Wednesday March 26th, 2008

The text message from a friend and long-suffering Los Angeles fan arrived seconds after the Kings improbably scored three goals in the final three minutes to stun the Dallas Stars 4-2 on Saturday afternoon.

"Nice. There goes Stamkos," my buddy lamented, fearing that the two points would only rob the cellar dwelling Kings of their shot at the first overall pick this June. The choice, presumably, would be used on Steven Stamkos, a big, skilled two-way center who could expedite any team's rebuilding project.

It was just one win, and so probably a bit premature on the hand wringing there, but the reaction's understandable from someone who supports a team that's lost 40 games for the second consecutive season. When your team is getting knocked around for lunch money more nights than not, whether it's L.A. or Tampa Bay or Toronto, closing your eyes and dreaming of better days to come is the fan's natural -- and best -- defense.

Not everyone agrees with that approach, though. In fact, an argument for the opposition was artfully crafted by Michael Farber in this very space. Now, it might not be the wisest idea to take exception to a position advanced by Mr. Farber -- last I checked he's a card-carrying Hall of Famer and I'm still pulling out my wallet to buy a ticket like everyone else. But hey, even Bobby Orr coughed up the puck and had to have his butt covered by Gary Doak every now and then. And artful or not, Farber's piece was wrong, because the future, and in particular, the draft, is exactly what some teams should have in mind as their season winds inexorably to a disappointing close.

"In this crazy, upside down world of ours, many people out there think that having a superior position heading into the lottery is a splendid thing," Farber wrote. "This is the sports world fallen through a rabbit hole. The idea of losing, even with the apparent long-term benefit of your team foremost in mind, is madness."

Madness? Madness is watching a team that's played like the NHL's answer to the Washington Generals all season long discover their inner Globetrotter when there's nothing on the line. Madness is thinking that padding a record with a couple of meaningless late-March victories is something to be lauded. And madness comes with the realization that those wins mean that a superior player, a player around whom a contending squad can be built, will wind up wearing someone else's sweater.

Look, no one wants to watch his or her team blatantly roll over, no matter the prize. But at the same time, there's a reason these games are played. It's to build toward the annual championship. And if you're not in the hunt this year, you need to show yourselves and your fans that a title is at least discernible somewhere on the horizon. That hope resides, if not just around the corner, then within walking distance.

The feckless build that faith by making trades at the deadline, moving veterans to acquire the young talent that hints at that brighter tomorrow (see Tampa's trade for Mike Smith and Jussi Jokinen, or Buffalo's deal for Steve Bernier and a first rounder).

They also do it by getting the best draft pick possible. Crapshoot or not, it's still the closest thing hockey offers to a golden ticket.

Again, no one wants to see the guys on the ice not giving it their all. Not that it would matter if the fans did. As Farber correctly points out, you can't reprogram athletes to lose, and coaches of floundering franchises are more worried about the here and now than a tomorrow that might include someone else behind the bench.

But general managers must have a big picture view. And that means they can give the coach different athletes with which to work... or ask that the old ones not be used in the same fashion. Does this toy with the integrity of the game? Not necessarily. Sometimes this approach benefits the team both short and long term.

Take Toronto, for example. With veterans Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov sidelined, youngsters like Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood -- players who need to prove they can be part of the long-term solution -- have made the most of their increased ice time, playing perhaps their best hockey of the season. Young defensemen like Anton Stralman and Staffan Kronvall also are trying to make their case for future employment. The results have been mixed, but at least the Leafs are getting a better sense of what's in the cupboard.

Still, they're not fully committing to the future, and that's inexcusable for a team that's floundered in mediocrity (forgive me for being gentle) for the last decade. Especially in a town that's savvy enough to ride out the growing pains in anticipation of brighter days.

Farber commends Toronto coach Paul Maurice for going to the whip with netminder Vesa Toskala. Clearly the veteran, even hobbled by a sore groin, gives the team its best chance to win every night. But to what end?

Instead of fruitlessly struggling for a playoff spot that's not within reach, this is a team that has to be considering its options. Sure, Andrew Raycroft's a stiff, but he has no future with the club... and at the moment, he's worth maybe a box of Tim Hortons' donuts on the trade market. Giving him some ice down the stretch might have allowed Raycroft the chance to touch up the paint in the hopes of lending him some kind of curb appeal in the offseason.

Think that's too obvious a sign of tanking? Fine. How about calling up young Justin Pogge to begin a journey the team hopes will see him eventually take over for the Finnish veteran?

What's to lose? Like most young goalies, he's likely to struggle, leading the team into a deeper hole (and, hooray! a better draft slot). But honestly, there's every chance that Pogge, a promising if raw stopper, goes on a tear, runs off six straight wins and does exactly the same damage to their draft position as if they'd had the experienced Toskala between the pipes. But at least having played him, you've taken a legitimate leap towards a brighter tomorrow.

And barring the first overall pick, that's all fans of the also-rans are asking for.

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