Since the lockout, the NHL has both enacted and endured many changes. One of the most intriguing, and certainly the most disturbing is one that has overcome many members of the media who make a living covering the NHL.
According to many card-carrying members of the hockey-media, post lockout teams should be more than willing to throw entire seasons and lose "on-purpose" to garner higher draft picks and build contenders as such.
No one (to my knowledge) has gone so far as to say the players on the ice should be throwing games. Not yet, but more of a belief has taken hold that teams not considered Stanley Cup favorites should be adopting this as team strategy and taking the results out of the players hands altogether by benching stars, trading roster players, and waiving or buying out players who are vital to the team- not in an effort to improve but in a deliberate attempt to become worse.
Gone are the days when the idea of doing the best you can while working to get better for the future was an acceptable mantra. Now status quo seems to be that you are either a bona fide contender or you should be doing your best to finish dead last. I have a theory as to why this has become the prevailing attitude for media "realists", but regardless of that fact my belief is that this philosophy is a poisonous one that should be looked upon with disgust, and discouraged with vigor and aggression by the NHL and all who cover it.
I believe there must be more to this insanity than simply acknowledging that drafting a Sidney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin is good for a club, and a sure fire way to get better fast (yes folks, any idiot can see this) but there have been top-rated blue-chip prospects since the dawn of the NHL and nothing like this has ever happened before...right?
I remember there being mild controversy the year Mario Lemieux was drafted. The Pittsburgh Penguins' out-crapping of the New Jersey Devils in the final games of the 82-83 season decided where Le Magnifique would end up playing (and ultimately reshaping the destiny of the Penguins and changing the face of the NHL). People who covered the games said many were painful to watch, and on many nights it seemed neither team was trying to win.
In the end it was mistakes that enabled the Pens to end up with Lemieux, and the New Jersey Devils to end up with Kirk Muller- the rest as they say is history.
There have been great prospects long before Lemieux and certainly afterwards. Some have fulfilled their promise, but the VAST majority has not. A top pick in the draft in my opinion should be looked upon as a small glimmer of hope in a season that could have not gone any worse by fan standards, player standards and yes, team management standards-not the basis for team strategy.
Hockey is the ultimate team game, and should therefore be won and lost by a team. The true spirit of the sport is what is at stake here, not whether or not it makes good business sense to get a great player at the draft.
Revelations such as these are coming from the mouths of people who influence thousands of hockey fans, and most importantly children who grow up to be adults who (whether or not play professional sports for a living) spend their lives making decisions based upon the foundation of ethics and morals that are instilled within them from childhood. Anyone who has seen a Timbits hockey commercial can attest to this!
It is irresponsible and reprehensible to be condoning the practice of tanking a season to build a contender. The idea goes against the very principles that sport and fair play are founded upon, especially in team sports where the ultimate goal is to grasp and perfect the art of team over self. YOU WIN AND LOSE WITH THE TEAM YOU HAVE and it is the management and coaching staffs job to provide the team with as much help to that end as possible. Every season, every shift and yes, every transaction should be a microcosm of the desire to compete despite the odds and that should trickle down from the owner to the third string goaltender of every team.
Ethics aside, lets get back to why I think that the idea of losing on purpose has become trendy with the media. I hear about the same teams over and over again- The Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Black Hawks- basement dwellers of the early 2000s that have become some the most exciting and promising teams in the league. How did they make this miraculous transition?
They built through the draft.
Thats it. Case closed. Proof positive that the way to build a contender in the new NHL is through the draft. So many writers throw these teams names around with reckless abandon as champions of the 'tank the season/rebuild through the draft' revolution of the new NHL (referred to henceforth as The Movement).
Problem is that none of these teams rebuilt in this manner- matter of fact not one of them even rebuilt in the "new" NHL.
Every team that gets mentioned as a prototype of how to run a successful post-lockout club amassed their respective fortunes of young talent and draft picks by having the misfortune (?) of being completely unable to be competitive under the old CBA.
In plain English, they were lucky enough to suck right before the lights went out in 04-05.
Generally speaking, these were teams that couldnt draft well, couldnt sign free agents, couldnt get lucky with trades, couldnt stay healthy and generally got their collective butts kicked and were booed off the ice for the better part of a decade. The idea that this was some grand strategy seems laughable, and the simple act of pointing it out should end the use of these teams as shining examples of how to run your post-lockout club. But it wont.
There was one Western conference GM who in 2003 openly stated that he and his club should throw in the towel and wait for the impending Armageddon that would become the 04-05 lockout because he felt that it was impossible for his team to be competitive in the open market.
Though it seemed like a throwaway comment from a defeated GM at the time, I believe the seeds of The Movement were sown here. The success of the aforementioned teams solidified this line of thought simply because these teams were the first to rise from the ashes within the first two post-lockout seasons but make no mistake, these are not strategic post-lockout rebuilds-not one of them.
These are simply teams who were rewarded for being utterly terrible at the luckiest time in NHL history to be terrible-before the lockout.
Or maybe we should start calling it The Great Reset.
Most of the teams who were Stanley Cup contenders in the 3 yrs before the lockout were built to 'win now', as they usually are. They had gone through the process of purging themselves of most of their prospects and youngsters to bring in veterans and final pieces to make runs for the cup. A year of older players sitting around not playing hockey and these teams were up the creek with no paddle, so to speak. Did these teams lack the vision to see what was coming?
However I am more inclined to believe that these teams are simply the karmic opposite to the lucky ones who went into the abyss of the lockout with a whimper (and a grab bag full of draft picks and young talent).
I dont care what era, what CBA is in place or how a team is built, the end game for a Stanley Cup champion is usually the same- forsake the remnants of your teams future and add those final pieces to 'win now'. Virtually every Stanley Cup champion looks the same, more or less. A proven star goaltender, a war-torn veteran defense-core, usually a superstar center and a collection of gritty veteran forwards and a handful of young talented forwards. At that time, at least eight NHL clubs were beginning to resemble Stanley Cup contenders, and began morphing their respective clubs to fit this mold.
Unfortunately only one team can win the cup, and this left many teams with an empty tank and no Cup to show for it heading into the first post-lockout season. It also left the door wide open for new teams, many of them small market teams not used to being in a position to compete for free agents let alone playoff spots.
Fast-forward four years. Many of these teams are falling back in line with their familiar place in the pecking order (not being able to re-sign their home grown talent, not being able to outbid the richer teams for UFAs, playing to half empty arenas).
Others are finding out that the rebuild ends once expectations change as in Montreal, where all the good will and pleasantries afforded the young surprising Habs of last year have been replaced with the familiar sounds of whining from an impatient peanut gallery demanding trades for veterans, free agent signings and a manic sense of desperation to win a Stanley Cup in their centennial year.
The rebuild is over in Montreal.
Its also over on Long Island, in Tampa Bay, Florida and Nashville, Buffalo and everywhere that teams cannot afford to wait around and stink long enough to amass young talent- their fickle fan base and limited resources wont allow it. Back to business as usual. Back to desperation signings, over-paying for free agents and long-term guaranteed contracts. Back to small market GMs complaining that they cannot afford to keep pace with the big boys.
Only time will tell if any of the aforementioned benefactors of pre-lockout failure will capitalize on this once in a lifetime occurrence and win a Stanley Cup, or if they will ultimately fall into the normal boom/bust cycle of a non-champion. Either way, the question of how to fast track your way to a Stanley Cup is no closer to being answered now than it was before the media thought it was a good idea to lose on purpose.
One final thought- I throw in my support for a single elimination, NCAA style tournament of the non-playoff teams to determine the draft order 1-14, with the playoff teams seeded 16-30 based on win/loss record.
Once teams have to win the first overall pick, suddenly everything changes.
The Movement is dead.