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What We Talk About When We Talk About Tanking

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:

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.

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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.

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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?”

“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?

  • TD

    Eichel is not a generational talent. He is an elite player. To be a generational talent he would have to be the best player in the NHL right now and be that for around a decade. Eichel wasn’t even the best player in his draft.

    • petey 40

      Nah, no issue with it. I will tell you what IS annoying though, a pompous self important online yapper who openly approves of multi-millionaire hockey players getting paid mega-bucks for not showing up, while good people are working ther a$$es off and struggling to make ends meet in the very same city…

      “$6 million a year is an excellent price for someone of Eriksson’s talents.” TD

      Pot-Kettle-Black TD?

  • Here Jackson, since you and JD keep chickening out and refusing to demonstrate how Toronto is a “model rebuild” using the tank strategy, I’ve mapped out the history of the current Maple Leaf roster. Show me how it’s a model rebuild. The data is from HockeyDB.com.

    TL;DR – The idea that Toronto is an example of a model rebuild using the tank strategy is a blatant lie perpetuated by proponents of the tank strategy.

    The current roster features only 5 players acquired by Lamoriello in the tank period (Sept 2015 when he was hired to July 2016 when he drafted Matthews). Matthews was drafted with the Maple Leafs’ own draft pick. Andersen was acquired using a 1st and 2nd round draft pick OMG – defend that, you can’t trade draft picks in a model rebuild! Holl, Moore and Zaitsev were just UFA signings – not acquired via slash-and-burn and NOT core players.

    The current roster is composed mostly of players acquired pre-tank. The players acquired post-tank are mostly irrelevant, aside from Tavares (yeah, explain how that’s a model rebuild move that any team can replicate) and Marleau (show me the money…I mean, contract term).

    Post-Tank Era
    Michael Hutchinson (Trade, Dec 2018, 2020 5th)
    John Tavares (UFA Signing, July 2018)
    Tyler Ennis (UFA Signing, July 2018)
    Par Lindholm (UFA Signing, May 2018)
    Igor Ozhiganov (UFA Signing, May 2018)
    Patrick Marleau (UFA Signing, July 2017)
    Ron Hainsey (UFA Signing, July 2017)

    Lou Lamoriello Tank Period
    Auston Matthews (2016 1st, #1)
    Justin Holl (UFA Signing, July 2016)
    Trevor Moore (UFA Signing, July 2016)
    Frederik Andersen (Trade, June 2016, 2016 1st and 2017 2nd)
    Nikita Zaitsev (UFA Signing, May 2016)

    Pre-Tank Era
    Kasperi Kapanen (Trade, July 2015, Kessel)
    Martin Marincin (Trade, June 2015, Wolanin)
    Travis Dermott (Trade, June 2015, Carlsson)
    Zach Hyman (Trade, June 2015, McKegg)
    Mitch Marner (2015 1st, #4)
    William Nylander (2014 1st, #8)
    Frederik Gauthier (2013 1st, #21)
    Andreas Johnsson (2013 7th, #202)
    Morgan Rielly (2012 1st, #5)
    Connor Brown (2012 6th, #156)
    Garrett Sparks (2011 7th, #190)
    Josh Leivo (Trade, Feb 2011, Versteeg)
    Jake Gardiner (Trade, Feb 2011, Beauchemin)
    Nazem Kadri (2009 1st #7)

    • You’ve misidentified the start of the Leafs rebuild. The Leafs rebuild-proper started with the hiring of Shanahan in April of 2014, not with the hiring of Lamoriello a year later.

      Players acquired after Shanahan came on board including: Nylander, Marner, Hyman, Dermott, Marincin, Kapanen, Zaitsev, Anderson, Moore, Holl, and Matthews. They also shipped out their top defenceman, top scorer, and about 3/4 of the rest of the roster in that April 2014 – September 2016 period that represented the core of the Leafs’ tear-down.

      Yes, several important players came from before this period (Reilly, Gardiner, and Kadri being the major ones) but the *majority* of the roster, including the majority of impact players they acquired through the draft, were acquired between the 2014 and 2016 drafts that Shanahan oversaw.

      • Even if you move the yardsticks to the hiring of Shanahan, you still haven’t proved that the tank strategy resulted in today’s success. Matthews, Nylander, Marner and even Dermott (Toronto’s 2nd round puck that they *reacquired*) were Toronto’s own draft picks. Kessel was done in Toronto, to say it was part of the master plan to rebuild via the tank is a stretch. Even if that point was conceded (which I’m not doing), is Kapanen *really* one of the core reasons why Toronto is succeeding? Hyman, Marincin, Zaitsev, Moore, Holl…not core players, mostly UFA signings which I’ve already included in my tank period where applicable. Andersen violated the cardinal rule of the tank which is never trade away draft picks. You haven’t demonstrated anything at all but I’m not expecting you to either. I want to hear from Jackson since JD never explained *how* Toronto was a model rebuild, rather than just stating it hoping that people would blindly accept it as fact.

      • Bud Poile

        Nylander ,Marner ,Dermott and Matthews are the *only* NHL players on their roster from those three drafts.
        That includes a #1, a #4 and a #8 overall pick(s).
        Rielly is their best d man and third highest scorer on the club.5th overall,2012 tank addition.
        Kadri is their fifth highest scorer.7th overall , 2009 tank addition.
        There was a full decade of the Leafs badly sucking and it started eight years before Shanahan was hired.

  • BlazerFan

    Jackie should understand that, as a sports writer, using the diminutive of the team owner’s name when he doesn’t have a personal relationship with said owner, is poor form.
    Unless Jackie just wants to be considered a blogger.

  • Macksonious

    Doubt tanking has been used as a strategy very often. There’s been some incidents of it over the years, but it doesn’t appear to be all that common. Players, coaches and management at the highest levels detest losing. There’s a lot more things for them to consider than just trying to get a higher draft pick.

  • Cageyvet

    Lots of opinions on this one. I’ll just say that the main objective of team tank has already been achieved – we got our number 1 overall player…….he just happened to be available to us at the number 5 spot. Build around him, whatever strategy you choose, but this kid is a true franchise player that you can build around.