Thursday, February 04, 2010

Tanking For A Pick

Why The Habs Should Keep Winning

A win on the books has done little to turn minds away from tanking. Some analysts feel quite strongly about their ability to see the future months of 2010, so much so that the "towel", they insist, must still be thrown in.

I take issue with that argument for a few reasons. Some of which I elaborate on here.

The missing argument

When people advocate the tank, they always point to the Pittsburgh Penguins as the poster child. Pittsburgh drafted in the top 5 for 5 consecutive years on the backs of some horrible seasons. This landed them Staal, Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Whitney. It seems a convincing argument, but how much more valid is it than saying a team should wear red to win, or a team should acquire Scott Niedermayer to win. It's not pure coincidence, we can see that. But while Pittsburgh turned their losing into winning, does that mean tanking is a reliable method?

The counter argument is often missed. That is, that teams that have been bottom of the league for nearly a generation have been enjoying near the same frequency of high draft picks as Pitssburgh, yet not turning that into results they can be proud of.

Take the Florida Panthers. You may remember them from lottery draws from nearly every year in living memory. Their most recent go-around in the land of top 5 picks was from 2001 to 2003. In 2001, they selected Stephen Weiss 4th overall. In 2002, Bouwmeester first. Then in 2003, after winning the lottery they traded down to pick Nathan Horton at 3rd. Their next season in the "build" phase, it was Rotislav Olesz at 7th. So that's 4 years building through the draft with results many in Montreal would consider unacceptable. And where has it left them? Last time I checked they missed the playoffs in 2008-09 and are in the thick of the race to miss again.

Florida's not alone. Columbus clocked up Klesla and Zherdev in the top 5 to go with Nash in building their version of the playoff evaders. Atlanta, famous for never winning a playoff game in their history also show a disturbing trend, even selecting well in Heatley and Kovalchuk, can't build a winner (at least in part due to duds Lehtonen and Stefan as top 5 picks). The San Jose Sharks may look like an example to follow now, but their success is mostly down to industry in trades and not due to selecting Andrei Zyuzin, Patrick Marleau then Brad Stuart to affect their outcomes. I could go on (hello Winnipeg).

Tanking is no guarantee for success. the only thing tanking does guarantee is a high pick and lots of losses. After that, you need more on your side – either good scouting or luck.

Franchise players

The premise of tanking as a legitimate strategy is nothing new. In the days of certain draft position, scouting departments could identify certain gems of players (Mario Lemieux, Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros, etc.) that were worth turning in a season for. And although we've been in a rich vein of drafts of late, the reality of the draft is that it's a hit or miss affair.

I had a look back at the drafts from 1990 to 2005 (supposing that 2006 draftees on are too young yet) and did some sums. What I found was that:

– In total there were 15 franchise players to be had (with some generous assessments in there) from the first round.

– Only one draft had three franchise players (1991) and 4 had two

– 6 franchise players were taken with the #1 pick

– There were only 5 franchise players taken from picks #2-5 in 16 years, compared to 4 with picks #6 to the end of the round that year

So franchise players don't come along every year, and they rarely more than one at once. What's more, you have almost as much chance nabbing one with any other pick in the first round as with one in the top 5. This is interesting enough, but then consider great players – players who once you get a few together can be the foundations of a great team.

– Only 37.5% of picks in the top 5 turned into players I judge to be great or better

– Only 34% of picks #2-5 turned into players I judge to be great or better

– Every year of the draft has produced one player great or better outside the top 5, 2003 produced multiple

– 2 years the top 5 has not produced a player great or better

That's an awfully big percentage of picks who may be able NHLers but won't fulfill the dream of tanking for Cups. Plus, good scouts show that they don't need a good pick to get the right player (and I'm not even including round 2 on).

One final thing:

– Recent drafts have been good producing 4 or 5 good to franchise players from the top 5 picks

– A run of drafts from 1991 to 1996 never produced more than 3 good to franchise players (meaning at least 2 were mediocre to poor). 1994 had four duds and 1996 only had 2 good players in the top 5, nothing more.

A better way

As you know by now, I see tanking as a highly flawed strategy that relies on a fair amount of luck and certainly timing. I think there must be a better way.

Generally, I think there is. It is demonstrated by teams like Detroit, like New Jersey, like San Jose. What these teams have shown is that attention to detail, attention to player development and shrewd management along the way can outdo and outpace the tanking strategy 9 times out of 10.

By committing to winning in Hamilton and hopefully Montreal, Gainey and his team can grow the winning mentality over time. Though they may miss the Rick Nash every once in a while, by teaching an ethic, they can make their Plekanecs into more effective players over the long run.

For me, tanking is out. I'd much prefer the Molsons to sink whatever windfalls they get form the playoffs into more men like Guy Boucher and more and better amateur and pro scouts.

When it comes to games that remain – win them all if you can. Try to win them all, no question. More good will come of 25 games of a team gelling and pulling in one direction than a 34% chance at a great player.

Draft lottery

On a final note, and as we're on the topic of the draft.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the draft lottery. My own were born of the fact I assumed I knew what was going on, so never really looked into it. As I had a look, I found out some interesting things many of you must already know, but some of you might find blow assumptions away:

1) There is only one pick determined by lottery. Once that lottery has taken place, all other picks proceed in the reverse order of the standings.

2) All teams who don't make the playoffs are in the lottery. However, the rule that a team can only move up 4 places means only the bottom 5 can actually win the 1st overall pick. Not being in the bottom five, however, does not preclude you from winning the lottery. So a team in 7th can win the lottery, but that team will only actually move up to 3rd in the draft.

3) A team can only move down one place, but this is obvious given the first finding.

This has interesting implications. The team in 5th from last can only pick 1st, 5th or 6th in actual fact. They can never acquire the 2nd, 3rd or 4th picks, because a team can't move up less than 4 places so long as there are places to move ahead. The 5thfrom last team has best odds of picking 5th (74.7%), but actually has a better chance of picking 6th (17.2%) than 1st (8.1%). The team in last is often said to have a 25% of winning the lottery, but given they retain the first pick if any team from 6th to 14th from the bottom win the lottery, they actually have a 48.2% chance of winning the first pick.

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