Bottom’s Up! Is Tanking Fair?

    Bottom’s Up! Is Tanking Fair?

As I’ve eluded to in recent posts, the NHL 2015 rookie draft is destined to be one of the most anticipated since Sydney Crosby’s in 2005. The reason? Connor McDavid. The kid’s good. Need another reason? Jack Eichel. Also pretty good.

The term “Generational Talents” is what has been bandied about amongst pundits in North America for the last few months, and if you check these kids’ credentials over the past few years, you can see why.

Of course, these talents haven’t just sprang out of nowhere. In Canada, McDavid has been spoken about for years as “The Next One”. 2015 was always threatening to be a banner year, and so far he hasn’t disappointed. He has made a mockery of the Ontario Hockey League playing against men with far greater experience than he. All this is to say that if you were going to have a bad year, then let it be now.

Enter the Buffalo Sabres.

When Puck Paddy sat down and watched them get abused by the Toronto Maple Leafs, only then did he realize the extent to which this team has attempted to “rip the hole out of their arse” for 2015. To get dominated by the Leafs is bad situation, because the Leafs are not a particularly good team. Of course, it’s just one game so there’s no point in getting too excited….but they took 10 shots. 10. Against a team that habitually give up 40 against average teams.

While this particular level of ineptitude is a little surprising, Buffalo has been positioning itself since last season for this draft. In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago when they bailed on their interim coach and GM to bring in Pat Lafontaine as President, who subsequently hired Ottawa’s Assistant GM Tim Murray to lead them in to what was promising to be a big rebuild. Lafontaine only lasted a few months, but Murray began a massive asset-stripping exercise by off-loading former all-star goalie Ryan Miller, Captain Steve Ott and perhaps their most prized forward, Thomas Vanek, all for first round picks in 2015.

Hmmm….2015 you say? Interesting…

Who can blame a team like Buffalo for doing this? Despite being a dwindling city in terms of influence in the United States, it has always been a solid hockey market with a good fan base. They’ve also had a pretty good team during the Ryan Miller years, and although they didn’t cement it with a cup, they have been in the cup conversation up until relatively recently. Now they’re going through the infamous “rebuild” that North American sports teams can do thanks to the glorious social equalization process that is known as the Draft.

This rebuild, or “tanking” as they say ‘round here, has long been seen as the most effective way to take a franchise to glory. Sure, you could go other routes such as trades and free agency, but there are inherent problems with both of these alternative approaches: a bad team generally can’t trade because they don’t have much worth offering to another team, and the reality is very few (if any) top players ever make it to free agency because franchises just don’t let these guys out the door without offering them the mega bucks. Both trades and free agency can certainly fit nicely in to a franchises short-to-medium term frame, but the foundation has to come through the draft.

The thing about drafting in the NHL is that you have control of your asset from anywhere from 6 to 9 years. They’re restricted from signing elsewhere without heavy compensation, and generally you can get them at vastly reduced wages that can free up all-important cap space. You can develop their abilities, promote them, empower them, and make them key cogs in the future of your franchise. Sure, a free agent may not be enamored with kicking it in Buffalo when he’s got LA knocking at the door, but the young draftee doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. He has to learn to love his new home.

Of course drafting is not an exact science. To develop a prospect and project how good he’s going to be is pretty hard to do. 2015 sounds like it’s different, though. McDavid, Eichel, and a host of other youngsters are flooding this years’ draft, and even if you aren’t “lucky” enough to land yourself with one of the big two, your likely to have yourself a fine prospect.

There are a number of problems with tanking, though. It demeans the competition, the opposition and, most importantly, the fans. It’s the fans that pay to support their team and they’re clearly being offered an inferior product. It is the great conflict of supporting a bottom-feeder. One step back to take two steps forward. There’s no fear of relegation like you would have in soccer, for example, so there are no major ramifications besides damaging consumer sentiment. In a hockey market like Buffalo, where there aren’t much alternative forms of sporting entertainment, sentiment is not likely to take a dramatic dip. That might be harder to sell in the likes of Chicago, Pittsburgh or New York.

Buffalo is an ideal candidate to tank. A small city, under the radar, with not a huge amount to lose. They’ve proven they’re loyal as they’ve continued to follow their Bills through NFL obscurity, and while being a good hockey town, they’re not about to go insane at a terrible season and implode internally. It’s on the cards. Everyone has spoken about it. And everyone’s ok with it.

That is hard to do in other markets, most notably the one I am currently living in. The idea of Toronto throwing away a season in the hopes that they can win the draft lottery and rebuild around Connor McDavid is laughable, even if that is the right thing to do. Toronto has too much to lose. Revenue, viewership, consumer sentiment. Toronto has to compete. They’ve had bad years alright, but they’ve just been poorly run. They are not afforded the opportunity that Buffalo has in 2015.

Talk of rule changes and alternatives have been thrown around by the league, and I would expect that to happen at some stage. At the moment, the draft lottery gives the team that finishes last the highest percentage chance of winning the number one pick, but I would expect that lottery system to evolve in to something that reduces the chances of the worst team to get the best player. It’s not within the leagues interest to allow a race to the bottom amongst ailing franchises, because the reality is some of the “non-traditional” hockey market teams may not care about McDavid or Eichel. And the last thing the league wants is for a future star to end up in Florida where nobody cares.


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