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?