- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The memo circulated by the NHL on Friday regarding the 2020 draft was a meticulously crafted response to every concern the league’s general managers voiced about holding the event before the season is restarted.
Worried about conditional picks? Don’t worry, we’ll become de facto arbitrators if you can’t figure out the terms among yourselves. Concerned about all of those roster player trades that can’t happen at the draft, since the season hasn’t been completed? Meh, most trades at the draft won’t be affected by it, based on historical precedents.
The league even addressed the most crackpot objection raised in the weeks of debate: What if a team wins both the draft lottery and the Stanley Cup, since we’re not even sure what the playoff format looks like?
Perish the thought! Why, they might as well fold the league out of sheer embarrassment!
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly correctly noted that this scenario “is a very remote possibility and is extremely unlikely to happen,” before basically saying, “All right, you weeping toddlers, we’ll make sure Alexis Lafreniere isn’t attending a bunch of Stanley Cup BBQs with his new teammates later this year.”
The league’s proposed remedy? “We [revert] to our old practice of picking just one draft lottery winner (while maintaining the same allocation of draft lottery odds), and limiting any move-up by a lottery-winning team to a maximum of four (4) draft positions, eliminating the possibility of any ‘bubble team’ winning a top draft selection and winning the 2019-20 Stanley Cup,” Daly wrote.
As a result, the Detroit Red Wings, by virtue of being the worst team in the league by several country miles, would secure the first or second overall pick. Their odds for the first overall pick would jump from 19% to 57% (with fewer teams able to jump up to No. 1). The Ottawa Senators, who own the San Jose Sharks’ first-rounder as well as their own, could do no worse than securing the third and fourth overall picks.
What’s amazing about this solution to a problem that “is extremely unlikely to happen” is that it runs counter, philosophically, to everything the NHL has tried to do with the draft lottery since 2016. From that draft on, the NHL has had three separate lottery drawings for the first three picks in the draft. This was done to discourage teams from tanking for the first overall pick. Now, apparently, we’re cool with giving a team that tanked either Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield because some GM on some team is worried the Blue Jackets would win the lottery and the Cup, apparently.
And yes, the Red Wings tanked. We were shocked to discover, via social media, that some Detroit fans have deluded themselves into believing their franchise is above such frowned-upon behavior. They’ve been conditioned to think that way: Red Wings ownership and management have said for the past three years that “for those people that believe tanking … there are no guarantees.” It’s just not what they do … well, until they did it.
The Red Wings’ .275 points percentage through 71 games would be the lowest in the NHL in 20 years, since the Atlanta Thrashers were a putrid 14-57-7 in 1999-2000. Yet some Red Wings fans feel, despite GM Steve Yzerman screaming from the mountaintops that the team will have to rebuild through the draft, that this flaming dung pile of a season wasn’t by design.
Let’s establish a few things about tanking:
Tanking can be a multiyear campaign
This process predates Yzerman’s return to the franchise after he built a winner in Tampa. The Red Wings have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons. Their 2017-18 team featured players like Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Petr Mrazek. All them are gone by now, and none of them were sufficiently replaced.
The team has kept around veteran placeholders to oversee this bottoming out — coach Jeff Blashill, goalie Jimmy Howard among them — but it fully committed to a youth movement whose success has reached its nadir in 2019-20. Even if Yzerman tried to improve the team incrementally during the season, it was destined for badness.
“What did you expect us to do?” is not a refutation
Countless Red Wings fans made the argument that Detroit didn’t tank by asking what, if anything, Yzerman should have done to improve this horrible team. “How can we trade players no one wants?” “Why would free agents even sign here?”
Yes! These are excellent points. It’s almost like — and hear me out — the team was horrible, having been allowed to atrophy to the point where it was a .275 points percentage team so its draft lottery odds were at their apex this season.
Players don’t tank
This is important. I went to Buffalo Sabres camp in September 2014 to do a story on how they were expected to bottom out that season in an effort to land Connor McDavid. I still remember asking Drew Stafford about embracing the tank — and feeling like he was going to rip my arms off like Chewbacca.
“I can’t accept the fact that we’re going to go into this season and tank. It’s not my makeup as a person or a player,” he said, intensely.
Detroit was terrible, but not for a lack of trying. (Right, Montreal?) Ottawa was atrocious, and also one of the toughest teams to face in the league. The players battle, the coaches keep pushing, but in the end, they weren’t given the tools they need to win, because it’s better for the franchise to keep losing for the time being. Which is fine, because …
Tanking is OK!
The greatest misconception between me and my new friends in Detroit is that I have a problem with the Red Wings tanking. On the contrary! If a team wants to tear it all down, cost itself revenue for the rest of a lost season, potentially alienate fans and then run the risk of not even getting the first overall pick despite this self-sabotage, more power to it.
I know it’s hard to reconcile the concept of fans actively rooting against their own team being a net positive, but know this: Ultimately, they’re rooting for their team to win. It’s that insatiable desire to experience the jolt of victory that drives this illogical behavior, in which people whose very happiness is determined by the fate of their favorite franchise openly endorse its misery.
So, essentially, the proposed draft lottery format is great, because it gets us back to what the lottery should do, which is deliver a franchise player to the franchise that sacrificed the most to get one.
Daly called this move a temporary one, but I’m hoping we can just drop the presence of concern, jettison “anti-tanking” measures and reward the worst of the worst with the cream of the crop.
Frankly, the NHL has shown it understands the shades of gray in the lottery.
“Our teams don’t tank,” Gary Bettman told the National Post in 2016, before essentially saying that they do. “If you’re a team that knows it’s not going to make the playoffs and you want to start focusing on the rebuild, you’re going to do certain things unrelated to the draft that are going to give you assets that are going to help you develop for the future.”
He went on to praise one team that was clearly tank-, er, “doing certain things unrelated to the draft” that season.
“Look at what Toronto’s doing,” Bettman said. “I think they’ve decided that they need to regroup and … they’re developing the young kids and they’re building for the future. I’m not an expert in putting teams together, but it’s clear that they have a plan and they’re sticking to it. And that’s the most important thing: You’ve got to have a plan, and you’ve got to stick to it.”
The Maple Leafs’ plan resulted in drafting Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick a few months later.
If the NHL changes its lottery rules, the Red Wings will likely end up with Lafreniere or Byfield, franchise players this once-proud franchise can rally around. That’s great. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The only draft lottery anti-tank methods I support are ones that wouldn’t allow a team to pull an Edmonton or New Jersey and select first overall in multiple seasons in close proximity.
Otherwise, the NHL should embrace the tank, just as it appears to have done this year.
Congrats to the Red Wings. At least Jimmy Howard didn’t go 2-23-2 for nothing.
From Sabres Nation:
Two things. First, it’s a total Foul, because Eichel never wore this jersey as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. Second … have these jerseys aged well? Obviously, the Sabres’ current (and classic) look is among the best in hockey, but has the “angry goat” emerged from its 1990s couture prison? (And did you know there’s a head inside a head in the jersey?)
Top three hockey-centric Michael Jordan things (besides owning the Capitals)
Thanks to everyone who checked out my long look back at Michael Jordan’s time as co-owner of the Washington Capitals, and to everyone that participated in the story. Special thanks to Ted Leonsis, Jon Ledecky and Dick Patrick, the other members of Lincoln Holdings who were generous with their time and recollections about MJ’s tenure in the NHL, such as it was.
(For the record, my boss Chris Sprow had an incredible suggested headline that unfortunately wasn’t as SEO-friendly: “A Song of Ice and Flyer: When Air Jordan became an NHL owner.” But props for the ingenuity.)
Jordan’s relationship with hockey goes beyond his time in the Verizon Center’s owners box, however. There was also:
In 1991, DIC Animation created a Saturday morning cartoon series in which Jordan (NBA), Wayne Gretzky (NHL) and Bo Jackson (NFL and MLB) combined their forces to help children and fight crime around the world, from Australian biker gangs to a pirate supervillain named Short John Silver.
None of the stars did the voices of their cartoon avatars — Jordan was voiced by Dorian Harewood of “The Jesse Owens Story,” while Gretzky was voiced by the guy who did Michelangelo on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — but appeared in live action segments, filmed in separate rooms. But hey, Air Jordan and The Great One were teammates for one season. Even if Jordan was more of a Mario guy.
2. His friendship with Le Magnifique
One aspect of the Jordan story I had forgotten about was his relationship with Mario Lemieux, and how Lemieux’s comeback from retirement helped influence MJ to do the same. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the two met at a celebrity golf tournament in 1991 in Lake Tahoe. They shared a passion for the links but also for expensive wines and cigars.
They bonded over being elite athletes and what it took to win a championship — Mario and MJ had both just led their respective teams to a championship. “It was a dogfight. We were scoring champions who couldn’t win a championship. We had great conversations about it. It was that type of relationship, that type of brotherhood,” Jordan said, via the Post-Gazette. “Even though Mario was a bigger guy on skates, it just seemed like he was moving so gracefully, like he had a rhythm about everything he did. I had a strong aggression about the way I played. It looked like his game came easier than mine.”
Speaking of golf …
3. The legendary Jeremy Roenick golf game. Roenick told this Jordan story on The McNeil & Parkins Show in Chicago, telling a story about when the two were playing for the Blackhawks and Bulls, respectively, in 1992-93. Said Roenick, of the golf fanatics:
“[Jordan said] ‘Meet me at Sunset Ridge, early. We’re gonna go play 18 holes.’ … We played a round. I beat him for a couple thousand and get ready to leave. Now, the Bulls are playing that night. They played Cleveland that night. I’m thinking he’s leaving, it’s 10 [a.m.]. He goes, ‘No, let’s go play again.’ So we go and fill up a bag full of ice and Coors Light and we walk again. We roll around another 18, and I take him for another couple [thousand dollars]. Now we’ve been drinking all afternoon and now he’s going from Sunset Ridge to the stadium, to play a game. I’m messing around. I’m like, ‘I’m gonna call my bookie. All the money you just lost to me, I’m putting on Cleveland.’ He goes, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll bet you that we win by 20 points and I have more than 40 [points].’ I’m like, ‘Done.’ Son of a gun goes out and scores 52 and they win by 26 points or something after 36 holes of golf and maybe 10 [Coors] Lights.”
The Basketball Network sleuthed the game, and discovered it was likely a March 28, 1992, win over Cleveland. The Bulls won 126-102. Jordan scored 44 points. And, obviously, collected.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Plenty of NHL coronavirus restart discussion on this week’s podcast, as well as some listener mail. But the highlights are our fascinating conversations with former NHL favorite Joel Ward, who retired recently, and Digit Murphy, the longtime women’s hockey coach who is now the president of the NWHL’s expansion team in Toronto. Stream, download, review and rate here!
Winners and losers of the week
Winners: New Jersey Devils
Nice work from the Devils in honoring front-line workers in the state. They announced they’re donating 10,000 tickets for the 2020-21 season to RWJBarnabas Health front-line healthcare workers, and have a program where fans can donate even more by re-upping season tickets. They’ve also started a “Stick Taps at 7” campaign where videos of team players, alumni, coaches, management, front-office staff tapping their sticks in appreciation for the workers are posted at 7 p.m.
Loser: Brendan Leipsic
His comments about women, including the significant others of players, were abhorrent in the leaked Instagram group chats that hit the web this week. But the Washington Capitals forward earned a spot here for that workshopped apology spit out by some public relations machine that managed to avoid mentioning the people he offended, and any indication he would reach out to any target of his ridicule to apologize.
Winners: Alex Killorn
While other players are binging “Ozark,” the Lightning winger is creating Instagram talk shows from his jet ski.
Losers: The 12.3 percent
The Athletic polled 57 players anonymously to find out how they’d like to see the 2019-20 season completed. Turns out 87.8 percent of them wanted to see either the playoffs or the regular season and the playoffs played. Just 12.3 percent of them wanted the season canceled. When the NHLPA gets around to approving a format, we imagine that’s not going to be a vocal enough minority to put the brakes on a restart.
Winner: Evgeni Nabokov
Nice move by the Sharks to land goalie Alexei Melnichuk, who was outstanding in the KHL this season in a 16-game stint. There was certainly a market for him. Nabokov, the long-time Sharks goalie-turned-development coach, played a key role in recruiting him.
Loser: Joe Thornton’s legendary beard
– San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) May 2, 2020
I still can’t get over this wicked sorcery. Yes, Joe Thornton now looks about 10 years younger, and no doubt weighs 20 pounds lighter without his beard. But is nobody concerned about all of those poor birds that have been nesting in there for several years?
Here’s the handbook from USA Hockey, Figure Skating and others regarding a “return to rinks” as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. For example: “Locker rooms should be closed; skaters and coaches should come prepared to take the ice.”
More on rinks starting to open from Ken Campbell: “Each person entering the rink will have his or her temperature taken. Games will be spaced out 45 minutes apart and each team will use two dressing rooms to ensure social distancing. Dressing rooms will be thoroughly cleaned with a disinfectant mist before, during and after each game.”
What are the Infinity Stones of hockey?
L.A. Kings GM Rob Blake, on trades being made at the early-June draft: “That seems to be the biggest concern, is the possibility of the different trade scenarios that could happen with the draft post-season. What we’ve been doing is doing our work and analyzing the two scenarios: There’s a June draft, or there’s a draft at the end of a possible season here, and going over different things. As far as our team is concerned, with the plan and things going forward, I think we’re quite comfortable with either scenario and we’ll have to work with it, obviously. The one thing we know for sure is nothing will be status quo.”
Philipp Grubauer is cycling 100 miles a day during the shutdown.
Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest hockey players in history, is teaming up with one of the greatest sports video games in history for a good cause.
What would have happened if some dynasties didn’t end up dynasties?
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
OK, actually “not hockey” this week. Gene Park ranked all the Super Mario games ever — the core ones, not the spinoffs — and it’s one of those lists where your interest … mushrooms.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
NHL prospect pipeline reset: Chris Peters takes stock of the deepest, weakest and most improved farm systems.
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