ERIE, Pa. – In a sport that doesn’t exactly feature the language of saints and choir boys, there’s a dirty, four-letter word that even hockey players don’t want to hear: tank.
Tank, in this case, refers to losing to gurantee a high draft pick. And no other year in recent memory is it considered a more popular route to take with at least two potential superstars in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel on the board.
“I don’t think any team’s really doing that,” McDavid said in an interview. “No NHL team, no OHL team, no team ever would purposely lose or tank or have a bad year for (a high draft pick).”
Lose on purpose? No, players on some of the league’s rebuilding teams like the Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames aren’t trying to lose, but it’s no secret that a handful of organizations that are down on their luck could use the kind of boost McDavid or Eichel should provide.
Plus, the NHL made it harder for those at the bottom of the standings to win the McDavid Derby by reducing the odds of the three worst teams picking first and giving more ping-pong balls to the others that miss the playoffs. Now, the team with the fewest points has a 20 per cent chance of getting the No. 1 pick instead of 25, the team with the second-fewest has a 13.5 per cent chance instead of 18.8 and the team with the third-fewest has an 11.5 per cent chance instead of 14.2.
In 2016, the first three spots will be up for grabs like they are in the NBA, but that will come after this ultra-important draft that has scouts salivating over the depth of talent available. It starts with McDavid, Eichel and even defenceman Noah Hanifin.
Eddie Olczyk remembers from his time as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2003 to 2005 what it was like to lose, preach patience and hope.
“I know what we were trying to do in a similar situation,” Olczyk said last week in Buffalo. “You do need that stud or two to come down the pipe.”
For the Penguins, it was No. 1 overall picks Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury and No. 2 overall picks Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Each of the past six Stanley Cup champions had at least one player picked in the top three: the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty and Boston Bruins’ Tyler Seguin.
“We had to hit rock bottom in order to get those guys, and it’s been pretty successful,” said Olczyk, who was fired before Pittsburgh’s five-year plan ever came to fruition. “There are no quick fixes in this league.”
McDavid, considered the front-runner to go first overall in June’s draft in Sunrise, Fla., might be the closest thing to a quick fix there is. The six-foot playmaking centre has drawn comparisons to Crosby since he was 15 years old.
There’s no rhyming catchphrase this year, like the popular “Fail for Nail” when Nail Yakupov was in his draft year, or “Suck for Luck” in the NFL when Andrew Luck looked like a can’t-miss quarterback prospect. Dishonour for Connor might be it, but current NHL players aren’t thinking about it.
“Everyone around the league thinks we’re going to be a bottom-place team and we’ll be going for that first-overall draft pick and that’s where we should be at,” defiant Sabres defenceman Josh Gorges said. “And I don’t think anyone in this dressing room believes that. I certainly don’t believe that.”
The Sabres had the NHL’s lowest point total in 2013-14 and, at least on paper, look like they’ll be in the running again, even after signing Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson and trading for Gorges. They lost the lottery to the Florida Panthers, who took defenceman Aaron Ekblad, and No. 2 pick Sam Reinhart might need some more seasoning before he’s ready.
Buffalo also owns the New York Islanders’ first-round pick from last year’s Thomas Vanek trade, so that’s at least another lottery ticket if John Tavares and Jaroslav Halak can’t spearhead a major improvement.
Calgary upgraded its goaltending by signing Jonas Hiller but don’t have anyone ready to replace Mike Cammalleri’s 26 goals and 19 assists. The Flames, already with Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, look like a team of the future but not the present.
It could be a long year for the Carolina Hurricanes, who are off to an inauspicious start by losing Staal to a broken leg for the first three-plus months of the season. Rookie coach Bill Peters has some talent to work with, including Jeff Skinner, but depth is lacking and general manager Ron Francis could use some time to restock the system.
Rebuilding isn’t easy, as Olczyk knows. He said it leads to a lot of sleepless nights for coaches and phone calls to general managers.
“You always ask your general manager: ‘Is everything OK? Am I being judged on wins and losses?'” Olczyk said. “It’s very hard. I think the greatest challenge that I had, and I can speak to first-hand experience with that, is selling belief to the guys in that room. That’s exactly what it is. It’s going to be rough.”
Rough but potentially worth it if patience is there.
“What happens in a lot of situations is that sometimes teams—all teams, sports teams in general—don’t have the plums to stay the course,” Olczyk said. “They want to abort.”
There’s no movement to abort in Buffalo, where fans are already thinking ahead to what it would be like to have McDavid or Eichel in blue and gold next season. Of course the Edmonton Oilers and their three consecutive No. 1 picks and zero playoff appearances show that’s not always a recipe for success.
But McDavid is supposed to be different: a once-in-a-generation talent who’s worth a season’s worth of losses. But the 17-year-old said he’s not watching the standings or thinking about what jersey he’ll be putting on in nine months.
“You can’t really worry about that,” McDavid said. “There’s no second-class organizations in the NHL. They’re all great spots. Wherever I’m fortunate enough to go, it’ll be great.”
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