Carolina Hurricanes

Tanking is high-risk, high-reward

There are many themes that could describe the epic journey of our species from primitive hunter gatherer to complex modern society, but most interesting among them is our ability to maintain an optimistic outlook in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It is only within that broader historical framework that one begins to understand that seemingly incomprehensible creature: the Leafs fan. Or the Sabres fan. Or perhaps even the Oilers fan and the Hurricanes fan.

Each of these curious individuals sees hope in the face of a roster and league standings that should inspire despair.

With the season all but over for many teams, fans have turned their attention to the draft. If only their team can “tank” the rest of the season and get Connor McDavid with that coveted first pick, happy days will be here again.

A reality check is in order.

To begin with, there’s a simple fact that there can only be one lottery winner. One first overall pick. One McDavid.

But this is a special year. Because not only is McDavid available, but Jack Eichel is also another “generational talent” who will be there for whichever lucky team picks second. In fact, McDavid and Eichel may be the best one-two punch available in any draft since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went in the 2004 draft.

If you’re bored, at the office, and looking to burn a mindless winter hour, a Sabres fan named Rob Zaenglein has just the thing for you. Zaenglin’s built a strangely addictive website (nhllotterysimulator.com) that will help you imagine what life will be like on the big day when those magical balls drop and the draft order is set in stone.

The Sabres, who were remarkably awful to begin with, managed to make themselves worse this month by trading away one of their top forwards (Drew Stafford) to Winnipeg for Evander Kane, who is done for the season. So let’s say they’re pretty much guaranteed last place, meaning they get either McDavid or Eichel.

If your favorite team is among those jockeying for the coveted second-to-last spot, there’s only a 13.5 per cent chance they get McDavid, meaning there’s a 66.5 per cent chance a team that’s neither the Sabres nor your team picks first, which knocks your guys down to the third pick. And this is where the elephant enters the room. The elephant even has a name: Cam Barker. Casual fans could be forgiven for forgetting about Barker, currently toiling away for Bratislava Slovan of the KHL.

Barker also has the distinction of being the third pick in the 2004 draft – the guy picked immediately after Ovechkin and Malkin. The next pick in that once-in-a-decade draft managed a solid 40 points in 68 games with the Blackhawks in 2008-09 and then bounced around the league before finally exiting at 27.

The picks after Barker (Winnipeg’s Andrew Ladd – originally drafted by the Hurricanes – and Blake Wheeler) were better, but neither would be described as transformational.

To get a handle on whether Barker was an aberration, we looked at the best, worst and median performance of every forward and defenseman picked between third and sixth overall in the period starting in 1969 and ending in 2009. For forwards, we used career points; for defensemen, career games.

Any fan would be happy with the best picks at each spot. But at the other extreme are guys like Barker, who was the all-time worst defenseman picked third overall. If your team finishes in the bottom five, you’re more likely to wind up with someone like Zarley Zalapski (637 games) or Rob Niedermayer (469 points), each of whom had a decent NHL career but nothing to write home about.

That said, if you’re not getting a Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr or Scott Stevens, a complete bust may be preferable. Because if the Blackhawks had wound up with Wheeler or Ladd instead of Barker they might not have been set up for the sustained awfulness that allowed them to pick Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in future years, thereby paving the way for their current success.

So perhaps there’s cause for optimism after all.

The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Visit us online at www.depthockeyanalytics.com. Copyright 2015 Ian Cooper, and The Department of Hockey Analytics. Distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.

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