Hockey is chock-a-block with ethereal concepts: The Code and other unwavering tenets of sportsmanship, clutchiness, the captaincy, luck and the hockey gods, and so on.
But whether you’re a stats nerd or you, like me, approach fandom like a cracked out manic-depressive, we all occasionally fall prey to that most pervasive of hockey psyche-outs: Expectation.
Sometimes expectations for players are realistic and well-founded, but more often than not, they’re ruled by factors totally out of a player’s control.
I sat there Thursday night, watching Brian Elliott, All-Star, doing his best roman candle impersonation (albeit not entirely his fault), and considered his season:
- Rolls the dice to sign with the Blues, knowing at the very best he’d play second fiddle to Jaro Halak, and potentially have to beat out up-and-coming giant goalie Ben Bishop for even the back-up job.
- The team gets a new coach about 15 minutes into the second period of their third game (or something like that), and by the end of December, he’s got 14 wins and 4 shutouts in 20 games.
- All Star Game. Duh.
Now, the focus is on Elliott for the Blues’ round 2 troubles. “What happened to future Vezina winner, Brian Elliott?!” Yes, I’m sure it’s all the fault of the guy they hired as a (maybe) back-up tendy.
But that’s the tug and pull of expectations. He is anointed the savior because he played like an all-star when all anybody really expected was for him to put a finger in the dam.
Now some water leaks out of the dam and, welllll, maybe he’s not what we thought he was.
On the flip side, the Flyers, trying to shore up their eternally sketchy goaltending, sign Ilya Bryzgalov to an outlandish contract for a billion dollars a day for 50 years. And he has spent every day since being scrutinized in every way because of it.
Big, cap-choking contracts like his are the most warped mirror in the Expectations Carnival funhouse. It goes without saying, when a team is paying that kind of money, their expectations are high.
If there is any doubt in a goalie’s mind that those expectations are too high, oof, that’s gonna be a bad scene in that goalie’s head when he hits a rough patch. Never mind the fans, who hear the “cha-ching!” of money that could have been spent elsewhere in the roster every time a puck hits the back of the net.
Oh, expectations, you are a fickle mistress.
Imagine this, though: What if we didn’t know players’ salaries? What if the amount of cap room a guy takes up was kept under wraps? What if the CAP was under wraps?
Obviously, everything leaks in the real world, but consider a world where it didn’t leak and we just didn’t have this information as a factor in our expectations for a player. (Apologies to CapGeek.com for negating your existence.)
It’s almost impossible to even imagine it, but that’s just how intrinsic salary to even the most casual evaluations of a player. Ultimately, we would be forced to judge them purely on past performance: Are they playing at or above what is generally known to be their best?
The discussion of a player’s contribution would suddenly revolve around factors they can (generally) control as opposed to decisions by team management. It’s hard to fault a guy for saying yes to a team that agreed to overpay him, but we do it all the time.
Before the big money starts to become a factor, it’s draft placement. No kid goes into these draft interviews and says, “Hey guys, I may look great in junior but I’m telling you, I’m going to top out as a dime-a-dozen, 3rd line grinder, so maybe wait until the 5th round before you pick me up.”
Faulty drafting, especially in high rounds, can slap the “Disappointment” label on a perfectly fine player, a guy who works hard, loves the game, is a great teammate, nice to fans, and would take a bullet for any of his guys. But he’s a disappointment because was drafted higher than his talent level warranted?
Of course, lucky/skilled drafting can go the other way for a low pick who turns out to just be a late bloomer or possess an unexpected adaptability to the pro game as he matures. Hell, an undrafted guy who makes a decent career in the NHL is exceeding expectations so thoroughly, announcers will mention this bit of trivia every time he so much as touches the puck.
In the end though, basing our expectations on these external factors, while understandable and natural, is an exercise in futility. Until we invent a hockey crystal ball to help us predict a player’s long and short term success, the sins of a misguided GM should not be visited upon a player, at least by those aiming for cogent hockey discourse.