Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Hold On Now, Bobby

Bobby Clarke is a polarizing figure in hockey. He's brash, he speaks his mind, he breaks the ankles of Soviets if asked, and he bleed the orange-and-black of the Philadelphia Flyers. He's proud of his career and legacy, and I see no reason why he shouldn't be. However, his track record in NHL management leaves a little to be desired after the problems he had with Eric Lindros amongst other slips. However, Clarke is still a respected hockey man, and it's always interesting when he has something to say. Like today, for example, he went off on teams that tank to improve.

In speaking with Sam Carchidi of The Inquirer of Philadelphia, Clarke states,
"We've been to the Finals so many times and played so good and so hard and didn't quite get it done. It [angers me] that teams try to lose continually to come up with the Crosbys... and Malkins."

"The Flyers have never intentionally tried to lose. That would put a foul taste in my mouth. Who wants to be a part of any organization like that? I wouldn't want to be."
I appreciate and understand his passion for keeping integrity of the game intact by not having teams tank. However, Clarke's history might be a little fuzzy since Pittsburgh wasn't tanking to get Malkin and certainly didn't tank to get Crosby. Let's take a quick peek at what led to the Penguins drafting those two players.

Malkin was drafted in 2004 by the Pittsburgh Penguins at second overall that year. Taken before him by the Washington Capitals was some guy by the name of Alexander Ovechkin, but he hasn't really done anything in the NHL yet (I kid, I kid). The Penguins, having spent freely in the 1990s to acquire and retain big-name talent, were in the midst of battling for their very survival after claiming Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 1998.

To continue to tread water, the Penguins dealt away their high-priced talent such as Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved, Alexei Kovalev, Kevin Hatcher, and Tom Barrasso for lesser players who demanded much less in the way of salary. The Penguins were a shell of themselves by the time 2003-04 rolled around, and things got bleaker when Mario Lemieux suffered a season-ending hip injury that saw the team average the lowest attendance in the league at 11,877 fans per game. The Penguins, icing mostly an AHL team under the coaching of inexperienced Ed Olczyk, stumbled to the NHL's worst record at 23-47-8-4 and a goal differential of -113!

To be fair, Washington's 23-46-10-3 record was only one-point better than the lowly Penguins, so "tanking" to finish with the worst record wasn't really something the Penguins were looking to achieve when icing a lineup that saw defenceman Dick Tarnstrom (!?!) lead the team with 52 points while posting a -37 and Ryan Malone leading the team in goals with 22. Rico Fata was fifth in team-scoring with 34 points while posting a -46 on the season. No Penguin who played more than 20 games that year finished on the plus side of the puck. Ric Jackman, who played 25 games that season, recorded 24 points and a -5. RIC JACKMAN!?! Oh, he was acquired from the Maple Leafs on February 11. That explains it.

The three goalies that season who saw the most rubber were Sebastien Caron, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Here are their stats from the season, and it's pretty apparent that the Penguins were awful. Not one goalie had a double-digit win total!
You could have leaned a stick against the crossbar and it would have had a better goals-against average than these three combined. If the Penguins were tanking, it would have happened at the management level, through the coaching staff, and right on down to the players with this kind of effort. I'm very sure that anyone who played on the Penguins during this time would have spoken up by now if they were told and coached to lose. Players have pride and no professional likes or enjoys losing. Especially if they're being told to lose on purpose.

On top of all this, the Penguins set an NHL record that year for the longest home losing streak at 14 losses on home ice, allowed the most power-play goals at 84 while finishing 30th-overall on the penalty kill at 77.24%, and allowed the most shorthanded goals in the NHL at 15. This team was absolutely terrible. They went an unfathomable 2-14-0 in January yet finished the season in March and April with a combined 10-4-3 record. That's not how one tanks whatsoever, but Mr. Clarke is welcome to his opinion.

Entering the summer, there were high hopes that the Penguins would win the lottery with their horrific season behind them, enabling them the privilege of drafting first-overall and the rights to Alexander Ovechkin. And things went off the rails once more when it was announced that their archrival, the Washington Capitals, had secured the first-overall pick via the lottery, pushing Pittsburgh to second-overall. Ovechkin went to Washington, and Pittsburgh selected Evgeni Malkin.

Now, one can make the case that the Penguins really didn't lose here with either of the top-two picks. However, it's pretty clear that, like Buffalo this year, the Penguins would have preferred the first-overall pick. After all, a first-overall pick doesn't always guarantee you a blue-chip prospect (Patrik Stefan? Alexandre Daigle?), but it's similar to the race between McDavid and Eichel this year: the team with the first-overall pick has the luxury of choosing which player they prefer. Fans can rationalize that getting Malkin really didn't hurt the Penguins, and that's true. But would Ovechkin have made them even better? That's something that we'll never know.

With the situation in Pittsburgh at an all-time low, Mario Lemieux explored the idea of relocating the team, meeting with officials in Kansas City to see if the team's finances could be resolved with a possible move to Missouri. Thankfully for fans in Pittsburgh, the lockout in 2005 was settled, a new arena deal was struck, and Mario Lemieux pledged to keep the team in the Steel City with things looking up. All they needed now was to ice a decent team.

The NHL Draft Lottery in 2005 was a little different than previous lotteries in that all 30 NHL teams had a short at the first-overall pick. Teams with multiple playoff appearances would receive less balls in the lottery pool than teams that had been struggling in the past three seasons, and those who had drafted higher would have less balls than those who drafted lower to balance out the shift. All teams would have between one and three balls in the lottery pool, and a team would draft at a position once all the balls in the lottery had been pulled.

Teams with three balls in the lottery were the Buffalo Sabres, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the New York Rangers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Teams with two balls in the lottery were the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the Atlanta Thrashers, the Calgary Flames, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Edmonton Oilers, the Los Angeles Kings, the Minnesota Wild, the Nashville Predators, and the Phoenix Coyotes.

Teams with one ball in the lottery were the Boston Bruins, the Colorado Avalanche, the Dallas Stars, the Detroit Red Wings, the Florida Panthers, the Montreal Canadiens, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Islanders, the Ottawa Senators, the Philadelphia Flyers, the San Jose Sharks, the St. Louis Blues, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Washington Capitals.

Thanks to their recent playoff success, the Flyers would have one ball in the lottery. They would be selected to draft 20th-overall, but had swapped their pick with the Florida Panthers so their first selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft would be at 29th-overall. The Penguins? Well, they won the lottery that year, finishing ahead of Anaheim and Carolina - two teams with two balls - and five picks better than Columbus who also had three balls.

With the first-overall pick that season based on the finishes of the previous three seasons and draft positions of the previous three seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins would select Sidney Crosby. In other words, this tank job that Bobby Clarke is implyiong would have begun in 2002 with the management, coaches, and players knowing long before anyone else that a lockout would cancel the entire 2005 NHL season in order for them to plan a draft strategy to get Crosby. While Craig Patrick is a highly-respected hockey mind, I doubt that even he could pull off this kind of masterminding and predicting of future events.

Suggesting this kind of conspiracy is ludicrous. Bobby Clarke has to know that taking a shot at his in-state rivals is always good for business, but when it's a completely insane comment, the egg only ends up on his face. I completely respect the fact that he'd prefer that teams such as Edmonton, Arizona, and Buffalo played every minute like it was their last instead of aiming for the tank, but it's not like the Flyers escaped the same idealism this season as they missed the playoffs.

The same Sam Carchidi wrote on December 6, 2014, "There are legions of fans who want the Flyers to tank, want them to be in contention for the No. 1 draft pick and have a chance to select Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, centers considered to be franchise cornerstones." However, he concluded that the Flyers' problem was "a messy cap situation and it's going to take a few years to get out of it" as he tried to divert the chatter away from a tank job. Again, I commend this point-of-view as I too believe that every NHL player should give it everything he has for every minute NHL players are paid. The Flyers seem to believe that as well, so they'll never get a thumbs-down from me for this attitude.

While I respect Bobby Clarke for speaking his mind on most subjects without a filter, aiming his crosshairs on the Penguins in terms of them tanking to get Malkin and Crosby isn't even close to being factual. Had he suggested the tank job the Penguins did in 1983-84 to get the rights to the first-overall selection and Mario Lemieux despite the New Jersey Devils clearly being the worst team that season, I'd give him credit for his comment since former Penguins coach Lou Angotti has admitted to tanking that season. But to suggest the Penguins tanked to select second-overall and first-overall when all teams had a shot at Crosby?

No tanks, Bobby.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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