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Why game theory says the Toronto Maple Leafs should run it back

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Filipe Dimas
11 months ago
The unfortunate truth about hockey, the game we all love, is that it relies on a lot of randomness and therefore luck to crown a champion. It isn’t uncommon for a lesser team to win a game, playoff series, or even the Stanley Cup. Before the 2023 playoffs started, how many people would have expected Las Vegas or Florida to make it to the finals? Hell, how many people were predicting such a matchup even during the conference finals? 
In any given year, it’s rare for the NHL’s best team to win it all – as can be seen by the often repeated stat about President’s Trophy winners rarely becoming Stanley Cup champions. Articles and discussions around “championship formulas” are only ever created with the benefit of hindsight, once the victor has been crowned when fans and analysts can point to arbitrary decisions that they’ll claim are responsible for delivering a Stanley Cup while ignoring all the lucky bounces, beneficial calls and hot streaks that are far more responsible.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that has seen themselves continue to struggle in the postseason despite regular season success, this all acts as a sign that they should indeed run it back with the same core. Are the current Toronto Maple Leafs a perfect team? No, but neither are the Vegas Golden Knights, the current Stanley Cup champions.
While it’s not the message most fans want to hear, the truth is that the struggles of the Maple Leafs are rooted far more in hockey being a chaotic game than any sort of lack of effort on the part of the core four. This sort of messaging upsets people because it can threaten their understanding of the sport they love. If so much of hockey is determined by randomness and chance, why do we watch and analyze it at all? 
Game theory suggests that any sort of game with a high blend of luck and skill requires the competitors to make consistently good decisions over the long term to deliver themselves a win. Let’s look at a far more luck based game as an example.
Everyone acknowledges that poker requires a lot of luck to win, however anyone who follows the competitive scene can tell you that there’s a reason it’s always the usual suspects going deep in major tournaments. The skill in poker is largely based around mitigating your luck, and making decisions that give you the highest probability to win. If a poker player loses with pocket jacks three hands in a row, does that mean they should automatically fold the next time they have jacks? Of course not. The winning play is to run it back and see if the luck tilts to your side this time around.
Right now, the Maple Leafs are doing just that. Brendan Shanahan is sitting at a poker table holding pocket jacks as people scream at him to fold and play the next hand instead because those same jacks recently lost a large pot. Jacks are by no means the best starting hand in poker, but they’re more than capable of winning. Unfortunately, they’re also just as capable of losing large pots when they get tossed up against someone holding Ace King who gets lucky on the flop.
Trading a piece of the core four, who have shown time and time again they’re capable of winning during the regular season, is more likely than not a losing play. In four of the past five seasons, the team Toronto has lost to has gone on to make it to the Stanley Cup finals, suggesting that Toronto is closer to their own finals appearance than it seems on paper. If the NHL’s playoff format weren’t all kinds of nonsense and Toronto had instead lost to Boston, Tampa and Florida in the Eastern Conference finals, would fans still be calling for the team to be blown up?
Every Toronto sports fan praises Masai for having the guts to pull the trigger and trade away a haul for a single year of Kawhi Leonard, due to the fact that it won a championship. What no one wants to talk about however, is the countless times other GMs have made a similar move only for their team to fail to meet expectations and be left in longterm turmoil. If that basketball had bounced differently, and the Raptors ended up losing to the 76ers in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, how many fans would be calling for Masai to be fired and labeling Lowry, Siakam, and co. as not having a killer instinct?
It’s no secret that the success of pro sports franchises comes in the assembling of skill. That said, managing the luck, variance, and unpredictability of the game is also a type of skill itself. For Brandon Shanahan, Brad Treliving, and the rest of the Maple Leafs front office, that means looking at the cards you’ve been dealt and realizing that you’re just one lucky draw away from winning it all.

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