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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?

  • Freud

    The real issue is the owner’s tweet.

    He was handed the team by his father. He has meddled in the management of the team from day 1. The fact he can’t understand what people are advocating for when they use the word tank summarizes the owner’s lack of knowledge or intelligence.

    Firing Linden because he opposed the simple minded views of the owner is a huge red flag. We’re left with a yes man in Benning and his flunky Weisbrod who continue to make decisions based on myths, unproven archaic theories and reputations, while ignoring the evidence. You know, Oiler type decision making.

    They implement the owner’s simple minded vision only because it’s an avenue to keep their jobs. Add their philosophy and all questionable decision making over the past 5 years and the red flag is huge.

    If an owner who can’t verbalize a basic understanding of “tanking” is steering this team, the cheerleading and ignorant rationalizations from the fans will only make it worse.

    Edmonton fan has been cheerleading and rationalizing for a decade. As a result, the ownership’s philosophy doesn’t change.

    • Bud Poile

      The problem with your post is you don’t understand a billionaire business man has some intelligence.
      Frank told the truth.It’s just not all the truth.
      Linden didn’t have a clue.
      Weisbrod and Benning brought the Cup to Boston ,Chia pet was a clueless figurehead.
      Players don’t tank.Management does.
      What do you think transpired here for the last two seasons once the Nucks were eliminated from the playoffs?
      Troll on,Freud, but your fertilizer spreader needs work.

  • LACANUCK

    Off to the old social justice tinged commentary hey Jack.
    First of all envy is very unappealing. The Gates Foundation has given away tens of millions of dollars to charity or I guess you have never heard of a children’s hospital in Utah built by a billionaire named Huntsman. Takes in kids with cancer and their families for no charge.
    I certainly am tired of hearing the word “socialism” in poorly formed arguments. Again politics of envy are tiresome petty and childish. Teacher it’s not fair he has more than I stick.
    Stick to hockey, something you seem to have a half an idea about or it’s time for this reader to go to another Canucks site

      • LACANUCK

        You come here for social opinions or hockey.

        I am done Truth.. good luck C.A employing writers that cross the line of their job. As a business owner, I NEVER let my opinions cross into my business. Before I started my own business, I taught writing in LAUSD.
        1st! Know who you are writing for, because if you are writing for yourself. Dear diary!
        2nd- never let one personal opinion leak across, because that’s not my job.
        Too bad because I througt this site was about a new generation of bloggers that put fancy stats vs eye test…
        Guess I was wrong or when you get in the third gen of employees the “mission” doesn’t matter anymore.
        Again too bad. Good luck Jackson, you seem like a good writer, but!

        If I was your leader or instructor, I would say, stick to what the purpose is for your piece, don’t get off track. What you consider a a joke never comes across in print so don’t try- unless it is satire.

  • bobdaley44

    What a terrible article. Seems like it’s written by a guy who didn’t play and if he did it was street hockey and was the last guy picked. First you say losing culture isn’t a big deal and then you say the Oilers are what they are because of the toxic culture from years of losing. Horcroft, Smyth, Ferrence and Lucic? Thats your argument for veterans don’t matter? WTF! No real hockey player goes into games without wanting to win. The reason they get to the show is because of their compete level. You need a base of solid veterans who create a culture of expectations and mentorship. Nobody wins a cup without that intangible.

  • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

    “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.”

    One of the best paragraphs I have read in a long time on here. Well done sir.

    • Killer Marmot

      What young player should have played in Gudbranson’s place? Chatfield is injured. You could have Pouliot move over from the right side, but his stats when playing there (which he did for much of last year) are pretty awful.

    • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

      I do agree with a poster above that this gem of a paragraph is a tangential argument from the attempt at speaking to ‘tanking’ which should have been expanded upon to a larger degree.

    • bobdaley44

      He may only have twenty points but he plays PK, shutdown against top lines, second unit PP, can move up and down the lineup and is real solid defensively. Is is contract too high? Maybe but so what. They have cap space and young guys can learn a few things from him. A younger player? Like who?

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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?