Why Tank Nation is a Fool’s Paradise

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.

As always, the smartest guy in the room.

Draft Schmaft – An essay.

I was about five feet away from Cliff Fletcher when he broached an idea so radical it damn near sucked the oxygen out of Maple Leaf Gardens.

“Draft Schmaft.”

It was 1996. The notion that tying a team’s fortunes exclusively to the entry draft might be a questionable strategy propelled Cliff’s musing into the realm of legend. That, more than any argument I can muster, speaks to the orthodoxy that positions the draft as vital to individual teams and the sport.

I think Cliff was only half right. He should have gone further. The NHL draft thwarts team-building. Because it rewards failure by denying teams the lifeblood of top prospects, the draft is the cornerstone of a system that routinely forces NHL winners to disembowel their rosters before the ticker tape is cleaned up from the Stanley Cup parade.

Since it was instituted behind closed doors in 1963, the draft has rewarded incompetence and stifled creativity.

It is the undercarriage of a system that bargains away the player’s right to choose his workplace before he even joins his union.

It’s a train wreck for civil liberties –imagine the brightest prospects among graduating commerce students compelled to work at the Canada Trust in Woodstock for six years before they’re allowed to make a killing on Bay Street.

The glitter of a premium pick is often fool’s gold. There is a new first-overall choice every year but every first-overall choice is not a franchise player.

Even drafting as high as third presents no guarantee of landing a star. You can argue the five players chosen fifth overall from 2004-2008 (Blake Wheeler, Carey Price, Phil Kessel, Karl Alzner, Luke Schenn) are better than the five players picked third during the same years (Cam Barker, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Toews, Kyle Turis and Zach Begosian).

By the second round, the draft is nigh unto useless. A 2006 study penned by David Johnson for the Hockey Analysis website categorized players drafted from 1988-1995. It found that a maximum of three percent of players drafted between 40th and 80th emerged as NHL front liners.

But the greatest sin of the draft is that it distorts the basic relationship between a team and its fans. And that friends is where we start.

Why Tank Nation is a fool’s paradise.

Let’s start with one absolute: the idea of players or management conspiring to lose for a better draft position is half-baked myth.

Professional sports is a rabidly-competitive business. Tanking is career suicide. They fire people when they lose.

How do you explain to a season ticket holder or corporate sponsor that the product is being downgraded for someone who will pull into the station one, two or even three years down the line?

Because this man deserves your very best.

The only practical way to tank is by infilling a team with minor league players but the Collective Bargaining Agreement limits the team’s non-emergency callups. But while tanking does not exist talk about tanking is commonplace and toxic.

Even in disastrous seasons, fans are supposed to want their teams to win. That rule should be as inviolate as gravity. But with the importance of anything but the top two or three choices wildly overestimated, the system compels fans to applaud losing.

That a substantial number of fans are pulling for the Maple Leafs to lose their remaining games underscores how a system designed to foster competition and win fans is in fact doing the exact opposite

How did we get here?

For most of the league’s first half-century NHL clubs sponsored minor hockey teams. While the universal ‘C Form’ eventually opened the doors for the best players to reach the big time it also linked them to their sponsoring teams for as long as the team wanted them.

The system was feudal but it gave teams incentive to find talent rather than passively wait for help to arrive. Bobby Orr was 14-years-old when Boston Bruin executives noticed him at a tournament in Gananoque, Ont. Three seasons later he was staring with the Bruins affiliate, the Oshawa Generals. The Leafs, fattened by Stanley Cup successes were among the teams beaten to the punch by the hungrier, historically- poor Bruins.

But by the early 1960s the league began to overhaul how teams found players. The draft started in 1963 as a closed-door meeting at the league office in Montreal. Unsponsored players were distributed among the league’s six teams.

The idea of drafting players in reverse order to the previous year’s finish took hold in 1968. It was a counterweight to harsh expansion rules that let existing teams shove their discards onto the new teams.

Like income tax, created as a temporary measure to fund the WWI and the competency test that morphed into the academic truncheon of the SAT, the draft’s pioneers set loose a device whose effects could not be understood at its creation.

The draft was created in a hockey universe without European players, without any meaningful contribution from US college hockey and, most importantly, without a salary cap.

 When Lightning strikes.

The Los Angeles Kings were the first-ever lottery winners thanks to a combination of ping-pong balls that lifted them from seventh to third in 1995. They passed on Shane Doan (7th to Winnipeg) and Jarome Iginla (11th, Dallas) to grab Aki Berg.

In 2000, the Islanders were gifted with the number one pick after finishing 25th. They rejected prolific goal scorers Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik (second and third respectively) in favour of goalie Rick DiPietro.

The Blue Jackets are dreadful because they erred in three different cracks at the sixth overall choice. Columbus drafted Nikita Filitov in 2008, Derick Brassard in 2006 and Gilbert Brule in 2005. For these miscues they have been gifted with the best chance of landing the first pick in this year’s draft.

Just what did the Tampa Bay Lightning do to deserve this guy?

The Tampa Bay Lightning had three first round draft choices in the four years prior to 2008 when they drafted Steve Stamkos. They used those picks on goalie Riku Helenius (15th in 2006), defenceman Vladimir Mihalik (30th in 2005) and Andy Rogers (30th in 2004).   Those three combined to give them 15 NHL games. Helenius and Mihalik are playing in Europe and Rogers is out of pro hockey.

Listing players a team could have drafted is like picking low hanging fruit. That said, the Lightning overlooked David Boland, David Booth, David Krejci, Alex Edler, Johan Franzen and Mikhail Grabovski to draft Rogers.

The next year they missed on James Neal, Marc Edouard Vlasic, Paul Stastny, Guillaume Latendresse, Mason Raymond, Adam McQuaid, Jonathan Quick and Colin Greening.

Among the names Tampa took a pass on in 2006 were Claude Giroux, Nick Foligno and Nikolai Kulemin. The Bruins landed Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic after the Lightning chose Helenius.

All this leads to one inescapable conclusion: if you draft poorly enough sooner or later you will be rewarded with a pick that you can’t screw up. The Lightning landed Stamkos, the league’s leading goalscorer, not on merit but because they they made poor ones in the previous years.

The Red Wing Way.

Since the lockout the Detroit Red Wings have won a Cup and appeared in two Stanley Cup Finals. The Wings’ streak of 20 straight playoffs seasons is a record in North American professional sports. They are the antidote to the snakeoil dogma that surrounds the NHL draft.

The Wings do not act like a big market team.

CapGeek pegs the team’s spending at 18th in the league, about $7 million shy of the $64 million ceiling.

They are not draft-reliant and depend instead on scouting and canny management to thrive.  If the draft were eliminated tomorrow, the Red Wings, – the league’s organizational model for best practices – wouldn’t miss a beat. They would go on doing exactly what they do now…sign good players everyone else missed.

A free-market system would reward well run-businesses and force perennial losers to work without the net of an undeserved draft choice.

Parity can be a wholly organic process.

Players choose cities to exploit opportunity. Weaker teams will get stronger not through the gifting of a high draft choice but because they offer a faster route to the NHL.


If you’re so smart…

Why the NHL will cling to the draft system and why it shouldn’t.

  1. The spectre of a bidding war for top new talent.
    There would be some of that but an open signing season instead of a draft would intensify interest. Imagine the free agent draft on steroids. Greater freedom will lead to more, not less, judicious spending and a fascinating revolution in team-building.
  2. Well, nobody else in North America does it. True, but untrammeled capitalism has produced in soccer the world’s dominant sporting money factory.  No one seems to be complaining. The Twitter Feeds for Real Madrid and FC Barcelona boast 4,000,000 followers, eight times that of the New York Yankees.
  3. There is nothing in it for the union. Maybe not. Supply would glut demand for all but the very best teams but virtually every player would go to a team that needed him instead of a team that wanted the best player when their turn came up.

All these things would doubtlessly make life tougher for teams and agents. But the benefits of scrapping an outdated system in favour of a new transparent one would transform every challenge into a spectacular, shrewd investment.

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About Mike Ulmer

Mike Ulmer has written 210 post in this blog.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.



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