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The Attack Zone

  • John Platzer

Does tanking work?

It was the 2014/15 NHL season. Tim Murray was the General Manager of the Buffalo Sabres, a team which in the previous season had finished in last place overall with an abysmal 52 total points. It is said to get into the playoffs a team needs to have earned a point total landing somewhere in the low to mid 90s. Tim Murray had his work cut out for him.

In the 2015 draft, which of course would take place after the 14/15 season, it was widely believed that a generational player, a la Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, would be selected first overall. That player was Connor McDavid. There was also another player in that draft who was projected to be a game changer for whoever gets him. That player was Jack Eichel.

Tim Murray

Tim Murray, in seeing that his team was again not going to be close to getting into the playoffs, decided to employ a much maligned strategy called tanking. The basic premise of tanking is to lose enough games so that you can get the number one draft pick in the upcoming draft. It's a lose/win proposition. To make it more risky, the NHL has a deterrent for tanking. That deterrent is called the lottery. The lottery rules have evolved over the years but back in 2015 the rule was that if you finished in last place then the lowest your draft position could be was 2. In other words, the last place team would either pick first or second in the draft, determined by a lottery drawing.

Tim Murray accomplished his mission. The boys in blue and gold skated to an unremarkable 54 points in the 14/15 season, worst in the league for a second consecutive year. The Sabres, whose bad luck continued, lost the lottery also for the second consecutive year and selected Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the draft.

From left to right: Terry Pegula, Jack Eichel, Tim Murray

With a player of that caliber joining the team, many prognosticators had the Sabres making the playoffs no later than the 18/19 season. So, did tanking work? Depends on who you ask. It's a beauty is in the eye of the beholder thing. It really comes down to how you define a successful tank. Is it merely the acquisition of a given player?

Those who say YES will tell you it's not Jack's fault that Buffalo has not made the playoffs in the six long painful years after tanking. It's the organization's fault due to a series of poor decision making and inconsistent leadership in both management and coaching. The objective of tanking was to get either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel and the Sabres got Jack Eichel. Therefore the tank was a success. After all, without Jack Eichel, the team would be even worse.

Those who say NO quickly point to the fact that the Sabres, as I just mentioned, have not even come close to making the playoffs since that coveted draft of 2015, again, six seasons ago. The tank naysayers believe there are too many variables that can derail the success of a team of which a star player cannot compensate. Such things include but are not limited to: poor decision making and inconsistent leadership in both management and coaching.

The YES faction will tell you that suffering through a season where your beloved team is the worst in the league is worth it to get a Star player. The NO faction will tell you that there is no reason to suffer through a tank season because a star player does not guarantee success in future seasons. There's that word again, success. Did we decide how it's defined yet?

Consider this, the main factor in both the YES and NO arguments is that success is first and foremost derived through organizational leadership (I see you there Buffalo Bills). Without a strong level of organizational competency, a team's chances of having a successful season, let alone long term success, are very slim. So, if organizational competency is the main factor in the success of a team, is tanking a good strategy? The answer appears to be no. It's clear that tanking is a means used by those who don't have the wherewithal to otherwise build a solid team.

There are many teams with one or more stars that either limp into the playoffs or miss the playoffs entirely. Hence, stars do not equal success.

In the last decade, there have been three teams who won the Stanley cup twice, which accounts for six of the last ten Stanley Cups. Those teams are Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Each team has a star player or two but what really separates them from the crowd is organizational excellence. They make the right moves to stay on top.

That type of leadership, with or without star players, all but guarantees a team's success and star players will be attracted to that. A team does not need to make it's fans suffer through tanking. If your General Manager is considering tanking as a means to ultimately improve the team, fire his ass. 👍

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