Which Team is Going to Tank the NHL Playoffs, and Why is it the Montreal Canadiens?
The NHL's nightmare came true at last Friday's NHL draft lottery. "Team E," or whichever team loses in the qualifying round of the expanded playoffs and wins a second lottery, will win the first overall pick.
Plenty of outlets covered how that went down, and we can all thank COVID-19 again for throwing a wrench into the normalcy with which everyone is comfortable. But even in a normal season, we'd all have to deal with "the league fixed the results" complaints anyway. We just traded the yearly conspiracy theory debunking to all gang up on the NHL for the format it chose for this lottery.
But as many have pointed out,
Does the fact that first round-losers now have a 12.5% chance to win the No. 1 overall pick in the draft create an incentive for an organization to tank? It would be easier this season than you think.
It's (Normally) Hard to Tank
As with any discussion of tanking, it's essential to get something out of the way first. No, professional athletes don't "tank." They have their careers to think about, future contracts to prove their worth for and an innate drive that made them the best in the world in the first place. Fine, we get it.
Forget the individual players for a moment; obvious tanking is a shameful endeavor for general managers, owners and front office staff. Tanking makes it as difficult to find future employment for them as poor performances do for players.
But, as you've heard from every company trying to get you to sympathy-buy their product, we are in "trying times," or "uncertain times." It's true though, for players with families (all of them) the danger attached to COVID-19 has given them a valid reason not to show up, and for some teams, all it takes is just one player to tank their already non-existent chances.
Not Down With the Sickness
For this exercise, let's use an example team to demonstrate why it might be easier to tank a playoff series without the shame and dishonor it gives a team and a fanbase. How about the Montreal Canadiens?
The Canadiens finished the 2019-20 season with 71 points and a .500 winning percentage. They were a non-factor in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race in which a mere three points separated six teams.
They were dead in the water, yet thanks to the COVID-19 playoff format, they made it in. The Hans had seven fewer points than the Florida Panthers and significantly trailed the team one spot above them by winning percentage, the New York Rangers, who finished with a .564 percentage.
They have no business making the playoffs, but because things had to be equal between the two conferences, they made it. In a regular season, players could look to the 2012 Los Angeles Kings and say, "No. 8 seeds can win."
No one is going to argue that a No. 12 seed can win.
Let's not forget that this isn't just a new playoff format. It exists for a reason, a dangerous reason.
Players must isolate themselves from the rest of the world for up to multiple months if their team makes deep run. That's months away from wives, children, moms and dads who are all also at risk.
Hockey players are tough. They've played momentarily through broken legs and for entire series' through broken jaws, punctured lungs, torn tendons, and many other injuries that would make you squirm.
But those are the "enemies you see." A deadly virus is one you can't, and while players play through injuries to help their team, contracting this type of "injury" will do the exact opposite. They risk sickening their entire squad.
What does this have to do with a team like the Canadiens?
Let's say Carey Price, father of two young daughters and Montreal's only hope of winning even one playoff series, decides he doesn't want to leave his family during a pandemic and chooses to stay home. Who would blame him?
The same goes for Canadiens defensemen Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, who are both the fathers to multiple children. I am not them; I don't know what goes on in their heads, but if I put myself in their shoes, I'd have a hard time isolating myself over a long period for such a long shot.
The absence of just one of them would cripple an already noncompetitive team, and they would have every reason to do it.
I’m not saying Montreal’s ownership or general manager would encourage that decision, but again they have their players’ well-being to think about as well, more than under normal circumstances. They wouldn’t pressure anyone not to play, but it would be hard to pressure a player who is having second thoughts to change their mind.
Let’s not forget, there are no ticket sales to miss out on anyway. The financial motivator is much less of a factor.
It's not as much of a tank as it is a justified reason with the added organizational benefit of a chance to win the No. 1 overall pick.
The Danger of Showing Up
Now assume they do all show up. Weber, Petry and Price are all fathers in their 30s. One would expect them to be responsible and follow the containment rules. That doesn't go for the Canadiens wealth of young players in their early 20s. Nor does it go for young players on other teams.
We all remember our 20s. We were invincible. It might be a stereotype that young people don't follow social distancing guidelines, but there's evidence to show it's true. All you have to do is go to a beach or a public place in a major city on a beautiful Summer day and look.
All it takes is a player to break quarantine, and a whole team risks contracting the illness. Even if they don't get sick, they wouldn't be allowed to play. That might stall the playoffs altogether.
A team doesn't have to outwardly tank to lose in the first round; a single player just has to make a smart or dumb decision. It can happen both ways.
Let's be honest; fans might be happy too. If the Canadiens were to lose in the first round and win the No. 1 overall pick in the lottery, they'd finally have the Quebec-born francophone star they've always wanted. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Phoenix Coyotes, or for that matter any organization eligible to win the first overall pick has justifiable reasons to avoid the risk of playing. That decision will earn them chance to win an incredible consolation prize. That makes "tanking" or whatever you want to call it all the more likely.