How to stop NHL teams from tanking

The Toronto Maple Leafs finally led the NHL in something for the first time since the 1966/67 season. Unfortunately, it was for tanking. If you’re not familiar with the term, tanking basically means losing games on purpose so a team can finish as low as possible in the standings. It’s not just confined to the NHL as it also happens on occasion in the NBA, but it’s starting to become a huge embarrassment to the world’s best hockey league. This is because several clubs were obviously trying to sink down the table this season in order to obtain better odds of acquiring the number-one draft pick.

It’s become so bad that fans have openly cheered when their teams have lost and the media in many cities has jumped on the losing bandwagon. It all seems ridiculous though when you consider the Edmonton Oilers have drafted first overall four times in the past six seasons and the franchise is still one of the worst in the league. If Maple Leafs’ supporters believe that picking Auston Matthews first overall this June will suddenly turn the franchise around they’re in for a big shock. One youngster isn’t going to make this club an on-ice winner, especially by playing about 18 minutes a night.

Also, considering the Leafs have perfected the art of losing over the past half century, there’s an 80-per cent chance they’re not going to win the lottery and pick first anyway. There’s no arguing that somebody has to finish last in the 30-team NHL, but something needs to be done to stop clubs from “competing” for the basement. There have been a few interesting suggestions to stop tanking from becoming an epidemic, but only a couple of them appear to be realistic.

Many fans feel the league should hold some sort of playoff contest between the team’s worst teams with the winner earning the top draft pick. However, it’s going to be hard to organize and players who are on expiring contracts aren’t going to be motivated, especially when they could be inured. Another suggestion is to count up the number of points a team earns during the regular season once they’ve been mathematically eliminated from reaching the playoffs.

This solution is also flawed though since teams don’t all miss the postseason at the same time. Some clubs are out of the race with as many as 20 games to go while others may not be eliminated until the last weekend. A team that is eliminated earlier in the season has a much better chance of earning points by putting in an effort once they’ve officially missed the postseason. In addition, a franchise which realizes it has no chance of making the playoffs at the beginning of the season can simply tank earlier. If the team is out of the playoffs before everybody else it has an unfair advantage and opportunity to earn more points over the remainder of the season.

The basic idea of playing for points could lead to an ideal anti-tanking solution though. The best method would be to add up the total points that all 14 non-playoff teams earn during the last 20 games of the season. This puts all teams on equal footing and instead of trying to lose games due to a lack of effort, the opposite would need to take place. If the Leafs happened to play the Oilers in game 82 this season it wouldn’t be a meaningless match with both teams and their fans hoping for a loss. It would lead to a contest in which both franchises desperately need a victory to receive a higher draft pick.  

This scenario makes the final 20 games of the season must-win outings for all of the league’s teams regardless of their position in the standings. Clubs in the playoff race would obviously need as many points as possible to keep their postseason positions while the bottom feeders would need the points to draft as high as possible. Tanking would then become obsolete. Of course, if all 30 NHL teams or the 14 that miss the playoffs had the same odds of winning the draft lottery it would also be a fair system, but this could also lead to meaningless games during the last quarter of the season. By counting points earned over the final 20 games it guarantees that all games will be meaningful.