Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Tank Index: Which of the league’s struggling teams are in the best position to get a lot worse down the stretch?

NHL teams don’t tank.

We know this, because Gary Bettman has told us so. Oh, sure. Fans everywhere insist on thinking that it happens because we have eyes and common sense, but Bettman has assured us that’s only because the media makes it all up. Nobody tanks in the NHL. Nope, nothing to see here.

But just for fun, let’s pretend that they did. Not the players, mind you; even a cynic would admit that those guys are wired to go as hard as they can in any game that counts. But let’s imagine that the decision-makers in the front office and behind the bench occasionally realized that there was nothing left to play for apart from lottery odds, and decided to do the logical thing and try to increase their chances of landing a franchise player in the draft.

In that strange alternate universe in which tanking was an obvious and undeniable part of the NHL, which of this year’s worst teams would be in the best position to pull it off? Call it the power tankings if you’d like. Who has the advantage when the time comes to Choose to Lose for Hughes?

Let’s find out. Today, we’re going to take the 10 teams that are within a half-dozen points of dead last in the league and rank them based on how successfully they could tank if they chose to. For each of those teams, we’ll look at where they stand in three key categories that are crucial to a good midseason tank:

Seller status: The easiest way to tank at this time of year is to start trading anyone who might help you win a few games down the stretch. A well-executed deadline selloff kills two birds with one stone, stocking the cupboard with picks and prospects while also making the team significantly worse down the stretch. But not every team is positioned to pull this off, especially if their veterans are tied up on long-term deals that will scare off teams looking for rentals.

Goaltending problems: The gold standard for modern NHL tanking is the Buffalo Sabres’ performance during the Connor McDavid tank battle of 2015, which included them pulling off a brilliant move: They traded away both of their goaltenders with a month left in the season, and finished the season by giving starts to guys like Matt Hackett and Andrey Makarov, who were never seen in the NHL again. Not every team is willing to go that far, but shaky goaltending gives a tanking team a big edge.

Motivation: Put simply, how bad do they want it? At this time of year, some teams are more than happy to hit rock bottom and then grab a shovel. Others might still be holding out hope of a late playoff run. Still others might have GMs whose jobs could be in danger if they don’t finish strong. And, uh, other teams might have already traded away their first-round pick. We’re not naming any names here; we’re just saying that might also be a thing that could happen.

Each of our 10 teams will get a score in each category, which will be based on a complex calculation that involves me pulling it out of the air. Then, we’ll add them up and determine the 2018-19 season’s potential tank king.

Again, NHL teams don’t tank, because Gary Bettman says so. But if they did, here’s who could be in the best position to make a big push in this year’s race to the bottom.

10. Edmonton Oilers

Seller status: 5/10. Cam Talbot’s really the only pending UFA who’d get much traction as a rental, and even that’s doubtful. They could trade somebody like Jess Puljujarvi, but for the most part the current Oilers roster seems to be a few untouchables and then a bunch of guys nobody else would want, without much in between.

Goaltending problems: 9/10. The good news for the Oilers, at least as far as a potential tank job goes, is that both of their goaltenders have looked shaky. The even better news is that both are UFAs this summer, so they’re not committed to … (checks earpiece) … they what? Oh. Oh, no.

Motivation: 3/10. The Oilers know a thing or two about tanking. But right now, what they know is that they don’t want to tank. They’ve got an interim GM auditioning for the full-time job and a season-long insistence that it’s playoffs or bust. If anything, they’re probably buyers.

Tank potential total: 17/30. If things got really bad, sure, maybe they take a knee. But right now, they’re looking to get better, not worse. (And besides, they’re the Oilers – they don’t need the odds to be in their favor to win a draft lottery.)

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