The Art of Tanking: The Pittsburgh Penguins in 1983-84

While tanking is a hot topic in this year’s NHL, the act of tanking is as old as the idea of granting the worst teams a shot at the #1 pick in the draft. Case in-point: the 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins, routinely considered the most overt of tankers in NHL history. The graph above is just one example of their tank, and man is that bad. The yellow and grey lines indicate one standard deviation above and below league-average historical possession (using 2-Period Shot Percentage, or 2pS%, explained here). The blue line is a 20-game moving average (the orange is cumulative), and you’re seeing that right; a team close to the middle of the pack dropped nearly two standard deviations, or from near the top to near the bottom of the league. That graph, and all the ones below, are just some examples of the kind of tinkering you can do with our new interactive graphs, which I highly recommend you check out.

While the Penguins’ GM of the time, Eddie Johnston, has never admitted to tanking on purpose, coach Lou Angotti said they did, and even recounted a game against the Rangers when Johnston stormed into the coach’s office to complain about a 3-1 lead after the 1st period. It was also Johnston who traded away top defenseman Randy Carlyle for no readily active players 50 games in and sent relatively strong performing goaltender Roberto Romano down to the AHL in favor of the identifiably-worse Vincent Tremblay.

And just what do your rough offense and defense measures look like when you tank this badly?

If you guessed “the gaping maw of a fail dragon,” you’d be correct. They weren’t much defensively even before they decided to tank, but there was definitely some semblance of offense that was utterly destroyed by the dismantling of their top defensive pair. Legitimate health concerns for top forward Rick Kehoe shut him down early as well (he would retire the following season when persistent circulatory issues arising from a pinched nerve proved too much).

Possibly the only guy who seemed to be trying was poor Mike Bullard, a bit of a forgotten sniper of the 1980s who managed 51 goals (a career high) despite a team falling apart around him. He’s probably a big reason why the shooting percentage line is the only one that clings to, rather than falls off, the cliff.

As I was snooping around for more articles on the 1983-84 season, I found an article comparing that tank to the Penguins’ tank attempts for the #1 pick in 2003-04. They wanted Ovechkin, but ended up with Evgeni Malkin (can you imagine them getting Ovechkin and Crosby?). Anyway, I wanted to see if historical possession suggested a tank similar to what we saw with the 1983-84 gold standard, and it’s not even close:

There’s just no discernible tank trend in there for the 2003-04 squad; they simply sucked. Nobody, save the Italian Men’s National Team, would play Rico Fata 18 minutes per game ever again.

I intend to revisit this topic after the end of the season and look at this year’s accused tankers, but you can already get a preliminary idea of the Sabres by having a look at this previous post of mine. It produced this graph:

They might get a lot of flak for playing so poorly, and it’s probably easier to not look like you’re tanking if you’re already bad (see the Rico Fata-led Penguins above), but they have played slightly better than the beginning of the season.

Whether it’s trading players for picks or assets to-be-named, or sending down talent, or yelling at coaches with 2-goal 1st period leads, there’s an art to tanking in spectacular fashion, and the data is no different. It’s some truly impressive acrobatics to see a team drop two standard deviations in possession, and with visualizations like the ones above we can better pinpoint just what kinds of things caused it to happen. Here’s looking forward to when we can place the Leafs, Coyotes, and Oilers under the same microscope.

Note: I’ve since put together another post showing the Penguins’ and Devils’ 1983-84 measures alongside one another to help demonstrate the battle itself; check it out here.

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