that math aside, the bottom line is the Habs are currently the second-best losers in the league, which, if they maintain that position, gives them an 18.8% chance of winning the draft lottery.
This position is making a lot of fans excited in a season in which there's little else to celebrate. It's so easy to imagine the Canadiens winning the draft lottery and picking first overall for the first time since they took Doug Wickenheiser over Denis Savard in 1980. It's tempting to think of Nail Yakupov on Tomas Plekanec's wing, giving the beleaguered centre a real sniping winger at last. With the current top line as constituted and a Yakupov/Plekanec/Gionta line backing it up, one of the biggest problems facing the Canadiens would be instantly solved. The excitement should come with a bit of caution, though.
Yakupov is the clear-cut top player in this year's draft. He's put up 1.59 points per game in his two seasons of junior hockey in Sarnia. He's of fairly average size, at 5'11" and 190lbs, but there's no reason why he should not be able to make a serious run at cracking the NHL lineup of whichever team claims him in June. He'll likely follow in the footsteps of other sure-thing number-one picks before him.
John Tavares, for example, joined the Islanders at 18. In his first season, he put up a very respectable 54 points, and has improved every season since. In that first year, however, he didn't exactly pick the Isles up and carry them to respectability. Steven Stamkos is undeniably a superstar now, but in his first season in Tampa at 18 years of age, he managed only 46 points. The highly-touted winner of the Taylor/Tyler sweepstakes of a couple of seasons ago made the Oilers out of camp, but has since dealt with several injuries and has a season high of 53 points in 61 games. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has shown he belongs in the NHl as a teenager, but he's also had a problem with injuries.
The point is, these kids are good...really good. Scouting these days has evolved significantly from the days in which good junior numbers and a turn-your-head-and-cough physical could make you a number-one pick. These kids are evaluated physically, mentally and emotionally. They're watched every night and their games dissected by countless educated eyes. They're subject to combines and intense interviews. Accidents don't happen with the number-one guy as often as they used to. There's not one for the last ten years who's been a total bust.
So...this year's guy will be a good NHL player, most likely.
Will he be a guy who can single-handedly turn a franchise around? That's a bigger question. Based on the stats of the players who've been chosen first in the last several years, it might be possible, but probably not in the first year of his pro existence. The problem with Habs fans, however, is they want results NOW. That's been the problem with the franchise for years. People want winning, and they want it NOW. They're not willing to wait for something to develop.
If the Canadiens win the lottery and pick Yakupov,he's got a pretty good chance of avoiding the vultures by putting up some pretty decent points. What if it's not Yakupov, though? What if the Habs select someone good, but not yet great? If it's Grigorenko or Galchenyuk, does the team turn those centres into wingers? Or does it turn Plekanec into a wing on some kid centre's line? IF, indeed, those kids can even qualify to make the NHL regular roster? So many questions, and so few answers.
The only thing that seems apparent is that there's very little chance the kid the Canadiens draft in June, whether he be taken at second or fourth, will immediately change the outlook of the team. He'll help...eventually...but he won't be the saviour. So fans need to temper their expectations of a first or second or third-overall pick and realize it's just part of the process.
It's possible things might not be much better on the scoreboard or in the standings next year, but the overall picture is positive. It just might not be in focus right now. As we think about saviours, it might be wise to keep it to religion. In hockey, resurrection could take longer than three days.