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.