Blue Jackets lose to Sabres, finish in 31st place, will draft in the top 4
Plus a discussion about tanking and the draft lottery
The Columbus Blue Jackets lost to the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 on Friday, finishing the season in second to last place in the league with a record of 25-47-9.
The Jackets are tied with Chicago at 59 points, just ahead of Anaheim at 58. Chicago has 18 regulation wins to Columbus's 15, so we "win" that tiebreaker.
In the draft lottery held on May 8, the Jackets will have a 13.5% chance of selecting first overall, 14.4% to pick second, 32.0% to pick third, and 40.2% to pick fourth. (Visit the indispensable site Tankathon for more information) They cannot pick lower than fourth, meaning they can end up with one of three potential top line, franchise centers: Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, or Leo Carlsson, or elite winger Matvei Michkov.
If you're looking for a game recap, I've got some details at the end of the post. But I suspect most of you weren't as interested in how it happened, as much as you were interested in the final result. So instead I've got some thoughts about this whole tanking business. Let's have a chat...
The Reality of Tanking
Everyone has been well-aware of the stakes during this race to the bottom. Finishing last earns a 25.5% chance of winning the first pick, or 18.8% for the second pick. It also guarantees that team will pick no lower than third. Each step beyond that sees a dip in the odds: 31st has a 13.5% chance of picking #1, 30th is 11.5%, and 29th is 9.5%. In a draft class with four all-star level forwards (including three centers), the closer to the bottom you finish, the higher your chances of getting one of those players.
Columbus fans are well aware of our draft history. This team has never won the #1 pick. In 2002, they had to trade up from #3 to select Rick Nash there. The one time they had the worst record, 2012, they lost the lottery to Edmonton. The Oilers took Nail Yakupov and the Jackets took Ryan Murray. In 2016, the Blue Jackets won a lottery for the first and only time, moving up from #4 to #3, where they took Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of consensus top 3 prospect Jesse Puljujarvi.
Getting to select a player like Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli would change the fortunes of this franchise. He would solve the 1C problem, would be able to contribute next season, and be a national TV draw for the team. We've been waiting 23 years for a center like that.
But as much as ownership and management would love a player like that, there's only so much they can do to achieve that. Players and coaches are ultra-competitive, and it's difficult to turn that off. Players won't give less than their best just for lottery odds. What if they aren't around to play with the star? What if he takes their job?
Some players want to hit a milestone scoring mark. Others want to achieve performance bonuses for games played or points earned. Still others are just happy to have a chance to play in the NHL, and want to make the most of it. They're playing for their next contract, or a spot on the team next season.
For coaches, each additional loss is another reason to fire him. Last place Anaheim parted ways with their head coach, Dallas Eakins, today.
Management can tank, however. They do this by taking steps to make their roster as weak as possible. They trade away players on expiring contracts or take on bad contracts in exchange for draft picks and prospects. Any player that is dealing with an injury is shut down with abundance of caution.
Could Jarmo Kekalainen done more to weaken this roster in the final month? It's hard to see how. More and more players were added to the injured list, including leading players like Patrik Laine and Boone Jenner. For weeks, the rosters iced would not meet the preseason requirement for veteran players. This was mostly an AHL team playing an NHL schedule.
Why tanking sucks
Just as the players can't turn off their competitive drive, it is difficult for fans to change their habits. Cheering when the team in blue scores is a reflex at this point. That's why I feel the current draft system is broken. Fans should not be put into the position of rooting against their team's success. I can happily root for Chicago or Anaheim to win and jump ahead of us, but I don't want to be upset if the Jackets do something they've struggled to do with regularity all year: win.
As a fan of the team, one becomes a fan of the players. It's rewarding to see them develop from draft picks to prospects to NHL contributors. I can't be mad about guys like Liam Foudy and Emil Bemstrom using this opportunity to find their game. I want to celebrate players making their NHL debut and earning their first points.
I understand that a loss now can lead to a huge long term benefit. But that future isn't promised. A win happening in real time? That's tangible. You have to enjoy the moment, because you never know how many of those moments you can get.
Columbus hadn't defeated Pittsburgh in nearly four years, and I left the arena last night feeling something other than complete euphoria? That's not fair!
What we need is a tweak to the system which would give fans a reason to continue cheering without reservation. My favorite option is the Gold Plan. This would award the draft order based on points earned after a team is eliminated. It still gives an advantage to the worst teams, as they would fall out of contention sooner, thus allowing more time to collect points. Someone like Pittsburgh would have had just the one game. The Gold Plan would make this a happy tweet:
I know that is far too radical for the NHL to ever consider for real, so instead I agree with this recent column from Mark Lazerus at The Athletic. He suggests flattening the odds for the five worst teams. This system would continue giving the very best odds at #1 to one of the very worst teams, but it would make late season wins for those teams less damaging. Our spot in the bottom five was basically assured a few weeks ago. The results this week would not have changed that.
I know that the system won't change at all, though. Not for a few years. It's possible this is just a weird year, with so many elite options at the top, thus making a low finish come with more shots at that talent. The tanking wasn't as blatant last season, with a weaker top of the class and less gap between them.
Should we change the system? Sound off in the comments:
Fifth Line needs to take five
I never want to be one to tell people "how to fan" but I do have some serious concerns about the discouse in the online portions of the Jackets fanbase. I'm not directing this at anyone in particular, or just the comments here. It's been on Twitter too, and other sites.
There seems to be this perspective among a vocal segment that this is Murphy's hockey franchise: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The stars will get hurt, the free agents will leave, the Jackets will fall as far as possible in the draft, the league would rig it so they'd never win the lottery, etc.
My humble advice: don't get upset about bad things which have not yet happened. If you want to brace yourself for less-than-ideal outcomes, sure. But there are fans angry about losing out on Bedard...but we still have a chance! We will find out for sure on May 8. You can be pissed off then!
Hockey is a very random sport; if there's only so much the team management and players can control, then there's even less that we as fans can control. So don't sweat the whims of the universe. Expectations are premeditated resentments.
This season sucked, and there's a lot that will need to be fixed this summer and beyond. But there are also a lot of talented players in the system, and lots of possibilities for how to build a contender around them.
Is it enough to win a Cup? Man, I don't know. Ask the 2019 Lightning about that, or the 2017 and 2018 Nashville Predators. Enjoy the wins as they come, and hope this team can start stringing more of them together.
If you can't enjoy the ebbs of sports, for your own mental health re-consider how you spend your time. I, uh, probably shouldn't recommend that when I run a site that depends on people caring about the team. But I do truly believe this! Even I have taken a break at times this season from following the team. It doesn't make me less of a fan, it just means I don't need to live and die with every shift if the result isn't as rewarding.
Johnny Gaudreau – who scored the OT winner last night – opened the scoring in this one with a goal on the first shift:
After that, the Sabres took over. They outshot the Jackets 16-7 in the first, and only through the efforts of goaltender Jon Gillies did the Jackets have a 1-0 lead after 20.
Halfway through the second, Jeff Skinner tied it up. Within the next six minutes, Vitor Olofsson and Alex Tuch added to the lead, and the pro-tank Columbus fans exhaled.
Late in the period, however, Tyler Angle got one back on a tight angle (see what I did there) for his first career NHL goal.
Michael Hutchinson replaced Gillies for the third, as the starter suffered a lower body injury.
Casey Mittelstadt and Peyton Krebs scored in the third to seal the victory.
The deployment tonight was fascinating: the top line of Marchenko/Kuraly/Gaudreau played just 10:37 at 5v5, the third most on the team. Hunter McKown's strong effort got him bumped up to the second line with Liam Foudy and Kent Johnson. They led in 5v5 ice time and had a 52.00 CF%
Playoffs start on Monday, if you want to watch good hockey. Stay tuned here over the weekend for a Cannon playoff bracket challenge!
Will there be any changes in the front office or coaching staff? We may find out next week.
The next firm date to care about is May 8, when the NHL holds the draft lottery.
As for The Cannon, stay tuned between now and the draft for player report cards, prospect profiles, and much more! That includes the return of The Cannon Cast next week, as part of the recently launched Fans First Sports Network. We also plan on unveiling our new logo and merch, and more new features to the site throughout the off-season. Thank you so much to our community here for sticking with us through our move, and for being part of the conversation surrounding this team.