The Art of the Tank

I’ll be honest, I’m not even totally sure what tanking is.

by Kolby SolinskyWhite Cover Magazine

I mean, I know what it’s supposed to be – intentionally losing because doing so would somewhat benefit you, either today or in the future. In hockey – in any sport – you see it happening obviously and sometimes deceptively, because losing gives you a better shot at a better draft position. And if you’re not going to make the playoffs this year then, well, why not declare bankruptcy and cut up your rotten credit cards? (You don’t have to cut up the cards, but… symbolic gestures, right?)

“To be clear, players don’t tank,” writes Sean McIndoe, in a piece for The Guardian. “We’re not talking about teams shooting the puck into their own net, or otherwise intentionally making a mockery of things; hockey players are a proud bunch who don’t take being embarrassed kindly… No, tanking comes from up above – from the front office that assembles the roster, and who have the ability to ensure that the players who do take the ice have as little chance as possible.”

To ‘tank’ is widely spit on. They say it ruins the integrity of the game, that it’s not an act of good faith or sportsmanship. Or, whatever. But this only ever happens when it’s completely deliberate – and when Brian Burke wakes up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, hair goo, and a loose tie, awakened from the nightmare that it’s been two months since he last held a press conference to rant at whichever poor journalists drew the shortest sticks in the newsroom that morning.

When a tank is strategic, however, it’s lauded. And when it works out.

For players to give up is downright dirty, apparently, but for a general manager to give up is ingenious. And brave. Or, whatever. It’s not tanking then, it’s simple accounting and inventory… asset management, a technically not-inaccurate two-word way of treating humans like staplers and tape dispensers. A beige way to make it sound like you’re not just guessing. Like all of us aren’t just guessing.

And of course, when one franchise has tanked properly and successfully, the revisionist history lessons begin.

I’m hearing plenty of this in Vancouver right now, with the Canucks mired in Death Valley, that desert between last in the league and out-of-contention. (And they’re a lot closer to the former than they are to the latter, even if their management is intent on selling raisins as chocolate.) So out come the suddenly optimistic, pedestrian experts in Toronto, Edmonton, and Winnipeg – Just blow it up, they say. At least we have a plan. Vancouver just looks lost. And of course, they’re right.

The Canucks should just blow it up. Trade anyone with value, but keep those worth keeping. Hoard prospects and picks and don’t share anything with anyone else – you know, like what Nestle does with water. And yes, the Maple Leafs, Jets, and Oilers do have a plan – or, rather, they have the resources and players to plan around. And Vancouver does look lost, like they’ve missed an exit on a bridge. But it’s not that easy. And before anyone in those cities tells me otherwise, I’d advise them to reeaaaaaaaaalllllly look back on how they got to where they are.

Because the Oilers deserve no credit for their current bill of hope. They lucked into the only generational player of his generation – Connor McDavid – and their continued, almost dynastic default failure was completely self-inflicted. And because the Maple Leafs, in their unrelenting effort to initially not tank, tried to rebuild several times in multiple ways before this one finally took. And for all the talk of how they finally blew it up before last season, that’s an exaggeration anyway – the only player of note they actually traded away in 2015 was Phil Kessel, but sometimes one move feels like 40. As for the Jets, I’ll suspend advice from a franchise that just returned home from its honeymoon – it’s already been five years since Winnipeg got their NHL team back and they’ve had some fancy GM’ing as of late, but it’s hard to take wisdom from the newest kid on the block.

And the Canucks, suffering under self-wrung mistakes of previous regimes and previous offseasons, are trapped.

They need to liquidate but they don’t have anything to sell – Alex Edler is only 30 and talented but error-prone, Loui Eriksson just got here and his contract is an anvil, Ryan Miller could fetch something but is also this team’s only number-one goaltender, Brandon Sutter’s more useful as a second-line centre than he is as bait, and the Sedin twins are aging and expensive, combining for $14 against the cap per year. (And all of those players have some form of a No-Trade or No-Movement Clause in their contracts. Again, the failures of previous offseasons are roosting in their cubicles.) You’ll hear Chris Tanev and Ben Hutton floated as trade chips between now and March, but there’s little point in trading away your two best young blueliners for draft picks that you can only pray will turn into the players you just dealt away.

But while the Canucks actually have several solid pieces that will and should entice prospecting trade partners, fat chance they’ll see anything close to an exciting return. And I don’t mean equal return – I mean any return. The Sedins, slower but still as possessive and telepathic as ever, would vault nearly any contending team to Cup favourite status… Ryan Miller would leapfrog to the top of the crease in Dallas or even Los Angeles if Jonathan Quick can’t return… and Alex Edler would be of limitless potential under a coach that can protect him in a better top six. But Vancouver is so obviously desperate to rebuild, whether they’ll be forced to or not, that any poachers would have all the leverage.

And while it’s romantic to turn this team over to the kids and the next generation, keep in mind that their ‘next generation’ isn’t defined. They have a hive of useful, future-pro prospects (Jake Virtanen, Brock Boeser, Thatcher Demko, Olli Juolevi, and Brendan Gaunce) but only a handful have ever played in the NHL, and they don’t have a marquee grade ‘A’ prospect like McDavid, Auston Matthews, or Patrik Laine. A decade of successful and second-round playoff exits gave the owners – the Aquilinis – a ton of cash but it forced them to rely on scouts and prayers. By the time the Canucks were ready to flop for gold, the cupboard had been cleaned – McDavid and Matthews went in back-to-back years to Edmonton and Toronto, while Jack Eichel and Laine went second overall in the same span. Vancouver may now be the worst team in the National Hockey League and they may get the No. 1 pick next June, but the drop-off from McDavid and Matthews to prospective ace Nolan Patrick may be as real as it seems.

Add to that the optics and the reputation that could come with dealing everyone listed above – Miller, Sutter, Edler, the Sedins, or even Eriksson. That’s your entire leadership core, your much-needed veteran presence. You can practice dignity in defeat and have pride during a drought. But it’ll be hard to sell Vancouver as a desirable destination for any player – whether it’s a future free agent or a draft pick you want to ink long-term – if you’re going to trade away every on-ice face this franchise has. Especially when you consider trading the Sedins, who aren’t just the best players on this Canucks team but are also committed to the franchise. Loyalty deserves something close to itself.

Personally, I’m a fan of throwing on the Guy Fawkes mask and watching Parliament explode. But I won’t pretend it’s easy.

You need more than dynamite to tank in the National Hockey League. Because after the flames are doused, you need to rebuild on the same lot.