VANCOUVER, B.C. – Gary Bettman insists the tanks are not rolling through the bottom of the standings. Nor does the NHL commissioner think there’s anything fishy about the way the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres or any other struggling franchise is operating in a season in which there are huge rewards in the draft for losing.
That was the word Friday when Bettman made a scheduled stop at Rogers Arena to meet with Vancouver management and take in the Canucks’ game against the Sabres. Whenever Bettman rolls into town, he holds a session with reporters and he was resolute in his feelings about the draft situation.
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.
Of course, that’s not going to be the case now. Arizona General Manager Don Maloney said this week his franchise could be looking at some “suffering” – the same word used by former Buffalo GM and current Coyotes assistant GM Darcy Regier. The Sabres are headed for their second straight season of fewer than 60 points and have endured the longest losing streak in the league in more than 11 years.
“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. ... 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 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.
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 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 also 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.”
Bettman spoke for nearly a half-hour and there was no big news. When the NFL’s “Deflategate” scandal was broached, Bettman joked that it was a relief for him to know all the pucks are the same and can’t be altered.
One new item was Bettman’s admission the league is getting numerous inquiries about reproducing salary cap numbers and calculators as was done on the website Capgeek.com. A virtual bible for fans, media and even front office executives, the site suddenly went dark earlier this month when owner Matthew Wuest announced he had a serious health issue.
The league announced at All-Star Weekend it would be putting many analytics numbers on NHL.com in February, and Bettman said the inquiries about a site for the cap numbers make it something the league may examine.