Maple Leafs Offer Perfect Tanking Strategy For Everyone to Follow

The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did something to perfection. Seriously. Because of this, smart teams and their fans need to follow their lead.

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It seems strange, doesn’t it? The Toronto Maple Leafs and perfection shouldn’t be used in the same sentence. A team who has lost six consecutive opening-round series shouldn’t be given this kind of credit for anything.

However in this case, we’re not talking about anything within the last 2-3 years. We’re going to turn the clock back to 2015-16. At this point, the Maple Leafs were the laughing stock of the NHL.

Last Place or Bust

To say the Maple Leafs were bad would be a tremendous understatement. They entered the season knowing they were going to be bad. They didn’t care. They had one goal in mind.

That goal was to win the 2016 NHL Draft lottery at any cost.

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If the Maple Leafs were going to achieve this goal, they had to do several things during the season and then hope luck fell on their side when it mattered most. They were tanking the season. They were in full rebuild mode. Last place to them was actually first place.

The Maple Leafs wanted the worst record in the NHL. That way, they would not only get the best odds in the lottery, they would be guaranteed to pick somewhere in the top four. At that time, three lottery draws were being conducted. Today, just two draws take place.

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The moves they made during the season only solidified their stance of a full tank. If a player was too good for the Maple Leafs, they were shipped out. They were taking away from the bigger picture. Management would not allow anyone to mess with their plan. It was last or bust.

At the end of the 2016 season, the last days of the season ultimately decided how the final standings would look. The Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers each started Apr 9, 2016 with 69 points. Each team had one game left. If the Maple Leafs were going to finish the deal, they needed to stay on the bus and not even show up to the game.

Final score Devils 5, Maple Leafs 1. Later on that evening, the Oilers lost to the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout 4-3. That point put the Oilers at 70 thus clinching last place for the Maple Leafs. Mission accomplished. They had the best odds to win the right to draft Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews helped the Maple Leafs perfect the art of tanking. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As luck would have it, the ping-pong balls came out in their favor. They landed a generational talent and haven’t looked back since.

The Maple Leafs thus perfected the art of the tank. Tanking does not guarantee a team will pick first. But it does provide the best opportunity while knowing they would pick fourth at worst. In 2023, a team doing this would pick no worst than third. In this draft, that’s a big deal.

Therefore the Maple Leafs have offered the perfect model for tanking not only for teams, but for fans of tanking teams as well. Because let’s face it, having to endure a nightmare season of constant losing is not fun for anyone involved. There’s accepting what’s happening. Then there’s coping with it during the painful times. But then there’s the hope that the team will land the player that will change their franchise forever.

The Maple Leafs landed Matthews. Playoff failures aside, they’ve been one of the best regular season teams in the NHL since he’s entered the league. Had the 2015-16 Maple Leafs not finished in last place, they would have never had the chance to draft him.

Teams in the same boat as the Maple Leafs now need to follow this model. Doing so would provide a guaranteed top-three pick along with the best odds of landing Connor Bedard. For these teams, that’s making the best out of a bad situation.

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Yep. The Maple Leafs are the standard when it comes to proper tanking. Nobody has done it better in recent memory. It changed the course of their franchise forever.

Helping Fans Endure the Pain

The simple reality is that just one team earns the right to pick first overall. Fans of several franchises will have to endure an awful season and then find out they lost out on the lottery.

We decided to ask some of our Maple Leafs’ writers how they overcame the pain of a long season where the goal was to tank. They all watched the 2015-16 season unfold knowing there was no hope for the playoffs. How did they approach each game? If you are a fan of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Ducks, Coyotes, Sharks, Canadiens or Flyers, this advice is specifically for you.

Peter Baracchini: “I had no emotions whatsoever. Already knew that it was going to be a long and difficult season based on the way they cleaned house in the offseason. I was going into each game thinking how much are they going to lose by. Kept tabs on only one player, every chance I got.”

Andrew Forbes: “I enjoyed hockey as a whole and went with the forgive and forget. Fell back in love with my team every year with a fresh mindset but took a lot of heat (more than now believe it or not) for being a Leafs fan. I was also old enough to remember the early 90s and some hype around the team in the late 90s and early 00s. When they won first overall I was watching with my wife’s cousin’s boyfriend who is now her husband and he jumped into my arms and slid down me like a fire pole. Needless to say that made the emcee speech at their wedding when I took to the mic.”

Alex Hobson: “It was probably the most stress free season I’ve had as a Leafs fan. As pathetic as it is to say, winning that first overall pick was probably the most joy I’ve felt as a fan since I started watching the team. They really didn’t have a #1 centre outside of the last two years of Sundin so getting that first piece for the rebuild was amazing. I went into every game expecting to lose (and secretly hoping they would) so they never hurt, and still cheered for them in games against rivals. It was also the year I got really into following prospects because I knew the Leafs had a bunch of picks and I wanted to do some more research. Overall, if you have a good developmental team in charge, the tough times are worth it.”

Spencer Lazary: “I would have to agree with everyone here. It was definitely the worst time to be a fan that season with all the comments and negativity. However, when the Leafs won the lottery and drafted Matthews, it was like Christmas morning. It was all worth the struggle to have Matthews ripping it up almost nightly.”

Auston Matthews Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
The tank of 2015-16 season setup the Maple Leafs to be one of the best now. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Our writers offer some different perspectives about the situation. Whether it was having no emotions and no expectations to changing the focus of what they watched for, fans of current teams in this situation can apply these things to their viewing to help endure the pain they are experiencing.

There’s no two ways about it. Watching a team out of the playoff picture in January can make them hard to watch. But it could be all worth it and become pure joy if the team lands the top prize. Whoever lands Bedard will have their fortunes changed forever.

And yet, we have the Maple Leafs to thank for perfecting what the tank should look like. At least they did something right for once.

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