Acquiring elite talent is incredibly difficult in professional sports. There are limited options beyond drafting them yourself, or waiting for the Boston Bruins to trade them to you after their entry-level contract.
‘Tanking’ — meaning being bad on purpose — is generally popular with fans of mediocre to bad teams. Fans will argue their team should sell off any veterans and try to get the highest draft pick at any losing streak they encounter. Is it really better to just miss the playoffs, or make it and get bounced it the first round? Wouldn’t you rather finish with a lottery pick and draft a new, exciting young talent to market?
The appeal of tanking is easy to understand. Steven Stamkos was drafted first overall. So were Bryce Harper and Andrew Wiggins, and even Andrew Luck. Those are just first overall picks. Kris Bryant, Tyler Seguin, and Calvin Johnson were all top-five picks in their respective leagues. Even if you don’t have the first overall pick, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get a really good player in the next couple spots.
There’s a decent chance you’ll get a franchise-changing player, and that can be difficult in various markets. Free-agents aren’t exactly lining up to sign in Edmonton, Cleveland, or Buffalo. A Connor McDavid or LeBron James can change that, but by how much? If you’re in the position to draft a talent like McDavid or Jack Eichel, chances are your team is very bad to put you in that draft spot in the fist place. Getting out of the basement is more complicated then simply flicking a switch to being good. Being bad intentionally is easy, but what happens after you get that elite prospect?
The Buffalo Sabres are trying to turn the tide after tanking this previous year, successfully at that, and secured Jack Eichel from this previous draft. Eichel forms a young one-two punch with Sam Reinhart, who was drafted second overall in the 2014 draft. They’ve also added Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Cody Franson, and Robin Lehner within a years time but that might not be enough to crawl out of the basement. That’s just shows how bad they were last year, they’ve essentially added a top-line centre, a top winger, a top-four defensemen, an elite centre prospect, and a promising young goalie, and virtually everyone still expects them to still be among the league’s worst.
But that’s the problem, tanking might be the best chance at securing elite talent, but it’s still only a chance. For every Andrew Luck there’s a JaMarcus Russel at the top of the draft. While new lottery odds in the National Hockey League might move you from drafting a franchise prospect at first overall to a very good prospect at fourth.
Tanking might be a very appealing move to fans, but to general managers and ownership it’s a big gamble. Sport markets probably will not support tanking as religiously as fans in Edmonton or Buffalo have recently, and places like Vancouver or Ottawa need their teams to stay competitive in order to attract fans and stay profitable. Its a fun idea for fans to suggest their favourite teams should just give up and tank the season, but they’ll likely have to look elsewhere to find their elite talent.