Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best NHL Team Money Can Buy

The only rule I am enforcing in assembling "The Best NHL Team Money Can Buy" is the ineligibility of players who are still on their entry-level deal, because their salaries are fairly standard depending on their draft position, meaning I couldn't select guys who have never been through a real negotiation. And of course, in a salary-capped world, this team must fit in under the current salary cap of $57 million.

I also tried to construct a team as if I were a real NHL GM, not focusing solely on offensive production but rather trying to build a well-rounded roster with defined roles. I'm not ready to say this squad would be the definite Stanley Cup champions, but I'd take my chances. (To any NHL owners reading this: my resume can be e-mailed in seconds!)

(All salaries are for the 2009-10 season.)

Ryan Getzlaf: $5,125,000 - A big, strong well-rounded player with soft hands, good speed, and incredible awareness. He's like Joe Thornton, only younger and with a Stanley Cup ring.
Marc Savard: $5,000,000 - Claude Julien has the formerly one-dimensional Savard playing hard at both ends of the ice. His play-making ability, especially on the PP, is among the best in hockey.
Derrick Roy: $3,500,000 - His salary goes up each of the next three seasons, but in 2009-10 he provides excellent value and production on my third line.
Dominic Moore: $1,100,000 - Good faceoff man, excellent on the PK and can chip in on scoring. The perfect 4th line center.

Left Wings
Ilya Kovalchuk: $7,500,000 - Granted, my man-love for the supremely-talented Russian is well documented (for the 1000th time, please come to Toronto next year Ilya!), but his scoring and play-making ability is under-appreciated. He is a guaranteed 45 goals and 90 points no matter who he's playing with.
Rene Bourque: $1,400,000 - Spark plug who can score (31 points in 32 games) and seems to be getting better and better every game.
Andrew Brunette: $2,500,000 - I've never understood how this guy continues to get passed around the league without ever finding a home. He's put up consistent points in every stop.
Nigel Dawes: $850,000 - How could Phoenix let Dawes go over a few hundred thousand dollars?

Right Wings
Ales Hemsky: $3,600,000 - I know he's hurt right now, and has never really fully delivered on his talent, but he's not overpaid and I still see a lot of upside.
Dustin Brown: $2,600,000 - Should surpass 30 goals for the second straight year and could really break out offensively at any time. Also not afraid to mix it up.
Jason Pominville: $1,350,000 - Has already signed a contract extension that will give him a hefty raise to $5.3M a year beginning next season. Suffice to say, Pominville isn't likely to be a repeat member of this squad.
Mikael Samuelsson: $1,200,000 - A smart player and a veteran presence to fill out the 4th line. Slightly more expensive than what you'd ideally want to pay a checker, but his ability to score combined with his winning experience make him a valuable addition.

Tomas Kaberle: $4,250,000 - One of the best powerplay quarterbacks in hockey and certainly the most affordable.
Shea Weber: $4,500,000 - My number one shutdown 'D' continues to live in relative obscurity in Nashville, but won't on this team.
Dennis Wideman: $3,750,000 - Has grown into a superb two-way defenceman. Another former London Knight, who learned from the Hunter brothers and is now excelling in the NHL.
Duncan Keith: $1,900,000 - With his recent long-term contract extension and likely inclusion on Team Canada's Olympic defence, Keith's unknown days are over. Could be the best value in the entire league for 2009-10.
Andreas Lilja: $1,250,000 - My top two defensive pairings will eat up close to 25 minutes a piece, leaving only 10 minutes or less for my numbers five and six. Lilja is a bit player who knows his role and excels in it.
Matt Carkner: $500,000 - Strictly a physical presence who will keep the opposition honest.

Antti Niemi: $827,000
Jon Quick: $570,000

My goaltending philosophy is well known in this space, so I won't repeat myself. Let's just say I'd continually roll the dice and take chances on 25-29 year-old guys, never over-paying any of them.

Total Salary: $51,866,000

(Another note to NHL owners: That would leave a little more than $5 million on the table, leaving room to make a deadline deal or take on salary in case of injury.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Canadian Sports Broadcasting Power Rankings V 2.0

#474 - Gabriel Morency - In November the management team at The Score finally came to their senses and removed Morency from his daily national program that was killing more Canadian brain cells than BC bud. Gabe is a horrific broadcaster, incapable of making an articulate point or creating an interesting argument. Listening to his show for even a second always made me think of the classic Billy Madison quote "what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it."

#296 - Jason Portuondo - Now that Morency is off the air, Portuondo could be the worst sports broadcaster in the country. Ummm, Jason: There is no such thing as an "offensive rebound" in hockey, it's just a damn rebound. Same thing for baseball, where an error isn't "unforced", it's simply an error. The good news is if he keeps this up we'll soon be watching Portuondo push ridiculous comments on viewers of the Weather Channel.

#107 - P.J. Stock - He continues to attempt to set the world record for most words packed into a 60 second segment but at least the producers haven't moved him back onto 'Hotstove', where he was like Scrappy Doo, only even more annoying. To be fair, Stock has improved during his three years on HNIC, and in another three years he could be very good. But the first three years haven't been a lot of fun.

#81 - Ron MacLean - You certainly can't question his sporting knowledge, he's always been extremely well researched and prepared for any and every interview and you'll never catch him off guard with a random name, story or stat. He knows his stuff 100%. For a good ten years I thought MacLean was the best broadcaster in Canada, but the last number of years he's drifted away from what made him great. Instead of asking good questions, he rants on and on inserting copious amounts of background information into his question which he effectively answers even while delivering it.

#21 - Sid & Tim - The late-night duo on The Score make a big drop down from last year's rankings mainly because they've lost their cool. They've gone from loose and likable to over the top and kind of goofy. Not long ago they were innovative...unique...and awesomely funny, and now all you see are knee slaps and over-laughing along with way too many hand signals and pointing. They've become those weird dudes on the dance floor who try too hard. Get back behind a desk! Canadians like their sportscasters to appear legless.

#12 - Gerry Dee - Originally I thought his schtick on The Score would wear thin very quickly, but I've totally reversed my position. Now I love his bits, his dry humour, and the way he can pull off the lost puppy look without fail. During the group pieces with Cabbie, Sid and Tim, he steals every scene. And the Wiserhood commercial where he rips a hole in his sweater so that he won't match his wife...I've seen it 1000 times and it still gets me everytime. A year ago I would have said Dee was one of my least favorite Score personalities. Now the rankings (within the rankings) would look like this:

1. Gerry Dee
2. Cabbie
3. Sid + Tim
5. Glenn Schiller
204. Jake Thompson

#8 - James Duthie - He has found a home as the host of NHL hockey on TSN. Duthie knows how to provide the proper balance between straight-forward hockey talk and the humour/entertainment factor. The panel changes, but Duthie is constant and he always gets the best out of whichever analysts happen to be joining him. Anyone who can make Craig Mactavish seem personable has to be good at his job.

#4 - Mike Milbury - The new star of 'Hotstove' has quickly turned himself into the main reason why the second intermission on Saturday nights continue to be perhaps the best seven minutes of television each week. You may not always (or ever) agree with what Milbury has to say, but he certainly is entertaining. Watching him dismantle Ian Pulver in back-to-back episodes was particularly delightful. So are the endless jabs and jokes that his counterparts continue to fire at him because A) his track record as GM of the Islanders and B) the time he went into the crowd, pulled off a spectators shoe, proceeded to repeatedly smack him with it, and then poured ketchup on the shoe and fed it to the poor guy. (Okay, I made up the last part, but the rest is true.)

#1 - Darren Dutchyshen - Dutchy continues to be the gold standard against which every other Canadian sports broadcaster is judged. His delivery is engaging and he nails every one-liner. Basically, he's the exact opposite of everyone on Entertainment Tonight Canada. I can't find a single fault, not even the vest he now wears under his suit.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Inside the Mind of Chris Bosh

Recall the the movie 'Being John Malkovich'. Directed by Spike Jonze and released in 1999, the film revolves around a portal that leads people directly inside the head of John Malkovich and allows them to feel, hear and see anything Malkovich is experiencing.

Well, it just so happens that I've found a similar door in my office that acts as a portal inside Chris Bosh. Seriously. And just as it does in Being John Malkovich, this adventure lasts for 15 minutes (although instead of being dumped by the Jersey Turnpike this ride ends with a seat on the TTC, in a Subway Car stopped at Finch station).

However, unlike John Cusack's character in the movie, I will not attempt to profit from this finding. Instead I will pass on everything I saw and learned about the impending free-agent.

Trip #1
My first trip inside the mind of CB4 came while Bosh and his teammates were in the practice gym, working on shooting. And by 'working on' I mean joking around, trash-talking, texting and generally not working on shooting. In one corner you had Andrea Bargnani, Hedo Turkoglu and Marco Belinelli flipping through an issue of Vogue and re-enacting Justin Timberlake dance moves. No kidding. In another, Antoine Wright, Marcus Banks and Sonny Weems were throwing dice, and in another Rasho Nesterovic and Patrick O'Bryant looked like they were frozen. I wanted Bosh to walk over for a quick chat or throw a bullet chest pass to one of them to see if they were actually sleeping on their feet with their eyes open. It was extremely creepy and yet fascinating. In the midst of it all, head coach Jay Triano was pacing back and forth and constantly repeating sporadic comments like "play hard guys", "hustle", and "that's it, that's it". To whom he was talking was a mystery, because absolutely no one was paying him any attention. Except DeRozan, who was nodding his head like a puppy eager to please his owner. Bosh, on the other hand, was alone shooting at a basket along the side of the gym with the athletic trainer feeding him basketballs. Swish. Swish. Swish. I counted 22 in a row before he finally missed and the whole time all he was thinking was "jump, cock, release, follow through". You know how sometimes you're watching the game and you wonder how and why some players are so much better than others? Stop wondering.

Trip #2
On my next expedition Bosh was in the gym lifting weights with Amir Johnson and Raptors strength and conditioning coach Francesco Cuzzolin. In between bench-press sets Bosh asked Cuzzolin, "where are the rest of the guys?" and the only response he got was a simple shrug of the shoulders. Bosh momentarily pictured the arms of Turkoglu, and then Bargnani, shook his head and began another set of reps. With each push of the bar upwards, Bosh imagined former and current NBA greats. Jordan, Bird, Magic, Lebron, Wade, Kobe. During rest periods, he exchanged texts with Jay Leno, who was inviting him back to cover the NBA Finals again. Bosh was flattered but said he couldn't commit yet because he could still be playing. Hmmmmmm, that doesn't sound like the Toronto team I've been watching. Red flag alert.

Trip #3
This one was a total waste of time. Hoping for further insight into his plans for next year and beyond, all I ended up doing was watching Bosh play 'Madden' with his brother while they tried to rap over Timbaland beats (apparently brand new and produced specifically for him) and discussed possible YouTube skits. Be prepared for a Whoopi Goldberg/Mikki Moore love child bit. And maybe an album. Or a variety show. Really, everything is on the table at this point. Oh, and if you ever have the chance to play vids with Bosh, do not take him on in Madden. His cover-two defense was suffocating and he had Drew Brees looking like, well, Drew Brees. Only better.

Trip #4
Finally, I end up on the floor with Bosh during an actual game. Well, almost. It was against the Atlanta Hawks and the Raps were already down by 20 in the second quarter by the time I arrived, but I was still looking forward to getting a better understanding of the on-court relationships Bosh has with his teammates. And just like that, Jose gave Bosh a look and they connected on a devastating alley-oop dunk. Since I was a kid, I've always wanted to experience the thrill of dunking a basketball. Good times. From there it took about 60 additional seconds for me to realize that there are 20 or so games left in CB4's Toronto career. Bosh cursed Bargnani under his breath for A) letting a rebound tip off his hands out of bounds, B) clanking consecutive wide open threes without giving Bosh a touch, and C) looking like a big dope who only plays basketball because he happens to be seven feet tall. After Mike Bibby burnt Jose on back-to-back possessions and Turkoglu laughed off a 14-0 run against them, Bosh's blood was boiling and I'm 90% sure I heard him think, "five more years with this nucleus? No thanks". When Triano mercifully pulled him off the court with less than a minute remaining in the half, Bosh went to the bench, put a towel over his head and definitely said "only six more months till Miami".

That final trip was more than enough to break the heart of every Raptors fan, but is by no means a shock to anyone. The team around Bosh is simply not good enough to entice him to stay.

Clearly things can change. The Raptors, theoretically, could go on a ridiculous tear that turns them into a bonafide title contender and convinces Bosh to stay. The rest of the Toronto roster could suddenly develop toughness, intensity and basketball smarts. Heck, Lindsay Lohan could still potentially win an Oscar.

It's just not likely.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Youngblood II

Potentially coming to a theatre near you: Youngblood II.

Yes, 23 years after the original cult hit about a young hockey player trying to impress the scouts and learning how to live on his own, and I, the CSJ have been asked to write a sequel. And I've made it my mission to put together a star-studded Canadian roster that could potentially turn Youngblood II into this country's signature cinematic masterpiece. (What, you really thought Passchendaele was that great?)

The cast I have in mind is obviously quite ambitious, but if Ryan Gosling can agree to be in 'Breaker High', I have to assume he'd be open to this project. Especially considering I've targeted Rachel McAdams to play his love interest. And as they did in the original, Youngblood II will utilize current NHL talent to fill out the rosters of all teams seen in the film. Expect to see the Staal brothers, Dion Phaneuf, and any current player cool enough to wear a moustache. Well, sorry, not you Ian White.

Anyway, I've been asked not to give away too many details, but I can pass along the following brief plot synopsis:

Clark Youngblood (played by Ryan Gosling) is a gifted offensive talent from rural Ontario looking to follow in the footsteps of his professional hockey-playing Dad (Cameo Alert! Yes, a certain former West Wing star and the original Youngblood has a role in the sequel). After some brief internal debate, Clark leaves his hometown and joins the junior Hamilton Mustangs where he is quickly taken under the wing of team captain and stay at home defenceman Rick Thompson (played by Ryan Reynolds). Thompson shows the rookie which bars to drink at, which restaurants to eat at, and which girls to stay away from. (I'm considering Elisha Cuthbert for that role, but I'm not sure she'll be able to understand the character.)

The Mustangs get off to a quick start thanks in large part to their dynamic rookie center, but last year's scoring leader and current assistant captain Dwayne Stock (played by Hayden Christensen) is threatened by the emergence of Youngblood and does all he can to sabotage his performance, including tainting his food, humiliating him with vulgar hazing tactics, and purposefully making him miss the team bus.

This eventually leads to Coach Parker (played by Kiefer platform shoes) benching Youngblood which causes the rookie to question his ability and his decision to leave his family. Picture a montage set to Sam Roberts' Brother Down.

Meanwhile, Youngblood and Tracy Parker (played by Rachel McAdams), who happens to be the coach's daughter, take their passionate relationship to the next level and that again lands the rookie in hot water with his Coach. After Thompson negotiates a truce between the Coach and Youngblood and inspires the entire team (think Al Pacino's two inches speech from Any Given Sunday), the Mustangs again face the Blades, their chief rival, who feature the meanest, toughest, dirtiest player in the league, Sam Crampton (played by Taylor Kitsch, who is Tim Riggins in FNL).

Will Youngblood be able to mend his relationship and co-exist with teammate Stock? Can Coach Parker get past his personal feelings and put the Mustangs in the best position to win? And can the Mustangs man-up and out-duel their nemesis, the Blades, and advance to the league championship?

I'm trying to decide between Jason Reitman, David Cronenberg or Paul Haggis to direct. This thing has 'blockbuster' written all over it. No really, it does.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Greatest Canadian MLB Free Agent Class...Ever

This winter's MLB free agent class has been labeled as 'weak', 'ordinary', 'lacking in star power' and 'more boring than an episode of Ugly Betty'. Okay, I made that last one up but for the most part, the labels are deserved. After all, it's hard to get fired up when Chone Figgins, Johnny Damon and Miguel Tejada are amongst the biggest names available.

However, when you observe with a Canadian perspective, this is without doubt our country's greatest collection of un-signed baseball talent ever available in the same off-season. It isn't a long list, with only three names on it (sorry Eric Gagne), but what it lacks in length it certainly makes up for with pure talent.

The class is headed by Trail, B.C. native Jason Bay. The right-handed, power hitting right fielder burst onto the scene by winning the NL rookie of the year in 2004 with Pittsburgh, but really made a name for himself when he was traded to Boston in the Manny Ramirez deal in 2008. It was in Boston where Bay, fueled by the constant national and local media attention as well as his first taste of a pennant race, finally had his considerable talent noticed.

In 200 games with the Red Sox, Bay hit 45 homers, drove in 157 runs, had a .380 OBP and carried Boston to within one game of the 2008 World Series. Bay reportedly turned down a four year $60 million offer from the Sox and will likely end up signing for somewhere in the neighborhood of $85 million. Unfortunately for Blue Jay fans, that neighborhood will not be in Toronto.

Bay has consistently been mentioned as one of, if not the premier free agent of the 2009 class (along with Matt Holliday and John Lackey), but seemingly forgotten are two other highly talented Canadian pitchers who have been marred by injury.

The first is Erik Bedard, who reportedly spent the last two seasons fighting with teammates and the coaching staff in Seattle. Bedard has a career record of 51-41 with a 3.71 ERA but has only managed to make 15 starts in each of the last two years. The lefty from Ottawa was so highly sought after two years ago that Seattle traded Adam Jones and George Sherill for him prior to the 2008 season (both became All-Stars in Baltimore). Not surprisingly, Bill Bavasi, the Seattle GM who made that trade, is no longer the Seattle GM.

The second is Victoria's Rich Harden, who followed up an impressive 2008 (25 starts, 10-2, 2.07 ERA, 181 K's) with a mediocre 2009 (26 starts, 9-9, 4.09 ERA, 171 K's) but has a 50-29 career record and averages better than a strikeout an inning. Harden broke into the big leagues as a 21 year-old with the Oakland Athletics and appeared to be destined for stardom but injuries have been a constant issue. He has topped 150 innings only once in his seven seasons but continues to tantalize scouts with his repertoire.

Harden turned 28 on Monday of this week and Bedard is only 30, so perhaps both will follow in the footsteps of former Blue Jay Chris Carpenter, who stuggled with injuries in his mid-twenties before blossoming into a Cy Young winner and World Series champion with the St.Louis Cardinals.

Both players, because of their injury histories, will be forced into accepting short-term deals at what will likely be deep paycuts (Bedard made $7.75M and Harden $7M in 2009). However, if both can stay healthy they certainly have the ability and talent to provide excellent value to whichever clubs end up signing them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Fan Confidence Scale V2.0

Roughly a quarter of the way through the NHL season...time to again break-out the fan confidence scale.

7.8 - Calgary Flames
The Flames, on paper, are easily the most formidable of Canada's six NHL teams. They have a top five talent in Jarome Iginla, excellent secondary point producers (Jokinen, Bourque, Langkow) and a rock-solid defensive unit that includes three premier players (Bouwmeester, Phaneuf and Regehr). When you combine new coach Brent Sutter and perhaps the best group of foot soldiers in hockey (Boyd, Dawes, Glencross, Nystrom, Giordano), this is a blueprint for post-season success. They'll need to find a way to keep Kiprusoff fresh for playoffs (he's started 19 of 21 games), especially in an Olympic year, but my money is on Calgary being the last Canadian team standing in 2010.

6.2 - Ottawa Senators
Overall, the Sens have played slightly above their heads through the first quarter of the season and much of that is due to Mike Fisher finally earning some of his $21 million contract. Maybe Carrie Underwood is to Fisher what Kate Hudson is to A-Rod? Some might argue Sens fans should have a higher rating, that they are a confident bunch right now. But the schedule has been soft (multiple wins against Toronto and Tampa) and heavily loaded with home games (15 of 21). And to everyone who anointed Pascal Leclaire the best goalie in Senators history before he ever played a game for Ottawa - care to change your vote? I'm not saying he can't be the answer, goalies heat up and cool off all the time (sort of like the Canadian dollar or Lindsay Lohan) but a .900 save percentage and 2.71 GAA are very close to his career stats (.906 and 2.81). He is what he is: A decent goalie who can potentially steal a few games but cannot be counted on to provide consistently stellar performances. Anyone who thought Jonathan Cheechoo might benefit from a change of scenery (Bryan Murray...Buhler?) was proven wrong. He's on pace for 8 goals and 16 points, which would be his fifth straight season with declining totals in both categories. Thankfully for Ottawa, this is the final year of his contract (but $3.5 million for 8 or so goals can't look very good to owner Eugene Melnyk).

5.6 - Vancouver Canucks
The 'Nucks weathered the storm nicely while Luongo was out and now that they have him and Daniel Sedin back in the line-up, fans are hoping they can snap out of the funk that has seen them alternate 3 game winning and losing streaks and put together a more consistent effort. Speaking of goaltending, it would seem that with Luongo signed through 2022, now might be the time to trade Schneider. No, not Matthew. Top goaltending prospect Corey Schneider (who has been dominant in the AHL with a 58-26-3 career record, a 2.12 GAA and .920 SV% and led his Manitoba Moose to within one win of a championship) is clearly ready to make the next step and is too valuable to be stuck in a back-up role for the next decade. GM Mike Gillis made a couple of underrated moves when he added Mikael Samuelsson (9G, 9A) and picked up Christian Ehrhoff (5G, 10A, +11) from the salary-dumping Sharks. Together with the growth of Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler, Ehrhoff has really solidified the defence. If they can get Pavol Demitra back and finally ice a healthy line-up the Canucks will be knocking on the Calgary door.

5.1 - Montreal Canadiens
From the department of 'How Shocking' - Scott Gomez has 2 goals on the season. I would love to wonder aloud how long it will be until Hab fans and the media partner up to run him out of town, but his contract makes that an impossibility. Gomez has a better chance of being bought out than traded again. So instead, we can wonder: how long until Carey Price is run out of town? Because you know it's going to happen. Price has been on thin ice with the fans since the day Gainey pushed him onto Guy Carbonneau's team and then forced him into the starting position by trading Cristobal Huet at the 2008 trade deadline. If I were a NHL GM I would constantly be in Gainey's ear trying to swindle him out of Price, who will be a terrific goalie when he reaches the magic 'goalie maturation date' of 26 or 27. Price is 22 right now. The standings say Montreal is a .500 team, but in reality they've won four shootouts and four more overtime games. That's three regulation wins in 23 games. They pushed Guillaume Latendresse out of town amid 'character' issues and just re-called Sergei Kostytin who demanded a trade in October and, with his brother, was at the center of 'character' issues last year. In short: The dressing room continues to be a mess. The only current bright spot for Canadiens fans is the colossal disaster that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

4.4 Edmonton Oilers
It's extremely disappointing for Oiler fans that neither Sam Gagner nor Andrew Cogliano has progressed into the bonafide point producer they were projected to become. Gagner is two years younger and still has the potential to be a genuine top-6 forward, but Cogliano looks more and more like a third line center. As for the guy who seemingly has progressed and developed, Dustin Penner, well I'm not quite ready to pencil him in for 30 goals and 80 points. Penner absolutely looks quicker and more confident on the ice, but if you take away his two big games (4 points vs. Detroit on Oct. 29 and 5 against Columbus on Oct. 22) he has 17 points in 22 games. Decent numbers for sure, but anyone suggesting a roster spot on the Olympic team is within reach should go ahead and have their head examined. Twenty games does not a player make. Nikolai Khabibulin is a difference-maker in net, but he hasn't played 60+ games since the 2002-03 season in Tampa and the Oilers need him to play close to 70 if they are going to have a shot at the playoffs.

0.8 - Toronto Maple Leafs
Vesa Toskala is trying (and succeeding) to play himself out of the league, free-agent signings Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek have somehow made the defence worse (a combined -20) and Luke Schenn looks "Land of the Lost" bad. Which, for anyone who hasn't seen it, is truly awful. Up front Toronto has Phil Kessel and eleven guys who should be in the minors. Or retired. Or doing anything besides being paid to play hockey. The two highest paid forwards besides Kessel, Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak, have 7 total goals and are rumoured to be days (or hours) away from being put on waivers. When Ian White is your team MVP at this stage of the season you better hope you're playing in the AHL. Or the ECHL. If the Leafs would've just held on to Anton Stralman (4G, 11A with Columbus) or not signed Colton Orr (and Jeff Finger) or only traded one of their next two first-round picks...things wouldn't be so bad. I'll let Dwight Shrute take it from here. "If onlys and justs were candies and nuts, then everyday would be un de donkfest". And there you have it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Simply The Best

The most dominating team in pro football, both this year and in recent history, isn't the team you're thinking of.

Yes, the Colts are a perfect 9-0, have made the playoffs seven straight years, won the Superbowl in 2007 and feature a QB who is so ridiculously good he may very well be a robot...but the Colts are not worthy of the title "most dominating team in pro football".

Neither are the Steelers, even though they've won two of the last four Superbowls and have been #1 in total defence for most of the 21st century. The Patriots, with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, have been a model of winning and consistency but they aren't the answer either. The Dillon Panthers (a highschool team, but 'pro' by my standards because their players are paid) have had a good run the last three seasons, but with Coach Taylor leaving for East Dillon High, the Panthers will need a new gameplan.

No, the most dominating team in pro football doesn't reside in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Boston or on a weekly television show (Friday Night Lights is amazing by the way - watch season one and tell me differently, I dare you). Rather, the title belongs to a team and city further north, that plays in a league which famously claims "Our Balls Are Bigger."

The Montreal Alouettes put the finishing touches on a remarkable 15-3 regular season (where they scored the most points and allowed the least) a week ago and are once again the overwhelming favourite to win the Grey Cup.

The Als host the Lions this weekend in the East semi-final and with a win will go a perfect 10-0 at home in 2009. Soon-to-be 3-time CFL Most Outstanding Player Anthony Calvillo and his league best 108.4 QB rating and plus 20 TD to INT ratio is performing at a Manning-like level, and his receiving corps of Kerry Watkins, Jamel Richardson and Ben Cahoon are miles ahead of the competition. The rushing game, led by Avon Cobourne and his CFL best 13 rushing touchdowns, isn't overwhelming but with the passing game nearly flawless, it doesn't need to be.

The league recently announced the 2009 All-Stars and 14 of the 22 players named to the East team were from Montreal...and it probably should have included a few more.

Since 2002, the Patriots and Steelers have both won a pair of Super Bowls and the Colts have one of their own. The Pats went to another Superbowl in 2008 and lost. Meanwhile, the Alouettes have been to the Grey Cup final five of the last six seasons and are one win away from making it six of seven. If they win, they'll match New England and Pittsburgh in the championship column and they'll have done it without any mention of cheating. (See: Spygate, 2007)

The NFL has it's slick television production, a ridiculously awesome fan friendly schedule (from September to January, Sunday's are amazing) and superior athletes. But the CFL has the most dominating team. A Grey Cup win by Montreal in two weeks will seal their claim to the throne.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Man Behind the Mask

Until now, I've been writing under an alias.

Hiding behind a vague (but witty?) moniker, I've opined and mocked my way through two years and 70 columns without hinting at who I really am. Now, granted, this isn't quite the same as Bruce Wayne revealing himself as Batman...but it is finally time to come clean.

My name is Alex Anthopoulos. You may know me as the new GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. I replaced the hatchet-man J.P. Ricciardi on the final weekend of the regular season and recently unveiled my new game plan that will transform Canada's only Major League baseball team into a contender. Maybe.

Well, actually I initially went public with my blueprint here, but I've been sitting on about 60 readers for most of a year so it didn't exactly make a huge splash when I first announced it back in July.

Anyway, because all of you have been "with me from the start" - I will now decipher my recent media comments to allow an inside glimpse at what I really have in store for the future of the franchise.

Quote: "I know that everything we will do will be obviously to improve the team, but it won't be a quick fix, or it won't be to sacrifice the ability to have a long, sustained run of success here."

Translation: The key to not answering a question is talking in circles, and I illustrate that beautifully here. The first part of my quote makes no sense whatsover. None. That is the point. The second half of my quote might as well be a picture of pigs flying through the sky because a long, sustained run of success is not even remotely possible. That is pie in the sky thinking, but I had to say it to give our dwindling fanbase something to believe in. Realistically, the best case scenario is us catching the Yankees or Red Sox in an off year and sneaking into the playoffs. If we draft and develop well, there is a sliver of a chance of that happening in 3-4 years.

Quote: "I think when people talk about a rebuild, it would be tearing down a team and trading away numbers of players. I don't know that we have that necessarily. I think we have a lot of good young players, I just don't think we have enough."

Translation: This is a direct shot at my predecessor, who was ornate, prickly and mostly a terrible judge of talent. His only friend in the game is the agent for Vernon Wells. We have a couple of very good position players (Lind and Hill) who are building blocks, one excellent prospect (Snider), and a bunch of young guys who might be big leaguers but could easily be busts, or players that are just good enough to lose with. You know, like Overbay, Frasor, League and McGowan.

Quote: "There are several players I'd be very reluctant to trade. That being said, I have to be open-minded to anything that could make this club better moving forward. Halladay stressed his timeline for winning and ours may not mesh and may not match."

Translation: Roy is as good as gone. He has thrown his last inning as a Jay and everyone should be prepared to see a headline announcing his departure. The two draft picks we would get if we held onto him through next year and then allowed him to walk as a free agent are miniscule compared to what teams will part with this winter, and we will accept the best offer. Unless that offer comes from Boston or New York at which point I will do the right thing and tell Epstein or Cashman to *%@# right off.

Quote: "With respect to payroll, there's really no defined number going into next season...ownership is fully committed to giving us the payroll if the right baseball opportunity presents itself."

Translation: We have no idea what our number is and Rogers isn't about to tell us. I'm on a need-to-know basis, and Mr. Beeston tells me that I don't need to know. It's safe to assume that our payroll will continue to decrease the next few years while we stockpile young players and try to figure out who can be part of the long-term plan. If any of you were dreaming about Jason Bay or Eric Bedard, well, sorry. Ain't gonna happen.

Needless to say, the future is not overly bright for us. Without realignment or a total overhaul of the current playoff system, our postseason aspirations are largely a mirage. The idea is to build a youthful, talented and cheap core that can eventually be bolstered with a couple of free agent signings to push the team over the top. It's a good plan. No really, it is. But there is no guarantee it will work.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Easiest Job in Sports

There are a number of cushy jobs in the world of sports. Goaltending coach for the New Jersery Devils, offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts and massage therapist for Maria Sharapova all come to mind.

But no job in sports is easier than the one Joe Girardi currently has - Manager of the New York Yankees.

At his disposal Girardi has the greatest collection of baseball talent ever assembled on a single team. The current Yankee roster has made a collective 48 All-Star game appearances, has more than 2000 career homeruns, 3 regular season MVP awards, and a Cy Young trophy.

Girardi manages the highest paid third baseman in the game (A-Rod - $33M a year), the highest paid short stop (Derek Jeter - $21.6M), first baseman (Mark Teixeira - $20.6M), closer (Mariano Rivera - $15M), catcher (Jorge Posada - $13.1M) and DH (Hideki Matsui - $13M).

The toughest decision Girardi has made in the postseason is which restaurant to eat at following each inevitable win. He could've managed this team to a championship in his sleep...we all could have. Kate Hudson has had a bigger impact.

The 2009 Yankees payroll is $208 million, which is 40% more than the second highest paid team (Mets - $145M) and almost two-and-a-half times the league average ($86M). It's not like Girardi was fiddling with his roster, playing hunches and taking chances. And why would he? They have the best of the best, an All-Star team stacked from top to bottom that was purchased to win.

The Yankees four starting infielders cost them more in salary than 16 teams pay their entire roster. They have two of the six highest paid starting pitchers in baseball and a third who has won 229 regular season games.

When you have a team stacked from top-to-bottom with stars, it's not like you need a manager to motivate or provide strategy. How hard can it be to fill out this zillion dollar line-up? Or hand the ball to Rivera to finish any game? Outside of potentially choosing between Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to bridge the gap from starter to closer, Girardi can pretty much kick his feet up for nine innings and enjoy the ride.

In fact, if the Yankees really want to suck every single penny they can out of their fans (and the evidence indicates they do, with the $2500 seats and $10 hot chocolates), why don't they go ahead and auction off the Manager's job to the highest bidder?

I'm sure Rudy Giuliani, Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler, Jay-Z and a host of other celebrities would jump at the chance to put on the pin-stripes and pretend it matters who is in charge of the ship.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Raptors Preview

The Glass is Half Full (The Justin Thompson Perspective)

As we prepare for tip-off on the new NBA season, the 2009-10 edition of the Toronto Raptors appears to be, on paper, the deepest and most talented team in franchise history.

Legitimately two deep at every position, with the ability to throw multiple looks at opponents, and with the depth to potentially absorb injuries...the path back to the playoffs is clear for Toronto. A special thanks for that goes out to Joe Dumars and the Detroit Pistons for a self-sabotage job; the Charlotte Bobcats for allowing Michael Jordan to repeatedly screw up their roster; Donnie Walsh and the New York Knicks for foolishly continuing to believe they have a shot at luring LBJ to the Big Apple; the Milwaukee Bucks for being themselves; and the Indiana Pacers for once again trotting out the white-out line-up with a straight face.

For the Raps, the addition of bruising forward Reggie Evans and the return of Rasho Nesterovic give the team a toughness they haven't had since Charles Oakley was punching out opponents during morning shoot-arounds and chasing them off the court during games. Perhaps someone could convince Evans that Vince Carter owes him money? Just a thought.

And speaking of Vince, Toronto finally added an honest-to-goodness, proven finisher, a piece that has been missing since Carter pouted his way out of town five years ago. That piece would be Hedo Turkoglu, the 6-10 small forward who led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals last spring and will combine with Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani to create one of the biggest and best shooting frontcourts in the league.

The Italian Stallion, former first overall pick Bargnani, played solid basketball the final 30 games of last season and was rewarded with a sparkling new five year contract that has the potential to be very good (or brutally bad - but that wouldn't fit into the 'Glass is Half Full' analysis).

Factor in a motivated Bosh (he'll be playing for a new contract and potentially auditioning for other teams - but will ultimately re-sign in Toronto because this is the best fit for him...and we can pay him the most money) and a healthy and rested Jose Calderon (who finally took a summer off from the Spanish national team) and the outlook for the Raptors can easily be painted as 'rosey'.

By the way, I am convinced it was my urging Calderon (read: heckling) at the World Baseball Classic in Toronto, where he stood outside Will Call waiting for his tickets in the pouring rain with the rest of us mere mortals, that led to him kicking up his feet from June through August. Yup, all me. You're welcome.

At any rate, the Toronto sports situation is so dire that the Raptors are almost assured of being the most successful pro team in the city. The bar is set so low it might only be six inches off the ground.

The Glass is Half Empty (The Jon Scratch Perspective)

Unfortunately, six inches might still be too much for this group.

With ten new players on the roster (Marco Belinelli, DeMar DeRozan, Jarrett Jack, Amir Johnson, Antoine Wright, Sonny Weems, Quincy Douby, Nesterovic, Evans and Turkoglu), a pre-season that left more than a little doubt about team cohesiveness, and an early West coast road-trip that will surely leave the team below .500, there are several indications that this team may indeed look good on paper but might not be so good on the floor.

And I am not totally sold on Jay Triano as an NBA head coach. It's great that he's Canadian and by all accounts a terrific guy, but that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. His career coaching record is 25-40 and he smiled all the way through it. I want a coach who is unafraid to challenge his players, who demands they compete every single night, and calls intelligent set plays at opportune times. I haven't seen any of those qualities thus far in Triano. But hey, at least he's cheap!

As mentioned in the 'Glass is Half Full' section, with all the new faces the Raps have the ability to dramatically change their on-court look. And they better, because the dribble down the court and then fire up a bad jumper offence isn't going get it done. Let's hope Triano has some ideas for 'different looks' that include: 1) actually using cuts and backdoor passes, 2) ball movement, 3) knocking guys on their asses.

Another potential downfall is the team's three point shooting which has been abysmal in the preseason. Gone are Toronto's two best three point marksmen (Anthony Parker and Jason Kapono) and in their place are Turkoglu (a career 38% 3PT shooter who shot an underwhelming 35.6% last year), Jack (career 34% on 3 pointers), Wright (career 29%), Bellinelli (career 39%) and an untested rookie in DeRozan. In a league that is increasingly becoming one where teams live and die by the 3 point shot, this does not bode well.

Also on the negative side is the video intro that is used as a prelude to each Raptor broadcast that will undoubtedly be horrible. Unfortunately I have no inside 'sources' in the organization who can tip me off on the nature of this year's video, but if recent history is any indication, I would bet the house this thing will be tremendously awful. I'm thinking Jay-Z and Rihanna's 'Run This Town' with completely awkward dancing and uncomfortable, forced smiles. Ladies and gentlemen...your Toronto Raptors!

And on top of all that, Raptor fans will also have to deal with Year 2 of the Matt Devlin era, who my friend Jon Scratch has effectively dubbed "Dry Toast". Listening to Devlin call basketball makes me want to rip my ears off and run them over in my car.

The CSJ Final Analysis

Predictably, I am siding somewhere in the middle of the two aforementioned perspectives. I certainly believe this is a playoff team, and while I'm hopeful of a 4-5-6 seed, I could just as easily see Toronto in a dog race with 3-4 other teams for the final two playoff spots.

The final verdict: 44-38 and the sixth seed in the East.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Time Traveling Hockey Player

March 30th, 1989

When training camp opened, no one knew where he came from. Suddenly, here was this blur of speed, strength, passion and skill that was unlike anything ever seen before on a hockey rink.

He wore a tinted half-visor on his helmet that looked as if it had been smuggled from the future by Marty McFly. The Washington scouts couldn't remember drafting him and management wasn't even sure he belonged prior to the first skate. It was as if he had appeared out of nowhere.

And then came the goals. At a furious rate. The firey Russian scored from in close on rebounds and on mind-boggling wrap-arounds. He scored on wristers that snapped off his stick and rang off the crossbar. He scored on magnificent solo efforts, and through brute force and with sensational finesse. And that was just in the scrimmages.

When the season began he immediately became a threat to score each and every time he touched the ice. And when he scored, the kid would throw his body into the boards after scoring, recklessly slamming the glass with his stick, and erupted into an ear-to-ear grin the moment the puck hit mesh.

The Great One says, "the combination of emotion, talent and strength is almost unfair to goalies". Mario Lemieux announced, "this kid might be the best goal scorer in the history of the game". Those words were spoken at the All-Star game in January, when the kid had played a grand total of 42 NHL games.

Tonight, just as its been all season long, every eye in the sporting world will be trained on Alexander Ovechkin, the spectacular rookie who is on the verge of doing the unthinkable - hitting triple digits in goals scored in a single season.

Gretzky scored 92 goals back in 1982 and another 87 goals in 1984, but Wayne has always been thought of as a playmaker and he scored enough empty-netters to make those totals somewhat inflated. Ovechkin is a sniper, pure and simple. He is a goalie's worst nightmare. His cannon of a shot is the most lethal weapon in the Cold War.

Scoring 100 goals is like hitting 70 homeruns or throwing 60 touchdown passes. Impossible. It's a fantasy. And yet here we are, on the edge of history.

Ovechkin began with a hat-trick against Jon Casey on opening night, followed with a pair against Alain Chevrier and hasn't gone more than three games in a row without lighting the lamp. He embarrassed Grant Fuhr in December when he scored six times including three on a single shift in the second period. He has scored five goals on two other occasions and four a handful of times. He has victimized 37 different goalies and single-handedly pushed Wendell Young's GAA to nearly 5.00. He made Darren Puppa live up to his name.

Ovechkin is sitting on 99 goals in 79 games including a stunning 14 in his last six. He's hotter than Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.

And tonight he will become the first NHL player to score 100 goals in a single regular season. Count on it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NHL Contracts: The Really Bad Ones

10. Tim Thomas - Four years $20 Million remaining
This was a classic mistake by Peter Chiarelli, paying for past performance. Or maybe he felt guilty for getting $6 million value out of Thomas the last few years while actually paying him less than a million a year. Either way, a four year deal for a 35 year-old semi-journeyman goalie is not smart. If he doesn't sign on your terms, you have to be prepared to walk away. Theo Epstein would never have made this move.

9. Brad Richards - Two years $15.6 remaining
He was tremendous in winning the Conn Smyth when Tampa won the Cup back in 2004 (when he was also a key part of Canada's World Cup team) and followed that up with a great season the first year after the lockout (91 points), but his play has regressed to the point that Dallas probably wishes they would've held on to Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Halpern rather than trading for Richards. We know Tom Hicks and his (empty) wallet certainly do.

8. Tim Connolly - Two Years $9 Million remaining
This is like a MLB team giving Rich Harden a two year $20 million contract. The potential is there for it to be worth it, but the logic suggests you would be an idiot to offer. Connolly is a terrifically talented playmaker who cannot stay healthy. Can't. Will not.

7. Brian Rolston - Three years, $15 million
The 36 year old has watched as his goals, assists and points have each decreased over the last four years. He's gone from 79 points, to 64, to 59 and all the way down to 32 points last year. It's as if Lou Lamoriello botches a couple of contracts on purpose (Alex Mogilny, Vladimir Malakhov) just so he can challenge himself to get out from under them. If I'm Florida, Phoenix or any other sorry franchise, I'd be very careful when Lou is calling you. It might be best to let that one go to voicemail.

6. Ryan Malone - Six years $25.5 million remaining
His stats are eerily similar to Darcy Tucker and Tucker was bought out of his Toronto contract while making $3 million a year. With a cap hit of $4.25 million a year, Malone won't be overpaid this year or even next. But the last four years of that deal, when Malone is 32, 33, 34 and 35, well, they aren't going to be pretty for the Kansas City Lightning fans.

5. Rick Dipietro - 12 years $54 million remaining
The contract that put the NHL directly on route to the NBA circa 1999 has predictably set the precedent for a future CBA showdown. A maximum number of years in contract length will absolutely be a part of the next NHL/NHLPA agreement and for everyone not an NHL player or agent, this can't happen soon enough.

4. Chris Pronger - Seven years $35 million remaining
This refers to the extension Pronger signed upon being traded to Philadelphia (he still has one year left on his original deal) and how it will probably destroy the Flyers in five years. You know, unless the league decides to look the other way. As it currently stands, Pronger will have a cap hit of $5 million as a 41 and 42 year-old player even though his deal is heavily weighted to the front (he'll earn only half a million dollars in each of his final two years). The Flyers thought they had circumvented the cap like everyone else, but somehow forgot or misunderstood that any player who signs after age 35 cannot come off the cap even in retirement. In short: A horrible, horrible deal for the Flyers.

3. Wade Redden - Five years $31 million remaining
I know Glen Sather was the architect of five Stanley Cup teams with the Oiler in the 80's and that his drafting resume during that period was nothing short of amazing...but that was a long time ago. A long, long time ago. Every Senator fan in the world knew Redden was in decline as far back as three years ago. Now Ranger fans are finding out.

2. Scott Gomez - Five years, $33.5 million remaining
I would like to call this a 'roll of the dice' move by Bob Gainey, selling it (like the delusional Montreal media) as taking a chance on revitalizing a fallen star with a simple change of scenery. But that would be a lie because when you're rolling the dice there is always potential for a good outcome. Gomez has scored between 10 and 19 goals in eight of his nine NHL seasons. He isn't even a top 30 center in this league.

1. Brian Campbell - Seven years $50 million remaining
It was cringe worthy in 2008 when he signed, and the contract appears even worse now. It's not that Campbell is a terrible player by any means. He's a good powerplay presence on the point who happens to be mildly to exceedingly overpaid. He's not the only one. The real problem is that he eats up a minimum of 8% of the Chicago cap space going forward and is the fourth best rearguard on the team AND they have two of the best young forwards in the league approaching restricted free agency. Welcome to the job Stan Bowman.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

NHL Preview: Contenders and Pretenders

The Contenders

15. Toronto - Brian Burke hasn't quite elevated the Leafs into 'contender' status, but he has changed the culture and expediated the rebuilding process. The D is arguably the deepest in the league but the the lack of scoring up front remains a glaring weakness. Toronto will attempt to be a 'scoring by committee' team, but it might end up being a 'non-scoring by committee' team. At least they're going to beat up a lot of teams on the way. And I've almost forgotten the horror that was Cliff Fletcher.

14. NY Rangers - What is the earliest a team has ever quit on a coach? Game one? The preseason? It will be fun to watch Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury and Wade Redden underperform while John Torterella contemplates going on a five state killing spree.

13. Carolina - Eric Staal has missed one game in his five NHL seasons. One single game. I know some people who used to miss a day of work each week. I'll leave their names out (Thane, Ryno) but they could learn from Staal.

12. Columbus - The pressure is on Steve Mason to prove that his spectacular rookie season (10 shutouts) wasn't a fluke. After Rick Nash and Mason, coach Ken Hitchcock is the 3rd most valuable piece of the team. Honestly. Look at the roster. No way this team should be anywhere near the playoffs but Hitch will have them in there.

11. Vancouver - I can't shake the feeling that the gap between Roberto Luongo (and Martin Brodeur) and the rest of the goalies in the league has closed considerably. That 7 goal performance in the Canucks playoff exit has to be lingering, as do the negative feelings from the Sedins, who requested long-term contracts that were denied only to watch as Luongo signed a 12 year deal during training camp.

10. Anaheim - The Ducks might have the top line in the league if they decide to play Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan together and with the additions of Saku Koivu and Jeffrey Lupul to play on the second line with the ageless Teemu Selanne, they probably should do it. You hear that Randy Carlyle? Play the big three together. (Written on behalf of every fantasy owner who drafted Ryan.)

9. Chicago - The Hawks are a sexy pick to topple the Red Wings in the Central, but I think they might struggle somewhat during the regular season, particularly in the early part of the schedule. Last year was special, it almost felt like a storybook season with the Winter Classic, the reawakening of the Chicago hockey crowd, the fan acknowledgment and it culminated with a month of ridiculously entertaining playoff hockey. So I expect there might be a bit of a letdown. But their top 10 players are as good as anyone's and they'll be heard from again in the playoffs.

8. Boston - No way Boston repeats last year's regular season performance when everything went almost perfectly for them. The list of players who had career years last year is incredible (Krejci, Wideman, Wheeler, Kessel) and virtually everyone else played at least up to their ability. That surely will not happen again. The B's are still a very good squad, but they aren't going to put together another stretch of only 5 losses in 40 games.

7. Calgary - The most underrated pick-up of the offseason was the Flames poaching one of the top five coaches in the league from New Jersey. Brent Sutter will have Calgary focused defensively and ready to play every night and the Flames will run away with the Northwest division.

6. Philadelphia - I'm not at all concerned about the Flyers handing over goaltending duties to bad boy Ray Emery, in fact I can't believe more teams weren't pursuing him. The guy is only 26 and beat out Dominik Hasek to lead his team to the Stanley Cup final a few short years ago. Sure he had some issues off the ice, but so have numerous other players who continued to perform. I'm particularly excited to see Emery drop the gloves at some point in front of a delirious Wachovia Center crowd. You know it's coming.

5. New Jersey - The Devils have gone through seven coaches (Ftorek, Robinson, Constantine, Burns, Julien, Lamoriello and Sutter) and made nine coaching changes (Robinson and Lamoriello both went behind the bench on two separate occasions) since Jacques Lemaire left in 1998. In that time they've never finished with less than 95 points. The coaches change, but the results don't. This is the Teflon franchise, nothing can stop them.

4. Washington - The Caps have increased their point totals from 70 to 94 to 108 the last three years and I fully expect them to capture their third straight Southwest division crown. Of course with the lack of competition in the Southwest, that's like predicting Tiger Woods would win a junior golf tournament.

3. San Jose - Is Dany Heatley a crying, whining baby? Yes. But he's also one of the premier snipers in the game and a guaranteed 40 goal scorer. The Sharks absolutely ripped the Sens off in this trade and it's shocking that Bryan Murray isn't being shredded by the media. Cheechoo and Michalek combine to make $7 million this year PLUS Ottawa paid Heatley his $4 million bonus on July 1st meaning San Jose gets Heatley for only $4 million this season. In other news Patrick Marleau has a maximum of 82 games left as a Shark.

2. Pittsburgh - Sid and Geno continue to be the top 1-2 punch in the NHL, but after injuring his knee in the finals and then having his groin act up again during the preseason, serious questions have to be raised about the continuing health of Crosby. Still, the Pens have to be considered the odds on favorite to reach their third straight Stanley Cup Final.

1. Detroit - Although they lost several big pieces from last year's team (Hossa, Samuelson, Hudler) no franchise is better at developing players and transitioning them into the roster. Darren Helm is ready for an expanded role and Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader aren't far behind. Another President's trophy is on the way, but will Stanley follow?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NHL Preview: Contenders and Pretenders

The Pretenders

30. Phoenix - The fact that this team will end up in Kansas City (or Las Vegas or Oklahoma City) over Hamilton is a joke. It's too bad the NHL doesn't have a Commissioner to deal with things like this. I mean a REAL Commissioner, one who actually cared about the game.

29. NY Islanders - If Alexei Yashin got a 10 year deal out of Charles Wang and Rick DiPietro got a 15 year deal out of Wang, I have to assume John Tavares will soon be signing a 20 year contract. And you've got to love Garth Snow spending $8 million on goalies this year to finish in the bottom five. You know, unless you happen to be an Isles fan.

28. Florida - Perhaps the worst defence, top-to-bottom, in the league. And their forwards aren't a whole lot better. They need Nathan Horton to get back on the up trend after leveling off production-wise the last two seasons...which happened to perfectly coincide with when he signed his big contract. Hmmmmmm. Who would've guessed?

27. Atlanta - If you are Ilya Kovalchuk do you re-sign with the Thrashers and play the prime years of your career in obscurity or do you refrain from signing an extension, score another 50 goals this season and become the King of Toronto next year? Just sayin.

26. Colorado - Wondering who the biggest Fantasy sleeper is this year? Paul Stastny. Yahoo has him buried in the 200's but somehow decided Bill Guerin was worthy of the 62nd overall pick. And how crazy is it that a team can add journeyman goaltender Craig Anderson and dramatically improve their goaltending situation? That's how bad Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj were last year.

25. Tampa Bay - I don't see how spending your entire training camp on the road, trying to make money instead of preparing for the season, is the best way to get your team ready to compete. But then I haven't made millions of dollars producing mediocre hollywood horror movies so Len Barrie and Oren Koules must be right and I must be wrong. Although I think not.

24. Ottawa - If Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips are your top two D you're in trouble. And the Sens are definitely in trouble. After giving away Dany Heatley on the eve of training camp for two overpaid players and zero cap savings, Bryan Murray will now attempt to push this team all the way from the cusp of the Cup to the bottom of the league. I for one, think he can do it.

23. Dallas - This will be a transitional (read: awful) year for the Stars, who following the season will bid adieu to two long-time pillars of the franchise, Marty Turco and Mike Modano. Both could potentially be dealt at the deadline, though Modano may be reluctant to leave the only team he's ever played for. Although playing with Fabian Brunnstrom might be enough to push him out the door.

22. Nashville - Has anyone ever been excited to go to a Preds game? Anyone? Ever? If Shea Weber played in Canada (or at least a decent US hockey market) he would be a preseason favorite to win the Norris trophy. Instead he'll have to wait until the Olympics to get his recognition.

21. Edmonton - I foresee a big bounce-back year from Sam Gagner, another so-so year from Ales Hemsky (with his usual flashes of brilliance), and an Oiler fanbase that pretends paying Sean Horcoff and Lubomir Visnovsky $7 million each this year is a good thing. Oh, and another year without the playoffs.

20. L.A. Kings - The goaltending tandem of Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg isn't going to scare many teams but the Kings have tremendous talent in the top half of their forward group (Kopitar, Frolov, Smyth, Brown, Williams) and Drew Doughty looks ready to play Pronger-like minutes at only 19 years old. They might still be a year away, but the pieces are definitely in place for the Kings to return to the postseason by next year at the latest.

19. Buffalo - Not above average in any area, the Sabres continue to be just good enough not to be bad. Which is great if you're just trying to hang onto your job (hello Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier) but not so good if you're legitimately trying to build a contender. Tyler Myers had better be the answer on the blueline because otherwise there is no reason to get excited about this team. Besides Thomas Vanek that is.

18. Montreal - The Habs will have seven new faces playing prominent roles in a demanding market where the fans may have already turned on their young goalie. If they don't get off to a good start it will be a very long year in La Belle Provence.

17. Minnesota - Most analysts deemed the Wild's decision to replace Marian Gaborik with Martin Havlat a wash, reasoning they were simply replacing one injury-prone superstar for another. But Havlat is a couple million dollars a year cheaper and usually only misses 20 games rather than 40. A good move in my mind.

16. St.Louis - Andy Murray is one of the most underrated coaches in hockey and gives the Blues an edge on the bench on most nights. If Eric Johnson and Paul Kariya can stay healthy, the Blues have serious 2008-09 Chicago Blackhawk potential.

Coming tomorrow - Part II: The Contenders

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Top 10 NHL Earners Since 1989

Ever wonder exactly how much some of your favorite NHL stars have earned over the course of their careers? Here's the list of the 10 highest paid hockey players of all time heading into the 2009-10 season:

10. Pavel Bure (VAN, FLA, NYR)
Entered League: 1991
Highest Annual Salary: $10,000,000 in 2002, 2003, 2004
Accumulated Salary: $66,369,794

9. Peter Forsberg (QUE/COL, PHI, NAS)
Entered League: 1994
Highest Annual Salary: $11,000,000 in 2004
Accumulated Salary: $66,528,213

8. Mike Modano (MIN/DAL)
Entered League: 1989
Highest Annual Salary: $9,000,000 in 2004
Accumulated Salary: $72,337,650

7. Chris Pronger (HAR, STL, EDM, ANA)
Entered League: 1993
Highest Annual Salary: $9,500,000 in 2002, 2003, 2004
Accumulated Salary: $72,450,500

6. Paul Kariya (ANA, COL, NAS, STL)
Entered League: 1994
Highest Annual Salary: $10,000,000 in 2001, 2002, 2003
Accumulated Salary: $76,686,100

5. Keith Tkachuk (WIN/PHX, STL, ATL)
Entered League: 1992
Highest Annual Salary: $11,000,000 in 2003
Accumulated Salary: $78,348,974

4. Mats Sundin (QUE, TOR, VAN)
Entered League: 1991
Highest Annual Salary: $9,000,000 in 2003, 2004
Accumulate Salary: $79,405,632

3. Nicklas Lidstrom (DET)
Entered League: 1991
Highest Annual Salary: $10,500,000 in 2003
Accumulated Salary: $80,515,000

2. Joe Sakic (QUE/COL)
Entered League: 1989
Highest Annual Salary: $17,000,000 in 1998
Accumulated Salary: $93,174,047

1. Jaromir Jagr (PIT, WAS, NYR)
Entered League: 1990
Highest Annual Salary: $11,483,333 in 2003
Accumalted Salary: $98,038,851

*Endorsement contracts not included.

**I know some of you might be saying, "What about Yashin, didn't that bum sign a $90 million contract with the Islanders back in 2001?" And the answer is yes, he did. But he was bought out of that contract in 2007 and to date has earned about $55 million from his NHL contracts, leaving him just outside the top 10.

Of course Yashin will continue to get paid ($3.2 million this year, a whopping $4.75 million next, and then $2.2 million for another four years after that!) by the Islanders, but that is a whole different story.

I'm thinking Pat Brisson, the agent for John Tavares, might do alright for the kid when he gets out of his rookie contract.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Doc's Last Start?

It appears the Jays have gone past the point of no return regarding the future of Roy Halladay and will likely trade the former (2003) and future (2009? 2010?) Cy Young winner sometime before the July 31st trading deadline.

Or not.

The message is entirely unclear. J.P. Riccardi (rightly) continues to hold out for the best deal possible but when reading between the quotes uttered by Halladay, the indication is that Roy may have already emotionally moved on. Even though the soft deadline Riccardi initially set of July 28 for trading Halladay has already passed, I still think ultimately they'll move him. His value now is infinitely higher than it will be in the winter or at next year's deadline.

That made today's start in Seattle quite possibly the final time Blue Jays fans will see Halladay pitch in a Toronto uniform, and here is the CSJ live blog that followed it...

3:31 - Ouch. Our first look at the broadcast team and today's analyst is Rance Mulliniks. Why can't Rogers throw us a damn bone and give us Pat Tabler for all 162 games?

3:32 - Play-by-play man Jamie Campbell and Mulliniks discuss whether Halladay is the best pitcher in Jays history. As much as I love Doc (and it is indeed a sizable man-crush), Dave Stieb has to sit atop the list. Stieb has the franchise record for wins (176 to Halladay's 142), has the only no-hitter a Blue Jays pitcher has ever thrown, and he won the World Series in 1992. It's not even close.

3:37 - Today's Jays line-up features Kevin Millar. Kevin Freaking Millar. Even with the lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith on the mound for the Mariners, this has to be an F-U move by Cito to me personally. Millar was washed up two years ago and his only current motivation for playing is going back to Boston three times a year to reminisce. Why aren't the Jays trying Lind at first?

3:42 - Aaron Hill hits his 295th line-drive of the season. Ok fine, I made that up, but he continues to hit everything hard. This liner gets caught for the second out, but the point is Hill has quickly risen to the elite-level. He may not be the best second-baseman in baseball, but he's in the discussion.

3:46 - Rowland-Smith retires the Jays in order so I flip over to to see a breaking report that says the team that has been most prominently mentioned as a Halladay destination, the Phillies, are about to land Cliff Lee from Cleveland. Ahhhh, maybe this isn't going to be Doc's last start as a Jay?

3:50 - Doc sits down Franklin Gutierrez for his first strikeout of the afternoon but Jose Lopez pulls a double down the line to ensure Halladay doesn't throw a no-no in his Jays finale.

3:51 - Luckily for every team facing Seattle, Ken Griffey Jr. hits clean-up for the Mariners (and it's 2009 not 1999), and is up next. Inning over.

3:56 - The Jays, most notably Rios and Wells, combine to make Rowland-Smith throw a total of five pitches to get through the top of the second. Sportsnet shows a graphic that shows Mariners right-fielder Michael Saunders is the 10th Canadian to play for Seattle. Then Campbell asks Mulliniks if he could name two more? Then silence. Then Campbell offers a huge hint that results in Mulliniks mentioning former teammate Rob Ducey. I'll help you out here Rance: Eric Bedard.

4:01 - Halladay hits Kenji Johjima with an inside pitch that sounded on TV like it hit the bottom of the bat. But since Roy doesn't argue or complain I assume the ump made the right call. Then Jack Hannahan hits a grounder to Millar at first who bobbles it but still tags him out only the ump calls Hannahan safe. This time Halladay (and Millar) vehemently argue the call which makes me believe the ump got it wrong. The replay shows he did.

4:06 - Former Jay Chris Woodward lines a single to left but Jose Bautista nails Johjima at home with another great throw to keep the game scoreless.

4:09 - Doc k's the Canadian kid Saunders. Still bagels on the board.

4:12 - The Jays catch a break when Lopez drops a Rod Barajas pop-up but an out-of-shape Millar blows it by getting thrown out at second. Mulliniks tells viewers "that was not a base-running error by Millar". Well, I'm here to say that was definitely a base-running error. Lopez was running towards the right-field foul line and dropped the ball towards the stands, then let it roll while shaking his hand before realizing Millar and his cement feet were nowhere near second.

4:19 - Marco Scutaro pops up to end the Jays half of the third. Lost amid the constant Halladay trade speculation is what to do with Marco Scutaro? The 33 year-old short-stop and soon to be free-agent is having a career year and will surely get a significant raise over the $1.1 million he's making this year...but what is he worth moving forward? His defence has been better than expected and his professionalism and grit are desperately needed but his 2009 OBP (.388) is 50 points above his career average (.335) and he's going to set personal bests in almost every offensive category (AB's, R, H, 2B, HR, RBI, SB, BB), giving himself tremendous bargaining power. I am extremely worried about the career-year heading into free-agency syndrome.

4:22 - Ichiro lays down a bunt and pretty much flies to first base, not even drawing a throw from the fielding Halladay. So cheap.

4:26 - Ichiro reaches third base with two out but it's Griffey's turn to bat again. Advantage Doc, who induces a weak pop-up from the former All-Star.

4:33 - With Rowland-Smith continuing his Roy Halladay (or maybe even Mark Buehrle) impersonation the Jays go down in order quickly in the fourth. When the real Halladay heads back out, Shelton leads off the Mariners fourth with a bloop single that leaves Halladay smoldering (four hits but only two balls hit hard combined with multiple errors to create unwarranted baserunners). Of course Roy being Roy, he doesn't let it get to him. He re-focuses and gets out of the jam like he's done a million other times over the course of his career.

4:42 - Vernon Wells swings at the first pitch he sees and pops it up. Shocking. Then Millar swings at strike three and I punch myself in the face.

4:49 - Doc throws five pitches to get the first two outs in the bottom of the fifth but then gets in a battle with Lopez who hits a solo homer on a 3-2 count to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead. Griffey and his .209 average somehow manage to drive a double to left-center but Roy gets Shelton on another strike-out to end the inning.

4:59 - In his 15th start Rowland-Smith has a no-hitter going through six innings as the Jays threaten to make Roy Halladay's potential final start all too similar to so many of his previous starts: A great pitching performance wasted by a lack of offence.

5:07 - Halladay goes 1-2-3 in the sixth but is up to 94 pitches on the day. It'll be interesting to see how many they let him throw, with a deal potentially looming.

5:10 - Hill laces a single to left to break up the no-no and Adam Lind promptly crushes a homerun that quickly put the Jays on top 2-1. Win #143 is on the way!

5:19 - Following an error by Hill (on another cheap bunt by the M's, who obviously know they are overmatched at the hands of Halladay), Ichiro slaps a single to right to put runners on first and second with nobody out. Doc gets Gutierrez to pop up but then the red-hot Lopez (3 for 4) singles to load the bases. That actually sets up pretty well for Toronto because Griffey is at-bat and should be due for a double play.

5:26 - On cue Griffey officially ruins the party, hitting his second consecutive double (unimaginable) and driving in two runs to give the Mariners the lead back, 3-2. Griffey now has a whopping 16 doubles on the year.

5:30 - Doc strikes out Shelton for the third time today and Johjima flies out to end the rally, but the damage is done. And so might Halladay's career as a Toronto Blue Jay.

5:34 - Mark Lowe relieves Rowland-Smith, and the Jays make him throw a total of eight pitches to complete his inning of work. Way to make an effort boys!

5:40 - Roy's day is over, his line: 7IP, 11 hits, 3 runs, 0 BB, 6 K and 115 pitches. Not the normally dominant performance you usually see out of Halladay, but another quality start that was definitely good enough to win with. Brandon League replaces him and since the Jays are not protecting a lead, I would expect League to get the job done in the eighth.

5:44 - And League does. We head to the top of the ninth with the Jays trailing 3-2 and Halladay in line to take the loss.

5:51 - Seattle closer David Aardsma walks Hill to start the ninth, but Lind and Rolen follow with strike outs, leaving Rios as the only thing standing between Roy Halladay and another painful loss.

5:53 - Rios is no longer standing.

5:54 - Game over. Is this the end of the 'Doc' Halladay era in Toronto?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Good-bye Roy?

If it does indeed happen, if he does really get traded, it will be hard to see Roy Halladay go. Very hard.

As Jays fans, we've been treated to watching the best pitcher in baseball the last five years, and our admiration for him - his demeanor, his work ethic and talent - is considerable.

But ultimately, moving him is necessary.

If you want to watch one great start every fifth day, keeping Halladay makes sense. If your goal is to play more than 162 games a year (Hello Playoffs, you may not remember us but we're the Toronto Blue Jays!), trading 'Doc' for multiple prospects is the only way to make it happen.

If the Jays could get Manny Parra and prospects Alcides Escobar (SS) and Matt Gamel (3B) from the Brewers (or a similar-type package from someone else) in exchange for Halladay ( writer Jon Heyman speculates)...that would be awesome. It might even save J.P. Riccardi his job. Seriously. An infield of Aaron Hill, Escobar, Gamel and possibly Adam Lind (after next year when Overbay's contract runs out, or sooner if Overybay is also traded) would be very promising and just as importantly, under contract control the next few years. That means cheap.

A rotation featuring any five of Ricky Romero, Sean Marcum, Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch, Brett Cecil, Scott Richmond and Manny Parra (again all are under team contract control) would offer depth to protect against injury, and on paper appears very solid overall.

Obviously Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, because of their contracts, are going to be in Toronto for the foreseeable future (2014 if you're actually counting, but I wouldn't recommend it) and have to factor into any equation, but it's not like they aren't talented players. Both still have the potential and ability to bounce back, to perform like they did prior to receiving a combined $196 million. No really, they do. It could happen.

Even with the Pop-Up artist (Wells) and the Strike-out artist (Rios) eating up over $30 million a year going forward, the group discussed above along with Travis Snider completing the outfield, makes the Toronto roster look a lot like the Tampa Bay team that began developing a couple years ago.

And that is a good thing. A very good thing. The Rays have shown fellow A.L. East fodder (hello Baltimore and Toronto) how to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, and guess what? It's not by trying to spend with them! After years of wasting money on free agents in hopeless efforts to keep up with their free-spending big brothers, throwing away millions on players who were never going to be the difference between making or missing the playoffs, Tampa finally tried something different. Of course all the top-end draft picks helped them, but still, they proved the way to sneak past the Yanks and Sox and into the playoffs isn't by spending. It's by developing. Push through as many high-end prospects and break them all in at the same time. Let them build and grow together, experience the ups and downs of Major League baseball, and then cross your fingers it works out.

Oh, and maybe hire a new-age goofy-looking but strategically sound manager to run the team. Just a hunch.