The Wild won a game Sunday, which, oddly, probably made a segment of its fan base groan. A miserable start to the season already has some calling for a full-fledged tanking campaign.
Apparently, reasonable people who love hockey and make an emotional investment in the Wild would cheer an 0-82 season if the tradeoff was the No. 1 draft pick as cornerstone to a rebuild.
This isn’t a straw man argument, either. You hear it in conversations and read it on social media. The idea of tanking and what it might produce is seductive to those bored with the Wild’s good-but-not-good-enough spin cycle.
Can we give the season more than 15 minutes before turning the page?
To be sure, the team’s warts have been exposed in plain view. An aging roster looks slow. The team lacks scoring punch. The Wild just doesn’t look equipped to hang with the best teams in the Western Conference over the long haul.
Maybe that ultimately will be the conclusion, that the Wild is one of the worst teams in the NHL. Or maybe it will finish middle of the pack. Or perhaps the Wild will shock everyone and regroup enough to contend for a playoff spot, as unrealistic as that option looks right now.
Let it happen organically, as it will. Heck, an obvious tank job might not be necessary to accomplish the same end game. But this trend of tanking in sports reeks of rotten eggs.
I get it, the premise is baked in logic. If your team is going to be bad, it might as well be embarrassingly bad to ensure a payoff in the form of a high draft pick.
But it’s also an insult to players in the locker room and to fans who make a significant investment in supporting that team. Maybe some wouldn’t care or might even applaud purposeful losing, but assuredly others maintain an expectation that their team will follow Herman Edwards’ infamous golden rule: “You play to win the game.”
An NHL season already feels excruciatingly long. It’s like Midwest weather. It covers all four seasons. Can you imagine watching a team that has no meaningful intention of winning sabotage itself game after game after game?
Sure, landing the No. 1 overall pick would be exciting and might change an organization’s fortunes. But it also might not. Nothing is ironclad guaranteed.
Wild veteran Marcus Foligno lived through a tanking season with the Buffalo Sabres during the Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel draft sweepstakes. Buffalo and Phoenix were in a spirited race to last place, creating a situation in which Sabres fans actually cheered for the visiting Coyotes when the two teams played a game in Buffalo.
“When you’re in that position,” Foligno said Monday, “it gets pretty tough to will yourself out of it and be mentally tough.”
Foligno noted that elite prospects receive so much attention these days that teams — and by extension, media and fans — start envisioning dream scenarios. He gets it. He also understands that players are responsible for creating those urges to gaze into the future by playing poorly in the first place.
“If you know that your team is not going to win the Stanley Cup that year, fans are thinking let’s rebuild it,” Foligno said. “It’s not what the mentality is inside every NHL room because everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup. It’s our job to make sure that our fans are supporting us in the winning ways.”
No doubt this is a tricky situation for Wild owner Craig Leipold and new GM Bill Guerin. The roster is a tangled web of crippling contracts and ill-fitting pieces. Fixing it will require a sledgehammer more than scissor tweaks.
And for those who didn’t notice, the Wild’s regular-season sellout streak at Xcel Energy Center ended at 230 games Sunday. Fan apathy scares organizations more than anything.
The Wild played better Sunday in beating Montreal 4-3, but as coach Bruce Boudreau noted, it’s one victory. The team needs to string victories together before anyone can feel more optimistic.
Can this season be salvaged to a meaningful degree? Don’t know, but doesn’t look promising. But I’ll never agree with the idea of a team willfully scheming to make sure that it fails.