You might be surprised that there is absolutely nothing - nada, zippo, zilch - the NHL can do about a team tanking its season. There is not a single league by-law that mandates roster quality in any way, shape or form. And there is nothing the league can do to veto any trade if that deal is made within the confines of the salary cap.
“So if the Toronto Maple Leafs want to trade their three best players for a bag of pucks,” said one NHL GM, “as long as those pucks are standard size and the team is salary cap compliant, there’s nothing the league can do.”
The league mandates a certain number of players with NHL experience must play in each pre-season game, presumably to maintain some sense of quality competition for the fans, but strangely has no such rules in place for the regular season. If a team wants to finish in the bottom of the standings and serve up sub-standard hockey to its paying fans, the league has no power to stand in its way.
Which brings us to the Leafs and what is expected to be a flurry of trades exchanging NHL-caliber players for picks and prospects – and perhaps a little bit of highly paid junk – in the coming week. The Leafs got off to a roaring start by trading defenseman Roman Polak and winger Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks for second-rounders in 2017 and ’18 and the expiring contract of Raffi Torres, a player currently in the minors. There will be a number of more to come. P.A. Parenteau is currently packing boxes as we speak.
There’s little doubt that from a future perspective, the deal with San Jose is a steal for the Leafs. Anyone who thought teams would shy away from overpaying for rental players down the stretch was surprised to see the Leafs got so much for these two veterans. The deal gives the Leafs three second-rounders in 2017 and two in 2018, a total that is sure to be enhanced over the next couple of days.
But the Leafs, already the second-worst team in the league, indeed got even worse for the final 25 games of the season. And it will get worse as they auction off more of their players in the coming week. The Leafs have not forgotten they’ve still got a quarter of the season to go, they just don’t really care to pick up many more points. In fact, the fewer, the better.
“It’s bullsh--,” the GM said. “It drives me nuts.”
There has to be a better way of doing this. The lottery helps a little, but it hasn’t stopped the Edmonton Oilers from stocking a ridiculously high number of top picks without improving. Your trusty correspondent has long advocated the implementation of a rule that does not allow a team a top-three pick in successive seasons and no more than three in five consecutive seasons.
But according to our GM, there might be another way. He advocates counting the number of points each team receives from the day after it is mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. Teams eliminated early would still have the best shot of going into the lottery as the No. 1-ranked team, but they’d have to win those games instead of lose them in order to keep their spot. It’s an interesting concept. “You sure wouldn’t see these guys making trades like this if they still had to win games,” the GM said.
So we decided to test it out and see what would have happened last year under a format like that. Here’s what the lottery seeding was last season based on points:
1. Buffalo Sabres
2. Arizona Coyotes
3. Edmonton Oilers
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
5. Carolina Hurricanes
6. New Jersey Devils
7. Philadelphia Flyers
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
9. San Jose Sharks
10. Colorado Avalanche
11. Florida Panthers
12. Dallas Stars
13. Los Angeles Kings
14. Boston Bruins
And here’s how that order would have looked based on points accumulated after the team was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, along with the date they were eliminated, the number of points they accumulated and the number of spots they moved up or down. (For teams tied in points, the team with the better winning percentage was given the higher lottery seeding):
1. Edmonton Oilers (March 9) - 16 points, up 2 spots
2. Columbus Blue Jackets (April 1) - 11 points, up 6 spots
3. Buffalo Sabres (March 8) - 10 points, down 2 spots
4. Carolina Hurricanes (March 26) - 8 points, up 1 spot
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (March 17) - 7 points, down 1 spot
6. Colorado Avalanche (April 4) – 6 points, up 4 spots
7. Arizona Coyotes (March 12) – 6 points, down 5 spots
8. Philadelphia Flyers (April 2) – 5 points, down 1 spot
9. New Jersey Devils (March 29) – 5 points, down 3 spots
10. Florida Panthers (April 5) – 4 points, up 1 spot
11. Dallas Stars (April 6) – 3 points, up 1 spot
12. Los Angeles Kings (April 9) – 2 points, up 1 spot
13. San Jose Sharks (April 6) – 2 points, down 4 spots
14. Boston Bruins (April 11) – 0 points, same
We decided to go one better. Here’s how that order would have looked based on each team’s winning percentage after being eliminated from the playoffs, along with the number of spots they moved up or down. (For teams tied in winning percentage, the team with more wins was given the higher seeding.) Under this system, teams eliminated early would be under even more pressure to win as many games as possible after being eliminated:
1. Colorado Avalanche – 1.000, up 9 spots
2. Florida Panthers – 1.000, up 9 spots
3. Los Angeles Kings – 1.000, up 10 spots
4. Columbus Blue Jackets - .786, up 4 spots
5. Dallas Stars - .750, up 7 spots
6. Edmonton Oilers - .533, down three spots
7. Philadelphia Flyers - .500, same
8. San Jose Sharks - .500, up 1 spot
9. Carolina Hurricanes - .444, down 4 spots
10. New Jersey Devils - .417, down 4 spots
11. Buffalo Sabres - .313, down 10 spots
12. Toronto Maple Leafs - .269, down 8 spots
13. Arizona Coyotes - .214, down 11 spots
14. Boston Bruins - .000, same