Sabres' losing ways illuminate questionable practice of tanking in NHL

Losing to win

At this late point in the NHL season, the impending draft lottery eclipses all else for struggling teams like the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo has come to accept the team’s 22-47-8 record and the lowest ranking in the entire league. The team’s position at the bottom of the pile means the Sabres have a chance at getting one of the top two draft picks this year.

Accordingly, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or groan in response to the team’s victories against the Arizona Coyotes and the Toronto Maple Leafs this week.

After all, losing now means potentially winning the draft and having the chance to select one of the top two players every NHL team wants. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are the top draft picks for this year – and many believe either could be a savior for a struggling franchise.

The practice of “tanking” – intentionally losing games to rise to the top of the draft – is nothing new in the NHL. It’s widely recognized among fans and commentators alike, even if players and management won’t acknowledge the practice.

Management is concerned with the politics of a team, while players are generally concerned only with their performance on the ice.

The players are not intentionally losing games – they’re fighting for their livelihoods and NHL careers – but the Sabres’ management is clearly attempting to lose games by trading away its last remaining valuable assets.

It creates strange scenarios at game time, to be sure, with Sabres fans unable to prevent themselves from cheering when the opposing team scores a goal. Tanking basically guarantees plenty of “opposite day” situations for hockey fans.

But besides the sheer oddities of tanking, there is an inherent dirtiness to it.

Something about intentionally losing – not to mention rooting for the opposition – just feels deeply wrong.

Certainly a mere feeling isn’t enough to call for an end to the practice. But not everyone supports the concept, and for players involved, the dilemma must be even more painfully challenging.

Tanking transforms the end of the season into a performance of contrasts – teams whose management put together competitive rosters and those who did not – thrown together on the rink.

Usually, sports are straightforward – reassuringly so. The Sabres win, Buffalo residents are happy. But now, there’s more to the equation and casual viewers are left confused and let down.

The Sabres need to look to the future in the hopes of rebuilding the organization into a team that can fight its way to the top of the league. Being able to select either McDavid or Eichel will undoubtedly transform the team – though not overnight – but it is unethical to purposefully lose games in order to make this happen.