Sports fans (and, well, human beings in general) are cursed by a thing called recency bias. In real life situations, it causes us to overvalue examples that are fresh in our minds, even if they aren’t representative of the whole situation.
In a local sports example, this causes fans to compare Teddy Bridgewater to Christian Ponder — two players similar in profile in that they are both quarterbacks chosen in the first round by the Vikings, but two players very different in so many other ways. There are thousands of quarterbacks to whom we could compare Bridgewater, but a lot of fans get stuck on Ponder.
And, well, there is another recent victim: Eric Staal. The veteran center, signed by the Wild to a three-year, $10.5 million contract last week, met the local media face-to-face Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild, in the organization’s seemingly never-ending quest to add scoring punch, has ventured into this type of territory before with less-than-perfect results.
Of particular note: the acquisition of Dany Heatley at age 30. He was once a 50-goal scorer. With the Wild, he tallied 47 goals in three seasons. Also: the acquisition of Thomas Vanek at age 30. He was a prolific scorer in his younger days, but he registered just 39 combined goals in two seasons with the Wild before Minnesota recently bought him out.
The natural inclination is to look at the signing of Staal, who will turn 32 soon after the start of the upcoming season, and make comparisons to Heatley and Vanek.
There are logical reasons for this. Staal has five 30-goal seasons (and two 40-goal seasons) on his resume, but none have come in the past five seasons. Last year he had just 13 goals — fewest since his rookie year. Like Heatley and Vanek, he is entering that age bracket when players start to fade.
But overall, comparing Staal to those players is primarily a function of the recency bias trap. Because he’s a much different player than either one.
First, he’s a center while the other two are wings. Second, a look at the advanced stats shows Staal’s puck possession numbers in recent years have actually improved even while his scoring declined. Heatley and Vanek got worse on both fronts, as their overall games deteriorated along with their scoring touch.
That lends credibility to the idea that Staal’s decreased output could be more a function of the situations he was used in, not an erosion of his skills. It also speaks to the idea that even if Staal isn’t lighting up the scoreboard, he can still be a useful player.
I mentioned the narrative of failed Wild veteran scorer to Staal on Wednesday, with the end of the question being this: how are you different? Here it is, in his words:
“Well, hopefully we’ll find out next year that I am different,” he said. “I think some of the other guys they had here, I’m a different type of player. … The NHL nowadays isn’t all about scoring goals. (Sidney) Crosby won the Conn Smythe and didn’t have a goal in the finals.
“I would love to be a contributor offensively and produce — that’s my main focus and goal — but I feel like I can be an effective and important piece no matter how it plays out.”