It’s Time to Blame the Fans

Late last night my esteemed colleague in blogging Steve Dangle asked a question that’s been on the mind of Leafs’ fans all summer, and for most of the past eight years: What is going on? Steve speculated that the Leafs are working furiously behind the scenes to pull off a blockbuster deal for either a #1C or #1G.

I mean, they have to be right? We’ve gone over this roster with a fine tooth comb this off-season and there is no way this team is capable of contending. Yet it’s July 31st and the only thing the Leafs appear to be doing is tying up some loose ends by signing AHL guys like Zigomanis and Fraser. What gives? I think that while the Leafs’ problems have been widely documented, we have yet to do something normally done by the Damien Coxes and Howard Bergers of the world. Blame the fans. 

Let me start by making one thing very clear that will probably be ignored by you. I’m not blaming the fans for the on-ice performance of the team. That would be crazy. What I think needs to be pointed out is that we have become so desperate to see this team achieve even the most basic success that we have lost sight of two things: all the changes that have been made to this franchise under Brian Burke’s tenure, and how difficult it is to re-shape a team in a single off-season. 
How crazy have we become when the Luke Schenn-James van Riemsdyk swap has already amounted to a footnote this offseason with fans expecting a blockbuster trade sometime before October? I think that there are two cognitive biases influencing how some fans are currently feeling about the Leafs. 
The first is hindsight bias which suggests that we are predisposed to see events that have already happened as more predictable or likely than they actually were before they took place. “Brian Burke traded Luke Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk? Oh yeah, the media had been talking about that for months. That’s a minor deal. Merely crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. What has he done lately?”
While obviously hyperbolic, I would say that this approximates many fans’ assessment of the Schenn-JVR swap. It was rumoured to happen, and it happened, thus it was entirely likely. You can apply the same logic to any transaction that Burke or any GM makes. Once something happens we assign fate a much larger role and just assume that it was going to happen that way all along. By doing this we marginalize its importance. We also make the mistake of thinking that blockbuster trades are more common than actually are. 

This is a result of the availability heuristic. The more easily we can think of an example of something, the more common we assume it is. This off-season has already given us an example of two blockbuster trades. The Staal and Nash trades provide fans with an easily recallable example of a blockbuster trade. It makes us believe that blockbuster trades are the exception rather than the norm. (Writer’s note/Willy Wonka reference: Strike that, reverse it.)
Head over to Pro Sports Transactions and search through the activity of a few NHL teams. For the most part it has been a quiet off-season. Aside from a few big name unrestricted free agents—Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Alexander Semin, Matt Carle—most teams have made relatively minor moves. Two of those UFAs went to the same team. Most NHL teams do not make a blockbuster trade in an off-season. Wanting something to happen does not make it any more probable. 
I’m not trying to discourage speculation, deflect criticism from Brian Burke, or predict that no big move is coming. But fans need to temper their expectations. We all want the Leafs to win hockey games, and we all want Brian Burke to swing a blockbuster deal. But we shouldn’t expect it. 

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  • Danny Gray

    Don’t blame the fans for expecting more when heading into summer Brian Burke and group of assistant GMs talked the big talk (Changes are going to be made. July 1st is our draft. We are going to add a first line center and a veteran goalie. There more big names being discussed in trades that I can recall in a long time. You’d be shocked at some of the names being discussed in trades). In Brian Burke’s tenure as GM of the Leafs he has talked the big game but delivered oh so little and this summer is only the latest example.

    This summer he clearly set his shopping list as:

    1. A veteran goalie
    2. A first line center
    3. Adding size to the group forwards

    and he made all indications that he would aggressively pursue those goals. He has done a bit of #3 with the acquisition of van Riemsdyk (a big body, but not an aggressive physical player) but the others are still not addressed but there is little evidence that he has ever been close to addressing them and Burke now seems resigned to the fact that they won’t be (he now seems OK with Reimer/Scrivens in goal seems set on trying van Riemsdyk as #1C despite when the trade was made clearly suggesting he would play wing).

    As for the Schenn for JVR trade, I think people dismiss it’s importance because most fans rightly believed that adding a 20-25 goal winger was well down the list of priorities. Same for McClement. Yeah, they may make the team a little better but unless you fix the glaring holes at #1C and in goal you are doomed to failure anyway. It’s kind of like upgrading your car to a six speed transmission when you are still lacking an engine and wheels. Yeah, it’s a nice transmission but you still aren’t going anywhere.

    • Danny Gray

      I think you’re mixing a lot of things into what Burke said he would do this summer in the first paragraph there but I see what you’re saying.

      He attempted to address, and still may address the veteran goalie position.

      I also think you’re being too dismissive about the acquisition of JVR.

      So we’re left with acquiring a #1C, a task which I think we’d all acknowledge is pretty difficult. Again I’m not defending failings, simply that we should realize how hard these things are to actually do.

      • Danny Gray

        Maybe I am too pessimistic but Burke has talked a big game since coming to Toronto and he has failed to deliver. The team is not very good and there is really not a lot of optimism (in my opinion anyway) for them to become good in the next couple seasons. He’s had nearly 4 years to find a #1 goalie and has failed. He’s had nearly 4 years to find a decent #1 center and failed. We all like to talk about the depth in prospects he has added, but is there really a prospect in the organization we can safely project as top line 70+ point potential? Not really.

        As for JVR, there is potential there but so far in his NHL career he is essentially a 40 point winger. Now Burke is talking about making that 40 point winger a #1 center? This is the kind of thing lousy franchises try to sell to their fans, not top tier franchises which is what the Leafs should be. I expect Scott Howson to try to sell the Blue Jackets fans on the merits of Brandon Dubinsky as a top line player because that is what lousy teams without top end players do. Can you honestly say that JVR is a better player than Dubinsky? I can’t.

        Burke also likes to come up with a lot of excuses as to why he hasn’t been able to get things done. He doesn’t like trade deadline deals because GMs make a lot of mistakes then. He doesn’t like to sign free agents because GMs make a lot of mistakes then. He doesn’t like long term deals because they are too risky. He doesn’t like front loaded contracts because he thinks they are cap circumvention. He doesn’t like long term rebuilds and rebuilding through the draft. He doesn’t want to be an 8th seed just to get their butts kicked in the first round. Do you honestly believe you’d hear that kind of crap from a top tier organization? From the Red Wings organization? From the Penguins organization? Of course not. Clearly those teams aren’t always successful in signing/acquiring the players they want but they don’t make excuses or give reasons why they don’t want to do anything.

        I really do hope that Burke can make more moves this summer because if he can’t it could be another long and dismal season for Leaf fans and as a Leaf fan myself, I am sick and tired of the mediocrity.

        • Danny Gray

          It’s tough to know what other GMs said going into the off-season because I don’t really follow them. We knew Detroit was going to aggressively pursue Suter and they lost out.

          I think we just hear it more b/c it’s Toronto and because Burke likes to talk. Additionally Pittsburgh was gifted Crosby and Malkin so it’s hard to say how well any other GM would do with the Leafs.

          I am also tired of mediocrity, but at the same time we need to realize that most NHL teams are mediocre, most don’t win every year, or even ever.

  • Danny Gray

    I think your article is a leaf fan bash fest in disguise and quite similar in style to Berger.

    Here are two point that I think you miss.
    1. You argue that fans expectations for this one off season are too ambitious. But you fail to mention that Burke has had 4 seasons (or 3.75 by calendar) to address critical needs (goal, 1C etc) of the team. And base your argument on the basis of moves this one off season.

    2. Your article lacks balance with respect to what progress is reasonable for leaf management over the four years. Sure leafs fans can be better fans and they can be more patient (not with standing 1967, a near decade of no playoffs and even Burke’s last 4 years) but what about management. That is, you fail to answer the question if it is reasonable that management could have addressed some critical areas (like goal, 1C etc) in that time. And seem to side with blaming fans without much basis.

    Also on JVR – let’s say we fans are open to him as a possible 1C. Fine, but here is my question, what is Burke’s longer term contingency plan if this fails (and I don’t mean Bozak or Connolly – I mean the long term solution here). Realistically, chances are JVR will not make the transition seamlessly to centre. And so instead of blaming fans again in December if JVR doesn’t work out, wouldn’t it make more sense that a well run team would have a back up plan for the 1C. The reality is that 1C has not drafted and nor is in the leaf system four years into the rebuild. This is something needed to address (along with goaltending) sooner than 4 years in a rebuild in my opinion. But if you feel like blaming fans go for it by all means.

  • RexLibris

    A good read, Danny. And good points for any fan base to take to heart.

    That being said, I tend to agree with Mr. Johnson above.

    Burke seems to have several ready explanations for his failures to address the roster holes this summer. Granted, it hasn’t been easy as there has been a very weak UFA class this year and the positions he is trying to fill generally come at a very heavy cost.

    However, I have never seen anyone so dismissive of the press and yet so willing to publicly expound his beliefs and opinions on the many ailments of NHL business as Brian Burke.

    I understand the argument put forth in the article and would agree: fans may be expecting more than can be reasonably delivered in the current NHL atmosphere. Many Oiler fans are feeling the same way (ie: what has Tambellini done lately?), but at least part of that responsibility has to rest on the shoulders of the management group that promised to deliver those expected changes.

    I think Leafs fans would do well to temper everything Burke says about addressing roster needs with a large dose of reality. He says that he’ll get a 1st line center. Really? From where? Is it someplace that the other 20 odd teams looking for a 1st line center haven’t checked already? He said he’d acquire a starting goaltender. As far as I know there are several options available to varying degrees of what one might classify as a “starting goalie”.

    Perhaps this might come sometime in August when management groups from around the league get back from their various holidays.

    Either way, though, acquiring one or both of those assets isn’t going be done by trading away Mike Komisarek, Ben Holzer and a 2nd round pick in 2015. Fans should ask themselves what can be expected and what assets the team realistically has that could be leveraged in order to acquire the most likely players within their price range.

  • RexLibris

    The team definately needs a first line center and a starting goalie as I don’t think JVR and Reimer/Scrivens can get the job done. I wonder what it would take to pry Tuuka Rask and Tyler Seguin out of Boston?

    • 24% body fat

      Seguin would take two firsts (one be a lottery pick or 2nd overall) and at least a 2nd on top of that.

      2 problems I see,

      Need of a number on center, not guaranteed but burke decided to go with a defenseman instead of Grigorenko, or Forsberg (2 big centers) Typical Burke, Surprised he didn’t go for the american college D man though,

      Need for a number one goalie, this one might be the fans fault. After 25 – 30 games playing well in his rookie year the leafs fans claimed Reimer to be a number 1 goalie and vezina winner the next year.

      Burke has never been that good of a manager, he inherit the ducks stanley cup team and made a trade with a handcuffed oilers team. He did not draft getzlaf or perry, and picking the number two ranked guy behind crosby does not take genius.

      Oh and drafting Kadri out of spite to try and fish a deal out of Ottawa didnt work so well either.

    • 24% body fat

      Tuuka Rask was drafted by the Leafs and Seguin was drafted with a Leafs pick. Not sure if your comment was meant to highlight the irony that the Leafs’ problems might not exist had they held on to their draft picks or not, but it does help to illustrate that.

  • Danny Gray

    I’m in my 60’s & I’m one of the lucky ones who can remember what it’s like to win the Cup. I should mention, that in the past several years, the amount of time I bother watching the team play has pretty much gone down to zero. I don’t complain anymore, it’s long past the point (for me & several family members & friends) It’s not worth the time.

    As for blaming the GM, which one? The majority of people blame Burke, they blamed every GM I can remember for too many years to count. They blame every coach that has come & gone. They blame each other. Over the past several years alone I’ve read comments from fans that the D is too slow, too soft, doesn’t get the puck out of the DF zone fast enough. The complaints about the PK. Fowards being too small, being pushed around, taking stupid penalties, cliques that caused problems, terms of contracts, players signed or not signed, cheap ownership, ownership that didn’t/doesn’t understand the game & or care, fans that shouldn’t buy tickets/boycott, ruining young players development by rushing them into the lineup too fast or too slow. I complained for years too but those days ended several years ago.

    The soap opera that is the Maple Leafs of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 2000-? continues. And the fans will continue to try & understand why they fail. That’s pretty much the only sure thing one can count on when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

  • Danny Gray

    I think the problem the Leafs have(that Montreal also has) is that most high level players don’t want to come here now. Would you rather make your millions under the microscope and daily media drama that is the Toronto Maple Leafs, or would you rather make the same cash, live in a more moderate climate in the winter, and be able to enjoy your days off with friends and family in any public place without being bombarded by media and fans? Hey, maybe even be lucky to play in a market that has a beach? I think Burke has tried, but he has been turned down flat by some of the best free agent talent.

  • Danny Gray

    “He did not draft getzlaf or perry, and picking the number two ranked guy behind crosby does not take genius.”

    So he’s qualified to run the Oilers! Hey-o!

  • I don’t think fans are to blame for the Leafs woes, but they are to blame for raising their own expectations. The Leafs are just a team, like any other team. The only real missed opportunity this summer was Semin. You can only make trades if you have a partner. Four years,ten years, 43 years are arbitrary, if sad, numbers. There is no prescribed amount of time for how lomg things take. Shhhh. Relax. It’s summer. Go outside and have a beer on the patio. The Leafs will be there in October.

  • jeffysize

    4 yrs of burke equals:

    2 bottom five finishes
    2 bottom ten finishes

    NO playoffs
    NO blue chip prospects (reily possibly)

    overpayed for kessel (seguin, hamilton, knight)

    horrible FA signings (komi, connelly, armstrong)

    ‘ethics & morals’ about players/contracts that put TML at competive disadvantage.

    imo…outside of lupul/gardiner & phaneuf trades, BB’s plan for pulling the franchise out of ‘laughing stock’ territory has failed miserably.