The Montreal Canadiens are “built to win” their best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifier against the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Claude Julien said Thursday, and will try do to so even if losing the series could help them land the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
“As an organization, as a group of players and a coaching staff, we go out there to win and try to move forward,” Julien said Thursday. “The best way to move forward is to do the best we can.”
Julien said he has no issue with Canadiens fans who suggest Montreal would be better served losing the qualifier and having a chance to win the NHL Draft Lottery and the right to select forward Alexis Lafreniere from Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the favorite to be the top pick in the draft. Lafreniere was born in Saint-Eustache, Quebec, about 25 miles west of Montreal.
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The eight teams that lose in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers each will have equal odds (12.5 percent) to win the No. 1 pick in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, which will be held between the end of the qualifiers and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The First Phase of the draft lottery was held June 26. The Los Angeles Kings won the No. 2 pick and the Ottawa Senators will choose third with a selection acquired in a trade with the San Jose Sharks.
“Everybody’s got their opinions and they’re entitled to them,” Julien said. “Some fans, rightfully so, get excited about seeing the possibility of seeing that guy (Lafreniere). But imagine if we didn’t win the first round and we don’t get Lafreniere? How are the fans going to react then?”
Julien’s focus right now is the Penguins.
“I think we have a great opportunity here, honestly, to grow as a team, and the only way to grow is go out there to try to win and move forward here,” he said. “I know there are a lot of comments going around that say, my gosh, we should lose in the first round so we have a chance at the first pick overall and have a chance at a local boy, Lafreniere. Trust me, I’d love to have this player on my team. But there’s no guarantee even if we go out in the first round that we would have that player.
“If we win (against the Penguins), we’re getting better as a team. If circumstances go the other way, then maybe we do get a shot at him. But at the end of the day we’re built to win. We’re professional athletes, we’re competitive. There’s no reason in the world to think otherwise. That’s the direction we’re going.”
The Canadiens were 31-31-9 (.500 points percentage) when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. They are the No. 12 seed in the Eastern Conference and will face the Penguins (40-23-6, .623), the No. 5 seed, in one of eight best-of-5 series when Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan begins.
Dates and locations of the two hub cities for Phase 4 — one for the 12 participating teams from the East, one for the 12 Western Conference teams — have not been announced.
The Canadiens will be at a disadvantage against the Penguins in terms of experience beyond the regular season. Combined, Pittsburgh players have played 1,208 games in the postseason, leading all 24 returning teams, while the Canadiens players have just 400, the third-fewest.But all teams will be starting over when training camps are scheduled to open July 10 in Phase 3.
“The good part about that, honestly, is that every other team is in that same situation,” Julien said. “It’s great. It’s a level playing field when it comes to that. For us, it’s really taking advantage of this situation that’s been given to us. A few months back our minds were probably in an area where you’re saying, ‘Oh boy, it’s another long summer here,’ and all of a sudden you get an opportunity to get in the playoffs.
“There’s excitement there, an opportunity to grow. We need to take this situation and really run with it. We need to take advantage of what’s been given to us right now. In those two, three weeks (of training camp preparation), you build your team up, prepare them and excite them to be facing a team that has a lot of experience in the playoffs and go from there. We have a lot of potential. We have an opportunity to do something really great. It’s up to us to take advantage of it.”
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