In hockey, as in life, it’s exceedingly rare to receive a gift from a stranger. But, in what may be the only case of true generosity from a billionaire in recent memory, that’s exactly what Francesco Aquilini gave me during Wednesday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes:
People who talk about "tanking" for draft reasons don't get it. Every player in the NHL beat out 10,000 other guys to get here. They have pride. They hate to lose. If you don;t understand that, you don't understand the NHL.
— Francesco Aquilini (@fr_aquilini) January 24, 2019
That’s right folks, we’re talking about tanking.
It’s a topic I’ve been meaning to broach for a while now, and with the trade deadline looming, he couldn’t have possibly picked a better time to Make Tanking Relevant Again.
There are basically two types of people who are opposed to tanking. The first group consists of people like Frankie. Their argument against tanking is essentially a moral one: it’s wrong to ask athletes or anyone adjacent to them to lose on purpose, and that’s that. The second group consists of people who oppose tanking for slightly more practical reasons, voicing concerns about the difficulties returning from the abyss that is the bottom of the NHL standings or failing to insulate youth with a supporting cast of sturdy, reliable veterans; and citing examples of teams that failed to properly execute a proper tear-it-all down rebuild.
With all due respect, I’m going to basically ignore the first group because they’re likely to be unpersuadable and, to be frank, rarely make their arguments in good faith. No one who wants to be taken seriously is asking athletes to throw games. This isn’t the Black Sox scandal. It’s a disagreement in management tactics.
No, my interest is in Group 2, and in explaining why their outlook on roster construction is, to but it gently, flawed.
But before I get to that, I think it’s important to get to the heart of what we’re actually talking about when we talk about tanking. Team tank generally takes a big tent approach to recruiting new members. Anyone who wants the team sell off assets and focus on the future is welcome; but there’s a myriad of opinions on what putting that into practice would look like.
There’s a tendency among people who oppose tanking to assume those that support it want the Canucks to the crudest possible approach, strip everything down to the foundation, ship out everyone over the age of 25, and essentially ice a team designed to lose. While I’m sure there are many folks on team tank who would advocate going that route, the truth is it’s not particularly realistic. In the past 30 years, there are really only two examples of teams whose front offices constructed a roster explicitly designed to lose: the 1983-84 Penguins and the 2014-15 Sabres. In both cases, the return on the investment of a historically terrible season was a generational player in the most literal sense of the term.
The vast majority of rebuilding teams take a more nuanced approach. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are generally considered the prime example of how to execute a strip-it-all-down rebuild, retained Tyler Bozak and James Van Riemsdyk through the entirety of their rebuild before the numbers game forced them off the roster this summer.
In most instances, what team tank is really advocating for is a change in the organization’s philosophy. They aren’t by any means required to trade Alex Edler, and his NTC and the current state of the team’s defence are going to give the team more than enough reasons not to; but they do need to trade someone,because their inexplicable loyalty to a bad roster has yet to pay dividends and you can only use the injury excuse so many times, especially after the team lays an egg at the end of a long home stand with a completely healthy roster.
The Canucks don’t have to trade every veteran on the roster right this second, but if moving Alex Edler is off the table, then getting a the best possible return for Chris Tanev and/or Erik Gudbranson needs to be atop the to-do list, as does moving on from Brandon Sutter and Loui Eriksson after July 1st when their contracts become more easily tradable. In return, they should be looking for draft picks, not projects in their early-to-mid twenties who they hope can make the jump next fall.
They can sign free agents, but should be looking in the bargain bin and only throw significant money and term at players who can be a significant piece of the team’s future. (Some would argue this is the approach they’ve taken, but a look their payroll suggests otherwise.)
And if the Canucks do all this and still manage to make the playoffs? No one on team tank is going to complain.
With that out of the way, I’d like to turn everyone’s attention back to the good-faith anti-tankers of Group 2.
One of the biggest arguments against tanking is that it fosters a losing culture. I hate to break it to you, folks; but the Canucks already have a losing culture. They haven’t made the playoffs in three seasons, and from the start of the 2015-16 season to the end of the 2017-18 season, no team had a worse record. If the rationale behind holding on to depreciating assets was to build a winning culture, it hasn’t worked.
It’s not the only place it hasn’t worked, either. If we use the Oilers as an example for a moment, we can see that whatever the problem was, it had nothing to do with an absence of veterans. The guidance of Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth, Andrew Ference, or Milan Lucic was not enough to steer the ship away from the rocks. That’s a group of culture carriers if I ever saw one. Those players are to culture what the Edmonton media is to water. Even if you believe that the problem in Edmonton was purely “cultural” (and it never is) that means that most generous possible interpretation of the situation in Edmonton would be that the Oilers did their best to surround their young core with veteran pieces, and the young players weren’t having it. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the Canucks don’t have that problem. The real “culture carriers” are not the veterans anymore. A thousand Loui Erikssons do not equal the leadership of one Bo Horvat, regardless of who’s spent more time in the league.
Now, you might say that the fact that the team is currently a stone’s throw away from a playoff spot makes any discussion of moving out veterans irrelevant. Conventional wisdom dictates that you can’t trade a big piece if your team is in a playoff spot because it sends the wrong message, but recent history shows us this isn’t true. Getting value in return for a piece that won’t be part of the future and making the playoffs don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The New York Rangers traded Marion Gaborik in 2013 in a deal that brought Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Derek Dorsett in return and still made the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Calgary Flames traded Curtis Glencross for a second and a third round pick in 2015 and still made the playoffs, even defeating the hometown Vancouver Canucks in the first round. Glencross would be out of the league less than a year later. The Saint Louis Blues traded Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017 for a return that included a first-round pick. Once again, the team in question won their matchup and advanced to the second round. In all of these cases, somehow, against all odds, a group of professionals were not so crushed by their team making a business decision that they stopped trying.
Do you know what does send a bad message to your players? When the highest-paid forward on the team has 20 points at the time of the all-star break and is frequently the first guy off the ice at every practice; or when your third-highest-paid forward has 5 points in 21 games and plays 17 minutes a night, or when your recently extended four-million-dollar defenseman has been quite literally the worst in the league at helping his team outscore the opposition, and not one of these players has sat out for a game in favour of a younger player.
With veterans like these, who needs entitled rookies?
It’s been clear to anyone who’s watched the Canucks face off against the best teams the league has to offer that they don’t have the horses yet to be a contender in the near future. Quinn Hughes is definitely going to help, and Olli Juolevi probably has an NHL future if he can swiftly recover from his injury woes, but after that they have limited help coming. I like Jonathan Dahlen, Kole Lind, Jett Woo, and Jalen Chatfield as much as anybody else, but the rest of the Canucks’ prospect pool doesn’t real stand out from the rest of the league. The only way to change that is to make some trades and hope you hit a couple of dingers at the draft table.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“But what about the Oilers?”
Tanking doesnt work. The Oilers apparently have the greatest player in the world in McDavid, & havent accomplished much with him. They've also had COUNTLESS 1st overall picks, & amounted to nothing since. Tanking can create a losing culture that haunts an organization. #NoThx
— Dee ☕ (@forevercanuck) January 23, 2019
“Oilers” is second only to “Venezuela” in the list of words I am tired of hearing in poorly-formed arguments, but here we are. The only way out is through.
The theory about why the Oilers can’t ever seem to get it together goes something like this: if you’re bad for too long, your core begins to accept losing, and your team develops a toxic culture that’s impossible to escape.
What I’m here to offer is a better, alternate theory: what if the Oilers just suck at everything, including tanking?
Think about it. What have the Oilers done well over the past decade? They can’t even fire their general manager before he commits 3 years and 13.5 million dollars to a 30-year-old goalie with a career .905 save percentage. You really expect them to execute a tank properly?