Edmonton Oilers

Funyuns: NHL must address growing trend of prospects tanking to avoid Oilers

The NHL Draft is a great opportunity to alter a franchise's fortunes for years to come -- but for some, like 2010's first-overall pick Taylor Hall (center), it comes at the price of playing in Edmonton. (Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Funyuns: NHL must address growing trend of prospects tanking to avoid Oilers
Joe St. Germain

Author’s Note: Funyuns is an entirely satirical column that should never be taken seriously.

The NHL has an urgent problem that it needs to address as soon as possible: watching its top entry draft prospects sabotage their own seasons in an attempt to not get picked by the Edmonton Oilers.

“It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad,” noted one Eastern Conference GM on the condition of anonymity. “Being picked first overall used to be every player’s dream. Those guys get the attention and the big contracts. It’s an honor, for sure … but these days it’s honestly kind of a dubious honor, like winning the Lady Byng or having your mom call you handsome.”

Since 2007, the once-proud Oilers have owned eight top-10 draft picks; they picked first overall an astounding three consecutive years and four times in the last six drafts. With such an impressive bounty, it’s easy to wonder: ‘How could they possibly go wrong?’ Getting a top pick can alter a franchise; getting four in six years could be the start of a modern-day juggernaut, possibly even one as dominant as the Gretzky-led Oilers of old.

Could being the operative word here. As in: It could happen — if the top amateur players weren’t tanking their seasons in order to end up on better teams.

I want you to want me (but I’d like you to draft someone else)

On paper, the talent level of guys like Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012) is formidable. Although the trio lacked the ‘can’t-miss’ designation of last year’s top selection, Connor McDavid, Oilers fans and management were right to have high hopes for each one of them. Instead, they’ve been outshone by players taken later in the first round — in some cases, even the ones taken directly afterward.

It’s been enough to raise a critical question: Are NHL prospects avoiding the Oilers?

“Oh, absolutely,” claims Tyler Seguin, center for the Dallas Stars and No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft behind Hall. “Look, I know it sounds weird, but I figured I was going somewhere in the top three, right? Boston’s picking second, and Boston was in the effing playoffs the year before. The Panthers are picking third, and Florida’s not great, but their state income tax laws are rad. Edmonton has been pretty terrible since the ’80s and their complete and utter inability to change with the times is practically guaranteed to ruin your career. So yeah, I might’ve … sorta … not skated as hard as I could have in juniors. Left a lot of goals out there.”

“If you don’t believe me,” Seguin continued, “go look at my time in Boston. It’s not like I ended up in Dallas because I was working too HARD, you feel me?”

Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, Hall’s teammate with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, agrees. “Look, ‘tanking’ is a big accusation, but I mean … Seguin and Hallsy both finished the year with 106 points, right, but Taylor had the most helpers. Why do you think a guy with THAT lethal a shot was passing so much? He was trying to let Segs outscore him. Hallsy must’ve passed up at LEAST a couple dozen A-plus scoring chances just hoping our guys would miss them. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Thank God I’m a defenseman. There’s no chance Edmonton was gonna take a defenseman in the first round,” he added.

Bucking the tanking trend

In recent years, the conventional wisdom for teams with no chance of making the playoff is to tank for a better draft spot — a strategy so prevalent that most campaigns have pithy, rhyming nicknames like ‘Fail for Nail’ or ‘Dishonor for Connor.’ Perhaps not coincidentally, Edmonton ended up with both Yakupov and McDavid, a trend that’s causing growing levels of concern within the NHL.

You can count NHL commissioner Gary Bettman among their ranks. “With regards to the draft lottery process, I think we’ve really got to take a look at what’s happening and ask ourselves, ‘Is this a systemic problem?’ On the one hand, we want to ensure competitive balance within the league, and the lottery system certainly does that. On the other hand … like, OK, remember how the Detroit Lions had that span of like five years in a row where they took a receiver with their first-round pick? Yeah, that … that was hard to watch. I don’t blame these kids for growing up dreaming of playing anywhere but Edmonton.”

“Not that I want to point fingers, because they’ve got an illustrious history, but I think we owe it to the league, our owners and our fans to help pinpoint the problem. Ours is a league that thrives on parity, but seeing so many promising young careers get thoroughly derailed by a single team, while oddly impressive, isn’t great for the game. We’ll be exploring all of our options to make sure these prospects play their amateur hockey at the highest level.”

Is Auston Matthews next?

As the NHL regular season draws to a close, the bigger concern is that yet another highly-touted prospect might be next. U.S.-born center Auston Matthews, currently playing overseas with Switzerland’s ZSC Lions, is a shoo-in to be picked No. 1 in this year’s draft — meaning he might just be donning the orange-and-blue next year.

tanking

If Auston Matthews isn’t careful, he might find himself the latest in a long line of top draft picks fated to come up with the Oilers. (Photo: Sparta Prague/Getty Images)

“Honestly, being taken in the first few picks would be a tremendous honor, and I don’t think anyone would say otherwise,” Matthews said in a recent statement. “Especially since I mostly went to Switzerland to get away from NHL scouts, before Edmonton discovered how good I am. It’s a little unnerving to have so much of your future in someone else’s hands. I mean, right now Toronto has the best shot at the top pick, and playing for Coach Babcock would be a dream come true. But Edmonton’s right in the mix for that pick, and the thought of going there is pretty … like, looking back on it I probably should have faked an injury for half the season. Actually, my shoulder kinda hurts right now, if you can believe it. Sure hope that won’t be a problem.”

Finland’s Patrik Laine, widely expected to be a top-three pick himself, echoed those sentiments: “You know, what I love about Finland is how similar it is to Toronto,” Laine noted when asked about the upcoming draft. “And Calgary, for that matter. Winnipeg, too. That would be a huge factor for me, to go to a city like that. But really, I’d just be happy to play in the best league in the world, whatever city I happen to be in. Well, unless they had, like, a ton of young forwards in the pipeline. Like, a TON of them. Definitely wouldn’t want to be somewhere with a few first overall picks from prior years. I just would rather go somewhere I can contribute right away, I think.”

As of press time, several other top prospects were seen scanning the central scouting rankings and calculating how far they’d need to fall to feel safe.

Edmonton Oilers
Joe St. Germain
@joesaintgermain

Joe St. Germain is a writer for Along the Boards and man of simple tastes: sports, scotch and silly puns. I also have a pretty outstanding golden retriever that I’m prone to calling “Barkko Ruutu” or “Sidney Pawsby” from time to time.

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