October 22, 2014

ZAKOUR | Tanking Teams: It Just Feels Wrong

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By JOHN ZAKOUR

Rooting for the Buffalo Sabres isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s been pretty hard. They’ve been around for over 40 years and never won a Stanley Cup, and their most recent trip (in 1999) is only famous for the Sabres losing in game six, in triple overtime, on a goal that shouldn’t have counted. “No goal” still persists today.

The Sabres featured one of the greatest offensive lines ever in the “French Connection,” comprised of three great French-Canadian skaters and led by the Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault, and could never top the Flyers in the ’70s. The Sabres history features maybe the greatest goal ever in Dominik Hasek, who wasn’t enough to get Buffalo over the hump in the ’90s and early aughts.

Now with owner Terry Pegula, the Sabres have shown a penchant for doing something they haven’t before. Tanking. That is, to be precise, losing intentionally with the goal of securing the best draft pick possible. When I say losing intentionally, I mean fielding a team that reasonably can’t be expected to win games rather than throwing games. A team that doesn’t endanger the goal of having a chance of the first pick in the draft, for supposed franchise changing player Connor McDavid.

Tanking is nothing new. As soon as you reward losing in drafts, you’ve incentivized being the worst and not the third or fourth worst. And it makes sense; you’d rather be the worst for a little while than be mediocre forever. Sure, being the absolute worst is embarrassing and, well, unpleasant for fans, but it’s worth it if you can get out of the purgatory of losing.

But this has all put me in a strange position. Should I root for them during this tanking phase? Or more precisely, do I root for them to win or lose? It’s ingrained in me to want my team to win, but I know it’s better for the long run if the current season’s losses are the sacrifice for winning a Stanley Cup later on. When I just follow the Sabres, I know they’re better off losing as often as possible this season. But when I see them play, what do I do? Cheer opposing goals? Am I supposed to dread Buffalo goals? If a Sabre makes a spectacular play, should I be happy with the individual effort but not so about anything that brings them closer to a franchise jeopardizing win? It’s all very confusing.

The Sabres are 1-5-0 with a -14 goal differential as of writing, both worst in the NHL. They’re well on their way to being the worst team in the league. It’s clear they have given me no choice, I have to root for losses. A win has to feel like a loss and vice versa. So being a fan of the Sabres right now entails really being a fan of any team playing the Sabres. Which is fine for a while, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can actually cheer for my own team’s wins.

Looking at recent Cup champions, tanking doesn’t seem like the worst idea. The Blackhawks and Kings, the two model franchises as of late in the NHL, have hit on picks early on in the first round. The Penguins won the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes and it’s worked out pretty well for them. You need stars to win championships. You need to draft stars to win. And franchises exist to win championships, especially ones in the city of Buffalo, which has never seen a winner.

The Sabres already have what many consider the best farm teams in hockey, and will have two more first round picks this year. Because of this, I’m not sure if tanking needs to be curtailed in sports. For teams willing to forgo all chances at winning a few playoff games to try to win a championship, it can be the right move. But not every team feels comfortable risking totally alienating their fan base for a few years. Hyper competitive coaches and players need to be able to stomach taking part in a tank job.

Tanking “feels” wrong. It might be the best strategy, honestly. But it feels wrong. Yes, franchises are supposed to win titles. But they’re supposed to “win.” And raking up the losses is tolerable for a little while, but then the wins had better start piling up. A tank job followed by anything less than an elite team will just beget another tank. Teams are supposed to get better gradually and do their best to fill holes, not just sell off everything of value. It’s not fun to actually see the product on the field, which is what should matter. The point of a sports team is more than winning. Since sports falls under the entertainment industry (more or less), sports should provide entertainment value. Watching Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth fish the puck out of his own net loses its charm after a while.

The Sabres losing every day, being totally outclassed by teams on the other end of the spectrum, like a 6-2 beat down courtesy of the Blackhawks or a 5-1 thrashing by the Ducks, provides very little entertainment value. In fact, it’s pretty hard to watch.

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