It’s mid-March and in the NHL, that means we’re in the stretch run as teams fight for playoff position. The games take on a greater intensity, scoreboard watching becomes a habit and everything just feels that much more important. Except, of course, for the handful of teams who aren’t really trying to win. They’re not going to come right out and say it, but teams like Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Columbus and Buffalo are watching the draft lottery odds more than anything else right now. It’s called tanking and it’s nothing new to the NHL.
It’s all couched under the term “rebuilding,” although teams have differing takes on how to carry out the process. Edmonton has been rebuilding for what seems like an eternity. Once the most fearsome team in the game, winning five Stanley Cups in seven years during the Gretzky-Messier years of the 1980s, the Oil has fallen on hard times. Despite numerous last place finishes that led to four #1 picks in the last six years, Edmonton has been unable to build a competitive team, let alone a Cup contender. All four of those top picks—Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid—are on the big club this season along with a slew of other young talent, but the Oilers are still mired in the bottom of the Western conference. As a result, there’s a move afoot at this week’s GM meetings to prevent a team that wins the lottery after not finishing last overall to do so again for another five years.
In the West, Edmonton’s fellow Canadian clubs are all struggling as well, even though they had expected much better fates. Calgary is another once-proud Western powerhouse that of late has been a sad sack. After two rough seasons left the Flames flush with prospects, Calgary surprised everyone last season by knocking off the Kings and making the playoffs. Undersized star forward Johnny Gaudreau led the team to a first-round upset of Vancouver before the Flames lost in the second round. This year, it’s back to struggling. The Winnipeg Jets fill out the triumvirate of terrible in the Western Conference basement; all three teams were tied with 61 points as of Monday night.
On the East side, Buffalo has been making tanking a fine art, but with mixed results. Two years ago, the Sabres finished last overall, but Florida won the draft lottery and chose Aaron Ekblad first. Then last season, the Sabres did everything they could to guarantee themselves the prized McDavid…and then saw Edmonton win the lottery despite only having an 11.5% chance. Still, the Sabres landed the wondrous Jack Eichel to go along with prospect Sam Reinhart, the previous year’s #2 overall pick. But after stripping the team of much of its talent over the previous few years, Buffalo is still a lower echelon team. Columbus has been a tire fire for much of its existence, but it seemed as though the Blue Jackets had turned a corner in 2014, making the playoffs and giving Pittsburgh a battle before losing in six games. But the following year, the team ran into a slew of injuries and missed the postseason by nine points. Still, hopes were high when the Jackets traded for Chicago forward Brandon Saad, but the team started this season by losing its first eight games and getting its coach fired and now it sits near the bottom of the East.
But the Tank de la Tanke award goes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have been rapidly dismantling the shite sandwich of a team assembled by the likes of Brian Burke, Cliff Fletcher and David Nonis. Since 2004, Toronto has been stunningly mediocre with only a single playoff appearance in a league where 16 teams make the postseason every year. Since Brendan Shanahan was hired as Leafs president in April 2014, he has assembled an all-star team of executives (including GM Lou Lamoriello, coach Mike Babcock, Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas) and systematically stripped the club of big contracts (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, David Clarkson, James Reimer) and traded away veterans for draft picks. After an active period leading up to the trade deadline, Toronto now has only one player under contract beyond the end of next season (Jake Gardiner). The AHL Marlies have been dominating at that level all season, and after the deadline, the Leafs brought several of their young prospects up to the NHL for a taste of the big time. William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman are all highly touted and exciting youngsters; others like Mitch Marner are in the pipeline. Toronto currently has the worst record in the NHL and is hoping to win the lottery to land the consensus #1 pick this year, Auston Matthews. And then in the offseason, the team has freed up enough salary cap space to make a run at the likes of pending free agent Steven Stamkos.
Does all this tank-like maneuvering guarantee success? Certainly not, if you look at the struggles of teams like Edmonton. You can be horrible and draft high each year and still have a bad team. It’s how you construct the rest of the team and then whether that team can develop into a winner. Look at Washington. Since Alex Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, the Capitals have tried to build a championship around him; they’ve been competitive, but have suffered disappointing playoff losses with regularity and haven’t made the Cup finals yet. This season, the Caps have been in first overall wire to wire, but we’ll see if they can get over the hump.
Meanwhile in Toronto, fans are in the awkward position of rooting for their team…to lose. Babcock has the Leafs competing a lot harder this season, but after a strong November, the team has fallen to the depths of the NHL. The players are working hard, but the talent level is limited right now, especially when compared to powerhouse clubs like Chicago and Los Angeles. Leafs management said before the season that the team will be competitive in three years, so right now, fans will have to deal with the losing and hope Shanahan and company can build a winner. Just like their counterparts in Edmonton and Buffalo. Because when you’re in the tank, there’s nowhere to look but up.