“Tanking” – or purposely losing games in order to acquire a higher draft pick – has long been a potential strategy in North American sports leagues, but I think the extent to which it’s ruining the NHL is a recent change. The difference has been the rise of people who analyze the game with statistics in mind. Thanks to those people, there is easily available statistics on whether tanking works. Here are the results. It works really well. You are more likely to be a top quartile team three years from now if you are terrible, than if you are really good. That’s not actually that straightforward – the results strongly depend on what years you start with and how you draw your window. We’ll talk about that in a subsequent post, but for now all we have to see is that tanking is at least a plausible strategy.
Whether tanking works is less important than whether it happens. Are teams doing it? In an NHL that has or had front office employees like Mike Milbury, Steve Tambellini, Randy Carlyle, Doug MacLean and Michel Therrien among others, it can be hard to differentiate tanking from just general incompetence. But looking at Buffalo’s moves at the trade deadline, for example, quickly puts to rest the notion that tanking doesn’t happen. This amusing video makes the point: it’s supposed to be hyperbole, but by now Buffalo actually has sold off all of those players. They purposely traded for an injured player this year. Of course they’re tanking. Other teams are indisputably doing so as well. And it goes beyond the general manager. Former Leafs and Capitals coach Ron Wilson recently admitted that he has previously been directed by management (he did not say where or when) to lose games. And it would be odd if general managers did their best to rearrange their team to ensure that they lost games, and then tried to get them to win games instead. When you are tanking, the management wants losses. And it gets them. Of course, some people on the team are still trying to win. But why? If it’s apparent to you that it’s better for the team if they lose, and losing is easier than winning (), then putting in the effort to win is a bad idea.
So teams are tanking. Do we have any objections to it other than that it’s weird that the players and management have diametrically opposing goals? We do, if we remember why the NHL exists in the first place. The problem with tanking is that hockey is supposed to be entertainment. And the product of hockey is hockey games. Therefore, the NHL should be trying to deliver entertaining hockey games. When teams that are already bad are trying to lose, then the games are not going to be entertaining. Watching the (obviously tanking) Toronto Maple Leafs face the (not really tanking, but just bad) Edmonton Oilers, James Mirtle had an existential crisis. From a good-for-the-world perspective, I hope James Mirtle goes and helps out in a soup kitchen. But from an entertaining hockey perspective, this is a huge failure. The other problem with tanking is that hockey is a violent and dangerous sport. For hockey players to put themselves and their health on the line for our entertainment and for glory is already a questionable premise. When you ask them to do it for no reason at all, in fact if the team would be better off if they didn’t play… well then asking the players to play seems like an insult. If you get injured in the Stanley Cup finals trying to bring a huge, happy celebration to your city and prove that your team is the best, that’s unfortunate. But if you get injured as a member of the Buffalo Sabres right now, what was that injury for? So that the Sabres could get a slightly worse draft pick? If the achievement actually has negative value, any price is too big a price to pay.
Finally, as Maud Flanders once said, won’t somebody think of the children? Being a sports fan is something we develop as children, and although adults make the majority of sports audiences, the importance of sports fanhood in a (reasonable) adult’s life is minor compared to that in a child or teenager’s life. I was a young teenager when the Canucks were last completely dismantled, and it was just the worst. Maybe they were trying to tank to build for the future, but I didn’t know it. All I knew was that Mike Keenan either pissed off or traded away everyone I liked, brought in players that you couldn’t get excited about because you knew he would just trade them out again in a couple months, and watching the Canucks play a game was just super depressing.
And that last part is the point. The product of the NHL is selling is entertaining hockey games, and yet tanking destroys that product. Even if, as, say, a Buffalo fan who understands tanking, I would be excited for Buffalo to lose so they have a better shot at Connor McDavid, there’s no way in hell I would actually want to watch them play. The Sabres fans who cheered when the Coyotes scored yesterday are not happy fans. They are people whose souls have been twisted by the NHL. The incentives for teams here are all wrong for what watching hockey should be.
If we have encouraged a bad outcome through misaligned incentives, it should be in our power to remedy the situation by changing the incentives. In other words, if the structure of the NHL is what encourages tanking, we can change the structure to discourage tanking. But before we do that, we need to understand the reasoning behind the current structure, because that was originally dictated by entertainment considerations, too. If some teams are always bad, and other teams always good, then the contests between these teams are not very interesting (see the Scottish Premier League). Therefore, there needs to be a mechanism that continually corrects team quality imbalance. Making it hard for good teams to stay good forever, and making it easy for bad teams to get better. Thus the original method of the draft: worst team gets first pick of player, second-worst gets second pick, and so on.
As with most things, this logic stopped working with extreme NHL expansion. Top NHL talent falls off relatively quickly in the draft (see this article), so that having a high draft position is a lot more of an advantage in a large league than a small one. A 1st overall pick is only going to be 2.5 times as likely to be a good player as a 10th overall pick, but is something more like 5 times as likely as a 30th overall. Rather than keeping the draft as a weak check on extreme lack of parity, having a large league makes the draft a very strong check to the point where it overcorrects. And thus, the graph we referred to in the first paragraph, and thus also the tank. (Among other things, this suggests that, without further changes, NHL expansion will make tanking worse, which is one more reason to avoid it).
There have been minor efforts to discourage tanking since the original institution of the draft. A lottery system, where the first overall pick isn’t guaranteed to the worst team made tanking less of a sure thing. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of NHL team strategy is in the tanking. Remember that we care about entertainment. And so we should worry less about theoretical considerations than whether teams are actually tanking. Which, as mentioned, they are. And we should stop that from happening. In Part II, I will look at ways to change the draft system to discourage tanking, and what effects such changes might have.