The Broadway Blueshirts are getting a blue chipper.
A ping-pong ball with a New York Rangers shield popped up in the NHL’s suspenseful Draft Lottery Monday night, delivering the No. 1 overall pick and Alexis Lafreniere to the land of Lady Liberty.
The Rangers will pick first for the first time since a universal draft was adopted by the NHL in 1969.
"It’s a huge excitement to get the first pick in any year, but especially this year," Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. "It’s a special one."
Gorton stopped short of confirming that the Rangers will absolutely select Lafreniere, the consensus pick, at the Draft - which is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 9-10.
"I wouldn’t want to give away what’s going to happen," Gorton said. "We haven’t interviewed him yet, we didn’t want to do that unless we had a legitimate chance of getting him. We’ll go through that process, start to meet the young man and go down the road of talking to him and his family."
For Lafreniere, what a long, strange trip it’s been. He hasn’t conducted an interview since before the first phase of the Draft Lottery on June 26, in which a placeholder team won his rights, leaving him in limbo for the last six weeks.
In any normal year, he would’ve already been through his first rookie camp with his new club by now, and settling in his new home for the start of training camp in another month. Instead, he has been skating a few times a week on his own, while trying to decide whether going back to the QMJHL for its Oct. 1 start might be a fine placeholder until the NHL plans to tentatively begin next season on Dec. 1.
"It was a pretty long process," Lafreniere said. "But we were waiting for this day for a couple weeks now. It was a big day. We’ll see what happens next, but for sure it was a really special day and an emotional day."
Lafreniere had a smile on his face when asked about New York. He hasn’t ever visited Manhattan, but listed Artemi Panarin as one of his favourite players in the NHL.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a unique opportunity. When ‘Placeholder E’ won the first phase of the Lottery on June 26, that mean Lafreniere would go to a team that lost in the qualifying round - rather that one of the worst seven teams in the league.
The Rangers had an equal 12.5 per cent chance along with the Oilers, Jets, Penguins, Wild, Panthers, Predators and Maple Leafs.
"The lottery had a couple of really good teams, it was really exciting," Lafreniere said. "But New York is probably one of the best spots in the league. It’s really fun, really good news. We’ll see what happens next, but I’m pretty excited right now."
There was no shortage of drama - and the usual conspiracy theories that come when one of the NHL’s biggest markets wins the rights to the next superstar.
The NHL went out of its way to transparently show the entire Draft Lottery process live on TV, with commissioner Gary Bettman visually confirming each team’s ball. But the lottery’s process auditor, hired from accounting firm Ernst & Young, inadvertently dropped the Rangers’ lottery ball into the tube before Bettman confirmed it, before picking it up again. Of course, that Rangers ball ended up being the winner.
Fans on social media immediately said the process had shades of the New York Knicks’ 1985 lottery win for Patrick Ewing.
For his part, Gorton simply said he was beginning to believe in lucky charms. For the second year in a row, Gorton held onto the badge of dedicated Rangers fan and New York Police Department detective Steven McDonald, who died in 2017 as a result of injuries sustained while shot in the line of duty.
Last year, Gorton’s Rangers won the second lottery for the No. 2 overall pick and selected Kaapo Kakko.
"We’re two for two with it," Gorton said. "I’m really excited they let us use it."
Lafreniere is not a bad consolation prize for the team that was punted first from the NHL’s bubble, the only team swept in the play-in series, at the hands of Carolina.
You’re welcome @NYRangers— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) August 10, 2020
"Leaving the bubble first hurts," Gorton said. "Seven teams in the hotel still and you’re walking by them all, they’re outside getting coffee and you’re getting on your bus. As we flew home, it was a tough feeling to lose like we did."
Gorton said there are still questions to ask - ‘Why were we taken out so easily? - but this helped.
With an 18th-place finish in the regular season standings based on points percentage, the Rangers are the highest ranked team to pick No. 1 overall since the 1994 Draft, when the Florida Panthers won the lottery after finishing in 16th place.
For most fans, the Rangers represented the least chaos among potential lottery winners in the Maple Leafs, Oilers and Penguins.
For one, the Rangers would have likely missed the playoffs in a typical season. Plus, at 18th place, they would’ve been eligible for the first phase of the Draft Lottery had they not participated in the qualifier round. In addition, the Rangers have come about all of this honestly - the lottery win comes less than three years after Gorton penned a letter to fans explaining the team’s embarkation on a rebuild.
Lafreniere and whomever the Rangers select with the Carolina Hurricanes’ first-round pick, from February’s Brady Skjei trade, will be New York’s eighth first-round picks in the last four drafts.
"There’s a lot of different emotions you go through," Gorton said. "Going back to the letter we wrote, we’re trying to do things the right way. We knew we needed luck, a few days after coming out of the bubble and walking away upset.
"You’re trying to gather as much talent as you can. If you look through some of the star players in this league, it’s not a huge secret where teams are getting them, it’s lottery picks and the high-end of the Draft."
Gorton drafted the heir apparent to King Henrik Lundqvist’s throne in Igor Shesterkin. He acquired Adam Fox, who put up a 42-point season on the blue line as a rookie. He’s got draft picks developing in Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov and K’Andre Miller.
Now he’s got a player coming in Lafreniere, who proved at the World Juniors earlier this year that he thrives under the bright lights, that is ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple.
"I feel like things are coming together, but there’s a lot of work to be done," Gorton said. "We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s a good night for the New York Rangers."
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli