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Under Further Review – April 24, 2021 – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy and contributions from Jordan Moss and the Big E in Montreal. This week, the Canucks return, the Maple Leafs chart the Stanley Cup Parade, the Super League goes bust and Wayne Player goes bye-bye. 

Canucks This Week – A couple of courageous wins against the Toronto Ballyhoos this week got the Canucks dreaming about a potential playoff berth. Can we just put that to rest? The Ottawa Senators, left for dead for most of the season as North Division bottom-feeders, not only exposed the Canucks many warts but high-lighted how far they have come since the start of the season. Instead of giving ice time to waiver pick-ups Jimmy Vesey and Travis Boyd, why not audition Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich? As one of our astute contributors offered this week – “watching some of these guys is like Michael Chaput and Jayson Megna all over again.”

The Canucks are shopping around for a new home for their top farm team. They’ve been in Utica, New York since 2013-2014 but can opt out of that agreement following the season. Comets President Robert Esche has already registered “Utica Devils” as a trademark for a possible switch of affiliations to the New Jersey Devils. The word out of Abbotsford is that there have been no discussions about moving the Canucks AHL team to the Fraser Valley.

There are currently eight teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division. The Seattle Kraken will make it nine next season when their top minor league team opens for business in Palm Springs. It makes sense for the Canucks to locate somewhere closer to home. Don’t be surprised if the Comets move into Pacific Coliseum or Rogers Arena. Also mentioned as potential landing spots – Fresno, California, Salt Lake City, Utah and Prescott Valley, Arizona.

Leaf Laughs – There’s an undeniable arrogance surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are a self-anointed NHL powerhouse who revel in being called a Stanley Cup favourite. They acted as such at the trade deadline, yet we know they are imposters. The Leafs haven’t won a playoff round since 2004 and have exited quietly in the first-round each of the past four years. The Leafs are the Paris Hilton of the NHL. Not nearly as pretty and talented as they think and yet to accomplish anything of note. In hold-‘em poker, ace-king is known as the “Anna Kournikova.” The reason being – it looks good but it never wins anything. That’s pretty much the Maple Leafs in a nutshell.

This week, after blowing a pair of third period leads to the Utica Comets in Vancouver, the excuses were flying. Blame it on the goaltending! If the Leafs think Nick Foligno is going to ride in on a white horse and be their saviour, they are sadly mistaken. Did we not document on more than one occasion that the Leafs lack the kind of defensive structure that wins come playoff time? If you can’t clear the front of the net and defend when it counts, you have zero chance of winning. At the deadline the Tampa Lightning used a first-round pick to add the best defenceman available in David Savard. That’s what a Cup champion does. The Leafs expended a first pick on a 33-year-old who slots into their third line. In any other market than Toronto, after three years on the job, the media would be taking a critical look at the general manager’s body of work. Not in Toronto. Kyle Dubas has traded or let walk Nazem Kadri, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie and all he has to show for it is Alex Kerfoot. Have you noticed that players always perform better once they get out of Toronto?

In looking over the Leafs current line combinations, we were astonished to learn that the Leafs second power-play unit is now comprised of Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Alex Galchenyuk and Rasmus Sandin. Four waiver wire candidates and a rookie! Does that look like the makeup of a championship team? That unit is a shorthanded goal waiting to happen.

NHL News & Notes – What’s with the Winnipeg Jets? Every time they have a chance to make a statement, they stub their toe. The Jets came into Thursday night’s game against the Maple Leafs trailing by only four points in the North Division race with a game in hand. The Leafs, need I remind you, had lost five in a row. What do they do? They fall at home 5-3 to slip further back. It’s been the story for the Jets pretty much all season. Every time there is a critical game, they mess the bed. You have to wonder if the players are disappointed in management for not doing more at the trade deadline. From our viewpoint, Paul Maurice has overstayed his welcome in Winnipeg. Time for a change in the off-season.

Steve Yzerman has ripped it down to the studs in Detroit and he’s wisely accumulating a lot of ammunition. Following his fine work at the trade deadline, the Red Wings have a whopping 19 selections over the first five rounds in the next two drafts including five picks in the first two rounds this year. It’s just a matter of time before the Wings are relevant again. If the Canucks had taken the same approach back in 2013, they would be a Cup contender by now.

Patrick Marleau skated into the history books this week when he surpassed Gordie Howe in all-time NHL games played. Good for Patrick. He’s been a fine warrior. But please, don’t mention Marleau and Howe in the same breath. Gordie played an additional 419 WHA games, scoring 508 points. He was between the ages of 45 and 51 at the time. Two of those years he had 100 points or more and one he had 96. This season, at 41, Marleau has 4 goals and 4 assists in 45 games. If Marleau had any common sense, he would have come within one game of Howe’s record, then announced his retirement in deference to Mr. Hockey.

Marleau is also in the midst of a personal 889 consecutive game streak. No one mentions Phil Kessel, the veteran winger who has run his consecutive game streak to 890. That’s fifth all-time and the equivalent of playing ten seasons without missing a single game. The Leafs couldn’t run Kessel out of town quick enough. Say what you want about Kessel, he shows up every night. The NHL record for consecutive games played is 964 held by former Montreal Canadiens centre Doug Jarvis. If Marleau retires after this season, Kessel will have a chance to break that record next year.

There is much unrest in Montreal over the inconsistent play of the Canadiens this season. It seems like the team has never found any traction. Jonathan Drouin is the target of much of the criticism and justifiably so. Drouin has 2 goals and 21 assists in 44 games and we don’t need to tell you his game is soft. He’s now gone 26 games without a goal. The unspoken truth about the deal for Drouin that sent Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa is Montreal wanted a French-speaking player that fans could get excited about. It’s blown up in their face. With 25 points, Sergachev has outscored Drouin this season from his spot on the Lightning blueline. Drouin, meantime has been relegated to the fourth line and has two more years left on his contract at $5.5 million per season. Tyler Toffoli, by the way, has 23 goals.

There was a great exchange on TSN Radio in Montreal this week after Drouin was asked by Herb Zurkowsky of the Gazette about his season to date. Zurkowsky brought up the fact Drouin had not scored in, at that point, 25 games.

“What’s the problem?” Herb asked. “There’s another column on the right too,” replied the former third overall pick, referring to his 21 assists, “if you want to look at it.”

The TSN Radio host, Tony Marinaro, pointed out that “there’s another column to the right of that too.” Plus-minus! Drouin is a team worst minus-8. “He sounds satisfied with his season,” Marinaro exclaimed incredulously.

Memo to my old high school classmate Anaheim GM Bob Murray – Get on with the rebuild buddy! What are you waiting for? One of the great mysteries of this year’s trade deadline was the lack of action by the Ducks. They had several assets that could have been moved but Murray only consummated one deal, acquiring draft disappointment Haydn Fleury from Carolina. It was clearly a case of teams not wanting to take on money because Murray had lots of bodies to offer. Our trade board included Cam Fowler, Ryan Getzlaf, Danton Heinen, Adam Henrique, Josh Manson, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Kevin Shattenkirk.

No More Jokes – Has there ever been a team in NHL history that has introduced more high quality rookies into their lineup in one season than this year’s edition of the Ottawa Senators? There’s third overall pick Tim Stutzle who already has one of the best shots in the game. There’s rookie-of-the-year candidate Josh Norris who’s been facing top centres from around the league on a nightly basis and more than holding his own. Toss in Hobey Baker runner-up Shane Pinto, fresh out of college and already a top faceoff man and penalty-killer. Alex Formenton may have the best wheels in the NHL this side of Connor McDavid. For all intents and purposes, Drake Batherson is also a rookie. On defence, the Sens have introduced Erik Brannstrom, Artem Zub and another college product Jacob Bernard-Docker. We haven’t even accounted for the rookie goalies who have seen action this year. That’s an incredible infusion of talent in one season. It’s a bright future in Ottawa because there’s plenty more to come.

Blue Jays This Week – The Blue Jays are barely treading water in the AL East while they wait for the calvalry to come. The Jays have suffered through a crazy rash of injuries, mainly to the pitching staff, and it’s prevented them from getting into any kind of consistent groove. The starting staff is being held together by bailing wire. Manager Charlie Montoyo used 10 different starters in the first 17 games of the season. That’s more than any club in either league. The bullpen has performed above expectations. The Jays pen has the second-best ERA in all of baseball and that’s without two key arms in Jordan Romano and Julian Merryweather.

The good news is some of the infirmed are about to return. Prize free agent George Springer was in centre during an intrasquad game at the Jays alternate site in Dunedin on Friday and had several plate appearances. He could be ready to return as early as this weekend. Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez tested positive for COVID-19 and finished a mandatory 10-day quarantine on Friday. He will have to be cleared before rejoining the team but should be back in the lineup soon. A lot will depend on the lingering effects of the virus.

The pitching staff will get some reinforcements as well. Tyler Chatwood was activated and pitched Friday night against Tampa. Romano may return this weekend. Nate Pearson was scheduled to pitch three innings in Friday’s intra-squad game. He’s getting built back up but probably won’t rejoin the starting rotation until mid-May.

Shoddy defence on the left side of the infield has become a big issue. Bo Bichette has made errors on several routine ground balls and it’s becoming more and more evident that he is not the long-term answer at short. A full-time move to second base in the off-season is very likely. Cavan Biggio is trying hard but its obvious third base is not his best position. Jays fans can only hope that Jordan Groshans is ready to take over at third by this time next season.

Everyone assumed the Jays lineup would be one of the best in baseball but that’s not been the case so far. It’s still early but some of the batting averages are cause for concern. Marcus Semien is hitting .192. Biggio’s average has dipped to .146. Rowdy Tellez is at .163. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is hitting .192. The catching tandem of Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk are sitting at .059 and .179 respectively. You can see why it’s so important to get Springer and Hernandez back into the lineup.

The big positive so far is the resurgence of Vladdy Guerrero Jr. He’s off to a torrid start after dropping 40+ pounds over the winter. Heading into the week, Vladdy had reached base 33 times which led the American League. He’s hitting a robust .389. No player in baseball has hit more balls at a velocity of 110 mph or more than Guerrero Jr. with 13. His walk rate and strikeout rate are almost even which is outstanding for a player with his power and even though he is seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone, Vladdy is not chasing like he did last season. Last year, Vladdy was heavily scrutinized for his launch angle. This season, his ground ball rate is 39.5 per cent which is under the league average of 43 per cent. His launch angle is up to 12.9 degrees, a huge jump from 4.6 last year. At this rate, he will be a top five MVP candidate this season.

Yankee Doddle – My faith in the world has been restored after looking at the AL East standings and seeing the New York Yankees in last place. The Yanks pitching staff is like Venus De Milo. No arms whatsoever. Can this movie keep playing out all season? And who’s that in right field because he looks like Jaws from the Bond movies? Oh, it’s Aaron “Here Come The” Judge. Everyone slammed Derek Jeter and the Miami Marlins for trading Giancarlo Stanton and his 13-year, $325 million dollar ticket to the Yankees. How’s that working out now? It’s a lot of cake for a guy who’s essentially a DH. The deal runs through 2027 with a club buy-out option of $10 million in 2028. You can bet they will exercise it. Jeter found the only team stupid enough to take on that contract.

NFL Notes – The NFL Draft is coming up starting on Thursday. Let the posturing begin! As Peter King of Football Morning in America pointed out, this has to be the most unusual and unpredictable draft in history. You have players like Caleb Farley, one of the top corners, who opted out last year because of COVID and hasn’t played a game in over 500 days. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, one of the top quarterbacks available, has played just one game in 15 months. How do you properly assess players when you haven’t been able to meet with them directly?  All I know is there are going to be a lot of mistakes made in this draft. As King mentioned, guys picked in the fourth round may actually be worthy of a sixth-round selection. It certainly points to why some teams have preferred to trade for picks in the 2022 draft rather than in this year’s wide-open lottery. Here are a few other pre-draft observations:

  • Considering how aggressive New England was in free agency, it will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick has changed his stripes when it comes to drafting quarterbacks. The Patriots have a big need but it’s doubtful whether Belichick will reach for a QB. He hasn’t used a first-round pick on a quarterback in 25 years. In fact, the only quarterback he’s selected in the second-round is Jimmy Garoppolo. Helps I guess when you land Tom Brady in the sixth-round.
  • The 49’ers attended the second open workout for Trey Lance this week but it appears as though they may be fixated on Alabama’s Mac Jones. Jones may not be the most appealing quarterback prospect physically but the guy is accurate and football-savvy. There were reports this week that Ohio State’s Justin Fields suffers from epilepsy which may drop his stock. My dark-horse quarterback candidates are Kyle Trask of Florida and Davis Mills of Stanford. Trask could slip into the first-round.
  • Left tackle is such a premium position in the NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals would be crazy to pass on Oregon’s Penei Sewell, who’s been compared to Jonathan Ogden. The Bengals O-Line is atrocious. When you draft a quarterback like Joe Burrow first overall, you have to invest in protecting him, a mistake we have chronicled repeatedly. The Bengals need receiving help and there are reports they may grab Ja’Marr Chase who played with Burrow at LSU. Go with the tackle. Find a target later in what is a receiver-rich draft.
  • Teams are absolutely foaming at the mouth over Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. Scouts are saying he’s the best TE prospect since Kellen Winslow. Pitts could be the first non-quarterback off the board. If Atlanta doesn’t grab him fourth, expect Miami to jump on him with the sixth pick.
  • The Seahawks have only three selections in the entire draft, the fewest of any team. Their first pick comes in the second-round, 56th overall. Their other selections are 129 and 250. It’s safe to assume that, with so few picks, the Seahawks will be trading down several times in order to add extra selections. They have three major areas of need, offensive line, cornerback and receiver. There are a couple of corners we like who may be available when the Hawks select in the second round – Tyson Campbell of Georgia and Ifeatu Melifonwu of Syracuse. If they look to bolster the offensive line, Quinn Meinerz of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Brady Christensen of BYU and Walker Little of Stanford should be under consideration. If Seattle wants to address the pass rush, my dark-horse candidate is Chris Rumph II of Duke. This kid can get after it.

Super Messy – Call it Bloody Sunday. That’s when a group of a dozen European soccer powers announced plans to form a so-called Super League. 24 hours later, all hell broke loose. Backlash to the proposed league was fast and furious. Chelsea and Manchester City opted out and within hours four other English clubs had followed suit. The intention was to form a North-American-style soccer league with revenue-sharing and salary caps. The Super League would be a closed shop for 15 founding member teams. JPMorgan Chase bank was on board with $6 billion dollars in financing. The big loser would be UEFA. As Cathal Kelly of the Globe & Mail wrote – “the Super League would turn UEFA from the Apple Inc. of sports into Texas Instruments.” The UEFA Cup tournament would have been rendered useless. This is what happens when European football teams are sold to Americans, Russians and Qataris. Man United, for instance, is owned by the Glazer family who own the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When you look closely at the top European leagues, they are dominated by a very few teams. Juventus has won the Italian Series A for the last nine seasons. Barcelona and Real Madrid have won every Spanish League title since 2004-2005 except for one by Atletico Madrid. In Portugal, it’s been Porto or Benfica every year since 2002-2003. Since 1999-2000, Bayern Munich has won 15 German Bundesliga titles including the last eight in a row. Manchester United won 13 English Premier League titles under Alex Ferguson. So where’s the competition in these top leagues? A few teams dominate every year and a large portion of the rest are just fodder. This would not happen in North America where measures have been put into place in order to create parity and ensure competitive balance.

Once European football opened the door to foreign ownership, this is where we were always headed. People don’t get rich by being nostalgic. They want – even demand – revenue growth. Do you think they are maybe a little sick of the ridiculous transfer fees? The idea of a Super League may be anathema to many European soccer fans but it’s doubtful it’s a plan that will die any time soon.

Leftovers – The CFL is making big news these days. They recently held their Global Draft and with the first pick, the BC Lions selected an Australian punter. Wow! Earth-shattering! The CFL Board of Governors decided this week to delay the start of the 2021 season. They now plan to play a 14-game season starting on August 5. The Grey Cup is scheduled to be played in Hamilton on December 12. That should work out well. Did it occur to the CFL that it might be in their best interests to move the game indoors into Rogers Centre in Toronto and still have Hamilton serve as host?

Canada’s Corey Conners is sitting in 14th place in the FedEx Cup standings. Heady stuff for the 29-year-old from Listowel, Ontario. You want to know why he’s turned his career around. Last year, Conners was 181st in Strokes Gained: Putting.  So far this year, he ranks 74th in that category. Continued improvement on the putting surface will make Conners a threat to win every time out because he’s a superlative ball-striker.

Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters, has banned the son of Gary Player from caddying at the tournament following an “ambush marketing” ploy during the first tee ceremony last week. Wayne Player ticked off Masters brass by holding up a sleeve of OnCore golf balls to TV cameras. What an embarrassment for his 85-year-old Dad. According to son Wayne, “I just thought it would be cool for fans to know what ball my Dad was teeing off with.”  This is not his first brush with controversy. Two years ago at the Masters, Wayne-O was arrested on fraud charges and spent five days in jail after a cheque he issued to cover the cost of rental accommodations bounced.

In the 1976-77 season, the Montreal Canadiens were 60-8-12 with a 33-1-6 record at the Forum. You read that right. If you had season’s tickets that year, you saw the Habs lose just one game out of 40 home games. That’s what you call a dynasty.

One final thought – if Leaf fans threatened bodily harm to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun for criticizing the beloved Leafs, what would they do to us here at Under Further Review? Put us in a trash compactor?

Spotify Songs of the Week – If you are an avid golfer, you have to check out the song “Back Nine” by Ben Sidran from the album “Don’t Cry for No Hipster.”

Chuck Leavell is arguably the greatest rock ‘n roll keyboard player of all time. You know him from the Stones tours and his connection to the Allman Brothers. Have a listen to his solo album “Back to the Woods.” We recommend a couple of tracks – “Evening Train” and “Low Down Dirty Dog.”

If you own a dog, check out “Maggie’s Song” by Chris Stapleton from the release “Starting Over.” Brought a tear to my eye.

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