Dear Steve: The Team is Doing Great Without You. Not Missing You At All. Love, the Dallas Stars

After the Dallas Stars more-or-less fired Steve Avery in December, they have gone 14-7-3 for 31 points in 24 games.  Before the firing, they were 8-11-4 for 20 points (23 games).  Well over 1 point per game after, vs. well under that before.

Another example, it appears, of addition by subtraction. But there are plenty of people who don’t seem to understand how a team could ever be better off by removing a problem player. Even, it seems, people who sit all day in offices that say “Coach”, “GM”, or “President” on the door.

Some people, unfortunately, are just “toxic”.  By their very presence on a team, they bring a loss of productivity, due to various drains on the emotional energy of the team.  Drama rarely enhances anything, except the status of the instigator. And it doesn’t matter that much what their star power is, or how often they’ve been on SportsCenter Top Ten Plays, or how valuable they are in fantasy leagues.

Teams that want to win have goals that often conflict with accumulation of individual stats. And one of those goals is, or should be, good people in the locker room.

In some sports, it might not matter as much if a player is toxic:  baseball, perhaps, and to some extent, basketball.  Baseball, even though I love it, is not a true “team” sport, really; it’s mostly an individual game, where the matchups between pitcher and batter go a long way in determining the outcome. Basketball is more of a team game than baseball because basketball relies on teamwork on both offense and defense, and the teams that play the best as a team often go far into the playoffs.

But hockey and football are the true team sports, because they are most demanding of the individual, in the service of the team.  There are positions devoted to getting physically beat up so that others can score the points; no other sport asks that of its players.  Frankly, it’s a big part of the appeal for me, because I’m all about team.  I love the idea of offensive linemen fighting in the trenches, digging in the mud and the muck so that the quarterback can get the glory for the touchdown pass that helps the team win.  I admire the enforcer in hockey whose job is to create havoc on the ice by checking like a wild man and taking punishment so that the star players don’t have to. And I love the idea that players willingly do this; it is this sacrifice that bonds the team tighter than other sports.

So when a hockey player is identified as toxic by his teammates, and his coaches, and his GM, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s toxic.  Same with football.

Even the financial people bought in on this decision, knowing they owe him something like $12M-14M over the next three plus years.  That is a big pile of “see ya!”.

Teams don’t do this often enough, quite frankly.  Instead of asking “why get rid of this guy”, they should be asking “why keep this guy” about everybody on their roster, all the time.  But they are often fatefully wedded to the idea that if you sign a guy to an expensive long-term deal, and it goes bad, you’re still better off keeping him around, to get your money’s worth.  Or if he scores enough goals, or drives in enough runs, he’s ipso facto a valuable player. This ignores the potential downsides of keeping such players around:  divisiveness in the clubhouse, low morale, undercutting the authority of the coaches and management, and playing for individual stats instead of the team, among other things.

But since all these downsides are unquantifiable, many people don’t assign them much weight.  So we tend to over-emphasize the value of players who pile up big “numbers” and under-emphasize the value of certain “character” players who don’t.

Or maybe it’s partly because the reputations of GMs would be called into question if they admit mistakes in signing players.  You just know that explains some of this, anyway.

Obviously, these are tough calls, and just because a guy is considered “high maintenance” is not enough to cut him loose, normally.  But when the whole team and coaching staff does not want you around any more, and neither does the guy who still owes you $12M, the team is probably better off without you, no matter what kind of stats you can bring to the table.

And I hope to see more of this; all sports would be better off if the ownership, management, and coaching staff were a little more disciplined.


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