What Do We Do About The Tank?

Tank

The Tank. It’s ripping the NHL apart right now and pundits
are trying to sort out how to fix it. Teams are losing and not just that,
they’re trying to lose. No, not the players. The players would never try to
lose. In fact, any player who tried to lose a game on purpose is scum and
deserves to be exiled to the desert where they wander the waste lands looking
for shelter from the oppressive sun and dodging bands of roaming cannibals.
But, organizations sure as heck are trying to build purposefully poor rosters
in order to pick up a lot of L’s. What do we do about it?

The answer to that question is simple: Nothing.

Nothing?

Nothing!

Don’t do anything at all. I understand completely that
there’s some shame involved when Buffalo’s own fans are cheering Arizona goals
at a Buffalo Home game, but what else is there to do that isn’t just an
overreaction to something that the NHL has avoided for years?

Let’s talk about tanking for a minute right now. I’m not
talking about teams that are bad because they made poor decisions. Sometimes
you just honestly think Mark Messier can lead the Canucks to greatness. I’m
certainly not talking about expansion franchises who are terrible because the
league can’t actually field 30 competitive teams (they can’t) and the new ones
have no history of drafting or developing talent. No, when we’re talking about
tanking we are explicitly talking about teams that have purposefully iced bad
teams with the intent to lose games.

In a league where ticket sales are still the biggest driver
of financial success, there’s already a massive dis-incentive to tanking. No
playoffs means losing out on big bucks. No playoffs for years could be the
difference between some owners being able to afford keeping a team and being
forced to sell one. It’s why Darryl Katz had to be the one behind tanking in
the winter of 2009. It was his money Steve Tambellini and company were flushing
down the toilet.

That brings me right to the Oilers. Make no mistake, the
team didn’t start the season off tanking in 2009-2010. Tambellini had inherited
a team that would go on to finish just six points out of the playoffs in the
2008-2009 season. Then he started tinkering and by November the next year the
Oilers were wrecked. That’s when they decided to go full Tank. The “Rebuild”
was on. That year they knew they were bad and the organization did nothing
about it. Management by neglect. Every move they didn’t make to help themselves
made sure they fell further and further down the standings.

The owner knew what was happening. Heck, he even went on the
radio to address the situation himself. Management was behind this plan because
they honestly believed it was the best way to fix the problem of not having
high end assets, and ultimately the fans got on board. That was a difficult
year. No Hall. No RNH. Not even Eberle there for us to cheer for yet.

There was nothing tangible for Oiler fans to be happy about.
There was only the promise of better times ahead.

That is not an easy thing to sell, even to a fanbase more than
happy to believe there was actually a plan. Edmonton, as it turned out, didn’t really
have a plan beyond, “We’re going to be horrible”. The team has thought it should
be winning for a long time now already. You can tell because they’ve hired and
fired 17 different coaches wondering why each one had done such a poor job
collecting wins. Every time they fired a coach, it was a hint that they thought
they should have done better that year. It’s stultifying.

But, honestly, how often are NHL teams actively trying to fail?
When Edmonton did it in the Fall for Hall they were harshly criticized for it.
Other franchises have not looked at what Edmonton has done over the past
several seasons with a kind eye. It’s certainly not considered a success story
and Edmonton is already a cautionary tale for teams considering The Tank. As a
reminder, here’s Hextall when he took over in Philadelphia clearly talking about
Oilers:

If you think winning the Stanley Cup is easy, I have news
for you. And the one thing I mentioned earlier, Philadelphia’s not sitting
there waiting for, you know, number one picks year after year after year. You
know, for five years. I mean it’s, it’s the easy way to go and there’s no
guarantees of winning a cup then. But to maintain something for 25 years or 30
years, which has been done here, is hard to do…
 …Other than maybe
not winning the big one, and again right now there’s 30 teams out there and
right now there’s a team, won’t mention any names, there’s a team out there
just collecting the number one picks right now. Yeah, they’re gonna be a pretty
good team in three or four years, but ask their fans if they’ve had a fun last seven or eight
years. I mean, it’s just, the culture of winning is nothing to be embarrassed
about.

As far as many NHL teams are concerned, tanking is a cowardly
and shameful way to operate. That sentiment is also reflected in the views of
former NHL players who have retired into media jobs. It’s unnatural to want to
lose. Just look at the way Nick Kypreos ripped into Steve Dangle’s TankNation
concept. He called a member of his own Sportsnet team a loser for talking about the tank.

Why is this such a big problem now if tanking is almost
universally reviled? Well, there’s a reason that tanking in 2014-2015 is a
bigger problem than it was last year or in other years. There’s a reason the
Sabres traded both goalies away and also picked up a winger whose season was already over in exchange for their best defenseman. There’s a reason the Leafs traded away good players for picks instead of
live bodies.

This year there’s a generational talent available in the
draft.

This isn’t meant to slight Taylor Hall, RNH, or Nate
MacKinnon, but Connor McDavid is considered a prospect unlike any of them.
Generational players come along only every so often and the chance to get them
creates all kinds of chaos. Here’s my list of Generational Players from Gretzky
up:

Wayne Gretzky

Mario Lemieux

Eric Lindros

Sidney Crosby

Connor McDavid

There were lots of good to great 1st overall
picks in between then from Ovechkin to Stamkos to Kovalchuk but nobody made NHL
teams go crazy like those guys. Here’s the thing: finishing dead last didn’t
help three of the five teams that ultimately got those guys.

Wayne Gretzky was already spoken for when he arrived to the
NHL. He wasn’t drafted. The Oilers came in with him already in the bag. How
many teams would have thrown in the towel for a chance to land Gretzky? The
Colorado Rockies finished dead last in 1978-1979 and they could have only
dreamed of drafting Wayne Gretzky that summer. In a divergent timeline maybe
they did. I wonder what a hellscape that divergence in history is.

Eric Lindros was Drafted 1st Overall in 1991 for
the team that came in dead last the year before and never played a single game
for them. He was so powerful as a draftee that he effectively dictated his own
NHL future. He ended up in Philadelphia for a team that finished 30 points
ahead of the Nordiques. Sure, that franchise ended up with the last laugh, but
a lot of good tanking did for them at the time.

Finally, there was no season the year Crosby was drafted. I
guess the NHL solved the problem of tanking by making sure everybody finished
with a record of 0-0-0. The lottery balls determined the winner of the Crosby
sweepstakes (read: Bettman gifted the Pens the star they needed to keep the
franchise afloat).

No, the only two times where tanking has really been a league-wide
issue (versus a localized problem for a hopeless team like Edmonton) was with
Lemieux and McDavid. Teams were most certainly trying to fail in order to grab
Super Mario just as they are certainly doing it now with McDavid.

There’s your evil menace subverting the game. There’s the
thing that is turning the competitive nature of professional hockey on its
head. Two players separated in the draft by a little more than 30 years.
Forgive me if I don’t buy how horrible this is.

The rules today and moving forward don’t even favour teams
trying to tank. The lottery rules have been changed to make it so even the
worst team only has a 20% chance of winning the lottery and I’ll be shocked if
moving forward the bottom five teams aren’t all ordered via a lottery. The odds
just don’t line up well and making your team 30th out 30 teams
involves a lot of moves or non-moves that set clubs back for years.

Toronto is in a tail-spin of epic proportions fuelled by
management’s decision to jettison quality pieces of the team and acquire
nothing of immediate use in return just so they might up their chances at
winning McDavid from roughly 5% all the way up to 9.5% this year. They are
preparing to go Scorched Earth for such a huge chance just to pick 5th
overall that even accounting for the potential reward the risk looks insane.

BIG-Tornado

By complete chance the 2015 draft isn’t just McDavid. It’s
McDavid and Eichel which guarantees 30th a great prospect. Number two
in the Crosby draft was a good but not great Bobby Ryan. In the Lemieux Draft
it was Kirk freaking Muller. This right now in 2015 is the perfect storm to
create a Tanknado and it’s unlikely to happen again for a long time.

So what should we do about the tank? Sit back and record how
a couple of 17 year old boys made NHL teams want to throw millions in potential
playoff revenue out the window and subvert their own beliefs about winning.
Beyond that, we shouldn’t be doing anything at all. The culture of the league
already shuns those supporting this kind of behavior and there are massive
financial implications to going down that path. The NHL has already enacted
provisions to take away draft guarantees from teams near the bottom of the
standings and there are more planned.

Tanking is a painful and expensive solution to a problem that can be fixed by other means, but this year there are special circumstances that make it more attractive. You can’t go changing rules around for problems that happen once every 10 years. The Oilers will probably win the lottery and royally
piss off all the teams that were actually trying to lose anyway.

  • ubermiguel

    Gretzky had 2.8 ppg in his final year in junior and turned pro at 17.

    Lemieux had 4 ppg. 4!

    Lindros had 2.6 ppg, but was the prototypical power forward.

    Crosby had 2.7 ppg.

    McDavid had 2.55 ppg.

    Eichel scored at 1.7 ppg.

    Hall scored at 1.85 ppg.

    What jumps out at me is three things: 1) tanking for Lemieux was totally legit, and anyone who says otherwise is crazy. 2) Despite how great scorers these guys were as prospects, Gretzky was the only one who didn’t run into injury issues. There is no guarantee McDavid gets to reach his absolute peak. Gretzky was one of a kind. 3) Based on ppg, Eichel is closer to Taylor Hall than to McDavid. I like Hall, but the other players on this list were unworldly. Maybe we should slow down on listing Eichel with these other players. I’m sure he’ll be a great pro, but calling him a generational player and putting him along side these other guys doesnt make much sense.

    • Burnward

      Remember though, Eichel is doing it in the NCAA…which would bring his equivalent OHL points right around McDavid if I remember the conversion correctly.

      • Zarny

        Yep. McDavid’s NHLe is 63 pts. Eichel’s is 58 pts or the equivalent of 111 pts over the same 47 games McDavid played in the OHL.

        Over the 68 games Dylan Strome has played Eichel’s equivalent would be 160 pts vs Strome’s 129.

        There is no debate whether McDavid and Eichel are head and shoulders better than every other prospect this year. They are in the same category as Crosby, Tavares, Stamkos and Kane.

        The only difference of opinion is whether a team like the Oilers, 31 points out of the playoffs, benefits more from a handful of meaningless wins at the end of season and getting a lesser prospect like Strome or Marner versus getting a prospect who has been as good or better than every #1 since Crosby.

  • Congo Powerarm

    One idea that I think may help to reduce taking would be to bring the trade deadline forward.

    Let’s say hypothetically that the trade deadline was mid season or even before. Team’s could still pull the pin and go all out tank, but if they did they would have to play significantly more remaining games having already signaled to their fan base that they were in tank mode. Considering that fans are less interested in watching losing teams and I suspect particularly teams that are intentionally losing, from a business perspective, there would be a disincentive for teams to do this. Financially tanking would be more difficult for owners to swallow.

    An effect would obviously be to take some steam out of trade deadline day.

    • Ready to Win

      North American sports leagues are built on the idea that the entire league benefits when there is greater parity and the draft is one of the primary ways that this is pursued. If you don’t see that as a worthy goal then why have a draft at all? Why not just treat every 18 year old the same way we treat undrafted players already with the right to sign with any team they like?

      • Thumby

        Indeed, why have a draft at all?

        As long as parity is the goal and teams need to be propped up in unsustainable markets, there will be a race to the bottom.

        I’m not saying this to be popular, I’m just saying this would force teams to compete only to be the best.

      • ubermiguel

        How so?

        I mean, I understand that my suggestion runs counter to the Oilers’ long-term plan for success, but years of failing on purpose is a poison pill.

        If the question really is how to prevent teams from trying to come in last, what other way is there but to remove the reward? Why not reward success instead of failure?

        Oh right, because then there’s no parity, and no way for bad teams to get better. Flawed reasoning: make different management decisions, many of which are currently motivated by competing for the bottom. Follow the Detroit model of long-term talent development. When’s the last time they missed the playoffs for an extended spell, or drafted a top-ranked talent? As much as it pains me to say this, Calgary this year is Exhibit A on how to do a rebuild.

        Also, it’s the salary cap that ensures parity, not the draft. Even as it is, no one team can afford to keep all the best players. That applies as much to Edmonton as Chicago or LA: the prospect of eventually not being able to afford our top draft picks, even if we never once make the playoffs, is very real.

  • PrimeBane

    Late to the game, but I think one could probably make a pretty solid argument for Ovechkin and Malkin being generation players as well.

    Or do we not count those dirty Russians*

    *according to Don Cherry

      • Zarny

        I think you can classify Crosby as generational. He’s been the best player in the league since the day he entered it 10 years ago.

        If you had to rank them Sid might be 5th on the list. He perhaps hasn’t separated himself from Ovi and Malkin to the same degree as Gretzky and Lemieux did with their competition but he’s clearly been the best player in the league for a decade. That’s generational and what we can expect from McDavid.

        • Burnward

          He’s the only one I’d add…but hasn’t quite dominated in the same way. OV, Malkin, even Stamkos are all petty close.

          I won’t argue with that logic though.

  • ubermiguel

    My thought is that they just remove the lottery all together, why not just give the worst team the first pick. You want to remove parity, then don’t punish bad teams. They aren’t bad for the purpose of remaining bad eternally, they are bad because that is the only way that these “tanking” teams can become any better. The asset model is the best way to create a winning franchise for less attractive markets.

    Additionally the people who complain about tanking are generally the people whose teams are drafting lower in the draft. “We just won the stanley cup, but now we have no chance at getting a high draft pick,” shut up it’s hard enough being a fan of a bad team, and for teams like Edmonton and Buffalo being bad is the only way for us to be good in the future. Stop taking about ways to stop tanking and just stop the lottery instead.

    • ubermiguel

      You do understand the NHL made this rule change because the Oilers tanking year after year. There is the Daigle rule … and the Oilers rule (the last place tanking team DOES NOT get the best player necessarily.) You should feel SHAME not defend tanking.

  • ubermiguel

    I liked the idea that was floated a few years ago (it may have come out of fantasy football actually). It is this:

    Once teams are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they start accruing points toward the draft sweepstakes. The team that finishes with the most “Draft Points” gets the first pick.

    This still benefits the horrible teams because they will be out sooner so will have more of an opportunity to accrue Draft Points. And it absolutely incentivizes terrible teams to continue icing as good a lineup as you can, because you want to accrue those points. Fans stay interested and actually cheer for wins for their terrible team instead of cheering when another teams scores against them.

    The only possible downside to this idea is that terrible teams might not be as willing to rent out players at the deadline, as they would need said players for the stretch run. But I would be willing to make that trade if it gave me something to cheer for in March or April instead of feeling conflicted when the team I love(hate) wins a game.

  • ubermiguel

    Last 8 place teams each get 1 ball in the lottery. 1st ball drawn gets 1st pick, 2nd ball drawn gets second pick and so on.

    To make it even more intersting, throw in a ball for the President’s trophy winner and/or Cup winner.

    All the other teams just pick based on how they finished in reverse order.