Monday, March 14, 2016

The Fine Art Of "Soft" Tanking

AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
 On Saturday night at the MTS Centre, the Winnipeg Jets did something for the first time all season, they won a game after trailing after two periods. They are now 0-24-3 when losing after two and are 1-44-7 over the last two seasons. No wonder fans begin going for the exits in third period when they fall 2 or 3 goals behind, it's almost money in the bank they will not stage a comeback. The Jets are now an unimpressive 28-35-5 for 61 points and sit tied for last in the Western Conference and now 4 points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs for last in the league. I'm keeping an eye on the Oilers because they have played 3 more games than the other bottom dwellers and they're goal of a second straight first overall draft pick is obviously on their radar.

The race to the bottom is almost as intriguing as the race to the top of the league. It seems if you play bad enough, not just bad, but really bad, you are rewarded with the best odds of choosing first during the annual draft. For years, the Jets have finished their seasons (except for last years only playoff appearance) just barely out of the playoffs preventing them (obviously) post season action, but also top 5 picks at the draft. The first picks of Jets 2.0:
  • 2011- Mark Scheifele 7th of round one.
  • 2012- Jacob Trouba 9th
  • 2013- Josh Morrisey 13th
  • 2014- Nikolaj Ehlers 9th
  • 2015- Kyle Connor 14th
My point is that though some of these players have or might make an impact on the team, none are potential superstars or game changing players. The keys to building a championship team isn't through trades, but through the draft and managing these picks in your system and building a core around these players. The Blackhawks have done that for the last three cups. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Cory Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger all are homegrown draft picks including a first overall (Kane) and third overall (Toews). The top picks in the past 10 years or so, with the exception of Edmonton, have helped tranform their teams into top contending teams and cup winners. The term from the basement to the penthouse is a classic way to descibe this, so drafting #1 can save a franchise.

  • Your owner and GM have to be on the same team. They have to realize when they feel the playoffs are out of reach and have to act fast. The annual trade deadline at the end of February is the final day they can help along the tank. The most obviously solution is to trade away established players on expiring contracts to playoff bound teams for draft picks or prospects. This will take an useful player out of your lineup and will be replaced by a less useful player. It's especially a bonus if this player is a top liner and on the powerplay or a defencemen in the top 4 that has some defensive upside. This year a good example is the Jets trading their captain, Andrew Ladd who is all of the above traded for a draft pick, conditional pick and a prospect (yet a top 6 player on the Jets) in Marko Dano. The Leafs traded a bunch of second and third liners for picks for players that will not help them win games. Times are desperate for the Leafs, but all might not be as gloomy if they score a Auston Matthews or sign Stamkos. Last year, the Coyotes, Leafs and the Sabres all made lopsided trades to worsen their teams, in fact the Sabres traded two top players (Myers, Stafford) for two consistantly injured players (Kane, Bogo), yet the Oilers still got the first pick.
  • Convenient injuries to key players. Timely injuries can cost a team a run to the playoffs and it'll be interesting whether the Penguins can overcome Malkin's injury he sustained this past weekend. He's scheduled to be out 6-8 weeks and the Pens only hold a slim 4 point lead over the Flyers for the final wildcard spot in the East. Cary Price's long term injury surely cost the Habs season, a team that almost always completes in the post season. The Jets were already on there way to being out of the playoffs, but key injuries to top line centre Bryan Little, Ondrij Pavelec, and rookie sensation, Nikolaj Ehlers have contributed to their demise. While Pavelec was injured, rookie Connor Hellebuyck played well and I would bet that he wouldn't have been sent back the minors when Pavelec returned if the Jets were still in contention.
  • Let the kids play. After the trade deadline, the Maple Leafs promoted five players from their AHL team. The Leafs also traded several regulars just before the draft, Dion Phaneuf, Shawn Matthais, Roman Polak, Nick Spalding, James Reimer and Daniel Winnik. The Jets current roster includes several players from the Moose taking up much of the 3rd and 4th lines. This lack of inexperience will surely expose the team to some holes and weaknesses and will lead to more "learning experiences (losing games). The only downside to dressing prospects is they will be trying to impress in hopes of landing a regular spot next season and their enthusiasm might become infectious.
  • The coach and players still want to win, but... A soft tank means you can't make it completely obvious the team is trying to lose on purpose. It gets tricky because the players and coaches don't want to lose. The coach is dealt the players the GM has provided to him and it's up to the coach to get results. A smart coach knows his job is always on the line and though the GM might secretly want losses, the coach is not guaranteed his job next year even if they get the top pick. Some GM's might want to go in a new direction and it's still the best interest for the coach to at least look like he's trying to get his team to win. The players are in a similar situation. There is a small core of players that are "untouchable" (Byfuglien, Scheifele, Wheeler, Ehlers), but the rest have to prove they have a place on the team next year. The coach has to balance the best situations to get the most or the least out of his players. If the skill level is not there, the coach could be off the hook when the losses pile up.
  • Keep the fans happy! Losing is tough and it doesn't help to sell tickets. The fans are paying the money for tickets, parking, merchandise, beer, 50/50 tickets and to help pay salaries of the players, coaches, arena staff...everyone involved in the organization. In Winnipeg, the ticket demand hasn't slowed much since the beginning, but the tickets for resale have increased when the hopes of playoffs is dead. You can actually buy tickets for face value right now (or less) for the remaining games and the patience of the fans will be tested. For a team to soft tank they have to win once in a while. The Jets have been dreadful this season especially at home, that's why Saturday's win over Colorado was so bittersweet. It restored some fans faith they have a team that still wants to compete and they feel not as bad when they lose in a close one. In cities like Toronto, Phoenix (or wherever they play) and Edmonton, losing has been the normalized. Hope of the next year or the next one is always promised, but in markets where the team has high hopes, you better appear to care by making little deals with the appearance of trying to improve the team. The "bandwagon" fans in cities such as Tampa Bay, Nashville, Carolina (Raleigh) and Florida (where?), their buildings are only full when they are winning or when they play a top team. Of course they have to resort to giveaway tickets to fans to prevent half filled buildings when the team sucks. For a team to soft tank they have to win once in a while, play hard, be entertaining and stay in close games. No one wants to cheer against the team, you want them to do well, but not win. The Jets for the most part have been finding ways to lose and it could go a long way to choosing higher in the draft.
There you have it, in my mind there are at least four teams that have a chance to choose #1. The Jets, Flames, Oilers and Leafs (so sad they're all Canadian teams) are within 4 points of each other, but you must remember the NHL draft will use a lottery system. The odds of getting the top pick is increased closer to the bottom of the standings. As it stands right now (March 14):
  1.  Toronto Maple Leafs- 20% odds, 57 pts, 68 GP
  2. Edmonton Oilers- 13.50%, 61 pts, 71 GP
  3. Calgary Flames- 11.50%, 61 pts, 68 GP
  4. Winnipeg Jets- 9.50%, 61 pts, 69 GP
Good luck, happy tanking!

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