NHL Handicapping: Tanking Teams to Bet Against
by Trevor Whenham - 2/4/2015
It is, all things considered, a pretty good time to be a really bad team in the NHL. Connor McDavid has been the presumed No. 1 pick in this spring's NHL Draft for the last four or five years, and he has only strengthened that position lately. He is a generational talent - a guy like a Crosby who can instantly and dramatically change the fortune of a hard-luck franchise. It's not a draft with just one prize, though. American forward Jack Eichel, who plays at Boston University, might be a step behind McDavid, but it's a very small step. He's a team-changer, too.
With two guys of that caliber available at the top of the draft there's a real incentive to get as many balls in the draft lottery as you can. Any team that doesn't make the playoffs has a shot at McDavid, but a team can fall only one spot at most in the lottery, so the team that finishes last in the regular season is, at the very least, guaranteed Eichel.
When the prize is that grand, you obviously have to wonder - or even assume - that teams are going to be tanking to get what they want. Heck, in the NBA this year there isn't a player of that caliber at the top of the draft, and several teams are still in an intense race for the bottom. In the NHL we have three teams really fighting for the most balls in the draft - Buffalo, Edmonton, and Carolina - and Arizona and Columbus, and maybe one or two more, can't be ruled out entirely either. So, are any of these teams completely tanking? Or are they showing enough signs of life and pride to make them at least a little competitive? Knowing what is true can help you find value - either in betting against tanking teams confidently despite the big prices you'll pay or in looking for value in the right spots because a team could be trying harder and playing better than people would assume. Let's take a look at each situation:
Buffalo Sabres: There is absolutely no question what Buffalo is up to right now. They are looking to lose and lose convincingly. They beat Montreal in a shocker last time out, but that was their first win in 15 games. They are, simply, a horrible team. They cannot score nor stop anyone from scoring. Their goaltending is terrible. Special teams are a joke. I could list some stats and their rankings in the league, but it's easier just to assume that they are at the bottom of the league because that is true with alarming frequency. This team knew last year that they had to rebuild. Instead of working into it slowly, they went nuclear. They traded away any value they had for assets. Now they are hinting - more than hinting, really - that any current players with a pulse could be dealt for picks at the trade deadline as well. This is one of those situations in which management, and most fans, is more frustrated when they win than when they lose. This is tanking with a clear plan. They have 33 points compared to 37 for Edmonton and 41 for Carolina, so at this point the plan is working perfectly. They are a near lock to at least get Eichel, and they have the inside rail in the race for McDavid.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are in a unique situation. They are probably good enough - and by that I mean bad enough - to give the Sabres a run for their money. After so many years of struggles, though, the patience for failure in Edmonton has come to an end. They have won the lottery so much that it is old hat, and fans are endlessly frustrated that their young superstars have just underachieved and dumbfounded. If they had wanted to really tank the season they would have kept Dallas Eakins as head coach and let him truly run the team into the ground. They fired him on Dec. 15, though, and replaced him with interim head coach Todd Nelson, who had been coaching for the AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City. They are still not a good team by any means, but they are playing much smarter and tougher than they have in years under Nelson. Since Jan. 4 the team has gone 6-6. That's no way to win a draft lottery, but it's just what this team needs. This team will still have issues and will certainly not be anything like a contender, but with 31 games left it isn't tough to imagine them winning 12 games or more - and that won't get them the prime spot in the lottery. This is definitely not a team that is tanking. Whether that is the right approach or not is debatable, but it's really their only choice thanks to circumstances.
Carolina Hurricanes: This team is 7-3-3 since the beginning of January. If Edmonton isn't doing a very good job of tanking then Carolina is just lousy at it. There is some hope here, though - at least a glimmer of it. While Edmonton is very likely to mostly stand pat at the trade deadline - at least in any significant way - the Hurricanes have some very nice, attractive assets that they could look to dispose of in favor of prospects or picks. Guys like Cam Ward or Eric Staal would have real value, and they have a few defensemen that other teams would happily take as well. If they were to empty the cupboards at the deadline then they could start to chase the Sabres. They sit eight points ahead of Buffalo, though, and they are playing well now, so it seems very unlikely that they are a threat for the Sabres.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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