Gameday 65: Creeping Death

Sometimes life imitates art. With each passing game – with each passing day in fact, when their rivals win – the Pittsburgh Penguins edge perilously closer to the actual end of their playoff hopes, as it is at this point that even if they were to win every game left on the schedule they would still not assure themselves a playoff spot. On the other side of the coin, their hopes for a higher draft pick also diminish as they secure points. Being the professionals that they are, the Penguins seem keen to ignore the increasing probability of missing the playoffs and their chances at a top ten draft pick in June that could possibly help them next season. So it was somewhat poetic that Michael Bunting, the main player who the Penguins received in the Jake Guentzel trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, scored the goal in the last 30 seconds of Tuesday’s game against the Ottawa Senators that tied the game, forced overtime, and secured one point for the Penguins. That they lost in overtime reinforced for at least that game that Pittsburgh is a mediocre team, destined for neither the playoffs nor the high-value draft pick they desperately need.

Now that the Penguins are seemingly incapable of scoring goals at all (having scored just two in their last four games), it seems astronomically unlikely that they will win the 75%+ of their remaining games and somehow finagle their way into a playoff spot that will simply leave them as likely cannon fodder for one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Whether they actually make the playoffs or not, they are guaranteed to lose their first round draft pick to the San Jose Sharks if they are 12th-worst or better. Why would anyone accept either of those fates? Making the playoffs only to be blown out of the water is asinine; trying to make the playoffs only to come up just short enough to lose your first round pick in June is as well. Of course they don’t want to intentionally lose, but a mid-first-round draft pick will probably not be useful to Pittsburgh next year or even the year after. If the goal is to return to being serious challenger for the Stanley Cup next season, the logical if unappetizing thing to do would be to lose as much as possible and sink as low in the standings as possible and hope for the lottery balls to bounce in their direction.

I don’t like this path any more than the Penguins do. Everyone who plays a game wants to win, so a scenario in which losing is in your team’s best interests is obviously anathema. But this is how the NHL and every major professional sports league in North America runs its amateur draft: the absolutely crummiest teams almost always end up with the best players. I haven’t had a need to express this since Pittsburgh has been a playoff team, but the NHL really needs to consider adopting a version of the Gold plan. Why should fans, players, coaches, teams accept that being losers is the best way to ensure your franchise will improve? It’s one thing to be genuinely bad, to have a team that loses by virtue of having poor players, but it’s another altogether to have good players that will only grow disillusioned because they are being encouraged to not put their best effort in. If the Gold plan was in place, the Penguins wouldn’t necessarily have felt compelled to trade Jake Guentzel or Chad Ruhwedel because they could still have some reason to play their best and win every night. The playoffs are almost certainly out of reach, but that shouldn’t mean they have nothing to play for besides their pride and professionalism and playing the spoiler.

Case in point: the Sharks have the worst record in the NHL right now. This game tonight highlights exactly why they have no reason to win: if San Jose wins, not only do their odds for the top draft pick go down, but it also improves the likelihood that Pittsburgh retains their first round draft pick this summer rather than it going to the Sharks. It lends itself to a game like Tuesday’s between the Penguins and Senators wherein neither team is particularly motivated to win. It’s a grotesque situation that should be addressed, because teams are missing out on a lot of revenue they will lose by people not wanting to go to or watch unexciting, nonsense hockey games like tonight’s. Instead, I’m over here plotting to make charts showing how low in the standings Pittsburgh could go if they lose all their games and if San Jose and Chicago and Columbus and all the other teams below them in the standings win all their games, just for a chance (not even a guarantee) at the first overall pick. It’s the same unrealistic bullshit as fantasizing over the Penguins winning all their games and everyone ahead of them losing all of their games, just for a chance (not even a guarantee) at winning the Stanley Cup.

We should really move past this and set realistic expectations for success and failure while providing a reason to play and watch hockey. Until then, what we’re left with is pity for the players who are stuck in this purgatory of not wanting to lose and not wanting to win.