The Montreal Canadiens aren’t tanking. They won’t, and they shouldn’t.
Such respected commenters as Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski and Today’s Slapshot’s own Franklin Steele have advocated for a Canadiens surrender, both citing the Buffalo Sabres as a positive example to emulate. I won’t deny that tanking can be an effective organizational strategy in a limited number of very specific scenarios. The problem is, the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens season isn’t one of them. This is no Buffalo.
It’s become popular for media and fans of non- or low-likelihood playoff franchises to start cheering in reverse for their teams by the trade deadline. If you (probably) can’t make the playoffs, and (almost) certainly can’t win a cup, why not plummet as far as possible down the standings and secure the best possible odds of winning a high draft choice? Losing now, the logic goes, is a short-term sacrifice for long-term success. Losing is winning.
But tanking is not simply losing, or maintaining the same losing roster: standing pat, as general manager Marc Bergevin has done so far, is not the same as actively working to lose.
Tanking is a team’s active (unofficial) attempt to succeed by failing. A tanking team tries to lose, and achieves this by making its roster worse. The coaches and players aren’t involved: it’s the general manager’s job to hamstring the organization enough to make it lose consistently. A tank makes some sense for rebuilding teams, which can trade away present talent for cap space and (a chance at) future talent.
Rebuilding teams can divest themselves of quality players to make themselves worse while simultaneously increasing their chances of drafting quality players in the future. It’s risky, but not crazy. A rebuilding tank, done well, could make your team a contender for many years. Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, or Chicago Blackhawks (but not –yet?– the Edmonton Oilers).
Steele and Wyshynski both point to Buffalo as an example of the good that can come from tanking. It’s true that the Sabres are a better team this season with younger more promising players and a potential generational talent in Jack Eichel, drafted second overall because they finished so, so poorly last year. Buffalo may become a solid team in the next three years and a contender in the next five because they employed an effective tanking rebuild strategy.
If Montreal follows their example, every single person in a management position should be excommunicated from the NHL, and banished from the province of Quebec.
Buffalo really tanked. They took it very seriously. Whereas the Oilers arguably just kept losing as usual in a more-or-less accidental fashion, Buffalo rocketed themselves to the bottom so hard they left a massive smoking hole. After hiring a fall-guy coach to test-pilot the already rickety craft, the Sabres realized their goaltending was slowing down their descent. So they traded their top goaltender. When their number-two outperformed expectations, they traded him, too. Not satisfied with a simple freefall after cutting both parachutes, Buffalo engaged all thrusters by trading capable roster players for Evander Kane, who was already out with season-ending surgery. Masterful.
Montreal’s situation simply isn’t comparable. The team has talent and some depth. As Shane O’Donnell points out, the Canadiens Corsi for percentage has ranked them in the top four all season long, and other underlying numbers like scoring chances for and against remain virtually unchanged. Just as the team is not as good as it looked early in the season, it is not as bad it has looked in the second half. P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Carey Price form the team’s talented core, all of whom are already in their prime years. This is a team that needs to win now, not a deeply flawed franchise fixed on the distant future.
You can’t afford to burn this house down because the insurance money won’t replace the one-of-a-kind furniture.
Tanking is an easier choice when you’re rebuilding. If you’re not, you can only afford to make moves that won’t impact your team’s quality next season. Montreal has a tiny number of impending free agents: selling Dale Weise at the deadline isn’t going to drive this team into the bottom of the standings. With Price injured, the goaltending is already as bad as it’s going to get, so no Buffalo-inspired magic is going to work. Dumping an elite core player in exchange for a potentially elite draft choice would be pointless gambling that wouldn’t pay dividends till the current roster’s window of opportunity is almost shut.
The Habs are not tanking. They are losing, and based on the underlying numbers, they are unlikely to keep losing like this for the rest of the season. If Bergevin refuses (or is unable) to make roster moves to improve his team, they are likely to improve on their abysmal recent record regardless, and may or may not make the playoffs. If, as many are suggesting, he “embraces the tank,” and negatively affects the roster enough to keep the Habs losing, he is probably weakening the team next season, as well.
In short. tanking makes no sense for Montreal this season. Any fan is free to hope they lose to improve their draft position, but calling it a tank is simply a way to feel better about the team’s frustrating misery.