On Tanking, Part II: Tanking Might Not Even Work

Previously, we discussed that tanking was happening, and that it shouldn’t be. I was going to lay out the different ways tanking could be curtailed in a continuation of this set of posts. Sadly, I was scooped on this by Down Goes Brown, even though I said I was going to talk about it in a previous post! How rude. It’s like he didn’t even read it. Other people who didn’t read part I include some people in this blog’s meagre readership. I was told that I should stop making really long posts about hockey because they are boring and make me look unprofessional. So I’m not going to talk about the ways of stopping tanking. DGB is a better writer and knows more about hockey. Although he is semi-constrained in the above piece by realism, and it’s also true that DGB is in my view inordinately excited about hockey-peripheral things like the trade deadline, free agent day and the draft. These things are exciting to hockey journalists, but it seems to me that they’re not actually all that exciting for people who are not hockey journalists. So if I had written about it, I’d be more for things like eliminating the draft entirely, having a limited free-agent signing session before the draft, ranking draft order by points at the trade deadline to partially eliminate rental trades, etc. than he is. Oh well.

Instead, I want to address the people that will surely encourage the Canucks to tank next year. The Canucks got eliminated in a highly frustrating fashion this week. I luckily only saw part of the 2nd period, or else I’d be sadder. But the Canucks exit will surely tempt those (like Canucks Army writers) who favour tanking to lament that they wasted this year by getting eliminated in the first round rather than try to get the best possible pick by sucking a lot. And try to get them to rebuild next year. But it’s not that simple.

pronman_reduxThe case for tanking is the graph I alluded to in the previous post: Corey Pronman charting what happened to the point totals of the best and worst teams over several years. It seems to show the worst teams becoming the best. But is that graph at all representative of what usually happens? I decided to pick another time slice at random and re-do it to check. The result is graphed above. From the dataset I picked, it appears that the worst teams stay bad, and the key to future success is actually to be a relatively mediocre “bubble” team. I’m not going to go around telling you that that’s actually true and the Canucks are destined for greatness. No, what it means is that the conclusion that “tanking works” is strongly dataset dependent, which means it’s very weak. Tanking is not highly predictive of future success. I suppose you could make the same point much more easily by looking at the recent drafting history of the Edmonton Oilers. But that tends to get deflected with “lol, Oilers” – which is fair. That’s insufficient to explain what we see in the above graph.

So I say, good job to the Aquilinis and Benning for not tanking. The future effects of tanking are hard to define. Whereas the effects on the present are easy to see: a really unpleasant time for the fans and everyone else involved. That doesn’t seem like a good bargain to me.

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