Jeff Gorton’s good luck charm worked again, and the New York Rangers should have another potential once-in-a-generation talent joining them soon.
The Rangers won the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery on Monday, securing the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, which in all likelihood will be left wing Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL.
“I have Steven McDonald’s badge with me that his wife Patti Ann let us use again,” said Gorton, the Rangers general manager. “Last year it worked, so we reached out again.
“We’re 2-for-2 with it.”
McDonald, a former officer in the New York Police Department who was paralyzed by a gunshot wound while on patrol in Central Park on July 12, 1986, died on Jan. 10, 2017. He was a lifelong Rangers fan and the team has honored him annually since 1987-88 by giving out the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award to the player judged by the fans to go above and beyond the call of duty each season.
Gorton had McDonald’s badge with him last year in Toronto at the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery, when the Rangers moved up four spots from No. 6 to No. 2, giving them a chance to select forward Kaapo Kakko.
He sat in a conference room at the team’s training facility Monday night with the badge and watched the ping pong balls go round and round, knowing like the other seven teams with balls in the container, the Rangers had a 12.5 percent chance of seeing theirs pop up.
They would have selected No. 10 or 11 if another team won.
“Good luck charm, I don’t know, I’m starting to believe in them,” Gorton said.
Gorton said a flood of emotions rushed through him as he watched the ball with the Rangers logo pop up.
He thought back to letter the Rangers sent to their season-ticket holders on Feb. 8, 2018 detailing that the team was about to go into a full-fledged rebuild.
That rebuild has produced unforeseen and franchise-altering results.
They’ve drafted Kakko at No. 2 and believe he can be one of the best players in the League in due time. They’ve signed forward Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract and watched him turn into a Hart Trophy finalist this season. They’ve acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba in a trade and signed him to an eight-year contract.
The Rangers also acquired defenseman Adam Fox in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes and watched him blossom into one of their top defenseman as a rookie, brought goalie Igor Shesterkin to New York from Russia and saw him emerge as their new No. 1 goalie, re-signed forward Chris Kreider to a seven-year contract and had center Mika Zibanejad turn into a 40-goal scorer.
They’re also eyeing bright futures for forward Vitali Kravtsov, and defensemen K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist, all three first-round picks in 2018.
But getting the No. 1 pick might be the biggest prize of all.
Seven of the last 11 teams to win the Stanley Cup did so with a player who they selected with the No. 1 pick; Chicago Blackhawks with right wing Patrick Kane (2010, 2013, 2015), Pittsburgh Penguins with center Sidney Crosby (2009, 2016, 2017), and the Washington Capitals with left wing Alex Ovechkin (2018).
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick in 2013, and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, No. 1 in 2008 are still in Stanley Cup contention this season.
The Rangers have never had the No. 1 pick since the NHL adopted the universal draft format in 1969, making all juniors of qualifying age eligible for selection.
“If you look through some of the best players in the League, some of the star players in this League, it’s not a huge secret where the teams are getting them, right?” Gorton said. “It’s lottery picks, it’s at the very high-end parts of the draft. Generally, it’s not always the truth, but it’s where you get your players and it’s hard. The opportunity for us to do that, it’s huge.”
The lottery win also comes at a challenging time for the Rangers as they’ve been trying to analyze what went wrong in the post-mortem of losing three straight against the Carolina Hurricanes in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers last week.
They were the first team to leave the bubble in Toronto, the Eastern Conference hub city.
“It hurts,” Gorton said. “There were still seven teams in the hotel and you’re walking by them all. They’re out getting coffee outside and you’re getting on your bus. Usually you lose, you walk out of the rink, you fly home. This one, you’re right in there with all these teams and you’re the first one out. It was a tough feeling to lose like we did, to be swept. We’ve been going through that for a few days, trying to figure out what’s next and what we need to change.”
That process will continue, and the interview process with Lafreniere will begin, but the impact of what happened to the Rangers on Monday may never fade, especially if they raise a banner or more inside Madison Square Garden in the next decade.
“I feel like things are coming together,” Gorton said. “There’s a lot of work left to be done. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but it’s a good night for Rangers fans to be excited.”