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Point-Counterpoint: Should the Columbus Blue Jackets tank their play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs for a shot at the #1 overall pick?

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Today, we take a look at whether or not the Columbus Blue Jackets should tank against the Toronto Maple Leafs now that a placeholder has won the draft lottery.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The NHL held its draft lottery on Friday, June 26, 2020. In case you missed it, the results were kind of hilarious, if only because the league is exceptionally stupid and bad at everything. Need proof of that statement? I laid out a litany of simple changes the league can make to fix the game in a 1700 word article on the same day as the lottery!

The Detroit Red Wings, the worst team in the salary cap era, will pick fourth in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft after the Ottawa Senators (via the San Jose Sharks) won the third overall pick, the Los Angeles Kings won the second overall pick and

[pause for drumroll]

PLACEHOLDER won the first overall pick!

Wait a minute, a placeholder? So the NHL doesn’t even know who won the draft lottery, the first overall pick, and potentially generational goal scorer Alexis Lafreniere?

Nope!

So what happens now?

Well, here’s what happens next. There are two scenarios that can play out over the next few weeks: one in which the league and its players come back and play the play-in series, and one in which they don’t. If the league manages to balance a thousand spinning plates and manages to get the games and league back to play without an outbreak of COVID-19 forcing a shutdown, the eight teams that lose in those play-in series will each have an equal shot (12.5%) of winning the number one overall pick. That second lottery drawing will take place between the end of the play-in series and the start of the conference quarterfinal round at a date to be determined in August.

If the league is unable to return and play the play-in series, Elliotte Friedman laid out what will happen in 31 Thoughts:

Let’s update what will happen if — for whatever reason — the season can’t resume/be completed. The next eight non-playoff teams are evenly split by conference, as in a regular year. That’s Montreal, the Rangers, Florida and Columbus in the Eastern Conference; Chicago, Arizona, Minnesota and Winnipeg in the West. All would have a 12.5 per cent shot at numero uno.

That seems like complete and utter nonsense. Were people mad?

It is nonsense, and people were absolutely furious! I’m actually surprised Winging It In Motown didn’t burn to the ground!

This really is the dumbest sports league on the planet, isn’t it?

It sure is!


So, from a Columbus Blue Jackets perspective, what happens now?

Well, the first and more clearly obvious one: if the league is unable to resume, the Blue Jackets would be one of the eight teams guaranteed a shot at Alexis Lafreniere. Winning the lottery has not, strictly speaking, been a Blue Jackets strength over the years. The team did win and move up to the third overall pick when they drafted Pierre-Luc Dubois, but the team has never outright won the first overall pick in the draft. So there’s that.

If the league does resume, however, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be drawn into a best-of-five play-in series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. If the Jackets are victorious, they will advance into a best-of-seven series in the conference quarterfinals against a team to be determined later; the top four seeds will play a round robin for seeding purposes and the remaining teams will be re-seeded according to regular season points percentage. If the Jackets lose, they enter the lottery, go home to their families, and go back to personal business as it was during These Uncertain Times.

With some players having young children, children with health problems (like Nick Foligno’s daughter, whose health issues have lead to his involvement with Nationwide Children’s Hospital), and some who have spent months home in Europe, the question is hanging out there - will an NHL team and organization say to itself “playing in this stupid tournament is nonsense and a risk to our players, staff, and families; let’s just lose and go home to our loved ones and a 12.5% shot at Alexis Lafreniere”? It seems ridiculous on its face, but during this global pandemic, it might not be.

Let us together, then, discuss the options: should Columbus tank their series against Toronto to go back to their families and take a swing at Alexis Lafreniere?


Why would the Columbus Blue Jackets ever consider tanking? That’s antithetical to the entire point of playing professional sports! These guys are coming back for the purpose of finishing the season, taking a chance at winning the Stanley Cup, and getting the chance to raise the trophy over their heads, be damned any asterisk that the media and other fans try to affix to it! If Liverpool’s league title counts, so does this one.

There’s the big rub we’re going to have to overcome for this discussion: would a player, or team, ever decide that a chance at winning the number one draft pick is worth more than a chance at winning the Stanley Cup? Under ordinary circumstances, no - a playoff team would never, ever do that. The idea is laughable on its face. In this single scenario in calendar year 2020, however, with a global pandemic still ravaging the United States as cases spike and the debate over wearing a mask becomes unnecessarily political due to incompetent leadership, it might be.

We have at least one example of this already, in the NBA. Avery Bradley of the Lakers, a championship favorite, has decided he would not rejoin his team in the Orlando bubble, citing family reasons due to his son’s respiratory condition. Frankly, that makes complete sense. When it comes to winning a championship versus risking the life of your young child when a respiratory pandemic is ripping uncontrolled across the country, Bradley is doing the right thing staying home and protecting his family. In a teamwide example, the Orlando Pride of the NWSL opted out of the league’s restart challenge after six players tested positive, plus some of the team staff. It is not unheard of for teams and players to prioritize health and safety over a shot a championship as we collectively face this pandemic.

It has been reported that upwards of 17% of the league’s players have returned to Europe during the shutdown. Players will eventually have to start making their way back - if they want to play. Reported by Elliotte Friedman, the NHL is working on language that will allow players to opt out of retuning. At this time, the language has not been finalized.

The NHL and NHLPA are working on opt-out language for anyone who may feel uncomfortable about playing. But part of their pitch might be that the bubble will be safer than parts of North America. In some places, it looks like social distancing no longer exists.

Among Blue Jackets, at least All Star goaltender Joonas Korpisalo returned to Europe during the shutout. Should he come back to North America, where cases are spiking? What about Cam Atkinson, who has two children under four - is it fair to ask him to leave his family and potentially expose himself to risk? Or Nick Foligno, whose daughter has a preexisting health condition, similar to Avery Bradley’s son? This decision is extremely personal and I would hope no fan faults a player who elects to protect his family during this scenario.

Sure, but the guys who come back have weighed that decision and decided to play. No one is going to say “Let’s take the loss and turn down a chance at the Stanley Cup.”

Honestly, probably not. The players who line up against the Toronto Maple Leafs will have weighed their options, trained and returned to as close to NHL game and season shape as possible during the pandemic, and decided to go for the Stanley Cup. It would be extremely unlikely for any of those players to decide, after all of that work, to decide not to give the tournament their all in the service of potentially winning the Stanley Cup.

But what if some players do not come back? Imagine if Joonas Korpisalo does not return - the team will be down one half of its starting goaltending tandem. Is it reasonable to expect Nick Foligno to risk the health of his daughter and son - both of whom have had health issues - to return to play and potentially put himself and his family risk? What about Cam Atkinson, who has a newborn child - is he out of bounds opting to stay home and protect his family? No fan could blame any of those players in that situation.

If those players opt out, however, Columbus would undoubtedly be left shorthanded for their play-in series - down their captain, longest tenured goalscoring threat, and All Star goaltender.

Yes, but look at the players who are coming back: Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand are healthy and ready to return to play; they’ve been skating in Nationwide Arena in small groups already. Elvis Merzlikins is practicing and it is well known how much of a hyper-competitive hockey player he is. Are you really going to tell me those guys are going to lay down when there’s a chance at the Stanley Cup on the line? Come on! It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs! These guys work their entire lives to get to this point - there’s just no way these guys would lay down for a chance at a player to come in and take someone else’s job.

Of course, that’s unrealistic to ask. Players are not known for tanking in any scenario. Even on the worst teams, players go out and give their best effort most every night. When those teams struggle, it can affect players’ psyches.

But these are not normal times. Players haven’t yet approved the return to play, nor finalized the location of the hubs. It is unclear if they could have visitors, bring family with them into the bubble, or do anything except go from the hotel to the rink over the three months of the playoffs. Players might weigh those options and decide that playing in these playoffs (which could get paused by an outbreak at any time) is not worth it.

Going home quickly could be an enticing proposition for players and teams.

Sure, but is Alexis Lafreniere worth it?

Lafreniere is the consensus number one overall pick in the upcoming draft. Born in the province of Quebec, Lafreniere has been described as:

Lafreniere attacks the net, has some physicality in his game and gets a lot of goals in the dirty areas, Corey Pronman - The Athletic2019

high-impact forward … can control and dominate games … corrals bad passes with ease … great hands … makes smart decisions quickly, ISS Hockey 2017

Lafreniere posted 35-77-112 in 52 games in the QMJHL this past season. In his QMJHL career, he played 173 games, scored 297 points (114-183) for 1.72 points per game. Playing for Canada in the U20 World Junior Championship, he posted 4-6-10 in just five games played.

Lafreniere is expected to be a dynamite forward in the NHL.

So, guys could go home to their families sooner, perhaps add a dynamo playmaker to a young team that could help push the team to Stanley Cup contention for years to come, and all they’d have to do to get there is lose three of five games to one of the most skilled forward groups in the National Hockey League?

Yep! Pretty easy right?

There’s no way that happens, is there?

No chance in hell. Torts and the leadership group are too prideful and have a “nobody believes in us” chip on their shoulder. This team is going to do what it did against the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring - aggressively forecheck, limit events in the defensive zone, and make opponents fight for every inch on the ice and see how far that process takes them.

So what was the point of this?

Dreaming about Alexis Lafreniere and Pierre-Luc Dubois on the same line is fun, okay. Give me that.