Cheering for a team stuck in mediocrity, or even futility, is hard. Just ask fans of the Oilers, Leafs or any professional sports franchise in the city of Cleveland.
So, when their team falls out of the playoff picture, fans always fall back on tanking. The strategy of deliberately putting a losing team on the field/ice/court is nothing new and remains hotly debated. However, I’m always puzzled why so many people readily accept losing on purpose to get a high draft pick as the first response to losing. Few teams have achieved success with this approach and often spawn future futility in the process.
Despite this, the average fan, and almost any fan of specific teams in the middle of tanking, refuse to consider it’s a bad idea. This isn’t a comment about how tanking is immoral and against the purity of sport; it’s simply a look at what happens to teams that decide to pursue this plan.
From an outside perspective that doesn’t account for the intangibles, tanking for lottery picks makes sense. When
the postseason is light-years away, it’s better to finish last rather than fourth-last. The draft ultimately delivers the future stars of the game and no team can win a championship without stars. Yes, it takes a team
that’s full of different pieces, but even the 1993 Montreal Canadians had Patrick Roy, Vincent Damphousse and a young Eric Desjardins.
Several general managers have admitted to tanking for the top pick in the draft in the past and some of those situations resulted in success, such as the 1984 Pittsburgh Penguins. The players on that team played through one of the worst situations possible, but tanking brought the Penguins Mario Lemieux.
The problem with going for that generational talent is you don’t know how a player will turn out, no matter
how confident scouts may feel about a particular player. From Alexander Daigle to Andrea Bargnani, there are too
many examples of high draft picks turning into busts. Injuries also trip up young talents. NBA player Greg Oden looked like a sure-fire pick but knee injuries have reduced him to a league minimum player. Right now Oilers’ fans are praying they get the No. 1 pick and thus get Connor McDavid. However, there’s no way of predicting
McDavid won’t get hurt, lose confidence or simply not develop into the player people expect.
Teams that benefited from tanking also required many other factors for success. The Penguins got another generational talent in 2005 with Sidney Crosby and added additional first-round picks in Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and others. But Pittsburgh was blessed with several cagey veterans and previous Stanley
Cup winners, such as Darryl Sydor. Gary Roberts wasn’t with the Penguins when they won the Cup in 2009 but he played a major role in guiding the young Pens in the seasons prior.
Most important, tanking is dangerous because it breeds the wrong culture in the locker/dressing room. Sure, it’s
great to have several young talents on the team all at once but if there’s no veteran leadership and no system of support to guide players through losing, then how can you build a winner? Hockey fans in this city have finally become sick of being in the NHL toilet every year but still don’t fully understand the problem. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, these guys have potential, but the rest of the lineup still needs major work. Getting McDavid won’t change eight years of a losing team that are acclimatized to the situation. The Detroit Red Wings weren’t always the greatest franchise in the league. In fact, Hockey Town used to serve as an easy win in the early ’80s. As the roster improved and experienced players were brought in, the Wings eventually developed that winning culture and became the powerhouse Detroit is today. Of that core group that won back-to-back titles in the ’90s, Steve Yzerman is the lone Red Wing drafted by Detroit with a Top-5 pick.
An example outside of hockey that rings true for many Canadians is the Toronto Raptors. When Masai Ujiri traded
star player Rudy Gay a little over a year ago, that move was seen as the beginning stage of roster demolition. However, the return pieces added to the Raptors depth and team chemistry. Despite fielding offers for other players, including future all-star Kyle Lowry, Ujiri chose to let the players decide the future through their play on the court. Now, the Raptors have become one of the best teams in the league.
So, before Oilers’ fans start yelling, I’m not saying the team is better off by moving up in the standings at this time. There’s nowhere to go but up; the Oilers are in last place. However, McDavid is not going to
solve all of the problems. If he ends up on a plane to Edmonton come summer time, hopefully the roster will look drastically different and a new attitude is solidified in the room.