Toronto’s odds of landing the first-overall pick for the first time in more than 30 years were helped by a losing effort on Wednesday night.
The Leafs can finish no higher than 29th place after dropping a 5-1 decision to the Blue Jackets in their final home game of the season. Now solely alone in last place after an Edmonton win against Vancouver, Toronto will have either the best odds of landing Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick (20 per cent) or the second-best odds at worst (13.5 per cent).
The Leafs haven’t had the No. 1 overall pick since 1985 when they selected Wendel Clark from the Saskatoon Blades.
Toronto, with two games remaining, can still finish with more points than Edmonton, though a tie would see Edmonton finish higher. Fans are hoping for just such a thing.
“I see where people are coming from,” Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said of lottery implications before the game. “Obviously (fans) want the No. 1 pick and if you lose you’ve got a better chance of getting it so I see what people are saying. But within our room there’s not one guy in here who wants to lose.”
But lose they did on fan appreciation night at the Air Canada Centre. The Blue Jackets exploded for three goals in about four minutes in the final period to turn a close game into a blowout, a frustrating result for Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
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“There’s lots of good things that are going on in the organization,” Babcock said afterward. “But tonight wasn’t one of those things though, so let’s not kid ourselves. That effort and the execution of that effort is not good enough and it’s unacceptable.
“There’s lots of really positive things that have gone on. I wouldn’t call tonight one of them.”
Fans responded cheerfully to the club at the end of the evening despite the loss. Babcock felt it overly kind given his team’s performance.
About to close out the first season of his Leafs coaching tenure, Babcock was most perturbed with turnovers that sprung three of the five Columbus goals. The first by 19-year-old rookie Kasperi Kapanen at the offensive blue line led to the 29th goal this season by Brandon Saad midway through the middle period.
Saad slipped a shot through the pads of rookie Garret Sparks, who yielded five goals on 32 shots.
Passing attempts by T.J. Brennan and Morgan Rielly also led to quick Columbus counter-attacks. Rielly barely got his stick on a pass from 20-year-old Frederik Gauthier in the third period before it was picked off by Matt Calvert, the Blue Jackets winger eventually beating Sparks for the second Columbus goal in less than a minute.
Columbus added another less than four minutes after that.
Babcock thought the mistakes would be good primer for many of the young players in Toronto’s lineup who would soon rejoin the AHL’s Toronto Marlies for the Calder Cup playoffs.
“You turn pucks over, you don’t play well without it, it ends up in your net,” Babcock said. “You turn the puck over you can’t win. It’s impossible. The message should be loud and clear.”
The Leafs actually opened the scoring shorthanded on the ninth goal this season by Rielly, which set a new career-high for the 22-year-old who’s also posted career-bests in assists (27) and points (36) in his third NHL season. A pending restricted free agent, Rielly had never scored shorthanded previously.
“It’s too bad,” Rielly said of the losing effort in the final home game of the year. “I think we wanted to come out and really have a good game here on home ice for the fans, but I don’t think we really accomplished that.”
The Leafs saluted fans in attendance after the defeat, also lingering on the ice afterward to sign autographs and pose for photos. It was a stark contrast to the finish of the 2014-15 season which saw the club sink lower and lower after the early January firing of head coach Randy Carlyle.
Fans tossed jerseys on the ice regularly in the waning days of that season.
This year, with a rising pool of young talent and an obvious long-term direction, fans seem to be embracing where they see the Leafs going. Their hopes have been additionally fuelled by the prospect of another top-five pick and perhaps even the first-overall selection, presumably Matthews, an Arizona native and top centreman.
The Leafs will pick no lower than fifth after Wednesday’s result.
“There’s no question we’ve got lots of work to do,” Babcock said on Wednesday morning. “The reality is this isn’t what you want. The exciting time of the year is just about ready to start.”