It’s been an ongoing debate in the league for years, one that peaked last season and is resurfacing now as the regular season winds down. The logic is fairly simple: If a team has already been eliminated from playoff contention, then tanking – losing as many games as possible in hopes of landing a better draft pick – starts to look like an attractive strategy. And it’s one that several teams around the league sure seem to be embracing, often with the full support of their fans.
To be clear, players don’t tank. We’re not talking about teams shooting the puck into their own net, or otherwise intentionally making a mockery of things; hockey players are a proud bunch who don’t take being embarrassed kindly. And besides, no grizzled veteran is going to go out and lose on purpose just so some hotshot kid can come in next year and take his job. No, tanking comes from up above – from the front office that assembles the roster, and who have the ability to ensure that the players who do take the ice have as little chance as possible.
There are various ways that a GM could embrace the tank. They can keep top young talent stashed in the minors. They can shut down any productive player who suffers a minor injury. The most obvious step is to trade away as much veteran talent as possible, especially in the days leading up to the league’s trade deadline. That’s become an annual tradition, as the league’s worst teams open up the storefronts, offering reinforcements to the league’s better teams in exchange for draft picks or prospects. It’s a smart move, a struggling team’s best chance to stockpile assets for the future. But if done right it has the added benefit of weakening the current roster for the stretch run. And it can be taken to extremes – last year, the Sabres traded away both their goaltenders.