VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Even in the face of public statements coming out of Arizona and the Buffalo Sabres' franchise-record losing streak, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted here today he's not concerned that the Coyotes, Sabres or any other NHL teams are simply playing the season for draft position.
When Bettman was in Buffalo in October to announce the Sabres were going to host the 2016 draft, he was adamant he did not expect any tanking for teams to angle to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. In fact, he said that day the goal of every team is to make the playoffs.
A little more than halfway through the season, of course, the landscape is quite a bit different. Edmonton had a stretch of one win in 21 games, fired its coach and traded scoring winger David Perron. Arizona Coyotes has openly talked about a firesale and GM Don Maloney even used new assistant Darcy Regier's favorite word -- "suffering."
And the Sabres are well on the way to back-to-back seasons of fewer than 60 points and drawing surprised looks around the league with their poor play for the last six weeks. Buffalo heads into tonight's game in Vancouver four losses shy of equaling the league's all-time mark of 17 consecutive losses in regulation.
"I don't have any concern. Our teams and our players are professionals and they play to win," Bettman said, when asked by The Buffalo News about the evolution of the season . "You see every year when we get to the trade deadline, as it approaches teams make decisions as to whether or not they're in a rebuilding mode or whether or not they have a shot of doing it all. I think anybody casting aspersions on either Buffalo or Arizona is being unfair about it. And frankly, if you look at where the last four teams have beeen historically this time of year, we're not dramatically different and that's without regard of who's coming up in the draft.
"Teams that can win try to win. At some point in the course of the season, you have to make a judgment as to whether or not you're rebuilding and if you want to move some things around or you're going for it all. I don't think it's an issue at all and I think it's pretty unfair to suggest that teams aren't going about things the right way."
An ESPN.com article last week by Pierre LeBrun, however, quoted anonymous Western Conference executives as being very concerned about the optics out of Buffalo. The Sabres hosted McDavid's junior team, the Erie Otters, for a regular season game in October. Earlier this month, former Sabre and HarborCenter Academy of Hockey goaltending director Martin Biron took a job as a goaltending consultant for the Otters, who also employ former Buffalo defenseman Jay McKee as an assistant coach.
Bettman dismissed the story for its use of anonymous sources and said he's not concerned with the Sabres' public wooing of McDavid.
"There's a lottery. You can finish anywhere and it doesn't assure you that you're getting any particular player that you want," Bettman said. "I think people are making more out of the story and it's unfair to the teams that are subject to it. I know Terry Pegula very well as I know the ownership group in Arizona very well. And I don't think either of them would be part of anything other than to have their teams try their very best."
Bettman agreed the league felt a change in rules was appropriate for next season, where the top three picks will be chosen by lottery rather than just the No. 1 choice. But he noted this year, the rules were changed to include all non-playoff teams in the lottery and to shift the odds for all teams.
"Any team can win it," Bettman said. "Anybody who doesn't make the playoffs is eligible for the No. 1 pick. I don't think it's fair, all of this. On a slow news day, I guess it's good fodder but I don't buy for one second that our clubs and our players don't try their hardest."