• Incentives

    by  • January 7, 2011 • Uncategorized • 19 Comments

    Imagine that Joe Nieuwendyk and Lou Lamoriello got together in a bar the day before the Devils-Stars game on February 22, 2011 and had a conversation about how much the next day’s game meant to the Stars. The Stars are in a playoff race right now, looking to get the highest seed possible and make some of that sweet playoff money. The Devils…well, it’s not in the Devils’ interest to win hockey games at the moment.

    What if Nieuwendyk decided to provide an even greater incentive for the Devils to lose the game than is presented by the possibility of having the best odds in the draft lottery. What if he said to him “Look Lou, I appreciated the way you pulled me out of the living hell that was playing for the 2001-02 Dallas Stars and I sure liked that 2003 Stanley Cup ring. You’ve been a good friend. I want to give you something, a gift. I’m going to give you a third round draft pick. And, just because you treated me so well in New Jersey, I’ll make you this promise: if we make the second round of the playoffs, I’ll make it a second round draft pick.”

    Would this set off alarm bells for people? When the Devils took the ice the following night, their interest in losing the game would be even stronger than it already was. Their general interest in not winning games now has an element of a specific interest in not winning this game against the Stars – if the Stars win, their chances of making the playoffs and having a higher seed are enhanced. Maybe you say it’s just one game and it doesn’t matter.

    What if they played more often? Four of Atlanta’s final 28 games are against the Hurricanes, beginning on February 5, 2011. It’s not implausible that a rough patch could have the Hurricanes effectively eliminated from playoff contention by that date. If Rick Dudley made this gift to Jim Rutherford before that date, would that trouble people?

    You can be troubled by this without thinking that any of the parties are corrupt. Incentives are a hell of a thing. As you start to get away from the incentive in sport being to win at all times, you open yourself up to situations being created in which one of the teams on the ice has a direct incentive in the team that it’s facing winning the game. I’ve written a bit about how the screwy incentives have kind of mucked up following the Oilers for me in the past little while – last night’s Oilers-Isles game was basically unwatchable but I was rooting for the Islanders. It sort of tears at the fabric of fandom.

    My hypothetical, obviously, arises out of the Devils’ trade of Jamie Langenbrunner. Even if it’s presented as a fair exchange of value, the NHL should be seriously concerned when this situation arises, where a team has an incentive to lose specific games. I don’t know how you can draw a principled distinction between that and a similar trade between Atlanta and Carolina on February 4, 2011. The NHL should consider whether they want these types of incentives to be created.


    19 Responses to Incentives

    1. Triumph
      January 7, 2011 at

      It is worth considering if the two are divisional opponents, but otherwise it’s much ado about nothing. One of the things that makes tanking difficult in professional sports is that ultimately we’re talking about people’s jobs. Players generally aren’t going to throw the game – they know they’re on a sinking ship, that doesn’t mean they want to go down with it. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that when you are talking about hockey from a meta-management perspective.

    2. Garnet
      January 7, 2011 at

      Just a few years back, I’d argue that the GM’s incentive to lose games doesn’t matter much – that the players would play to win for their own reasons: better stats, positive attention for them from other GMs who might acquire/sign them, and the possibility of more money as a result. But I think guaranteed contracts might have undermined that to a considerable extent. Now incentive only really resides, in games like these, with the marginal players, who don’t have big guarantees and are fighting for their very future in the NHL.

    3. Tyler Dellow
      January 7, 2011 at


      The team can do things to slant the odds against them. Maybe the coach suddenly decides to roll his lines, on instructions from management. Tries out some new guys on the PP and the PK. Gives the backup goalie a start. Dresses someone else. Maybe they decide to travel day of or something.

      I agree that it’s a bit much to think that the players will not try as hard. The team is not without control though.

    4. Triumph
      January 7, 2011 at


      True enough, but the coach generally has his job to save as well. Plus, I don’t think anyone could distinguish the Devils’ tanking from what they’re doing right now by playing Tim Sestito 12 minutes a game.

      Ultimately, the Devils could affect the Stars getting into the playoffs and winning a round by what, 1% at most? It’s not like we don’t see these issues without trades at the end of the season anyway (e.g. teams pulling their goalie when tied).

    5. David Staples
      January 7, 2011 at

      Players might not throw games, but GMs can do it easily.

      For instance, a team could:

      * Stick with Jeff Deslauriers in net, even when he’s horrid.

      * Stick with wingers (Moreau, O’Sullivan) who are utterly leaking scoring chances and goals against.

      It is easy to tank. Just stick with your terrible players, don’t try to improve, deal away a few good, older players.

      GMs of bottom end clubs who don’t tank it are failing to do their job.

      That is how the system is set up. It’s also the system in the NFL and NBA, and has been so for decades now.

    6. Tyler Dellow
      January 7, 2011 at

      Has a team pulled the goalie in a tie to tank? I can’t recall that in recent history.

    7. Triumph
      January 7, 2011 at


      not to tank, but if there’s two playoff teams from the same conference and both teams are affected by the result, i’m saying that affects first-round winning percentages for the non-pulled goalie team. this very situation happened to the devils last year – jamie langenbrunner scored one of two game winning empty net goals he’s scored in the last 365 days.


      i don’t want to digress as i’ve had this argument both here and on copper and blue enough, but to some degree i think people need to remember hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. – subtitute malice for cunning here. to some degree, getting into the ‘tanking’ mode requires a lot of incompetence to begin with – it’s not clear how that suddenly morphs into competence when the team is in last place.

    8. tangotiger
      January 7, 2011 at

      About 20 years ago I think, and it might have been during the 1993 Cup run, there was a french journalist that had as a headline something like “match perdu planifie”, which means it was a planned loss. And the journalist explained that the coach, maybe Demers, stacked the odds against his team by putting in worse players, to shake them up. There’s all kinds of potential incentives to lose now so you can win more later.

      The Canadiens totally denied any kind of incentive like that and were mortified that anyone could even suggest it.

    9. January 7, 2011 at

      I’m not sure how many times I can get into it, but aside from viable roster changes the GM can make, and benchings/strategies the coach can make, how exactly do you entice Kovalchuk to not say have a monster hattrick game on the PP? Or Broduer from turning back the clock a few years and making highlight reels across Canada in a shutout effort?

      It’s like telling a greyhound to throw a dog race: there is no way to tell it to slow down.

      Finally, this post also assumes the very worst in people. There is no evidence that any of the parties involved would engage in competition fixing of any sort.

    10. January 7, 2011 at

      I also disagree with Staples. How exactly would Pittsburg tank? Or Washington? Or Detroit?

      Bad teams can tank because their roster is ALREADY rife with poor players. Wheeling in a couple of AHL pluggers into a good team is not going to make a huge difference in results over the long haul. Bad teams are the same way, in the fixed salary world how different can your roster really look?

      GM’s wear a money noose with the rope made of gate-driven revenues. You think they care about a 5 year rebuild if they are 4 and half years out of that GM job? Not even to mention the competitive, cut-throat nature of the job that requires win-hungry, competitive personalities.

    11. kish
      January 7, 2011 at

      First off, I think we can all agree that there would be almost no way to get players to deliver sub standard performance on purpose (“guys, don’t try so hard tonight”). Certainly, some of them mail-it-in for one reason or another, but those reasons don’t include “for the benefit of draft position”.

      I also think we can draw a line between “tanking” internally (GMs and coaches willing moving forward with non-optimal line-ups and strategies when better options are easily/obviously available) and tanking externally (as suggested by Tyler, dealing parts of your team with a wink/nudge to the receiving team). Another way to look at it is passive (former) tanking versus active (later) tanking.

      I mean, the Oil have $13 million in cap space and an owner who says he’s more than willing to spend to bring about a second dynasty. Maybe I’m just jaded as an Oiler fan, but this seems like a blatantly obvious passive tank job by the Oil to stock up the reserves. Some are fine with it, others won’t be. (I could have done with less sucking to get to where we’re going.) Tambellini probably feels comfortable in this passive tanking, even though its not truly sportsmanlike, because, well, nearly everyone does it. But there is much more risk doing it externally, because the league reviews trades, etc., and might raise some questions.

      Lamoriello, on the other hand, has enough experience (and hubris) to not worry about the perception of “incentive to lose”. He’s done similar bend-the-rules-type stuff before and faced no real repercussions.

    12. Triumph
      January 7, 2011 at

      I can assure you that the Devils are not trying to get the #1 overall pick. While there’s a good shot they’ll end up with it, the Devils would much rather regain some fan confidence for next season. This draft doesn’t look overly strong anyway.

      While I would characterize the Edmonton attitude as being indifferent to winning right now, I think people around here overestimate what that kind of cap room can do for a struggling franchise.

    13. mclea
      January 7, 2011 at

      Whatever the disincentive to win that would arise from these particular circumstances, it would pale in comparison to what happens in week 17 in the NFL.

      How many teams go into week 17 needing to win and end up playing a team that plays its starters for one quarter? It happens every year.

    14. The Other John
      January 7, 2011 at


      Oklahoma City in the NBA has cap room and they continually use that cap space as an asset to extract future draft picks from teams up against the cap.

      An example would be taking Micheal Ryder for 15 games along with a future 2nd or 3rd round pick. That is we give Boston next to nothing ….say a 2012 conditional 6th for allowing them to dump a contract for 15-20 games

    15. Triumph
      January 7, 2011 at


      The salary cap works much differently in the NBA. We haven’t seen any NHL team really attempt the kind of deal you are talking about (a deadline salary dump), which suggests to me that there’s trepidation on both sides.

      Now here’s an interesting deal for you guys, although with the bonus cushion off next year you might not be able to swing it, but how about Rolston and a minor-ish prospect for Sheldon Souray, where both teams end up buying each player out?

    16. January 7, 2011 at

      kish, it takes a while in a cap world to turn around a 30th place team where the key pieces are not entirely movable due to various reasons.

      I don’t think Tambellini went into this season with the idea of nabbing a low pick, I truly don’t. I don’t know him personally, but unless he’s the greatest actor in the NHL universe, he clearly had up-trending impressions of the team at the seasons beginning.

    17. chartleys
      January 9, 2011 at

      I’m still not altogether convinced that our PK set up, or at least lack of adjustment, isn’t just that. I think it would be hard from a strictly management perspective but if you throw the coaches in as well, you could easily tilt the table pretty hard.

    18. Ravnos
      January 11, 2011 at

      @John K

      I don’t think a lottery pick was the Oilers plan from the start this year either, but I also think they wrote the season off as a “development year” and didn’t plug the holes in the roster or make the changes needed to really make the team competitive, even if it were just a race for 8th. I honestly believe they went into the season with the expectation that the team would compete in a couple of years, so whatever happens this year, happens. That may not have meant a lottery pick, but if Tambi honestly thought that this team would be a contender as built, he needs to be fired now, not later, and be run out of the hockey world entirely. Nobody is that incompetent. He knew this team was a loser and figured it was better to let the chips fall where they may.

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