Tanking in the NHL is an epidemic in the same way that shark attacks are an epidemic, which is to say that twice a decade there’s widespread panic that quickly subsides when the media moves on to something else. And while we’ve never weaponized an army of trained porpoises or constructed a laser sea-wall to combat Jaws: The Revenge, apparently this is the season in which the hockey world finally stands up to teams taking a fall.
The catalyst for this activism isn’t Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the twin franchise-salvaging prizes at the top of the 2015 NHL Draft, but rather the Buffalo Sabres and the National Hockey League.
The NHL encourages tanking. It does so by having a draft system that, despite the existence of the lottery, rewards futility. The worse you are, the better your chances will be for gaining the first overall pick. Combine that with a free-agent system that shackles young players to teams until they’re in their late 20s – thanks, old boys' club! – and terrible hockey teams have few options other than to clear the decks and point the submarine down to the bottom of the standings.
The Buffalo Sabres embraced tanking, perhaps more than any team we’ve seen before. GM Tim Murray laid the groundwork last summer, adding a few veterans but doing nothing that would indicate this team was looking at a playoff seed – especially in goal, where Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth were two No. 2s that didn’t add up to a starter.
The Sabres were positioning themselves for a last-place season, the NHL knew it, so they actually changed their draft lottery rules less than a year before the 2015 lottery to make it more difficult for tanking teams to secure the first overall pick.
Sabres GM Tim Murray said, “You know who you’re affecting, that’s not fair.” He was completely right: The NHL was “Sean Avery Rule” fast with the legislation on this, and it targeted the Sabres and anyone else that was going to Dishonor for Connor.
This didn’t stop Murray, who continued the Sabres’ downward trend by:
- Trading his starting goaltender. Twice.
- Trading his best defenseman for a player who wasn’t going to play this season.
- Keeping prospects like Mark Pysyk and Sam Reinhart off the roster, for their own sanity but also because they could have made a difference.
Sabres fans had been conflicted about tanking for most of the season. The ones I spoke to last September were hoping that Buffalo would contend and that Islanders' first-rounder the Sabres owned would end up being in the lottery, which obviously didn’t happen.
So they were met with a moral quandary as the season continued: Embrace the tank or reject the degradation of sportsmanship that comes with rooting against your favorite team.
The nadir of the Season Of The Tank came when the Arizona Coyotes – once a team with playoff aspirations, now one where their general manager openly endorses their losing ways – came to Buffalo and the fans cheered for opposing goals.
“Cheering against them in front of their faces is wrong, especially for what has already been a great hockey town in Buffalo.
“My perspective is that if you openly cheer against your team when they’re losing and only cheer for them to win when they’re doing well, then you’re nothing but a traditional bandwagoner, simple as that. There were even some fans in attendance that wore their Sabres jerseys to the game, but taped the Arizona Coyotes’ logo onto the front of it.”
“Good for Ted Nolan and his players to not give in to the absurdity all around them. The coach is right. The integrity of the game is real. I’ve said it since October: You play to win and you draft where you draft. People who want to manipulate the results simply don’t understand sports and competition.”
I’d argue the fans know exactly about sports and competition.
It’s about winning. And tanking for McDavid is a means to that end, and perhaps the best chance the Sabres have had to that end since Brett Hull’s skate was in the crease. They’re not cheering against the players; they’re cheering for the betterment of the franchise.
Isn’t one of the hallmarks of hockey to cheer the logo on the front and not the name on the back?
Of course, NHL players do the same thing on an annual basis: Parking loyalty to their team, their fans and their city to make cold, emotionless business decisions, like signing elsewhere or demanding a trade. But the moment a fan base does it; the moment the paying customers decide what they want to pay for, going forward … well, they’re just a bunch of meanies.
Sabres players like Mike Weber are going to be upset. “We don’t want to be here,” he said after the Coyotes game last week. “We understand what this team is doing, what the organization is doing. The place we’ve put ourselves in. But I’ve never been a part of something like that where the away team comes into a home building and they’re cheering for them.”
Of course you haven’t. Because tanking is rare. But obviously needs to be eradicated.
If you go back through the last 31 years, there have been at most five instances of teams tanking for the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft.
The Pittsburgh Penguins tanked for Mario Lemieux in 1984. Of this, there is no doubt. The New Jersey Devils actually had to decide whether or not to do the same, knowing what the Pens were up to, and the tank side of management lost the fight. But hey, Kirk Muller won a Cup! (With Montreal.)
Many teams tanked in 1991 for Eric Lindros, but the Quebec Nordiques were a special kind of bad. The Ottawa Senators dove deep for Alex Daigle in 1993, to their detriment. There were accusations of tanking centered about Alex Ovechkin in 2004. And now we have McDavid and Eichel, and at least three teams that cleared out their rosters to try and acquire them.
An epidemic? No. An every-five-years problem? Congrats, you’re the flu – another thing that generates concern and copy and never goes away.
If it sounds like I have no problem with teams tanking, it might be because I have no problem with teams tanking. They’re gambling on winning the lottery. (Although this season, teams are tanking with confidence that Eichel is waiting at No. 2.) They’re gambling on their fans’ patience. They’re gambling on the top prospect not being the next Alex Daigle. They’re gambling that they’re going to become the 2009 Penguins and not the 2011-15 Edmonton Oilers (RIP).
And this gamble doesn’t affect the rest of the league. A doormat is a doormat, no matter their intentions. And the teams that decide to tank are, by and large, terrible to begin with (or in the Coyotes’ case, a ship that hit the rocks and then caught aflame). The Buffalo Sabres are that guy in your fantasy league who abandons his team midway through the season and becomes a weekly bye for other teams. (Raises hand…)
But the Tank of 2014-15 has created a cottage industry of think pieces on how to eradicate tanking. Down Goes Brown had a great compendium this week of different options, but like many he’s settled on one that appears to be the most virtuous:
The Adam Gold Plan.
It’s based on an idea that Adam Gold presented at Sloan in 2012, and it’s freaking brilliant.
Here’s how it works: Each year’s draft order is determined by a ranking of most points earned by each team after being eliminated from the playoffs. As soon as you’re officially out of the running for a playoff spot, you start the clock on earning points toward your draft position. Bad teams still get a big advantage here, since they’d be getting a head start of several weeks. And teams that narrowly miss the playoffs on the final weekend are basically eliminated from the running for a high pick entirely.
But now, we’re rewarding teams for winning instead of losing. Imagine having a “points since elimination” column in the standings for fans of bad teams to obsessively reload. And then picture how this week’s Sabres/Coyotes games would have played out if both teams were trying to win their way to Connor McDavid.
Biggest advantage: Other than being awesome? Gold’s system is relatively simple once you can get your head around it, it still helps bad teams, and it makes late-season games for non-playoff teams more meaningful than ever before. And most important, it puts the emphasis on winning. No more cheering for your favorite team to lose.
The plan’s been called “a brilliantly simple solution” to hockey’s tanking problem, and at least one of those words is accurate.
Forgetting for a moment that tanking isn’t a problem and that Sabres fans cheering against their team was gleefully subversive, here are several problems with the Gold Plan:
1. The Players Don’t Care
They just don’t. Management tanks; players play. The idea that they would somehow play harder with a top draft pick carrot dangled in front of them defies logic. Is there any reason why a pending unrestricted free agent that isn’t re-signing in that hellhole of a franchise would care if the team wins or loses after they’ve been eliminated from the playoff picture? Of course not.
But what about management? Surely this plan would encourage management to improve the team …
2. Bad Teams Are Bad
… oh, right. There’s a reason they’ve been eliminated from the postseason with 30 games left. They’re terrible.
The idea that management would somehow keep the team moderately competitive to gear up for a post-elimination run or even improve the roster with that in mind also defies logic, because bad teams are bad teams and aren’t going to become competent teams just because the top pick is at stake. Which, again, completely ignores why we have the draft, which is to benefit the worst teams in the league. Who now have to be one of the better teams in the league, after their players have stopped caring, in order to ultimately improve themselves. Which is completely plausible.
3. Trade Deadline
Under the Gold Plan, the Toronto Maple Leafs likely saw themselves as vying for the draft lottery around the trade deadline. How many moves do they make if they know they have to amass points after their elimination? Do they make the Cody Franson trade if keeping him on the roster means a better chance at Connor McDavid?
The trade deadline is already an epic snooze; incentivizing bad teams not to unload their talent would further jam up the gears.
4. Strength of Schedule
A variable, to be sure, but if the goal is win games post-elimination and one team has a significantly harder docket than another – let’s say, for example, a more parity-filled division – then once again, you’re asking a bad team to do something it already proved it was unable to do for two-thirds of the season to earn its help.
5. Eliminates The Showcasing of Young Players
As the season goes on, teams traditionally give younger players longer looks. Veteran, soon to be shipped out guys have reduced ice time; inexperience players take on more responsibility so management sees what they have.
But wouldn’t teams push out their veteran lineups each night if points were that valuable to winning the top pick? The practice of the rookie showcase would be done.
6. Tanking Teams Still Get Top Picks
Looking at the example above, the worst teams still get the top picks and you're just creating an almost-completely-random lottery for picks 4-10.
Which means ...
7. Teams Will Still Tank
They'll just tank more dramatically and earlier, attempting to assure themselves of enough runway where even the dregs of the league can amass enough chairty points to beat out the other losers.
But perhaps most of all …
8. TANKING IS NOT A PROBLEM
The hand-wringing over something that’s happened at most six times since GHOSTBUSTERS debuted in theaters is nonsensical. And we’re rarely going to see it be this bad again because (a) we’re talking two franchise players at the top rather than one and (b) the NHL is going to really, really discourage tanking beginning in 2016:
Beginning in 2016, the Draft Lottery will be utilized to assign the top three drafting slots in the NHL Draft, an expansion over previous years when the Draft Lottery was used to determine the winner of the first overall selection only.
Three draws will be held: the 1st Lottery draw will determine the Club selecting first overall, the 2nd Lottery draw will determine the Club selecting second overall and the 3rd Lottery draw will determine the club selecting third overall.
As a result of this change, the team earning the fewest points during the regular season will no longer be guaranteed, at worst, the second overall pick. That club could fall as low as fourth overall.
The allocation of odds for the 1st Lottery draw will be the same as outlined above for the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery. The odds for the remaining teams will increase on a proportionate basis for the 2nd Lottery draw, based on which Club wins the 1st Lottery draw, and again for the 3rd Lottery draw, based on which Club wins the 2nd Lottery draw.
The 11 Clubs not selected in the Draft Lottery will be assigned NHL Draft selections 4 through 14, in inverse order of regular-season points.
Again, you’d expect the real outrage would be the continuing chances that a team that missed the playoff by a point would have even a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the lottery, but we’ll guess the Gold Plan acolytes are totally down with the idea that those who try hardest and fail are more worthy of assistance than those that are just failures.
To that end: Can’t wait for Connor McDavid to play center for the Kings next season …
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