Is ‘Tanking’ an Effective Strategy for NHL Teams?

It goes without saying that the sports industry is as cutthroat and competitive as any. Teams have been known to sacrifice integrity, money, and reputation if they think it will give them a better chance of winning in the future, and ‘tanking’ has even become a popular strategy amongst management groups across the four major North American sports leagues. The idea behind tanking is to sell off the current assets on a team in exchange for draft picks and prospects while simultaneously decreasing the talent level on the roster and positioning them for a higher draft selection. Most teams do this under the assumption that the high draft picks they are rewarded with after years of struggling in the standings will be franchise players who can carry the organization back to relevance.

Whether or not tanking is an intentional strategy when it comes to building a team is hotly debated, and many within professional circles deny using the tactic. Whether or not the strategy of “losing to win” is intentional doesn’t mean much from a purely outcome-based analysis of the situations of rebuilding teams though. Consistently poor finishes in the standings are enough to qualify a team as rebuilding, but the effectiveness of tearing a team down and starting from scratch is mostly up for debate, especially in the NHL.

After the Blackhawks and Penguins captured Stanley Cups post-2005 with cores of young players who were taken high in the draft, teams began adopting new strategies to team building that placed less of an emphasis on spending money in free agency to improve, and more on acquiring the right mix of young players via the draft or trades. Teams such as the Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, and Buffalo Sabres are among the more prominent teams to finish poorly in the standings on a regular basis since that strategy began to take hold. Each team acquired an impressive group of young players through their high draft selections, but they have had very different levels of success since.

Their collective lack of success despite the high draft picks they’ve acquired isn’t an anomaly within the NHL. Since 1995, the four teams with the most top-5 draft picks are the Islanders (15), Panthers (7), Thrashers/Jets (6), and Lightning (6). In the 19 NHL seasons since the 1995 draft, those teams have made the playoffs a combined 20 times, or only one more time than the Detroit Red Wings (who managed to make it all 19 seasons without having a single top-5 draft pick in that span).

To look at more recent trends, since the 2005 lockout the three teams with the most top-5 picks have been the Islanders (5), Oilers (5), and Panthers (4). Those teams have combined for five playoff appearances in that time frame. Meanwhile, the low-budget Ottawa Senators who didn’t have a single top-5 pick in that window have made the playoffs seven times.

Basic logic says that judging the success of a team with a high number of top-5 draft selections on their number of playoff appearances doesn’t make any sense; teams qualify for higher draft slots by finishing poorly in the standings and missing the playoffs. But when it’s been two decades and a team like the Islanders has only made the playoffs six times despite having the privilege of picking 12 players with top-5 NHL draft talent, a change of strategy needs to be discussed.

What outsiders often fail to consider when analyzing a team’s ability to assemble top prospects through the draft on a consistent basis is the culture these young players are being brought into. Take the Oilers as an example. The fact that they have players like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid all on the same roster is absolutely incredible. Rival GMs would love to have one of those forwards to build a team around, and now Edmonton has all six. And yet, as seems to be the case in Edmonton on a yearly basis now, the Oilers are still pretty bad.

After a close loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday, Todd McLellan’s team is 1-3 at home and 3-6 overall. And for those saying that these young stars need time to develop, remember that Hall is now in his sixth NHL season. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews took home the Stanley Cup after their third season together, in case anyone forgot.

The bottom line is that the culture surrounding the Oilers has been disappointing ever since Chris Pronger demanded a trade in 2006, and management has done little to remedy that. Outside of those six stars, the rest of the team’s draft record is shaky at best. They’ve also been reluctant to trade part of their forward surplus for top-4 defensemen, instead preferring to overpay for average veterans in free agency. Those moves just aren’t the kind that win championships.

Instead of being content with finishing first in The Hockey News’s annual Future Watch edition, it would behoove the team to focus on finishing first in the standings again. Veteran players with a commitment to winning are needed to help the young studs gain confidence through earning wins and understanding what it takes to be successful. Without that kind of presence, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that Hall might be playing for a different team the next time Edmonton makes the playoffs.

The rest of the league would be wise to learn from Edmonton by striving to be competitive every season. The next Art Ross Trophy winner won’t help any team win Stanley Cups if management is more focused on building for the future than winning today. Every franchise goes through rough stretches where a bottom-5 finish can be understood and learned from. The key is to avoid making those finishes a habit and falling into a cycle of non-competitive play. While it certainly sounds nice to acquire the next bona-fide NHL star at the top of the draft, the risks of consecutive poor finishes should also be considered when establishing a team building strategy.

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David is a sport management student at UMass Amherst who one day hopes to work in athlete representation. Keep up to date with his writing and other interesting sports news by following him on Twitter via @DavidTews13.