top of page

NHL Teams Must Stop Tanking! An Opinion Column (Mar. 2023)




          As the National Hockey League trade deadline passes, signaling the stretch drive of the regular season, teams are either fighting to make the Stanley Cup playoffs or competing for the best odds in the upcoming entry draft to select the teenage phenom and generational talent: Connor Bedard.

          Teams that are near the bottom of the regular season standings with no hopes to fight for the Stanley Cup would keep losing, so they would have the best odds to land the best young talent that will win them championships for years to come.  Teams that adopt this approach would jeopardize being forever known as unprofessional, disgraceful, and shameful by opposing fans and hockey analysts.  They would justify that winning championships later would silence the critics.  The Pittsburgh Penguins exemplified this when they were accused of losing games intentionally (A.K.A: “tanking”) in 1984 to “win” the rights to select the talented Mario Lemieux, who eventually led the franchise to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in the ‘90s.

But how in the competitive nature of sports that “tanking” be tolerated and rewarded?  Hockey players and coaches are wired to win; they are devastated when they lose, especially in the Stanley Cup finals.  The agony of watching the opponents hoisting the Stanley Cup is indescribably devastating.

          Every NHL franchise wants to win, but not all are ready to win now.  Struggling franchises that applied the Penguins’ “lose now and win later” logic had also tasted success and won Stanley Cups.  They would trade away aging star players for draft picks to build for the future.  They would try to finish as low in the standings as possible because, until 1995, the team that finished last in the regular season would get the top pick to select the best youth in the annual entry draft. 

          Since then, a weighted lottery system determines the order for the non-playoff teams In the NHL entry draft, meaning that the team that finishes last in the regular season standings isn’t guaranteed to select first overall and the best ranked prospect.  Unfortunately, this rule change didn’t discourage struggling teams from tanking because, historically, rarely did the team with the best odds lose the draft lottery.    

          Fans support the promise of a brighter future when they know that their team has no hopes to win now.  They would tolerate losing or mediocrity for many seasons if the franchise is building towards future success with drafted prospects as cornerstones.

          But what if the success never come?  Even the best young prospect won’t guarantee Stanley Cups for the franchise that drafted him.  Hockey teams have a 23-player roster.  Even Wayne Gretzky—arguably the best NHL player ever—didn’t win Stanley Cups without supportive star teammates. 

          Take the Buffalo Sabres, for instance.  They have been struggling despite drafting first or second overall in recent years; and their fans have patiently waited for the team to return to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1999.

          Fans have rights to be loyal to their teams.  Loyal fans who support their teams through thick and thin are often praised, as opposed to “bandwagon fans” who only support winning teams. 

          Frustrated fans who have enduring many losing seasons from their teams without celebrating a deep playoff run or a Stanley Cup championship would do anything to remain optimistic, including cheering for their team to tank and hoping to land the top pick to draft the best prospect.  This happened infamously in 2015, when Sabres fans cheered after their team lost in overtime in a late regular season game against the Arizona Coyotes.  That loss sunk the Sabres lower in the standings and gave them the better odds to draft the then-top prospect and generational talent, Connor McDavid.  

          Other NHL fans ridiculed these Sabres fans on social media for their antics, while sports media claimed that the NHL should be embarrassed by this incident.  As the world’s best hockey league, having fans cheering for losses was utterly disgraceful.  To add insult to injury, the last-placed Sabres and their fans could only watch helplessly as the third-last Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery and drafted Connor McDavid.  


          Losing games is okay, as a team can only afford so many top players in the salary cap era.  Hockey franchises go through cycles of peaks and valleys with their roster makeups and performances, the notion of replacing the current players with future assets is acceptable.  A franchise’s window of winning a championship opens when its talented young players reach their prime and closes when these players are older and are past their prime, usually by their mid-thirties.  The team’s management would trade these veteran players away for futures to rebuild the franchise to begin the next cycle, leaving the team with a weaker roster that is prone to losing games. 

          However, teams shouldn’t be rewarded for tanking.  Hockey leagues in Europe implement a promotion/relegation system, where teams with the worst record are being relegated to a lower-tier league and be replaced by the top teams of that league.  Teams have the incentive to compete and avoid relegation because lower-tier teams have a smaller operation budget and salary cap; they cannot keep star players. 


          Hockey personnel ought to have the same attitude and professionalism as workers in other professions because positive performance and results keep them employed and generate revenue for the teams and league.  As customers wouldn’t accept defective products or poor services, hockey fans ought not to support tanking.


          The NHL needs to tweak the current draft order system to encourage winning, instead of giving the best draft odds to the worst team in the standings.  Teams need incentives to keep winning and stay competitive.  A competitive team has a better winning culture, earns more revenue, and has happier fans.  More importantly, higher competition improves the league’s reputation. 

bottom of page