It is further agreed that NHL teams have a nasty habit of sabotaging themselves when the chance to land that kind of player becomes available.
The league was worried enough about the trend that, in late August, it announced significant reforms to the draft lottery process, all designed to prevent its member clubs from tanking to land an especially attractive draft prospect.
Those changes may well be important later in the year as teams find themselves well outside playoff contention, but the ironic thing this summer is that there isn’t much evidence that clubs are setting themselves up to fail.
A quick survey of the NHL’s worst teams from 2013-14 shows a series of clubs pushing hard to better themselves.
In Buffalo, where the Sabres are still early in a rebuilding process, general manager Tim Murray has not been idle.
Up front, pricey veterans like Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta have been added to the mix, while veteran Chris Stewart—a fixture in trade rumours—has been retained. The improvements stop there: Defencemen Andrej Meszaros and Josh Gorges have been added to the blue line and goaltender Michal Neuvirth is the club’s likely starter.
The Florida Panthers, last season's 29th-ranked team, have spent even more money than Buffalo.
GM Dale Tallon has made some questionable decisions, but the team has added more than $15 million in new dollars to its payroll, bringing in veterans like Dave Bolland, Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen.
That doesn’t even take into account the trade late last season for goalie Roberto Luongo, which addressed the club’s biggest weakness.
The picture doesn’t change as one moves up the standings:
- Edmonton was a major player in free agency, signing Benoit Pouliot, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin.
- Calgary added a new starting goalie in Jonas Hiller and veterans both up front (Mason Raymond, Devin Setoguchi) and on defence (Deryk Engelland).
- The Islanders might be the NHL’s most improved team after a massive upgrade at forward and in net. Their first-round pick belongs to Buffalo and thus they have absolutely no incentive to do anything but win.
Those five teams all competed in the NHL’s draft lottery in 2014, and not one of them has had a quiet summer.
The question, then, is why? Why are the NHL’s worst teams busily doing their best to get out of the basement when the best shot at a prize like McDavid is finishing dead last?
The answer is simple: Rebuilds don’t turn on a dime.
The Oilers know this better than anyone. Under former general manager Steve Tambellini, the team’s plan was ostensibly to spend several years in the cellar collecting elite talent and then ride that elite talent back into the realm of respectability.
It’s rather akin to someone with a leg injury planning to spend a few months motionless in a wheelchair, healing, and then rising up from it and running in a marathon.
It doesn’t work because the muscles atrophy. The injury may heal, but the muscle needs constant exercise to maintain its mass.
The Tambellini approach has a similar flaw. A team neglected for years while draft picks are collected atrophies. The supporting cast in all positions needs constant upkeep or it falls apart.
As such, the Oilers’ glorious rise from the basement has yet to transpire while the club waits for its new management team to correct all the little things that were ignored during its neglectful years.
The rest of the league isn’t eager to repeat that mistake.
And there’s no need. Adding a Moulson, Raymond or Jokinen isn’t going to change the big-picture reality for a team. These are players who can fill supporting roles, but not the guys who are going to carry a team out of the NHL basement.
Bad teams are still going to finish low and draft high—the difference is that they’ll hopefully be better positioned to improve once those high draft picks turn into elite players because the supporting cast will already be in place.
Teams shouldn’t—and these days don’t—set up to tank in July and August. Recent history has shown that doing so causes more harm than good.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
Salary information courtesy of CapGeek.com.