This year, several NHL teams including the Capitals’ opponent tonight, Buffalo, have been awful. Two potential superstars will be avaliable at this year’s draft: Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Fans of those teams want to lose.
Waiter in Buffalo learns who I cover.
"Can you guys beat us tonight so we can get the No. 1 pick?"
— Alex Prewitt (@alex_prewitt) March 16, 2015
On Monday, Kevin McGran of the Toronto Sun wrote about this phenomenon and published an article titled “With lottery teams tanking for Connor McDavid, it’s time NHL rethinks draft.” In the article, McGran states that since teams are tanking for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel that indicates the NHL draft system needs fixing.
Does it though? And are these teams really tanking? Let me address a few key points of his article.
Tanking means a team takes measures to play worse and finish lower in the standings in order to get a better position at the draft lottery. The lottery itself is a mechanism to prevent tanking and it was recently changed twice, further limiting worst team’s chances for a #1 overall pick. Consider: 14 NHL teams have a chance at the number one pick this season.
There are a lot of ways to tank. McGran mentions the example of teams trading their veteran players, most of whom are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, for non-roster pieces, such as picks and prospects.
But is tanking the sole (or even the main) purpose of those trades?
First of all, very few players would want to remain on bad teams that may not turn things around for several seasons. Hockey is a competitive business; there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play for a Cup contender.
Many of these players are in the twilight of their careers, which means that even if they were to re-sign with non-playoff teams, they probably wouldn’t bring much to the table by the time those clubs put together a competitive squad again. Meanwhile, these players are still quite valuable to teams that are still in the hunt for silverware, so it makes a lot of sense to deal the players to those clubs.
Other teams, such as Arizona, recognize that their current core is not good enough to win and thus trade star players for other assets. For example, the Coyotes got a top prospect in Anthony Duclair for Keith Yandle, who is an UFA next summer. Did they trade Keith Yandle to get a better shot at McDavid or Eichel? No. They traded him because both he and the team needed a fresh start. Yandle’s value wasn’t going to go up in the final year of his contract, so the Coyotes maximized their return.
These trades, in most cases, show the teams’ desire to get the most value out of their roster under their current circumstances, not necessarily their all-conquering desire to lose.
So while tanking would be an embarrassment for the league, I don’t see a team that truly “tanks” — scratching their best players, allowing goals deliberately. Trading veteran players is a legitimate way to manage assets as long as the team stays above the cap floor.
In his article, McGran suggests that the non-playoff teams should participate in a tournament to determine draft position.
Right now 14 teams miss the post season, and outside of the draw for first overall, the order is based on their regular season record.
But why not make them play off? It might not be easy right now, but if the league expands to 32 teams (hello Las Vegas and Seattle), then you could have 16 teams battle for the Cup, and 16 play for draft order.
I’d argue a one-game March Madness-style elimination (with the teams with the better records getting home ice). No. 1 plays 16, No. 2 plays 15 and so on. In four games, you’d have a champion with first pick overall. The runner-up would get second.
The KHL had similar tournament for a few years. Everyone hated it.
The players hated it because no one wants to volunteer for a tournament to determine the best loser in front of empty seats. Managers hated it because they had to pay players for a few more weeks. Maybe the fans didn’t hate it; they just didn’t show up.
McGran says the draft-pick playoffs would be a revenue generator. It certainly would be in cities like Toronto, but in Toronto you don’t even need NHL players: dress pee-wees in Maple Leafs jerseys and you can sell out Air Canada Centre.
But think about Carolina, Arizona and other clubs from smaller hockey markets: their already unprofitable business would suffer even bigger losses.
And there’s no way the NHLPA would agree to play in more games for such a small purpose.
McGran’s final suggestion is just to not even have a draft at all. Teams would sign players as free agents.
Again, for big market Toronto this kind of solution makes a lot of sense. But unless you significantly contract the league (to about 15 teams), it would only lead to greater divide between rich teams with huge followings, who annually land the best players, and the rest of the league, who’d get only second-tier talent.
If this were the case, Tampa Bay wouldn’t have had Steven Stamkos and the Islanders wouldn’t have landed John Tavares.
The NHL, in which managerial talent is arguably the most important part of a successful franchise, would’ve been more like European soccer, where, for the most part, the same teams that were among the best 30 or 40 years ago are still on top.
In his article, McGran draws a parallel with the law firms that don’t have the draft for the law school graduates. I think if law firms competed with each other in televised sessions 80 times a year getting their revenues from the audience, not their clients, the draft as a tool to support competitive balance would work there too.
The draft does exactly what it is supposed to do — supports bad teams, and nobody would argue that the Coyotes, Oilers, or Sabres aren’t bad teams. Hence, they can legitimately expect to benefit from the draft.
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