NHL Tankapalooza! The Race to the Bottom and Two of the Biggest Prospects in Years

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How appropriate that the 2015 NHL draft will be in Sunrise, Florida! A new day will dawn; we’ll smile toward it and squint. The fishermen will intuit some fine catches coming their way any minute. Adolescents with angry skin will wear hats during photo ops staged on piers and boats or face the ruddy consequences. The slates will be clean, the sidewalks hosed down, the caffeine best delivered via Box O’ Joe.

Connor McDavid was 15 years old when he inked the kind of multiyear deal with Reebok/CCM that inspires scenes from movies like Jerry Maguire or D2: The Mighty Ducks. That same year, the Ontario Hockey League granted him “exceptional” status so he could compete as a 15-year-old in a league dominated by players who are pushing 18. Until he broke his hand defending his honor in a recent fight, he was outdoing even his own already mythical reputation this season, averaging an absurd 2.8 points per game.

Like McDavid, Jack Eichel is that kid amid the older guys, too. He celebrated his 18th birthday at Boston University just a few weeks ago; there are guys in his freshman class on the hockey roster who will hit the legal drinking age this spring. It may be super-early, but Eichel has exhibited no problems adjusting to life in the NCAA: With 15 points through eight games, he leads the league in scoring, and as ESPN hockey prospect reporter Corey Pronman pointed out, he’s been scoring on a pace that puts him in the pantheon of top college-to-NHL players like Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, and Phil Kessel.

NHL teams, of course, can only hope they snag a player like one of those in the annual draft. Projecting the careers of a bunch of 18-year-olds is always a crapshoot, but some crops are more bountiful than others. This is one of those years, the kind that’s been circled on the calendar for enough time that it’s part comical and part creepy. There’s McDavid, the Canadian sensation who emerged from the tumbler of Greater Toronto Hockey League a polished gem, and there’s Eichel, USA Hockey’s perfect son. Their promise is limitless. And waiting for them, baring lurid grins, are their opposites: the executives of teams who have not known success in some time.

We’re nearly a quarter of the way into the NHL season, and while it’s theoretically too early to draw substantive conclusions about the teams that are currently languishing near last place, each has its particular set of excuses, its own tale of woe.

There are the Colorado Avalanche, currently fifth from last after a kickass season that piqued the interest of stat-minded observers for displaying all the warning signs of unsustainable prosperity.1 There are the poor Columbus Blue Jackets, who have battled injuries both short term and heartbreakingly career ending and taken on this season’s mantle as the league’s Eeyore-iest franchise. There are the Carolina Hurricanes, who may secretly be trying to avoid their usual fate, a finish not good enough to make the playoffs but also not awesomely bad.

The Dallas Stars are the scariest team hanging around the bad bubble, because imagining Eichel or McDavid on the same roster as the NHL’s bestest young buddies, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, is simply terrifying. The Edmonton Oilers, who I actually think are going to play their way out of the basement, nevertheless have won the annual race to the bottom enough times recently that it’s now getting awkward. Winning the NHL lottery is like getting married — it’s exciting, it’s a new beginning, everyone looks toward the future and wishes you well. The second time you do it, some of those smiles are through gritted teeth. And when it gets to the point that you can watch a tangential young boy age just by looking at regular ceremonial photographs (I’m looking at you, Daryl Katz’s son), we’ve got a problem on our hands.

And then there are the Buffalo Sabres, a team so bumbling it was left off one recent graphical analysis so as not to ruin the aesthetics of the whole scale. That’s right, Buffalo is literally off-the-charts awful. The Sabres always draw questions about tanking — whether it takes place; if yes, whether that’s OK — but the team is illustrative of how, in practice, things actually work. Losing is, after a certain point, an organizational strategy more than anything; it’s not about players maliciously throwing games or shaving points on the ice. Otherwise you wouldn’t see a team like the Sabres beating the Maple Leafs 6-2.

The league recently made minor tweaks to the lottery math to give more teams a shot to grab the best guy and discourage outright defeatism, but in an ideal world the process would be rigged radically differently. (As Sean McIndoe and I have each written before, there are other solutions. For my money, the Gold Plan is so obvious it’s actually painful to think about.)

Still, when it comes to tanking, don’t listen to any doomsday scenarios or naysayers — or, at the very least, try to embrace them. There’s a specific beauty to the annual game of last man standing that takes place in the league’s basement long after the more victorious partygoers have gone home. We’ll continue to track the shameful developments going down on the road to Sunrise, as the dreamy fog lifts and the reality sets in: Everyone has so much work to get done.

The latest gossip is, of course, about the broken hand McDavid sustained in a bad-idea brawl. (In terms of number of horrified words written, this was basically Canada’s version of the Kardashian photo spread.) McDavid’s unfortunate injury will sideline him until Christmas and further chum the waters surrounding the teen.2 All the while, the sharks will continue to circle him and Eichel — though they’ll resemble not so much predators as they will hopeful scavengers.

Filed Under: NHL, 2015 NHL Draft, Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, NCAA Hockey, Boston University, Zach Parise, jonathan toews, Phil Kessel, Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Jamie Benn, Edmonton Oilers, Tyler Seguin

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes