Sports

With Connor Bedard on the way, should the NHL do more to prevent tanking?

If I ran a struggling NHL team and there was a generational talent available in the next draft class, I wouldn’t tank the season.

No, “tanking” is too tame a description for what I’d do. I would populate my team with semi-pros. I would replace their sticks with swimming pool noodles. My roster would be one cent above the salary-cap floor. Our nets would be as figuratively empty as many sections of our arena.

Is tanking worth it? Absolutely, when you’re securing the services of a player like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. Or probably of Connor Bedard, whose presence in the 2023 NHL draft class encouraged some teams’ apparent self-imposed mediocrity before a single puck was dropped this season.

But not everyone respects the tank.

“Is it an effective way to rebuild? Yes, if you totally lack integrity and character. Because it attacks the very soul of the game,” Pittsburgh Penguins president Brian Burke told me this week.

When Burke was a general manager and his team was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, he would speak with the players. His message would be clear: Don’t worry about where we’ll end up drafting. Your job now is to “wreck teams’ playoff hopes” and win as many games as possible.

While with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Burke remembers going to the TSN studios in Canada for the NHL draft lottery show and watching his peers’ giddy anticipation of the drawing.

“Everyone was rubbing their hands together like little kids at Christmastime,” he said. “Aren’t we all embarrassed? Isn’t this the most embarrassing thing that we do all year is come to the lottery? I was mortified.”

Also not a fan of tanking: NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

In speaking to employees of the Phoenix Suns recently, Silver called the potential for tanking a “serious issue” and said the league had put its teams “on notice” with 7-foot-4 French phenom Victor Wembanyama at the top of next summer’s draft board.

What can the NBA do about it? Silver said he wasn’t “deadly serious” when he floated the idea of soccer-style relegation to prevent tanking — goodbye Orlando Magic; welcome to the NBA, Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G-League! — and told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that as long as there’s a draft, there’s no “perfect solution” to prevent tanking.

“We still think a draft is the right way to rebuild your league over time,” Silver said. “We still think it makes sense among partner teams, where a decision was made where the worst-performing teams are able to restock with the prospects of the best players coming in. So we haven’t come up with a better system.”

The NBA started its draft lottery in 1985. The NHL didn’t enact its first weighted draft lottery system until 1995, two years after the Ottawa Senators‘ behavior almost necessitated the change.

In 1993, an Ottawa Citizen columnist reported that Senators founding owner Bruce Firestone had discussed having his team intentionally lose a game to the Boston Bruins to further secure the 1993 draft first overall pick — and with it, phenom Alexandre Daigle. The Senators were fined $100,000 by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for those comments, but the league “found that the players and coaches of the Senators put forth a full effort in every game and were committed to winning as many games as possible, irrespective of how that affected the club’s draft rights.”

It’s important to understand who, exactly, does the tanking during a tank.


It’s not the players

I remember asking former Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford about tanking for McDavid in 2014 and receiving a death stare.

“I can’t accept the fact that we’re going to go into this season and tank. It’s not my makeup as a person or a player,” he said.

Besides, if the team is terrible, how many players on the tanking roster are even convinced they’ll be around when the generational talent arrives — especially those with expiring contracts?


It’s not the coaches

New Jersey Devils coach Lindy Ruff told me he has never been part of a tanking team.

“I’ve been a part of a bankrupt team. That might look like tanking, but it just means you don’t have enough money for players,” he said this week, referencing his time with the Sabres.

“I don’t know a coach that can stand behind the bench and stand losing,” Ruff said. “You don’t want to be involved in tanking. I think every coach wants to win the game. It doesn’t matter which players you have. You try to find a way, or design a system, that’s the best way for your team to win a game.”


It’s usually the general manager

As I’ve written previously, Bill Armstrong of the Arizona Coyotes deserves the NHL general manager of the year award if the roster he constructed — low on stars, low on salaries and just plain lowly — finishes last in the NHL. While players and coaches don’t tank, general managers can position their teams to … well, succeed less.

But those best-laid plans don’t always pan out. Take the Chicago Blackhawks. GM Kyle Davidson traded winger Alex DeBrincat in the offseason and might do the same with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews before the deadline. His goaltending — Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock — didn’t appear like it would prevent a nosedive down the standings.

Yet his new head coach, Luke Richardson, a supremely competitive guy, has the Blackhawks with a winning record (4-2-0) after two weeks of the 2022-23 season.

“I told Kyle right off the hop that we’re going to make his job the toughest job possible and try to win as much as possible,” Richardson said before training camp.

Davidson, seated next to him, quickly exclaimed: “Having said that, I want to win. I want to win.”

(Someone remembers the 1993 Ottawa Senators …)

There’s an interesting debate right now in Vancouver about what to do with the Canucks if they can’t turn this season around. Team president Jim Rutherford jokes that “we may very well be in a rebuild in the direction we’re going,” but they are clearly more in the transition-on-the-fly category because “we do have some core players, some young players that are really good.”

That’s the problem with the Canucks tanking — something that some Vancouver fans would seem to support. Unless you’re putting Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko under cryosleep in order to lose a bunch of games for two years, the core is frankly too good. And they’re clearly committed to (former GM Jim Benning’s) core.


It can also be the ownership

Burke believes that the NHL draft lottery helps stem tanking compared to a straight reverse-standings setup.

“But it’s never going to solve the problem. That goes to the ownership level, and what they tell their management team,” he said.

This goes back to the origins of the NHL draft lottery after the Ottawa debacle. Some skeptics noted that tanking still occurred in the NBA even after a decade of the lottery. If an owner and a manager decide that’s the best road back to success, they’ll likely take it.

So it falls to the leagues to try to make this perceived tanking less incentivized — though in the NHL’s case, they don’t see a problem.

Asked about the idea of tanking in 2022-23, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “I have zero concerns in this area.”


Should the NHL follow the NBA model?

Burke sees the draft lottery as an imperfect but necessary deterrent.

“The NHL put in a lottery for a reason because there’s incontrovertible evidence that teams tank, and you cannot reward tankers,” he said. “But it should be the smallest Band-Aid you put on to fix that ill.”

Burke has been an outspoken critic of the lottery’s scope, and the way it allowed multiple winners in a cluster of years. Over time, the NHL has moved toward Burke’s vision for the lottery: Today, only the 11 worst teams can win the first overall pick (rather than every non-playoff team), and no team can win the lottery more than twice in a five-year span — “no more than two trips to the buffet line,” as Burke puts it.

The worst team in the NBA has a 14% chance of winning the lottery for the top pick. It’s slightly lower in the NHL, at 13.5%.

But the NBA has another deterrent, according to Silver: an expanded playoff format.

The association expanded its postseason field by four teams in 2020-21, creating a play-in tournament that includes the seventh- through tenth-highest winning percentages in each conference. The hope was that the siren’s song of playoff revenue overshadowed a 14% chance to win a lottery.

Like the NBA, the NHL has flattened its lottery odds. But Bettman has steadfastly been against expanding the playoffs. Within the context of tank prevention, that’s an odd stance: Lower seeds in the Stanley Cup playoffs traditionally have a better shot at prolonged playoff runs than lower seeds in the NBA playoffs, with goaltending being the great equalizer.

Would the NHL expand the playoff field? Don’t hold your breath.

“Gary is never going to change [his mind] on playoff expansion,” one NHL executive told me this past spring.

Then again, would an expanded NHL playoff field really deter tanking?

Consider that since the 2005 lockout, there have been four teams that made the Stanley Cup Final after finishing seventh or eighth in the old playoff format or as a wild card in the current one. The No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Kings were the only one from that group to win the Cup, in 2012.

Meanwhile, 13 of the 17 Stanley Cup Finals in that stretch featured a team with at least one player drafted first overall. So what’s better for the franchise: a play-in game berth or a lottery ticket?


Looking ahead to the 2023 lottery

There’s no direct, irrefutable evidence of NHL teams intentionally tanking, so those who think teams do will have to agree to disagree there. But there’s a larger point here that is important: Sometimes teams misjudge when it’s time to jump-start a rebuild.

Burke points to the 1998-99 season for the Vancouver Canucks, when he maneuvered his way to selecting Henrik and Daniel Sedin at Nos. 2 and 3 of the draft the following summer.

“We were trying desperately to win. Sometimes it just spirals away from you,” he said. “It’s not always just an owner or a GM or the players. There’s combined fault that you can allocate among different parties, depending on the season.”

The team that ends up with the NHL’s worst record this season might be designed with such a result in mind, or it might find itself stumbling down the stairs into the basement during the season, increasing the velocity of its fall at the trade deadline. The Connor Bedard lottery will determine if either of the respective routes were justified.

I salute the teams that attack “the very soul of the game,” as Burke noted, putting themselves in the mix for the chance to add a generational talent. There might be more competitive, and less questionable, ways to rebuild, but some of us just like to play the Powerball twice a week.

Jersey Foul of the week

From Sin City:

This is how one Vegas Golden Knights fan decided to honor the Max Pacioretty trade, in which the Knights sent their leading goal-scorer last season to the Carolina Hurricanes for … a bag of air? A knowing smile? Ah, yes: their own cap relief and “future considerations,” as noted here.


Phil Kessel finally broke the NHL “iron man” record this week, and I really enjoyed exploring the legend surrounding the Vegas winger. He’s a cult icon. I hope he holds this record for a very long time, so generations of fans can look at his name like we used to look at Doug Jarvis’ and ask, “Who was this guy?”

Then we can spin tales of Stanley Cups and Olympic medals, of getting shouted out by Barack Obama and called out by Toronto columnists. We can talk about a guy who cleared 400 career goals while looking like the guy who bowls 280 at the local lanes. And we can talk about those All-Star Game fantasy drafts.

Part of Kessel’s legacy was being the last overall pick at the 2011 NHL All-Star Game, and in the process becoming a social media meme — remember Ovechkin snapping a photo of him as he sat alone? The Toronto Maple Leafs complained, the fans rallied around him, and Kessel, as he does, shrugged it off.

He made the All-Star Game again in 2012 and was the eighth pick for “Team Chara.” Then in 2014, Jonathan Toews selected Kessel with his team’s first pick as a way to atone for his going last, calling him “one of the most coachable players out there,” which made Kessel laugh.

Of course, the ultimate highlight came a bit later when Nick Foligno‘s team traded Tyler Seguin for Kessel. Just another wild night in the life of Iron Phil Kessel.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes won two of six games on their nearly three-week road trip to start the season, including dropping six goals on the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday. Look, they’re a very bad hockey team by design, with a league-worst 30.9 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. But it’s nice to know they’ll hit the ice at Mullett Arena with a couple of W’s to their credit.

Loser: What’s ahead for the Coyotes

I’m attending their first game at Arizona State University on Friday night against Winnipeg, a game that’ll be broadcast exclusively on ESPN+. I’m not going to pre-judge anything about it. That said, you can already feel where the desert winds are blowing here: The atmosphere in the college barn will get high marks. Issues like visiting teams having to get changed in “dressing rooms” slightly worse than what you’d find at a youth travel hockey tournament? Lower marks, to be sure.

Winner: Marc-Andre Fleury

Flower stole everything from the Montreal Canadiens in a strong effort for the Minnesota Wild this week. Including, hilariously, Brendan Gallagher‘s helmet. (Also, Fleury has lowkey the sickest pads in the NHL, like if Goldfinger was a goalie. The Bond villain, not the ’90s ska band.)

Loser: Video reviews

The scene we witnessed at Madison Square Garden this week — in which Alexis Lafreniere was called for a high stick that was actually a Colorado player accidentally hitting his own teammate — could be so easily avoided. We review high-sticking majors. We review high-sticking double-minors. Make any high stick that could be “friendly fire” reviewable.

I understand not wanting to introduce more video replays into the NHL, but the alternative is calling penalties that aren’t penalties.

Winner: Denis Potvin

The New York Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman has been hearing Rangers fans chant his name in a derogatory way for over 40 years. Now he has flipped the script and is selling “Potvin Socks,” with 10% of proceeds going to children’s charities. Finally, something worth whistling a about.

Loser: J.T. Miller

Quite a week for the Canucks forward. He was the offensive bright spot for the Canucks in their loss to Carolina, which kept them winless. He debunked a Reddit story about visiting a pumpkin patch. But he lands here for expressing apathy, rather than empathy, for the Vancouver fans who tossed their jerseys on the ice in protest. They love this team. They’re hurting. “Throw what you want, I don’t care” shouldn’t be the message. How about something along the lines of, “We’re going to do what we can to not give them a reason to throw anything.”

Winners: Jason Payne and Joel Martin

The ECHL made history this week when coach Jason Payne and the Cincinnati Cyclones met coach Joel Martin and the Kalamazoo Wings. It’s believed to be the first time in North American men’s pro hockey that two Black coaches faced each other in a game.

“The kids get to see players of color and say, ‘I can be that player.’ Now they get to see two guys, as the term goes, ‘bench bosses,’ and they can say, ‘Oh, there’s another position I can possibly get to one day if I work hard enough at it.’ That’s what’s most fulfilling for all of us,” Payne told NHL.com.

Loser: Awkward transitions

Just like baseball announcers never know when Nick Castellanos will drive deep to left field, hockey announcers never know if their ad read will be interrupted by a goal at the most awkward time.


Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Great reporting here from Kristen Shilton on the NHL’s nutrition trend. Someone tell Cale Makar he’s going to turn into a sweet potato if he isn’t careful.

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