I've had this article on ice for quite awhile now because it just wasn’t timely to release it when the Flames were in the thick of the playoff race. The Flames will need some literal magic to make the playoffs at this point, even if they win out. So the timing is better now.
Just to recap, this is Part 2 of a 3 part series. It presents a counter-argument to the often heard view that a bubble playoff team is better off doing a "Dive for Five" or "Fall for Hall" and getting a higher draft pick in the top 5 than just missing the playoffs and finishing 9th or 10th. There are three perspectives presented in three separate articles to counter this: the Fan’s perspective, the General Manager’s and the Owner(s).
This article "The Gambling GM" is the GM’s or hockey operations perspective.
Part 2: The Gambling GM
Part 3: Respect the Crest
The Gambling GM
As an armchair GM now, not as a fan but strictly from a hockey operations perspective, you find that your team is in that dreaded 17th-24th placement in the league or 9th to 12th in the Conference. Just out of the playoffs but also out of the top 5 overall picks.
As a GM you have the power to weaken your team for the medium term (hopefully) but do you do it? Do you enact the "Dive for Five" as a GM strategy?
This is NOT the same as the day-to-day operations of a GM during the season. This is NOT the usual buzz we have every trade deadline, the talk of buyers and sellers when the results for the season are more or less in.
This is more extreme. It is a premeditated "blow-up." It is blowing up a bubble playoff team in favor of picks and young prospects and it will have long-term consequences.
You will not be just out of the dance this year but will likely be planning to be in the "Dive for Five" for next season and the foreseeable future.
You have the option to trade your best proven NHL players for picks in the off-season and increase the odds significantly the team will drop to the bottom 5 next year because of it. Do you do it in the hope of a quick turnaround?
Fair warning - long article after the jump
Historical Reality vs Internet Speculation
We see this strategy advocated a lot in the blogosphere but rarely if ever see it happen in reality. I was searching for an example of one in the last decade but I couldn’t find something I felt qualified. You do see a core player moved here and there but I couldn’t find an example of a GM doing a purposeful house cleaning on a bubble team for picks and prospects. If you know of an example please post it in the comments. I'll research it to see if I agree. If an example can be found it would be what I would call a Gambler GM.
Bubble playoff teams do not trade their cores for picks and prospects. Teams decline naturally (for lack of a better term) and at the trade deadline if the GM feels the team is out we see 'Seller' moves at this time. Ottawa is a good example this year.
GMs do not do it early because there is still the chance they can make successful tweaks and continue to build the team up. Why assume your team will continue to fall? If you are going to pipe in with a team age stat, well, we always have the oldest team in the league to pull up to refute that in the Detroit Red Wings. Exception or not the Wings prove what good scouting can do and how good players can be found deeper in the draft.
Iginla was openly and publicly written off as being too old and done and yet again we see him hit the 30+ goal mark and comfortably in the top ten for scoring. Brendan Morrison was scoffed at as a pick-up by many as being too old, a throw away from the Canucks but this old player fit extremely well on the Flames. Players who condition themselves well have much longer playing lives than they used to and we are seeing more and more evidence of it in the NHL. Teams can maintain an older core and remain viable for years.
Who is to say the next Mark Giordano is not out there somewhere that the whole NHL has missed. A late bloomer that just needs a bit more time to blossom. The next Curtis Glencross ready to be picked up off waivers for nothing. Who is to say the key tweak trade is not out there that may turn out big, like the one the Flames made to leave the 7 year dark age by trading a 2nd round pick for Miikka Kiprusoff.
The reality is that GMs on bubble playoff teams are optimists. They are hard at work with the underlying mindset that they can tweak their team better and get into the playoffs next year. Once in the playoffs they continue with the mindset to strengthen, not weaken, obviously.
A Bit of History
I started to research the last decade of bottom five teams and their moves in detail and the article grew exponentially out of control in length (and you thought it was long as it is). I don’t think it is necessary to go through the detailed history to make the point, which is simply that a "Dive for Five" is a high-risk strategy. It is an "all in" strategy that can go horribly wrong, put you right back where you started on the bubble or you can hit the jackpot.
It may result in the ultimate team but it also may result is being a long-time basement dweller with fewer fans in the stands and a loss of tens of millions in revenue over the years. We all like to imagine the big win, that is the safe soother of hope that the fans of basement teams suckle on. Things will be different in the distant future. Is that the rational approach to building a Cup winner? Where does history stand on this strategy?