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Sticking up for Thomas Vanek and skilled players

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Hypocrites! Hypocrites, all of you! Sabres fans are coming out of the woodwork to stand up for Thomas Vanek now that he’s a member of that hallowed club known as the “Sabres alumni”. When he was actually on the team, it was a different story.

From 2005-2013 I heard non-stop complaints from Sabres fans that #26 didn’t skate hard enough, didn’t shoot often enough, was too soft, and too streaky. But now that people outside the 716 are saying the same things, some Sabres fans are apparently realizing how stupid they sounded. There will always be a contingent of Vanek-haters in Buffalo, but it sure feels like he’s more popular than ever in the city he just left.

The new consensus among Sabres fans – that Vanek is one of the league’s best goalscoring talents who could improve any unit – is correct. It’s just a shame that we had to wait until he was with the freaking Habs to recognize it.

Buffalo fans seem to chronically underrate highly skilled players and overvalue roleplayers, often elevating them to mythic proportions. (Did you know Jim Lorentz killed a fucking bat? He totally did. Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard.)  This tendency – putting too much blame on stars and attributing too much credit to the supporting cast – might exist throughout hockey. But it’s shocking how universal and blinding it is in Buffalo. Until they’re gone, we can’t seem to accept great players.

Take for example Buffalo’s favorite athlete. Art Voice tells me that’s Jim Kelly. But back when he was actually playing football, fans were voting for Frank Reich to start instead. Good ol’ blue-collar-Christian Frank was very popular compared to hard-partying-bachelor-glory-boy Kelly. Today it’s laughable to suggest that the Bills would have been better off starting Reich over Kelly, no matter how great a back-up he was. But in the early 90s – including after Kelly had won consecutive AFC championships – it was (somehow) a serious debate. Thank god it didn’t happen in today’s world, or we would have suffered years of “Is Jim Kelly elite??” arguments on ESPN.

The Kelly-Reich controversy was not an anomaly. Buffalo fans have often been willing to kick our best players to the curb. Many were happy to see Dominik Hasek traded to Detroit. Calls to trade Ryan Miller were an everyday occurrence throughout his run with the team. Danny Briere was labeled greedy and heartily booed his first time returning to Buffalo. How dare he take a higher-paying job in another city! No true Buffalonian would ever do that!

In general, we as people love the opportunity to criticize those with talents that we don’t have. We also are crazy about appearing busy and overworked. That’s an American trend that I think is a big part of the dynamic I’m describing here. It’s actually kind of offensive to us to see people succeed without visibly struggling. And that’s what star athletes can appear to do.

I get why people accuse Vanek of being lazy. They’re just completely wrong. His skating is so smooth and controlled, his vision on the ice so good that he doesn’t have to spend a lot of energy catching up to plays. He makes it look easy, and we hate that.

What do we love? The Hardest Working Team in Hockey. Family Values Frank Reich. D3 Fred Jackson. The Mair’s Office. The Amish Rifle. Don’t Cross the Moats. The list goes on.

It’s natural to like those stories because they’re easier to identify with. But does it make sense if you want to win? How hard people appear to be working is a really bad mental shortcut for determining how much value they create. The person that hurries through your office with a frown might not be getting any more work done than the person who casually strolls by with a smile. We just perceive them that way.

In fact, the person hurrying might be accomplishing much less and merely trying to look busy so no one discovers how little they actually do. Or, the hurrying employee may be a slacker that fell behind out of carelessness. Or, it might just simply be different personalities with no difference in output.

If winning is our goal, we can’t fall in to the trap of treating struggle like success. Ignore talking heads who harp on “motor”, “drive”, “heart”, “grit”, or a hundred other buzzwords that may or may not actually mean anything. Ignore the fans and media who bitch about Stevie not lifting weights in the offseason or Mario Williams having a mini-fridge in his locker, as if cold beverages being nearby means you don’t care about winning.

In Physics, work = force x displacement. You can spend as much energy as you want pushing against a brick wall, but zero work has been done if you don’t move it. The same principle should apply in sports. If you’re a “grinder” who “gives 110%” because you’re just too slow to keep up and you never actually get to the puck (looking at you, Paul Gaustad), I don’t want to reward your effort. Your effort was wasted. We should reward production, and an “eye test” isn’t good enough for that.

Produce is all Vanek did, more consistently and at a higher level than any Sabres goal-scorer I can recall. Briere’s tenure with the team was short; he played over 50 games for Buffalo in just two seasons (7 for Vanek). Same story for Pat LaFontaine, who tallied over 30 points in a season for Buffalo just three times (8 for Vanek). Mogilny too had a much shorter run with Buffalo than Vanek, and Vanek never had a center like Pat LaFontaine or Pierre Turgeon to work with (remember that in 06-07 Vanek was usually on a line with Afinogenov and Roy, not with either Drury or Briere).

The best comparison for Vanek in the last twenty years of Sabres history is another good example of Buffalo fans tearing down great players while overhyping role players: Miroslav Satan. Satan was the Sabres’ only credible scoring threat for an entire era, surpassing 50 points for 6 consecutive seasons on a team whose second point-getter was often Curtis Brown or Chris Gratton. For all his production, what did Satan get? Booed out of the building, booed every time he touched the puck when he returned.

Like Vanek, Satan produced consistently and in “clutch” moments, but suffered harsh criticism when his teammates were lackluster around him. Sabres fans that long accused Satan of only scoring meaningless goals and going dry in big moments got what they deserved when Satan put pucks in Buffalo’s net in the 2006 and 2010 playoffs.

If fans just want to cheer for players they can identify with, they can. But if winning is the goal, we should prioritize production. And if we’re going to love our star players once they leave anyway, we should allow ourselves to enjoy their time in Buffalo too.

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