TLN Roundtable – Is “Tanking” a Problem?

In the upcoming NHL Draft Lottery, the league’s worst team will be guaranteed one of the top two picks in the 2015 Draft. That’s pretty big, especially considering the consensus top two picks – the Erie Otters’ Connor McDavid and Boston University’s Jack Eichel – are two extremely high end, franchise-making prospects. 

Not surprisingly, some NHL clubs (perhaps smartly) recognized that they were going to be enduring ‘down years’ anyways, and decided to actively “tank” their season. 

Is that the right thing to do though? Those teams may very well be acting with the organization’s long term interests in mind – drafting a McDavid could set you up for decades of success – but what about the fans and season ticket holders? Is it fair to them to actively ice an awful team? 

Simply, does the NHL have a tanking problem? Our TLN Roundtable tackles the subject…

Ryan Fancey

I think there are a number of things contributing to “tanking” being perceived as some sort of major problem the league needs to address. 

First off, we’re in a year that features a generational talent and overall deep draft, so the focus on prospects in 2015 appears to be as high as it’s ever been. Basically, people are talking about picks a lot anyway. 

But beyond that, there’s also a shift happening in the way hockey is being covered. You’ve got sites with writers ready to dig down further to find what makes organizations successful, and providing information on things like playoff odds almost daily. It’s only in recent years that folks really started to embrace the idea that if your favorite team is ten points out at Christmas, they’re basically finished. New media outlets are providing a more logical approach to the game and the talents therein, and fans are naturally doing the same. People don’t really listen to the Don Cherrys and Mike Milburys of the world anymore, except for a good laugh, and don’t share the same short-sighted views as the old boys club of hockey coverage. 

There are exceptions of course, but I think generally we’re moving toward more “thinking fans” with access to a load of information, and that’s part of the reason why you get them cheering for their team to lose if it means major returns in the draft. The old guard might find it disgraceful, perhaps the players do too, and hey, if the league feels they need to address it, then fair enough. But no matter how many lotteries you have, a draft system where things are weighted, even in the slightest, to reward teams for losing, you’re going to have this sort of reaction. I don’t believe this is some sort of big problem that’s bubbling to the surface all of a sudden, teams probably aren’t actively tanking any more than they have in the past. However, the way we’re looking into it and responding has definitely changed. 

Justin Fisher

There’s no “tanking” problem that hasn’t already been fixed.

The best way to ensure teams aren’t actively trying to finish in last place is fixing the draft lottery and balancing the odds of winning a high pick. 

This year, the last-place team can at worst pick second overall. I could see how that could create an issue year in and year out, but the Draft Lottery is going to be changed again next year and it’s going to make it not only possible, but perhaps likely that the last place team doesn’t win a top three pick.

For the 2016 Draft, all non-playoff teams will be eligible to win one of the top three picks via lottery. The percentages won’t change from this year – the last place team will still have a 20% chance of picking first overall, and an 80% chance of not. Percentages will increase proportionately when the 2nd overall pick is up for grabs but, again, the 30th overall team will more than likely not win it either. The same goes for the third overall pick, meaning the last place team has a pretty damn good chance of picking fourth overall.

There’s probably a solid argument to be made that the lottery would be better off extending past the top three picks, maybe even as far as the top fourteen picks. Or, it’s also worthwhile discussing the idea of flattening the odds, where the bottom teams have a more balanced chance at winning a higher pick. 

Either way, the odds won’t be good enough next year to tank and expect a slam-dunk generational talent. It may take a few years for teams to recognize that fact, and maybe some minor changes to the lottery format, but we’re heading in the right direction.

Adam Laskaris

Complaining about tanking ignores an eternal truth many forget- sports aren’t fair, and they never will be. Most teams that decide to wash away part or all of a season aren’t exactly realistic Cup contenders going in. You don’t see the Chicago Blackhawks trying to sell off all their assets to save up for the future. Either way, a tanking team will almost always be predictably bad heading in, or they are already bad once they commit to a tank/rebuild.

No team ‘deserves’ a certain player more than any other team. The team who finishes last this year will have an 80 % chance in Jack Eichel.

The Leafs, Oilers, Sabres, have all gone years without any great success.

Try to make a case why any of them deserves a player like McDavid more than any other team, and you won’t have much to go on. “They’re bad and their fans deserve success for their dedication” is okay enough, but that happens in.. about half of the markets in the NHL.

Compare the North American draft model (which is relatively similar in the four major sports leagues) to the lack of draft that exists in European Soccer.

Do local fans of a Real Madrid team or Bayern Munich deserve more success than a team with less financial support? Why?

They don’t, of course, but that’s the alternative . Without any kind of a draft and a salary cap, the Leafs, Rangers, and Canadiens would dominate the NHL. Eliminating the draft but maintaining the salary creates a complete clusterjunk of a situation.

The draft is only as good as what you do with it. You can be blessed with a superstar and still fail to succeed. Take the biggest winners of the NHL draft since the lockout- the Pittsburgh Penguins. What have they done? Sure they’ve won a Stanley Cup, but that’s it. One Stanley Cup in 10 years. That’s not exactly the kind of success that should follow the best player in a generation- but Pittsburgh’s management team hasn’t put together a lineup since 2009 that has been the class of the league, despite the two superstars on their roster. Alex Ovechkin? Steven Stamkos? John Tavares? Erik Johnson? Drafting first doesn’t guarantee you’ll win a Cup anytime soon. Sports aren’t fair. Someone’s going to win, and someone’s going to lose. So there’s no issue in my mind if some teams lose a little more if they’re doing all they can to one day win a title.

Shawn Reis

I think the league has a tanking problem this year.  We’ve got Buffalo and Arizona who are unlikely to hit 60 points on the season.  Edmonton probably won’t hit 65, and Toronto probably won’t hit 70.  But last year, for example, Buffalo was the only team to finish with less than 66 points.  And in 2011-2012, the worst team in the league (Columbus) still finished with 65 points.  The year before that, only one team, Edmonton, had less than 68 points.  So when you look at how bad it is at the bottom of the barrel historically and compare it to this year, there does seem to be something fishy going on. The reason for this apparent tanking, Connor McDavid, needs no further explanation.  But by and large, on a year-to-year basis, does the league have a tanking problem?

Maybe just a little bit.  The league has made multiple changes to the draft lottery system since the last lockout was lifted.  Presumably this is because Gary Bettman and co. believes that some steps need to be taken to prevent tanking.  And he wouldn’t just revamp the system unless he had some good reason to.  He’d also have a lot more inside information about day-to-day team operations than we as fans do.

But, generally speaking, the issue isn’t overbearing.  I think you can certainly make the case that there have been isolated examples of teams tanking in recent years – Florida and Edmonton recently, the Islanders and Tampa Bay in the John Tavares draft year, Chicago and Pittsburgh before them.  But I don’t get the sense that multiple teams every year are blatantly trying to lose hockey games.  Does the league have a tanking problem?  Yes.  Is it a big one?  No

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  • CMpuck

    Give all non playoff teams equal odds and hold a lottery for each of the first 15 picks, bad teams get preferential picks (top 15) no incentive to tank, problem solved.

    Force teams to be competitive, this rooting to tank and lamenting wins is God awful.

    • Dan

      But it would reward those who miss the playoffs, and therefore incentivize being bad. I don’t think its a terrible solution, but I think there are better ones available. I really liked the draft block option proposed by the Pension Plan Puppets. It eliminates incentive and more fairly distributes the picks. Worth looking up if you haven’t seen it.

      • CMpuck

        Doubt teams on the bubble would tank for a marginal chance at a good pick. Especially as an organization when playoff revenue is on the line. Let alone the trouble of putting a team that just misses the playoffs.

        Thanks though I’ll check it out, I do enjoy the PPP’s general cynicism.

    • TGT23

      I like the idea of all top 15 picks being available in a lottery but I don’t think equal odds makes sense.

      Tanking or not at the end of the day bad teams are bad teams and sucking should come with some benefits. Some level of hope for the future. If not for the organization, at least their fans.

      Imagine how awful Buffalo, Edmonton, or Toronto fans would be feeling if not only did their teams suck but they also only have a 6.6% chance at a top pick while bubble teams like LA, Boston, and San Jose have the same chance.

      Imagine a league where LA, San Jose, and Boston miss the playoffs by 1-3 points and their reward is McDavid, Eichel, and Strome while the teams who need them the most get the 13-15 pick.

      But maybe a weighted system would work.