Is It Acceptable To Tank?

By the time the middle of April arrives, 14 teams’ NHL seasons will have come to an end. For some of those teams it’ll be a hard-fought battle to the end, only to suffer heartbreaking defeat as they miss out on that last wildcard spot. For others, their seasons are effectively already over and have been since before Christmas. For those that aren’t challenging for the Stanley Cup, there is another target on the horizon, but to get it they’ve gotta suck pretty damn hard: tanking to get that first overall draft pick.

Winning the draft lottery isn’t ‘winning’ at all. It’s a recognition that you were one of the worst teams in the league, and that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s understandable why a team would want to ‘win’ the lottery: you get dibs on the best prospect available in that year’s draft. But teams tend not to openly admit to the fact that they intentionally tank to increase their chances. I won’t tar every team with that brush, my Detroit Red Wings are desperate to keep that consecutive playoff streak going so wouldn’t dream of tanking and they aren’t alone. Perhaps to their detriment. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Individuals on the ice definitely don’t tank, hockey players are athletes and are too professional to do that. They might not have the same energy that powered them through the early games but nobody turns up to do a bad job. Tanking, if done consciously is manufactured by front offices. Questionable roster decisions are made and key players are traded away for draft picks, thereby weakening the team. This isn’t done maliciously, it’s done because that next draft pick could be the next Connor McDavid, and hopefully not the next Nail Yakupov.

The Buffalo Sabres famously and publicly tanked to grab Connor McDavid in 2015’s entry draft, but ended up with Jack Eichel, thanks to the draft lottery, but is acceptable for a team to tank? There are arguments for both camps. In the pro-tanking corner, the opportunity to draft better players is the obvious one. Banking those draft picks can give you a pretty good stab at building a decent team from a perpetually dreary one. No longer is being drafted by Edmonton a guaranteed career-killer.

Arizona’s head coach Dave Tippett should be feeling the pressure but his team are fortunate that the good ship Stanley has already sailed. While other franchises are struggling to keep players healthy enough to eke out every possible point; the Coyotes can put whoever they want on the ice. Got a group of youngsters itching to play? Get them out against NHL caliber opposition and see how they do. Want to mix up the lines? Go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? Win and find a good formula for next season or lose and increase the odds of getting that number one prospect.

There’s a flipside to tanking though. First and foremost you might end up with next season’s Nail Yakupov. Secondly players hate it, Arizona’s Shane Doan came out last season against tanking. As mentioned above; the NHL offers participants the opportunity to play against the best players in the world, not against a group of kids looking to give up the points. There’s no satisfaction without challenge.

There are pros and cons to tanking but what do fans think? In an astonishing coincidence, Brandon Share-Cohen today asked the same question on Twitter:

At time of writing, the Bruins are in the playoffs but the majority of fans would rather see the team entered in the draft lottery. This is surprising, but on reflection understandable. If I focus on my Red Wings, of course I’d like to see the team lift that 12th Stanley Cup but it isn’t happening this season. Knowing that, is it then worth the team giving up the chase and aiming low? Buffalo fans sure jumped on that bandwagon a few seasons ago when McDavid and Eichel were hot prospects. But Ken Holland has never had such ambitions and when it comes to the draft, either plays the extremely long game, or just doesn’t hold much faith in the NHL’s scouts. The most recent first round draft picks to find success have been Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, but Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were all famously later round picks. Of course Detroit’s indifferent attitude to the draft may be the reason we haven’t won anything for a while.

As it stands, each team in the NHL has a chance of making the playoffs, mathematically at least. Some of those teams are realistically already out of the chase. But for others, the window only closes with a game or two left in the regular season. My Red Wings sealed their playoff place last season because Boston lost their last game. That made for a huge amount of tension for both sets of fans. But with the race so tight, neither team has chance to launch a tanking campaign and both will get a later draft pick, despite playing better than a dozen or so other teams. The current draft system punishes this instead of rewarding it. In theory it gives advantages to poorer teams, but realistically it doesn’t. The last number one draft pick to lift the Stanley Cup was Patrick Kane, and he was drafted 10 years ago.  Teams have benefited, no doubt, but the problem of the imbalance of talent needs addressing another way.

Unless the draft system goes through a massive change, tanking will always be a thing, be it unspoken or brazen, it exists. I wish it didn’t, but that’s because I hate seeing my team lose. Of course without the injection of young talent like those mentioned above, some teams will never achieve anything above mediocrity. Alternatives have been suggested that would encourage teams to actually play well to increase their chances of picking first, see the Shane Doan link above. But that has its own challenges and will likely never be implemented.

It also seems that as a fan of not tanking, I find myself in the minority. As demonstrated in Buffalo and other places, across websites and forums and sports bar everywhere, the term ’embrace the tank’ brings a large and varied swathe of opinions, but more support than I originally expected.

What are your thoughts on tanking? Are you a fan of a team chasing that draft pick or do you want to see your boys give their all chasing valuable points? Please comment below or join in the conversation on twitter.

Thanks for reading.

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