With Connor McDavid as the ultimate prize and Jack Eichel as a pretty outstanding consolation gift, there have not been too many years where the rewards for finishing at the bottom of the standings have been this bountiful.
Most would have to acknowledge, the optics of it don’t look great. After pulling off a blockbuster eight player trade Wednesday morning, Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray traded a bona fide No. 1 goaltender (Jhonas Enroth) who had compiled a .939 save percentage in his previous two games for a backup who is statistically one of the worst goaltenders at the NHL level (Anders Lindback) and a conditional third-round pick.
The move led a lot of observers to opine that the Sabres, already four points in arrears of the Edmonton Oilers for 30th place overall, were tanking the season in an attempt to get the best possible shot at the first pick overall and the coveted Connor McDavid. One tweet yesterday said jokingly that Murray had seen his team almost win a game Tuesday night against Ottawa and decided something had to be done.
So are the Sabres tanking the season? Murray emphatically insists they are not, never have been. Any thought that the players or coaches would even entertain such a thought is ridiculous. Players have far too much pride to lose games purposely and, for the most part, probably don’t care where the team is picking in June. And since this season will almost certainly cost Ted Nolan his job behind the bench, there is absolutely no way he is orchestrating any kind of collapse.
The only people who have any control over a tanking scenario are those in management. And if Murray is actually tanking the remainder of this season, and we’re not saying he is, who could blame him? Murray could have used the honeymoon period of his tenure to keep players such as John Scott and not buy out Ville Leino in an effort to bottom out, but instead went out and signed Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson and traded for defenseman Josh Gorges.
That all went sideways, highlighted by a 14-game losing streak that has cemented the Sabres into the last spot among the NHL’s bottom feeders. But to suggest the Sabres are tanking? That’s a pretty serious accusation. We do know the Sabres did not intend on being this terrible, otherwise Murray would not have made the moves he did. And we also know that Lindback played seven games in the American League this season and had a .946 save percentage. Stars GM Jim Nill said the 26-year-old simply hasn’t played enough. “If this guy were in the American League, everybody would be after him,” Nill said.
Without knowing which prospect the Sabres will take in the draft, likely in the third round, this deal is going to be a win for the Stars. The Stars are getting an NHL-capable goalie who can help them in the five back-to-back situations they face the rest of the season and one who can even take over the No. 1 job if he outplays Kari Lehtonen. The Sabres, as previously mentioned, get one of the worst statistical goalies in the NHL on an expiring contract. The pick becomes a second-rounder if Enroth wins four playoff games this spring, which is a longshot at this point since the Stars are five points out of a playoff spot and have to leapfrog three teams to get to the post-season.
So perhaps Murray is ensuring his team has a better shot at No. 1 overall, but it was only after he exhausted almost all his resources trying to avoid that situation. And are the Sabres tanking any worse than the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were a plus-.500 team in a playoff spot before firing Randy Carlyle and replacing him with Peter Horachek, who has replaced the Leafs most potent weapon, their speed and opportunism, with a plodding defensive system that clearly does not suit this personnel? In light of a published report that team president Brendan Shanahan has been given the authority to strip the franchise down to the wood and conduct whatever rebuild he deems necessary, does that mean the Leafs will be taking a deliberate nosedive to the bottom of the standings in the coming seasons?
The thing about it is that there are some really, really bad teams out there. The Sabres, Leafs and Oilers are among that group to be sure, but none of the three had any intention of being where they were when the season began. It’s tough to accuse a lot of these teams of tanking because they’re so bad in the first place.
Now if Lindback, and not Michal Neuvirth, gets 25 starts in the Sabres final 27 games and players start being sat out or shut down for no apparent reason, then we can really talk about tanking. If Lindback gets a chance to play and proves he’s better than he’s shown at the NHL level, perhaps Murray was onto something. But chances are, the Sabres will play their hearts out and still lose a lot of games and become one of the worst teams of the three-point era all on their own.