Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Raptors Report Card

Antoine Wright - I expected Wright to have a much bigger role and maybe even breakout in Toronto. It seemed like he was entering a perfect situation for him: Only 25 years-old and in the last year of his contract, started 53 games for a 50-win Dallas team last season, has always played on a playoff team, and joining a team that lacked depth at the 2/3 positions. I neglected to consider that there could be a reason or two that a pair of NBA teams have already given up on him.
Grade: C

Sonny Weems - The name itself is reason enough to root for the guy but it isn't the singular reason why I am thoroughly enjoying the Sonny Weems era in Raptorland. Triano never gave him a real shot until mid-December, and since then Weems has forced himself into the rotation with 45% shooting from the field, a 2-1 assist to turnover ratio, and solid defence. An underdog with a great name? I'm in.
Grade: B-

Hedo Turkolglu - For the most part, Hedo has looked happy to forego any ownership or responsibility of this team and simply collect his money. We knew when he signed his free agent contract this summer that playing defence wasn't high on his priority list, but we weren't ready for his Vince-esque lack of intensity. Let's hope he's still trying to figure out his role and not settling into complacency.
Grade: C-

Patrick O'Bryant - I wonder what it's like to be paid $1.6 million a year to practice basketball?
Grade: D

Rasho Nesterovic - Solid, dependable, and there when you need him. Which at this point, is not all that often.
Grade: C

Amir Johnson - He played really well for the Flint Tropics in Semi-Pro, but I never would've guessed that his game would translate this well to the NBA. Granted, he has toned down his play (and trimmed the 'fro), staying away from the flashy stuff, but I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this remarkable story.
Grade: B

Jarret Jack - Not an elite talent by any means but knows how to play basketball and provides a nice contrast (and insurance) to Calderon. Boring really. But sometimes boring is good. And when boring gives you 10 and 5 and only costs $4.5 million? Boring is really good.
Grade: B

DeMar DeRozan - The rookie shooting guard is never going to be an All-Star but he definitely has the potential to be a contributing member of a playoff team. And not in the Brian Scalabrine, waving the towel from the end of the bench sense. DeRozan's shot, which was heavily criticized heading into the draft, is actually sneaky steady from 12-14 feet. His minutes should go up in the final 40 games.
Grade: B+

Jose Calderon - Raptor fans have been harping on his defence for a couple of years now, and it's true that he is below average in that area, but what about the positives he brings to the court? Excellent passer. Solid shot. Fantastic teammate. Do those qualities not trump 'bad defence'? And since returning to the line-up and playing with the second string, he's turned the entire bench around. He's like a second-string Steve Nash. Obviously the Raptors need to stop playing Jose with Jack to end games...why not continue starting Jack and bringing Jose in off the bench, but then let whoever matches up better with that particular opponent and/or whoever is playing better finish it off?
Grade: B-

Chris Bosh - At this point we know exactly what he is (a 25 and 10 most nights with dependable free throw shooting) and what he is not (crunch time scorer, someone who can finish games). I'm actually torn as to whether I want him to re-sign because I'm not sure he can ever be the best player on a championship team and to commit a max contract to him means he's going to be the best player on our team for the forseeable future. On the other hand, I can't imagine tuning in to watch 50 jumpers a night from Hedo and Bargnani.
Grade: A

Marco Belinelli
- As my friend and Raptors fanatic Jon Scratch would say, Belinelli is a 'souless chucker' who never met a shot he didn't like. He's a player that Triano should give a few minutes to every game just to see what he's capable of that night. If he's feeling it, let him play. If he's busting up the backboard...give up and try him again next game.
Grade: C+

Andrea Bargnani - No longer a threat to pick up more personal fouls than rebounds, so he's got that going for him. And who let him know that he could breathe through his nose rather than spend the entire game with his mouth open? Actually, the big Italian has continued his solid play from the second half of last season and has begun to figure out how to help the team even when his shot isn't dropping. It's still too early to say whether the extension he signed last summer (5 years and $50 million) is fair value, but at least we're not already lamenting it.
Grade: B

Marcus Banks
- Honestly, I would rather have Carlton Banks on the roster. Marcus was surprisingly not awful when forced into the line-up during Calderon's injury, but his horrific contract ($4.4 million this year, $4.7 next) will wind up costing us at least one of Johnson or Wright this summer.
Grade: D

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

10 NHL Questions

10. Does the NHL have a 'Tim Donaghy' moment on their hands?
Following Monday's Vancouver/Nashville game Alex Burrows basically lobbed a grenade at the league office when he flatly stated that referee Stephane Auger was carrying out a personal vendetta when he made two calls against him during the third period. A few years ago this wouldn't have been that big a deal, but after the Tim Donaghy scandal that rocked the NBA, the NHL has a serious question to ponder: Do they fine and suspend Burrows for his comments and side with the ref even though the player seems to have ample proof (a pre-game conversation, video footage of the questionable calls and a detailed history between the two) of his side of the story or do they validate the players claims, suspend the ref and risk opening pandora's box?

9a. Is the Detroit dynasty over?
Okay, first of all it hasn't really been a dynasty for the Wings. Yes, they won 4 championships in 12 years but they were spread out across two decades. A dynasty is multiple championships in a row or nearly in a row. Like three in four years. Not to say that Detroit won't make the playoffs this year or even next, but their run of 9 straight 100+ point seasons and being either the first or second playoff seed in the Western Conference is very much in doubt. And losing 6-0 to the Islanders? The Islanders? That never would have happened if Pavel Datsyuk were still alive.

9b. What happened to Nicklas Lidstrom?
When you watch him play he looks the same and continues to eat up a lot of minutes, but after 17 seasons the 39-year-old Lidstrom is finally showing his age. The Captain of the Wings has averaged 13 goals and 59 points a season over his illustrious career but has only a single goal and 20 measley points (ranking 34th among NHL defencemen) this year.

8. Is Barry Trotz invisible?
The only coach Predator fans have ever known, the man who guided the franchise from expansion infancy to 100 point seasons and perennial playoff appearances, continues to coach in relative obscurity. All Trotz does is win in Nashville, and yet nobody ever notices. The Preds have hosted postseason games in four of the last five years and will again be in the fight for a playoff spot in the West this season despite having the league's third lowest payroll ($44.4M, behind PHX $41.7M and NYI $44.3) and one of it's most un-inspiring rosters. Casual hockey fans would be hard-pressed to name more than a couple of Nashville players yet Trotz always seems to over-achieve with his crew. If this team was located in Hamilton or the Toronto area (where it absolutely should be, but that's another story) Trotz would be the second-coming of Scotty Bowman.

7. Is the moustache here to stay?
During the 70's and 80's, NHL players routinely sported 'lip foliage' but the trend nearly disappeared in the 90's and the early 00's. However, over the last few years many of the league's heaviest hitters (George Parros, Dan Carcillo) have brought the 'nose neighbor' back, and some of the league's younger players have jumped on board and started rocking the 'soup strainer'. And if you're thinking maybe I included this question just so I could slip-in a bunch of cool moustache nicknames, well, you might be right.

6. Why did it take Andrei Markov getting injured for Marc-Andre Bergeron to get a job?
The 29-year-old Bergeron had seasons of 15, 14, 9 and 14 goals following the lockout and yet somehow found himself without a contract when training camps began last September. During those four years, only six defencemen scored more goals (Phaneuf-65, Souray-64, Chara-63, Lidstrom-55, Boyle-55, and McCabe-54) than Bergeron's 52. With 10 goals so far this year, Bergeron trails only Mike Green in scoring by defencemen.

5. When will GM's learn to stop paying for goalies?
Craig Anderson has been stellar in Colorado and was signed for only $1.5 million last summer. Antti Niemi continues to take games away from Cristobal Huet in Chicago while Jonas Hiller does the same to J.S. Giguere in Anaheim. Tuuka Rask has badly outplayed Tim Thomas in Boston, making Peter Chiarelli's decision to give the 35-year-old journeyman Thomas a four year $20 million contract even more perplexing. Philadelphia picks up Michael Leighton off waivers and he goes 8-0-1 in his first 9 starts. The LA Kings have been in a playoff position all year in the West and will spend a total of $1.32M combined on Jon Quick and Erik Ersberg. Same thing with Nashville, who will pay Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne $2.7M total. The lesson: If you're not employing Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo, don't pay for goaltending.

4. Is it absolutely killing Leaf fans to be headed towards their 5th straight spring without playoffs? Is the fact that Toronto has no first round picks in either of the next two drafts threatening to drive members of Leafs Nation on a multi-province killing spree? Has Brian Burke aged roughly 20 years in the 15 months he's been in charge of the Maple Leafs?
Yes, yes and yes. And while we're here...the Leafs are purposefully trying to be the worst penalty killing team in history, right? There's no way they could honestly be that bad, it has to be an inside joke or a plea to get Ron Wilson fired. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

3. What is going on in the Calgary dressing room?
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. But I do know how to speculate...and read between the lines. On the ice, the Flames have enjoyed a solid first half of the season and certainly appear headed for a playoff birth and potentially home-ice advantage in the first round. But off the ice there appear to be some problems. First there was the shouting match back in November between Brent Sutter and Dion Phaneuf that has lead to continued trade rumours surrounding the defenceman, and now, a new report from the New York Post suggests there is a growing rift between Jarome Iginla and Sutter due to the coach bringing too many Junior hockey tactics to the big leagues.

2. Who will win the scoring race?
No, not the Art Ross for most points, the Rocket Richard trophy that is given to the player who leads the league in goals. Normally this wouldn't even be a question. Alexander Ovechkin is hands down the best scorer in hockey. He's averaged 55 goals a season over his four year career but has already missed 8 games this year due to injury and suspension. With 27 goals so far, Ovechkin is still the odds-on favourite, but with the way he plays and the reputation he now has, another suspension is always right around the corner. And that brings a finally healthy (but for how long?) Marian Gaborik, a suddenly re-tooled Sidney Crosby (including the playoffs he has 44 goals in his last 70 games) and two-thirds of the Shark line (Heatley and Marleau) all into the equation.

1. Is Ilya Kovalchuk destined for the KHL?
The fear of the escrow tax combined with the uncertain stability surrounding the Thrashers (and perhaps the enormous shadow of a certain countryman and NHL rockstar with the initials A.O.?) might be enough to push Kovalchuk home to Russia when his contract expires after the season. He reportedly loves Atlanta but has turned down several contract extensions that are rumoured to be in excess of $10 million a year and worth over $100 million total. Well, something doesn't add up and all signs point to the motherland.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

No Shame

Even if the outcome of last night's World Junior Gold medal game wasn't what any Canadian was hoping for, it hardly puts a blemish on the program that came within an overtime loss of winning six straight championships.

No, there isn't any shame in providing hockey fans everywhere with an instant classic, played at a lightning pace, filled with huge hits and erasing a two goal deficit in the final minutes to force overtime. In this particular edition, the 2010 tournament, the Americans were probably the better team. They won this battle, but Canada continues to win the war.

From my perspective, there are three major reasons why Canada has become the dominant, overwhelming force in under 20 hockey.

1. The Canadian Formula

This team has never been about stars or stats, as evidenced by the big names who are cut every year. This time it was Tyler Seguin, who came into camp as one of the leading scorers in junior hockey and could end up being chosen first overall in this summer's NHL draft. For Hockey Canada, it's about selecting the right pieces to form a team. It's not about the name, the stats, or the hype. Management takes a hard look at the group of players they have to chose from, decides on the game they want to play (determining if we're going to be big, skilled and mean, or big, skilled and slightly mean) and assembles a roster they believe will best execute that gameplan. They don't choose an All-Star team and they don't play favourites.

Since finishing out of the medals in 1998, Canada has two bronze, five silver and five gold in the last 12 tournaments. Since 2004, the Canadian team has gone 44-4 and has produced nine players that were named to the 2010 Olympic team. I'd say the formula is working.

2. Home Ice Advantage

This is a subject that has gained steam ever since the International Ice Hockey Federation announced every third tournament would be hosted by Canada, and really took off when the Swiss backed out of hosting this year and it promptly fell into Saskatchewan's lap. Of course playing in front of 15,000 screaming Canadians wearing red is going to positively effect our outcomes, but how is it our fault that we sell more tickets than every other country, that we support this tournament like no one else, that we have come to love the ten days that follow Christmas more for this particular tournament than for anything else?

Ultimately, home ice advantage does help our cause. But if the IIHF and all of it's supporting European countries want to feed our development system, want to ensure that our junior-aged players continue to become champions by allowing us to host this tournament far more than is probably fair...well, I don't have a problem with that. It's not like Hockey Canada is holding a gun to their head and forcing them to give us the tournament, we continue to earn it by padding the IIHF's coffers.

3a. Few Quebec-born players

Just kidding.

3b. Gatorade

Sorry, couldn't resist.

3c. Heart

Not to go all Don Cherry on you, but it is what it is. Canadians simply seem to want this more than other countries. I know it is nearly impossible to quantify heart, but how else can you explain Canada almost always coming out on the right side of one goal games or their 4-0 record in shootouts in this tournament?

Sweden, Russia, the US and Finland can all match our talent level, they all produce first rounders in every NHL draft, but they can't match our intangibles. Our players never back down, never give up, and always fight for every inch. They don't know any other way.

When you add those three factors up, it equals excellence, and that's what Canadian hockey fans have come to expect from our World Junior heroes.

Only 364 more days until we have a chance to start a new run.