Late last night my esteemed colleague in blogging Steve Dangle asked a question that’s been on the mind of Leafs’ fans all summer, and for most of the past eight years: What is going on? Steve speculated that the Leafs are working furiously behind the scenes to pull off a blockbuster deal for either a #1C or #1G.
I mean, they have to be right? We’ve gone over this roster with a fine tooth comb this off-season and there is no way this team is capable of contending. Yet it’s July 31st and the only thing the Leafs appear to be doing is tying up some loose ends by signing AHL guys like Zigomanis and Fraser. What gives? I think that while the Leafs’ problems have been widely documented, we have yet to do something normally done by the Damien Coxes and Howard Bergers of the world. Blame the fans.
Let me start by making one thing very clear that will probably be ignored by you. I’m not blaming the fans for the on-ice performance of the team. That would be crazy. What I think needs to be pointed out is that we have become so desperate to see this team achieve even the most basic success that we have lost sight of two things: all the changes that have been made to this franchise under Brian Burke’s tenure, and how difficult it is to re-shape a team in a single off-season.
How crazy have we become when the Luke Schenn-James van Riemsdyk swap has already amounted to a footnote this offseason with fans expecting a blockbuster trade sometime before October? I think that there are two cognitive biases influencing how some fans are currently feeling about the Leafs.
The first is hindsight bias which suggests that we are predisposed to see events that have already happened as more predictable or likely than they actually were before they took place. “Brian Burke traded Luke Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk? Oh yeah, the media had been talking about that for months. That’s a minor deal. Merely crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. What has he done lately?”
While obviously hyperbolic, I would say that this approximates many fans’ assessment of the Schenn-JVR swap. It was rumoured to happen, and it happened, thus it was entirely likely. You can apply the same logic to any transaction that Burke or any GM makes. Once something happens we assign fate a much larger role and just assume that it was going to happen that way all along. By doing this we marginalize its importance. We also make the mistake of thinking that blockbuster trades are more common than actually are.
This is a result of the availability heuristic. The more easily we can think of an example of something, the more common we assume it is. This off-season has already given us an example of two blockbuster trades. The Staal and Nash trades provide fans with an easily recallable example of a blockbuster trade. It makes us believe that blockbuster trades are the exception rather than the norm. (Writer's note/Willy Wonka reference: Strike that, reverse it.)
Head over to Pro Sports Transactions
and search through the activity of a few NHL teams. For the most part it has been a quiet off-season. Aside from a few big name unrestricted free agents—Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Alexander Semin, Matt Carle—most teams have made relatively minor moves. Two of those UFAs went to the same team. Most NHL teams do not make a blockbuster trade in an off-season. Wanting something to happen does not make it any more probable.
I’m not trying to discourage speculation, deflect criticism from Brian Burke, or predict that no big move is coming. But fans need to temper their expectations. We all want the Leafs to win hockey games, and we all want Brian Burke to swing a blockbuster deal. But we shouldn’t expect it.