Misplaced fears over non-existent ‘tanking’ poisons NHL Draft lottery

Published June 29, 2020

If you enjoy the thrill of risk taking and getting the doo-doo scared out of you, here’s something for you to try. Wander into any professional sports locker room and suggest to the athletes that they lose games on purpose to improve their team’s draft position. See how that works out for you.

I’ll say it in plainer terms: There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Tanking.

If you’re somehow not familiar with the term, “tanking” refers to a joint effort by everyone associated with a professional sports franchises to deliberately lose games so they can get the highest possible draft choice.

Balderdash!

The competitive fire at the professional level, the pride associated with it, is too intense. These are athletes who’ve been competing in their respective sports since they were in grade school. They hated to lose in Little League and in Pee-Wees; you think their hatred of losing has gotten diluted throughout the years?

And you think that they’d compromise their competitiveness for the benefit of a higher draft choice? Please.

The competitive fire isn’t just about the team. Not everyone is a star, guaranteed a roster spot from year to year. In fact, more players than not are competing not only for the team, but for their own existence as a pro. Ask those players how much they care about where their team drafts after the season.

I know I won’t be able to get through to many of those who hold the tenet of tanking as truth. That’s OK. My knowing that they’re wrong is good enough for me.

Now, do front offices set themselves up for some lean years? Of course. It’s called rebuilding. If you’re a sports fan in Detroit, especially, you’re more than familiar with this tactic.

Red Wings Nation is in a kerfuffle because their team, despite its horrific record in 2019-20, recently participated in the embarrassing NHL Draft Lottery, only to end up with the fourth overall pick.

Sadly, the NHL lottery (as in the NBA) was established as an overreach in response to the aforementioned tanking philosophy—the one I just debunked.

If you need more convincing that the tanking philosophy in the Red Wings’ case is a fallacy, you need only look at their roster. The Red Wings didn’t tank; they just played their schedule to the best of their abilities, and 17-49-5 was the result—because that’s as good as they could do.

The NHL’s lottery was even more of a debacle because the screwy system—based on odds-making straight out of Casino Hell—enabled a TBD playoff team to be awarded the first overall pick.

A playoff team!

If you care to try to make sense out of this, click here.

All draft lotteries should be abolished, forthwith. They’re based on a false concept. It’s one thing for teams to shed talent due to financial concerns, thereby leaving a severely disadvantaged roster to take on the rest of the league. Again, it’s called a rebuild. It’s another thing entirely—and this is the false part—to brazenly declare that the athletes themselves are giving anything less than their all.

Placeholder sweepstakes: What the No. 1 pick would mean to each ...
Consensus no. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere

The Red Wings got jobbed. I think most hockey people would concur. But leave it to a former no. 4 overall pick to take the high road.

“To be honest with you, not surprised,” Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman said in the wake of the lottery’s destruction. “We had an 18.5 percent chance of winning the first pick. So realistically, I’m prepared to be sitting here today not talking about the first pick. I’m not really surprised. The bottom eight, or the eight playoff teams, had a 24.5 percent chance combined of getting the pick. So the odds were better that the first pick went to the bottom eight than it did us.”

Well, that’s just plain wrong.

So a team that made the playoffs will add consensus #1 overall pick, forward Alexis Lafreniere, who was No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters. That’s just great.

The draft order isn’t designed to reward losing. It’s designed to maintain competitive balance as much as possible. How teams choose to use their draft picks is on them. Ryan Leaf, anyone?

I have seen on social media that the Red Wings aren’t necessarily getting a lot of sympathy from NHL fans across the country. That’s understandable. Despite missing the playoffs for five straight years now, the Red Wings were a bastion of stability and success in the league for more than two decades prior to their downfall, which some folks are clearly enjoying tremendously.

But is MLB better when the Yankees are bad? Is the NFL better when the Raiders stink?

This won’t be popular with the Red Wings haters, but the NHL needs a good team in Detroit—if for no other reason than for those in the Winged Wheel to wear the black hats.

This isn’t to say that the Red Wings will get nothing but scraps at no. 4 overall. Far from it. If the organization has shown anything since the late-1980s, it’s been proficiency at drafting.

No matter. The NHL tripped over the blue line with this one. The lottery either has to go entirely, or it has to be weighted much more heavily toward the worst team getting the highest draft pick.

Thanks, but no tanks.


Yzerman only beginning what promises to be a long honeymoon in Detroit

Published June 22, 2019

Look, I don’t know Moritz Seider any better than you do. Prior to seeing his photo on Friday, I could have tripped over him and not known who he was. I’m guessing you’re in the same boat.

The fans aren’t paid to evaluate hockey players. They don’t have the gene that enables one to look at a guy on skates and break him down from head to toe. The sharp evaluating of talent requires looking at players through a different, trained lens.

So when the Red Wings selected Seider, an 18-year-old German defenseman, with the sixth overall pick in Friday’s NHL entry draft in Vancouver, it’s OK if you said, “Who?”

In the world of draft experts, the selection of Seider at no. 6 was deemed a mild surprise.

But I bet after you heard the news of Seider’s drafting, you said, “Well, if Stevie Y says he’s a player, then he’s a player.”

An era of trust

Such is a smidgen of the instant credibility and trust that Yzerman, named Red Wings GM on April 19, currently enjoys.

Yzerman could have told us that the Red Wings drafted Elmer Fudd yesterday and we would have said, “Well, I’ll be darned. I didn’t know that Fudd was a rink rat.”

But of Seider, Yzerman said, “We think he has excellent hockey sense. He’s a big kid, a real good skater. In our opinion, he was one of the top defensemen in the draft. We’re pretty excited to get him. I know our fans don’t know much about him, but I think when people come to development camp (next week at Little Caesars Arena) and see him move — Google him, watch him play a little bit — I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

OK then!

By the way, that’s the first time I’ve known a GM of any pro sports team to tell the fans to Google a player he drafted. Of course, even if we did Google Moritz Seider, we wouldn’t necessarily see in him what Yzerman and his scouting staff saw. Which is why they do what they do and we do things like bang away at a keyboard.

I’m not here to talk about Seider, who himself was even surprised at being selected at no. 6. This is about Yzerman, and the beginning of a honeymoon period with the fans that may turn out to be the longest that any sports executive has ever enjoyed in this town.

Image result for yzerman seider

Yzerman is seasoned. He built the Tampa Bay Lightning from the dredges of the league into a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, and in just a few years. He knows what he’s doing.

Yzerman has the most job security of any sports figure in Detroit. He’s adored by the fans. He’s loved by his owner’s family.

To steal a line from Jerry Maguire, if Yzerman tells the fans to eat lima beans, they’ll eat lima beans.

Hanging on his every word

But here’s the other thing about Yzerman that will be a joy to watch for as long as he’s the Red Wings GM: He’s a straight shooter.

There’s no bluster about him. He carries himself with a certain degree of humility and grace. He’s wise and he’s smart. When Yzerman speaks, it’s hard not to hang on every word. His decisions won’t be driven by loyalty or past performances.

You wanna nitpick this and tell me that you were unnerved by Yzerman’s support of bringing aging defenseman Niklas Kronwall back? Well, I would counter that Kronwall, at age 38, had one of his best seasons in several years.

But I can assure you that there won’t be any silly long-term contracts handed out to old Red Wings because they’re, well, old Red Wings.

If that sounds like a knock on Yzerman’s predecessor, it is, but as I’ve also written, Kenny Holland has set the Red Wings up nicely for a hockey man like Stevie Y to finish the job.

A word of caution, however.

There will come a time when the Hockeytown denizens will be asked to take off their Yzerman-colored glasses and seriously evaluate their GM’s job performance. The trick will be knowing when to do that.

But for now, Stevie Yzerman can pretty much make any move he wants and the fans will lap it up. He’s the anti-Al Avila that way.

Yet Yzerman doesn’t take this trust lightly. He said as much at his introductory presser.

Meanwhile, Moritz Seider is a Red Wing. You got a problem with that?

Didn’t think so.





Forty years later, Holland has chance to avenge wrongs of Terrible Ted

Published April 14, 2018

In 1978, the Red Wings had two picks in the first round of the NHL entry draft. It was the last time such an occurrence…occurred.

They have two picks in the first round this year. Right on time—once every 40 years.

The Red Wings’ GM at the time was Terrible Ted Lindsay. As a player, Teddy’s nickname was appropriate for his on-ice behavior, which was of nasty countenance. As a GM, the nickname was also appropriate.

The Red Wings in 1978, in Teddy’s first year in the front office, were coming off a rebirth of sorts. They doubled their win total from 16 to 32. Their points total went from 41 to 78. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They even won a series, though it was one of those best-of-three jobs that the league held in those days.

The mighty Montreal Canadiens blasted the Wings out in five games in the next round, but it was still a remarkable season. Teddy looked like he would be pretty good at this GM thing.

But the summer of 1978 showed that Teddy still had a lot to learn.

Rebirth aborted

It started with the draft.

The Red Wings had those two first round picks and coming off a season in which fan interest was the highest it had been in nearly a decade, the team looked to be on the precipice of good times after the dreary years of Darkness With Harkness—that old-time Red Wings fan’s moniker bestowed on embattled GM Ned Harkness.

Then Terrible Ted lived up to his nickname, the wrong way.

Lindsay drafted Willie Huber, a German-born defenseman, with the ninth overall pick. Three slots later, Lindsay grabbed Brent Peterson, a forward from Alberta. Both were 20 years old.

Within five years, both were traded, ending up as nothing more than fodder in multi-player deals.

Peterson never lived up to his hype as a high-scoring power forward type, scoring a whopping eight goals in his 91 games as a Red Wing. He was traded with a bunch of higher profile Red Wings to the Buffalo Sabres in 1981.

Huber was a little better but in the summer of 1983 he was part of a multi-player trade with the New York Rangers. Huber played in 372 games as a Red Wing but never was he a Norris Trophy candidate, which isn’t unreasonable to expect from a ninth overall pick.

The point is that Teddy had two first round picks and neither helped the franchise get over the next hump.

Image result for willie huber red wings

Willie Huber, selected ninth overall by the Red Wings in the 1978 draft, was one of two first round picks that year whose NHL career was underwhelming.

Lindsay capped off a bad off-season by signing 33-year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon from the L.A. Kings. The signing cost the Red Wings young Dale McCourt as compensation, and only a long court battle kept McCourt on the Red Wings. The Kings had to settle for Andre St. Laurent, an older and much less appealing player.

Teddy won the battle but he lost the war. Vachon was horrible with the Red Wings and was traded two years later.

Why all this bluster about the bad old days?

Forty years later, another golden opportunity

Kenny Holland, who just re-upped for another two years as Red Wings GM—not what I would have done if I was the Red Wings but that’s another story—has two first round draft picks at his disposal this summer.

The Red Wings, according to the mathematicians, have a less than nine percent chance of turning their fifth overall pick into the number one in the NHL’s lottery. The prize this year is generational defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who has league observers drooling.

Assuming the Red Wings don’t get Dahlin, they will have two chances to slice even deeper into their rebuild in the first round.

Holland, his lieutenants and his scouts better get it right.

The Red Wings have, all told, 11 picks in this year’s draft, which is to Holland’s credit. I’ve been a critic, but I have to be fair. Eleven picks is 11 picks. The Red Wings can make the 2018 draft one that NHL experts and historians will look back on as the turning point in the team’s return to glory.

The entry draft in the NHL is much like that of the NFL. It’s sometimes nothing more than a glorified game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Yet countless time, energy, money and resources are put into this game. The experts will grade the Red Wings as soon as the last pick is made. They will apparently use a crystal ball that no one else possesses to tell us which teams had a good draft and which teams didn’t. As if.

But one thing isn’t debatable. The Red Wings have an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Any franchise that wants to undergo a self-facelift would fall all over itself to have two first round draft picks among 11 overall. A franchise could accelerate things greatly with such an opportunity.

It’s all there for the Red Wings and the newly-extended Ken Holland.

All they have to do is not blow it.