Panthers win NHL draft lottery and top pick in June draft

The Florida Panthers bucked the odds by jumping up a spot to win the NHL draft lottery and earn the right to the top pick in June.

The Panthers, who finished 29th in the league, vaulted ahead of the last-place Buffalo Sabres, who had the best odds of winning the lottery held in Toronto on Tuesday night. The Panthers (29-45-8) had an 18.8 percent chance of winning the lottery, behind only Buffalo (21-51-10), which had a 25 percent shot.

Florida will have the first pick for the fourth time in franchise history.

The top two projected prospects are left wing Samuel Bennett, of OHL Kingston, who finished first in the final rankings released by NHL Central Scouting last week, and OHL Barrie defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

The draft will be held in Philadelphia on June 27-28.

The Panthers’ move up marked the fourth straight year in which the last-place team failed to win the lottery. Since the NHL lottery system was introduced in 1995, the last-place team has earned the No. 1 pick only six times.

The remaining 11 teams maintained their draft order based on the final regular season standings, starting with the Edmonton Oilers staying with the No. 3 draft pick. Calgary will select fourth followed by the New York Islanders.

The New Jersey Devils, who finished 20th, were included in the lottery to maintain the weighted odds, but were not eligible to be selected.

The Devils are already slotted to pick 30th after being sanctioned by the NHL. The league ruled New Jersey circumvented the collective bargaining agreement by attempting to skirt the salary cap by signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract in 2010.

The Devils were initially scheduled to forfeit the pick this year, before the league reduced its penalty last month.

The first 13 draft slots were set by the lottery, and included the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks, who will select 10th. They acquired a first-round pick in a trade with Ottawa, which finished 21st.

The Panthers had the No. 1 pick in the 2002 and 2003 drafts, but traded them away both times. They also had the No. 1 pick in 1994, when they selected defenseman Ed Jovanovski.

Earlier in the day, Sabres general manager Tim Murray reflected on the number of times his team lost this season by hoping Buffalo’s fortunes would change in the lottery.

“I want to win the lottery,” Murray said. “I want to win something here.”

Buffalo’s 51 losses were a franchise worst, and the most losses in the NHL since the New York Islanders went 21-51-7-3 in 2000-01.

Center Sam Reinhart (WHL Kootenay) and left wing Leon Draisaitl (WHL Prince Albert) were ranked third and fourth among North American skaters, while the top-ranked European skater is Finnish right wing Kasperi Kapanen.

The Sabres actually have a shot at holding three first-round picks based on two trades they made this year. The Islanders have to until June 1 to decide whether to hand over their first-round selection to Buffalo this year or next year. Islanders head amateur scout Trent Klatt said the team has not yet determined its plans.

The Sabres will also acquire the Blues’ first-round pick should St. Louis reach the Western Conference finals.

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