The pros and cons of tanking versus a playoff push for the Calgary Flames

To tank or not to tank; that is the question facing the Calgary Flames right now. It’s certainly not a conversation most Flames fans thought they would be having this year, but with another deflating loss to the Ottawa Senators earlier this week, the team’s playoff hopes are all but gone.

With the Flames getting off to a slow start this season, they needed a major turnaround under Darryl Sutter to get back up the standings. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. The Flames have gone an inadequate 8-11-0 under the new bench boss, and have sunk to the bottom of not only the North Division standings, but also the NHL standings.

With the team now in limbo thanks to a recent three game winning streak, it has once again brought up the tanking debate, with fans on both sides of the argument. Some argue that the difference between picking 13th or 14th is no different than seventh or eighth, so losing games doesn’t matter and the team should push for the playoffs as anything can happen once you’re in. The other side argues the team would be much better off losing as much as possible to increase their draft position.

So, which route is truly more beneficial for the Flames? Is there really no difference between the players picked after the top five? Let’s take a look at how the 6-10 and 11-15 picks have turned out in recent drafts, as well as the Flames’ current playoff odds and position at the bottom of the standings.

Are the playoffs in reach for the Flames?

The first question we have to answer is do the Flames even have a real chance to make the playoffs to begin with? If their playoff odds are so impossibly low, than winning games down the stretch does nothing but worsen their draft position. Let’s take a look at where the Flames sit and if there is still a shot at reaching the playoffs. We will look at a few major models and where they have the teams playoff chances at.

At this point, the only team Calgary has a realistic chance of catching is the Montreal Canadiens who sit in the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division. Montreal currently sits eight points up on the Flames while also having a game in hand.

Long story short, the Flames’ playoffs hopes are hanging on by a thread right now. Essentially the only thing still keeping them alive is the fact they still face Montreal three more times, offering them an opportunity to gain ground on them quickly. If they lose even one of those three matchups though, it’s over.

Given where they currently sit in the standings and the tiny odds they have to make the playoffs, it would pretty much take a miracle to get in. I really don’t see it happening.

Standings at the bottom of the league

In terms of going the other way in the standings, do the Flames have a real shot at placing in the bottom five in the league if they tank? How about just the bottom 10?

The Flames currently sit 10th last in the league based off total points, which would place them eleventh in the draft and lottery after Seattle is added in at third. In other words, they’re right in the middle between the playoffs and a high pick right now, which isn’t exactly a great spot to be.

After their recent three game winning streak, the odds of the Flames finishing bottom five are completely gone, while their odds of finishing even bottom 10 are becoming less likely as well. Teams like Columbus, New Jersey, and San Jose who were once right there with the Flames have been in complete free falls recently, which has pushed the Flames up the standings.

Meanwhile, teams like Detroit and Ottawa who have been much better recently are still well behind the Flames in points percentage. Unless either of those teams go on some sort of winning streak, they won’t be passing the Flames. The only teams below them that could realistically pass them are LA, San Jose, and Vancouver who has a whopping 16 games left.

At this point, it looks like the lowest the Flames could drop barring something crazy would be seventh last, giving them the eighth pick and odds going into the lottery. In terms of going up the standings, they can realistically still pass both St. Louis and Arizona, moving them into 12th last and the 13th pick and odds going into the lottery.

So is there really that big of a difference between picking eighth or picking 13th? Let’s take a look at some recent drafts and see how the picks between 6-10 turned out versus the picks from 11-15. I will skip the three most recent drafts as it’s still too early to judge those players.

2017 Draft

First off, let’s take a look at the 2017 draft. Similar to this year’s draft, 2017 featured no consensus top pick, but still had a handful of solid prospects available through the first half of the first round. Let’s see how those picks have turned out so far.

Picks 6-10

Player GP G A PTS
6. Cody Glass (F) 66 9 13 22
7. Lias Andersson (F) 79 5 6 11
8. Casey Middelstadt (F) 146 25 29 54
9. Michael Rasmussen (F) 95 11 17 28
10. Owen Tippett (F) 44 6 7 13
TOTAL 430 56 72 128

It’s still early obviously as these players are still just 22 and 23 years old, but this stretch of five picks to close out the top 10 aren’t exactly looking too great right now. Of the five picks, currently three of them are playing in the NHL, with Cody Glass and Lias Andersson both in the AHL, though Glass’ path to the NHL is being blocked by a cap strapped Vegas team. In terms of production, Casey Middelstadt’s very poor 0.37 points per game is tops right now among the group.

This season, Middelstadt also leads the group with a total of 15 points in 32 games. The next closest is Owen Tippett who has 12 points in 37 games. Michael Rasmussen has 10 in 33. All in all, nothing too impressive has come of these picks so far although it is still early. To compare, let’s take a look at how the 11-15 picks have panned out so far.

Picks 11-15

Player GP G A PTS
11. Gabriel Vilardi (F) 51 9 13 22
12. Martin Necas (F) 115 28 47 75
13. Nick Suzuki (F) 114 21 47 68
14. Cal Foote (F) 34 1 2 3
15. Erik Brannstrom (D) 54 2 10 12
TOTAL 368 61 119 180

It’s clear right away that the 11-15 picks have had much more success than the 6-10 picks so far. Both Martin Necas and Nick Suzuki have established themselves as solid NHL players, and look more promising than anyone picked from 6-10 right now. After putting up 36 points in 64 games last season, Necas has exploded this year sitting at 37 points in 43 games for one of the league’s best teams. Suzuki is second among the group with 27 points in 43 games this year.

Gabriel Vilardi and Cal Foote have also both spent the entire year in the NHL, while Erik Brannstrom has spent most of his year in the NHL apart from a few AHL appearances. All said, all five picks from 11-15 are essentially full time NHLers right now, with Necas and Suzuki already top six players.

The 11-15 group leads the 6-10 group in points, goals, assists, and games played. Chalk one up for the anti-tankers.

2016 Draft

Next up is the 2016 draft, this draft was very top heavy with the likes of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and of course Matthew Tkachuk. Let’s see how things have gone so far for the 6-15 picks.

Picks 6-10

Player GP G A PTS
6. Matthew Tkachuk (F) 338 104 161 265
7. Clayton Keller (F) 284 67 123 190
8. Alexander Nylander (F) 84 13 19 32
9. Mikhail Sergachev (D) 275 27 105 132
10. Tyson Jost (F) 250 35 50 85
TOTAL 1,231 246 458 704

This was a very strong draft. Outside of Alexander Nylander, the other four picks have all logged at least 250 games to date. Tkachuk and Clayton Keller have developed into all-star calibre forwards, while Mikhail Sergachev is a bona fide top four defencemen for the reigning champs (picked my Montreal, though). Tyson Jost meanwhile, has carved out a roll on the juggernaut Avalanche. Tkachuk leads the group in games played, goals, assists, points, and points per game at 0.78. Close behind is Keller who currently has a 0.67 career points per game.

Even Nylander who had a slow start to his career, finally stuck in the NHL last season with the Blackhawks and would’ve been a regular with them this year had he not gotten injured. Overall, all five picks have turned into NHL players, with three of them being top end players.

Picks 11-15

Player GP G A PTS
11. Logan Brown (F) 29 1 8 9
12. Michael McLeod (F) 75 7 8 15
13. Jake Bean (D) 35 1 10 11
14. Charlie McAvoy (D) 225 23 93 116
15. Luke Kunin (F) 161 28 38 66
TOTAL 525 60 157 217

Unlike the 2017 draft which was the opposite, the picks clearly drop off after 10th overall this year. Only two of the five players have played over 75 games, with only one over 200. Only one player, Charlie McAvoy, has established himself as a star player in the league.

Along with McAvoy, Luke Kunin is the only other player who has played a full season in the NHL before this one. Michael McLeod and Jake Bean are both playing their first full seasons in the NHL this year, while Logan Brown is in the AHL right now. McAvoy leads the way in games played, assists, and points as he has developed into one of the league’s best defencemen. Kunin has also had some solid success, and is currently playing in the Predators’ top six. The rest though are currently fringe NHLers at best.

The 6-10 group clearly has a huge advantage right now, leading by a wide margin in games played, goals, assists, and points. Embrace the tank?

2015 Draft

The 2015 draft was the ultimate tank draft. With Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel up for grabs, teams went all out to lose. Even past the top two though, this was a stacked draft throughout the first round. Let’s take a look.

Picks 6-10

Player GP G A PTS
6. Pavel Zacha (F) 306 47 86 133
7. Ivan Provorov (D) 361 50 107 157
8. Zach Werenski (D) 335 65 124 189
9. Timo Meier (F) 307 85 98 183
10. Mikko Rantanen (F) 324 125 177 302
TOTAL 1,633 372 592 964

Once again the 6-10 group of the draft has turned out very well. All five picks have played over 300 NHL games, as all five players have developed into key players for their teams. Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov are both top pairing defencemen on their respective teams, while Timo Meier has been a top six forward for most of his career. As well, despite the slow start to his career Pavel Zacha has broken out this season putting up 25 points in 40 games so far.

Mikko Rantanen is the clear gem of this group though, picked 10th overall he has developed into a true superstar. He leads the group in goals, assists, and points by a wide margin. All said, all five players have turned into not only NHL players, but solid ones who are important parts of their teams.

Picks 11-15

Player GP G A PTS
11. Lawson Crouse (F) 274 35 37 72
12. Denis Gurianov (F) 132 31 28 59
13. Jakub Zboril (D) 42 0 8 8
14. Jake DeBrusk (F) 235 66 64 130
15. Zachary Senyshyn (F) 13 1 2 3
TOTAL 696 133 139 272

Just as the 6-10 group has turned out well again this year, the 11-15 group has not. Only two players in the group have played over 200 NHL games. Lawson Crouse and Jake DeBrusk have been regular NHLer’s the longest, while Denis Gurianov is in his second full NHL season.

Jakub Zboril made his rookie season debut this year while Zachary Senyshyn’s seven NHL games this year is the most he’s ever played in a season. This was just an all-time horrible first round for the Bruins.

Of the four players in the NHL from this group, only Gurianov has had any real success this season though. He leads the group with 26 points in 46 games. Crouse and Zboril are both fringe NHLers, while DeBrusk has just 10 points on the year after a very solid 2019-20 season. Another win for the pro-tank crowd as the 6-10 group is clearly better.

2014 Draft

We took a look at how bad the 2014 draft turned out for the Flames last week, but the first round presented some pretty solid picks across the league with a ton of top end forwards coming off the board after Sam Bennett was picked because, of course.

Picks 6-10

Player GP G A PTS
6. Jake Virtanen (F) 313 54 45 99
7. Haydn Fleury (D) 171 5 19 24
8. William Nylander (F) 349 100 155 255
9. Nikolaj Ehlers (F) 415 135 167 302
10. Nick Ritchie (F) 339 55 77 132
TOTAL 1,587 349 463 812

The big standouts from this group are obviously William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers. Both have developed into top line forwards for two of the better teams in the league. Outside of them though this group is very meh even if four of the five have played over 300 NHL games. Jake Virtanen and Nick Ritchie are both decent regular NHLers, but neither are anything special especially considering how high they were both picked.

Meanwhile Haydn Fleury looks to have finally established himself as a full time NHLer this season after spending time as a healthy scratch or in the AHL for large parts of previous seasons.

Outside of the big two names in this group, the other three have had underwhelming careers to date given their draft position but have still turned into regular NHL players.

Picks 11-15

Player GP G A PTS
11. Kevin Fiala (F) 328 87 100 187
12. Brendan Perlini (F) 239 46 30 76
13. Jakub Vrana (F) 288 81 82 163
14. Julius Honka (D) 87 2 11 13
15. Dylan Larkin (F) 433 116 173 289
TOTAL 1,375 332 396 728

This is an interesting group. You’ve got three legitimate top six forwards in Kevin Fiala, Jakub Vrana, and Dylan Larkin, and then two pretty big misses. Brendan Perlini is currently playing in Europe while Julius Honka has bounced around between the NHL and AHL since making his NHL debut in 2016-17. Larkin was the clear steal of the first round, developing into the Red Wings top line centre and captain. He leads this group for games played, goals, assists, and points.

Both Fiala and Vrana had okay starts to their careers but have since established themselves as very good top six wingers and key pieces on their respective teams. Vrana also helped Washington win a cup in 2018. Oddly enough both have been traded in the last two years.

This one was very close between both groups, however the 6-10 group has the advantage in games played, goals, assists and points. As well, all five have spent the entire 2020-21 season in the NHL, while only three have from the 11-15 group. Another win for the tank.

2013 Draft

Hailed as one of the deepest drafts ever, the 2013 draft has certainly lived up the hype as it has produced a huge amount of star level talent throughout the first round. Let’s take a deeper look.

Player GP G A PTS
6. Sean Monahan (F) 584 203 233 436
7. Darnell Nurse (D) 395 42 107 149
8. Rasmus Ristolainen (D) 533 46 195 241
9. Bo Horvat (F) 486 136 169 305
10. Valeri Nichushkin (F) 331 45 75 120
TOTAL 2,329 472 779 1,251

The 2013 hype was definitely justified. All five picks from this group have played at least 330 games in the NHL, while four of the five will have reached at least 400 games played by seasons end.

Sean Monahan leads this group by a large margin in terms of games played, goals, assists and points, however the rest of the group are no slouches either. After a rocky start to his career, Darnell Nurse has developed into a top pairing defenceman in Edmonton, while Bo Horvat is the Canucks’ captain and one of their most important players.

Rasmus Ristolainen is an interesting case. He’s been a mainstay on the Sabres’ top pairing for years, logging a ton of games and minutes. The problem is his underlying numbers suggest he’s not very good. Valeri Nichushkin meanwhile had a rough start to his career before going over to the KHL for two seasons. Since coming back though he has matured into one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

This is a very good group of players, and if the worst one is someone who has played over 500 NHL games and put up over 200 points then that’s a good sign.

Picks 11-15

Player GP G A PTS
11. Samuel Morin (D) 25 1 0 1
12. Max Domi (F) 422 88 182 270
13. Josh Morrissey (D) 334 27 101 128
14. Alexander Wennberg (F) 463 51 171 222
15. Ryan Pulock (D) 281 32 91 123
TOTAL 1,525 199 545 744

Another strong group, although not as strong as the 6-10 group. Monahan actually has more career goals than all five of these players combined. Two of the five have logged over 400 games in the NHL, while four have played at least 280 games. The only big miss was Samuel Morin who had only played nine games in the NHL before this season.

Josh Morrissey and Ryan Pulock have both developed into first pairing defencemen on their respective teams. Max Domi and Alexander Wennberg have had up and down careers to date, both having what looked like breakout seasons at one point but then falling off after. Still, they are both decent middle six NHL forwards, even if Domi has struggled under Torts this year.

The winning group here is very clearly the 6-10 picks as they have more games played, goals, assists, and points. Once again bolstering the tank argument.

Verdict: Tanking is worth it

Given the Flames’ current situation in the standings and their incredibly low playoff odds, tanking looks like the much more favorable option. Unless they essentially win out the rest of the year and the Canadiens fall off a cliff, the playoffs aren’t happening.

Furthermore, after looking back at the difference between the players picked from 6-10 and 11-15 over the 2013-2017 drafts, it becomes pretty clear there is a noticeable difference in the chances of getting an impact player.

Breaking down the numbers, of the 25 players picked 6-10 between 2013 and 2017, 23 are currently in the NHL, with one in their rookie season. In total the 25 players have logged a total of 7,210 career games and 3,859 points. This averages out to 288 games played and 154 career points so far.

Conversely, of the 25 players picked 11-15 between 2013 and 2017, 21 are currently in the NHL, seven of which are in their first full NHL seasons. The 25 players have put up 4,489 career games and 2,141 points. This equals an average of 179 games played and 85 career points so far.

The 6-10 group has a pretty sizeable advantage in both games played and career points thus far. The 11-15 picks have produced a lot of NHL players, however looking through the names, it’s clear that there is much more star power among the 6-10 group.

Looking at the two Flames picked in these drafts, both were at sixth overall in 2016 and 2013. Looking at the 2016 draft, is there anyone in the 11-15 group you’d rather have over Tkachuk? McAvoy maybe, but that’s it. Similarly, when we look at the 11-15 group of the 2013 draft, there definitely isn’t a name you’d rather have over Monahan.

If the Flames want a better shot at a future star player in the league, they’d be better off losing more than winning the rest of the year and trying to secure a top 10 pick in the 2021 draft.