One of the stories of the NHL over the last couple of weeks has been the race to the bottom of the NHL ladder. This upcoming draft season has two ‘generation’ talents. If you’re spending any time watching/reading/listening to NHL-related things, it’s all about who’s going to get Connor McDavid* and Jack Eichel (but mostly Connor McDavid) in the upcoming NHL draft.**
Two of the teams most likely to win the McEichel lottery are the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes.*** On the 26th and 30th of March, the Buffalo Sabres met with the Arizona Coyotes in what was set up by the media as ‘the tank battles’****.
The Sabres management and Front Office are set-up up the team to fail as hard as they can without actively saying “We Are Tanking For McEichel”. The fans have gotten behind it. We’re seeing McEichel jerseys at games and support for the tanking effort on fan blogs. But the team are not on board with it. If anything, they’re seeing the support for failure as a betrayal of the team. Despite how awful they are, the Sabres and Coyotes players and coaches are still genuinely trying to win.
This is in contrast to the Region 7-AAA Women’s high-school basketball consolation game where both teams tried to throw the game away. This was an instance where the players were definitely on board with the tanking and as a result the game became totally ludicrous. The loser of this game was guaranteed to end up on the opposite side of the bracket to the defending national champ. Riverdale high-school coach said that there was no instruction to tank – he just explained ‘bracketology’. Smyrna’s administration came down to the bench during the game and insisted that the starting players actually get on the court and play. In the end, both teams were fined and booted from the tournament and Riverdale further punished the coach. So in this case, the players and coaches were all in for tanking, but the audience and the ‘owners’ were somewhere between amused and outraged.
Generally athletes want to win. It’s probably their defining feature. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s their sport, beach cricket, or X-box. If there is a winnable thing, an athlete’s going to want to win it.***** Athletes can and do put that down when winning something else becomes more important. Good old match-fixing for money is certainly a case where individually winning more money is more motivating than winning a match, but that doesn’t happen often an is universally regarded with disgust. Putting your individual needs above the team is ultimate sports-blasphemy.******
And while you could certainly argue that the players on the Sabres aren’t doing the best thing by the franchise with their continued desire to win, I’d say that they’re definitely doing the best thing by the team – which is the current iteration of the franchise and the group of guys that they train and play with. It’s pretty rare for the fans loyalty to the franchise to be expressed counter to the desire for the team to do well, but we’re clearly seeing it with the Sabres and a number of other Franchises in the NHL at the moment.
Even in rebuild years and bad years, fan loyalty to the franchise is usually expressed by the desire for the team to not suck. The winners of the McEichel sweepstakes are going to have good teams for several years afterwards. The only way to be the Winningest Franchise is to be the Losingest team. And I’m real sorry for the guys on the teams that expected the usual expressions of fan support for the team to spring from loyalty to the franchise. They don’t have that support and it seems particularly rough on a team who really need it.
*Also known as “The second coming of Sidney Crosby”.
** It’s a weighted lottery, so that everyone who doesn’t make it through to the finals has a chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft. After the first overall pick, the draw reverts to order of worst-least worst. So for this season, if you come last, you’re guaranteed to get either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Shoot for the moon and miss, you’ve still got an insanely talented star to build your franchise around. All aboard the SS Tank.
***W-L-OT (Points) record for these teams as of 4 April.
Buffalo Sabres – 22-48-8 (52)
Arizona Coyotes – 23-47-8 (54)
Next closest – Edmonton Oilers – 23-42-13 (59)
**** or Puck Daddy’s preferred term – ‘tankapalooza’
***** Yep, this is personal observation. Now challenge an elite athlete to a board game and see what happens.
****** Sidebar: Baseball is one of the few sports I know that doesn’t make athletes eat a bad personal play for the sake of the team. While not unique to baseball, sacrifice plays are uniquely identified and scored in baseball. As a batter, you get solid credit for making a play to your own detriment that benefits the team. Related – I remember Chris Warcraft talking about the hits to his stats he took for the team and because the coach told him that was what was needed. But all that’s there in the record is his stats. Which sucks, y’know.