SANTA CRUZ, February 20, 2015 — With the advent of draft lotteries in professional sports, wherein teams which finish at the bottom of the league are awarded a higher draft position, the suspicion of teams tanking, or losing on purpose, has become a favorite story line for sports media. The recent blockbuster trade between the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets has ignited the tanking story in the NHL with a renewed fervor, however incorrect it may be.
The Sabres are in the throes of a particularly odious rebuild, playing out the string of what is clearly a lost season. There is much to be excited about in the future for Buffalo fans, with the steady accumulation of draft picks and the careful cultivation of young prospects like Zemgus Girgensons, Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Sam Reinhart, but the team has been atrocious so far this season.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, is battling for playoff position with a well-coached mix of veterans and younger players. The trade sent enigmatic winger Evander Kane, underachieving defenseman Zach Bogosian, and a heap of draft picks to Buffalo for Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford. Once the trade was finalized, the hockey intelligentsia exploded with pronouncements of Buffalo officially throwing their season, presumably to land consensus top prospect Connor McDavid with the first pick in the upcoming draft.
This theory, whereby a team will purposely lose games or try not to win them, is as insulting as it is erroneous. Anybody who has ever been a professional athlete, or been part of an organization at the operational level, knows that tanking is not an option. It is a thing made up by the media to feed itself a story.
Every team wants to win every game, and every player knows that any night they do not play at their absolute best could sabotage their career. Pro sports teams are in the entertainment business, and they must do all they can to entertain their current fans and attract new ones. The ebbs and flows of a long season are unavoidable, but deliberately attempting to lose games is a serious accusation, one founded on a lack of understanding about the mentality of professional organizations.
Let us consider that the media is correct, and the Sabres are purposely trying to lose games. How would they do it? Hockey is not like baseball, where each player sits on a self-contained island in which they can control the play. Hockey is a game of bounces, and players are only on the ice for seconds at a time. It is feasible for a goalie to have the capacity to let pucks in which they could have stopped, but it would still be noticeable. And, even if they were successful, there is no guarantee that landing the first overall pick will change their fortunes, just ask the Edmonton Oilers.
The fact is that there is no single, 18-year-old player who will save a hockey team. Clubs must build slowly and methodically, through several drafts. There is no capricious transaction which can act as salve for the organizational malaise that grips teams like the Sabres. They must take their lumps, build through the draft, round by round. When speaking of draft picks, it is important to remember that San Jose Sharks star Joe Pavelski was a seventh round pick, while over 30 players picked ahead of him have never played a single NHL game.
NHL teams do not tank. General managers have a plan, a blueprint for success, and, depending on the situation they inherited from their predecessor, it may take a few seasons. Certainly the Sabres did not want to part ways with Myers, a highly touted prospect who won the Calder Trophy his rookie year, but they are looking to the future, at the bigger picture.
The hockey pundits may continue to propose that the Sabres are deliberately tanking, but the players in the room are playing to win every night, because that is what professionals do.