Dave Feschuck’s recent article about why the Leafs should trade Phil Kessel has done exactly what it set out to do: inspire rage in the increasingly small group of sports fans that are analytic critical thinkers, and froth up the kind of crazy people who typically comment on internet message boards and comments sections. That it was also a crass attempt to troll for hits and start a controversy where none existed is obvious in that the only other conclusion one can draw after reading such non-sense is that Feschuck is woefully under-qualified for his job. I don’t believe Feschuck is a stupid man, so I am just going to have to assume that he is playing to the masses in order to drive up web traffic and newspaper sales. I don’t think Dave will mind me assuming that, as he makes so many assumptions in his article that he is clearly ok with just assuming things.
It’s not that the idea of trading Kessel is in itself bad (which I think it is, but I’d be willing to listen to reason) it’s that the article shows a poor understanding of critical thinking, it uses logical fallacies to reinforce its points, and it states its opinions as facts, analysis be damned. I believe that examining the faulty logic of Feschuck’s article will not only show why he is wrong, but will also illustrate how the emergence of free, independent, internet media has changed how the so called professionals do their job by juxtopositioning ridiculous populism i.e. catering to a small, but ignorant and vocal portion of the fan base, against hard, logical, analysis.
To begin with, the complete failure to use reason and logic precedes even the body of the article, as the subheading states: “There’s never been a better time to trade Phil Kessel now that his value is at an all time high.” There are several problems with this statement. Firstly, the Leafs paid a very high and incessantly debated price for Kessel when they acquired him. I have long defended the trade, but it’s one of the highest (if not the apex of) prices a team has paid for a single player in recent memory. So, one can, I think comfortably, assert that the Leafs will not receive what they paid for Kessel and that by definition, his value is not at an “all time high.”
There is also an inherent “buy low/sell high” reasoning to this statement which is one of those things that sounds good until you delve into it. The reason is that “buy low/sell high” is no way to run a sports team, because to do so involves a ridiculous amount of risk. You just can’t predict player’s performance accurately enough to be anywhere close to right often enough to make this a good strategy. It’s not even a sound investment strategy. It’s a fantasy. If it was possible, everyone would do it. In hockey, it’s even more outrageous since so much of a player’s value lies in the perception of his potential and his reputation. Not easy things to quantify. If you trade Kessel now, are you looking to recoup two first round picks and a second round pick? Are you looking to get a player currently better than Kessel? Kessel is only 25; do you want a younger player with a chance to be better in five years? What about the very reasoned suggestion I heard countless times today that Kessel is virtually guaranteed to be the best player in the deal, the classic indicator of who won a trade in professional sports?
Furthermore, by stating that Kessel’s value is at an “all time high,” it assumes that he has maxed out his potential, and there is just no way that can be a reasonable argument, let alone a blanket statement. Kessel, as previously mentioned, is 25. The accepted “prime” of a player is generally considered to be 27-30. In baseball, they talk of the “magical” age 27 season. Kessel has been a top 6 scorer in the league two years running, and he has done it with Tyler Bozak as his centre and no second line scoring consistent enough to force teams to alter their Kessel-centric game plans. (Kadri is emerging, but Chara gets the Kessel assignment and until there is a choice to be made there, Kessel can’t have maxed out, since he will logically score more once he plays more against secondary players.) I love Tyler Bozak. I think he is very underrated. But he isn’t Nicklas Backstorm, Jason Spezza or Henrick Zetterberg. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Kessel would score even more if he had a premier playmaker feeding him the puck. That wouldn’t even necessarily make the Leafs better, since scoring isn’t even a problem for them, but Kessel could theoretically score more and thus increase his value.
Finally, Kessel seemed to add a new dimension to his game during the playoffs. It wasn’t just the four goals in seven games, because he could have scored none if he was unlucky, while playing no differently. What it was, was the two-hundred foot game he seemed to be playing. The back checking, the body checking (he even knocked down Chara), the lead by example hustle. People call him a “perimeter player”, but that’s confirmation bias and a refusal to look beyond the reputation. What Kessel did against Boston wasn’t new, it was apparent all year. It just took a while, and maybe some important games, for it to be noticed. It was not just in the playoffs. He improved big-time this year, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to improve and perfect his game next year and the following seasons. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that if Kessel improves, his value will rise. Since it’s almost certain he will improve, it is, by extension, also nearly certain his value will increase. Also, if he is resigned and they want to trade him with three or four years left on his contract, instead of one year, his value would also rise. Thus, why trade him if you’re only argument is that you will get the most for him now? It is, at worst, a very strong possibility that you could get more for him later. But what you can get for him hardly matters, because, if you can be reasonably confident that he can play at the level he has for the last two years – and there is not one shred of evidence that suggests otherwise – why on earth would you trade him? He is one of the best players in the world.
When you are done reeling from the lack of reasoned thought apparent in just the headline of Feschuck’s article, and you actually get to reading the damned thing, Feschuck delivers on what must be an editorial edict to put everything through the sensationalistic-worst-possible-outcome-filter. He begins by setting up Tim Leiweke, Dave Nonis’s new boss, as some kind of micro-managing super-fan, thus setting up the parameters for an alternate reality where Dave Nonis isn’t a patient and methodical life-long hockey professional, but rather a mouth breathing, irrational lunatic from the planet Milbury. Feschucks writes: “ making big changes to the Toronto roster, with the NHL salary cap shrinking from around $70 million (all figures U.S.) to about $64 million, will require bold vision and savvy maneuvering that many fans might consider sacrilege.”
Umm, who exactly is clamoring for “big changes”? The Leafs are in one of the most enviable cap positions heading into the offseason. Yes, they blew a game they should have won, but anyone who thinks that the collapse was anything other than a perfect storm of worst case scenarios – in other words, just incredibly bad luck – has no understanding of what a random and chance filled game hockey actually is. To make franchise altering decisions based on ten minutes of the most unlucky hockey your team will ever play is beyond stupid. Guys like Dave Nonis don’t rise to their positions by being reactionary populists. To even suggest he would do that is to latently call him a moron who is unqualified to hold his job.
This team, without its number one centre, took the Bruins, one of the best team s in hockey, to the brink of elimination in their first playoff series as a team. They did it as the youngest team in the NHL. They exceeded every expectation. They gained experience and showed they could be successful. And really, what other justification do you need that you’re on the right path with your team building plan than that? The Leafs have obvious deficiencies, but they are one of the fastest teams in the league, they have a very deep group of forwards, quite a few guys with high potential who are too young to have realized it yet, a good, young, goalie and one of the best defenseman in the league, Dion Phaneuf (Commenting on what Feschuck says about #3 would require a whole other article, and is equally as ridiculous as what he says about Kessel). It becomes clear, with even a rudimentary recapping of the state of the Leafs, as currently constructed, that patience and more of the same approach (smart drafting, identifying struggling young players who might benefit from a change of scenery, and smart cap management) that brought them this far are what is needed, not “big changes.”
Feschuck continues to embarrass himself when he writes: “Don’t for a moment believe that Nonis, fresh off delivering a no-Leaf-is-untouchable post-season message, isn’t thinking hard about the possibility.” Well, Nonis – as the guy running the premier franchise of the league – better be thinking about all possibilities. If he didn’t, he would be terrible at his job. It is his job to have at least an idea of what he could get for all of his players at any given time. It is his job to think outside the box and consider every scenario. Feschuck uses this obvious fact, true of every general manager, in every sport, to suggest that his plan is plausible, but it’s basically a straw-man argument: he foresees that his idea is controversial (due to its stupidity) and knocks down the main objective (that it is stupid) with the logical “fact” that the man actually in charge is considering the same thing. You aren’t supposed to notice that there is no quote from Nonis or any rumor whatsoever from any kind of source indicating that this is an idea that exists anywhere near what is known as “reality.”
I wish I could end here, because I have made my point, but Feschuck won’t let me. He has one last assault on logic in store for us (actually there are several, but at this point I’m just choosing the worst offender.) “He’s a perimeter-hugging winger in a net-front league playing for a team that will need to give up something of value to land its long-sought No. 1 centre.” This is a doozy. Where to start? Earlier I mentioned Kessel seems to have added some grit and bit of defense to his game. This isn’t my opinion, I notice it, but I confirm it by reading scouting reports and listening to the experts, something people should do before ever stating – or trying to maintain – a position about sports if they can’t watch hundreds of games from multiple teams every year. Kessel is never going to win the Selke, but his improvement does show that he is willing to become more than just a scorer. (And in a league where 2 goals wins most nights, I’m still not sure why there’s a need to be “more than just a scorer,” but that too is another article.) So, he’s doing that, and he’s giving you at least a point per game in a league where only 20 of around 700 players do so every year. He’s playing from the outside, but he’s effective. Am I missing something? Do goals scored by crashing the net count more? Certainly Scott Hartnell crashes the net like a maniac, should we get him instead? Please, if anyone can explain this to me, I would be eternally grateful. If a player is, by any measurable way, one of the league’s best players, how is it a problem that does it by playing a certain way as opposed to another? Whatever. This is indicative of the way Feschuck just makes statements and leaves them hanging out there like irrevocable facts, but doesn’t in any way back them up, or even attempt to.
The next part of the previously mentioned quote from Feschuck worth examining is that the Leafs need that long-sought number one centre. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to have a premier pivot, I’ll give him that. I think Kessel could score more goals if he had a star centre. However, I don’t necessarily think getting that would make the team better or should even be a priority. Combined, Lupul and Kessel are an unbelievable offensive pair who have no trouble scoring even with Bozak as their centre. If you added a Spezza or a Backstrom – and they won’t add anyone close to that good – you would lose all the little things Bozak does that allow Kessel and Lupul their freedom, such as face-offs, defensive awareness, chemistry etc. A premier centre might allow the team’s first line a slight increase in scoring (something they arguably do not even need) but it might cost more than just the players going the other way to make it happen. You are basically fixing something that isn’t broken. The Leafs would be far better off in chasing down a partner for their unfairly maligned top defenseman, than in acquiring a centre they don’t need at the cost of the – at worst – second best player the franchise has had in 30 years. Let’s just assume for a second they could add Jason Spezza (a player with very similar career numbers up to this point as Mats Sundin, a Hall of Famer) who is in the prime of his career. Keep in mind that it is astronomically unlikely that the player they would add would be better than Spezza (he would, I think, most likely be a young potential star). Would the Leafs be a better team with Spezza and not Kessel or Bozak, who also goes in this situation? The answer to that is obvious, even if you hate logic, despise reason and believe saying something makes it true: The Leafs need to hang onto Phil Kessel.