Counterfactual Thinking, Alternate Realities, and the Oilers

We’ve all heard the arguments against Chiarelli by now. He traded Hall for Larsson, he traded Eberle for Strome and then Strome for Spooner, he traded the 16th (Barzal) and the 33rd picks (Mitchell Stephens) in the 2015 draft for Reinhart, he signed Lucic, he has a lot of “wasted cap space” on the roster, he traded the 5th leading scorer on the team for a healthy scratch with term, he has the best player in the world and the Oilers still can’t score goals or make the playoffs… we get it.

The fan base was already frustrated that the team had missed the playoffs for a decade straight before Chiarelli came along. Then the team made the playoffs in one season. Since then, the team missed the playoffs last season and are certainly not a lock to make the dance this season. Couple the failure to meet those expectations with the frustration of losing/missing out on some skilled players, and you’ve got one pissed off fan base that wants the GM fired.

I came across this blog entry on counterfactual thinking from Dr. Holly Parker in Psychology Today:

“We can rewind time and un-do our past, leading us down an imaginary road toward an alternate present. In doing this, we see a picture of what we believe life would be like today if our yesterdays had happened differently. This type of imagery is called counterfactual thinking, and it can potently affect how we feel. Some situations are more likely to generate this kind of thinking than others. Moments we think of as “close calls” can make counterfactual ideas spring to mind with spectacular ease. For instance, if the train doors close as you’re running toward them, just a few feet away, it will probably feel more disappointing than if you know the train left 15 minutes before you even made it to the station. Why? Because a near miss makes it easier to imagine an alternate reality in which you had gotten there just a hair faster and boarded the train in time.

I believe that counterfactual thinking is fuelling a lot of the frustration in Edmonton these days. Most Oilers fans seem to think that the team would be in a FAR better position if Chiarelli had not made these moves. They have created this alternate reality where the Oilers kept Hall and Eberle; drafted some combination of Barzal, Aho, Boeser, Connor, or Chabot; and didn’t sign Lucic. The belief is that the team would definitely be better off in this alternate reality than the team currently is.

The frustration surrounding these moves is high because the Oilers were close to making that dream a reality. The train doors closed on Oilers fans as they were running towards them. They obviously had Hall and Eberle on the roster already, having Hall would’ve eliminated the need to sign Lucic, and all of the players that I listed in the previous paragraph were available to the Oilers with their picks that they traded away in 2015. The fact that the Oilers were so close to being able to have all of these players, which would be the equivalent of boarding the train on time in the example from Dr. Parker, is what drives Oilers fans nuts.

The frustration is real, and it is totally acceptable to feel that way. We have all been waiting for a winner here for far too long. However, it is my opinion that the frustration is leading to arguments for how incompetent Chiarelli is that have flaws.

Any TV show that has ever done an episode where the characters go back in time has taught us that if you change one thing from the past, then you change the future. People complain about Chiarelli having traded a Hart Trophy winner away for an inferior return. There’s no guarantee that Hall would’ve ever won a Hart Trophy if he were still an Oiler. In fact, I’d argue that he would never have won one playing on the same team as McDavid. He was not a Hart Trophy calibre player in 2016, and he had not won the trophy before the trade, so Chiarelli did not trade a Hart Trophy winner. Hall won his Hart after the trade, which simply added to the existing frustration that Oilers fans are feeling. That is counterfactual thinking.

The assumption is that the Oilers would DEFINITELY be a better team with all of the stars that Chiarelli moved or passed on is just that: an assumption. For those who like to dream about McDavid, Draisaitl, Hall, and Eberle together as a group, I always go back to the 32-game sample we had in 2015-16 where all 4 of them played together. Here are the relevant numbers:

McDavid: 36 pts in 32 GP
Draisaitl: 14 pts in 32 GP
Hall: 17 pts in 32 GP
Eberle: 25 pts in 32 GP
Oilers Record: 12-17-3, 27 pts (69 pt pace)

The most important number in my estimation is that record! That 69-point pace isn’t as nice as it sounds. In fact, it is worse than any season since the infamous Hall trade (including this season). McDavid was a rookie, but he was still scoring at more than a point per game pace. Draisaitl and Hall have both evolved as players. They are producing at around twice the pace they did in that season. The Oilers would certainly be better with that group now than they showed in that 32-game sample; but given the other substantial shortcomings that the roster in 2015-16 had, I honestly can’t see how the alternate reality team would be significantly better than the current group, if they would be better at all. The evolution of Hall and Draisaitl alone is supposed to create another 36 points (to get to that magical 95-point mark) in the standings above the team’s pace from that sample to get the Oilers into the playoffs? That’s a big ask.

I’d argue that the group in 2015-16 was so horrible because the defence and goaltending were horrendous. If Hall were still here, then Larsson wouldn’t be here. That would mean everyone on the right side of the defence would be playing a spot higher than they should be. As we’re finding out now with the injuries that the Oilers currently have, that doesn’t lead to success. People say that Chiarelli should’ve signed Demers instead. The trade was made AFTER Demers came here to meet with Chiarelli and to tour Rogers Place. Demers ended up signing in Florida, where he likely got more money than what Chiarelli was offering because they don’t have state tax there. There’s enough evidence to suggest that Demers didn’t want to sign here, yet Oilers fans go back to that because Demers is the one that the Oilers were close to getting. The frustration over him not wanting to sign here and the trade happening is higher because it was close to happening. Counterfactual thinking at work once again. Anyway, a right side featuring only Russell, Benning, and Petrovic wouldn’t make up for the extra offence from having Hall here still. Other moves would have to have been made to shore up the defence. That is a whole other can of worms that I won’t get into here, but it likely would’ve involved trading Nuge, Nurse, or Klefbom.

Look at Florida’s top forwards: Barkov, Huberdeau, Dadonov, Trochek, and Hoffman. That group of five is unreal! Trochek got hurt 18 games into the season this year, so there is a small sample size of them all playing together. They went 8-7-3 in those 18 games. They even have an elite scoring defenceman in Keith Yandle! The roster looks great on paper, but the results aren’t great. They didn’t make the playoffs last year, and they don’t appear poised to do so this season either. In fact, they were one point behind the current Oilers in the standings before last night’s game. How about Eberle’s Islanders with Tavares, Barzal, and Lee last season. They had four legitimate scorers on that team, but they still missed the playoffs last season. I could see the hypothetical Oilers alternate reality team that fans dream of with McDavid, Draisaitl, Hall, and Eberle having a similar fate: expectations that far outweigh their results. Another point on the Islanders: they lost Tavares for nothing in free agency, yet they are currently in a wild card spot in the East. They finished 17 points out of a playoff spot last season with Tavares. They lost an elite point producer and have improved significantly in the standings… that’s strange, isn’t it?

My point is rosters that look amazing on paper don’t always perform well on the ice, and rosters that look horrible on paper don’t always suck. There is a chance that the hypothetical Oilers alternate reality team could be like Toronto and be a contender as well, but it is a flaw in logic to simply assume that would be the case. The Leafs have questions on defence that stop many from proclaiming them as true contenders, which would mirror the Oilers alternate reality team. The goaltending and coaching would also be inferior to what Toronto has.

Along the vein of alternate realities, there’s no guarantee that the Oilers would’ve drafted any of the players that I mentioned previously in the 2015 draft. They could’ve taken Eriksson-Ek, White, Larsson, Carlsson, Roy, Gagne, Bittner, Meloche, or Gropp. If you’re like myself, then you probably don’t know who half of those players are… that’s because they aren’t significant NHLers yet. I’m not defending the Reinhart trade here. I watched him play at the end of the season and in the playoffs with the Islanders that year, and he didn’t look NHL ready to me. It was an evaluation mistake by Chiarelli to think that Reinhart was NHL ready then. The trade was a mistake, but there’s no guarantee that the Oilers would’ve chosen any of the players that have gone on to become stars in the NHL had they kept the picks.

In fact, the odds of the picks that the Oilers gave up turning into stars were actually pretty low. TSN’s Travis Yost posted an article in 2015 about the percentage of players that go on to be NHLers based on draft position. He noted that 80% of 1st rounders go on to play at least 50 NHL games, and 44% of 2nd rounders do the same. Giving up the 1st rounder certainly hurts, but the odds of a 2nd rounder becoming even a low-level replacement player are less than 50%. He also studied teams that acquire two picks in a trade and the odds that those players become NHLers. When acquiring a 1st and a 2nd round pick, the odds are quite high that one of them will turn out: about 90%. That is due to the high likelihood of a 1st rounder panning out. However, the likelihood of BOTH picks turning into NHL players is much lower: about 35%. In this case, the 16th pick was Barzal (STUD), and the 33rd pick was Mitchell Stephens (yet to play an NHL game). Note that Stephens was drafted by the Lightning… that’s because the Isles traded the 33rd pick and a later pick to the Rangers in exchange for the 28th pick, with which they took Anthony Beauvillier, who has become an effective player for the Isles. For any fans that want to play the alternate reality card based on what the Oilers had with Beauvillier, that argument is null and void because the pick used for Beauvillier never belonged to the Oilers.

TSN’s Scott Cullen did a much more specific analysis on the success rate of NHL draft picks by draft position in 2014. He created a measuring system for players based on where they slotted in an NHL line-up and figured out which percentage of players were a 7 (Top 6 F, Top 4 D) or better, and a 5 (NHL Regular) or worse. Here are the results for the 16th and the 33rd picks:

16: 7 or better- 15%, 5 or worse- 75%; 100 games or more- 60%
31-35: 7 or better- 13%, 5 or worse- 84%; 100 games or more- 34%

The odds of that 16th pick turning into an NHL star were quite low. The more likely result would’ve been a bottom of the roster NHLer. The odds of the 33rd pick becoming an impactful NHLer were also pretty low.

Those two picks were moved for Reinhart, the 4th overall pick just 3 years prior. Here are the stats for the 4th pick:

4: 7 or better- 50%, 5 or worse- 30%; 100 games or more- 85%

For even more fun, here’s what Cullen found on defencemen taken in the top 5 of the draft:

D in Top 5: 7 or better- 66.7%, 5 or worse- 12.1%; 100 games or more- 100%

Call Reinhart the first defencemen taken in the top 5 of the draft to not reach 100 NHL games played. The numbers from the articles are old now, but they were quite relevant in the 2015 draft. The odds of Reinhart failing as he did were actually quite low based on where he was drafted. The odds of him succeeding were quite high, and the success rates of the two draft picks that Chiarelli gave away were much lower. The odds actually seemed to favour the Oilers in that trade. I’ll reiterate that the trade was a mistake because Chiarelli did not evaluate Reinhart properly; but for fans that like to think in terms of alternate realities, it is quite easy to imagine an alternate reality where the 16th pick didn’t turn into a star and Reinhart had succeeded based on their draft positions. The argument has just as much logical validity as suggesting that the Oilers would have a dream team if Chiarelli had simply not made any moves.

Even if Chiarelli had kept the picks and picked Barzal and Aho, there’s no guarantee that they would’ve had the success that they have had playing behind McDavid, Draisaitl, Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins. If they had all made the top 6, there’s no guarantee that they would’ve had chemistry with the others. There’s no guarantee that the coaching staff here would’ve had the same impact on those young players that their actual coaches have had. They likely would not have been given the same ice time or the same opportunities that they have been given in reality. That forward group looks incredible on paper, but there’s no guarantee that it would have been as successful as people would expect it to be.

If Oilers fans are going to create an alternate reality where those trades didn’t happen, then they need to look at the other alternate reality where Chiarelli’s roster could have performed better than it actually has. One could imagine that Lucic would’ve continued to produce at a rate closer to his normal 55ish point pace over the course of the last calendar year instead of having his production basically disappear. How about a scenario where Ryan Strome would’ve provided some secondary scoring in an Oilers uniform, or where Ryan Spooner came over and scored at more than a quarter of his pace from last season. Other forwards who have seen major regression in their progression from last year to this year like Rieder, Kassian, Rattie, Puljujarvi, Brodziak, and Yamamoto could’ve actually performed close to how well they are capable of performing. Puljujarvi could’ve performed close to the level of his peers that were drafted near his position in 2016 by now. Andrej Sekera could’ve not been injured twice in the last two seasons. While we’re talking about injuries, Klefbom and Russell could’ve not been hurt and Chiarelli wouldn’t have had to trade for 3rd pairing defence help recently. The Oilers were just as close to this reality as they were to the Hall, Eberle, Barzal, and Aho reality (if not closer), which makes it just as frustrating that it hasn’t worked out that way in my eyes.

The argument that the current roster could be performing at a higher level is just as valid as the argument that the team would be better off had Chiarelli not made the big trades because they are both based in alternate realities. You can’t use concrete stats and facts that have occurred in this reality to support arguments about an alternate reality because when you change one thing about the past, you change the future as well. Just because it happened in this reality, you can’t assume that the same thing would happen in an alternate reality.

There is a chance that Oilers fans are right in thinking that the team would be better off with the alternate reality team than the current team. All I’m getting at is that it is a poor construction for an argument for firing Chiarelli because it is a “what if” scenario. You could create an equal and opposite alternate reality where Chiarelli’s Oilers had won the Stanley Cup last year like some predicted that they would, and where Chiarelli would be loved here. You’re probably laughing at the very thought, but it has just as much logical merit as the opposite alternate reality.

The idea that Chiarelli has screwed the franchise for years to come because of an alternate reality team that fans have constructed based on what could’ve been is flawed as well. The Oilers have finished each season since the Hall trade with more points than in any season in which they had Hall, yet there are a lot of fans saying that the team is worse now than it was in the Decade of Darkness. It may feel like the team is worse off right now because the frustration level is higher in the fan base now. That is because there are higher expectations with McDavid here now and after having made the playoffs once than there ever were with Hall in the fold. Everyone knew those teams didn’t have a chance, so they weren’t as frustrated at the losing. Note that I said “as” frustrated. They were certainly still frustrated, but not to the same extent that they are right now. There’s an expectation to win with the best player in the game on the roster, which is leading to more frustration that the Oilers aren’t winning consistently. The train doors have closed in the faces of most Oilers fans. Counterfactual thinking and alternate realities are a bitch, aren’t they?

I’ve spent a lot of time supporting Chiarelli and looking at most of his trades through a different lens than the angry mob wants to view them through. I really don’t think the outlook is nearly as grim as most fans paint it as being. The bottom line is that professional sports is a results-driven business. If you don’t get results, then you get fired. That’s how it works. If the Oilers look at this season from Chiarelli and decide to fire him because the team either missed the playoffs or limped in, then I’ll be alright with it. The moves he’s made during this season simply haven’t worked. If that’s your argument for firing him, then fine; but the whole “alternate reality” argument is flawed.

admin :

Comments are closed.