On the night the Edmonton Oilers were officially eliminated from the playoff race for the ninth straight season, the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes had the potential for an all-out Tank-a-thon. But the more you watch these bottom feeders play, the more you realize they’re not losing on purpose to get a chance at a generational talent.
They’re just really, really bad hockey teams.
Say what you will about the moves the power brokers of the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs have made off the ice, but it’s crystal clear that those who have a say on what happens on the 200-by-85 playing surface will have nothing to do with the stink of losing on purpose.
Take the Maple Leafs, for instance. In their game Monday night against the New York Islanders, they had every possible excuse available to them to mail it in. They wouldn’t have been very good excuses, mind you, but they’ve been used many times before. One of the few elite players on the roster who has actually scored highly on coach Peter Horachek’s “give-a-sh—“ meter was scratched when it was announced Nazem Kadri would be watching from the press box as a penance for being late for Sunday morning practice.
The Leafs were playing one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and were facing John Tavares, who went into the game with 25 points in his previous 21 games and had something of a nasty habit of terrorizing his hometown team.
But for two periods, the Leafs played hard, and not only kept Tavares off the scoresheet, but managed to pot two goals themselves when Tavares was on the ice. But a huge third-period lapse led to two goals in 30 seconds before Tavares skated through the bumbling Leafs defense and scored in overtime. A collapse like that isn’t characteristic of a team that’s trying to lose. It’s characteristic of a team that has almost no intestinal fortitude and has come to expect bad things to happen all the time.
If the Coyotes players and coaches were trying to intentionally throw the season to get the No. 1 seed in the draft lottery, would they have had 68 shot attempts in their 2-1 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators? Probably not. But again, they’re a very bad hockey team, which is the main reason why they gave up a whopping 80 shot attempts against in the game.
In fact, you could argue the Coyotes actually deserved a more favorable fate. The Predators scored just twice and both goals came on bad bounces. On the first, Paul Gaustad chipped in a fanned Taylor Beck shot and the overtime winner came when Coyotes defenseman Klas Dahlbeck dropped to block a Seth Jones shot, only to have the rebound land right on James Neal’s stick in front of the net. But those are the kinds of things that happen when you’re as cursed as the Coyotes have been this season.
The Oilers were coming off a terrible effort in Carolina Sunday night, but dominated the first period and played hard to try to get back in it in the third, but for them losing to Detroit is a sure as the swallows flocking back to San Juan Capistrano every year. Since losing to the Oilers in the 2006 playoffs – the last time the Oilers made the post-season – the Red Wings have lost only twice in regulation to Edmonton in their past 47 games. Like the Coyotes and the Maple Leafs, the Oilers did not have the look of a team that has given up. They had the look of a team that is miles away from being a contender.
Which is why all of them are in the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes in the first place. The Leafs and Coyotes did themselves no favors by picking up a point each. The Leafs passed (?) the idle Hurricanes while the Coyotes, who had been on an impressive streak of losing games in regulation, increased the separation between them and the last-place Buffalo Sabres to seven points.
Even though the 30th overall team this season gets only a 20 percent chance of landing McDavid, it gets a 100 percent chance of landing either McDavid or Boston University phenom Jack Eichel. That’s what's at stake here. So you can understand why the front offices of those teams were engaging in creative “roster management” leading up to the deadline. But it’s pretty clear the on-ice decision makers are too proud to care what table their team occupies at the draft in June.