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.