Monday, November 3, 2014

To Tank or not To Tank: That is the Question

Tanking is one of those words in sports that always incites a reaction no matter what. When someone mentions "tanking", everyone's ears perk up. Normally, talk of tanking was restricted to the NBA and the NBA only... that is until this NHL season, when it became clear that tanking is now a crossover term. Since the 2015 NHL Draft is so loaded with amazing and even generational talent, it would make sense that teams like the Buffalo Sabres would try their hardest to put themselves in position to put Connor McDavid in a blue and yellow sweater next season, or at worst Jack Eichel. But the way they've gone about it is so... deliberate that it has made people wonder whether not only is it good for the game, but whether they'd want their team to do it too. The answer is not as clear-cut as you'd think.

The NBA's proposed anti-tanking measures would have made it almost completely fruitless to throw away a season in the hopes for a better draft pick, even if all it would have done is make teams tank to get in the bottom 4, not just the bottom 1. The NHL's sudden Lottery changes can be construed as the same thing, even though the Sabres have every right to cry foul. But while the NBA has been used to tanking for so long, it feels so alien for NHL onlookers. The last generational talent, a one Sidney Crosby, had his draft completely randomized by a lockout that wiped out the season. Eric Lindros, the one before him, made deliberate and brazen machinations so he didn't have to play in Quebec City (even though they ended up just fine in the end anyway), and we will never know what would have happened to Wayne Gretzky since he never had to be drafted by any team anyway. So that's why watching a team like the Sabres deliberately ice one of the worst teams in the modern era of the NHL is such a shock to the system. NBA fans are used to seeing teams like the Sixers brazenly suck in the hopes of finding the next LeBron James or Derrick Rose, since one player can so dramatically change the fortunes of an NBA team. But in the NHL? Nope.

While the Sabres are historically bad, and it certainly stinks that season-ticket holders had to pay good money to go in and watch 41 games of that slop, I don't think many of them are complaining about the strong likelihood that Connor McHockey (hi Wysh and Marek!) or the next American hockey hero Jack Eichel will don Sabres colors next season. It certainly is painful to watch the current iteration of the Sabres, but the future is bright enough that the darkness of this season doesn't matter much. Whether other teams will join them in the race for the bottom is not clear yet, especially since teams like Calgary and Winnipeg are performing above expectations at the moment, but there will certainly be teams joining them come the trade deadline.

But would you want your team to do what Buffalo has decided to do, even knowing the results aren't assured? I'd bet the majority would say go for it. One key difference between the NBA and the NHL is that the chance that one players totally transforms the fortunes of a team is almost nil for the latter, compared to a much higher rate for the former. Players worth tanking for almost never are available, and even the 10 year gap between Crosby and McDavid is sort of small once mulled over. You weren't seeing teams like the Avs tank for Nathan MacKinnon, or the Oilers (as hard as it is to believe) tanking for Taylor Hall. Being bad still has an element of luck to it, unless you are this year's Sabres, so tanking until now was almost completely worthless in the NHL.

Does that mean tanking will go into mothballs until the next Connor McDavid is draft eligible? Probably not, as there will be teams who feel their futures are best served by being as bad as possible (deliberately or not) and putting their hopes on chance, but tanking like what Buffalo is doing this year is likely to become an artifact of a past time until a generational talent comes again. The new draft lottery rules are part of this, but there aren't many players that it's worth being so bad for.

That said, if your team replaced the Sabres as the deliberate tanker, you'd probably champion it. There may never be a draft like the upcoming one ever again, so why not cast your lot?

It's not like the Sabres have much choice anymore.

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