What Ifs: To Tank, or Not to Tank

By Chris Pennington on May 20, 2020 at 8:05 am
Connor McDavid was the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Should the Columbus Blue Jackets have tanked to get him?
NHL.com
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To tank, or not to tank, that is the question, that so many professional sports teams face on a daily basis.

It's one that the Columbus Blue Jackets, at least in the past decade, haven't really put much thought to. They are certainly on the "not to tank" side.

They're partially on that side, though, because they've had a fairly successful decade (compared to the first one), all things considered. Now, 2010-2013 was pretty rough, but after that, four playoff appearances in six years ain't too bad. Even though only one series was won, it was against last year's Tampa Bay Lightning, so that counts for like two or three, right?

This is an organization that has sought respect since its inauguration. Hockey in Columbus, Ohio? It seemed like it took nearly three seasons for the common NHL fan to know that a team named the Blue Jackets even existed. And maybe five until they could point out on a map where that team was from.

They had a chip on their shoulder right out the gate - and then, well, time happened. Being a constant and personal punching bag to local 'rivals' like the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. The less than glamorous departures of the likes of Adam Foote, Jeff Carter and Rick Nash. The two playoff wins in 13 years.

The bottom line? The Columbus Blue Jackets have (or had) been the younger brother of the NHL for quite some time. And they were sick of it.

So, it only makes sense that after an exciting six-game series against the Penguins in the 2014 postseason, the Blue Jackets were ready to break out of their mold. They were ready to move on. To grow up.

Yet, more adversity struck when they experienced one of the worst injury-plagued seasons in the history of the NHL. With 19 games remaining in the season, they were 26-33-4, and were hopelessly out of the playoffs. Not only would they have to win nearly every game to complete the season, they'd need current playoff teams to massively tank. It was a pipe dream.

But, we must remember history up until this point. We weren't at the end of some dynasty for the Blue Jackets where they just needed to roll over and die after endless years of victory. We are talking about a team that was supposed to be done with tanking for the time being. They were supposed to be on the rise. They were next up.

So, they blocked out the noise of their playoff chances and earned points in 18 of their final 19 games. The bad news? Those other playoff-contending teams didn't massively tank. 

This, my friends, was one of the most confusing times of my Blue Jackets fandom.

Seriously:

Why was I so confused? Well, the Blue Jackets had some pretty great odds to land a top pick in the upcoming NHL draft due to their bad record. Their postseason hopes were almost mathematically nonexistent. Should they have been tanking to get a shot at someone like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Mitch Marner?

Well, here's where I'm at, over five years later:

On one hand, I loved the never-say-die, arrogant attitude by the Blue Jackets players. They knew how good of a team they were, when fully healthy, and they wanted to prove it. But on the other hand, I think the organization made a huge mistake by not pulling the plug.

Yes, of course, they should have tanked.

I am in favor of tanking. Tanking is good. In fact, it's how nearly every great team that's ever existed got its great players that led to multiple championships.

The Los Angeles Kings, the Blackhawks, the Penguins. They were bad for years, on purpose at times, to get players like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And guess what? They all won multiple Stanley Cups, in huge part to those players.

And here's the thing - no one (except me right now) says "Hey! Remember how they tanked to get those players, though!? Let's not forget that!"

No. We just count the rings.

I get it. Cheering for a team that you love to lose is hard. Being a Blue Jackets fan since 2000, it was so painful for me to see how poorly they started off the 2014-2015 season. When they started going on that 16-2-1 run to end the season, it was impossible for me to not cheer at a goal or smile at the cannon going off. But I knew I was settling as a fan.

Settling, because no Penguins or Blackhawks or Kings fan would look back and say "Man, I'd trade these Stanley Cups for a better effort from our team ten years ago so we weren't so embarrassing. I wish we hadn't tanked."

Now, tanking also isn't as easy as it looks, I'll admit. I'm just a fan. I can't control what the team does, and honestly, sometimes the owners, management or coaches can't either. It's not like those 2014-2015 Blue Jackets players would "not try as hard" if the front office told them to, and I'm sure they don't regret it to this day.

But, still, come on, Blue Jackets. You can sit players. You can rest them. You can bring up AHL players for "experience" games. You can play your backup goalie. No one will blame you. It's the smart thing to do. 

And, just maybe, if they had shipped the season, Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel would be wearing a Blue Jackets sweater right now. Of course, that'd mean Zach Werenski (drafted that year by Columbus) wouldn't be, but I'm fine with that trade-off.

So, what if? What if the Blue Jackets tanked in 2014-2015? Let's just say my opinion is that we could have seen a parade down Nationwide Boulevard last June instead of celebrating a first-round victory.

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