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.