Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Sports Fandom is a Breeding Ground for Irrational Thought

I've been meaning to write about hockey in general, and the Canucks specifically for about two months now. Obviously it hasn't happened yet until today.

It has been a crazy few years to be a Canucks fan and its kind of hard at the moment to not think that this past weekend had to be the turning point one way or the other - and its kind of hard to imagine the good version, but I'm going to try.

I'll be the first to admit that my view of my team is perpetually rosy, and that by many measures it is hard to see an argument that justifies that position.  But I also try to be level headed and rational - which is something that if you read much fan commentary is a very spare commodity.

Pulling just a few comments that I've read just this morning:

 - "Luongo is a terrible goalie and has nothing to show for it."
Dubious grammar aside.  This one is just flat out wrong.  Hockey-reference.com as of this writing has Luongo ranked as #25 of all-time. His GAA is in the top third of active goalies. He is #2 of all active goaltenders in shut-outs (of course Brodeur is #1 and has nearly twice the number of SOs.) which isn't so much a measure of current quality, but you don't reach that point without a heap of talent. He is also second in wins (again Brodeur - arguably the greatest goaltender to ever live - is first.) His save percentage - third.
I'm sorry - no, I take that back... "Luongo is a terrible goalie" is such an asinine statement that I have nothing to be sorry for when I say that anyone who says that is egregiously wrong.
As to the second half - "has nothing to show for it."  Again, this is wrong.  If the commenter wants to amend that to "has no Stanley Cup to show for it" - which does seem to be the subtext of most comments along this line - then they are correct.  But that is not what they wrote.  Luongo has a Jennings trophy.  The Canucks won two President's Trophies with him in the pipes as well as winning the Western Conference finals once and topping their division every year since 2009.
And of course at the 2010 Oly...
The commenter continues: "You can't count the gold medal."
Uh.... why not?  Because it is the biggest single piece of evidence disproving your claim that he has nothing to show for it?  I suspect that yes, that is the reason for the commenter's cherry-picking of facts.  But the reasons they present are that 1) "its not the NHL"; and 2) "he let in a clunky goal at the end of the third requiring the Canadian team to win in OT."  My short hand argument to both assertions is "so fucking what?" But in the interest of rational discourse I shall elaborate.  1) The discussion is whether Luongo is a terrible goalie or not. Under which umbrella he is a good (or great) goal-tender has nothing to do with the overall question.  Eliminating the data of the olympics is like ignoring the results of one scientific study over another - simply because you don't agree with the results of the one you are discounting.  2) I don't recall anywhere in any hockey rule-book there being a rule about how almost losing is the same as losing.  I've said it a million times it seems, but the goalie's job is to stop one more puck than his competitor at the opposite end of the rink.  If he does better than that, great.  Other than that it doesn't matter when, where or how.
As to "clunky?" There is a heap of traffic in front of that net, including two US players behind the Canadian defense.

The entire argument also wilfully ignores the game-saving stops Luongo did make in the contest - including a doozy in the extra period.

None of this means that I don't think Luongo has his issues. He has shown a propensity for emotional fragility. He has blown more high-pressure games than he has won (but the reality is that in any given year 29 of the teams in the league do so). He did stink up one too many games in the 2011 Stanley Cup final. But he was also brilliant in that series too.  Only two goaltenders have ever posted two shutouts in a Cup final series.  Luongo and Tim Thomas - both in the same series.  Overall, he did fail the "stop one more goal than your rival" test in the final.  But he got us to that final, and the other side of the coin, in order to "stop one more goal than your rival" your team has to score - and that was something that the skaters largely failed at in the games the Canucks lost in that series (game six is the only game that really could have been saved by better goal-tending if you really want to be honest about it.)  For that matter, if you look at the four games of the 2013 first round sweep of the Canucks by the Sharks, Luongo was the better goalie in the playoffs, and in the games he played was actually the best player on the ice for the Canucks.  Yes, it was a sweep.  But most of those games were a lot closer than the series outcome implies.  I'm not going to break it down, but no less than two of those games were lost to either a bad play by Canucks skaters or unbelievably bad calls by the officials.  No reason to make the goalies the scapegoats - or worse yet, make one goalie a scapegoat for circumstances outside of their control, but not do the same for the other.

 - "The Canucks will never win the Cup because they've never won the Cup."
Where do you start with this one?  There is no causal relationship here.  Yet, this statement and similar sentiments are remarkably common.  "The Canucks suck because they have never won the Cup."  Uh... what?  I would love for the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup - and I have total faith that they will some day - but "they suck because they have never won the Cup" can only be one of two things.  Trolling, or a pretty astounding lack of appreciation for the actual game.  A lot of great teams have failed to win the cup in any given year.  There is ALWAYS more than one worthy team in the playoffs, but only one ever hoists the hardware.  The Canucks have been a pretty great team for most of the last dozen years, and it really sucks that they haven't managed to go all the way in that time (or ever), but that doesn't actually make them a bad team. (Not to beat a dead-horse, but if it DID mean they were a bad team, then conversely there would only ever be one good team int he league in any given season.)  Statistically speaking they are behind the curve.  42 years in a league with 14-30 teams, they ought to have won the Cup by now.  But you can say the same for Buffalo who entered the league the same year and have only made it to the final once. Worse yet, you can say the same of St. Louis who had an extra three years, made it to the Cup finals each of their first three years (due to the NHL equivalent of affirmative action - where the playoffs set the expansion teams against the O6 teams, so one expansion team was destined to play in the final) and have not come closer than the conference finals (twice) in the 42 years since.

- "The Devils become an instant contender with Schneider."
Wow.  This HAS to be a poe.  HAS TO BE.
You almost have to know absolutely nothing about hockey to say something this dumb. In fact, if you've bothered to read this far, I probably don't even have to explain how barking this is.  But in a sentence... Martin Brodeur (arguably the best goalie of all-time - see above) has been between the pipes for NJ forever, winning two Cups and taking the team to the final two other times - INCLUDING LAST YEAR.
Schneider will be good for the Devils' future, 'cause Marty is going to wake up one day in the next 24 months and very suddenly have become a mortal being. Quality tends to turn over fast for goalies.  Schneider will be there to catch the team when Brodeur hangs up his jersey, but he isn't making them a contender.

And so it seems I have inadvertently transitioned into the Schneider trade...

I was as shocked as anyone.

Disappointed even.

But upon sober reflection, I don't think there was another way.
I (obviously) am a Luongo proponent, but when Cory took over in the 2012 LA/Van series I "knew" it was over, and thought that for the good of all, that it should be. Luongo would be better off being moved, the team would have a change that could be mentally circled around for a morale boost, and the PR nightmare would be done once and for all.
Fast forward to the 2013 entry draft.... oh, boy....
After a year of not being able to move Luongo, and all the kudos that went to both net-minders for handling the situation well, who gets moved? Schneider.  And though there are folks like me who still love Luongo for being the best goaltender the Canucks have ever had (go ahead, make an argument against that - the statistics say you are wrong) I knew that if I felt, at best, mixed, that the majority of Canucks fans - who are largely Canucks fans, not hockey fans, if you get the distinction - would be anywhere from alienated to outraged.  I find it agonizing that in this market that public opinion has as much sway on hockey decisions as it does.  It has to.  I understand that.  I'm also relieved that Canucks brass has the cajones to stand against it as much as they do - but it is a balancing act.  And this Jenga tower has tumbled.

But here's the thing... there was no other way.  That sucks.  But that's the way it is.

It comes down to Luongo's contract.  That record-breaking, rule-bending, precedent-setting contract.  There was some genius in it when it was signed. The way it creatively accounted its way around salary-cap issues... fucking brilliant.  And that is why it was the template for a schwack of contracts around the league that followed it.  But it bit back.  It made Luongo un-tradeable.  That is self-evident now.  If Luongo could have been traded, he would have been traded by the deadline last year, and if there was any doubt about that then, it is abundantly clear now.
So what options did we have with goalie-gate?
Not many.
1) Compliance buy-out on Luongo and send him on his way for nothing.  Less than nothing. It would cost them 13.5 million dollars just to say goodbye.
2) Keep both. Ha ha. Right.One short season of that worked better than it should have, but the cap-hit alone simply won't stand.
3) Renegotiate Luongo's contract downwards. Not actually an option. The NHLPA would set fire to Rogers Arena.
4) Trade Schneider.

Realistically there are only two options there. #1 and #4. Both were going to be PR nightmares.
Of course we ALL know better than Mike Gillis - just read the comments online, its apparent that anyone who has been watching 2 games a week plus playoffs for 25 years knows more about hockey than a guy who has spent his life in the business and lives and breathes the behind the scenes details of his team that we will never see. Just ask any of them. They all think Gillis is an idiot.
I do think Gillis is on shaky ground. He has one season, I figure, to do something to change the state of the team - and more power to him, he is giving it all he's got.
I'm not confident that trading the younger, still improving, cheaper goalie was the better choice, but I don't think the other option was clearly a better option.  At least this way the team got something back.  A lot of the grumbling seems to stem from a fiction that there was another option - trading Luongo. And that, as I've already pointed out, was clearly not in the cards.
The next tier of dissent among fans is that assuming Schneider had to go, that we didn't get enough in return.  On the surface it certainly feels that way, doesn't it?  Schneider is exactly what New Jersey needs for their future and they got him for a first round draft-pick who may never wear an NHL jersey.  But the question is not "what is Schneider worth in trade?" The question is "what could we get for him when the moment Gillis mentions him in a trade discussion it confirms what every GM in the league ought to already know - that they have Gillis over a barrel?"  He was doomed to get screwed. It would have been nice to get a roster player in the trade, and I think that in most other circumstances that would have been warranted.
Bo Horvat, the player we got with our pick looks promising. Hes an OHL MVP and as close to a lock for the NHL as the average first rounder gets. The beauty of being 9th is that you aren't first. There is all kinds of room for disappointment in those first picks.  The focus on the top three or so picks is usually unrealistically high, setting up a failure to meet expectations. Drop down a few rungs and there is room to exceed.  The jury is out and will be for at least the season or two it takes for Horvat to get into the league, but he has the all the boxes ticked for a player who could be the future of a team.  With all the talk about how our present is slipping away, this isn't a hollow move for the organization.

Speaking of the future...
What is Luongo's future?
He has few options right now. He can take the path of least resistance (at least professionally, I'm of the understanding that his wife has never supported Vancouver, and for all practical purposes has never lived here... gee thanks, Honey. Perhaps we shouldn't be vilifying Roberto for his emotional fragility and looking at his support network.) and commit to Vancouver with all that he's got. That is what management expects.  Or he could retire. Heh.  Or he could refuse to report to training camp.  Its not out of the realm of possibility.  At this point if he feels fucked over, that is his deserved right.  But at the same time, he did make this bed himself by agreeing to the contract that has caused the issue.  If Luongo doesn't play in Vancouver - either by retiring (simply not going to happen yet) or by refusing to report - then we are hooped.  That is a reality that the fans need to embrace and accept.  And that means getting behind Luongo, making him feel welcome and appreciated.  We need to encourage him to be the goalie of his resume, not the goalie of his reputation.
At 34 he is getting close, if not past, the point where goal-tenders start to decline, but the good news is that it is very common for the tail of an elite goalie's career to be quite long.  Take Brodeur as an example for the umpteenth time in this post.  Luongo could easily have another 5 or 6 years as one of the best goal-tenders in the league, and it is not out of the question that he could still make an argument for being the best active goalie in the next few seasons.  His contract was built with exactly that possibility in mind. He will still be being paid more than his actual cap-hit for another five years - that is a plus of sorts, albeit one that wouldn't be relevant with a different contract.  Luongo could still be the player he is expected to be.  Many a player has been less than their perceived legend until they've won a Cup (Yzerman springs to mind.) and many many great and beloved players have never won cups at all.  We have no choice now but to hope he is the former, not the latter.  Accept it and get with the program, 'cause he will be a better player with our support than without it.

Think of all the money that will be saved now that this doesn't have to be removed from the arena.
I can hardly believe I've made it this far without mentioning the name John Tortorella.
Two days ago it was a subject that would have been the bulk of this post.

My short-form opinion is that I am not pleased with the match.  I just don't think that he's the right guy for this team. I will be very happy to be proven wrong.  I will be curious to see how his feisty presence works here, both with the team and with the media, but the guy was fired from Madison Square Gardens because his team didn't score enough.  Is that really what we need here?  Granted that may be exactly the kind of style that Luongo flourishes under, but I'm not so eager to watch that kind of hockey.
Vigneault had to go.  I liked him, but it was clear that a change had to be made, and I'm sure that if AV hadn't been shown the door that Gillis would have been (and as I indicated earlier I don't think Gillis has much room left to work with without results.)  With that in mind I had hoped that we might bring Patrick Roy back to the NHL behind our bench.  But the Canucks were a day late firing Vigneault for that to even be a possibility.  And as the job was available in Colorado, I don't think it ever really had been an option for us.
So I guess I hope that Tortorella coaches the team he has and makes all the pieces function at their peak and doesn't try to shoe-horn it all into a system that isn't in the DNA of the team.  I hope the players recognize that, whatever the changes are from AV to Fonzie, that the status quo wasn't working and that a reasonable shift in the system could be fruitful if everyone buys in.  (Oh gawd... usually when a team "buys in" to a system, isn't the unspoken part of that; "to an un-entertaining, if effective system"?)
There is a temptation to compare Tortorella to Keenan, but I don't think that can fairly be done beyond the temper.  Tortorella was not brought in as the buddy of a hired-gun superstar, like Kennan was with Messier. (Who I loved, but his Canucks years were the among the worst for him and the team.) The team is not actually skidding the way the Canucks were in 1997 and though the teams' system needs an upgrade, there is no indication that the country-club atmosphere of the late 90s is an issue now.  Lastly, Keenan had trading power. Tortorella doesn't, and I don't think there is any chance that that kind of mistake will ever be made again on Abbott St.

Hopefully the team can pick up an interesting UFA (Lecavalier* has experience in the Tortorella system - doubt that we can fit him into our payroll though.) and give the fans something to think positively about before the first puck drops.  After that, all bets are off.  Things are extremely in question right now - volatile, even - but once the heat of this past weekend (literal and figurative) has passed there is actually plenty of reason to continue to expect the Canucks to be a contender.

A bit of a tangent as I wrap up...

Regarding the notion that there is a conspiracy to keep the Canucks from ever winning a Cup:

First off.... Why?  What purpose does that serve?

I will grant there does seem to be some favouritism in the league.  In the past 20 Cups (21 years, due to the lock-out season) an O6 team has won 9 times. (Montreal - 1993, Rangers - 1994, Detroit - 98, 98, 02 & 08, Chicago 10 & 13, Boston 11). So perhaps - maybe even probably - there is some favouritism that creeps in via the officiating and trickling down through the media. Its hard to come up with an argument other than "an unlikely confluence of events" that explains how those specific teams should have a disproportionate number of wins amongst them.  But there is a LONG way between "subtle refereeing bias" and "conspiracy."  Furthermore it doesn't explain why only five of the O6 teams are represented in that list - in fact the team with the biggest market in the entire league, the Maple Leafs isn't on that list at all (and haven't won since before the Canucks were in the league (against St. Louis in those affirmative action years of early expansion.)
That said, there have been rules, circumstances and traditions in the past that favoured the O6 teams.  Note that for those first three years of expansion mentioned above that the Blues did not win a single game.  Also did you know (obscure fact time) that the Canadiens have the right to veto the pick of any team selecting a French Canadian player in the entry draft in order to select that player as their next pick.  (This rule was only exercised once and has since been changed so that all other GMs in the league must agree to said veto - which isn't going to happen - but the rule technically still stands.)
There is also a similar conspiracy theory - that the league doesn't want Canadian teams to win (and it has been since 1993 when the Habs last won). The basic standard explanation being that they need to keep the interest up in the States by continuing to bring the Cup there.  Really?  If it was a question of keeping interest high in struggling markets Wayne Gretzky would have his name on the Cup as the coach of the Coyotes.
On top of that, all standard arguments about how logistically difficult it is to maintain a conspiracy apply (in a nutshell, the number of people necessarily involved in this case would be too big for there not to be a leak) not to mention the un-equal danger of negative fall-out should such a conspiracy ever come to light.  The NHL would have its own Erik Snowden by now, if there was such a conspiracy.
So, conspiracy - no, bias - possibly.

This has been long.  I've said most of what I can imagine to say.

Go Canucks!

*EDIT: I wrote this several hours ago. About 1 minute ago I got an alert that the Flyers have signed Lecavalier.  So nix that.