How do you tank?

Simple question really, but one that rarely gets asked. Or doesn’t get asked enough. Gary Bettman says “nobody tanks” in the NHL. Anyone watching this season knows better.

So while, yes, players and coaches do their best to win, not everyone within an organization might share that mentality. Not when there’s a generational talent up for grabs.

Now that we’re into the second half of the NHL season, the race to the bottom of the standings is going to be scrutinized as closely as the race to the top. It’s all thanks to Connor Bedard, a 17-year-old from North Vancouver currently playing for the Regina Pats of the WHL. The world junior championships illustrated the gap between Bedard and the rest of the 2023 NHL draft eligibles is a chasm. 

Cornerstone players don’t come around every year so any NHL team hovering at or near the bottom of the NHL standings can’t be blamed for thinking: If we’re going to miss the playoffs anyway then it’s better to miss them by a lot and increase our draft lottery odds. The chance to draft Bedard could change the direction of our franchise in the same way Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid changed the direction of their teams.  

The NHL introduced the draft lottery in 1995 to discourage teams from actively tanking. Back before the lottery, the team with the poorest record earned the first overall pick. It created an incentive not just to be bad, but to be historically bad. In 1984, the Penguins and Devils competed, to use the term loosely, for the right to draft Lemieux. Pittsburgh finished with 38 points, New Jersey with 41.

The draft lottery has been amended a few times over the years, with the goal of creating at least some level of uncertainty about who picks first though the team with the worst record still gets the best odds of winning.


Hungry young players can be a problem

It’s one thing to say a team is or should be tanking and another to execute the strategy in the real world. Professional athletes are universally motivated to win. It’s in their DNA. It’s how they got to the highest rung of their sport in the first place. And so, sending a message that the goal is to lose a game is hard to do.

“What people forget is, players are fighting for their jobs for the following year,” said former Anaheim Ducks executive David McNab, who spent more than four decades in the NHL, first as a scout and then as a front-office executive. “I think it’s extremely hard to try to lose. You can run guys up from the minors or play different lineups, but I believe it’s very hard to tell a good young player who is trying to get a contract, or enhance his value, to go out and play lousy.”

McNab’s father, Max, had just been appointed general manager of the Devils in the middle of the 1983-84 season, just ahead of the Lemieux draft. That year, without the uncertainty created by a draft lottery, the Penguins selected Lemieux and changed the trajectory of their organization forever. New Jersey got a very good player — Kirk Muller — as a consolation prize, but Lemieux evolved into one of the top five players in NHL history.