It’s not hyperbole to suggest the next four days could provide a franchise-defining moment for the Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes. It’s just kind of weird that a couple of games between the two worst teams in the league are accompanied by Super Bowl-type hype, and potentially toilet bowl results.
But there is so, so much on the line here. As we’ve said in this space a number of times this season, the reward for finishing 30th overall is not having a 20 percent chance of getting Connor McDavid in the draft. The motivation for finishing last is having a 100 percent chance of getting either McDavid or Jack Eichel.
With so much at stake and with just five points separating the two teams for last overall, it’s only natural that the notion of tanking would raise its ugly head. Nobody is suggested any of the coaches or players would even entertain the thought because it’s not in their DNA. But if I’m GMs Tim Murray and Don Maloney, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure my team loses both those games. For either man to desire anything less would be a complete abdication of his responsibility to the team’s fans at this point in the season. There’s probably not a fan of either of the teams that wants to see its team come out of this two-game set with four points.
That’s reality. Would the Sabres or Coyotes do anything to sabotage the results of these games? Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it, because the possibility of doing so exists. And it clearly puts a guy like Sabres coach Ted Nolan in an untenable position. If he decides to start Matt Hackett for the game against Arizona, he’ll be accused of tanking, since Hackett has an .893 save percentage in three games with the Sabres. If he starts Anders Lindback and his .926 save percentage in Buffalo, he’ll almost certainly catch hell from the local fan base.
It will be interesting to see how people in Buffalo react to the Sabres and Coyotes goals in the game. If they’re really interested in what’s best for their team long-term, they’ll be cheering their lungs out for the Coyotes.
It’s warped. We get that sports leagues have to give their weakest a chance to get better and there’s no way of accelerating a turnaround like getting an 18-year-old McDavid or Eichel in the fold. The draft lottery is supposed to prevent this. And with the possibility of the last place team falling three spots next season instead of just one, the league is trying to put safeguards in against tanking.
But as this season is showing, nothing is foolproof. If one of those two teams loses both games, their chances of finishing in the top two in the draft are all but assured.
So how about still giving the worst teams the opportunity to get a generational talent, but make them earn it by doing something other than losing. Like, oh gee I don’t know, winning? And here’s one way to do it that would both eliminate the possibility of tanking and provide some compelling action for the fans.
What the league could do is take the bottom five teams in the NHL. But instead of automatically giving the 30th place team the best chance at winning the lottery, why not give it to the bottom-five team that has the best points percentage among the other four teams at the end of the season.
If you did that, here’s how things would look for the bottom feeders going into tonight’s games:
Carolina: The Hurricanes have a 6-0-1 record against Buffalo, Arizona, Edmonton and Toronto this season, which gives them a .923 points percentage with one game to go against the Sabres.
Arizona: The Coyotes are 7-1-1 against the other bottom-five teams for an .883 points percentage. They have the two games remaining against the Sabres.
Buffalo: The Sabres still have four games against the lower lights, two against Arizona and one each against Toronto and Carolina. They currently have a 2-2-1 record, which puts them at .500.
Edmonton: The Sabres have played 11 games against their hapless brethren and have a 4-6-1 mark for a .409 points percentage.
Toronto: With one game left against Buffalo, the Leafs are 2-6-0 in these games for a points percentage of .250.
Under this scenario, you can see that both the Coyotes and the Sabres would be motivated to win, not lose the games. All five of the bottom teams are pretty well ensconced in their positions, so winning those games and picking up the points wouldn’t take them out of the bottom five. But the Coyotes would suddenly be in a position where they could secure the No. 1 or 2 pick by winning their games and having the Hurricanes lose their last game.
The Sabres, meanwhile, would have no hope of securing the No. 1 spot in the lottery, but they could move up to No. 2. And the best part of it is that on any given night, a team will have no idea whether it’s playing a team that will ultimately finish in the bottom five in the regular season, so it gives them the motivation to win all their games against non-playoff teams.
The NHL would never consider it, but it would be one way to avoid the embarrassment the next four days could endure in the next four days.