Thomas Vanek was traded and the guy he was traded for might be traded which means almost anyone can be traded. It's draft picks the Sabres want, draft picks and young assets. Having never won the Stanley Cup in 43 years of doing it differently, this team is tanking and the train has left the station.
Oh, tanking won't be their word for it. They can't call it tanking. They'll call it rebuilding, a gentler term with connotations less ugly.
Maybe we'll get to a point in sports where the word tanking is used by the teams themselves. After all, it is getting more popular.
Teams are more willing lately to admit it when they're backing up for higher draft picks. They're not as sanctimonious as they used to be; instead, general managers use words like "suffering" to lay out for fans how they see their teams' futures. For years I've said that the last place the Bills should want to finish is in the middle. Now you have general managers in pro sports saying things like, "the last place you want to be is in the middle," as an NBA GM said in ESPN: The Magazine's Nov. 11 issue (albeit anonymously).
Right is right.
Tanking is a big topic right now in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns are two teams considered to be making an effort to be the worst they can be. Maybe Orlando too, and perhaps others. You have the Houston Astros in baseball, the Jaguars and Browns in football. And add to the list the Buffalo Sabres.
I support the Sabres' strategy. The Vanek trade affirmed to fans what for others was already clear, the plan to tank. The Sabres in the arena might as well go ahead and play during the action that shrill beeping sound trucks make when they're in reverse. We can all see it.
Tanking doesn't always work, but sometimes it does, and when you decide to leave your team in the hands of a GM that has tried all other avenues to reach the top, all for him being dead-ends, the least you can ask is that he try something different. This is different.
There is another question worth considering here: Is tanking morally wrong? (I'm using morally in strictly a sports sense here.)
I believe it is.
I don't believe a professional sports team, in competition that the public treats as sacred, should ever be compelled to lose on purpose. It's just wrong. The great author Malcolm Gladwell addressed this in a 2009 ESPN.com chat: "I think, for example, that the idea of ranking draft picks in reverse order of finish -- as much as it sounds "fair" -- does untold damage to the game. You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing."
Gladwell proposed expanding the draft lottery that hockey and basketball use for non-playoff teams to all teams. Randomize the draft order every year, or almost every year. He writes: "First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that's simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization."
This Sabres season -- and perhaps others to come -- presents a challenging exercise for fans. Expectations are being steeply lowered. It won't be a season of comparing the Sabres with the good teams and analyzing why they're not as good. It won't be one of checking out the standings all the time to see how many points out they are with how many games in hand.
Rather, it'll be one of relaxation. Fans will go the arena wondering if tonight's the night they'll see a win. And late in games where wins are possible, anticipation and energy in the building will grow and accelerate. We'll see some young Sabres players improve, and that will be fun too. We'll chill out and talk about the team in front of us with our friends, almost like a baseball crowd would, less intensely engaged with the game and its outcome but no less interested in the team or the sport.