The Edmonton Oilers blew through the Bay Area about a week and a half ago, and for their pains they were rewarded with a win over the Sharks. Alas, they haven’t won since leaving San Jose, dropping their next three games, including a 5-0 skunking by the Calgary Flames last Saturday. You can’t exactly say you’re losing to the best when the Flames–currently ensconced in fifth place in the Pacific Division–are waxing your hide.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Oilers picked Connor McDavid No. 1 overall in last year’s entry draft; McDavid was supposed to be a transformational player, and Edmonton fans were expecting a long awaited revival to hit Rexall Place, with the prized rookie leading the way.
So what happened?
For one thing, McDavid got hurt. He missed a lot of time right in the middle of the season, and one might argue that his time away did major damage to Edmonton’s chances for this season.
One might argue that, but one would be wrong. Just take a look at the record; in the 43 games McDavid has played this season, the Oilers have only won 16 of them. The other 27 games were either outright losses or overtime/shootout defeats. The team actually played very slightly better without McDavid than with him, racking up 35 points in the games he missed compared to the 34 points it earned with the rookie in the lineup. All that was enough to place the Oilers comfortably–or uncomfortably, as the case may be–in last place in the Pacific, and almost dead even with the Toronto Maple Leafs for worst record in the league.
Remember, McDavid was the consensus best player in the draft last year. And there was some brouhaha about whether or not certain teams were tanking to try to get that first pick so they could select McDavid, and presumably turn their franchise around.
The Buffalo Sabres were the one team most people were looking at as performing some, shall we say, strategic draft positioning. Unfortunately for them, the Oilers legitimately sucked more than Buffalo did, so the Sabres wound up with the “consolation prize” of Jack Eichel. Again, the consensus had Eichel as a solid No. 2 pick; not transformational, perhaps, but a young player who would definitely help his new team.
And his new team, of course, needs some helping. The Sabres are once again looking up at the playoff positions; they’ve got an outside shot at sixth place in the Atlantic Division, but only if Montreal cooperates by losing enough to open that door. Buffalo can at least hold their heads up high in the knowledge that they are currently ten points better than the Oilers.
Eichel personally has been not bad this season. His 52 points are second on the team (and better than McDavid’s 45), though his minus-14 rating probably is not making anyone forget Gilbert Perreault just yet.
All of this adds up to yet more grist for one of The DFR’s favorite mills: just how bad an idea tanking is. Again, we see clear evidence that the results just don’t justify the negative side effects of purposely losing games. Sure, McDavid will probably be a great player and set the ice on fire in a couple of years; but in the meantime, there’s not much going on for the OIlers. And this despite the fact that this season they still had Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (another No. 1 overall pick, in 2011) and Taylor Hall (yet another No. 1 overall pick, in 2010). This is less building through the draft than bulldozing through the draft. And how will it play out for Eichel and the Sabres? Maybe great, maybe nothing–and we might not even have an answer to that until four more years have passed.
Then again, the New Orleans Pelicans are four years into the Anthony Davis era, and despite Davis’s considerable and obvious talent, the team has only four playoff games to show for it. And they lost them all. At least fellow Kentucky “alum” and former No. 1 overall pick John Wall has made the Washington Wizards better–just good enough to make it to the second round twice (but no further).
Jameis Winston was good enough to get Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans excited about the future again. Then again, he was also good enough for the team to go 6-10 and get Lovie Smith fired (though perhaps not fairly so).
This can go on, and yes, you can point to top picks who have thrived and made their teams better in rapid order–if you’re willing to go back over a number of years to find them. But the so-so results far outweigh the dazzling successes. And even LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers finished 35-47 his rookie season.
If you are legitimately bad enough to merit the overall number one pick, fine. Take the pick and make of it what you will. But purposely losing to get that high draft pick? The evidence clearly says don’t do it.