I have to admit, I’m not enamoured with the current edition of the Edmonton Oilers and what looks to be another season of going nowhere fast, no matter what Tom Renney says. It’s not just the eight points that they’re currently off the pace – it’s also that they’d have to vault seven teams in order to get there. There’s currently a three way tie for eighth place in the West – Phoenix has 37 points in 31 games, LA has 37 points in 30 games and Chicago has 37 points in 34 games. It took 95 points to make the playoffs last year and it could take more this year. Even if you assume that they need 66 points, that’s a 106 point pace the rest of the way. If you think that this looks like a team poised to rip off a 106 point pace for the rest of the season, please let me know in the comments and we will arrange for suitable stakes.
By the way – the Oilers have played 19 of their 31 games against teams that aren’t currently in a playoff spot. 33 of their remaining 51 games are against teams that are currently on the right side of the cutline. The astute observer will note that that means they’ve played more than 50% of their games against the bad teams so far. Out of a potential 102 points remaining, they need 66 to get into a playoff spot. It’s over. Already. Regrettably, the best thing for the Oilers is undoubtedly that they spend the rest of the season getting slapped around. I was talking with a friend the other day about how I’m kind of worn down from following games that don’t matter. I enjoy watching hockey for the sake of watching hockey but there’s only so much entertainment you can take from another absurd Jason Strudwick own goal, your girlfriend’s amazement at the hairy guy or calculating how many penalties in a row they would need to kill to have the second worst penalty killing team in the NHL (34, last I checked). All that’s at stake this season is a high draft pick, something that will be endangered if the Oilers win too many games.
One of the thing I like about following sports is the sense that the result of a single game matters in the arc of something larger. If it doesn’t, they’re al exhibition games. I came to the Oilers relatively late in life (1996-97) and was treated to season after season of absolutely critical games down the stretch for the first decade of my fandom. February, March and April meant scoreboard watching when the Oilers weren’t playing, desperately hoping for a positive result when they did and figuring out where they stood at the end of every night. With the exception of a brief flirtation with the edges of relevance in 2007-08, the Oilers haven’t given me that hit since they lost the game in Minnesota in 2006-07 to fall nine points out of a playoff spot and Ryan Smyth was traded. It feels like a lifetime ago.
In three of the last four years, the stretch run has meant hoping that the Oilers lose games in order to improve their draft pick. Even in 2007-08, when they had the scent of the playoffs, they were never really in it – you sort of hoped against hope that they could somehow squeak over the finish line but, for me anyway, there was a persistent voice in my head telling me that it was an exceedingly unlikely thing to hope for. At least there was no draft pick that year, so there wasn’t really an incentive to actively root against them.
The temptation of a high draft pick is a hell of a thing. Having a team that you support is a lot less fun when its in the best long term interests of that team to lose games. You can’t root for the team to lose without it having a sort of corrosive effect on your fandom – at least I can’t – but rooting for them to win is rooting for a continued lousy fan experience, watching a team composed of guys who simply aren’t good enough to do anything more than hope that the hockey gods favour you. It’s not healthy being a fan in this sort of a setup.
One of the things that I really like about soccer, as it’s set up in Europe, is that, as far as I can tell, it’s never in your team’s interest to lose a game. With no draft, the only compensation that an incompetently run team gets the following season is an easier schedule in a lower division. One of the factors that the English Premier League takes into account in dividing up the TV money is where you finished in the table – the higher a team finishes, the more money it receives. If, like me, you’re a fan of a new Premier League team that everybody expects to be terrible, you still want them to win every game and avoid relegation. I watch every game that Blackpool plays hoping that they can pull out a point or three because that’s what the incentive structure rewards. A higher finish and longer stay in the Premier League means more money for the club, more money for the club means that it can strengthen its position, whether through investment in better players or better facilities, which means that their chances of finishing a little higher in the table the following year are improved and the chances of relegation diminished.
Now, this isn’t to say that English soccer doesn’t have its own problems – the Premier League has only ever been won by four teams and one of those, Blackburn Rovers, won only once and even then only because an aging local steel baron plowed a large chunk of his personal fortune into winning the Premier League – it didn’t make financial sense. It may not be realistic for me to hope to see Blackpool win the Premier League in my lifetime, barring the complete destruction of the English economy or an aging local amusement park operator spending his accumulated earnings on bringing Lionel Messi to the seaside to finish off Charlie Adam’s passes. Even so, every time I watch a game, I know that the best thing is for Blackpool to win and can root for this outcome without having to consider whether they’ll be better off if they lose. They won’t be. Every game matters in the broader context and the good outcome on the day always serves their long term interests.
This is, I think, a really good thing. In thinking about this, I started to think about the NHL draft a little bit. It strikes me that it might be a much more interesting league if, instead of the best draft pick going to the worst team in the league, it went to the best team that didn’t make the playoffs. Imagine a system where the team with the best record to miss the playoffs picked first, followed by the team with the next best record to miss the playoffs, the 30th place team picked 14th and then the playoff teams picked in the traditional manner. It strikes me that this might not be such a terrible thing, because the incentive to win would always be there. You might tweak it a bit – maybe an equally weighted lottery for draft position amongst the teams finishing 17th to 21st to ensure that there’s no perception that it’s better to miss the playoffs than to make the playoffs.
In a system like this, every game would matter tremendously to every team in February, March and April. Teams like the Oilers would have an incentive to do what it takes to win, even if there wasn’t a playoff berth on the line. No longer would a team need to napalm itself in order to have an opportunity to become a real contender – the Oilers 15th place finish in 2002 would have netted them Rick Nash or Jay Bouwmeester and their 17th place finish in 2004 would have netted them Alexander Ovechkin. Kevin Lowe’s competent pre-lockout team building would have been rewarded with players who could vault the Oilers higher in the standings, rather than condemning them to a perpetual existence on the fringes of the playoffs until something finally went catastrophically wrong and destroyed the team as a competitive entity.
In short, this system would reward teams and management that actually get things moving in the right direction, rather than reward those that are completely disastrous. The future stars of the NHL would end up on teams that were already moving in the right direction, rather than pissing away part of their careers as the property of management that had demonstrated no discernible ability to run a hockey team. There’s an argument, I think, from a league perspective, that this is a good thing. There’s a pretty lengthy list of stars drafted in the top three in the last decade who wasted a lot of time on teams going nowhere – the NHL should want its brightest prospects to go to teams where they have a shot at some quick prominence in the playoffs, rather than disappearing from the public eye for a few years while somebody tries to get some terrible team in order.
There are other benefits as well. The problem of asking fans to fund five years while your team plans to suck would be avoided, as that would no longer be a viable strategy for long term success. Instead, every team would have an incentive to be as good as it could possibly make itself. If you took over a team that had finished 30th, you would know that future prosperity, in the form of an elite prospect, depended on your finding a way to get that team an additional 20 points in the standings and a star player in the draft. Bad managers couldn’t hide behind the “We’re running a five year plan here” to excuse terrible seasons – they could reasonably be expected to always be working to make their teams better.
The short term incentives would therefore be more perfectly aligned with the long term goals: winning makes you better, whether through playoff money or a better draft pick. While I imagine that this idea seems somewhat insane, I’d argue that professional sports leagues have long demonstrated some willingness to make changes as they’ve realized how incentives affect behaviour, even if they’ve been slow to realize it. The idea that the worst team should be rewarded with a high draft pick has already been watered down in the NHL and the NBA after it became clear that teams would tank in order to get those picks. The NHL has altered its tiebreakers this year to reward teams that win in regulation, after realizing that many teams were playing for a three point in the game.
A further change in the system, to ensure that it is always in a team’s best interests to win, shouldn’t be beyond the pale. While it’s arguable that a draft that rewarded the most incompetent team made sense at a time when teams owned a player’s rights for life and there was no way for a team to improve other than through shrewd trading, in leagues with liberalized free agency, building a team through the draft and free agency, that can put up 85-90 points shouldn’t be impossible. Once you’ve proven you can do that, then you should be rewarded.