Thursday, December 16, 2010

HBO's 24/7 Pens/Caps Series

Before I watched last night's premiere episode of HBO's "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic", my friend Frosty emailed and asked if I thought Bruce Boudreau might get fired during the show?

I quickly dismissed the possibility. Here was a coach who had led his team to three straight division championships and even with the playoff underachievement Washington had experienced the last two years, they still appeared to be building towards something bigger. I assumed that Boudreau would at the very least get the opportunity to coach the Caps into the playoffs, and then if they faltered again in the post-season, that would be the time to make a swap.

Now that I've actually seen the show, I can't change my mind quick enough. Naturally, I thought that watching the show would offer an insider's view of coaching in the NHL as well as a deeper look into the overall dynamic of a professional hockey team, that it would be something of a free clinic into the strategising and skill building, the people management, and all the day-to-day details.

And it did. But it all came from Dan Bylsma.

The Penguins coach comes across as intense but intelligent. Demanding yet rewarding. He met with the GM to go over player grades, came up with the "moustache boy" shootout game, and made an effort to get everyone involved. His captain paid him compliments and the entire roster seemed to be confident they had the right man in charge.

All Boudreau did was drop a thousand "F" bombs and address the team with his hand in his pants. Seriously. The look on his face during the third period of the Rangers game when his Caps got shelled 7-0 said it all. He might as well have peed his pants right there on the bench.

Obviously the perception shown on screen of each team was going to be different, what with Pittsburgh riding a lengthy winning streak and Washington a lengthy losing streak. But it shouldn't have been that drastic.

Some other thoughts on a terrifically entertaining show:
  • Interesting to see that while Sid's home locker is in the middle of the room, accessible to everyone, Ovechkin was tucked into a corner with only one stall beside him (belonging to Semin), basically cutting him off from the rest of the team.
  • Seeing Ovechkin shirtless at two different times with multiple gold and diamond studded chains around his neck wouldn't make me feel all that great about his desire to win a championship if I were a Caps fan. Rocket Richard trophies? Yes. Stanley Cups? No.
  • Winning and losing streaks aside, it definitely seemed as though the Pens players liked each other a whole lot more than the Caps did. Hearing Marc Andre-Fleury call Max Talbot a "douche" on the team plane and then everyone, including Max, laugh at the joke was very telling.
  • In the GM department we had one team sitting down together to go over the recent grades for each players performance (Penguins) and another basically throwing up their arms when it was revealed that they were going to be short-handed due to illness and injuries (Capitals). George McPhee didn't quite wave the white flag, but the image of Michael Scott managing Dunder Mifflin did enter my mind.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fixing Major League Baseball

After hearing about the Red Sox swooping in to sign Carl Crawford to a $142 million deal only days after trading for Adrian Gonzalez, I quickly went into yet another doomsday level of panic on behalf of Toronto Blue Jay fans everywhere.

Totally unfair. Ridiculous. What's the point?

It was the same old storyline: How can the Blue Jays ever realistically expect to compete when a maximum of two teams from one division make the playoffs, and the Jays reside in a division with the two biggest spenders in the sport?

Of the last 27 AL East teams to qualify for the playoffs, 24 of those births have gone to either the Red Sox or Yankees.

When the inevitable finally occurs and Cliff Lee accepts somewhere around $160 million from the Yankees in the next few days, the two Evil Empires will have spent around $530 million on five players (Crawford, Gonzalez, Jeter, Rivera, Lee) over the last two weeks. (The Red Sox have agreed to an extension with Gonzalez for about $154 million but won't announce it until opening day in order to save money on the luxury tax.)

In an attempt to have another baseball geek console me and remind me that the Rays have managed to sneak past both Boston and New York and into the playoffs twice in the last three years, I turned to my friend Marshall and quickly began texting up a storm. After several exchanges, neither of us were particularly hopeful that things would get better.

And that's when Marshall came up with gold.

Rather than luxury tax payments going into a pool that is then evenly divided between all the non-luxury taxed teams, why not have all (or at least the bulk) of luxury tax payments stay within the division? Why should the Pirates or Padres or Marlins get an equal amount of Boston and New York's luxury tax dollars when it's the Jays, Rays and Orioles who have to compete with them?

And wouldn't this model actually potentially curb the spending of these teams? If the Sox and Yanks knew that going into luxury tax territory would mean directly financing their AL East counterparts, wouldn't they think twice about their next big acquisition?

Friday, October 15, 2010

QB 1

When Casey Printers was released by the Lions on Wednesday, there was immediate discussion that he may land in Winnipeg.

This was two days after Steven Jyles had improbably snatched victory from the hands of defeat by rallying the Blue and Gold to an overtime win despite being 10 points down with one minute left. Jyles started that game on the bench in favour of Alex Brink, but replaced the (horribly) ineffective Brink late in the third quarter.

The fact the Bombers turned to Brink to start the Thanksgiving day game was upsetting to me. It simply didn't make any sense. What had Jyles done to deserve a benching? Since taking over from the injured Buck Pierce, Jyles hadn't put up many wins, but his numbers were solid and he had played effectively and showed plenty of potential. Giving Brink a chance was a careless and shortsighted move...that actually may have worked.

Not as the Bombers planned of course, but because of the way it went down, the seemingly insurmountable deficit that Jyles overcame, the confidence he gained in that performance, and the equally uninspiring performance from Brink...well it adds up to a true pecking order at the games most important position.

You know how sometimes when things get a little heated with a girlfriend or co-worker, and someone says, "Let's just take a few seconds and calm down"? Well, Bomber fans and management need to take that approach right now. Stop and take a breath. Forget about Casey Printers or Ricky Ray or anyone else who might be available. You can't give the local crowd or media the option of calling for another guy. The pecking order is now set. Jyles is #1 and Brink is #2. We can't keep starting over from square one every year.

It's time for some continuity in Bomber land. Give head coach Paul LaPolice a little leash and let Jyles learn and grow.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is Agent Zero an Option?

That title probably should have read, "Is the Artist Formerly Known as Agent Zero an Option", but that was just way too long.

Now, I'm not saying they should, but...

The Raps have a full trade exception worth about $16 million from the Bosh disaster. Or the Colangelo disaster, depending on your view. The roster, as it currently stands, is, ummmmm, unimposing. Every road team in the league is looking forward to sampling the T.O. nightlife and then waking up and going through the motions for three quarters, and still coming out with the win.

That was harsh, I admit. But the Raptor defence is not. It is soft and toothless and inviting, like a celebrity rehab centre. Or Vesa Toskala.

And there is zero buzz surrounding this team (aside from their haircuts). Nobody in Toronto wants tickets. And why would they? This Raptors edition, even if it exceeds expectations, will still be awful. There are two tiers in the NBA's Eastern Conference. Tier one has nothing but good teams (Miami, Boston, Orlando, Chicago, Altanta, Milwaukee, Charlotte). Tier two (Toronto, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Indiana, Detroit) is a murderer's row of awfulness. Under no circumstance can any team from tier two possibly defeat a team from tier one in a seven game playoff series. Cannot happen.

Unless...one of them makes some sort of significant trade.

I'm not saying they should. Gilbert Arenas seems like a total moron. The gun charges last year were at best childish and at worst frightening. Faking an injury to sit out a pre-season game a few days ago was painfully ignorant for a guy in his position. And he makes a pile of money (3 more years and a total of $62 million left AFTER this year).

But he was very good. Arenas could still be a top 5 scorer who would absolutely fill a few needs for Toronto. Namely, putting points on the board and butts in the seats. Maybe a change of scenery is all he needs? Okay, maybe a change of scenery and copious amounts of counselling is all he needs?

And the Raptors could easily afford to roll the dice. The Bosh trade exception plus one other contract (Evans or Banks ) would very likely net them Arenas and potentially a first round draft pick. The Wizards are so desperate to get him away from John Wall that they'll be willing to bend over backwards to move him. Their first round pick next year will very likely be in the top five.

It's not like the Raptors are going to realistically compete this year or next anyway, so perhaps this would be the right time to take a chance on the ultimate reclamation project and net an excellent draft choice for their trouble?

I'm not saying they should. I'm just not at all excited to watch the jumper-fest that will be our 2010-11 season. At least with Arenas there would be a story, a reason to tune in. And if, or more likely when, it blew up in our faces, at least we'd have the top five draft pick to point to as a reason it was all worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Program Notice

I never saw this as a blog.

It was always a place for me to post my "articles". I'm young(ish), but I'm old school at heart. I didn't want to blog, I wanted to write as if I were applying for a job as a sports columnist. And I did.

I wanted to write for TSN.ca. For years I sent them my stories and tried to sell them on their need to hire me as a "super-fan" columnist. They never bit, and so I turned here. Reluctantly.

And I posted articles once a week, stuck to my format, and continued to swim against the trend. Like I said, I'm old school. I was the last guy to get a cell phone. Everyone tells me I need to be on Twitter.

Instead, I continued to tell myself that I could make it happen. I went to school with a lot of these media guys, and look, Eric Duhatschek just told his audience what I've been preaching for years. I was mindful of my criticism, style and content, all with an eye towards something bigger and better.

And while I had this little sabbatical from this space the last couple of months, I realized that I didn't miss the writing. At least not the work I was putting into it. I love sports. I mean, I really love them. The pressure, the stats, the drama. I love cap numbers and sabermetrics. I love the Leafs and Jays, the Raps and Bombers, but I never wear "the goggles". I love the world juniors, NFL Sundays, the baseball playoffs, and the PGA Tour.

What I really missed was talking sports with my friends. I've moved around to a few different places, and each time I've had to leave behind a great group of guys. Sure, we can always text. But "pti was awwsum today" just doesn't cut it.

I never saw this as a blog. Now, this is a blog.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It's All Down Hill From Here

I began forecasting the slippery slope that the NHL is now fully sliding down back in 2008, long before the New Jersey Devils handed Ilya Kovalchuk the most alarming (and according to the powers that be, unethical) contract in the history of North American professional sport.

Back then, shortly after Vinny Lecavalier signed an 11 year $85 million contract, I wrote:

Are teams simply hoping the salary cap will continue to increase, year-after-year, without any recourse? Do they think by the time the last few remaining years of those deals come around, the cap will be $75M or $100M and the contract will actually look cheap? Can they automatically assume that one or two good seasons is enough to project a player's production 5 or 10 years down the line?

It's a nice thought, but...what if that doesn't happen? What if the annual salary cap, after rising a whopping 35% in 4 years, levels off and then a guy you've committed 7 or 8 years and $40-50M to doesn't fulfill expectations? Even worse, what if you have two guys like that? Or three?

It's a dark road the NHL is traveling down, and it's the same trail the NBA burned in the late 90's that lead to people like Jim McIlvane, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and Austin Croshere earning some $127 million (combined) in salary. This is great news if you're Jeff Finger or Ron Hainsey or any other marginal player who may (or may not) have upside, but for everyone else it means bad times. Unless you cheer for Detroit, each contract from here on out has the potential to bury your franchise for the foreseeable future.

The NBA owners forced a lockout in 1999 not only to put a cap on player salaries, but also to implement the maximum length a contract could run. Teams were doling out 8, 10, even 12 year deals to stars and that in turn increased contract duration expectations around the league. Eager to keep young players away from free agency, GM's began paying on potential instead of production, and tacked on extra years without hesitation.

Remember the deals handed to Larry Johnson, Juwan Howard, Glenn Robinson and numerous other players who were either too young or still unproven? Remember the kind of damage they did to their respective teams?

Larry Johnson 12 years/$84M - 1994
Glenn Robinson 10 years/$68M - 1995
Donyell Marshall 9 years/$42M - 1994

Juwan Howard 7 years/$105M - 1996
Jayson Williams 7 years/$100M - 1999
Brian Grant 7 years/$84M - 2000
Vin Baker 6 years/$86.7M - 1997
Tim Thomas 6 years/$67M - 1999
Bryant Reeves 6 years/$65M - 1997
Antonio McDyess 6 years/$67M - 1998
Tom Gugliotta 6 years/$58.5M - 1998

In a few short years the entire landscape of the NBA changed. Instead of trading players you traded contracts. Where once you had almost every team competing, legitimately trying to win night in and night out, with most having a realistic shot of at least qualifying for the playoffs when training camp opened...all of a sudden you had a clear set of contenders and an equally clear set of pretenders who were fed to the lions and playing for the lottery from day one.

The NBA finally realized guaranteeing several tens of millions of dollars to athletes for a decade or more at a time, regardless of their performance, wasn't working out that well. Didn't exactly lead to motivation. Another factor was injuries. So they capped the length a contract could run for, and proceeded to shorten it again in the next round of CBA negotiating.


It was noted hockey genius Charles Wang who started this particular movement in the NHL, but it wasn't when he gave Rick Dipietro a 15 year contract in 2003. It actually began two years earlier when Wang signed (ahem) Alexei Yashin (10 years/$87.5M) and the Capitals inked Jaromir Jagr (7 years/$77M) to enormous contracts that neither player came close to playing out. In fact, both were paid to leave. Washington ate nearly half of Jagr's contract while he was wearing a Rangers jersey ($3.4M/year), and seven long years from now the Islanders will have squandered $17M in cap space for Yashin to stay home and continue not caring about hockey. Good investments?

In the years since we've seen several hockey players sign ridiculously long contracts and the situation is now unfolding just as it did in basketball. At first it's the stars: the hottest free agents and the best young players score huge extended deals. The rationale is obviously a move to circumvent the cap (more years at less dollars), and also, in the case of restricted free agents, to keep them away from other teams.

The problem isn't with the superstars getting big paydays, it's the length it comes with, and the effect that has on what everyone else can then demand.

As we look back on the recent history of the NBA, we can see the immediate future for the NHL. And it's not a pretty sight.

Now, two years later, the problem is coming to a head. The Kovalchuk deal, along with the contracts given to Roberto Luongo and Marian Hossa, while within the rules of the salary cap, are clearly designed to circumvent it. The tail-end of each contract, when each player will be well into his 40's, will pay those players minimal salaries. Because the contracts were signed prior to the player turning 35 years-old, if the player retires before the contract is fulfilled it doesn't count against the individual teams salary cap. Basically it allows a guy like Kovalchuk to be paid $95 million over the first 11 years of his deal while the Devils somehow only take a $6 million cap hit each year.

It's a loop-hole that will certainly be dealt with during the next round of CBA negotiations when a maximum contract length rule will be implemented. But unfortunately by then it might be too late. More than one quarter of NHL teams already have (at least) one contract on their books that will run more than a decade (Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, Washington), and who knows how many more will follow suit before the system can be corrected?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

State of the Jays

Even as the Jays predictably fall further and further away from the powerful trio atop the AL East, it's been refreshing to see a trait in this team that has been missing for quite some time: Resiliency.

And no, I don't mean that in a "Vernon Wells won't leave the table until he's finished his third double-cheeseburger" kind of way. I'm talking about overall team scrappiness and a never say die attitude that has translated into gutsy team performances and come from behind wins.

There were several times when this particular edition of the Blue Jays could have folded, when it would've been easy to flip the switch off and let the season get away. The back-to-back ninth inning meltdowns against Tampa in early June, the two losses to start the series against the St.Louis Cardinals later in the month, and more recently, heading into Yankee stadium after being swept by the lowly Cleveland Indians all come to mind.

But each time the Jays faced the prospect of being completely buried in the standings they responded and came away with a much-needed win. For a team with extremely low preseason expectations, that means something. Actually, it means everything. Entering a 'rebuilding phase' is basically another way of telling your fans your going to lose. But if you can actually rebuild without turning into the Pittsburgh Pirates for a few seasons, it allows you to potentially speed up the process because your players haven't forgotten how to win. That can make the transition from up and coming to legitimate far less bumpy.

Normally you would point to the manager as a specific reason or a major contributor in developing successful team qualities and characteristics, but Cito Gaston was brought back to sell tickets, not to be a Major League manager. His atrocious handling of the bullpen, stubborn refusal to alter a stagnant line-up, and total neglect for his bench has cost the Jays far more than any gentle whispers of encouragement to the younger players has helped.

Which leads us to the person who has really put his fingerprints on this operation: Alex Anthopoulos, the boy wonder GM who took control of the franchise, at least from a player development standpoint, last fall. After 15 years of trying to patch holes with mediocre free agents when what this team clearly needed was an entirely new foundation, Anthopoulos has Jays fans eagerly jumping on his bandwagon by presenting a blueprint that actually make sense: Stockpile starting pitching and positional prospects, let them develop together, and then add through free agency when it's time to go over the top. So what if I've been trumpeting the exact same game plan in this space for years? (Really, I'm happy that Anthopoulos, a guy who is only a few years older than me, gets to make 10 times more money than I do, travel around North America in a private jet, stay in five star hotels and talk baseball everyday. I'm not bitter at all, not a bit. Hold on a sec...just have to scream into my pillow here. Okay, all good.)

Anthopoulos began his tenure by making what appears to be a good trade under difficult circumstances when he moved fan-favourite Roy Halladay for a package that included Kyle Drabek and Michael Wallace. Both are big-time prospects with high ceilings who should see playing time in Toronto later this year and both could be full-time big leaguers in 2011. Rather than caving in to the (not outrageous but still unacceptable) contract demands of Marco Scutaro, Anthopoulos smartly chose to replace him with Alex Gonzalez, who leads all shortstops in home runs and RBI. He also stole Brandon Morrow from Seattle, signed John Buck for the bargain price of $2 million and claimed Fred Lewis off waivers. Those moves prove that after only nine months on the job, Anthopoulos has earned our trust.

With a cupboard full of young and talented pitchers accumulated by the previous regime and an ownership-endorsed organizational shift in team-building philosophy, Toronto is finally properly positioned to follow the Tampa Bay model and sneak up on the Red Sox and Yankees in a few years.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A CSJ Special Edition: The Decision

Heading into last night's one-hour Lebronathon, I was fairly certain "The Decision" would be a massive letdown.

I wanted to hear James say New York, or New Jersey, or Chicago, or even LA...basically anywhere but Cleveland. Not that I have anything against Cleveland, I just didn't want the last two weeks (or two months, or actually two years) of free agent hype, along with the enormous amount of time I invested in following it, to be all for nothing. I needed change to make it worth while and even with Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer and closer to home, Chris Bosh, already having changed addresses this summer, Lebron was really what this whole ordeal was all about.

Despite the fact that a strong rumour emerged Thursday morning forecasting James joining the Miami Heat, I fully expected Lebron to say he loved the entire process and that he had a lot of great meetings with a bunch of teams that all provided tremendous opportunities, but ultimately, he had to stay home in Cleveland. Just had to. I mean, who goes on TV to murder a cities sports fans? (Besides Brian Burke of course.) If he was really going to leave, this certainly couldn't be the way he'd do it, right?

Then Lebron confirmed that the next chapter in his life would be based from Miami. I couldn't believe it. He actually left Cleveland.

Looking back, it really shouldn't have been that shocking. James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh all signed short contract extensions back in 2007 when they hit restricted free agency. Over the last few years speculation grew that the group had grown tight while playing for the US national team and dreamed of being on the same NBA team. Then everyone's favourite rational NBA analyst Steven A. Smith stated at the start of the free agency period that the "Lebron/Wade/Bosh trio would all sign in Miami, it's done." The three reportedly had dinner together in Miami last weekend.

On Tuesday word leaked that the Raptors and Cavs had reached an agreement on a sign-and-trade scenario that would see Bosh join Lebron in Cleveland, pending Bosh's approval. Fans were told Lebron was encouraging Bosh to join him in Cleveland, but Bosh quickly squashed the idea and voila: instant alibi. Lebron wanted to stay, he really did, but how could he say no to Wade and Bosh in one city?

After Stoudemire signed in New York and Boozer in Chicago in recent days, both players openly tried to recruit Lebron to their new teams. Yet when Wade and Bosh were asked about Lebron during their joint announcement on Wednesday, the pair clammed up for the first time in two weeks.

It seems so obvious now, and the entire charade briefly had me upset. I thought about all the time I wasted chasing my tail, reading every tweet as if it were headline news. I wondered if the new big three might possibly become the biggest villains in sport?

But then I remembered all three genuinely seem like nice guys, and they all smile so much, and they're all so damn good that it would be nearly impossible to hate them. Hell, they might play 50 games on national television next year (every Thursday night on TNT and Sunday afternoon on ABC right?), and it will be absolutely fascinating to watch.

And if you don't think Pat Riley's Blackberry absolutely blew up Thursday night from the stampede of calls and texts sent his direction from veteran unrestricted free agents offering their services for the league minimum in salary, well, ahhh, you're wrong. Dead wrong.

The pressure on this team to win, after they fill out the rest of the roster (do you think Shaq is already in Miami or still en route?), will be like nothing we've ever seen. They're going to have to be like Tiger Woods in 2000 for 100 nights a year. I can't wait to see what happens.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

NHL Free Agency: Winners and Losers

The Losers:

New York Rangers
Glen Sather has been the Rangers GM since 2000 and during his nine seasons in charge the Blueshirts have made four playoff appearances and never advanced past the second round. Slats has signed three of the worst contracts currently in hockey (Drury, Gomez, Redden) and just massively overpaid for Derek Boogard (4 years, $6.6 million), who hasn't scored a goal in his last 190 games. There is no question that Boogard is one bad hombre who will protect his teammates and strike fear in opposing players, but he plays about five minutes a game. Crazy.

Vancouver Canucks
Too long for Dan Hamhuis (six years), too much for Manny Malholtra ($2.5 a year), and it may end up costing them Mason Raymond. I can totally understand adding either Hamhuis or Ballard, but grabbing both of them seems redundant. It looks like Mike Gillis, who now has six defenceman earning at least $3.25 million, has gone to the Brian Burke school of building a blue line. Obviously, that is not a good thing.

Ottawa Senators
If I were a Sens fan and was looking at paying a total of $15.3 million (or roughly 26% of my cap space) next year to Alex Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar and Pascal Leclaire...well, let's just say Bryan Murray would not be on my Christmas card list. Gonchar has been one of if not the elite point producing defenceman in the league over the last ten years, but at 36, and after playing only 87 of a possible 164 games the last two years, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to give him three years AND a raise.

Buffalo Sabres
Over-paid for a washed up Jordan Leopold (three years, $9 million) instead of spending an extra $375k a year to keep Henrik Tallinder even though they have more than $10 million in available cap space. This was dumb on two levels: 1) Tallinder is 1000 times the player that Leopold is, and 2) he paired with and mentored Tyler Myers all of last year and allowed him to blossom into a bonafide force. Buffalo will need the pre-Olympic version of Ryan Miller just to squeak into the playoffs next year.

The Winners:

Tampa Bay Lightning
Stevie Y knows what he's doing. The rookie GM somehow convinced the Flyers to take Andrej Mezaros off his hands (Paul Holmgren and his scouting staff didn't watch Tampa play the last two years?) and then more than replaced him with a superior and cost-effective Pavel Kubina (two years, $7.7 million), rewarded a deserving Martin St.Louis with an extension and topped it off by signing a quality goalie (Dan Ellis) to a short-term deal (two years, $3 million). If Yzerman manages to send Vinny Lecavalier to LA, he may have won the 2010-11 GM of the Year Award before the season even starts.

New Jersey Devils
Anton Volchenkov was made to play in the Devils system and while the length of his new contract might be a little longer than I would like (six years), the price was more than fair ($4.25 million per). Sweet Lou also added Henrik Tallinder to give them their best defensive unit since the Scott Stevens/Scott Niedermayer days. If the Kovalchuk deal goes through and they don't have to give up Zajac to make room for him, I very much like Jersey's chances next year.

San Jose Sharks
After nine years with Evgeni Nabokov as their starter that resulted in limited post-season success, it was absolutely the right time to let him walk. The fact that Doug Wilson then jumped onboard the cheap goaltending train makes it even better. Antero Nittimaki (two years, $4 million) is definitely good enough to win with, and for all we know, Thomas Greiss might be too.

Calgary Flames
Darryl Sutter has been getting absolutely crushed by the Canadian media, particularly for his moves on July 1st, but I actually like both of the signings. Olli Jokinen is coming off of two disappointing seasons and never quite found his groove in Calgary during his first go-around, but at that price ($3 million per for only two years) I think the risk is worth the potential reward. Same thing goes for Alex Tanguay, who will earn $1.7 million on a one year deal and can also play in the Flames top-6.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Slappy's

After hearing that I nominated him to replace Gary Bettman as NHL Commissioner, charismatic infomercial showman Vince Shlomi graciously offered to sponsor a new set of NHL awards. Yes, the man who gave us both the ShamWow and the Slap Chop has anted up to help present the Slappy's.

Tonight the NHL has it's annual awards show in Las Vegas and even with the promise of witty and entertaining commentary from host Jay Mohr (hitting you over the head with sarcasm alert), this event is quickly becoming a rival with the All-Star game for irrelevancy. Which is why I, along with Vince Shlomi's money (okay, it was a contra agreement - anyone need a Slap Chop?) am extremely proud to reveal the 2010 Slappy Winners:

The ShamWow Award
Finalists: Lee Stempniak, Ville Leino, Peter Mueller
This one goes to Ville Leino, who was a 'sham' in Detroit but transformed into a 'wow' in Philadelphia. The 26 year-old Finn went from 7 points in 42 regular season games with the Red Wings to 21 points in 19 playoff games with the Flyers, and at times, was the best player in the Stanley Cup finals. Leino's transformation from fringe player to the first line would be like Heidi Montag snagging the lead role in Scorsese's next film. Alright, a better comparison would probably be Judd Apatow's next film, but you get the idea.

The Yoko Ono Award

Finalists: Brian Campbell, Vincent Lecavalier, Shawn Horcoff
This award goes to Brian Campbell, who's onerous contract (6 years and $43 million remaining) is threatening to break-up the Blackhawks. The Hawks salary cap problems have been widely reported and even burying Cristobal Huet's $5.3 million contract in the minors next year won't solve them. Chicago will be forced to trade or walk away from a number of players who were integral to their Stanley Cup championship (Ladd, Byfuglien, Versteeg, Sharp, Hjalmarsson) mainly because Campbell is ridiculously overpaid and therefore, unmovable. Although, if I were Stan Bowman, I would at the very least make some exploratory calls to the finalists for the next award.

The Isiah Thomas Award
Finalists: Brian Burke, Steve Tambellini, Bryan Murray
This goes to the lousiest GM from the past year. No need to build suspense here: C'mon down Brian Burke! Instead of simply signing Phil Kessel to an offer sheet last summer, Burke chose to make a trade with the Bruins that actually cost the Leafs an extra first rounder next year rather than a third rounder this year. But hey, at least Burke can continue to crow that "he will never use an offer sheet", nevermind the disastrous implications for his team. He extended Mikhail Grabovski and refused to fire a coach who may have very well been trying to get into the record books as the worst penalty killing team of all-time. On top of that, Burke acquired a past-his-prime goaltender who will earn $7 million this year at a time when cheap, quality goaltending is in abundance.

Press-Box Hot Award
Finalists: Olli Jokinen, Tomas Plekanec, Matthew Lombardi
Press-box hot, as defined by the great ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons: "there are so few females that cover sports that the ones who do become disproportionately hot to everyone else sitting in the press-box". Well, this same line of thinking can easily be applied to an underwhelming unrestricted free-agent class. Because there are so few quality unrestricted free agents this offseason, a guy like Tomas Plekanec, who had a career high 70 points last season in his contract year (gigantic red flag) somehow ends up with a 6 year $30 million contract. As my friend Frosty emailed me today: "Montreal just got Horcoffed."

My Agent Deserves a Raise Award
Finalists: Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kyprusoff, Tim Thomas, Cam Ward, Tomas Vokoun, J.S. Giguere, Cristobal Huet, Niklas Backstom, Henrik Lundqvist
All of the nominated players will make at least $5 million next year, and if we've learned anything the past few years, it's that the goalie position is the easiest place to save dollars in a salary cap system. In other words, we have a 9-way tie! It will be very interesting to see what unrestricted free-agent Evgeni Nabokov signs for this summer, because the goaltending landscape has changed drastically in recent years. Nabokov might get squeezed all the way back to the KHL if he doesn't want to take a hefty paycut from the $6 million he earned this past year.

Celebrity WAG Award
Finalists: Mike Fisher, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Comrie
This is the big one, the Slappy version of MVP. This was the closest race of all the awards and for once, there truly are no losers. The Mike Comrie/Hilary Duff engagement photos made Comrie the favourite, but the winner is Mike Fisher who somehow convinced the unbearably cute Carrie Underwood to look past his mediocre on-ice stats and goofy friends (Spezza!) and say yes to his engagement proposal.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rotation Leading the Surprising Jays

A quick look at the current Jays batting order reveals how heavily this team relies on two things: home runs and cheeseburgers. Whoops, I meant home runs and starting pitching.

With zero everyday players batting .300 (Vernon Wells is leading at .286) and the home run totals predictably slowing from their ridiculous pace, Toronto owes their surprising record mostly to a quartet of starters who have done considerably more than just ease the loss of Roy Halladay. They've somehow managed to turn the loss of the best pitcher in baseball into a more complete unit.

When Doc was sent to Philadelphia in the offseason it was supposed to mark the beginning of the end for the Blue Jay rotation. Gone was the man who bordered on invincibility every fifth day, the guy who could handle Boston or New York and anyone else, they guy who was destined to throw a perfect game, and in his place were two inexperienced prospects, a reclamation project, and a player who hadn't thrown a big league pitch since the summer of 2008. Needless to say, expectations were not high for this group.

But nearly halfway through the season three of those question marks have performed solidly and the reclamation project is showing promising signs. Collectively the group has been churning out quality starts (6IP+ and 3 earned runs or less) which has allowed Toronto to capitalize on their home run binge and win games.

Sean Marcum, who had Tommy John surgery in 2008 and missed the entire 2009 season, has more than bounced back. In 14 starts this year Marcum has 10 quality and is second in the AL in innings pitched (92.1) and 5th in WHIP (1.10). Every time he gets the ball he seems to take a shutout into the 6th inning, and right now he's the odds on leader to replace Halladay as my favourite Jay. (I came close to awarding the official title to Aaron Hill after 'the trade' but ultimately decided to wait, so it's currently vacant. Glad we cleared that up.)

It wasn't long ago that many of us pointed to J.P. Riccardi passing on Troy Tulowitzki in the 2006 draft and instead selecting Ricky Romero as ample proof that Riccardi was not fit to be a MLB GM. While Tulowitzki would certainly look good (okay very good) filling the black hole that has been the Blue Jays shortstop position, Romero has quietly developed into one of the best young starters in baseball. He has made 13 starts including nine quality, is 2nd in the AL in strikeouts (91), fourth in innings pitched (90.1), and has two complete games to go with a 1.22 WHIP and 3.29 ERA. On top of those sterling numbers, the kid has some serious moxie and if he was anywhere but where he is, where the spotlight is hogged by two star-studded rotations and another that is all #1 picks, Romero would be much more heralded.

After making 17 starts last year, the soon-to-be 24 year-old Brett Cecil has made 10 starts this year (prior to last night) and has seven wins, seven quality starts, a 0.99 WHIP and a 3.22 ERA to show for it. Cecil, who was drafted 38th overall in 2007, has quickly blossomed at the Major League level.

When Toronto acquired Brendan Morrow from Seattle for Brandon League over the winter, it was seen as little more than two teams exchanging prospects that both had grown tired of. While League has been his usual Jekyll and Hyde self for the Mariners, Morrow, who many Blue Jay insiders claim to have the best 'stuff' of any Toronto pitcher, has put a slow April and May behind him to rack up three straight quality starts. While he continues to fight control issues (his 38 BB's are second in the AL), Morrow happens to be about $600,000 cheaper this year than League and at only 25 years-old, still has plenty of upside.

The combined 2010 salary commitment for those four Blue Jay starting pitchers is just over $2 million, or roughly the same as what the Yankees pay their bat boy. While none of them are anywhere close to replacing Halladay on an individual basis, together they're giving Jays fans reason to believe that this young and talented rotation could be the bridge to October baseball.

Or at the very least meaningful baseball in September.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bullpen's Are the New Goalie

A major league bullpen is like an NHL goalie: they can be found anywhere and for the most part, neither should ever be paid.

Sure if you're the Yankees or Red Sox or Angels working with an unlimited budget, you can spend on your relief corps. But if you're a smaller-market baseball team trying to win with limited resources, or if you are any team in the NHL working in a salary-cap system, the bullpen and the goal crease are two areas that can easily and effectively be skimped on when it comes to player contracts. I apologize that sounded an awful-lot like an essay, but this is serious stuff for a guy who thinks about sports 18 hours a day.

Over the last few years I've repeatedly written about goalies being under-valued in the NHL (here, here and here) and now that the Philadelphia Flyers have used two ultimate-journeymen between the pipes and still find themselves in the Stanley Cup final, this fact may actually be known. Although with Brian Burke trading for J.S. Giguere and his $7.5 million contract, Leaf fans might disagree.

In professional hockey, there is no point to spending money on that position. My apologies to everyone in Vancouver who are wiping away tears at the thought of Roberto Luongo's 12-year extension that kicks in next year. Frankly, I'm shocked to be living in a world where Rick DiPietro's 15 year contract is the second worst goaltending deal around. Never though it'd happen.

After watching both nobodies and somebodies win and lose ballgames in late innings the last few years, I am convinced the same philosophy can be applied to Major League bullpens. The number of MLB relievers who have come out of nowhere to have recent success is huge, way too high to count or list in this space, but one needs to look no further than our own Toronto Blue Jays for proof.

Scott Downs was a failed starter when he arrived in Toronto in 2005 but has been one of the most effective (and underpaid) lefty relievers in baseball since 2007. Sean Camp was the 500th overall pick in 1997 and blew chances to stick in both Kansas City and Tampa but has been stunningly effective in a Jays uniform. Jesse Carlson was lights-out a few years ago. Jeremy Accardo saved 30 games while earning less than $400k in 2007. And Kevin Gregg...well, Kevin Gregg sucks but at least he too is cheap. You can't win them all.

But you can patch together a bullpen out of castoffs, reclamation projects, and cheap older veterans looking to reprove themselves on one year contracts.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

CB More?

Ever since Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all eschewed longer contracts and signed shorter three year extensions back in 2007, the basketball world has been anticipating the summer of 2010.

On July 1st that trio will hit free agency with numerous possible destinations thanks to the salary cap scrambling of several teams as they prepared for the big bonanza.

Chris Bosh tweeted his own wish-list last week, revealing that he was open to playing in any of Chicago, Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto next year, so let's examine the scenarios that could play out and the effect they would have on the Toronto Raptors.

Scenario A: Sign & Trade with Marcus Banks or Reggie Evans for Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson
In order to get back the one guy they actually want (Gibson), the Raptors would also have to take the Bulls two worst contracts, but they do get to relieve themselves of a bad contract of their own. Two major problems with this: 1) neither Deng nor Hinrich fit very well with the rest of the current roster; and 2) it's never a smart move to get rid of a one year $5 million contract for two, multiple year $10 million contracts.
Chances of it actually happening: 1%

Scenario B: Sign & Trade for Michael Beasley, Udonis Haslem, Free Agent X and two first round draft-picks
If this were to happen it might kill the NBA in Toronto. Unless someone hires Isiah Thomas to run their team we're stuck with Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu for the next four years. Adding Michael Beasley to the mix, even if it were for only one year, would be too much. The number of lifeless jumpers and the amount of indifference on the defensive end would cause Jay Triano's replacement to resign. No, not re-sign. Resign as in quit.
Chances of it actually happening: 0.5%

Scenario C: Sign & Trade for David Lee
In this situation the Raptors would sign Bosh to a massive extension that may or may not be the maximum but would certainly be in the neighborhood of $17 million a year. The Knicks would sign Lee to a Hedo Turkoglu type of deal (say 5 years and $55 million) and include Sergio Rodriguez and Wilson Chandler to make the salaries work. With a starting five that included Bargnani, Lee, Turkoglu and Calderon, the Raps would have the potential to be the worst defensive team in the history of basketball.
Chances of it actually happening: 18%

Scenario D: Sign & Trade for Andrew Bynum (with the Lakers including Jordan Farmar)
Most people look at the Lakers and see a team that doesn't need to do anything...that wouldn't dream of doing anything. They're about to go to their third straight NBA finals and are on the verge of back-to-back championships. Why mess with a good thing, right? Well, first remember that they switched in Ron Artest for Trevor Ariza last year, and second, how many stories have you heard about Kobe mercilessly harping on Bynum for his injuries, immaturity, inconsistent play, bowling too much, being too big, whatever. The point is, Kobe has never been a big Bynum fan. In Toronto Bynum, who was never better than the third option in LA, would instantly become 1 or 1A on offence. The Raptors would get a 22 year-old seven foot center who has the talent and proven ability to replace the 20 and 10 that Bosh takes with him. Even with Bynum's significant injury history this deal makes the most sense.
Chances of it actually happening: 40%

Scenario E: Bosh leaves as a Free Agent
For the Raptors, this could be the most beneficial outcome to the entire Bosh saga. Seriously. Take another look at those options. I could live with Bynum, and everyone else listed certainly has his merits, but every one of them would be hard-pressed to live up to their contract. And Bosh wouldn't live up to his if he chose to re-sign and stay here either. He's not good enough to be the best player on a championship team and carrying his contract would have been a burden moving forward...just as carrying any of the contracts listed above would be a burden. The better option would be to let him walk and then sign a few lower tier free agents after the market settles. None of the above options are going to take this team to the next level, so why bother forcing something?
Chances of it actually happening: 41%

Scenario F: Bosh re-signs and stays
Not. Going. To. Happen.
Chances of it actually happening: 0%

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

MoneyPuck

In 1997 the Oakland A's named 35 year-old Billy Beane their new General Manager. Beane was a new-age thinker, a sabermetrician who identified under-valued skills and quickly exploited those inefficiencies in the baseball player market. In Oakland, Beane implemented a statistically-based shift in baseball philosophy and consistently produced contending teams with a payroll that was in the bottom-third of the league.

If you've read Moneyball you're saying 'yes, we know'. Well...I promise you I'm going somewhere with this, so stick with me.

Boston began following Oakland's principles in 2002 when the Red Sox made 28 year-old Theo Epstein the youngest GM in baseball history. Epstein ended 85 years of Red Sox frustration by making several astute pick-ups and delivering a championship in 2004. A year later both Texas (Jon Daniels, 28) and Arizona (Josh Byrnes, 35) got with the program and then Tampa Bay hired 30 year-old Andrew Friedman in 2007. Collectively they have learned from the OBP boom, are thriving in the WHIP era and fully understand that the VORP needs to be with you.

That year the NBA finally noticed what was happening in baseball that and soon the Houston Rockets made 34 year-old Daryl Morey their GM and Sam Presti (31) took over in Seattle/Oklahoma City. Morey and Presti have adopted new ways of valuing players and their output. They've helped usher some of the new basketball statistics (Offensive/Defensive Efficiency, True Shooting Percentage, and Player Efficiency Rating) into the mainstream but more importantly they've used it for their advantage. Morey paid 50 cents on the dollar in a trade for Kevin Martin in February and has Houston in excellent salary-cap position to add a big name next summer. It's only with a tiny bit of hyperbole that I say Oklahoma City resembles the 1981 Edmonton Oilers - at worst they're a poor man's version. (Durant is Gretzky, Westbrook is Messier, Green is Lowe, Presti is Slats...it actually works pretty well, you know...assuming the Thunder now go out and win four championships in five years.)

All of the aforementioned GM's share several qualities, namely: 1) age (clearly)...very young by comparison to the rest of their colleagues; 2) it was the first GM job for each of them; 3) they all embraced non-traditional statistical information; and 4) none are former elite players or come from famous sporting families. Epstein went to Yale. Friedman was a securities analyst. Byrnes began as a 24 year-old intern for Cleveland. They're college educated and/or have made there way up the ladder with smarts and hard work. Oh, and every one of their teams have an enviable roster stocked with homegrown talent and free of any ridiculously long-term contracts that can kill you.

And then there is the NHL, where Florida just hired 59 year-old Dale Tallon and back in November, Pierre Gauthier (57) took over in Montreal. Of the 30 NHL GM's, an overwhelming majority are on their second opportunity. Or they're a former high-profile player. Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, who will turn 37 in June, is the youngest manager in the NHL and one of only seven current GM's under the age of 50.

This is by no means meant to be an ageist attack, nor a judgment on the capability of Tallon or Gauthier to run NHL teams. But the fact is that owners, specifically NHL owners, continue to hire the same types of GM's despite mounting evidence in other professional sports that this updated model is indeed better. Who will be the team that first embraces the MoneyPuck philosophy, and why in the world is it taking so long?

Back in Major League Baseball, two more teams joined the new-age trend this past offseason when San Diego put Jed Hoyer (36) in charge and the Toronto Blue Jays handed the keys to Alex Anthopoulos (32).

Both teams are off to surprising starts.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Salt in the Wound

After the Cavs and Celts get things figured out (and judging by last night, they may already have) the NBA will be down to only four teams with the chance to win a championship, and I am genuinely terrified of one potential outcome.

Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the impending free agency of Chris Bosh, Lebron James or Dwyane Wade.

What literally scares the bejesus out of me is the possibility that a certain former face of the Raptor franchise, a guy who makes Spencer Pratt look likeable by comparison, could very well become an NBA champion. Thinking it makes me want to wash my mind out with soap. But I can't stop. The man Toronto fans have never forgiven or forgotten in the six years since he shamed himself out of town...could soon end up with a ring.

Vince Carter and the Orlando Magic just finished off their second straight playoff sweep and have won 14 games in a row. Actually, 'won' doesn't even come close to explaining what the Magic have been doing. Dwight Howard and company quietly led the league with a +7.5 point differential in the regular season and that number is up to a laughable +17.5 in the postseason. You know how sometimes you hear someone say so and so "destroyed that team"? Well, Orlando literally destroyed the Atlanta Hawks in the second round, beating them by 43, 14, 30 and 14 points in the four games while also (likely) getting coach Mike Woodson fired, and sending Joe Johnson into free agency with a $20 million haircut on his next contract.

The Magic, who also went to the NBA Finals last year, are shooting the lights out and have the best defensive player in the league. They could very well become the 2010 NBA Champions.

For Raptor fans who's only saving grace for most of the last six years has been the knowledge that no team with Vince Carter on it would ever contend for a title, this is a sobering thought. We thought we knew Vince could never be counted upon for an honest effort nor ever be trusted to play in any pain (and I mean any, like band-aid any) and this meant he would never get to the top. This was the guy who sabotaged our franchise by killing his own value with his transparent lack of effort right after demanding a trade. This was the player who became a sideshow with his ridiculous inflation of injury, who threatened to never dunk again, and fought his coach at halftime.

When Vince forced his way out of town the door could not have hit him quicker or harder on the way out...and we've never gotten over him. Carter was the guy who put the Raptors on the map, at first with his otherworldly dunks and then when he transformed them from expansion team to playoff team and very briefly, to playoff contender, before it all went horribly wrong.

Witnessing Vince Carter have the satisfaction and career achievement of being on a championship team is a real possibility. But I pray it doesn't happen. This wound is still open.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mailbag V1.0

You know how some writers get a free column every once in a while where instead of coming up with an intriguing angle or shedding light on a hidden subject, they simply answer questions in a mailbag format?

Well, I think you might know where I'm going with this. The only thing is that I didn't exactly have the option of selecting real questions from my readers (both are extremely busy) so I had to go ahead and make them up myself.

Here we go...

Q: Is the American baseball media really this dumb?

A: Over the weekend Roy Halladay stopped the Mets eight game winning streak and improved his own record to 5-1. He has three complete games (including two shutouts), a 39/4 strikeout to walk ratio, and a 1.47 ERA. Anyone who followed the Blue Jays over the last 10 years will tell you these stats are not surprising in the least, especially with Halladay now pitching in the inferior National League, and yet the American baseball media is acting like they're seeing Bigfoot.

Q: What was Chris Bosh thinking with his recent Twitter posts?

A: I could easily say that Bosh is just a technology junky, another of the new generation of famous people who embraces social media and thinks everyone else wants to know where he ate supper last night or how warm it is in Dallas...but that wouldn't be the real answer. Bosh tweeted the two questions about his upcoming free agency as a pre-emptive strike. He basically informed everyone in Toronto that he isn't coming back, and that's fine because Bosh is a 26 year-old power forward who can't score in crunch time and has plateaued as a player (Pts, Reb, Ass, FG% have all been the same since his 3rd year in the league). The guy always starts great and then wears down over the long regular season and ultimately cools off as the games become more important. Bosh is not worth a max contract in Toronto because he will never be the best player on a championship team. Am I excited about a Andrea Bargnani/Hedo Turkoglu led team in 2010-11? No. But this team has won zero playoff series since Bosh arrived. If this franchise is ever going to get to the next level, or even the second round of the playoffs, it won't be Bosh who leads it there.

Q: Which of the two Canadian teams remaining in the NHL playoffs will advance further?

A: This question is actually considerably more difficult than it appears on the surface. The Canucks were a far superior team than the Canadiens during the regular season and have the scoring depth that Montreal can only dream of. However, the West still has all of the best teams remaining making the road forward much more difficult. If Vancouver can get past the Blackhawks (112 regular season points), they'll still have to face either San Jose (113) or Detroit (102 and still not dead even though they're down 3 zip) in a monstrous semi-final. Montreal on the other hand, has the hottest goalie currently playing (although Tuuka Rask may still have something to say about that) and a far easier path to the finals. If the Habs knock out the Pens they won't be the underdog against either of Boston (91) or Philadelphia (88) in the next round and could very possibly end up playing for the Cup. Vancouver was my pre-playoff pick, so I'm sticking with them, but the table has definitely been set in Montreal's favour.

Q: Is it that big of a stretch to assume if you stick your glove in someones face and you get your fingers in their mouth you may get bit?

A: If Daniel Carcillo is the one who allegedly gets bit does anyone really care?

Q: Was Tiger Woods missing the cut last weekend the best thing that could have happened to him?

A: Two weeks ago I suggested Tiger go bad boy and last Friday at Quail Hollow he answered with a tremendously calculated move. What, you thought his game really was that bad? Not a chance. Firing a 7 over 79 was no accident. We're already hearing plenty of "Tiger will never be the same" arguments and reading "Has Tiger lost it?" articles. Just like that, Tiger has put himself in a sympathetic position. Well played Tiger.

Q: Are the Blue Jays actually better than we gave them credit for?

A:
In a word: No. At 15-13 on the season, the Jays current record is absolutely better than expected...and it's because they're playing above their heads. Toronto has had what feels like more 9th inning comebacks and two out RBI's in the first five weeks than they've had in the last five years and other than Aaron Hill, they've been pretty much injury free. The Jays are 8-3 on the road, which means they should go about 25-45 away from the 'Dome the rest of the way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Operation Replace Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman has been Commissioner of the NHL since February 1993. During that time the league has had one strike-shortened season, completely missed another due to the lockout and gradually eroded its fan base south of the border to the point where more Americans tune in to watch poker and dog shows than to watch hockey.


Franchises in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa have been through bankruptcies while owners such as Bruce McNall, Henry Samueli and William Del Biaggio have all had run-ins with the law, and some have even spent time behind bars. On the ice, the game has transformed from the run-and-gun offensive mentality that dominated the 80's and early 90's to a stifling defensive trend that took hold after a period of over-expansion.


Ahhhh, yes expansion. Bettman awarded franchises in noted hockey hotbeds like Nashville, Florida, Columbus, and Atlanta and relocated teams to Carolina, Colorado and Phoenix all with the idea that blanketing America with NHL teams would directly translate into a lucrative network contract from one of ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC. I'm no accountant, but I don't think the current arrangement with NBC (no upfront rights fee and a split of ad revenue) would qualify as 'lucrative'.


If the picture I just painted wasn't scary enough for hockey fans, let's not forget the horrific scene that played out with so many of the third jerseys during Bettman's watch. Click here, here or here...but keep the lights on.


Throughout this period of time, there has been one constant in hockey: Bettman. The dimunitive former NBA lawyer who never met a person he couldn't irritate (or a fan he couldn't alienate) has had his cold, sweaty hands around the neck of our game for seventeen years.


He has stolen teams from two Canadian cities while going back to two American cities where hockey had already failed, and now refuses to allow the mess that is the Phoenix Coyotes to head north. If Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin don't come along, you could argue that hockey would be a total afterthought in the US...if it isn't already.


Bettman's two most notable contributions to the game have been instituting a salary-cap and continuosly making Ron Maclean uncomfortable. Nothing else positive stands out.


It used to be that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL combined to create the 'big four' of professional sports. Unfortunately, those days are well behind us and even if Bettman isn't the primary reason for it, well, change is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it?


The NHL needs some new blood at the very top, someone who knows how to market the game, someone who can relate to the blue collar fan that Bettman and his owners have all but forgotten. The business of hockey needs a new face.


And it just so happens that I know the perfect candidate to replace him: Vince Shlomi.


Or as most people know him, The Slap Chop guy. Or the ShamWow guy. All we've been hearing for years is that the league needs to sell itself to Americans, so who better to get the job done than the guy that made millions and coined catchphrases off of two regular, unspectacular products?


Vince could step in and whip the American population into a frenzy, he could create excitement and buzz and even if he doesn't know a thing about hockey, well, how would that be any different than the current situation?


I can see it now: Linguine, Martini, Zack Stortini.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The New Tiger Order

Way back in 1996 Hulk Hogan, who had left the WWE (then the WWF) and moved over to WCW a few years earlier, shocked the wrestling world and traumatized millions of adolescent boys when he turned heel and started a new group of wrestling bad boys that he called the 'New World Order'.

Up until that point Hogan had been the biggest baby-face in wrestling history. He built a huge following of loyal fans on the basis of his wholesome American image, but put that all in the rearview mirror when he lashed out at those fans and wrestling itself for underappreciating his talent.

He even changed his nickname, scrapping the iconic Hulk Hogan to go with a new name that fit his new image and persona better: Hollywood Hogan. The yellow trunks and Hulkamania tank-top were out and a new look that was highlighted by a dark shadow beard grown in around his trademark moustache was in.

At first his fans were appalled, but after the initial shock wore off something strange happened: bad became cool.

You might be asking yourself, what does wrestling have to do with a sports blog? Is the CSJ drunk? Or does he have a secret wrestling fetish we've never heard about?

The answers: everything, no, and not anymore.

You see, there is a certain world famous golfer who could easily take a page out of the Hogan handbook.

The carefully cultivated public image that Tiger Woods spent his entire life building was all wiped away the instant he slammed his SUV into a fire hydrant only metres from his own house last November. The stories of infidelity and the relentless media mocking, along with his robotic and creepy press conference in March, and the current rumours speculating that his wife is ready to file for divorce have left Tiger with a lower Q rating than anyone ever imagined possible for him.

The result is that Tiger, the biggest baby-face in golf for a decade and-a-half, has now been cast as a villain. He's already turned heel, even if he doesn't want to admit it.

Late last week Tiger announced that his next tournament will be the Quail Hollow Championship that begins on April 29th. I'm not saying he should body-slam Phil Mickelson on the first tee or demand CBS play Christina Aguilera's "Dirty" as his intro music, but why not see how the other side lives? He's been the PGA Tour's good guy for more than 15 years, if he now has to be the bad guy, why not do it on his terms?

Keep the dark shades. Lose the razor. Give us even more fist-pumps. Win tournaments by 20 shots. Date Kate Hudson. Tell the world you made a mistake, that you weren't ready to get married. And then hit every hotspot in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. Maybe even convince Sergio Garcia (playing the role of Kevin Nash) and Steve Williams (as Scott Hall) to move in with you and star in your own reality show. How does 'Isleworth Shore' sound?

In the end, just as they did for Hogan, the fans will come back to Tiger. Most people cheered for him because he was an epic winner and unbelievably exciting golfer to watch, not because they thought he was a good guy. Once this initial shock wears off, whether it takes months or years, he will win the fans back.

In the meantime, why not have some fun with it?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

16 NHL Playoff Questions

16. Colorado Avalanche
Is Colorado capable of upsetting the Sharks?
In a word: no. The Aves piled up points early in the season when teams were overlooking them and then backed into the playoffs winning only three of their last 13 games. A good young core is in place but this squad over-achieved all year and will quickly be dismissed in the playoffs.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

15. Philadelphia Flyers
Who will stop the puck?
My attitude on goaltending is well documented in this space, but even I can't defend the Flyers in this situation. Going into the playoffs with a Brian Boucher/Sebastien Caron tandem simply isn't going to work. Let the Carey Price rumours begin in earnest.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

14. Montreal Canadiens
Are their fans capable of stealing a game or two?
I'm more interested to see what the Habs will do this summer with both their young goalies coming up to restricted free agency (it'll be delighful to watch them push a still developing Carey Price out of town) than I am with what they'll do in the playoffs. Four games? Five games? Six would be pressing it, but you never know how far the rabid crowd will be able to carry them.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

13. Boston Bruins
Who will light the lamp for Boston?
The emergence of Tuuka Rask in net offers Boston the threat of an upset, but their punchless offence will hold them back. (It's become clear that David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron are unable to step up to fill the void left by Marc Savard, and I don't know who would count on Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi, Marco Sturm and Blake Wheeler.) We could be looking at an effort from Rask that matches Marty Turco's performance against Vancouver a few years ago when he posted three shutouts in the series but his team still lost in seven games.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

12. Nashville Predators
Can anyone give one good reason why this team isn't located in Canada?
Nashville has four trips to the playoffs in franchise history and have never made it out of the first round. That trend should continue. Other than that I have nothing illuminating to discuss about the Preds, they have a nice enough team and clearly Barry Trotz is a tremendous coach, but this franchise is boring and needs to be relocated. To Canada.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

11. Phoenix Coyotes
Has Lee Stempniak honestly transformed into Pavel Bure?
The Leaf cast-off scored 25 goals in 123 games for Toronto over the last two years and mostly looked like he was playing himself right out of the NHL. After landing in Phoenix at the trade deadline, Stempniak scored 14 goals in 18 games and made thousands of Toronto fans scream at the television while watching the highlights. So can we expect Stempniak to lead the Coyotes past Detroit and on an extended playoff run? Umm, no. Let's just say I don't think the pressure of playoff hockey will be kind to Mr.Stempniak.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

10. LA Kings
Are the Kings still hungry?
In the three seasons previous to this year the Kings finished 28th, 30th and 26th overall. After a stellar regular season that resulted in a 22 point improvement in the standings and the first playoff appearance for the franchise in eight years, does LA have enough gumption to continue to push or will they relax and feel comfortable with everything they've already accomplished? I'm leaning towards the latter.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

9. Ottawa Senators
Can the Sens win their first series since reaching the Finals in 2006-07?
The Sens go into the postseason with the worst goal differential (-13) of any playoff team. Even with Jason Spezza (14 points in his last 8 games) and rookie defenceman Erik Karlsson (12 points in his last 10 games) streaking, Ottawa doesn't have the depth or will to match-up with a Penguin team that swept them two years ago.
Playoff Prediction: 1st round exit

8. San Jose Sharks
Is this the year the Sharks finally put it all together?
The playoff struggles for San Jose have been well documented (haven't made it past the second round since the lockout), and now they're coming off another superb regular season that has again created lofty expectations. Unfortunately for Sharks fans, I can't see a reason why anything will be different this time.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit

7. Buffalo Sabres
What's more dangerous than a hot goalie heading into the playoffs?
Nothing, and that's why the Sabres are scary. Ryan Miller has to be considered the best goalie in the NHL right now, and that gives them a chance against anyone. There's also something about Lindy Ruff (mainly the winning) that makes this team tough to ignore.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit
6. Chicago Blackhawks
Why am I picking against Chicago?
There isn't a single reason I can point to for not backing the Hawks. They are a very good team (almost the Western Conference replica of Washington, right down to the goaltending questions) and could very easily outperform my prediction, I just think Vancouver will prevail in their second-round match-up.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
Can the Pens flip-the-switch?
Pittsburgh, more than any other playoff team, seemed to treat the regular season as nothing more than an extended training camp. They started the season with nine wins in ten games and pretty much coasted the rest of the way. The Pens went 7-9 down the stetch but have the confidence of back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances to lean on as well as the most dynamic 1-2 punch (Crosby and Malkin) in all of hockey. But no team has been to three straight Stanley Cup Finals since Edmonton in the earlly 80's.
Playoff Prediction: 2nd round exit
4. Detroit Red Wings
Are the Wings all the way back?
After residing outside the playoff picture for the first five months of the season Detroit found it's game (and got healthy) and predictably returned to it's rightful place amongst the NHL's elite. What worries me a little is that just about every player on the team performed below career averages statistically and this is not a young team (average age of 30.3, oldest in NHL).
Playoff Prediction: Conference Finalist

3. Washington Capitals
Will the Caps be able to score their way to the finals?
Washington's 318 goals scored were the most by any team in the last 15 years. The Caps had seven 20 goal scorers and nine regulars who averaged more than half-a-point a game. They are far and away the most exciting team to watch. They also allowed the third most goals of any playoff team which makes them particularly vulnerable in net.
Playoff Prediction: Conference Finalist

2. New Jersey Devils
Can Ilya Kovalchuk lead a team deep into the playoffs?
You might try to argue this question by pointing out that the Devils get most of their leadership from Martin Brodeur and Zach Parise, but if Jersey plans to challenge Washington and Pittsburgh in the East, they'll need Kovalchuk, who has four career NHL playoff games on his resume, to step up offensively and provide the spark. With a new contract hanging in the balance, and a real opportunity to shine under the brightest spotlight, I see Kovalchuk taking full advantage and going on a tear.
Playoff Prediction: Stanley Cup Finalist

1. Vancouver Canucks
Can Roberto Luongo regain his form?
On paper the Canucks have the best team in the NHL. With two elite scorers, plenty of secondary scoring options, a solid if under-appreciated blueline and an All-Star goalie, this team has all the pieces in place to make a run. The perceived problem is that their All-Star goalie was shelled in last year's playoffs and has struggled down the stretch. After facing and conquering immense pressure during the Olympics, it was only natural he would have a bit of a letdown as the long NHL season wore on. I think he'll be re-energized for the playoffs and that makes Vancouver my pick to win it all.
Playoff Prediction: Stanley Cup Champions

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Silver Lining(s)?

If you're a Toronto Blue Jays fan, you've probably spent the last week and maybe even the last few months trying to talk yourself into paying attention to the new season.

As Jays fans we've already been doing this for a number of years, so it's not totally new ground. The difference this time is that limited hope for success has now been replaced with no hope. Like none, nada, zilch. We all know there is absolutely zero chance the 2010 Blue Jays will make the playoffs. With our division and our line-up, that's just the way it is.

Instead we need to find reasons that will intrigue us enough to follow this campaign rather than simply taking a pass and checking out until 2011 or 2012.

Here are the five best reasons to care about this Blue Jays season:

1. The legitimate building blocks
If the Jays are ever going to compete in the AL East they will need to follow the Tampa model, and (hallelujah!) it appears new GM Alex Anthopoulos is actually aware of this. What this means is that rather than throwing away money by adding free agents to a team that isn't anywhere close to being a playoff contender, the Jays will patiently develop their own prospects and then, when the time is appropriate, dip into free agency to compliment the roster and plug any holes.

As of right now, this roster has only three players that can truly be counted on to be a part of the future: Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Vernon Wells. These three are all under contract for at least the next three years and have all proven they are capable major league players. Hill and Lind are both coming off impressive breakout offensive years and both will need to prove it wasn't a fluke by backing those numbers up again this year. Wells has regressed in each of the last three seasons and has a horrifically bad contract, but he is still a known commodity that can contribute. These three players are the foundation and core that the position players will be built around, and 2010 will be an important measuring stick to determine exactly how good this group can be, and what type of players they will need to be surrounded with when it comes time to actually compete.

2. Randy Ruiz
Since being signed by the Reds in 1999, Ruiz has been a part of eleven different franchises and has played a grand total of 55 games in the big leagues. Ten teams have given up on the 32 year-old and at times this spring it sounded a lot like the Jays were about to be the eleventh despite the fact that Ruiz hit 10 homeruns in only 115 AB's for Toronto last year. Ruiz has a career .378 OBP and .909 OPS in the minors and tore up the Puerto Rican Winter League this past offseason. The guy can flat out hit, and if the Jays give him a real opportunity, he will be the non-suprise surprise of the season.

3. The fake umps
Watching the two guys dressed in replica umpire gear, complete with face masks, mimicking the home plate ump from the first row behind the plate is like listening to someone do the Zohan voice or watching contestants on Wipeout destroy their bodies - it just never gets old.

4. Development of the young arms
Anthopoulos has a bevy of young and talented pitchers that are at various levels of their development and this year we'll find out if any of Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, Mark Rzepczynski, and perhaps Kyle Drabek will develop into dependable major league starters or possibly even something more than that. Morrow and Romero are currently in the rotation but all five are likely to get starts at some point and the pressure is on both the management and the players themselves to do more than just gain experience. They need to learn how to perform in front of the rabid crowds at Fenway Park and Yankee stadium.

4.5 The Replacements
Lyle Overbay, Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez and John Buck are all on the last (or only) year of their contracts and are nothing more than stop-gap players. None have a long-term future with the organization which means four new fielding positions are likely to open up for the 2011 season. Brett Wallace, who was obtained as part of the Roy Halladay trade, will have the opportunity to play both first and third base in the second half of the season and another prospect acquired in the Halladay deal, catcher Travis d'Arnaud could also get a look. Assuming Travis Snider figures things out and gets on his way to becoming the player he is projected to be, all of a sudden the 2011 and beyond Jays have considerably more potential for friskiness. And if the rumoured signing of 19 year-old Cuban defector Adeiny Hechevarria ever becomes official (his $10 million contract is apparently being held up by Canadian customs), the Jays may have finally found their shortstop of the future.

5. Roy Halladay
Even though Doc is no longer a Jay, he was traded to the National League which means Toronto fans don't have to worry about cheering for him at the expense of our own club. If he had gone to the hated Red Sox or despicable Yankees, Jays fans would've been forced to cut ties forever with our long-time hero. But because he ended up in the 'other' league we can continue to follow him closely and root for him as if he were still one of our own. Watching Roy destroy the weaker line-ups that populate the Senior Circuit (we could be looking at a Koufax-like year from Halladay) will provide a certain amount of relief in what will otherwise be a very difficult year to be a Jays fan.