The importance of tanking

The one time the guy makes a save, and it hurts his team. Come ON!

First off, I don’t necessarily endorse tanking, nor do I really think it exists at a player level in a way that interferes with the way games are played. I would love for the system to not reward the team that loses the most games down the stretch to be one that gets a better pick; it doesn’t make the games more fun to watch as a fan when you’re actively rooting for your team to lose.

You see this save by James Reimer?

That save, one that had eluded Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson for nearly all of February or March, cost the Leafs a marginal two goals (since it came against a tanking opponent in Tampa Bay), which is worth about .66 of a point in the standings. You can’t make too many of those, and here’s why:

Last season, Florida, the New York Islanders and the Ottawa Senators finished 3rd, 4th and 5th worst in the league, respectively, which would have given them the 3rd, 4th and 5th picks had Edmonton or Colorado been good sports and won the lottery. But, lo, New Jersey came out of nowhere with the 8th worst record in the NHL to jump up four spots (since that’s how the lottery works now—only one team gets a chance to move up). New Jersey earned the fourth pick in the draft, and Florida’s draft position was secure; they were able to select Jonathan Huberdeau, who has looked every bit the NHL star this season with Saint John, with 30 goals and 69 points in just 35 games played.

Nothing against New York’s Ryan Strome, who recently had a five-goal game against a team that didn’t have a goalie, or Ottawa’s Mika Zibanejad, who I guess did something pretty cool back in January, but I really dig Huberdeau as a future NHL star. And, just think. One save at a key time prevented the Senators or the Islanders from getting that third overall pick where, damn you, they would have taken Huberdeau.

But I don’t really want to get into a prospect debate here. The point is, that in Game 78 of the season, the Panthers dropped a 4-1 game at home to the Senators. That game gave Florida the 3 pick and Ottawa the 6. This matters a little bit more in this season’s draft because, unlike last season when the consensus picks in the Top 10 were virtually all forwards save Adam Larsson, there are a lot of defenders at the top of the crop this time around.

For teams that need to improve their high-end scoring fortunes, and trust, there are many, such as the Montreal Canadiens or Columbus Blue Jackets, or teams that need a little bit of a boost from a second or third line such as the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Edmonton Oilers, drafting a forward is the best way to do that.

Just as a frame of reference, I looked at all the top 10 scorers in the NHL in the years since the lockout. It’s a pretty small sample of players, no doubt, but it gives you an indication of how teams acquired their top talent. Out of the 60 seasons of players who finished top 10 in scoring, 37 of them were draft picks, and nearly half (27) were selected in the top 10 of the NHL Entry Draft at some point.

Do you like pie charts? Wednesday was Pi Day but I didn’t get to post, so in spirit, I’ll post a pie chart.

The free agents that became top 10 scorers? There were eight of them, and seven of those seasons were either Martin St. Louis or Marc Savard, who weren’t so much free agents as they were spare parts at one point in their career. The other was Marian Gaborik. As for players who were traded, a 6 of the 15 were traded before the age of 25 so they were essentially draft picks: Dany Heatley and Jarome Iginla, while Joe Thornton and Marian Hossa were dealt when they were still at a pretty young age and on the right side of 30. Somehow, Brad Richards crept into the dataset and made an appearance.

Of those top 10 picks, however, many were top 3. 24 of them, in fact, plus two seasons by Nicklas Backstrom, who was a #4 selection in 2006 and in his absence this season is really making it look like he was the straw that stirred the drink in Washington. What that means is that more top 10 scorers post lockout came to their teams in the top 3 selections in the NHL Entry Draft than were acquired by their team by means of a trade or free agency.

When fans of their teams sigh after victories and proclaim defeats a success, you can understand why. This season, there are three Canadian Hockey League forwards who look primed to go #s 1-2-3, Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk, and Mikhail Grigorenko, all of whom have spawned their own #FailForNail, #SuckForGalchenyuk and #FailForMikhail (or, my preferred #StinkoForGrigorenko) campaigns by fans of teams who are careening in the direction of the NHL’s cellar.

Of course, the process would be improved by so, so much if Adam Gold’s idea to have draft pick selection be ordered by the number of points gained by a team after they were eliminated from playoff contention. Still, in which case, the Leafs’ win against the Lightning on Thursday would have been a hindrance to their success since they aren’t technically eliminated yet, but it would make those last few games, the four or five prior to the end of the season, worth a little more, particularly that game on the last Saturday of the season between Montreal and Toronto. That one could be for all the Grigorenkos.

Of course “win” doesn’t rhyme with either Yakupov, Galchenyuk or Grigorenko, so you might be in tough to find the appropriate hashtag, but I’m sure the blogosphere could come up with something.