At the trade deadline last year, with the Sabres flaming out in fantastic fashion, there was no shortage of opinions about whether tanking was a sound strategy. A community divided was hardly split down the middle. It seemed the vast majority embraced losing as a plan for winning.
For now, let’s examine the facts. Connor McDavid has 10 goals and 29 points in 27 games this season while playing about 18 minutes per night for Edmonton. It translates to 32 goals and 88 points for a full schedule if he stayed healthy. Only six players in the NHL averaged more than a point per game through Sunday.
And yet the Oilers are 9-16-2 in games he played. They had the NHL’s worst winning percentage, and second-worst point total, before Monday’s games.
They have scored 2.38 goals per game this season, 26th in the NHL. Without him last year, they scored 2.35 goals a game, also 26th, and their power play is worse now than a year ago.
So what does it mean in the big picture?
McDavid is a spectacular player, one worthy of the praise showered upon him leading into the 2015 NHL draft. He has been so good that linemates Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot, before he was injured, have been caught off-guard by passes from McDavid that very few players can make.
He has not been the problem. Like others before him, he has yet to prove he’s the solution.
If we learned anything from McDavid, already among the NHL’s most skilled players, it’s that one player doesn’t make a monumental difference in hockey. Superstars can only help so much when they’re sitting on the bench for 42 minutes per game, as has been the case with McDavid.
Anyone who believes finishing near the bottom leads to success should look at Edmonton. The Oilers are Exhibit A to the contrary.
They had the first pick overall four times in the last six years. Most teams long for the talent they have up front, and yet it has taken them nowhere.
Tim Murray, admitting he couldn’t help himself, was obsessed with McDavid.
The same goes for many fans before they realized Buffalo had only a 20 percent chance to land him. Only after it became clear Jack Eichel was tearing up college hockey did fans tout Buffalo having a 100 percent chance of getting a “generational player.”
Apparently, if enough people scream often enough, or loud enough, hopeful fans will believe just about anything. So when catch phrases such as “generational player” get tossed around like nickels in a poker game, it’s easy for desperate souls to push their emotional chips into the middle.
What is a generational player, anyway? It depends on your definition.
To me, it means a player who comes along only once in a generation or is clearly the best player of his era. There are very few players who meet even half the criteria. Wayne Gretzky is considered by many as the best player in NHL history. Others would argue Mario Lemieux, who was more physical and had less talent around him, was a better all-around player.
Are Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin generational players? If so, why have they won only one Stanley Cup in 20 full seasons combined? Ovechkin never played in the conference finals. It could change this year, but only because the Capitals over the past decade acquired enough good players, and the right players, to win. But there are no guarantees.
The Oilers were in second-last place with their generational player. The Sabres were 26th with their generational player. McDavid and Eichel, both gifted, have met or exceeded realistic expectations. In other words, they should neither be blamed for their teams’ plight nor credited for making a major impact.
Apparently, the game Tuesday between the Sabres and Oilers, the first NHL matchup between Eichel and McDavid, wasn’t all that compelling. The game was scheduled to be aired on NBCSN before it was switched to regional MSG. The decision wasn’t an indictment of their individual play but their teams’ inability to move the needle.
Buffalo has been better this year than last, and certainly more competitive, but it’s not solely because Eichel came aboard. Murray made numerous upgrades, proving there are other means to finding good players without losing. Eichel has been a very good player and could become a great player. I would argue he’s the right fit for Buffalo.
Is either a slam-dunk, no-questions-asked generational player? Not in my book. But that’s what fans were sold, and that’s what they wanted to believe. Some actually thought Eichel alone would carry them to the playoffs this year. They should know that taking the next jump will be considerably tougher.
If embracing the tank was such a sound strategy, why isn’t the community crying for more losing this year? Even though the NHL changed its lottery system and lowered the chances for the worst teams to grab the best picks, doesn’t losing still translate to a greater chance of getting the top pick? Indeed, it does.
Apparently, in the minds of people making such decisions, it’s acceptable for teams near the bottom of the standings to tank in certain years but not others. Perhaps they don’t believe Auston Matthews, considered the top prize in the upcoming draft, isn’t tank worthy even though nobody really knows for sure.
Was tanking only a good idea last year?
Unfortunately for the Sabres and their fans, they’re not winning a Cup in the near future. If they ever do, it will not be because they tanked for a top prospect, whether it was McDavid or Eichel, who carried them to the Promised Land. It will be because they faced the facts, saw the big picture and acquired enough other pieces to complete the puzzle.