Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Missing Piece Myth

As the NHL trade deadline approaches, we have several trades to report, including Peter Forsberg to Nashville and Brad Stuart to Calgary. We even have a non-trade. Along with all of this comes a lot of silly rumormongering and some crazy expectations about what the hometown team should do.

One of the craziest ideas we hear about at this time is the "missing piece of the puzzle". If only our team got a puck-moving defenceman or a 2nd line centreman etc that would be the missing piece and then we could win the cup. That idea is patently false, but it doesn't stop Mike Zeisberger from saying that Gary Roberts is the missing piece of the Ottawa Senators.

Can anybody seriously believe that if only Ottawa had Gary Roberts then they would win the cup (but without him they won't)? Gary Roberts is a good (although aging) forward who would give Ottawa another option and increase their depth, but he wouldn't really make a team a champion.

Team win the Stanley Cup because of many reasons. They win because they are the best group of players who play the best hockey. They win because they are lucky. It always takes luck to be the last team standing after the Stanley Cup playoffs. They win because they are strong and have strengths (though maybe not as many strengths as in the past under the regime of enforced parity). They can win despite some weaknesses, as long as the strengths are sufficient. Carolina is the defending cup champs despite a lack of any above average defencemen. Teams have won the cup despite a lack of offensive power - for example the New Jersey Devils most prominently in their 1995 victory. Teams have even won the cup despite a lack of a great goalie. Chris Osgood is among the goalies who have won the cup. What all of these teams had was strengths. You win with strength. The strongest team (at playing hockey) usually wins. The team that has the best players who play the best win. Sure Gary Roberts could be that player, but more than likely he wouldn't be. Ottawa's offence has several weapons and is a strength. It's not much stronger with Gary Roberts than without.

Every year, it seems that about four teams add the "missing piece" and a fifth wins the cup. That is not to say that deadline deals cannot make a difference. Sometimes they do, but usually they do not. The easiest way to make a big impact on deadline day is to trade for a good goalie when your current goalies have not been good. This is because a goalie is the only guy who plays every minute of the game. This position is the one that has the single contribution to your final outcome (be it good or bad).

There are no final pieces. Teams cannot do anything to guarantee a cup victory. A team can increase their chances of winning by increasing their strengths. This is different from trying to cover up all weaknesses. Every team has weaknesses. There is no need to pay a lot in a trade to grab a player if he is merely covering up a weakness without creating a strength. Teams that do this usually fail.

Another great post, man. Good call on Roberts, too - how will a guy who's several years past his prime make or break a team?
roloson to edmonton last year? recchi and weight to carolina last year? worked out pretty well for them. Also, all teams that win the cup are really lucky? what about teams like the oilers and canadiens who went on sprees of multiple cups in a row and were far and a way better than everyone else? they didn't seem to get so lucky
If everyone who is a contender picks up a rental or two at trade deadline time, then of course the eventual winner will have picked up a rental - but it doesn't mean that rental is the final piece of the puzzle. Carolina won the cup. Recchi was their 6th highest scorer in the playoffs. Weight was their 7th highest. That doesn't make either sound like a final piece of a puzzle. They added to the team's offensive strength, but to argue they were the final piece is just a logical fallacy. Carolina added Recchi and Weight and then won the cup. It doesn't follow that adding Recchi and Weight caused them to win the cup.

Of course, a team can be much better than the competition and in that case they are far more likely to win the cup and less dependent upon luck to get there, but without luck on their side, they can be left watching the finals like the 1986 Edmonton Oilers who were are far better team than anyone else in the NHL that year.
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