The fact there are a surprisingly low number of teams looking for a berth in the post-season – realistically, only 18 teams are battling for 16 spots – means there’s a good chance we’ll see some Tanking Lite™ to joining Tanking™ the final two weeks of the regular season.
Florida (4.4 percent according to sportsclubstats.com), Dallas (1.0 percent) and San Jose (0.9 percent) are mathematically still alive to make the playoffs, but those numbers will dwindle to zero in short order. That means we pretty much know right now 12 of the 14 teams that will miss the playoffs.
We already know Buffalo, Arizona and Edmonton are in snail race for 30th place and the best odds (20 percent) to win the draft lottery and the right to select generational talent Connor McDavid. And we already know the 30th place will have a 100 percent chance or winding up with McDavid or Jack Eichel, the other future franchise player.
We also know the 2015 draft is a deep one. Besides these two projected superstars, there are a half dozen others who would be in the conversation for first or second overall any other average draft year. Noah Hanifin, Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner, Ivan Provorov. Throw in Zach Werenski and Matt Barzal. So getting a pick in the top six or eight will be pretty special.
That’s why it’s in the best interests of teams in the NHL’s lower middle class to do some strategic roster management in the final two weeks of the season. Look, we call it tanking, but tanking doesn’t really exist in the mindset of players and coaches. None of them go out with the intent to lose games. Tanking is the pejorative expression the street uses that more accurately applies to how team’s manage their rosters.
Sabres GM Tim Murray has been accused of tanking this season, but he’s just jockeying a lineup that is clearly rebuilding. A good part of his intent is to secure the best or second-best prospect in the 2015 draft in order to facilitate his rebuild. There’s nothing shameful about it. I suspect Scotty Bowman would do the same thing if he were in Murray’s shoes this season.
That brings us back to the NHL’s lower middle class. If you’re Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche, for example, you’re now in a position to draft 10th overall in June, with a 3.5 percent chance of winning the McDavid lottery. If you can manage your roster in such a way as to get as few points as possible in your remaining eight games, maybe a few teams slip ahead of you in the standings and you move to seventh pick – with a 6.5 percent chance of getting McDavid.
Don’t you do that? It’s in the best interests of your organization.
Despite what some people think, there’s nothing nefarious about it. You’re gathering information on your players. Don’t you play Reto Berra for a good chunk of games down the stretch rather than Semyon Varlamov? You paid a second-round pick to get Berra a year ago, aren’t you trying to determine if he has what it takes to keep the job for next season? You’re trying to assess the development of 2010 first-rounder Joey Hishon and he’s averaged just under nine minutes in five recent games. Don’t you put him out there for 18-20 minutes and in key situations down the stretch?
And maybe in the process you double your odds of winning McDavid or move up a handful of very important spots in the order of selection for the most important draft in a decade.
You can make a similar case for Philadelphia. Or Florida soon enough. Or San Jose. Or several other teams. Let’s see Anthony Stolarz between the pipes in the NHL. Or Rocco Grimaldi on the power play. Or Konrad Abeltshauser killing penalties.
These last two weeks of the regular season are a time to test some of your unproven players in the system. And if that means helping your team come away with a future superstar at the draft, so be it.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN