Skip to main content

If you wanted a perfect example of why the NHL has started to dramatically change the way its draft lottery works, there it was at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night.

The Buffalo Sabres looked like an American Hockey League team all game, unable to skate with the Toronto Maple Leafs (!) and incapable of mustering more than 10 harmless shots.

That was a record – for the fewest generated in the Sabres 44-year history and the fewest allowed in the Leafs lengthy tenure.

"I don't even have an explanation for you," Sabres defenceman Josh Gorges said afterword when asked what it was like to play in such a lopsided game. "That's embarrassing."

Buffalo was bad last year, but nothing quite like this. Their 52-point season was good (bad?) for dead last, putting them 14 behind the 29th place Florida Panthers, but they managed to hang in more games despite a lack of offence.

Then they lost two of their better NHL players in Ryan Miller and Christian Ehrhoff and are dressing a group of minor leaguers and kids on many nights. Other than Gorges, Brian Gionta, Cody Hodgson, Matt Moulson, Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford, there's simply not much there.

Only netminder Michal Neuvirth played well against the Leafs, keeping the game from getting uglier than it could have.

At the other end, Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier was so underworked he had to constantly stretch his legs to keep from stiffening up.

"You're just trying to stay warm," Bernier said.

"We had nothing," said Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who had compared his group to a peewee team earlier in the year after a similarly demoralizing loss. "Toronto had everything going. They deserved everything we got, and we deserved everything we got."

Ten games in, here's where Buffalo is at.

They've scored 10 goals, or an average of one per game, and four of those came against the league's second worst team in Carolina. They've allowed 33. And, on average, they've been outshot by 15 per game.

Their possession stats, if you're into such things, are also easily the worst since possession stats became available.

Last November, we ran a story asking if last season's Sabres group was the worst team since three-point games came into play.

Now, they should take that title easily, as getting to the 39 points the expansion Atlanta Thrashers had in 1999-2000 will prove difficult.

The play here for Buffalo has never been a state secret. The organization has torn down in the hopes of getting Connor McDavid, a prospect who has 34 points in 12 games so far in his OHL season with the Erie Otters and who has drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby for years.

With rebuilding through free agency all-but-impossible in the NHL right now given the way teams lock up their talent, clubs have become desperate and begun to view tanking as one of the only ways to procure elite talent.

It's never talked about overtly, but given the rosters teams like the Sabres, Hurricanes and Panthers have iced this year, the intent is clear.

Hoping to prevent a race to the bottom of the standings every year, the NHL radically reshaped its lottery in late August. Starting at the 2015 draft, the four worst teams had their odds of winning the lottery shifted down, including the 30th place team dropping from a 25 per cent chance to a 20 per cent chance of picking first overall.

The lowest they can fall is second, where American prospect Jack Eichel is expected to go.

In 2016, the last place team will be able to slip to as low as fourth overall, as the top three picks will individually determined through separate lotteries.

Tanking has been going on a long time in the NHL. The 1984 draft for Mario Lemieux was legendary mainly because the Penguins and Devils did everything possible to lose down the stretch, finishing with 38 and 41 points respectively.

The crazy thing is the Sabres could finish in that territory even in this era with three-point games that mean the average NHL team finishes with 10 more points than 30 years ago.

Frankly, it's hard to blame the organization. Buffalo is not a destination for free agents. Hardly any marquee names are even making it to free agency. More and more top players have no-trade clauses that allow them to dictate where they can go, which ultimately leaves only second tier players to spend money on, which leads to mistakes like the disastrous Ville Leino contract the Sabres signed in 2011.

Their only road up, given the way the CBA functions, the salary cap and the difficulty in finding talent, is probably down.

But it sure doesn't look pretty on nights like Tuesday, and it's awfully hard on the players involved.

It's bad for the league, too – certainly in terms of optics. The next step here to fix this could be to give all non-playoff teams an equal shot at the top pick, which may be the only way to prevent tanking as we now know it.

The steps the NHL made in August only got them a very small part of the way there, as it will still heavily benefit clubs that aren't good to be bad.

As long as that's the case, there'll be tanking.