Analysis

Montreal Canadiens: time for fans to embrace the tank?

To the casual sports fan, the idea of losing in order to gain an advantage probably seems a little backwards, and maybe even unethical. But what if losing now gives you a better shot at winning later?

Habs fans wonder if they should cheer for the team to lose in the hopes of securing a better draft pick

Though the Montreal Canadiens celebrated a win against the Philadelphia Fyers on Feb. 19, winning more hockey games at this stage might only get the team close to the playoffs, but not into the playoffs. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

To the casual sports fan, the idea of losing in order to gain an advantage probably seems a little backwards, and maybe even unethical.

However in hockey — and several other major North American professional sports as well — there is a system built into the rules that rewards losing teams with better draft picks.

The system was designed to help struggling teams by giving them first dibs on the best young players breaking into the league. But while the draft lottery system may have been created with good intentions, it has also created an unsavoury side effect: a strategy commonly called "tanking." 

Why Tank?

The argument for tanking is simple: lose now to gain an advantage later at the draft. This idea has taken root among many followers of the Montreal Canadiens recently.

The team's season has fallen off a cliff since Dec. 1 and the odds of making the playoffs are long. Winning hockey games might only get the team close to the playoffs, but not into the playoffs. If that happens, every win takes the team farther away from the top of the draft board.

Losing on purpose?

The thing about tanking is that it's not usually a strategy a team will admit to using. You will never hear a coach or a general manager step to a journalist's mic and say "We're going to lose as much as possible from this point on." 

The players won't say it either. They're playing hockey at the highest level. They generally only have one gear — top gear. The idea of losing to gain an advantage doesn't compute, so they will block it out and focus on the short term. Hence the "one shift at a time" mantra.

So how does a fan know when a tank is under way?

If management starts saying things like "we're building for the future," or if players start talking about playing for "pride" or playing for "jobs," it is a good indication the tank is on. 

Terrible for fans

Ultimately, the greatest victims of a tanking team are its most loyal fans. They suffer by watching a poor-quality product while management takes a gamble that things will get better with the aid of young talent plucked from the draft.

But there isn't much evidence the tanking strategy works, unless a team is prepared to stay near the bottom of the standings for several years. 

And even that doesn't always pay off — the Edmonton Oilers are a great example of a franchise that has loaded up on high draft picks but have yet to achieve any success. 

A tank means fans are left watching sub-par performances while they continue to pay the full price of admission. Is it fair to rob loyal fans of an honest effort to win now in return for the promise of future success? A "promise" that has no guarantees?  

After all, losing now only improves a team's odds in the draft lottery. It is called a lottery for a reason: it's a gamble.

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