We're getting to the point in the season where the real and truly bad teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack more seriously than they could when the season was younger.
The Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers are two of the three worst teams in the league, and only Carolina stands between them. And unlike them, Carolina seems to be moving back to health and a general decent quality of play, so the wheat will likely be further separated from the chaff.
Both also entered last night with a game in hand, meaning that the Hurricanes also have more time to move themselves ahead of this desperately poor two-pack.
And make no mistake, these are two organizations now deeply committed to losing as many games as possible over the course of the season, and as far as the Sabres go that's been the case since Oct. 1.
The Sabres are, in fact, so crassly tanking for the right to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel that they hosted the former's junior team in their building for no other reason than to have the locals come by to gawk.
The Oilers only arrived at this decision a little more recently, when they spent almost a month getting no bounces whatsoever, fired the coach, and a few weeks later started selling off parts (for now it's just David Perron, but one gets the feeling a few more guys will join him in hopping a plane out of town in the near future).
And look, these are the two worst teams in the league in terms of outscoring their opponents by a wide margin. Going into last night's games, Edmonton was second-worst at a stunning minus-49, nearly 29 percent worse than third-worst Arizona at minus-38. But Buffalo — oh god — they were minus-62. That's almost as big a gap in terms of percentage as the drop-off from Arizona to Edmonton. And it's 63 percent(!!!) worse than Arizona. This is minus-62 after 40 games.
They're never going to catch up to the 1974-75 Capitals' record of minus-265 in 80 games, but the cap-era record of minus-95 by the 2005-06 Blues seems like it should be reached by mid- to late February. They'd need to pick up the pace a little bit, sure, but I believe in them and you should too. Because keep in mind, the Sabres haven't even started their sell-off of the few useful veterans they have to hand off in exchange for picks and prospects. Edmonton could close in on that record before the end of the season if it all really goes to pot (and again, one assumes that this is the aim).
And so in the face of all this losing, fans are really only presented with two options: Accept it or don't. You can gnash your teeth over every pitiful loss to the worst teams in the league, and every blowout loss to its giants. And you can bemoan the fact that the Sabres or Oilers just don't have the horses to compete with anyone's bottom-six, let alone the big guns to go toe-to-toe with the Chicagos and Tampas of the world, who have differentials that 90-plus goals better than that of the Sabres. That's a mind-boggling statistic for early January, but here we are.
Both teams have had so long to deal with these realities at this point that fans have grown weary of wanting something better in the short term, and who can blame them? If the Oilers could go out and get, like, Steven Stamkos or someone to ferry them along until his current deal expires, they'd probably do it (maybe) but to what end? This is a team with so many issues that even getting a Stamkos for the short-term really only puts wallpaper up on the last standing bit left of a house that burned down three years ago.
So some fans, instead, have started cheering or the tank job. And who can blame them? Turns out, it's the players and the local media, tsk-tsking every once in a while all season long at the idea that the team is actually trying to lose, and that fans should want that to happen, respectively. Coincidentally, consecutive midweek mornings saw the release of two such articles, the first in Edmonton after the Oilers lost badly to the Red Wings (only 4-2, but they were outshot 41-23, so that looks like a massacre to me).
Some fans cheered — perhaps sarcastically — and set Robert Tychkowski off:
“A city that once followed Mark Messier’s lead is now giggling about finishing last and weaseling into a better draft lottery position.
Seriously, Dishonour for Connor isn’t funny. It’s embarrassing.
That’s not what sports is about, it’s not what Edmonton is about.
And now a segment of the fan base is actually cheering for the Oilers to lose, celebrating roster moves that might ensure a 30th place finish in the misguided hope that Rebuild III, centered around Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, will somehow undo a decade’s worth of bad management, poor scouting and losing culture?
Wow. Have the Oilers really sucked that much life, that much heart, that much fighting spirit out of this city?”
Well, to answer that last question, yes.
Please recall, though, that the Oiler dynasties happened so long ago that most of the people who have become the team's paying customers since then were in diapers or OshKosh B'Gosh when Wayne Gretzky was gleefully lifting Cup after Cup. (Oh and hey, how'd they get Gretzky again? Does buying a “personal services” contract from a dying WHA team that prevents him from entering the NHL draft count as “weaseling?”)
Modern Oiler fans — those who aren't in their 40s and 50s and haven't been sitting in a press box for decades — know only misery broken up by one fluke Cup run almost a decade ago. They haven't broken 100 points in a season since 1987, and since 2001-02, the Oilers have made the playoffs just twice. Meaning that kids who are closing in on being eligible to play in the WHL probably have only the vaguest memory of this team even being half-decent.
Tychowski goes on to make those same dumb “tanking doesn't guarantee future success” arguments that allows its espousers to lean back in their chairs confident in a job well done. “The Kings and Bruins didn't tank!” and so on, or, “The Capitals and Oilers tanked and haven't won a Cup!”
Which, sure, but it's about playing the numbers, isn't it? Be worse, get a higher draft pick, get better odds that said draft pick works out for the best. Pretty simple.
And here's the problem with that argument especially where Edmonton is concerned: If you're acknowledging that the last several years of tanking, which has garnered a slew of No. 1 picks but no success to speak of, then you must acknowledge with it the fact that outside those No. 1 picks (and arguably, even inside them in the case of Nail Yakupov vs. Ryan Murray), the team has drafted at a pathetic, almost laughably unsuccessful level.
And so to say, “Hey, I want the Oilers to keep winning even though they haven't the faintest hope of a playoff berth and are clearly a trainwreck yet again,” is to say, “I want to give the Oilers brass more of a chance to punt another middling draft pick. If you're picking at No. 1 or 2 overall, you often can't screw up — and this is true in just about any draft — because you either get the best guy or the second-best guy. This isn't a hard and fast rule because there's at least one Rick DiPietro for every few Patrick Kanes, but in this draft, you're almost guaranteed to have made a good pick (barring career-ending injury or something). If you can't get McDavid, Eichel is probably the best consolation prize since Evgeni Malkin.
But if you really position yourself to win as many games as possible down the stretch, all you're doing is hurting your own cause in a number of ways. Let's say you move from 29th to 24th, right? You're still hopelessly out of the playoffs, but now you're picking seventh overall, and whoever you get might be a good player, but he's probably not going to have the impact that Eichel does when he finally gets to the NHL, whenever that is.
With that having been said, the Oilers' obvious problem has been drafting guys outside the first round, but the more you can do to insulate yourself from their being able to step in it early on, the better the chance for having a successful draft class overall. And further, if your argument is that Darryl Katz needs to stop glad-handing all the guys Tychowski is saying were the standard bearers for the city's history of athletic excellence or whatever, because they're the ones that have driven this franchise into the ground, well, no kidding. Any Oiler fan would be happy to throw a bag over Kevin Lowe's head and drive him out into the middle of the Alberta prairie with the hope that he never finds his way back to Rexall Place. Just ask 'em.
But when your team is this bad and another rebuild seems like the only option of it getting anywhere, well then tanking hard is good stewardship. Shouldn't fans want the team to be run well?
Meanwhile, the Sabres — after a minor hiccup in the tank job during which they went an astonishing 10-3-0 — are crashing hard back down to earth, and stirring up good feelings about their progress toward the bottom of the league and a guarantee of McDavid or Eichel. They'd won just one game in their last 10 at the time this Mike Harrington piece, in which Sabres players angrily objected to the idea that they were tanking, was published on Thursday morning:
“While Edmonton continues to hold last place with 27 points, Carolina is 29th at 28 points and the Sabres are next with 31. So this is the first of likely several games in the second half where a decent size of the Sabres’ fan base will watch while working on the theory that losing is winning.
And while some think that’s the direction that’s been coming from the top of the franchise for months, the feeling certainly isn’t shared in the dressing room.
'I’ve said this from the start of the year and I still believe it: Our focus is not getting the top draft pick,” [Josh Gorges] said. 'Never in my life have I ever heard of losing on purpose. That’s a joke to even think about. And I don’t think anyone in this room thinks that way. That’s for outside this room to discuss, not for us.'”
Right, no one thinks that players are actively passing up open nets or goalies aren't trying to stop every shot. That's a ludicrous notion. But if you don't think the Sabres are tanking, have a look at the roster the club rolled out on opening night against Columbus. Gorges played 22 minutes, Andre Benoit played 21, Tyler Myers played 24. Tyler Ennis leads the team in points through 41 games with just 24. Only Zemgus Girgensons is on pace to score 20 goals. If you don't think this was a roster designed to be awful, I have a Chris Stewart to for sale that'll only cost you an A prospect and a first-round pick.
Players and coaches are in the trenches here. Obviously. They're playing for professional pride and contracts and to not get fired. You expect maximum effort from them and you typically get it, even if they know how much of a slog this season was always going to be. But if you ice a roster of bottom-six AHLers against NHL teams, they can try all they want; they're going to get slaughtered. Buffalo hasn't taken it to that extreme, but to look at this roster and think it was designed to do anything besides lose as many games as possible specifically to get elite young talent through the draft. And remember, they have three first-round picks and two more in the second this year thanks to the Islanders and Blues — following five first-round picks and seven more in the second over the last three drafts — so there are a lot of bullets in that chamber.
So here's what the argument against tanking boils down to: It's bad because you should want your team to win all the time no matter what. If they're not at least trying for 82-0 you should be in some way upset because you're buying the tickets and so on and so forth.
But there are two problems with that: 1) You're telling people that their methods of coping with how downright awful their favorite team happens to be is somehow unacceptable, and 2) You're not being realistic, and they are.
Oilers fans and Sabres fans who are at this point rooting hard for their teams to lose so that they can, in the near future, cheer for a guy who has a better chance than most 18-year-olds at being a Hall of Famer someday. They're cheering for failure in the short term but success in the long term. That doesn't make them bad fans or put the word “fan” in scare-quotes.
They've just been backed into a corner and see only one way out: Dishonor for Connor.
Don't see how you blame them for it.