Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Tank Index: Which playoff also-rans are in the best position to get a lot worse down the stretch?

Every now and then, it’s fun to write about a topic that borders on fiction. Fantasy scenarios. Stuff like building rosters out of star players from across NHL history who never actually played together or imagining strange new rules that could never actually exist.

So today, let’s pretend that NHL teams would ever tank.

I know, I know, tanking isn’t a thing in the NHL. Gary Bettman told us so, and he’s an unfailingly honest man who never lies to his customers. Every franchise is trying as hard as it can to win every single game and nobody is keeping an eye on the draft lottery odds and thinking ahead to building a contender around Alexis Lafreniere. Nope. Every team out there desperately wants to win as many games as they can until the season ends. Nothing to see here.

But just for fun … what if they weren’t? What if – just stay with me, I know this is going sound crazy – what if some front office out there realized that they weren’t making the playoffs and decided that it might make more sense for their long-term success to crash and burn down the stretch? In that weird and impossible world, which teams would be in the best position to actually do that?

That’s what we’re going to figure out today. We’re going to take a look at the teams that are fading out of the playoff race and try to figure out which ones would be best positioned to pull the chute if they wanted to. We’ll be focused on three key categories:

Seller potential: If you want to get bad, you start by getting rid of useful players. With the deadline approaching, do they have assets that other teams would be interested in? Bonus points if those players are on expiring contracts, since those are still the most likely names to be moved.

Goaltending problems: Harry Neale once said that goaltending is 75 percent of hockey, unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent. If you wanted to lose games down the stretch, the single most effective way to make sure that happens is to not have goaltending. Some teams are already in that situation. Others would have to figure out how to get there.

Motivation: Even in an alternate reality where tanking was an obvious and common strategy, not every team can get away with it. Does the GM have the job security to get worse, or is he worried about his own future? Are the fans willing to accept a few more losses, or has their patience run out? And are they close enough to a playoff run that they can pretend they’re still in it?

Add up those three categories, and we’ve got ourselves a Tank Index score. We’ll take all the teams that are at least six points out of a playoff spot, which gives us 11 teams to work with. Who’s in the best position to tank? Who shouldn’t bother? Let’s find out …

11. Montreal Canadiens

Seller potential: 4/10. They didn’t place a single player on Craig Custance’s trade board, although TSN thinks it’s at least possible that Ilya Kovalchuk could be in play. Beyond him and Marco Scandella, there aren’t any rentals here, although half the team is a UFA in 2021 so they could get some interest from teams that weren’t afraid of a little term. We’re told that Shea Weber and Carey Price won’t even be considered, though.

Goaltending problems: 4/10. Price has been all over the map this year, but he’s had some strong games lately. That’s great if you think the Habs still have a shot at the playoffs. If you’re hoping for lottery odds, it’s about the worst news possible. Then again, any sort of full-on tank job could always involve shutting down the veteran with some sort of mysterious late-season injury.

Motivation: 6/10. Marc Bergevin hasn’t given much indication that he’s ready to pack it in, and the Canadiens were showing just a little bit of life before the break. It wouldn’t take more than a bad week or two for their odds to go from slim to none. But in the meantime, a tank job doesn’t seem to be a big part of the GM’s to-do list.

Tank potential total: 14/30. We could argue over what the Habs should do, but unless they fall out of the race quickly it doesn’t seem like major changes are in play. They don’t seem to want to sell, and they don’t really have much to sell, at least if we believe Bergevin.

10. Anaheim Ducks

Seller potential: 4/10. They have six pending UFAs, but none are big names aside from Ryan Miller. Ondrej Kase or Jakob Silfverberg would feel like more of a hockey move, and there doesn’t seem to be any buzz about shaking things up by putting Ryan Getzlaf on the market, so Bob Murray will either have to get creative or stay relatively quiet. Or they could just trade everyone to the Flames.

Goaltending problems: 2/10. John Gibson hasn’t been great this year, but he’s exactly the sort of goalie who can randomly get red hot in March and ruin his team’s draft odds.

Motivation: 9/10. It’s been a disappointing season, their farm system is only middle-of-the-pack, and their franchise forward is 34 with one year left on his deal and no obvious heir apparent. If anyone could use a lottery win, it’s these guys.

Tank potential total: 15/30. Here’s hoping Dallas Eakins learned a thing or two about winning lotteries during his brief stint in Edmonton.

9. San Jose Sharks

Seller potential: 5/10. This one’s a little tricky, since their rental options include Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, two veterans who probably don’t want to go anywhere but would have the potential to make for all-time OGWAC stories if they did. (For what it’s worth, Marleau apparently doesn’t have no-trade protection.) More realistically, Brenden Dillon could be an option. But most of their big names have long-term deals that feel unmovable.

Goaltending problems: 10/10. I’ll save Sharks fans the misery of repeating the numbers. By the way, that’s the first time San Jose fans have seen the word “save” all season.

Motivation: 1/10. Here’s the rub. As everyone knows by now, the Sharks don’t have their own first-round pick, having traded it to the Senators in the Erik Karlsson deal. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t embrace the opportunity to build for the future, but “winning” the lottery would just be more salt in the season-long wound.

Tank potential total: 16/30. How secure do you think Doug Wilson feels these days? That could be important, and determine just how much of a sledgehammer he’s willing to take to this mess.

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