Why “Tanking” Is Still A Viable Option For NHL Teams

The NHL will have new rules when it comes to the NHL Draft Lottery after this season. Instead of there just being one lottery for the first overall selection, there will be three, one each for the first, second and third selections. This move was made to deter teams from tanking to get the best chance at winning the first choice in the draft since the 30th place team can now select as low as fourth overall. Will this move have the desired effect?

Short answer: No.

Last time I checked, there’s usually a pretty good prospect available at the fourth overall selection. Even the 29th place can only fall as far as 5th. The only teams that would really be punished is if a team somehow fell three spots and out of the top 10 as a result. For the NHL’s worst teams, there’s really no deterrent.

Let’s take the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s pretty much assured that they will be in the bottom five of the NHL once again. That would place them in the Auston Matthews conversation. Even if they don’t end up with the top prize in Matthews, they’re plenty of top prospects to pick from this season and unless there’s a draft in the future that’s similar to the 1999 draft, there will continue to be a good number of top prospects in future drafts.

The NHL doesn’t like it when teams intentionally try to do as bad as possible. However, they haven’t really done much to stop it. The only time a team really got punished is when the Ottawa Senators were fined for tanking in order to select Alexandre Daigle. This latest attempt to stop teams will last a while before the NHL adds another twist. They thought the lottery would change things and it didn’t. The NHL will eventually find out that this won’t help either.

NHL Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Hockey
(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

The only thing this will change is how teams trade away first-round picks and we’ve already seen it. When the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Phil Kessel from the Maple Leafs, they sent a 2016 first-round pick to Toronto. However, that pick is lottery protected. That means if the Penguins miss the playoffs, the pick will shift to 2017. With a team that just missed the playoffs having an increased chance of moving up into the top three, a lot more first-round picks that are traded will be protected.

No Punishment

If the NHL really wants to deter tanking, they need to hit the team where it hurts: the wallet. Dropping a pick doesn’t do it. Is it a punishment that the Buffalo Sabres didn’t get Connor McDavid when they got Jack Eichel instead? Did Tampa Bay get punished because they had to ‘settle’ for Viktor Hedman instead of John Tavares? Sometimes the second overall pick ends up being better than the first pick and the same could be said for the third, fourth and maybe even fifth picks. With draft-eligible prospects getting better and better, there is more likely to be a group of five or six players at the top a draft that could be interchangeable.

Will the NHL eventually realize that decreasing a team’s chances at keeping the first-overall selection is not the way to do things? Considering how long it took them to change the lottery system to how it is now, don’t expect them to anytime soon.