Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Punishing The Downtrodden

I had every intention on writing about the new draft lottery experiment that the NHL is implementing this season, and it turned out that one of the people who submits columns here had the same need to speak! Neal of the Gentlemen, To Your Corners! feature hammered out an article for HBIC today, and it will be a great start to what I wanted to write. I'll let Neal lead on this one with his piece, and then I'll add my thoughts below. Needless to say, this new draft system is generating discussion across the hockey spectrum.

There are a couple topics that touch people's nerves in the hockey world. For my co-GTYC columnist John, diving has always been an issue that has pushed his button. We already did a segment on that and I still don't see why he considers it as big a deal as it is. The issue that drives me nuts is tanking. That is something that has grinded my gears in every sport that it occurs in. I'm sure there are people that will wonder why I feel that is such a big deal. I just hate the idea of rewarding people for essentially throwing games. That's why I applaud the league's announcement regarding the draft lottery changes, although I will explain later that I don't think they went far enough. I'm so excited about this change I had to rush to write a blog even though I had no intentions of writing another blog possibly before the HBIC season preview.

In case you haven't heard, the new system involves the worst teams getting worse odds in winning the lottery and the teams just missing the playoffs receiving better odds. In addition, the top three picks will be up for grabs by all teams. It's something that will greatly alter hockey's landscape for years to come. Not so coincidentally, it comes right before the season of McDavid - a tanking team's dream.

Of course, the worst example of tanking involved the '83-84 Pittsburgh Penguins tanking to ensure they got the right to choose Mario Lemieux. It was an example so obvious that documentaries have been done on the subject. Some would say the Penguins tried to tank in '03-04 to win the Alex Ovechkin sweepstakes as well, but they lost that lottery and wound up with Malkin instead. This, though, enabled them to have the extra ping pong balls in the lottery to win the Crosby sweepstakes the following year.

In a more humorous example that didn't pan out, multiple people have accused the Ottawa Senators of throwing the '92-93 season in order to draft Alexander Daigle. I have always thought this wasn't the case given that it was the team's inaugural season, but it's a subject that even Sports Illustrated wrote about in 1993. Not sure how an expansion team has to tank to lose games, but that's beside the point. I don't think there is any question that teams would try to position themselves to get McDavid or even Jack Eichel.

One team to protest the league's decision is - you guessed it! - the Buffalo Sabres. GM Tim Murray thinks his team is being unfairly penalized for being bad and it may cost him a top pick when the team needs it most. To that I say simply, "Too freaking bad!"

A team's first objective in sports should be winning. Let me be the first to say that I have no problem with teams deciding they aren't good enough and deciding to trade to rebuild. That's all fine and dandy. What I don't like is what teams like Buffalo have been doing for what seems like forever: trading for draft picks and then turning around a couple years later and trading their semi-developed prospects for more draft picks. It shows that you have no plan and no vision. Losing is the easy way out.

There are already reports out of Buffalo that suggest that they are open to trading Tyler Myers for draft picks. I guess, according to Buffalo, being 24 years-old is considered ancient and the time is now for a "youth movement". Buffalo already boasts the top farm system in the league according to Why wouldn't Buffalo want to parlay that into a competitive team? Are you telling me that you could trade some of those prized prospects for legitimate stars and become instantly competitive in a not-so-elite Eastern Conference? You don't see Steve Yzerman wheeling and dealing prospects in Tampa. Instead, you see an organization that is combining hot prospects with legitimate stars. Real organizations mix a strategy of drafting a good farm system and either signing or acquiring stars, not just hoarding prospects. The Sabres could be in serious trouble if its pick falls to fourth-overall as they desperately need a franchise cornerstone after really having one since the likes of Hasek and Lafontaine played in Buffalo. We'll have to wait to see if Sam Reinhart becomes that piece, but, again, I say if it happens, it is for the best.

If I haven't made it clear, let me be clear: teams should not be rewarded for mediocrity. If somehow the Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, or some other team that barely missed the playoffs lands Connor McDavid, I will not be disappointed. Let that team build a potential dynasty because hockey is better when we get a couple dominant teams. That team could be a new challenge to the Kings and the Blackhawks for league supremacy. I won't even begin to imagine the reaction if McDavid winds up on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto hospitals might have a million heart attack patients in one day.

Personally, I don't think these changes go far enough. I want to see at least the top five picks open to all the teams. What would the Sabres do if they tanked and not even get a top-five pick for it? Would they open the prospect vault and try to get legitimate NHL-ready talent? Would they find a way to keep Tyler Myers who is just entering his prime as an NHL defenseman and by all accounts could be a top defenceman for several seasons to come? Would the Edmonton Oilers stop their practice of drafting lottery pick after lottery pick hoping to catch lightning-in-a-bottle for once? OK, that was a low blow as I think Edmonton will be improved this year, but when you draft in the top five spots so many times, you aren't immune to my wrath either.

The other addition I want to see added is Gary Bettman doing the lottery on the stage at the draft. Just as an aside, I've gone to the last two drafts, and John and I are thinking about making the trek to Miami this June to see it again. Could you imagine the excitement right before the pick when Bettman picks a ping pong ball to see who drafts first? Imagine if the host city won. What a story that would become!

After the team with the first pick goes off the stage after the obligatory pictures and stuff, Bettman comes out again and draws the second pick. It would be must-see TV. I don't want to hear the argument about how teams couldn't draft properly because they aren't prepared. They are paid professionals and have already had their top 50-100 players ranked months ago. The draft would instantly be a fan favorite, I'm sure. If anything, it gives hockey a ton of excitement during its off-season.

So in conclusion, I want to thank the NHL Offices for taking the first step to eliminate tanking. Anything that increases competitiveness throughout the season is a thing I am definitely behind. Teams will now have less of an incentive to tank games and it could lead to Cinderella stories where a team who just misses the cut suddenly becomes a juggernaut with the first-overall pick.

I like Neal and he's a great guest contributor, but I'm going to take this one the opposite way.

If I'm an NHL general manager and my team is 15 points out of a playoff spot by the NHL All-Star Break, I'm not tanking. I'll put this bluntly: the season's already over. This is where I start looking to unload wanted assets for draft picks and prospects. While the fans may like the popular players being shipped out of town, the make-up of the team that I hedged my bets on when handing out contracts needs to change. The best place to make changes? The NHL Entry Draft.

If you look at the Sabres, the Panthers, and the Oilers, they are flush with great, young talent thanks to the draft. The problem with young talent is that it takes time to develop. Where the Oilers went wrong is that they almost entirely drafted forwards. Keeping the puck out of their net was the biggest problem over the last few years as their defence and goaltending really let them down. Before Ben Scrivens arrived in Edmonton, the Oilers had used Jason LaBarbera, Ilya Bryzgalov, Devan Dubnyk, a past-his-prime Nikolai Khabibulin, Yann Danis, Martin Gerber, Mathieu Garon, and Jeff Deslauriers. With the exception of Bryzgalov - and that's a major exception - none of those guys would be a starting goaltender in any other NHL city. The worst part? The majority of those players no longer them play in the NHL.

Back to looking at the drafts, there have been teams who greatly benefited from being a cellar dweller. The Colorado Avalanche, who finished 29th overall in 2012-13, moved up one spot to the top spot in the draft and selected Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon only went out and had a great rookie season, winning the Calder Trophy in the process, and playing a major role in helping the Avalanche win the Central Division in 2013-14. Would he have had the same success in Florida or Tampa Bay? No one can answer that definitively, but the proof is that the Avalanche were a better team with MacKinnon in their lineup.

MacKinnon's hype before the draft was that he was the next Sidney Crosby - a can't-miss prospect that will elevate a team to new heights. While MacKinnon's contributions to the Avalanche's season can't be overlooked, I wouldn't say he lit the world on fire with his 24 goals and 63 points. Again, take nothing away from him as that's an excellent point total, but he didn't exactly challenge Sidney Crosby for the Art Ross or Hart Trophies either.

What should be noted, though, is how the Colorado Avalanche didn't tank to get MacKinnon. They legitimately were a terrible team in 2012-13, and they drafted a great kid who certainly helped them get better out of the gate this season. However, when the NHL institutes its new draft rules after the upcoming season, the Avalanche may never get the opportunity to draft a kid like MacKinnon again.

For every Florida, Edmonton, and Buffalo, there are teams like Colorado, Anaheim, and Montreal who draft well enough to be able to insert those young players into their lineups and rise above their standing from the previous year. You might ask how I sneaked Montreal in there? Alex Galchenyuk has been a solid contributor for them since he was drafted by the Canadiens in 2012. None of Colorado, Anaheim, and Montreal tanked to get their hands on a top pick. Instead, they got lucky, drafted well, and made strides the following season.

Buffalo's Tim Murray is exactly right when he says that these changes will hurt the Sabres. The Sabres are trying to draft well and add key pieces to their lineup through free agency, but the NHL will potentially hurt their chances at a key player like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel if the young players they're betting on this season fail to meet expectations.

The NHL instituted the salary cap to provide parity amongst the teams in terms of attracting and landing free agents as well as retaining talent. With their new draft rules, parity flies out the window if teams like Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Pittsburgh are able to pick up McDavid and/or Eichel. The teams who are trying to compete with the perennial powerhouses will never be able to make up the ground they need to if they are unable to restock their cupboards with exceptional talent.

Allegations of tanking are a serious matter, and there have been no NHL teams that have been found guilty of tanking. This will remain the case because there is pride on the line for these players and franchises, so talking about the Sabres tanking for a shot at McDavid this season is completely absurd. While they may not have the talent of a Pittsburgh or Chicago, Buffalo will ice a team that they believe is building towards a resurgence, but they may still be a piece or two away.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Boston - previous bottom-feeders a decade ago - have built successful runs to Stanley Cups through the draft. Why is the NHL now preventing teams using the same methodology from achieving the same goal? This seems counter-productive if the league wants all thirty teams to be competitive and viable.

If the league wanted parity, it just tore down any chance of recently-unsuccessful teams finding it through the draft. Like all lotteries, getting the first-overall pick if you're a cellar dweller in order to draft a key player just became entirely about luck.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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