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Coyotes and Sabres meeting in high stakes draft tanking battles

Despite exciting playoff races, the Connor McDavid tanking battle between the Sabres and Coyotes will be the most closely watched NHL games.

Off The Draw

Under different circumstances, games between the Coyotes and Sabres would be an afterthought on a schedule that features compelling playoff races.

Buffalo and Arizona, after all, are a pair of terrible hockey teams. Cellar dwellers in their respective conferences, they offer little competitive intrigue as opponents.

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But circumstances being what they are, their two meetings promise to be closely watched contests. What’s at stake here is not the points to be gained but the ground to be given up in the standings. The Sabres' 4–3 loss in OT on Thursday night brought the beleaguered franchise a step closer to stuffing the greatest possible number of draft lottery balls into the hopper on April 18. And that means a greater opportunity to transform its future by landing Connor McDavid, the player who is regarded as being the best draft prospect since Sidney Crosby.

No surprise that the crowd at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center was fiercely pro-Coyotes.

The Sabres, who enter the weekend holding the league’s basement apartment with 48 points, have eight games left on their schedule. The Coyotes are six points ahead of them. Arizona had lost eight straight games, and 18 of its last 19, before stunning the Red Wings in overtime on Tuesday night. The Yotes have seven games remaining.

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Buffalo’s loss, had it been in regulation, might have sealed the deal. Arizona probably needed to lose on Thursday and in next Monday’s rematch in Glendale to make the race interesting.

Not that it’s a race the NHL wants to see run. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the attention it is generating, tonight’s Tank Bowl is bad for business. In fact, tanking to secure a better draft position became such a concern that the NHL felt compelled to dramatically alter its lottery rules ahead of this season. Under those revisions, the league’s worst team now has only a 20% chance of landing the top pick.

But for this year anyway (the rules will change again next summer) that team can drop no lower than the second selection, which means it is guaranteed to land either McDavid or Jack Eichel, the Boston University star who could turn out to be the best consolation prize since Evgeni Malkin went second behind Alex Ovechkin back in 2004.

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The team that finishes 29th could land the second pick, but it has a 67% chance of dropping to third and missing out on both players.

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All that said, these games won’t be a farce of turnovers, ignored defensive assignments, sloppy goaltending—though on Thursday the Sabres countered Arizona's Mike Smith (left, photo above) with Matt Hackett (right) and his .893 save percentage instead of Anders Lindback who would weigh in at .926 since arriving in Buffalo via a February trade) and comically blown offensive chances ... at least, no more than normal for these two clubs. In fact, it could end up being a thriller. Because while these organizations might be thinking of the future, the players on the ice are only worried about the present. Their honor is on the line tonight. They don’t want to be embarrassed. They’re sick of losing. And no one wants to be seen as the guy who can be jettisoned to make room for McDavid next season.

And they might even be aware of this noteworthy fact: In each of the past three seasons, the team that finished 29th has won the lottery.

Maybe a win will be a win after all.

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