'Tanking accidentally' is the wrong way to tank

Yahoo Sports
Jim Benning hasn’t done all he can to improve his prospect pool. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jim Benning hasn’t done all he can to improve his prospect pool. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Yesterday, the Canucks announced on Twitter that they were bringing back the classic black, yellow, and red “Flying Skate” jersey. They probably did so to make people remember when the team’s best player was as good as Pavel Bure instead of Bo Horvat, as they said the decision to bring back that old favorite was due to popular demand.

I made a joke on Twitter that the Canucks would be wise to also listen to popular demand from their fans and “tank on purpose.” This led someone to ask if it was possible to tank accidentally, which, of course it is. So let’s talk about why it’s important to tank like you mean it instead of doing it only because you’re being run by incompetents.

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The Canucks are the perfect example of this. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the last five seasons (and they got smoked in the first round by the PDO-dependent Calgary Flames). In those five seasons, here are there league finishes: 25th, 8th, 28th, 29th, and 26th.

The first bad season, you can argue, was something they might not have seen coming. They probably should have, but the fact that they finished eighth in the league the next season (with 101 points) gave them enough runway to let their cognitive dissonance kick really take off.

But the next season when they were awful again, that should have been the indicator, right? Even if you ignore the terrible playoff results even under Alain Vigneault as the Sedins aged, and didn’t see the John Tortorella hire as raising a million red flags, the immediate collapse back to not just irrelevance but outright embarrassment should have been the thing that made this team trade the twins and commit in earnest to tanking.

Ryan Kesler had just completed a poor contract year and destined not to come back, Roberto Luongo was months away from getting traded, Alex Burrows was suddenly in heavy decline, and basically everyone else from the Canucks early-2010s glory days was either gone or ineffective. That last season under Vigneault, Daniel Sedin led the team in scoring with 50 points in 70 games.

A well-run team probably would have sold the Sedins at the same time Vigneault got canned. Instead, they proceeded as though everything was normal. In fact, in some ways they doubled down on their fans’ impending misery by actively pursuing players they thought would help; most of those transactions (trades, signings, etc.) were done at the expense of the future and it was fairly obvious on Day 1 for most of them that these players would not help.

It’s worth noting that management long felt it owed the Sedins attempts to be competitive, arguing publicly that even if they wanted to tank (which they did not), fans wouldn’t accept that. And maybe it’s a thing where I really only know Canucks fans who are not idiots, but that was not a sentiment I saw often, but everything I’ve ever seen indicated that only the most diehard posts-on-the-team-run-message-board-every-day freaks thought this team was a player or three away from being competitive again. Well, those people and Canucks management/ownership.

Now, this is where the “accidental” part of “accidental tanking” comes in. Because what the Canucks were doing was either bringing in free-agent veterans who would take minutes from young players who might have been able to use the development opportunity, or outright trading picks and prospects for those kinds of players.

In theory, if you’re tanking, you’re consistently trading away the veterans you do have to get more picks and prospects, not the other way around. Likewise, you are signing veterans on short-term deals with an eye toward trading them at the earliest convenience for additional picks and prospects.

So not only was the team bad, but Canucks management wasn’t even wringing the full benefit of that badness (and getting worse as the year goes on by trading away useful veterans) to improve their long-term chances of getting better.

If you’re bad and actively tanking, you’re out there trying to accumulate draft picks so that you’re making more selections and prospects to bolster the chances that you’ll develop a star in the next few years. That’s not what the Canucks did, and here’s a strange stat to illustrate that: A team with its full complement of draft picks over any five-year period will make 35 selections. In the five drafts from 2014 to 2018, the Canucks made 34 picks. That’s one less than they would have normally had, and 10 of those picks were in the first two rounds, meaning they didn’t do anything to get more picks with a higher chance of working out. In both 2015 and 2016, they didn’t have second-round picks at all.

What’s weird is that most of this came when Jim Benning was the GM. Benning’s whole thing is that he’s really good at drafting and developing players, and to a certain extent you can say that’s true. They may not have the six to eight Grade-A prospects he boasted of, but he’s certainly gotten some serious value out of picks like Brock Boeser (No. 23 overall) and Elias Petterson (No. 5, but widely considered the best U-25 player outside the NHL in the world).

With that in mind, though, wouldn’t a team with a GM whose forte is drafting and development make more picks and not fewer, especially given that GM’s clear inability to identify quality UFA talent? Would it not want to retain a team president who favored a more “tank”-style rebuilding process than a rebuild-on-the-fly?

Fans are already gearing themselves up for the Jack Hughes race, but right now the team only has one more pick than they would normally be allotted. And it’s Washington’s sixth rounder, so the odds that Vancouver gets a player in the mid-180s who makes a difference for them down the line are fairly low. In the next nine months or so, they could absolutely make more trades to bolster their draft options, but history shows they probably won’t, and probably couldn’t even if they wanted to because they don’t have the kinds of veterans teams trade picks and prospects for in the first place.

So yeah, the Canucks have sucked for several years and certainly pulled more than a few quality prospects out of the draft pool. But they could have done so much more in that area and actively chose not to. Instead, they went into almost every season (except maybe this one) thinking one or two changes might be able to get all the water out of the hull of a ship that was already on the ocean floor, and did nothing to improve either their short- or long-term prospects.

That’s how you tank accidentally.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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