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“Tanking:” A Moral Dilemma


Photo Credit: NBC Sports

Scoreboard watching has become a yearly tradition for fans of the Nashville Predators.  The rhythmic clicking of sprinklers, the singsong chirping of birds, a warming of the air.  These iconic harbingers of Spring have meant one thing:  it’s time to start paying attention to what other teams are doing.

In most seasons, the blogs and tweets center around which rival is in action on any given night.  Who are we rooting against?  What scenarios help our playoff seeding?

This is not most seasons.

In the continuing saga of the strangest season on record for the Nashville Predators, we’re introduced to a new kind of scoreboard watching, one in which our motivation for rooting on the cellar teams against traditional playoff rivals has taken on a different tone.  This time, our peers aren’t the teams competing for a division title or a playoff spot: they’re the teams festering at the bottom, with only the promise of a prized new toy at the NHL Entry draft to provide solace.

Most fans have come to terms with the fact that this is a lost season (mathematical elimination from playoff contention tends to aid in that realization), and have even embraced the idea that finishing at or near the bottom of the conference is in the best interest of the Nashville Predators, in terms of salvaging an upside and making the best of a very bad season.  There was a palpable buzz, as Calgary turned in an unlikely victory over the clinging-to-playoff-lives Detroit Red Wings, at least temporarily leapfrogging the Predators in the standings.  Such was the excitement that I found myself using hashtags that while I’m not proud of, I won’t apologize for:

While hoping for victories from our fellow occupants of the Western Conference’s is one thing–a victimless crime, so to speak– it gets tricky when it comes to our own games.  I found myself thinking, “all of this consternation about draft position, how it’s affected by various other teams and what they do–if we simply…don’t win another game, the Predators are virtually guaranteed a top three pick.” Essentially, it’s a reversal of the old adage, “win and you’re in.”  Lose and…er…choose?  Fail and prevail?

As soon as I thought it, I felt a little sick to my stomach.  If you read my blogs, if you follow me on Twitter, if you know me personally– you know that I dedicate a lot of time, money, energy, joy, tears–to the Nashville Predators.  My emotional attachment is absolute.  Because of that intense investment, the concept of actively wishing failure upon the team is a tough pill to swallow, at least at first blush.  The important distinction to make, and the way that I can justify it (as I attempted to do when called out by my good friend\philosophical counterpart JR Lind) is that “failure” is a subjective term, one with many different definitions.

To adequately defend my position, I have to point out that strictly from a standings perspective, this season is never going to be anything but a “failure.”  The Predators are going to miss the playoffs for only the second time in ten seasons.  Out of the gate, there was clearly an air of mediocrity that ionized itself around the team.  In spite of this first-glance failure, there’s an asterisk; a footnote of positivity.  The Nashville Predators have finally been truly awful enough to find themselves in a position to select an impact player at the NHL entry draft.

If the Predators are able to add an impact player, a franchise caliber forward or defenseman to build around for the future, I would reclassify the season from “failure” to “potential success.”  While it’s been painful and trying to watch, there’s a sort of redemption in the knowledge that it was a building block to bigger and better things.  Future seasons will be better and stronger, the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup a little closer to being realized.  Look at recent cup winners:  Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Carolina–all went through ‘transition’ periods that saw them with a high draft pick or two– and eventually they were able to utilize the pieces they attained to achieve the highest marker of success: an NHL championship.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  It’s possible to hope for a high draft pick without stepping on the back of your favorite team to get there.  It comes back to that word, “failure,” and how you define it. Which is the bigger failure: to lose the remaining games and come out of the season with a potentially elite player, one that can springboard the Predators to future success; or to win out the schedule, drop three or four draft positions, and select a “good” player, one that makes for a nice component, but doesn’t make the sort of impact that propels a team from “good” to “elite?”

To me, that’s an easy choice to make.  I can only rationalize that in the big picture, it’s important to view things in composite.  This season is a singular entity, one in which the giant red “X” has already been stamped.  The individual details, the minutiae of the remaining schedule– in the long run, no one will care or remember them, especially if the ship is righted.  Future seasons, however, are still up in the air.  The worse this season is, the better poised the Predators are for success, going forward.  I made several analogies to explain this, but I think I can best summarize it this way: sometimes, when the arm is severely broken, you have to endure the pain of re-breaking it to ensure that it sets and heals properly.

With all of that said, I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  It’s one thing to make these statements in a vacuum.  I can be cold and calculating when the games are just dates on a schedule.  I can say, from a point of detachment, “I hope the Predators do not win these remaining games,” but all of that goes out the window in the moment.  When I watch the games, it’s impossible for me to turn my “fan” off.  I find myself caught up, and seeing a late lead coughed up to the Blackhawks still stings like it would in any other season.  I also know that my attitude isn’t shared by any of the players on the team.  There’s too much pride for that, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.  The difference for me, this season, is that while it’s painful and frustrating to see the Canucks explode for 3 goals in a short span, the edge isn’t as sharp when the game is over.  As soon as the house lights go down, it falls back into the category of “means to an end.”

To me at least, that’s the important distinction.  I would stop short of saying that in game action, I’m actively rooting for the opposing team to score goals and beat the Predators–but at a high level, when I reduce the games to anonymous future or past events, intellectually I do hope for a negative outcome.

Does that make me a bad fan?  Like that subjective “failure” definition, I guess that it’s open to debate and interpretation.  It’s the idea that these fleeting, momentary “failures” will lead to growth and future success that provides me the spoonful of sugar that I need to get an otherwise bitter pill down.

A closing thought– in a way, being such a bad team has galvanized the fanbase,  created a buzz that’s almost as intense as the playoff run we are accustomed to.  The amount of people asking me about various top prospects, where the Predators are currently picking, who can step right into the NHL, what current player a prospect compares to–is at an all-time high.  If the season was more like 2008/09, and Nashville missed the playoffs by a single point, I have to think that the apathy and disillusionment would be present in greater quantities.  The arrival of a player of Filip Forsberg’s caliber, combined with the prospect of drafting an elite player this summer has given the Predators’ fanbase something to be excited about in an otherwise disappointing time.

Have a question about a prospect, or in general?  Follow me at @PredatorialJN , the draft is my bread and butter.  Mmm.

Speaking of, here’s my current top 10:

1. Seth Jones

2.Jonathan Drouin

3.Nathan Mackinnon

4.Alexandr Barkov

5.Valeri Nicushkin

6.Sean Monahan

7.Nikita Zadorov

8.Elias Lindholm

9.Darnell Nurse

10. Rasmus Ristolainen

The notable changes from my primer (found here , if you want to read up on these prospects, so that you too can start getting excited!) are Zadorov climbing into the top ten and Lindholm dropping a bit.

Zadorov is a hulking defenseman playing for the London Knights, and probably the top physical d-man available in the draft.  Since he’s already playing in North America, I consider his KHL flight risk a little less severe than I otherwise would.

Nicushkin has always been a top ten talent (ISS has him all the way at number 2!), but he’s currently in the KHL and is rumored to be tied up for at least the next two years.  Nevertheless, I could see a team like Tampa taking a flyer on him, as his offensive ability will make him too enticing to drop too far.