Thursday, December 18, 2008

Random Thoughts a Week Before Christmas

Who at this point of the NHL and NBA seasons correctly predicted the Leafs to be closer to a playoff position than the Raptors? Anyone? Buhler?

When thinking of the Raptors’ current situation (mostly with my face in my hands and shaking my head) I can’t help but be reminded of the classic Ron Burgundy line from ‘Anchorman’: “Boy, that escalated quickly…I mean that really got out of hand fast!” From a 3-0 start, to firing Sam Mitchell only 16 games in, to an awful 5-8 record at home.

At least Chris Bosh looks fresh.

And two things about the Leafs:

1) Brian Burke has been in Toronto for nearly three weeks and we’ve hardly heard a peep out of him. I wasn’t expecting daily appearances on the Up Front segment of ‘Off the Record’ or one-on-one interviews with the Star or Globe taking readers inside his new Rosedale digs, but…nothing? Couldn’t someone from the middle of the media scrum lob in a Kevin Lowe question and then duck? Is that too much to ask?

2) For all the Leaf fans salivating at the thought of pushing Tomas Kaberle out of town: Calm down. His salary is a very reasonable $4.15M a year. Or less than Mathieu Schneider, Ron Hainsey, Lubomir Visnovsky, Kim Johnsson, Sheldon Souray, Roman Hamrlik, Michal Rozsival, Wade Redden, and Eric Brewer. Would you really take any of those players over Kaberle? I wouldn’t. Has he looked great this year? No. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still extremely valuable (perhaps the Leafs' best player) and again, is tremendously affordable. Unless a team wants to overpay, I don’t think Burke moves him. How do you replace what Kaberle provides at that price moving forward?

As for a certain former Maple Leaf Captain who is reportedly set to join the Rangers, I ask: What happened to your refusing to be dealt at last year’s deadline because you “never believed in the concept of a rental player” and felt that to truly appreciate winning a Stanley Cup “you have to have been part of the entire journey and that means October through June.”

If your goaltending tandem consists of Alex Auld and Martin Gerber, and your defence is as mobile as Kurt Warner in the pocket, can you really be surprised or upset that you find yourself on the outside of the playoff race?

In Montreal fans and media alike are jumping all over the Habs powerplay (or lack thereof after going 2 for their last 37 which has plummeted the unit all the way to 29th in the league) and overall lack of intensity and urgency, but I think Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey are quietly comfortable with their position. This season, the 100th in the illustrious history of the Canadiens, was always going to be a grind no matter how it played out. With the extra CBC games providing even more exposure, the huss and fuss over the All-Star Game including the ballot-stuffing efforts of the local faithful, and the plethora of impending free agents, expectations and pressure could easily get out of hand in Montreal. The ‘slow’ start has tempered that, and it’s probably a good thing in the long run. Let Boston deal with the spotlight for now and focus on building momentum towards the playoffs.

While I wrote that paragraph the San Jose Sharks won three more times and now have a remarkable 124 points through 30 games.

The NHL isn’t exactly experiencing a scoring renaissance: Total goals per game are up slightly, but still remain at less than 6 per contest, a far cry from the free-wheeling days of the 80’s and early 90’s. On the flip side however, more players are stepping up their production to the point that we could see the league’s largest group of bonafide snipers since the turn of the century. As of this morning five players are on pace for 50 goal seasons (Ovechkin, Vanek, Carter, Kessel, Parise) and another eight are on pace for 40+ goals (Sharp, Gagne, Iginla, Marleau, Hossa, Boyes, Setoguchi, Zetterberg).

Fantasy Sports tangent: For me, Kessel is a player whose performance is bitter sweet. I drafted him each of the last two years expecting him to break out only to suffer through terrible seasons. This year I stayed away and sure enough he summons his inner Ovechkin and goes on a tear. It’s times like these when I consider whether investing so much time admiring or cursing my roster, and contemplating trades is worth it. (Thinking...) Yes. Yes it is.

The best part of Angelo Esposito finally making the World Junior Team in his fourth attempt was not having to watch him give another choked-up interview at six in the morning minutes after being cut. That would have been tough.

A month into baseball’s free agent season the Yankees have spent $250 million upgrading their rotation and the Rays and Red Sox will both return nearly every key player from last year’s playoff rosters. The Jays answer? Signing Matt Clement and Adam Loewen to minor league deals. Do the Orioles smell blood?

Friday, December 12, 2008

2008: The Best Canadian Performances

10. Chantal Petitclerc – The recent recipient of the Lou Marsh award as Canadian Athlete of the year was nothing short of dominant at the Paralympic Games last summer where she won five gold medals, three in world record times.

9. The Men's Eight Rowing team – After an extremely disappointing first week of Olympic competition for Canada, the heavily favoured Men’s Eight Rowing team captured gold and ignited the entire Canadian team.

8. Steve Nash - Although Nash failed to lead the NBA in assists for the first time in four seasons, the All-Star point guard continued his excellent play that once again made his Phoenix Suns one of the most entertaining squads in the league. (Until they screwed up and traded for Shaq.)

7. Adam van Koeverden - Entering the Beijing Games under heavy pressure as the Canadian Flag bearer van Koeverden struggled to an 8th place finish in the 1000m but rebounded to win a silver medal in the K-1 500.

6. Jason Bay - After essentially being traded for Manny Ramirez, Bay arrived in Boston at the trade deadline with very big shoes to fill…and proceeded to do just that. Knocking in 37 runs in 49 regular season games was only a warm-up, as Bay then went out and hit two decisive homers to carry the Red Sox past Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs.

5. Alexandre Despatie - Somehow managed to contend with the nearly perfect Chinese divers and ended up claiming a silver medal in the 3M springboard.

4. Jarome Iginla - The Captain of the Calgary Flames cracked the 50 goal mark for the second time in his career and led the Flames to their fourth straight playoff appearance.

3. Georges St.Pierre - Started off the year by re-claiming his UFC Welterweight title in front of his home fans in Montreal and then successfully defended the title in a unanimous decision over Jon Fitch in August.

2. The Canadian WJHC team – Won it’s fourth straight Gold Medal at the under-20 world hockey championship with a roster that once again featured several players who would shortly graduate to the NHL.

1. Simon Whitfield - The Kingston native provided the most electrifying finish to a triathlon ever when he roared from fourth all the way to the lead in the last minutes of the race, but wasn’t quite able to hang on and had to settle for Silver.

Friday, December 5, 2008

From 'Jumper' to...

In honor of the movie Jumper, starring Hayden Christensen and Rachel Bilson, this edition of the Canadian Sports Junkie bounces around from subject to subject.

I haven't actually seen Jumper, but I have seen the extended trailer and it felt like I saw the entire film. I figure this column will flow much like I imagine the movie did. For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, here's how IMDB describes it:

"A genetic anomaly allows a young man to teleport himself anywhere. He discovers this gift has existed for centuries and finds himself in a war that has been raging for thousands of years between "Jumpers" and those who have sworn to kill them."

Ok, so after reading that maybe this isn’t an exact replica of the formula, but I’m prepared to give it a try...

You see, originally this was going to be a column about 'What Sam Mitchell Could Do Next', a tongue-in-cheek piece suggesting the Raptors coach was about to be fired and therefore should be touching up his resume and thinking about all the new things he could fill his time with. But then Bryan Colangelo went out and fired the guy before I could post the article.

These were a few of the ideas:
1) Make mix-tapes for Kevin Garnett.
2) Learn how to correctly draw-up an inbound pass play.
3) Count his money: Mitchell is owed the remainder of his $3 million salary this year, a full $3M for next year, plus a buyout of the final year. Anyone still wondering why Jay Triano got the 'interim' gig and will reportedly hold it until the summer? (Hint: He's already on the payroll.)

As a Raptors fan, I'm happy with the move. Sam improved the team during his four-and-a-half-year tenure and did a solid job overall, but last year's playoff defeat and this year's plateauing efforts meant it was time for a change.

With that article's shelf life over before it ever began, I immediately turned to the biggest most monumental story currently happening in Canada: Sean Avery confirming for the umpteenth time that he is a total jerk. This is somehow 100 times more newsworthy than our government being in total chaos and perfectly illustrates why only 59% of registered voters in this country turned out six weeks ago.

But I’m the Canadian Sports Junkie, not the Canadian Politics Junkie, so, back to Avery. I'm not condoning what he said by any means (indeed, it was in poor taste), but the media reaction along with the NHL handed-down suspension of six games are both way over the top. By Thursday night I was so sick of “Sloppy-Gate” that I couldn’t bring myself to fully contribute to the frenzy, and decided to shift gears again.

I thought about my beloved Blue Jays and free agent starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, who left $24 million on the table when he opted out of his Toronto contract and will likely gain an extra $50 million on top of that in his next contract. I was ready to say good riddance and make claims that the sucker-of-a-team who signed Burnett would be grossly over-paying for a guy who has averaged less than 10 wins a year and generally seems more amped about delivering a possible shaving cream pie to someone's face than getting a key out in a tough situation. But right now, at the beginning of December, with more than four months until opening day and a full 11 months until the playoffs, it makes my heart hurt to think about a team that is destined to finish fourth (at best).

So I moved on to the Buffalo Bills/Miami Dolphins game to be played this Sunday in Toronto at Rogers Center. I was going to trumpet the first-ever regular season NFL game to be played in Canada and ruminate about how the franchise will probably end up in the T-Dot at some point, but mostly I just wanted to work in that I would be in attendance. (Check.)

Then I convinced myself I could tie all these ideas together and that was how the bridge was built to the Jumper introduction. And now I realize it was a stretch to work in ‘Jumper’ when I actually wrote an article about writing an article.

I should have just made the ‘Adaptation’ connection.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Fan Confidence Scale

After a quarter of the NHL regular season, how much confidence should fans have in their favorite Canadian team?

8.7 - Montreal Canadiens
Despite their team not playing anywhere close to their capability, most Habs fans are feeling pretty good about their team, and rightfully so. Montreal can get outplayed or dig a deep hole yet they’ve shown they have the ability to battle back and win, even if they don’t put in their best effort. The Canadiens have remarkable balance and depth throughout the line-up, most notably in net where Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak make up the best goaltending tandem in the league. Bob Gainey has constructed a talented veteran roster that is well insulated with cheap, young fringe players, and Guy Carbonneau, now in his third full season, has grown into a presence behind the bench.

They clearly have another gear, but the Canadiens seem happy to continue along at a ho-hum pace, not creating too many unnecessary waves at this point in the season. With the jersey retirements, 100th Anniversary celebrations, and all the other hoopla that constitutes day-to-day life in hockey-crazy Montreal, it would be extremely taxing for the Habs to play from ahead all year long. They know the true test begins in April, and that's when Gainey and Carbonneau want their team to peak.

6.9 - Calgary Flames
In Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, the Flames continue to feature the best forward/defence 1-2 combo in hockey, which has made it reasonably simple for Darryl Sutter to sufficiently fill in the rest of the roster. And while neither the Todd Bertuzzi signing (16 points but a minus 10) nor the Mike Cammalleri trade (20 points but afraid of going anywhere near the net) has been an overwhelming success, they haven’t been awful mistakes either. Both guys were brought in to take scoring pressure off Iginla, which they along with dependable veterans Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy, have done. Throw-in the surprising contributions from Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque, and a defence unit that as a whole is tough, versatile and certainly capable of providing above average play, and Calgary appears to be in very good shape.

But there's a problem…in net. This is the fifth straight season Miikka Kiprusoff has seen his GAA go up (1.70, 2.07, 2.46, 2.69, 3.05) and his save percentage go down (.933, .923, .917, .906, .895). Calgary hasn't won a playoff round since advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. Unless Kipper regains his form, that streak will continue.

6.1 - Vancouver Canucks
With Roberto Luongo this team has a chance to win every game. Without him, they are the Vancouver Blue Jackets. The Sedin twins should remember that when they’re holding the Canucks hostage next summer during contract negotiations.

As for this season, Canucks fans would be wise not to get too comfortable in their current surroundings, because even if Luongo returns from his groin pull relatively soon, Vancouver isn’t likely to continue leading the Northwest division much longer. The team is playing well above it’s head and is relying on unsustainable production from a streaky Kyle Wellwood and foot soldiers like Alex Burrows, Jannick Hansen, and Willie Mitchell. The Sedins are putting up decent but not outstanding numbers, as usual, but if making the playoffs this year means a seven or eight year contract for the brothers, maybe the Canucks would be better off losing?

The $15 million combined that the Sedins want in addition to Luongo’s contract would tie up nearly 40% of Vancouver’s cap room on just three players. That could be enough to push Luongo out the door the following year if he suspects the team won’t be able to surround him with enough talent to realistically compete for the Stanley Cup. I'm not sure two Sedins and a bunch of pluggers fit that bill.

5.5 - Ottawa Senators
For a long time the Sens were a good team that made consistent progress year after year. They were young, talented, full of potential, and were earning their playoff scars that would eventually take them to the next level. After all those good regular seasons and playoff disappointments, Ottawa finally reached the Cup finals two years ago only to be throttled by Anaheim. Then Pittsburgh destroyed them in the first round last year after the Sens backed into the playoffs, and now the window of opportunity for this team is shut. Boom. Locked, boarded up, it's over. The Senators can continue to switch coaches like George Steinbrenner in the 70’s, but there isn’t a band-aid big enough to fix this problem. They're not a bottom-feeder, but the days of being a true contender are over. Time to blow it up.

You have to wonder how different things may have been if Ottawa had decided to pay Zdeno Chara the extra $2 million a year and keep him instead of Wade Redden?

4.9 - Edmonton Oilers
Most of the blame for a disappointing start has been focused on goaltending and the lack of offense from forwards not named Ales Hemsky. But how does Kevin Lowe get let off the hook? He was the one who signed a still unproven Dustin Penner to an outlandish contract. It was Lowe and Steve Tambellini who traded for a clearly on-the-decline Eric Cole (who peaked in 2006 and has never been the same since the Brooks Orpik hit), and have allowed their team to play a quarter of the season with a three-headed goaltending monster that has produced several storylines but few big wins. Scary indeed.

One player who shouldn’t be singled out is second year forward Sam Gagner. The 19 year-old is another Oiler struggling mightily this year after unrealistic expectations were created following his 49-point rookie campaign. All of a sudden this year he was ‘penciled’ in for 60+ points and when you put a young player in a situation like that, if he doesn’t get off to a good start it can be nearly impossible to get on track.

To sum it up: Blame Kevin, not Sam.

2.8 - Toronto Maple Leafs

This spring will mark the fourth straight season that Toronto has missed the playoffs, but with the hiring of Brian Burke as the new GM, Leaf fans finally have a reason to be optimistic about the future. Not the immediate future mind you, because the current roster is a mess and the lack of draft picks (10 total over the next two drafts) make this re-building effort at least a two-year project, maybe three. Still, Burke has the personality and stature to deal with the demanding Toronto media, and gone, supposedly, are the days of the evil MLSE board having to approve any and all hockey transactions, making the path back to credibility decidedly less tumultuous..

If my calculations are correct and Burke continues to clear cap space as expected (good-bye: Antropov, Kaberle, Kubina), the Leafs should have more than enough room to sign both Lebron James and Chris Bosh in 2010.

Friday, November 28, 2008

What We Know So Far...

If TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire was asked to describe Chris Bosh, I’m pretty sure we all know what his answer would be: McGuire would take a deep breath, scrunch up his face, and then fire through 50 words in 10 seconds before finishing with “he’s a monster”.

Through 14 games Bosh is second in the league in scoring, averaging 27.6 a game (only 0.3 points behind Lebron James) and is fifth in the league in rebounds with more than 10 per game. In his 40, 42 and 39 point performances over the last 10 days, he took just 19, 27, and 20 shots, remarkably efficient numbers that have pushed Bosh past the All-Star level and into a whole new realm. He’s finishing everything around the basket, getting all the calls, and has single-handedly carried the Raptors to a 7-7 record.

If Sam Mitchell doesn’t run him into the ground first, Bosh will be a MVP candidate. (Is he going to win? No, of course not. Lebron and Kobe are head and shoulders above everyone else. Dwayne Wade would be close but his injury history keeps him off the very short list of the true elite. Chris Paul is gaining, but still too inexperienced.) The problem is, right now Bosh trails only Stephen Jackson when it comes to minutes played, and he’s the only big man amongst the top eight. Bosh hasn’t played less than 38 minutes in a game this year, and he’s coming off a summer where he didn’t have a break. Including the Olympics, Bosh is entering month 15 of what must feel to his body like a 19 (hopefully 20?) month season.

If Sam (or fingers crossed, Sam’s replacement) doesn’t start curtailing Bosh’s minutes, he’ll be out of gas by February. At the latest.

As for the rest of the team, well, here’s what we officially know about the Raptors one fifth of the way through the season:

• Bosh’s beautiful jumper seduces the rest of our team. He has great range, can shoot it from anywhere, and deservedly has carte blanche when it comes to shot selection. If he has the ball in his hands, he can do whatever he wants. He’s earned it. Problem is that everyone else watches Bosh continually knock down shots and then believe they can do the same. Which they can’t. We have Kapono, Parker and Bargnani who all shoot pretty well and a host of others who are adequate at times. But they all need the ball in certain places and shouldn’t be allowed to shoot it from anywhere else.

• Jose Calderon’s hamstring injury is lingering. Calderon was never going to make an All-defensive team, but he made up for it offensively by turning the corner and getting a few easy lay-ins every night. Yes, teams are trying to take that away from him, but Jose is smart enough to capitalize on the tiniest opportunity and because of the hamstring, he can’t.

• We genuinely like each other. Guys get excited when someone else makes a big play, rush over to help a fallen teammate up, and communicate positively while on the court. Even Hasan Adams looks like he legitimately cares. This matters.

• Will Solomon has a little too much Mike James in him…and Roko Ukic doesn’t have enough.

• Kris Humphries should be a regular part of the rotation, even when Jermaine O’Neal is fully healthy (notice I used ‘when’ instead of ‘if’. This is me being optimistic. Strange, isn’t it?). The best starting five for the Raps includes three big men (Bosh, O’Neal, and Bargnani) with Calderon and Anthony Parker. That should mean 12-20 minutes a night for Hump, spotting any of the three a break or protecting someone who could be in foul trouble.

• Jamario Moon is pulling a reverse contract year. Instead of doing all the little things while working his butt off in an attempt to secure a multi-million dollar free agent contract, he looks like he’s trying to play himself out of the league.

• We won’t have to worry about a new Kanye song during pre-game introductions, because 808s & Heartbreak is mostly garbage. Let's put it this way: I know of only two people left in this world who continue to buy CD's rather than download them for free, and I'll use this space to tell them both not to waste their money.

• The Raps will inevitably come up short in any coaching battle. The only adjustment Sam Mitchell has made this year is back to glasses. During the current 4-7 streak that followed the 3-0 start, Toronto has blown 10+ point leads four different times and have gone on to lose three of those games. Sam is a decent motivator but as a tactician he’s awful. Lawrence Frank, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Jeremy have all mopped the floor with him, a list that will undoubtedly expand as the team heads West.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

If Manny became a Jay...

Let me start by saying I don't expect free-agent slugger Manny Ramirez to sign with the Blue Jays this winter. There have been several media reports suggesting Toronto is interested and Ramirez is willing to listen, but let's be honest: Manny doesn't fit J.P. Riccardi's profile of a player he's likely to pick-up.

Mainly, he's not yet washed up. (See: Mench, K.; Wilkerson, B. & Rolen, S.)

But let's pretend Manny did sign in Toronto. Maybe this is how the 2009 season would unfold:

April: Ramirez out-homers the rest of the Blue Jay roster combined, 9-8. Unfortunately all the extra long balls don't lead to a dramatic increase in wins, as Toronto continues their trend of mediocre starts. At least the Manny dreadlock wig night at the Skydome is a huge success.

May: Upon his return to Boston, Ramirez claims to have twisted both knees while stepping off the plane and is forced to sit out the entire three game series. No x-rays are needed as Cito Gaston informs the media, "we can tell there is some discomfort and the safe thing is to rest him". The Fenway crowd has no idea what to do with itself, so it basically plays dead as the Jays take 2 of 3 to edge above .500.

June: The Boston media make their first trip of the season to Toronto, but Manny makes himself unavailable for comment. During his first at-bat against his former team, Ramirez rips a double to the gap in left, poses at the plate for a moment, then decides to run the bases backwards, rounding third before stopping at second. New ESPN baseball analyst Donovan McNabb, who just retired from the NFL, says he had no idea a player couldn't head for third instead of first after a hit.

July: While in New York the Blue Jays traveling secretary files a restraining order against Ramirez and the team suspends him for a week after the slugger roughs up the team employee for only giving Manny 25 complimentary tickets for a game at the new Yankee Stadium. Ramirez issues a public apology that culminates with an ear-to-ear grin and an "it's all good." With Manny inactive, Roy Halladay throws two straight complete games to keep Toronto afloat.

August: Manny hits the longest homer in Skydome history, a moon-shot that actually goes over the fifth deck and breaks through a Renaissance Hotel window. Back in the dugout, Manny and John McDonald cap off the homer with their awesome celebratory handshake that’s fast becoming a youtube sensation.

September: With the Jays still in contention Manny's bat goes ice cold as he considers the real possibility of having to play in more than 162 games. He refuses to answer any questions verbally, responding only with a nod or shake of his head. Toronto loses 14 of their final 20 and finishes fourth in the closely contested AL East. Yup, still fourth. During his exit interview Ramirez hints that he wants his contract extended or re-negotiated, saying, "it doesn't feel like I'm wanted. I'm tired of all the BS, they need to show me the love."

Friday, November 21, 2008

10 Reasons to be Excited for Grey Cup Sunday

10. The East-West showdown between the Al's and the Stamps not only features the league's two highest scoring offences, but also its two stingiest defences. If the CFL had a Commissioner, this would be his dream match-up.

9. The half-time show does not include Nickelback. I repeat: No Nickelback.

8. It's the only Sunday of the year that offers the opportunity to watch ten straight hours of live professional football. Seven quarters of the NFL are a perfect lead-in to any Grey Cup party.

7. Another starring role for Rambo. Sure it'll be Ken-Yon of the Stampeders catching passes on the field instead of John dodging bullets in the jungle, but any game involving a guy named Rambo is better for it.

6. It's an easy excuse to get away with drinking more than a few beers on a Sunday.

5. The Hot Team versus the Home Crowd angle. Calgary has won five games in a row and nine of their last ten overall, while Montreal limped home with a 2-3 record to finish the regular season, so momentum is surely on the Stampeders’ side. However, an estimated crowd of 65,000 is expected to be in attendance, the over-whelming majority of whom will be cheering on the hometown team.

4. I have no idea if Montreal natives Emmanuelle Chriqui (Zohan, Entourage) or Elisha Cuthbert (24, The Girl Next Door) ever went to an Alouettes game, but Pamela Anderson was first discovered at a CFL stadium. Perhaps viewers will catch a glimpse of the next big thing?

3. The commercials. Okay, so it’s not the Super Bowl, but considering the American economy, maybe that’s a good thing.

2. This is the Alouettes’ sixth Grey Cup appearance in nine years, and on the surface that sounds dominant, but in those previous five finals they've only managed one championship. Can Montreal finally win another title and shed their label as the CFL's version of the 1990's Buffalo Bills?

1. Anthony Calvillo. The winner of the 2008 Outstanding Player award also happens to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in CFL history and is close to being this country's answer to Brett Favre. Calvillo returned for a 15th season after leaving the Al's at the end of last year to be with his wife after she was diagnosed with cancer, and a victory on Sunday could be the storybook ending to his hall of fame career.

Friday, November 14, 2008

R.I.P. - NBA Court Surfing on The Score













I found this obituary in a major Canadian newspaper this morning:

NBA Court Surfing died Tuesday, November 11, 2008, at 370 King St. West.

Court Surfing will be remembered with love by basketball fans across Canada for it's live look-ins to out of market games and it's no-nonsense approach to broadcasting. If Lebron was going off in Cleveland, or a marquee matchup between Phoenix and Detroit was going down to the wire, you knew you were in good hands and wouldn't miss a thing. Host Adnan Virk would send viewers back and forth from game to game, switching telecasts during timeouts and commercial breaks and generally treating the audience to superb coverage.

Court Surfing is survived by it's replacement show which continues with the same name, but bears absolutely no resemblance to the programming Canadian basketball fans came to love. In lieu of flowers, please send your condolences to The Score.


Ok, I made that up, but still: Court Surfing is dead.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Goaltenders Are Over-valued

When the New Jersey Devils lost star goaltender Martin Brodeur last week for up to four months because of injury, speculation instantly turned to who they would get to replace him. The talk around the league wasn't along the lines of 'maybe they should look around to see who might be available', it was 'they need to make a move immediately'.

Not surprisingly, New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello (one of, if not the best in the business) has instead chosen to sit tight and play out the hand he was dealt. In handing the starting job to back-up Kevin Weekes, Lou has once again proven why he has more Stanley Cup championships to his credit over the last 14 years (three) than all other Eastern Conference GM's combined (two).

Goaltenders in general are over-valued. Not at the top-end, but those in the rank and file. The difference between the best goalies (Brodeur and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks) and those ranked 3 thru 50 is similar to the gap that exists in the World Golf rankings between Tiger Woods and his nearest competitor. Beyond that, just as it is in golf, the difference is negligible. A golfer ranked 3 thru 200 can play well and win a tournament on any given week, and so can any of the goalies ranked 3 thru 50 in the NHL.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King has gone to great lengths over the last few years to explain why he thinks selecting a running back high in the NFL draft or giving them big money as a free agent isn’t a wise move. He argues that finding a serviceable running back is a lot easier than it seems, and the career span of a productive running back is shorter than most other positions. Basically if you don’t have an elite player, one of the top 4-5 running backs in the game, you’re better off picking somebody from out of the scrap pile or taking a chance on an unknown commodity than you are paying for someone who may turn out to be only marginally better than the average player.

I would use the same logic to describe the state of NHL goaltending, and here is the evidence:

Exhibit A: Where did this guy come from?
Halfway through the 2005-06 season Thomas was playing in the AHL when the Bruins recalled him. At that point Thomas had to clear waivers to get back into the NHL, meaning any team in the league could have claimed him for a little more than $100,000 (half his remaining salary). No one bit. Three years and 161 starts later, Thomas is now leading the NHL in save percentage (.944), goals against average (1.85) and is a big reason why Boston has gained contender status. I'm not saying Thomas is a franchise netminder or a guy you can build your team around. But he is easily good enough to be your #1 goalie for a handful of years.

Like Thomas, there have been a number of netminders who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere to suddenly fortify an awful situation. Guys like Cristobal Huet, Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, and Evgeni Nabokov had little hype surrounding their NHL debuts but have developed into extremely dependable goalies.

Exhibit B: The "Hot" Goalie

No, not Keanu Reeves in 'Youngblood'. (That was for any female readers out there.) These are the relatively anonymous goalies who somehow find the ability to carry their teams for weeks or even months at a time, only to crash at a later date. Roman Cechmanek, Patrick Lalime, Roman Turek, Johan Hedberg, Brian Boucher, and Chris Mason are only a few of the many who fit the bill. They may not be the long-term answer, but they fill in admirably during the short-term and you never know how long it could last.

Exhibit C: Goalies take longer to fulfill their potential
Like everyone drafted into the NHL, goalies are selected as 18 year olds. But unlike their peers, goaltenders rarely make an impact at the NHL level until their mid 20’s. For every Carey Price or Cam Ward, there is a Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tomas Vokoun, or Dominik Hasek, players that were traded away or given up on before they grew into the number one position. You can just as easily have a guy fall into your lap as you can draft and develop him into a starter.

Exhibit D: They're all really good now...all of them
When you watch highlights from the 70's or 80's one thing that always sticks out is the abundance of moustaches. The other is how bad the goalies were. They were terrible. Now you've got goalie coaches on every team, video scouting reports, specialized training techniques, and regimented diets with the result being fewer weak goals and closer games. In short: every goalie in the league is capable of standing on his head and stealing a game (except those playing for the 2008-09 Colorado Avalanche).

Why would Lamoriello (or any other competent GM) move a top prospect or a first round draft pick to acquire a goalie when you can find a suitable one almost anywhere you look? I rest my case.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Solid Start for New-Look Raptors

A 3-0 start to the new season no doubt has many Toronto Raptor fans envisioning a run to the Eastern Conference finals.

While it's always nice to get off to a fast start and earn some recognition, it's probably wise to remember that the Raptors could very easily be 1-2. One or two plays going the other way in the game against the Bucks, or the Warriors, and the mood surrounding the team would be totally different.

But, with Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh performing at All-Star levels, and a shortened bench creating fewer opportunities for Sam Mitchell to mess up, the Raps sit atop the Atlantic division and are one of only six teams who have won their first three games.

(On the topic of Mitchell: Sam minus the glasses is going to take some getting used to. I spent most of the first two games wondering if Will Smith was secretly researching a head-coaching role and standing in for Mitchell.)

So far at least, the question as to whether Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal would complement each other and be able to co-exist seems to be answered. They appear very comfortable on the floor together, not getting in each other’s way on offence and more importantly combining to dramatically alter the entire defensive attitude.

O'Neal's presence in the paint has made it much harder for opponents to drive the lane, which will be shocking to many teams who have become accustomed to playing against a very soft Toronto squad. But Bosh also deserves plenty of credit. After earning considerable praise as the defensive anchor of the American Olympic team, CB4 has carried that intensity over to the regular season and it has rubbed off on everyone. How else can you explain Andrea Bargnani fighting for rebounds and blocking shots like he's Dikembe Mutombo? Fine, maybe it's more like Mike Dunleavy, but that's still an improvement.

The offence has been noticeably better to start the season as well. Players are swinging the ball around the perimeter the way they did two years ago, when the Raps won 47 games and captured the Atlantic division title.

The departure of Carlos Delfino has resulted in a significant improvement in shot selection. Last year Delfino would watch Bosh and T.J. shoot jumper after jumper at any time during the shot clock, and thought he could do the same. Then Jamario Moon would follow suit, and suddenly the Raps were a one-dimensional team that relied almost solely on jump shots.

Part of the blame for last year’s offensive mindset has to be attached to the deep bench that Mitchell constantly tinkered with. Guys like Delfino, Kapono, Humphries and Nesterovic never had their roles defined and were forever trying to prove they deserved more minutes.

Whether it was Mitchell deciding on his own to shorten the bench and tighten the rotation, or Bryan Colangelo doing it for him, the initial outcome has been extremely positive. I’m all for a situation where the Raps go only 9 or 10 deep, but playing Bosh and Calderon 42 minutes a night isn’t going to work over an entire season. And O’Neal needs to be kept in the 30-minute range if he’s going to be expected to hold up long-term.

Which brings us to Roko Ukic, who played 15 serviceable minutes in the season opener, but was a deer in headlights during the two weekend games. The Raps are only carrying 13 players right now, meaning they have two open roster spots, so they could conceivably sign a veteran free-agent immediately (Damon Stoudamire, Dan Dickau, Jason Williams) and not have to worry about eating a contract or trying to make a trade to fit the new guy in. However, Toronto is only $1000 shy of the luxury tax threshold so signing anyone would cost the team double whatever the contract actually is, and management has made it known they have no intention of paying into the luxury tax.

Judging by the early performance of Ukic and the training camp Will Solomon had, Raptors management may be forced to reconsider their stance at some point during the season if they want to give this team an honest shot to compete with the NBA’s best.

But just as it is too early to get overly-excited about the 3-0 start, it's also too soon to give up on the 23 year old rookie point guard.

Friday, October 31, 2008

CFL or NFL?

If you’re Canadian and someone asks if you like football there are four suitable answers:

a. Yes.
b. I’m a CFL fan.
c. I’m an NFL fan.
d. I hate soccer.

While I suspect most of you would reply with an enthusiastic ‘yes’, it would be foolish not to assume some of you are fans of either one league or the other. (For now, we’ll leave soccer on the outside.)

To fully determine which answer is most appropriate for you, consider the following:

If you enjoy waking up at the crack of dawn and heading down to the stadium to tailgate for hours before kick-off, you’re a NFL fan. If you slam six cans of beer in between parking your car and walking across the parking lot to the game, you’re a CFL fan.

If you want 110-yard touchdowns, 2-1 scores and gambling (going for it) on third down the CFL is your game. If you want 50-yard punts and real 50-yard field goals, along with 2000 Bud Light commercials, focus on the NFL.

If you live for Sundays and aren’t afraid to spend 6-10 hours firmly fastened to the couch, you’re a NFL fan. (Some people might call you lazy. I call you dedicated.)

If you want to see the same half dozen quarterbacks continuously being run out of one city only to become competent again in the next, it’s the CFL for you.

If you like to catch your favorite players on the nightly news (no, not SportsCenter), you’re an NFL fan. If you stroll past your favorite players in Wal-Mart, you’re a CFL fan.

If you think a team should have to win at least half their games in order to qualify for the playoffs, the NFL is your league.

If you want to believe a running back rushing for over 1000 yards in a season is still meaningful, you should be following the CFL.

If you enjoy creative and sometimes over-the-top touchdown dances, CFL games will provide it. If you want to see players celebrate awkwardly or not at all because they don’t want to be fined by commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL won’t disappoint you.

If you’re looking for the best halftime studio analysis the CFL is where you’ll find it. Randorf, Schultz, Dunigan and Climie are far and away the best panel in professional football. If you prefer hysterical laughing or listening to an incomprehensible Shannon Stewart, the NFL has you covered.

And while we’re on the subject of entertainment: NFL fans are treated to Usher, Keith Urban and Natasha Bedingfield, big, relevant names to kick-off a season. For the Grey Cup CFL fans somehow ended up with Theory of a Deadman, Suzie McNeil and someone named Andree Watters. Hey, at least it wasn’t Def Leppard.

(Quick tangent because I’m not ready to let this go: Did the NHL honestly believe Def Leppard was an appealing choice for their audience? Who okayed this? People thought McCain choosing Palin as his running mate was a bad selection. Well, this was easily 1000 times worse. What was the NHL thinking?)

If you’re a NFL fan you watch football with one eye attached to your fantasy scoreboard. If you’re a CFL fan you think a fantasy league involves five names of famous people you’re never going to hook up with.

(Tangent #2: I play fantasy sports 12 months a year and usually have numerous teams in several sports on the go, yet I’ve never been invited to join a CFL fantasy league. Not once. I’ve never even heard of a fantasy CFL league in casual conversation. Naturally, I googled CFL Fantasy football and clicked on fantasy.cfl.ca. This is what came up on the page:

CFFL Players,
Due to an unfortunate situation, all week 12 points will be nullified and the weekly prizes will be given out randomly. The Grand Prize standings will pick up again for week 13’s games.
We are sorry for the inconvenience. Our sincere apologies,
The CFFL Team

Rest assured, if an NFL Fantasy league tried to pull something like this, we’d be looking at multiple homicides and hundreds of friendships irrevocably damaged.)

If you're a NFL fan, years will pass before your team squares off against every other team in the league. If you're a CFL fan you wish years would go by without seeing the Tiger Cats come to town.

If you’re a NFL fan you grew up hearing stories about the ‘frozen tundra’. If you’re a CFL fan you grew up on the frozen tundra.

Friday, October 24, 2008

2008 Raptors Preview

When we last saw Chris Bosh and company, the Orlando Magic basically had them in a headlock as they cruised to an easy first round victory over the Raps in last year’s playoffs. To say that Toronto was overmatched would be an understatement along the lines of: Allen Iverson enjoys taking shots, or, Ron Artest is eccentric.

For the Raptors, defense, rebounding, and secondary scoring behind Bosh were cited as the main reasons behind the quick playoff exit, but perhaps just as damning was the presence of Me-J Ford and his ball-dominating ways. Ford went from a solid point man that was able to direct the offense and score when needed, to a ball-hogging head case that refused to put the team first. He basically saw everything Jose Calderon did, and then tried to do the exact opposite. And succeeded. So it was to no one's surprise that GM Bryan Colangelo traded Ford (and Rasho Nesterovic) to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for former All-Star Jermaine O'Neal.

While it remains to be seen whether O'Neal can regain his past form (or even play a full season for the first time since 2004), the trade has to be viewed as positive because it means Calderon will be playing 40+ minutes a night. It should also allow Andrea Bargnani to make it through the first minute of the game without picking up two fouls, simply because it's extremely difficult to collect fouls from the bench. That's the definition of win-win right there.

Also working in the Raptors favor:

1. They happen to call the Atlantic division home, which comes with the benefit of knowing you'll have the dreadful New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks beneath you in the standings. And let's be honest: there is no way the Celtics match what they did last year. Garnett, Pierce and Allen have combined to play in 2792 NBA games and the collective hunger they had to win that first championship will now be missing. (I'm not suggesting Boston be left out of the playoffs or even lose the division, but 60+ wins and the championship? Not going to happen.)

2. If they can live up to their considerable offseason hype, Toronto could be in position to land a quality veteran who gets bought out late in the season. Roko Ukic and Will Solomon you have officially been put on notice.

3. In Jason Kapono, the Raptors have the best 3-point marksman in the league at a time when 3-point shot attempts are at record highs.

4. Television viewers won't need to keep one finger on the mute button anymore because Chuck Swirsky and his laughable homer bias and awful forced expressions ("onions baby" or "break our the salami and cheese") opted for Chicago Bulls radio over Toronto Raptors television.

On the flip side:

1. Our best player just spent his entire summer playing highly intense playoff-like basketball instead of working out and taking a break from everyday basketball activities. Colangelo and head coach Sam Mitchell had better find a way to get Bosh 10 days off at some point during the season or come playoff time CB4 is going to look more rundown than Amy Winehouse after a four day bender.

2. After two seasons the first pick of the 2006 draft is a total wild card. The seven-foot Italian has a sweet stroke but almost no idea how to move on a basketball court and the term rebound has obviously been lost in translation. The second coming of Dirk Nowitzki he's not.

3. For some reason the coach refuses to get Jason Kapono looks from 3-point land. Did I mention he’s the best 3-point marksman in the league?

4. After years of playing second-fiddle to the mighty West the Eastern Conference has gained ground and now features as many as 10 of the top 18 teams in the league. On paper, every non-playoff team in the East (outside of New Jersey and New York of course) look like they could improve their record, which may result in an extremely close battle for the 6 thru 10 positions.

Coach's Corner:

As for the man on the bench, Sam Mitchell has only one year beyond this on his contract and a career record of 3-8 in the postseason so if things don't go as planned early, Colangelo could deliver Mitchell the pink slip. Judging by the way the rest of the professional sports teams in Toronto operate, if Mitchell was indeed let go, Raptor fans should prepare for the return of one of Butch Carter, Lenny Wilkens or (the horror) Isiah Thomas.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Sid-O-Meter

For years now the NHL has been disappointed with the lack of media coverage it receives in the US as it falls further and further away from the 'big three' (NFL, MLB, NBA) of North American professional sports.

And yet they never seem to get pro-active with the situation. Instead of sulking because they aren't getting the respect they deserve, why not try something new?

Well, I've got a PR stunt that can help hockey generate some much needed buzz South of the border.

As we've all noticed over the past few years, several hockey players have dated Hollywood starlets. Sean Avery was with Elisha Cuthbert before the '24' star moved on to Dion Phaneuf. Jordin Tootoo went out with American Idol contestant Kellie Pickler, Sheldon Souray married former Baywatch beauty Angie Everhart, and Mike Comrie and Hilary Duff continue to go strong. Even Alexei Yashin hooked up with Carol Alt before heading back to Russia (for good...we hope).

No disrespect to any of the above players (except to Yashin who is a bum and should be buying blocks of tickets and giving them away to Islander fans), but when it comes to ability and star power, none of those guys could hold Sidney Crosby's jockstrap.

Which is why the NHL marketing department should be sending doctored pictures of Sid out and about with numerous Hollywood hotties to every celebrity website possible. Perez Hilton, TMZ.com, theSuperficial, whatever. Each time Crosby passes a certain pre-determined point total, they forward photoshopped pictures with taglines that read "Hockey star Sidney Crosby spotted eating lunch in Manhattan with Rihanna" or "NHL superstar Sidney Crosby was seen snuggling up with 'Hills' star Lauren Conrad at Hollywood hotspot Les Deux".

To make it even easier, I've already come up with a detailed list:

25 points - Madonna: A-Rod strikes out as Madge moves on to Sid the Kid.

50 - Katy Perry: She kissed a boy and she liked it.

75 - Lindsay Lohan: Sid breaking up Lohan's lesbian romance?

90 - Emmanuelle Chriqui: You Don't Mess With the Crosby!

100 - Paris Hilton: A last second entry into the contest to find her new BFF?

120 - Heidi Montag: Crosby bodychecks Spencer to the sidelines?

140 - Anne Hathaway: Sid scores again off a rebound.

160 - Anna Kournikova: Malkin, Ovechkin and Enrique Iglesias all furious as Crosby steals another prize.

180 - Jessica Alba: Cash Warren demands a paternity test as rumours swirl that Sid is the 'real' father.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's Time to Start Over

With the Tampa Bay Rays (the freakin RAYS!) on the verge of finishing off the Red Sox and completing their journey from AL East doormat to possible World Series champions, a major change in strategy is necessary if the Blue Jays ever want to get back to the postseason.

Because for the last decade or so Jays fans only had to worry about the two Evil Empires: the hated Yankees and the (now equally) hated Red Sox. However, with Tampa and their ridiculously stacked team of young star players, Toronto now has three very good teams directly blocking their path to the playoffs.

And it's clear the Jays are the worst of the four teams by a wide margin. With or without A.J. Burnett. If the AL East were 'Entourage', Boston would be Vince, New York would be Ari, Tampa would be E and Toronto and Baltimore would flip a coin for Turtle and Drama. Constantly on the outside, forever mocked and left behind.

During the offseason the Red Sox will tinker a little, add more pitching and be better next year. The Yankees are getting ready to spend roughly half a billion dollars on superstar free agents to add to their already formidable core, and the baby Rays will be a year older and armed with ample playoff success. Hell, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria might surpass 100 homeruns all by themselves. The point is, none of the three teams that finished ahead of Toronto this year are getting any worse.

Toronto is no closer to the playoffs today than it was 5 or 10 years ago. If anything, they’re further away.

The cut and paste technique that has been employed by the Blue Jay front office for more than a decade isn't working. The core of the team simply can’t compete with the best. Scott Rolen and Lyle Overbay are complimentary players. The holes at shortstop and behind the plate aren’t going away. Adding mid-level free agents and swapping mediocre veterans for more mediocre veterans (Brad Wilkerson or Kevin Mench anyone? Anyone?) isn’t going to change the fact that the nucleus of this team doesn’t have enough skill to go head-to-head with the three AL East powers.

For that reason, it’s time to move in a new direction. Think ‘firesale’. Or see: Marlins, Florida (1998).

Which means it's time to cash in the biggest chip the Jays have and move Roy Halladay. It will absolutely be tough to watch ‘Doc’ go. The guy has been unbelievable in his decade as a Blue Jay and is unquestionably the best pitcher in the AL over the last five seasons. He's thrown more complete games than entire teams and has consistently been amongst the league leaders in ERA, wins and strikeouts, but he was always more than just stats. Watching him work every fifth day was truly a treat, every time out you thought "this could be the day Roy throws the second no-hitter in franchise history".

But the thing is, no matter how well Halladay pitches next year, or even the year after that, he won't be able to pitch the Jays into the postseason. It will not happen. Can't happen. Impossible. Unless baseball changes the playoff format and adds more teams, Toronto has zero chance of reaching the playoffs in the next two years. So what is the point of finishing fourth with a high-priced veteran club? Wouldn’t it make more sense to tear the whole thing down?

Moving Halladay, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, and B.J. Ryan would net a significant haul of prospects that in combination with Travis Snider, Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and the surplus of young pitching already in place, could form the type of core group it takes to realistically stand up to the free-spending Yanks and Sox.

Re-directing free agent cash towards drafting high-ceiling, expensive amateur players is the obvious formula. That could be the only way to ever really contend in this division. It’s certainly how the Rays did it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

CBC's Opening Night NHL Doubleheader Diary

7:02 Def Leppard kicks off the night. Yes, Def Leppard. I guess Poison was booked.

7:03 Seriously, Def Leppard is performing. Although it kind of looks like Brooke Hogan is singing.

7:13 The Red Wings raise their 4th banner in 11 seasons with a simple and understated ceremony that includes Detroit legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

7:24 Our first look at Marian Hossa in a Red Wings uni and it's strange. I can't look at him without wondering how he could say no to a guaranteed $50 million. And this seems like the appropriate time to bring up the reported 10 year/$80M offer Marian Gaborik supposedly rejected today. Gaborik has played 65, 65, 48 and 77 games his last four NHL seasons. He must really, really hate Jaques Lemaire.

7:26 Craig Simpson tells us Leaf coach Ron Wilson will 'play Luke Schenn in all situations and try to get him 20 minutes of ice time'. If Toronto keeps Schenn past the 9 game mark and doesn't return him to junior it might be time for Toronto to get a new interim interim General Manager.

7:52 I predict Dominic Moore will be the Leafs first line center at some point this season.

7:56 Chris Osgood feels sorry for an awful Toronto power play and decides to set up Pavel Kubina with a perfect pass that Kubina happily deposits into an empty net.

8:04 During 'Coach's Corner' Grapes questions the Luongo captaincy, refers to the Sedins as the 'bobbsey twins', and gives strong playoff endorsements to every Canadian team outside of Toronto. Of course he and Ron Maclean spend most of their time discussing the dysfunctional Leafs.

8:20 I predict Dominic Moore will be the Leafs first line center sooner rather than later.

8:28 Detroit is playing like it's game one of a near meaningless 82 game regular season. Let's just say a 1-0 second period deficit hasn't exactly lit a fire under Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

8:37 Nik Antropov’s stick-handling covers the first 3 rows of seats in ice chips. Meanwhile Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby take turns passing the puck in each other's skates. Ummm, the preseason is over...right?

8:40 Dominic Moore continues his strong play and bangs away at a rebound before firing it upstairs for the second Leaf goal. I predict Dominic Moore will be the Leafs first line center starting in the third period.

8:42 Tomas Holmstrom answers quickly for the Wings from his office in front of the net, slipping a backhand between Vesa Toskala's legs.

8:49 A one goal lead for Toronto heading to the third can mean only one thing: Detroit has the Leafs right where they want them.

8:58 As George Stroumboulopoulos takes us through the finalists for the new Hockey Night In Canada theme song, I'll pass on what my friend Morgan said to me: Why not just go with Stompin' Tom's the Hockey Song and call it a day?

9:18 Back to the action and the Wings turn it over to rookie Nikolai Kulemin who puts a nice move on Osgood to give Toronto a 3-1 lead with 12 minutes left.

9:21 As the Leafs threaten to take control of the game Holmstrom scores on another rebound, this time a power play goal with Matt Stajan in the penalty box. The Wings have about 9 forwards who would play on Toronto's top power play unit.

9:39 Babcock pulls Osgood for the extra attacker with a minute left in the game. Shortly thereafter Jamal Mayers flips the puck into the stands for a delay of game penalty that sets up a 6-4 man advantage for the Wings, but Toskala weathers the late storm and Toronto hangs on for the win.

9:46 Don Cherry says Kubina is 'playing like a Norris trophy winner right now'. Wow. One game in.

9:48 In one of the strangest entertainment combinations ever, the NHL follows up the Def Leppard set with Alanis Morisette. Because, you know, nothing gets people ready for hockey like Alanis Morissette.

9:58 Remarkably we are being treated to more Def Leppard. Is the NHL trying to alienate their entire fan base, or attempting to corner the 40 year old mullet demographic? Hard to tell at this point.

10:08 Darren McCarty just drove a motorcycle onto the stage with the Stanley Cup in tow and then handed it off to the Brooke Hogan guy who proceeded to put the Cup down on it's head. I am embarrassed for everyone involved in this debacle.

10:22 I'm assuming the entire hockey audience has either flipped to the baseball playoffs or whipped their remote against the wall.

10:46 In Vancouver, for game two of the double header, the Canucks and Tom Cochrane open with a moving tribute to the late Luc Bourdon.

10:57 Three minutes into the nightcap and we’ve already seen more aggression than we got the entire first match.

10:58 As per NHL rules new Canucks Captain Roberto Luongo isn’t wearing the C on his chest, but has a C located below his cage near the bottom of his mask. I thought you needed to know.

11:01 I keep waiting for Marc Crawford, in his new gig as CBC analyst, to subtly bash Todd Bertuzzi with a few backhanded compliments as payback for Bertuzzi dragging Crawford into the Steve Moore lawsuit, but so far he’s resisted and kept it professional.

11:26 The scoring Sedin messed up a partial breakaway but recovered enough to find the passing Sedin for a bang bang goal. By the way, if the twins have a big year, they could command a $100M contract for the pair of ‘em. Every Canuck fan just threw up in their mouth a little bit.

11:38 Did Mike Milbury leave TSN for CBC to take over Coach’s Corner in a year or two? Just a thought.

11:50 The Sedins combine again to set up linemate Steve Bernier’s first goal as a Canuck and Vancouver is ahead 2-0.

11:53 Flames goalie Mika Kiprusoff directs an awful rebound right onto the stick of Alex Burrows who buries it for a 3-0 lead. The old Mike Keenan would’ve yanked Kipper the moment the puck hit the back of the net. The new Keenan doesn’t move a muscle, it looks like he could be a robot. In fact, are we sure that’s really Mike Keenan?

11:57 Crawford finally obliges when he compliments Bertuzzi’s skills and toughness but tacks on ‘Todd hits to hurt’.

12:13 Bertuzzi, who is taking up space and providing almost nothing, takes a penalty that puts Vancouver back on the power play. The speed and power that defined Bertuzzi’s game during his heydays as a Canuck are nowhere to be found.

12:25 Mattias Ohlund hammers Jarome Iginla then whispers ‘Sean Avery was right, we don’t care about you’ (I can read lips), which incenses Iggy who gets the only penalty and his Flames find themselves shorthanded again to end the second period.

12:38 Just saw the preview for ‘The Express’ for the 25th time tonight, and after watching Dennis Quaid in ‘Any Given Sunday’ and ‘The Rookie’ it’s safe to say I will see any sports movie he stars in.

12:43 Burrows scores again early in the third on a one-timer to give Vancouver a four goal cushion. How long till the fisticuffs?

1:02 As the contest continues to get chippier, Ohlund scores on a power play to put this game to bed. I’m ready to do the same but am holding out hope that Calgary will try to send a message with their fists.

1:08 Phaneuf just wallpapered one of the Sedins and Bernier steps in to dance. Good for Bernier. I think the last six minutes will play out fine without me. For Def Leppard, Alanis Morissette and myself, good night.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

2008 NHL Preview: Contenders, Pretender & Everyone in Between

Young, Emerging, and Perhaps Playoff Worthy
16. Edmonton Oilers
The Oil have stockpiled young talent but many questions remain. Such as:
a) Can Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano build on their fine rookie campaigns and turn into bonafide offensive threats?
b) After missing a season can Sheldon Souray return to the level that made him the most lethal PP point man in the league?
c) Will Kevin Lowe be able to resist his annual urge to turnover a quarter of his roster?

15. Chicago Blackhawks
I could see the Hawks finishing second in the Central and making the playoffs or getting off to a terrible start that costs Dennis Savard his job. Just like everyone else, I'm a big fan of Jonathan Toews, but was it really necessary to strap the kid with the 'C' to start his second season?

14. Washington Capitals
Over/Under:
Alexander Ovechkin goals this year: 59.5
Sergei Fedorov: 12.5



Playoff Bound but Not Without Issues
13. Ottawa Senators
Alfy will lead, Heatley will score, Spezza will act goofy (and get hurt) and goaltending will kill the Sens...again.

12. Carolina Hurricanes
The Eric Staal deal was a bit of a reach if you ask me. Not that Staal isn't a very good player, because he is, but of all the ridiculously long contracts handed out in the last few years (Ovechkin, Lecavalier, M.Richards, Briere), I feel the least certain about this one. Is Staal a 40 goal, point per game player…or more? If I’m paying you $70M, I would want more.

11.Calgary Flames
I really want to believe the Flames can do big things this year, but can't help feeling that Kipper is on the downside and Bertuzzi is, well, almost finished. Even though he's only 33, Big Bert has been through 10 years worth of adversity since the lockout and I'm not sure he has the speed to keep up anymore.

10. New Jersey Devils
If Brent Sutter was coaching in New York or Toronto he would be heralded as the best in the business. In New Jersey, he and superstar goalie Martin Brodeur will continue to be brilliant, under appreciated…and successful.

9. Boston Bruins
Don’t sleep on the Bruins. They pushed the Habs in the first round last year and then added Patrice Bergeron and Michael Ryder. Say what you want about Ryder’s contract, but the guy scored 74 goals in three seasons with everyone in Montreal cheering against him.

Potentially Dangerous (as always)
8. San Jose Sharks
The young Sharks are getting old. Well, maybe not old...but older. After years and years of being on the cusp of greatness you have to wonder if this particular group of players will ever live up to their expectations and push the team to the next level. I say no.

Good But Not Great
7. Philadelphia Flyers
Phase one of GM Paul Holmgren’s makeover was a success but if the Flyers want to make another move up to top contender status, Holmgren is going to need a phase two. That would include acquiring another goalie and at least one defenceman, maybe two if Parent doesn’t hold up.

6. Dallas Stars
How nervous do you think the Stars management got when the story broke that Hollywood is going to base a movie on Sean Avery's summer internship with Vogue magazine? Here's a guy who has had all sorts of personality issues everywhere he's been and maybe now he feels validated. Scary.

5. NY Rangers
Handing Wade Redden $40M at this stage of his career is like someone offering Sloan a new four record deal. Good band, solid act and they’ve been around forever, but their best years are cleary behind them.

4. Montreal Canadiens
With 13 guys set to become free agents after the season, including every key player (Tanguay, Koivu, Kovalev, Lang, Higgins, Komisarek) the Habs are built for this year. Oh, and about Lang: he'll be fine in the regular season but the fans will boo him out of the line-up at some point in the playoffs.

The Top Shelf
3. Anaheim Ducks
Isn't it weird that Brian Burke continues to work for the Ducks even though he's about to become General Manager of the Leafs?

2. Detroit Red Wings
I want to say the Wings are the Atlanta Braves (circa 1991-2005) of hockey. Their home crowd is so bored with the playoffs they can't even be bothered to sell out the building. But now Detroit has four Stanley Cup wins during their 17-year playoff streak so the comparison ends there. If I'm Marian Hossa and someone offers me $50M to one-time pucks into empty nets on a line with Crosby, I would have to have an incredible reason to turn them down. Will we ever get to find out what that reason was?

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
I don't have the Red Wings in the number one position because in today's world of professional sport it's just too hard to repeat as champion. The seasons are so long, the training so hard, the physical and mental toll so taxing that a hangover is only natural. It's not that I don't think a team will ever repeat again, it's that I believe the odds are overwhelmingly against it. As for the Pens, no one else has a 1-2 punch that's anywhere close to Crosby and Malkin and now it's Jordan Staal's turn to play for a new contract, so I see Pittsburgh scoring a lot of goals on their way to another Cup final.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

2008 NHL Preview: Contenders, Pretenders & Everyone in Between

The Usual Deadbeats
30. Atlanta Thrashers
After seven seasons in the NHL and a grand total of four playoff games, I'm guessing either the Atlanta Spirit LLC ownership group has no idea that the Thrashers are actually a part of their business holdings or Don Waddell has compromising photos of the entire board. I refuse to believe any other explanation.

29. Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have a decent collection of young talent that undoubtedly
will go to waste. It's not that I have low expectations for this group, it's that I have no expectations. Finishing outside the bottom three would be shocking.

28. NY Islanders
The good news for Islander fans is that after Garth Snow's salary officially came off the books last season, their GM no longer counts against the team cap. The bad news is that Garth Snow is still their GM. And their top three players (Guerin, Weight, Comrie) usually show up to play every third or fourth game. But at least one of them can get backstage passes to the Hilary Duff concert.

27. St. Louis Blues
I'm going to have to say there is no way Brad
Boyes matches the 43 goals he scored last year, which was the most improbable 40 goal campaign since...well, ever. Okay fine, since Jeff O'Neill scored 41 for the Hurricanes in 2001.

A New World of Hurt
26. Toronto Maple Leafs
If the Toronto media has it right, Luke Schenn is the second coming of Bobby Orr. Whether Schenn stays (gulp) or goes back to junior (please, common sense prevail just this once) the Leafs will be drastically improved defensively under Ron Wilson. But with a forward corps that looks a lot more AHL than NHL, where will the goals come from?

25. Vancouver Canucks
For some reason new GM Mike Gillis continues to pretend that Mats Sundin is chewing on the $20M contact the Canucks have sitting on the table. Mats just spent three years outside the playoffs and if he wants to do it again it’ll be in Toronto, not in Vancity. Even with Luongo standing on his head 70 times a year this team simply doesn't have enough to make any noise.

Forever Stuck in Neutral
24. Columbus Blue Jackets
I'm going to guess Rick Nash won't be signing an extension with Columbus before his current deal expires after next season.

23. Florida Panthers
How in the world did Jacques Martin convince Cliff Fletcher to include a 4th round draft pick in the Bryan McCabe trade? Paying the $2M bonus wasn't enough? Was the deal completed at 4am? Did Fletcher get a winter home in Miami as part of the deal? I need to know, because from the outside it seems absurd. As for the Panthers: the defence looks solid but Josef Stumpel and Stephen Weiss up the middle aren't scaring anyone.

22. Phoenix Coyotes
After a less than impressive start to his coaching career, the Great One has been getting all kinds of praise for his performance the last couple seasons and his Coyotes have received considerable hype as playoff contenders this year. But how could people have missed the fact that Phoenix has a combined 9-29 record in March and April the last two years? They’ve been finishing like Eric Gagne in a Brewers uniform.

Team Hollywood
21. Tampa Bay Lightning
Are the new owners more Mark Cuban or Dan Snyder? Only time will tell, but the early signs point more towards the meddling and dysfunctional Snyder. (Although the Redskins are 4-1 so what do I know?)

Still Here But Mostly Forgotten
20. Nashville Predators
Certainly having Jim Ballsillie and his 'maverick' ways as an NHL owner would've been terrible, it was a much better idea to go with William 'Boots' Del Baggio even if he didn't have any mo
ney. If Anaheim and Los Angeles can operate within 30 miles of each other, Southern Ontario should be able to find a way to get a second NHL team.

19. Colorado Avalanche
I'm thinking Joe Sakic will be questioning his decision to come back for one more year the second or third time he collects a minus because someone blew a 60 footer past a bewildered Andrew Raycroft. But hey, when times are tough at least they'll be able to turn to Peter Budaj.

18. Buffalo Sabres

Note to Darcy Regier: We know you're still fuming from the way Briere and Drury left two summers ago, but are you sure the answer is to tie up Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville for a combined $9M a year?

17. Minnesota Wild
I tried to type something as boring as the Wild. I failed. Jacques Lemaire hates all of us.

Part II featuring the top 16 teams coming tomorrow.

Friday, October 3, 2008

And so it began...

First and foremost, I'm a fan. OK, maybe I'm a bit of a freak. Alright fine…ahem. My name is the Canadian Sports Junkie and I'm a sports-aholic.

It started with hockey, the Jets in the late 80's.

Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Freddy Olausson...those were my guys.

My Dad had a quarter-share of two season tickets at the old Winnipeg Arena and he'd take me to a handful of games each year, but mostly I listened on the radio. Back then the Jets played in the Smythe Division and the late puck-drops inevitably led to me falling asleep before hearing the final score (assuming my Mom hadn't already caught me trying to deke around her bed checks and confiscated my radio). Most of the time I could scan the newspaper in the morning, but if the Jets were on the West coast the box score would read 'late' and I'd be left in the dark until my Dad came home for supper that night. That was a crushing feeling as a nine year-old, and thankfully, because of the internet, a feeling no child will ever know again.

Hockey was my first jones, but it quickly spread from there.

I remember Ben Johnson winning the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, then being stripped of it, and not quite being old enough to understand the proper context.

I remember buying the NHL Yearbook magazines and reading them cover-to-cover several times over, treating each edition like a newborn baby, preserving it in mint condition, year after year. I wasn't in a rush to do my homework, but I could tell you who the Sharks were most likely to select first in the expansion draft.

In the early '90s Henry "Gizmo" Williams initiated my interest in the CFL with his back-flip celebrations, but it was Matt Dunigan throwing for 700+ yards in a Blue Bomber uniform that won me over.

Then the Jays won back-to-back World Series and the Expos won in '94 (yes they did) and suddenly I had another itch to scratch. I know a lot of people complain that baseball is boring and the season is too long, but they're not taking into consideration how fun it is to hate the Yankees and Red Sox. Or how truly rewarding it would be to actually beat them again.

And then, after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls caught my attention, the Raps and the Grizz joined the NBA and another love affair developed. Sure, those first few years of the NBA in Canada had the sizzle of a $2 steak, but hey, at least we had the Naismith Cup!

From there March Madness and soccer's World Cup were added to my roster, the WWE was dropped, and golf, tennis, and perhaps the grand-daddy of them all, the NFL, were brought onboard.

Why is it that every show on television is copycatted, but none of the other pro sports leagues will try to emulate the NFL? Short, meaningful regular seasons, concrete schedule, and do-or-die playoffs. I mean, could you imagine if the NHL played exclusively on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays? You don't think this would help attract US television audiences? A regimented schedule that you can plan for...what a concept!

Now? I'm a sick puppy.

European Tour golf early on the weekends? Check.

College football on a Saturday afternoon? Most definitely.

The Champions League on a Tuesday or Wednesday? Pour me a Guiness and count me in.

I might not wake up in time to watch Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso start the race, but I'll be there to catch the checkered flag.

No one will contact me on weekdays between 5:30 and 6PM EST because they know I won't answer them. That's PTI time, or as it's known in my house...church.

I live for stats, I can pore over box scores and league leaders for hours, but I also know how much they do and do not mean.

I love Christmas, but I might love the World Junior Hockey Championships even more. I appreciate Easter weekend, but Good Friday will (almost) always be Day 2 of the Masters to me.

In short, I love sports. I enjoy playing them and love watching and dissecting the games and contests. I love agreeing and disagreeing with the announcers, watching replays to see which players genuinely care, and busting my buddies chops when their teams lose, especially if it's at the hands of one of my own teams.

I know I shouldn't care nearly as much as I do, but I can't help myself. The competition, the intensity, the dim-witted GM's who constantly make bad decisions, it's all food for my insatiable appetite.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Canadian Sports Broadcasting Power Rankings

#221 Rance Mulliniks
If I turn on the Jays game and Rance is the analyst you better believe my TV is on mute while my iTunes takes over, at least for the first six innings. Because nine innings listening to Mulliniks attempt to predict the next pitch, or gush about the last pitch is too much for me to handle. He just talks and talks and talks, continuing stories from previous innings, through pitching changes, and probably through a blackout if Toronto ever got hit with another one.

#146 Michael Landsberg
Even with the improvements made to Off The Record (Up Front and Next Question), I'm not likely to tune in unless the guest is someone big. Really big, like Kanye big. I have to give Landsberg credit for being unafraid to ask the tough questions though. He'll challenge his guests and pushes the envelope considerably further than almost everyone else in the business, but it doesn't make up for how obnoxious he is. When Tony Kornheiser interrupts someone I enjoy it, Landsberg...not so much.

#53 Leo Rautins
Leo has a great voice, he sounds like a broadcaster, he's got that smooth flowing tone and he almost never trips over his own words. With the departure of Chuck Swirsky, his partner for Raptor broadcasts, it'll be interesting to see how Rautins reacts. Part of my problem with him has been his lack of intensity, I thought he and Chuck were too quick to ham it up during broadcasts but that may have been more Chuck's schtick with Leo just following suit. His analysis isn't always that strong either, there's a lot of: "Raptors need to come out and hit their shots", or "No defence Chuck, Sam's gonna have to call timeout. Good timeout by Sam".

#24 Jay Onrait
My choice as the funniest person on the list. I wouldn't say he knows the NHL inside out or even has a clue which cities have teams in the NBA, but the man can joke. He'll take chances when going for a laugh and realize right away when it it didn't work, and he'll clean it up with a quick facial segue or self-deprecating comment. Sportscenter should give him a nightly gig modeled after Saturday Night Live's 'Weekend Update' segment, Onrait could show whatever highlights he wanted from the day and just pour one-liners on top. If Gerry Dee can get his own spot, surely Onrait deserves a chance.

#9 Jennifer Hedger
Always seems like she's having a good time, like she actually cares about the results she's reading. I think Hedger understands how many of us out there care way too much about the scores and stories she reports and works hard to not let us down. Do you think Hedger plays fantasy sports? Would she play in a men's league? Maybe she's started her own leagues for women and is the commissioner for all of them? Someone should look into this.


#6 Cabral "Cabbie" Richards
I've been a fan of Cabbie's for years now. He lights up the screen and has an unbelievable ability to put athletes at ease while he interviews them. His antics are always entertaining, but now I'm at the point where I'd like to see something fresh from him and his man D. No more laying your chin on a guy's shoulder or flicking all your fingers in someone's face while questioning them. C'mon Cabbie, we know you can do so much more.

#4 Bob McKenzie
When Bobby Mac talks hockey, I listen. His word is the gospel.

#3 Don Cherry
At the ripe old age of 74 Cherry comes across a lot more ignorantly than he used to, but 'Coach's Corner' is still must-see TV. The Don is hard to understand at times because he rambles and is somewhat incoherent, but he still has his finger on the pulse of hockey. He can spot the talented player or the talented team from a mile away and is often the first to do so.

#2 Sid Seixero & Tim Micallef
The boys from the 'Score Tonight' have taken a huge step forward the last few years and now rank as my favorite tandem when it comes to delivering the evenings highlights. They laugh at and with each other and usually offer the most in-depth game highlights of any of the Canadian broadcasters.

#1 Darren Dutchyshen
The industry standard in Canada, Dutchy has been a staple for more than a decade on Sportscenter and combines humour with straightforward highlight delivery like no one else in the business. Classic Dutchyshen: A couple of years ago when Keith Tkachuck showed up to training camp with 20+ extra pounds and then took a shot off his mitt during an exhibition game, Dutchy remarks "Oh oh, I hope that wasn't his eatin' hand".