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The Auston Matthews Controversy

posted Jan 17, 2018, 8:08 PM by Robert Vollman   [ updated Jan 18, 2018, 8:46 AM ]
My recent article on ESPN Insider explored the idea of trading Auston Matthews, and tried to land on a situation where it might make sense. Despite the modest tone, even the mere suggestion that such a possibility should be examined had exactly the outraged response that any reasonable sportswriter would expect. Even at my beer league game that Friday, someone in the locker room asked me if I heard about the idiot who wrote that Matthews should be traded. 

Well, having taken a week for things to die down and for everyone to move on, I decided to devote today's blog post to this experience, and what I learned from it. The primary focus is on the subject matter itself, but I chose not to completely avoid the non-hockey aspect, and have a few thoughts on online sports debates in general.

1. How Many People Disagree?

The great majority of people completely disagreed with the idea of trading Auston Matthews, but not necessarily because there was anything wrong with the argument itself. In most cases, they simply don't think Matthews shouldn't be traded, no matter what. He could ask for $16 million, lose a leg, and they'd still argue that the building should be burnt to the ground before Lou picks up a phone. Well not really, but you get the idea.

Based on a Twitter poll, only 18% of fans would consider trading Matthews for anything less than a Lindrosian offer (e.g. for McDavid himself, or some crazy haul). That means that no argument would ever persuade most people that this option should receive any consideration.

2. Is Matthews at McDavid's Level?

There are two possible explanations for these results; either Matthews is viewed as the (second) most valuable player in the NHL, or there's a philosophical opinion that a team's top player should never be traded, no matter who it is.

Personally, I think it's the former case. If I ran the same poll with McDavid instead of Matthews, I'd probably get the same response, or even lower than 18%. But, if I ran it with Nikita Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jack Eichel, or anybody like that, I probably wouldn't. I'm totally speculating here, but they'd probably all be safely above 20%, or even 30% and 40%, despite the fact that they each have far more reasonable cap hits.

To test that theory, I ran another poll to see just how many players are classified as non-tradeable, like Matthews and presumably McDavid. If there were only a few, then that means people perceive McDavid and Matthews as sort of a 1A and 1B in the world. If that's the perception that people have, then I can definitely understand why they wouldn't want to trade him under any circumstances. In that case, I should have invested more than one paragraph demonstrating that there are few indications that's he's at that level. And, if some of the NHL front offices feel the same way about Matthews, then that means there's a huge possibility of getting a Lindrosian offer for him.

On the other hand, if there are a lot of players who were felt to be non-tradeable, then it's more a philosophical discussion about trading away franchise players in general. However, the results seem to suggest that's not the reason for the first poll's results, and therefore Matthews must be perceived to be in very, very select company of five or fewer players.

3. Should You Ever Trade a Franchise Player?

Despite those results, some of the objections I saw through social media, on message boards, and in the comments involved a philosophical opposition to the idea of trading franchise players at all. Many felt that Lindros was pretty much the only example of a case where that worked out.

This is really a separate topic but, even if it's true, we need to know why it rarely works out. There are any number of reasons why trading franchise players hasn't worked out in the past (assuming that's the case), and some of them might not apply anymore, nor may they apply to this situation. Just knowing that something hasn't happened in the past (assuming it didn't) isn't enough -- we need to know why. This would be a great future study, no doubt.

4. Are Centres More Important Than D-Men?

Another great topic for future study is whether it makes sense to trade away a franchise centre, especially for a defenseman. To defend this theory, some fans pointed to recent Stanley Cup winners, and argued that almost all of them had a franchise centre.

First of all, it's a matter of opinion just how many recent Stanley Cup winners truly had a franchise centre -- which means they must be among the NHL's top five at that position. Sidney Crosby certainly qualifies, but do Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, and Jonathan Toews? Perhaps -- but there's an argument either way. I chose top five arbitrarily, because by definition the majority of the 16 playoffs teams are likely to have someone in the top 10.

Secondly, the pool of Stanley Cup winners is pretty small -- just four teams in the past eight years. If we expanded the list to include all Stanley Cup finalists, would we find the same pattern? Last year, two of the four finalists were strong down the middle (Pittsburgh and Anaheim) and two weren't (Nashville and Ottawa). That's still not enough data on which to judge, but if it was true that you MUST have a franchise centre to be a contender, then they should be overwhelmingly present among the finalists, and mostly absent from the early eliminations.

While that's certainly another great study for another day, I can venture an opinion on that right now. In short, my position is that teams should maximize the value of their roster regardless of position. At times, one position or type of player is overvalued and hard to acquire, and at other times they're plentiful and affordable. You need to navigate these "market fluctuations" and assemble the best possible roster at any given time. For most teams and at most times, that won't always include a franchise centre. However, this is a matter of personal opinion, and I don't have any kind of formal study to back it up.

5. What Would be a Fair Return for Matthews?

Sometimes, the counter-argument was there was just no way for any team to construct a fair offer for Matthews that was in any way realistic for the other team. Well, part of my theory was that some team would get swept up in the same hype and hysteria that we saw from the fan response to this article, and actually make an offer that was far too generous, and not in their own interest. 

Quite frankly, it's difficult to construct a win-win trade that involved Matthews -- but not impossible. Since I was mostly exploring the merit of the whole idea, I only pitched a couple of rough ideas that pointed in the right direction. However, Evan Presement took a closer look on Leafs Nation, if you want to explore this idea further.

6. Couldn't Toronto Get a D-Man Another Way?

Absolutely. For Toronto, Plan A has to be to find that last missing piece of a strong, top-pair defenseman through free agency, or by trading away picks, prospects, or players other than the team's franchise player. Worst case scenario, Plan B would involve moving someone like Mitchell Marner or William Nylander instead.

Just because trading Matthews isn't Plan A doesn't mean that it shouldn't be considered at all. Toronto needs to get on top of all of its options, right? If the veteran free agents and players like Marner and Nylander all sign very reasonable contracts, or if no other organizations seem to be offering much in exchange for any of them, then Toronto has to be ready to start moving down the list to Plan C and D --although trading Matthews is probably more like Plan K or Plan L.

There was at least one fan on social media that was particularly passionate about this point, and felt that it should have been the focal point of the article, instead of focusing on Matthews. In fact, he got very passionate. I love passion, because without passionate fans, there wouldn't be a demand for sportswriters. And, I always have the greatest respect for the opinions of others -- not that anybody needs that to have one!

Usually, most fans settle down when you respond respectfully and cordially, back off the hyperbole, and engage in grounded discussion. However, with a topic like this, some fans get understandably swept up in their passion. In one particular case, because this fan would have gone in this different direction with the piece, he argued that my work was sad and insane, and that fans deserve better than a lazy troll writing irresponsible nonsense who doesn't show his work, has deliberate omissions and egregious oversights, dodges questions, and only cares about money and clicks. Surprisingly, he didn't classify any of that as either hyperbole, or a personal attack. However, I do think he captured the spirit of most fans.

7. Were There A Lot of Personal Attacks?

Yes, but not nearly as many as I expected. 

We're getting off topic a little bit, but I didn't want to ignore these types of questions completely, because I do think things have become more civil than they used to be. Years ago, when I worked for Bleacher Report, it was perfectly normal to be subjected to a stream of vulgarities and profanities after even the most benign article, not to mention threats, questions about my sexuality, and detailed accounts of intimate encounters with my mother. I honestly had no idea my mother was so popular until I became a sportswriter. To my knowledge, none of that was the case this past week, so either my mother has settled down, or things have become more civil.

Yes, I got called an idiot, a moron, a troll, and so on, but that's really no big deal. For example, Dean Blundell tweeted that "ESPN’s Rob Vollman Thinks The Leafs Should Trade Auston Matthews. Also Rob Vollman is an idiot." On his website, he proceeded to quote the entire article EXCEPT the conclusion, probably because it didn't fit his narrative. Here's the conclusion:

Most of the people who argued with me were essentially paraphrasing my own closing words. That's why it isn't unreasonable to suspect that Blundell left off this closing argument on purpose.

That being written, I'm also surprised that he would post (almost) the entire article on his website. I don't do that on my website, and I wrote the darn thing. All you'll find here is the opening paragraph and a link to ESPN Insider. After all, I don't own this work (and neither does Blundell) -- ESPN does. Even if I wanted to use my own work in another article or another book, I'd have to reference the original piece.

Speaking of ESPN, I'm also surprised that so many of the personal attacks were aimed at them, instead of me. Or, at least, in addition to me!

None of this really bothers me, because I believe in my work. I didn't just roll out of bed and write this article, it's based on the model introduced in the first chapter of Stat Shot. I believe in this model. It's the culmination of many of our field's major advances, it has worked well in countless other situations, and it's similar to models in use in NHL front offices. 

Some detractors told me I should be fired, or that I should quit and do something else, but the reality is quite the opposite. If I didn't believe in my work enough to write this article, THAT is the day I should quit (or get fired).

8. Was it Clickbait?

Despite all the work that went into it, popular opinion was that this article qualified as clickbait. To be honest, I wasn't even sure what that even meant before this past week.

I've never been accused of writing clickbait before. This is my 10th season at ESPN, and I have also written for several other sites, and this has never come up for either me, or the site's other writers. In fact, I even had to look up what clickbait even was.

The most common definition for clickbait is "content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page." I guess the key phrase there is "main purpose", since every article seeks to attract attention and wants to encourage people to check it out. Further research adds some clarifying criteria to this definition, such as it has to be full of ads and designed to increase advertising revenue, and the content itself is usually of no merit whatsoever, and possibly even unrelated to the title.

Since there are no ads on ESPN's website, since I don't get paid by the click, and since the article itself clearly involved a great deal of research (whether you agreed with it or not), it certainly doesn't appear to be clickbait. In fact, nobody who was familiar with me or my work, and very few people who actually read the article classified it as such. I was even honoured when Richard Deitsch tweeted that "I would not deal Auston Matthews. But this was a reported and intellectual look at such a potential deal. Appreciate seeing something smart when I expected a pure page views play." And, in a recent article for The Hockey Writers, Ben Brown wrote that "the article itself was thought-provoking, and there was a lot of statistical analysis to support the premise, but I’m still not buying what Vollman is selling, for various reasons."

In my view, both Deitsch and Browne accurately summed up the prevailing opinion of those who really keep up to speed on hockey journalism -- that they appreciate the argument that was made, but they disagree.

However, I can certainly understand how someone would think it was clickbait based solely on the title. If they were unfamiliar with me or my work, and didn't read the actual article, then they would have no way of knowing the difference between this article, and actual clickbait, based on the title alone. For that reason, it's hard to take any of this too personally.

9. Who Wrote the Title?

I didn't choose the title ("The Case for Trading Auston Matthews"). In fact, I've never chosen a title. Titles are typically chosen by the site's editor, as are any accompanying photos. Sometimes, the title even changes after an article is published. Obviously, the writer can suggest title, and object to the editor's choices, but this is the standard practice everywhere that I have worked.

10. Who Chose the Topic?

I did. On occasion, the editor assigns me a topic, but usually I pitch a variety of ideas, and they pick their favourite one, or a slight variation thereof. In this case, this was my only pitch. It was something I've been meaning to write for awhile, and now seemed like the right time to do it.

Normally, the editor just gives me a red light or a green light, but this time I got a yellow light. He wanted to know more about my particular angle. Once I laid it out, he loved it, and I forged ahead. I also filed it earlier than usual because we wanted to make sure that the arguments were clear and well-defended, and that I struck the right, modest tone.

Still, we weren't ignorant to the reality that it would cause a lot of controversy. If anything, that was a minus, not a plus. But, ESPN does pride itself on offering content that you can't get elsewhere, and you have to admit that they certainly achieve that goal this time. Thanks for reading.