There’s no question that Flames GM Darryl Sutter has forever marched to his own drum. The taciturn architect of Calgary’s only post-season run in the last 20 years has never been shy about making large, risky moves in an effort to improve his club. Some of them have proven to be brilliant. Others have failed miserably. Many of them were, at very least, explicable.
That is, until recently. With the Flames floundering in the standings and fresh off a nine game losing streak, Sutter descended into a sort of madness last season, dealing Dion Phaneuf for Maple Leafs parts, moving Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust for Chris Higgins and the greatly overpaid Ales Kotalik and then needlessly acquiring the equally expensive Steve Staios. The Phaneuf deal was explicable from a certain angle, but everything else was – and remains – a baffling collection of nonsense.
The book “Sway” by Ori and Rom Brafman offers some insight into the forces that may have influenced Sutter to don his mad hatter’s cap. In the “Anatomy of an Accident” chapter, they describe the irrational bias humans have towards avoiding loss. The chapter includes an anecdote about pilot Jacob Van Zanten and a series of decisions that caused him to crash his plane and kill 584 people. All despite the fact that Van Zanten was the head of the KLM’s safety program.
The losses Van Zanten was trying to avoid were all the downside of the mandated rest period: the cost of putting up the passengers, the chain reaction of delayed flights, and the blot on his reputation for being on time. Van Zanten’s desire to avoid a delay started out small enough…but as the delay grew longer, the potential loss loomed larger. By the time an overnight delay seemed almost inevitable, Van Zanten was so focused on avoiding it that he tuned out all other considerations and, for that matter, his common sense and years of training.
Last year was the first time the Calgary Flames missed the playoffs under Darryl Sutter. The organization has routinely spent to the cap ceiling since his ascendancy. It’s no secret that success is expected of the club by both fans and management and that making the post-season is considered to be the bare minimum of accomplishments.
Therefore one can understand how the Van Zanten example above relates to Darryl Sutter’s actions last winter. After dealing Phaneuf for offensive depth, the Flames continued to struggle to remain in the playoff picture. Even after Jokinen was dealt for Higgins and Kotalik, Calgary’s offensive woes persisted (deepened in fact). At the trade deadline, Sutter was no doubt so focused on trying to make the post season that he tuned out all other considerations such as future cap implications and the fact that the Flames blueline was already crowded with capable defenders. The panic in Sutter manifested in obtaining Staios as some sort of dressing room catalyst for change (inflated cap hit be damned). It didn’t work. The Flames season crashed in fiery wreck.
Of course, what likely heightened and exaggerated Sutter’s desperation to make the post-season was the sunk cost fallacy: wherein the amount of time, effort, or money already invested in a project justifies the investment of yet more time, effort and money in order to complete the project. In common parlance, it’s also called “throwing good money after bad”. Once the playoff picture dimmed February and Darryl started making changes, he no doubt became even more keenly aware of the potential “loss” of finishing outside the playoff picture. Meaning, with each gambit that failed to push the team over the top, Sutter felt even more compelled to try push the team over the top. Not only was placing 9th or worse a terrible perceived loss for Sutter initially, the impetus to avoid such a scenario grew with each subsequent “investment” (or high-profile panic trade) he made.
There are likely other forces at work in the Flames front offices that help explain the somewhat questionable decision making the organization has engaged in over the last 12 months (group think springs to mind), but it’s highly likely that the human penchant for trying to avoid loss as well as the sunk cost fallacy played a large role in causing Sutter’s post-December derangement.