Vancouver Canucks: Cognitive Bias in the Luca Sbisa Case

Feb 14, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa (5) skates against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 14, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa (5) skates against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa isn’t what fans and management were hoping to get when he was acquired. But he also isn’t the worst player of all time who should be gotten rid of at the earliest convenience.

On Tuesday, I attempted to make an easy-to-understand case for Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luca Sbisa. It might need some additional elaboration.

To get my point across, I used some advanced stats that seemingly prove that Sbisa is much better than many think. As was pointed out in the comments, though, saying “Sbisa tied for sixth in the league in goals for percentage relative to team mates” while Shea Weber ranked 190th, doesn’t tell the whole story. Weber was elite and arguably still is close to elite while Sbisa isn’t and most likely never will be.

I used selected stats to prove my point without putting them into too much context. In other words, I used stats, not analysis.

“WTF, Luca Sbisa?!?!?!”

Luckily, Nucks Misconduct user Gwailoh somewhat accidentally gave a perfect explanation for what I tried to prove:

"It’s just comforting to know my impression that Sbisa was playing better last year is supported by some analytic measures as opposed to my analysis of the ongoing tally of how many times I scream, “WTF, [player’s name]?!?!?” at the TV during games.For the sake of science, it should be noted that the number of “WTF, Sbisa?!?!?” screams was significantly lower last season than they were in ‘14-’15."

Whether you are the type of sports fan who actually yells at his TV or not, you will at least have thought “WTF, Sbisa” more than once in your life. And you had every reason to.

But, you also might have noticed that those times drastically decreased last season — not only because Sbisa missed half the season due to injury. Sbisa actually played better than the year before, and it showed in his stats.

He may have had an above-average PDO, meaning he was lucky, and his weak team mates may have inflated his relative stats. But of course, you don’t stand out among your bad team mates when you play bad yourself.

With Sbisa on the ice, the Canucks surrendered surprisingly few goals last season, even though we all had the occasional “WTF, Sbisa” moment. If you feel like you had a lot of “WTF, Sbisa” moments and don’t actually believe he played decently, there is an explanation for that as well.

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias describes several aspects that naturally make you think bad things of a person no matter how well that person does whatever they do. It all starts with the first impression bias.

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Have you ever had a teacher hate you because you screwed up on day one and made a bad first impression? Have you ever made a bad impression in a job interview and hence didn’t get the job, despite being the perfect candidate? There are many situations where a bad first impression can lead to bad future events, and it’s the same thing in sports.

When a new player comes to a team and he doesn’t play well in the first few games, your brain automatically saves that player as a bad one. And, honestly, no one can blame you for thinking Sbisa was a bad player in his first season with the Canucks. This first impression bias was intensified thanks to Sbisa’s $3.6 million cap hit and role he was acquired for. You expected a top-four player and Sbisa made a bad first impression for that role.

That leads us to what is probably the best-known cognitive bias — the so-called confirmation bias.

You now have that first impression of Sbisa cemented into your brain. So, without even trying, every time you watch him, you look for the bad things he does. You don’t have to actively search, you just naturally jump at the mistakes he makes.

After making a bad first impression, a player can win possession five times, set up three odd-man rushes and play a breakout pass that leads to a goal. But the second that player trips on the backcheck to allow a scoring chance against, your brain makes you yell “WTF, [player’s name]?!?!”

That’s natural and is hard to turn off, especially for a passionate sports fan. It is also one of the hardest things about scouting.


So why am I telling you all this?

After hearing so many bad things about Sbisa and after speculating about how he could be traded for months, I just wanted to say something positive about the guy. Because, really, he isn’t that bad of a player. He is overpaid and not a top-four defenseman at this point, but he is a serviceable NHL player.

Without looking at context, that is even enough to beat Shea Weber by a mile in some stats, tying a player like Victor Hedman. Again, you don’t get those bad numbers as a bad player, no matter how many minutes you played with the top offensive line or how bad your team mates are.

Luca Sbisa is not Shea Weber. He is not Victor Hedman. He is not John Klingberg.

But he is a serviceable NHL player, and he is a good player to have on your bottom pairing.