Is Character Overvalued?

By Jmacwilli (aka Say my Name)

Character.  Fans love to tout their favorite players as being worth exponentially more to their team because of this notion of "heart and soul", or "character", or being an "identity player".  From nervous hand-wringing to abject anger directed at anyone who dare consider these players as expendable they light up blogs with their fear and/or venom.

The funny thing is this notion is rarely considered by GM's as they are putting together their teams, and rightfully so.  A player is judged 98% on his skills and effectiveness, 2% "character".  And no, I am not talking about whether he rescues cats from trees and smiles at children, rather that "game" character that fans endlessly drone on about. 

THAT kind of character is the kind that is applied to successful teams/individuals in retrospect…after performance has occurred.  Doesn't anyone find it interesting that you never hear of "character" players who don't perform?  Were it so critical wouldn't there be at least ONE team who kept a below average performer (impact – not stats) simply for such a rare and vital trait?  And what of losing teams?  Why do we hear so little about the character of terrible teams?  Are they simply devoid of character?  C'mon you know the answer… 

Holy King Messier just oozed character, right? It was instrumental to the success of both the Oilers and the Rangers, right?  Well, what happened when he went to Vancouver?  Did the most charismatic leader in perhaps ALL sports suddenly LOSE his character?  Or, and more likely, did character simply not move the needle as compared to being less effective due to age and not playing with skilled players like Leetch, Kovalev, Richter, Zubov, Graves, Lowe, Gretzky, Beukeboom, Nemchinov, Anderson, etc…?

The identity of a team is not shaped by these "character" guys.  (Read that again.) The identity of a team is shaped by how it performs…and performance is 98% skill and preparation….NOT this mystical "character" most fans worry about.  But…whoa..once a team wins, or a player performs…oh sure…the character was INSTRUMENTAL, FANTASTIC, VITAL, IRREPLACEABLE. 

Ha!  If the fans had their way they would keep everyone they believed had this magic grease…and yet still be the first to condemn them when the 98% NON-intangible elements of their game declined with age.  What is Callahan's character going to be worth when he can't bang someone on the boards?  What will Girardi's character be worth when he can't keep up with a winger, or clear the crease?  The same vitriol spewed by those who said the Rangers dare not lose this "character" will crash down on these players like a tsunami of hypocrisy. 

Fortunately, sports teams are not run by fans.  GM's understand that the only thing required for fielding a winner is skill and preparation.  Hell…most veterans are not even required.  College football programs turn over their "veterans" often every TWO years and still field fantastic teams that play with all the "heart and soul" in the world.  Hmmm…not sold because you think the competition across the board is level?  The US Olympic hockey team took a bunch of kids and managed to beat a world of PROFESSIONALS, with ZERO veterans. Success beyond measure.  Egad!…how did they do that without any players over twenty-five? Without proven "character" guys???  Military units assemble "heart and soul" in WEEKS.  Within any team, character is simply performance.  

The interesting thing about free agency is that fans continually think of it as keeping players they "don't want to lose" while in reality it is the opposite.  Excluding the VERY few super-star players, the GM's of virtually every physical sport would ALWAYS prefer to have ALL of it's players under 25 rather than over.  However, the simple truth is that there are not enough good players in their early to mid-twenties to fill the rosters league wide.    Therefore GM's are forced to keep an assortment of players older than their mid-twenties in order to field a competitive team.  The equation therefore is not who do they want to keep, rather who are they forced to keep.  Which one of these players whose dollars are going up while their physical condition is peaking or declining is the least  likely to harm your team over the long term?  The GM's are insurance actuaries who would much rather cut these players loose and are now forced to gamble on  the least "bad" scenario of declining cost to performance ratios.

So, how does this relate to the Rangers?  Take a look at the team.  Forget about how they play when they are at "the top of their game".  (All logical assessments dismiss the deviations farthest from the center of the bell curve) Do the Rangers as presently constructed have a team which can, when rolled out on a night of their AVERAGE performance, play with or beat the upper echelon teams average performance?  No, of course not.  Only a fool would disagree. 

So…now that we have hopefully dismantled the fan's illusion of "character", it would be in the Rangers best interest to trade virtually any player who is not a "top-tier NHL superstar" for any younger and cheaper player who could offer similar performance over the next few years WHILE CONSIDERING the likely decline due to age in the player you are letting go.  Ipso facto – trade old for young.  And…as the Rangers do not really have ANY "top-tier NHL super star" players….this means that everyone would be available…any time…any year….until you have what you think CAN compete on an average night with the upper echelon teams in the NHL. 

After that, let the skill, youth and preparation take over and watch them win, again and again and again.  THEN watch (and laugh) when all the less knowledgeable fans "ooo" and "aww" at all of the "character" on the team.