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Is Our Leaf Blog Biased?

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Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, okay?

NHL: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks ago, I recapped a Toronto vs. Boston game. The Leafs won in overtime, off a goal scored by Patrick Marleau, and a fun time was had by all. Except one reader, who did not seem to have very much fun, as I did not mention that this was Patrick Marleau’s 101st career game-winning goal.

“Either PPP writers have a huge bias against Marleau or they’re just bad reporters.”

With regard to the second possibility, I’m not any kind of reporter, whether good, bad, or otherwise. Given that my recaps are mostly contemporaneous notes that I take as play is happening and publish right after, I can and do miss things. But the first thing got me thinking.

Not that I’m biased against Patrick Marleau. To be honest, that was pretty silly. I thought signing him was good at the time we did it and I’ve enjoyed his game a lot thus far. But everyone has biases on some level, right? And you’ll never address them if you don’t think about them.

Why Do You Hate A Player I Like?

You’ll see this all over the Leaf internet almost any time a player is criticized. If you think Roman Polak is no longer an NHL-calibre defenceman, you can’t just be wrong; you are insidiously, terribly biased against him, which explains your obviously wrong opinions. You idiot.

To be really biased against a player, I think you would have to have a preconception of what they are that leads you to discard fair evidence of what they’re doing. I imagine the reader above saw Patrick Marleau achieve a personal accolade and figured the fact I ignored it was proof I didn’t like him. I just don’t care about game-winning goal stats that much.

So much happens in a hockey game, and there are so many things to focus on, that it’s very easy to see what you look for. If you think, for example, that Matt Hunwick is a bad defenceman (and I did) and he looks to be out of position on a goal against, you can add that to your mental file of the case against him. String a few of these together and you can become dead certain that whoever you’re watching is the worst guy to strap on skates since Confederation. And when other people don’t seem to agree, it’s like they don’t even watch the games. The same thing happens with players we like.

I think I was a little too hard on Matt Hunwick, to be honest with you. At the same time, forming an opinion on a player is natural, and if that’s bias, we’re all biased on every player all the time. It just means accepting that good players sometimes make bad plays, and vice versa, and that your eyes and other people’s see different things...and both sets of eyes are probably lying on occasion.

Besides, the only Leaf I really don’t like is Matt Martin.*

Protagonist Goggles

If you’re a devoted Leafs fan, you will watch them seventy-plus games a year. You will probably watch any other team in the NHL less than five, and unless you’re one of those odd double-fanbase people, you probably don’t care all that much about them except insofar as they affect Toronto.

If Mitch Marner has two takeaways, three shots on goal, and a primary assist in a game against Tampa, you’re probably thinking about what a dynamic offensive player Marner is. A Tampa fan might be thinking worriedly about how Victor Hedman hasn’t looked like himself lately, blowing coverages like that and getting outshot. This is natural to pretty much any sports fan. It is also a huge source of bias.

The extension of this is that unless the team is full-on terrible, most fans implicitly assume the team could win every game if everyone got together and just did their damn jobs. If the streaky scoring winger would try as hard as that grinding forechecker, if the coach could draw up a powerplay stronger than a BB gun, if they just played as well as they did in the third period last Friday, they’d be in the running for the Cup! I know they can play better than this. I’ve seen it.

So where does this go? We discount the impact of competition as well as luck. It’s a bit depressing to think we’re doomed to play worse against certain good opponents, or that a good team can outplay a worse team and still lose. Everyone knows this, on some level...but it’s hard to accept when it’s your team losing.

As the team gets better, they do have more control over their own fate. So that’s good! It’s just worth remembering there are two teams on the ice, and a bouncing rubber disc between them.

Our Tweeners Are The Best Tweeners

Kasperi Kapanen is a very exciting prospect, if you ask me. He’s a lightning skater, he has an offensive touch, he produced in the AHL.

If Kasperi Kapanen played for another team, you would likely pull him up on Hockey DB, note he had one goal in 20 regular season games, and think, “well, maybe he’s okay, I guess. Or maybe he’s Seth Griffith.”

And this is our best forward prospect.

This may be hard to accept. We know Kapanen is better than that. We’ve seen him. It’s not fair to quote that stat at him! If you watch him or pay attention to his game with the Marlies, you would see this.

This is how literally every fanbase feels about its prospects, and that includes the ones much less impressive than Kapanen. That doesn’t mean that it’s fair to dismiss him, or others, but the fact is we’re a) invested in the success of our prospects and b) we pay a hell of a lot more attention to them than to other teams. We’re more optimistic about the prospects of guys like Josh Leivo, or Carl Grundstrom, or Travis Dermott, or whoever else than we’d ever dream of being if they played elsewhere. Because if they played elsewhere, we wouldn’t know their names.

This winds up meaning we’re jealously terrified of the idea of trading these guys for anything like fair value, and we mentally pencil them into lineups two or four years down the road. This might be the most popular kind of bias among fans.

We’re Almost A Contender

Here’s one I wonder if I’ve fallen for.

Confession: this has been a very fun season for me so far, not just because the Leafs have been good, but because most of the teams I like laughing at—Montreal, Buffalo, Edmonton, and more recently Ottawa—have struggled. Ever schadenfreude-read another fanbase? It’s evil and great.

Anyway, the one thing I notice is that all of these fanbases, in the darkest of times when they’re most frustrated, would have comments saying things like: “We have an elite forward, a very good defenceman, and a good goalie—why can’t we just get it together?” (Protagonist goggles.) This is kind of perplexing to an outsider; the only one of those teams I would say has close to a Cup-contending core is Edmonton, and even then, they seem awfully high on Adam Larsson. Even Buffalo, which may well be the worst team in the NHL right now, seems to have fans who basically think that a team with Eichel, Kane, and Ristolainen ought to be able to contend for a Cup, or that they’re not that far away.

Part of this is self-protection. Most fanbases are not excited by the prospect of spending three years in the tank trying to get better, and while Leafs fans enthusiastically embraced Mike Babcock’s “there will be pain” warning, we still made the playoffs in the second year of his tenure. Waiting years to be good and years more to maybe win a Cup is hard to accept, and usually you only see it when fans are trying to wave away a season they’ve already lost.

As a rule, everyone thinks they’re closer to being a real contender than they are. Because really, you have to hope for something, and a bit of irrational optimism is natural to being a fan.

Not us though. This is our year.

*The Matt Martin thing is a joke. I promise.