It seems goofy to point out that no one likes to lose. It’s obvious.
If you lose a game, a competition, a debate… Anything. When you feel defeat and you’ve been bettered by an opponent it irks you beyond belief. Even more so if you’re wired with a competitive streak that drives you to keep going until you succeed and then continue coming out on top.
That ability is what drives most professionals in their career. That wont to be the best at what you do and to stand at the top of the hypothetical mountain above everyone. Others may want to go about life peacefully and not deal with the rat race a competition can be, but a lot of people, especially professional athletes, feed off the desire to win.
Winning is the ultimate high and the euphoria that goes along with it is intoxicating. Winning is the dragon everyone chases and that’s what makes everything about the race to the bottom of the NHL standings so bizarre.
Whether it’s team executives, fans, or both, the goal for teams out of the playoffs is to secure the best shot at getting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. For teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, and Edmonton Oilers that means finishing dead last in the league guarantees your team of landing one of them. Both are generational talents and both will make whatever team they land on vastly improved next season and beyond.
To win this race it means losing. A lot.
For the Sabres and Coyotes, they’ve done that the most this season. Now they’re five points apart with Arizona sitting 29th and the race for 30th essentially hanging in the balance based on what happens when they face each other twice in five days.
What’s twisted about all this is that being the ultimate loser this season may reap the biggest reward, the thought of benefiting from defeat is abhorrent to the players and coaches. The Sabres and Coyotes both practiced in Buffalo on Wednesday and couldn’t be more crystal clear about how they felt.
“The guys in this room are proud guys,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “We battle hard and we’re not content with where we are. No one is happy with it. But each day you’ve got to try to bring something better and improve in different areas.”
Gionta is in an awkward position because he’s won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils. He was captain of the Montreal Canadiens for five season before he signed with Buffalo in July. His counterpart in Arizona, Shane Doan, has spent his career with the Jets/Coyotes organization. Losing doesn’t sit any better with him.
“It’s difficult. Like I said, if you’re a player and you’re competitive you don’t like to lose,” Doan said. “When you lose, that makes things not near as enjoyable. But at the same time you’re getting to compete in the NHL which is, I think every, I mean it was my dream growing up and as long as you get to do it it’s going to be fun.
“By no means am I enjoying the losing at all. It’s awful, it’s disgusting, and you hate it, but at the same time you love the fact you get to play in the NHL. You love the NHL and you love the game of hockey and so you want to keep playing.”
It’s a grounded perspective from a guy who’s seen the ultimate in highs and lows with the Coyotes. From starting his career in Winnipeg with the original Jets and moving to Phoenix followed by three years of ownership-based drama to an appearance in the Western Conference Final in 2012, it’s been an unbelievable ride. But the losing and the desire by many for the team to lose is something he won’t accept.
“Nobody wants to be in the position that our two teams are in,” Doan said. “Not one player. Not one player. It’s… You’re embarrassed, you have to be. Nobody ever wants to be considered the worst and obviously both teams are being considered the two worst teams in the league. That’s not encouraging.”
Fans in Arizona have warmed up to the thought of landing McDavid or Eichel at the draft, but in Buffalo it’s something that’s seemingly been in the sights of management going back to 2013 when former GM, and current Coyotes assistant GM, Darcy Regier told Sabres fans, “there’s going to be some suffering” as the team began a rebuild.
That rebuild began in earnest when the Sabres traded captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild. Now there’s a new regime in charge with GM Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan. With the fan base whipped into a fever pitch about landing McDavid or Eichel thanks to Regier’s fateful words and the constant discussion of what it would mean to Buffalo to land one of them, it’s fallen on Nolan to lead the Sabres through this.
“Every once in a while you go through years like this,” Nolan said. “The only thing I can control, and what I talk to the players about every day, is what they can control was: They can play as hard as they want, they’ve got to practice, and they’ve got to work on some of the things. And as a coach, that’s what I do every day. I can only do what’s humanly possible to get the team ready and hopefully it’s enough and that’s all we do.”
Nolan has frustrated many fans by sticking with a hot goalie, be it Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, or now Anders Lindback, as they’ve withstood a historic barrage of shot attempts and somehow helped the Sabres win 20 games this season. At the rate they’ve been outshot and outscored, it’s a wonder they’ve won that much. Yet still, some haven’t been happy that Nolan wants to put his best team on the ice.
“I can’t control what other people think and what other people do,” Nolan said. “The only thing I know is what I feel. And I’m not speaking for anybody else, I’m just speaking for myself. Who wants to finish last? I never went into anything in my entire life wanting to finish last. You go into it with the right intentions and it’s the integrity of the game. That’s the line for me. So you just do what you have to do and feel the way you feel and if someone wants to finish last, then good for them.”
Weirdly, and perhaps prophetically, enough Nolan’s been down this road before in the OHL.
“My first coaching experience in Sault Ste. Marie we finished last, I believe, two years in a row,” Nolan said. “And one of the years Eric Lindros was up for the prize of the first pick. He didn’t show up to Sault Ste. Marie so we didn’t end up having him, but I think here because there’s so much media hype and there’s so much attention put to the National Hockey League, there’s a little bit more talk about it.
“I’ve been through it before and, like I said, nothing’s changed as far as the approach which hockey teams go through. I never met a player that wants to lose.”
When losing means perhaps getting the next generational talent, it all depends on your point of view is when it comes to winning. For the players and coaches who might see their future altered because of the desire by some (many?) to lose, they’ve about had enough of the talk about the positive parts of finishing last.
“You don’t accept losing,” Gionta said. “You’re not content game in and game out coming up short. No matter how close it is or what you’re doing, you’ve got to find ways to get wins. That’s what this game is about. That’s our main focus game in and game out – trying to get a win. It’s not good enough to be close.”