The discussion about tanking never really goes away in these parts as long as the Sabres stay near the bottom of the NHL standings, and it got a new jolt Wednesday night when the Houston Astros wrapped up the first World Series title in their 56-year history just four seasons after they were 51-111.
Pro-tankers are quick to hop on the Astros' bandwagon as a foolproof example of how the strategy works. Folks who think the strategy is folly (hand raised here) are equally quick to point out the NHL's overall standing heading into Thursday night had Edmonton, the Sabres and Arizona as the bottom three teams.
Yes, the great tankers of the spring of 2015 still resided at the bottom some 2 1/2 years later — even with Connor McDavid now in Edmonton and Jack Eichel in Buffalo.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) November 2, 2017
Nobody, not even this corner, would have predicted that back in the days when Sabres fans held their breath rooting for defeat and downright embarrassed themselves by cheering mightily for the Coyotes in that infamous overtime defeat here on March 26, 2015.
Here's what all sides should agree upon: The Astros' victory proves that tanking can be the kickstart to a turnaround — but it's everything else around the tank that ultimately determines whether a team has success or continues to reside in the netherworld of the standings.
The Astros lost at least 106 games for three straight seasons from 2011-2013, joining the expansion Mets of the 1960s as the only teams in baseball history to do that. That made them the ultimate teardown, as they were in the World Series in 2005 and won 86 games as recently in 2008.
Then they turned to analytics and stockpiling draft picks, opting to go to the bottom to try to get back to the top. George Springer came at No. 11 in the draft in 2011 and Carlos Correa No. 1 in 2012. They whiffed at No. 1 overall Mark Appel in 2013 but traded him for a deal that brought Ken Giles from the Phillies, and got Alex Bregman No. 2 in 2015 after failing to sign No. 1 Brady Aiken in 2014.
But there were other shrewd moves: Jose Altuve as an international free agent in 2011, Dallas Keuchel as a seventh-round pick. GM Jeff Luhnow then won the offseason, as Rex Ryan famously said, last winter by adding character players like Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Charlie Morton, who earned the win in Game 7 of the World Series. And the GM put his team over the top by acquiring Justin Verlander on Aug. 31.
Those moves have absolutely zero to do with tanking and everything to do with the team's ultimate victory. Go back to hockey and you see the real problem: Where are the other moves?
The Sabres frittered away numerous prospects and draft picks with former GM Tim Murray's trades and here's an astonishing stat about the abysmal amateur selections of former GMs Murray and Darcy Regier: Since the 2010 draft, the only player taken outside the first round who has played 50 games for the Sabres is defenseman Jake McCabe, a second-rounder in 2012.
From Murray's first draft in 2014, no one other than Sam Reinhart has played an NHL game with Buffalo. It takes time for prospects in hockey but none of the Class of '14 seems to be on the radar going forward and that's just plain embarrassing. Kyle Okposo, holder of a seven-year, $42-million contract, scored his first goal Thursday night. Are the Sabres going to be forced to trade Evander Kane, whose play is worthy of big money, because someone they overpaid for is going to be an albatross to their salary cap?
Is Zach Bogosian ever going to get healthy and stay healthy to be worth a shred of the salary he's getting paid? Will new GM Jason Botterill finally show us all mercy and buy out doing-nothing Matt Moulson after this season?
People were quick to jump on the Edmonton bandwagon last year when Connor McDavid & Co. got to Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs. So what's happened this year? McDavid suddenly has no help as injuries to Leon Draisaitl and the trades of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle the last two years, among others, have limited the Oilers' offense. Edmonton entered the week dead-last in the league in scoring with just 24 goals in 11 games. McDavid has five goals and 13 points in 11 games but we saw how Hall piled up points year after year with no help and never saw the playoffs.
As for Arizona, the Coyotes are starting to get the feel of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, who tried to tank for so long and kept failing that GM Sam Hinkie earned the same fate as Murray and got fired. They have a 28-year-old GM in John Chayka who isn't drawing many Theo Epstein comparisons the way his team is playing. That mystique coach Rick Tocchet built as Phil Kessel's buddy while an assistant in Pittsburgh sure is gone as the head man in Arizona.
Did you see the angst on Tocchet's face that the MSG cameras kept catching Thursday night? Hilarious.
The three hockey teams seem as hopeless now as the Astros did in 2014, when Sports Illustrated famously put Springer on the cover and drew howls by declaring the Astros World Series champions in 2017. But the lesson is there for them: Don't just sit idly by thinking everything is solved from getting one player. Or even a couple.
Hall of Famer and Fox analyst John Smoltz called that Astros' strategy "the ability to change their roster for the better" during Game Seven. That's bang-on. Draft and develop. Draft and develop. Make shrewd moves in the offseason and at the trade deadline. And even after all that, hope luck shines your way.
And then if you ever figure out a way to win, it won't be because you tanked. It will be because you solved the entire picture.
Ovechkin pushes 'The Putin Team'
The Capitals are here Tuesday night to meet the Sabres and offseason subtractions have left them not nearly the team they were last season. They went just 6-6-1 in their first 13 games and carried a negative goal differential.
Alex Ovechkin started the season with seven goals in the first two games but has just three goals in the last 11 games. Lately, however, Ovechkin is making far more news off the ice. He drew praise last week for buying a sweater, coat and hat for a homeless man he saw on the street in Edmonton but then drew scorn when he took to Instagram Thursday afternoon and announced a social media movement in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin called The Putin Team.
Личные награды и призы – все это здорово, но в хоккее, как и в любом деле, для победы важнее команда. Только команда способна переломить ход игры, сделать невозможное. В последнее время в западной прессе я встречаю сочетание Putin’s team, то есть команда Путина. И знаете, мне очень понравилось это определение. Лично я готов быть частью такой команды. Я никогда не скрывал своего отношения к нашему Президенту, всегда открыто его поддерживая. Я уверен, что нас, поддерживающих Владимира Путина, много! Так давайте объединимся и покажем всем сильную и сплоченную Россию! Сегодня я хочу объявить о том, что создаю общественное движение под названием Putin Team. Быть частью такой команды – для меня гордость, это похоже на ощущение, когда ты надеваешь майку сборной России, зная, что за тебя болеет вся страна. #putinteam
I translated the caption on Ovechkin's Instagram post. Think it's a little more accurate than google. If you use it, please credit WaPo. pic.twitter.com/MvUTu1VYIP
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) November 2, 2017
"Lately, in the Western Press, I’m noticing a comparison to Putin’s team. And you know, I really liked that comparison," Ovechkin said in part of the post, which was translated by Caps beat writer Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post, who is fluent in Russian. "Personally, I’m ready to be a member of that team. I never hid my relationship with our president, always openly supported him.”
Putin, of course, is a super-charged figure in the Western world in part because of his annexation of Crimea and allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump into office.
"It's not about political stuff," Ovechkin insisted when reporters asked him about the post after a win Thursday over the New York Islanders. "I don’t try to be politics man or someone like that. I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there."
A new wave of scoring
The season hits the one-month mark on Saturday, with Game 200 being Vegas' trip to Ottawa. Through Thursday, there had been 197 games played and offense is up a half-goal per game, from 5.6 to 6.1 — which would be the highest over a full season since the 2005-06 post-lockout campaign.
That 6.0 mark has always been a pretty good number for the league to strive for from this view, and increased rules enforcement on slashing and faceoffs is creating more power plays and more scoring chances.
Now, let's see if these calls and these man-advantages continue as the season moves on. The 05-06 season, which we all wax poetic over when it comes to offense, was at 6.2 goals per game so we're just about at par with that one right now. Last year's average was just 5.5 and clearly needed to go up.
In an unrelated chat last week without the numbers as part of the conversation, Sabres goalie Robin Lehner said the sense of players around the league is that scoring is on the rise.
"It's been a lot faster league this year," Lehner said. "So many more players have personal shooting coaches and are thinking of different ways to score. These guys are so good, they focus on goals that people watching may think are bad goals but that's what guys are going for.
"They're taught from behind the net to shoot for our skates because they know there can be a hole, even when we're on the post. They're good enough now to make that shot. And the whole mindset of attacking has changed. There's a lot more people in front with everyone crashing."
Franson a surprise with Hawks
The analytics community loves Cody Franson, and the former Sabres defenseman is again forging good numbers during his limited duty in Chicago. But with the Hawks still looking for answers all over the ice, Franson is about to get a lot more work.
Franson, who was quite the punching bag in Buffalo the last two years, has landed on Chicago's top pair alongside Duncan Keith after arriving at camp in September on a professional tryout offer. And his analytics are again strong.
Franson has put together a team-best 55.24 percent Corsi rating at even strength and a 62.5 at all strengths in his four games. After sitting out two weeks as a healthy scratch, he cracked the lineup Oct. 28 against Colorado and has put together seven shots on goal and averaged 18:15 in two games since returning.
"I’ve been in places where sometimes you don’t get too much feedback as to why you’re not playing," Franson told Chicago reporters, seemingly making a reference to his last two years in Buffalo. "And it makes it hard to leave your work at work and not take it home with you. Whereas here, they’re in your ear letting you know what’s going on. It’s a little easier to separate the two and stay positive.”
Franson has an assist in three of the first four games he's played this season, including one on the power play Wednesday against Philadelphia that helped the Hawks snap an 0-for-17 skid.
"His quickness is pretty amazing … he’s been good for the power play,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “We like what we’re seeing.”
"He’s been a good puck mover. You can tell he’s confident on the power play," added captain Jonathan Toews. "That shot makes him dangerous and makes everyone better out there."
Around the boards
*Wondering where the big struggles are for the Penguins? Look no further than the second game of back-to-backs, which saw them drop to 0-4-1 with Thursday's 2-1 overtime loss in Calgary. Pittsburgh has been outscored, 31-8, in those five games, which includes a 10-1 loss in Chicago and 7-1 defeats in Tampa Bay and Winnipeg.
Another insane number is 5-on-5 scoring, where the two-time defending Cup champions are an NHL-worst minus-21 (39-18). That's crazy. The Sabres, by comparison, entered Saturday at minus-7 (29-22).
* Toronto's Auston Matthews scored on a second-period penalty shot Thursday in Los Angeles and was stymied by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick on another attempt inside the final two minutes after the Kings were called for intentionally dislodging the net. Had Matthews scored, he would have become the first player in NHL history to tally two penalty shots in the same game.
* The Jets already have three hat tricks this year, equaling their total of last season, and the biggest news is that none of them are by Patrick Laine. Mark Scheifele was the latest to connect, Thursday against Dallas, and he joins Nikolaj Ehlers (Oct. 9 at Edmonton) and Blake Wheeler (Oct. 29 vs. Pittsburgh). Winnipeg had three hat tricks last season, and all were by Laine.