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Photo Credit: Vancouver Canucks/Twitter

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.

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?”

“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?

  • Killer Marmot

    McDonald says he going to explain what he means by tanking, but then never clearly states it.

    So let me attempt a definition: Tanking is when the manager makes moves to improve the long-term prospects of the club knowing it will likely hurt the club’s chances of doing well in the current season. Tanking is not something the players or coaches do, as they are expected to do their best to win games at all times.

    • Heffy

      If it was up to me, the term “tanking” should only refer to deliberately trying to lose, either by players and coaches “fixing” games by not trying, or by management through deliberately building a roster with the PRIMARY purpose of losing games. That seems to be the definition Aquilini advocates in his tweet. To me, that is a “tank.” The draft lottery was implemented to eliminate this practice, and I believe that it pretty much has.

      A roster and player development strategy based on maximizing long success (2-5 years out) rather than short term results (winning games this season) should NOT, in my view, be called “tanking.” Tactics of this strategy include (a) trading vets and upcoming UFAs for draft picks, (b) playing a roster heavy with younger players, (c) avoiding signing high priced vets to long term contacts (to keep positions open for younger players), and (d) maintaining a few quality veterans to mentor the youngsters and keep the team competitive. Under this strategy, there is a greater risk (maybe even a probability) of losing more games and a missing the playoffs in the current season. There are two possible BYPRODUCTS of this strategy. One is negative – that a “losing culture” could develop or be perpetuated. The other positive – that a lower position in the standings results in a higher draft spot and better odds in the lottery.

      Supporters of the “Long Term Development over Short Term Results,” aka “Draft and Develop” strategy believe in pursuing the strategy hard because the “losing culture” argument is a myth — or at least a low risk — and that the potentially improved drafting position, better lottery odds and player development benefits outweigh that risk. Living with young players’ mistakes in the NHL pays greater dividends over the long term than using low-risk veterans instead. The draft is a crapshoot, so the more picks you have and the higher those draft positions, the better your chances of getting good players. Unless a team is a legit contender, success in the playoffs is so unlikely that making the playoffs should not be a consideration right now. When this strategy is pursued aggressively it is often called “tanking,” which is wrong in my view because losing more games is a potential (and, if the strategy is successful, a short term) byproduct, not the main objective. I support the aggressive application of the Draft and Develop strategy when the circumstances call for it, and I used to say that meant I was on Team Tank, but I don’t any more.

      People who oppose aggressively pursuing this “Long Term Development over Short Term Results,” aka “Draft and Develop” strategy believe that “win-now messaging” has meaningful advantages, any time you make the playoffs is a chance to win the cup, the risk of getting a losing culture is real and hard to overcome once it exists, and drafting is such a crapshoot that there are no meaningful benefits to improving draft position by a few spots or adding a pick or two. For these reasons, teams should always focus on optimizing the current roster and wins, since the chances of success now are higher than hoping for prospects or draft picks to pan out. Some of them accuse the Draft and Develop crowd as wanting to lose.

      Both sides can point to examples that support their positions. I would argue that the failures of the aggressive Draft and Develop strategy have been caused by tactical errors. Failing to properly execute a strategy does not invalidate the strategy.

      • Heffy

        In the second last paragraph, rather than “any time you make the playoffs is a chance to win the cup” it would be more accurate to say “any time you make the playoffs it is a time to enjoy playoff hockey, make the owner some money, and possibly to win the cup”

  • Killer Marmot

    I’m okay with talking about the merits of tanking or not tanking. I’m also okay with talking about whether the Eriksson or Gudbranson contracts were sound ones. Mixing the two together into this hodgepodge serves little purpose. I recommend McDonald pick ONE topic to discuss, and doesn’t allow himself to get sidetracked by mostly irrelevant side issues. What you don’t say is as important as what you do.

  • Dan the Fan

    All the Stanley Cup winners in the last 10 years have picked first, second, or both, in the 15 years before winning. If Toronto, or Tampa, or Winnepeg wins, that’s 11.

    All the recent cup winners except Boston were led primarily by players the team picked high in the draft. They all acquired extra picks in the first/second rounds in the decade or so before winning.

    This Vancouver team is several pieces short of being a contender. (Another LHD, a couple RHD, and another first line winger.) The best place, by far, to get those pieces is at the top of the draft. And the best way to get more good picks is by losing and trading away veterans with value.

    We might end up like Edmonton… .or we might end up like Pittsburgh, LA, or Chicago. I’ll take that chance.

    • B_Rad77

      Agree, we still need pieces, and would hate to see us hang onto valuable trade pieces that wont be here when this team is in their window to push for a cup. Too many times, we have hung onto players too long until their value has been diminshed to the point of no return either through player loyalty or unrealistic team expectations. Too many times, this team has made a push over the last 6 weeks or so, sqeeked into the playoffs and been creamed in the first round. Im not a Benning basher, and can appreciate the better moves/drafts that have occurred since he was hired. But I have continually been confused on what the plan is and what direction this team is going in. Is it too much to hope that this team makes some roster moves to improve the developement of the kids and relieve this team of its many anchors?

    • truthseeker

      By your own logic of your first sentence, it doesn’t matter then does it? Vancouver will never win the cup. They won’t get either of the first two picks. So I guess they might as well not even try right?

      What should the canucks do? Just continue to miss the playoffs year after year until they eventually win the first or second lottery position because nobody in the last 15 years won a cup without it? lol. Who cares how well EP, Boeser, and Horvat and potentially Hughes, are doing? Just continuously dump everyone else around them. Screw them right? Who cares if they want to win at some point.

      might as well just fold the franchise. move them to Kansas City or something.

  • TheRealPB

    I like the fact that you actually tried to define and take on the tanking question rather than simply relying on it as a given. But I also think you’ve set up a bunch of straw man arguments that don’t really address the core issues. You’re right that there are only a few examples of intentional tanking (rather than just being bad for long stretches, as with Chicago, LA and Pittsburgh so that they could acquire top players — though this was also luck since there is a Thomas Hickey drafted for every Drew Doughty or a Cam Barker for a Patrick Kane). I’m surprised that you disqualify the Leafs because they still had Van Reimsdyk and Bozak. That 2015-2016 season they were the epitome of tanking — the signed a bunch of vets to 1-year deals and flipped them at the deadline (Polak, Winnik, Matthias, Greening, Laich, Spaling), used their economic power to absorb bad contracts and stash them in the minors and rid themselves of boat anchors like Phaneuf. But all this extra picks, what did it get them? Not one of those players have played for the team; in fact the best thing that happened for the Leafs that year was winning the draft lottery, which is a fool’s errand to bet on. Their current core is based on winning the bounce of a lottery ball, being unintentionally bad and getting Marner, Reilly, and Nylander in earlier crappy seasons and of course a superstar in Tavares coming back home. Tanking has little to do with the current Leafs success. The same can be said of the Sabres. The season they intentionally tanked, they were clearly doing it to get McDavid. They got Eichel, who’s pretty awesome too, but in that season they had fewer draft picks than any other recent season and none of them have panned out. It seems to me in the optimal tanking model you go for more, not fewer picks.

    My main problem with the idea of tanking as a STRATEGY is that I simply haven’t seen any successful examples of it. You’re right, the best way to get better is by accumulating top players through the draft or possibly through trades (SJ, for example, became the powerhouse it did because they acquired not one but two young superstars in Burns and Thornton in lopsided trades). But that’s easier said than done in an era that’s dominated by hard caps and draft lotteries. It is compounded by the fact that there are basically no teams outside of the Leafs that can sustain prolonged terrible results. The Blackhawks, Bruins, Kings fall to the bottom of the league in attendance when they aren’t good; teams like the Penguins sustain an existential crisis when that happens.

    This is not to argue that making foolish moves when you are rebuilding is a good idea. I think the worst move is one that Benning hasn’t made — trading young prospects or picks for aging veterans. Instead, his biggest mistakes — mostly in UFAs — have an impact primarily on the Aquilini’s bottom line, not necessarily on the team. I don’t think Eriksson and Gudbranson are worth their contracts but most of the others are neither huge overpays nor on big term. We also are the fourth or fifth lowest payroll in the league, with little left on our books when EP and others are up for the big raises.

    I’d love to see a more substantive engagement with the idea of an intentional tank. The Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA might be a good example in a different sport and league. I’d also like to say that we don’t have to go through all the “but it will foster a losing culture” stuff except that this comments section is replete with such arguments.

  • TRod

    Why is this even a debate? We have the fifth youngest team in the league, our top four scorers consist of a 20 year old, a 21 year old, and two 23 year olds. If these guys are already good enough to win games, let them win games!

    And why are these tankers (mostly analytics guys) conveniently and consistently failing to mention that their poster-child rebuild, Toronto Maple Leafs, have turned their whopping 42 draft picks since 2014 into 5 guys with NHL game experience- Nylander (8th overall), Marner (4th overall), Matthews (1st overall), Dermott (34th overall) and some guy named Rinat Valiev (68th overall) who played 10 games for them and is now in the Flames system. They haven’t built their team through “tanking”- the majority of that roster came from being dysfunctional pre-Shanaplan (Kadri, Johnsson, Reilly, Brown), via trade (Gardiner, Kapanen) and free agency (Tavares, Marleau, Hyman). The Canucks have had eight less draft picks during that time and have Virtanen (7th), McCann (24th), Demko (36th), Tryamkin (66th), Forsling (126th), Boeser (23rd), Gaudette (149th), Pettersson (4th) to show for it. To add to it, according to TSN’s list of Top-50 NHL-affiliated prospects, the Canucks have three more coming, the Leafs only have one. Having 25% more picks is meaningless if you’re half as efficient with the ones you make. Benning is clearly demonstrating the superior rebuild, and it’s not even close.

  • NastyNate

    To pull all of whatever that was out of a Francesco Aqualini tweet is an impressive feat. All the guy said was pretty much that he doesn’t support taking and players aren’t wired to tank. So would any owner in the entire NHL.

    Major issues with your argument, if that’s want you want to call it.

    1- citing the Penguins and Oilers tanking examples (old draft format- not a draft lottery system like we have in today’s reality)

    2- your examples of teams who traded away pieces for big returns and still made the playoffs -the Canucks don’t have Shatenkirk or even anyone as useful as Curtis Glencross to deal. So I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

    3- using Ryan Smith and Milan Lucic in the same sentence topic of “culture carriers” is very confusing. Are you being scarcasric ? If so Ryan Smith epidimizies culture, while Lucic is the anti culture.

    Any opportunity to take a shot at canucks ownership or management I guess though hey?

    • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

      He used the Penguins and the Sabres actually. The Sabres is very much applicable to the argument of tanking as their ‘tank’ season was only a few years ago (during the current lottery format, with only minor changes to the weighting of the lottery balls)

      • DJ_44

        Minor changes? The Sabres had a 100% chance of picking no lower than 2nd. That effectively gaurenteed them McDavid or Eichel. That probability sits less than 50% now…and 1in5 if only a single “generational” player is in the class (Eichel is not generational, by the way). There was no lottery in 83-84.

        Tell us how either example is relevant….or how it is pure luck where you pick.

        A team wins when it is ready to win. Period.