The reason that NHL teams are purposefully instructing their players to throw games

Greatest Tank Battles was on last night. No, not the History Television documentary series, but rather a game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens, two teams who could have been deadlocked for the second worst record in the National Hockey League had the Canadiens not decided to come out ahead.

We’ve reached the silly season in sports, wherein fans will actively root for their favourite team to lose to improve on its draft position. Somehow, they think, this mentality will translate down to the players and coaches, grown, employed men will full-time jobs who don’t necessarily want to give them up.

This game was as close to a must-lose as it could get for either team, and both teams responded in full. Randy Cunneyworth started Peter Budaj, of all people, while Tom Renney iced a lineup short of its number one defenceman after he was traded to Minnesota for a defenceman who plays third-pairing minutes. (Also, Tom Renney iced a lineup that was mostly made up of Edmonton Oilers).

[Parenthetical] I heard something pretty funny on the broadcast brought up by Habs’ colour man Mike Johnson, who suggested that Edmonton traded Tom Gilbert because Jeff Petry might be good enough to fill in his steps. This isn’t funny because Johnson is wrong, but mostly because of what it says about the Oilers organization if Johnson is correct in his assessment. The idea that the Oilers can’t have two puck-moving defencemen who can play against tough competition is outrageous. [/Parenthetical]

I don’t think that, without serious leaps in logic, we can possibly consider that managers instruct their players and coaches to lose hockey games. It can be set up institutionally, such as Columbus trading away every centreman they have in their organization, but even they managed to beat a playoff contending team on Thursday despite what would be best for the organization; loss after loss that puts a stranglehold on the team’s chances to earn the first overall pick at the June draft and everybody fired.

But nobody wants that. Scott Howson doesn’t want to see himself out of a job, and nor does Steve Tambellini, or the many scrubs who dress in those sweaters and collect a paycheque. They don’t want 2012 top prospects Nail Yakupov or Mikhail Grigorenko playing in their steads next season, no matter what the fans want.

Part of the reason I bring this up is because of the jokes being exchanged online [actual post title on Habs Eyes On The Prize (Habs won 5-3) - Oilers out-lose Habs on MaxPac's big night] and even among the more serious of outlets. James Mirtle, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat-writer for the Globe and Mail, wrote the following:

Because of the NHL’s draft lottery system, the Leafs would have an 8.1-per-cent chance of picking first overall if they finish with the league’s fifth-worst record. That rises to a 10.7-per-cent chance if they finish with the fourth-worst record.

Which is right about how high their playoff chances are these days.

"Lose for Landeskog" worked better as a rhyme than anything you could come up with for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. "Fail for Nail" "Suck for Galchenyuk" and "Blow for Grigorenko" all work as well.

From an institutional perspective, sure, it helps to have a crack at either Yakupov, Grigorenko, or Alex Galchenyuk, the three high-calibre forwards expected to be selected high in the draft, but that doesn’t mean that Tyler Bozak or any other Leaf not under long-term contract is necessarily going to think the same way, considering how much work he’s putting in to stay in the NHL.

The other reason I bring up this discussion is due to a presentation by Adam Gold made at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend:

First off, Gold is convinced that such tanking occurs. His research shows that after NHL teams are eliminated from the playoffs, their winning percentage decreases by 16 per cent.

A cagey team might even consider intentionally handicapping itself, Gold says, such as by playing a weak starting goalie instead of some other goalie who might do better.

I don’t necessarily buy this. Part of the reason the decreased winning percentage is due to trades made by selling teams at the deadline. However, his solution is one that I can get behind: Give the first overall pick, and rank the picks in order, by number of points earned by respective clubs after they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention.

(Not hockey, but I’d point to Dan Orlovsky’s game-winning drive in Week 16 for the Indianapolis Colts against the Houston Texans as an example about teams having too much pride to tank. With a chance to clinch the #1 draft pick, Orlovsky led a 78-yard drive with 1:50 on the clock capping it with a beautiful pass to Reggie Wayne. Indy eventually would end up with the pick, but they didn’t do it purposefully.)

Under Gold’s proposal, the Edmonton and Montreal game doesn’t “matter” from Thursday in a tanking sense since both teams are still mathematically within playoff contention, but if they were both eliminated say, by Game 70, they’d each have 12 games to best the other. Having a few extra games than a better team keeps the field even, meaning that the worse teams will usually end up with the better picks, but fans won’t have to feel guilty cheering for their team to lose.

Of course, my own theory on how the first overall pick should be awarded is an poker game between the general managers of the 14 teams out of the playoffs. This would make for much more interesting television than the poker series that already take up the overnight/weekend slots on cable channels already. If the process were transparent, Oilers fans seeing Steve Tambellini gamble away Nail Yakupov on an inside straight draw might make them think twice about Tambellini’s ability to rebuild the club.

The current system doesn’t bug me, however. The reason why they hand out the last pick to the worst team is so that hopefully in a year or so that team doesn’t suck as much. It’s just fallacious to think that any sports franchise is gaining an unfair competitive advantage by being awful. Really, if there was something there, wouldn’t you think that good teams would end up with more #1 picks?

Comments (5)

  1. Another reason teams preform worse after being mathematically eliminated:

    Every players’ goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Once you’re mathematically out, or even once you’re just so far back it seems hopeless, your motivation decreases, you get depressed, etc. This is a normal human phenomenon…

    • I was just going to say that. I’d bet bubble players’ numbers go up, though, since they’re playing to secure an insecure job for next season.

  2. With respect Cam, this piece is true but misses the point. No one suggests that players would ever tank. They’re professionals with pride and a great deal on the line. With rare exceptions, I also think coaches try to win every single game.

    At a managerial level, however, tanking seems quite obvious. Lowe/Tambellini have not just admitted it, they’ve trumpeted it. The Caps and Pens also quite transparently razed their rosters to the ground in a successful effort to garner high picks. It’s even more obvious in the NBA, where stars on tanking teams seem to come down with vague, indefinite injuries at an alarmingly high rate.

    The main reason I hate the current system, however, is not tanking. It’s what it means for a fan. It means I can’t enjoy anything. If the Leafs win (a purely hypothetical exercise these days but bear with me), I’m emotionally happy but intellectually a little upset our odds at Yakupov/Grigorenko/Galchenyuk went down. If they lose, I’m miserable as usual and almost feel worse for taking solace in what it means for draft position. It’s corrupting of the fan experience.

    One example: in late ’08/’09 the Leafs ran off a string of wins led by Martin Gerber and a last game hat-trick by Boyd Devereaux. This should have been a great story. Instead it’s a punch line on how the Leafs wound up with Kadri instead of OEL, E. Kane or Duchene. Winning should never be a bad thing.

    Teams most often wind up in last because (1) they tried to get there, or (2) they’re utterly incompetent. In my opinion, neither should be rewarded with the #1 pick.

    • I think that ’67 said it very well. It’s not the players themselves, for the most part; it’s higher up. Heck, losing to secure great draft picks seems to have been Pittsburgh’s main strategy during their two highly successful eras (Lemieux/Jagr and Crosby/Malkin/Fleury). And if a guy like Scott Howson still has a job now, what fear does he have about being fired for another 20 game losing streak?

  3. Of course the players won’t admit to the media they’re tanking. You really think they’ll say to you guys, “Yes we plan on losing the rest of our games this season to get a high draft pick”. All you reporters are going to get now are “We’ll do our best the finish the season strong”.

    But inside the locker room, everybody’s locked to fail for nail or suk for yuk campaign. The key is to do it so that it doesn’t look so obvious. Leafs already didn’t score the last two games.

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