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World Junior Notebook – The World Junior Hockey Championships are moving through the group stage with the quarterfinals set to start on Wednesday. Team Canada is still looking to find its game. There was more line shuffling against the Swiss as Tim Hunter settles on dependable line combinations. This is how the lines shape up heading into tonight’s game against the Czechs –

Maxime Comtois – Cody Glass – Owen Tippett

Morgan Frost – Barrett Hayton – Brett Leason

Shane Bowers – Jared Anderson-Dolan – Nick Suzuki

Joe Veleno/Alexis Lafreniere – Mackenzie Entwistle – Jack Studnicka

Hunter benched 17 year old phenom Alexis Lafreniere during the game against Switzerland. He had been shown video of his play from the game against Denmark and Hunter didn’t the improvement he wanted.   The coaching staff is preaching short shifts.  They posted the shift lengths on the board in the dressing room following the game against Denmark to impress the importance of keeping shifts to 45 seconds.

The players, as a team, agreed to stay off social media during the tournament to help keep their focus. They’ve received numerous messages of encouragement from former players including Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. One thing they have stressed is to tune out the media and not pay attention to all the hype especially with the tournament being played in Canada.

First place in Pool B is on the line tonight in Victoria when the U.S. and Sweden clash head to head. Sweden has a very strong defense led by four players picked in the first round – Adam Boqvist (Chicago), Rasmus Sandin (Toronto), Nils Lundqvist (New York Rangers) and budding star Erik Brannstrom (Vegas).

The U.S. also boasts a great blueline with Canucks star-in-waiting Quinn Hughes, Dylan Samberg of the Jets, Rangers first round pick K’Andre Miller and Buffalo first rounder Mattias Samuelsson.  Up front, there’s lots of star power with consensus 2019 first overall draft pick Jack Hughes plus four other players selected in the first round – Joe Farabee of the Flyers, Josh Norris of the Senators, Oliver Wahlstrom of the Islanders and Ryan Poehling of the Canadiens. Also keep an eye on Dallas draft choice Jason Robertson.

By the way, if you are watching the tournament and want to keep an eye on the young prospects that have been drafted by Canadian NHL teams, check out the link below for a list of players to watch.

Two Canuck draft picks from the 2018 NHL draft to watch are forward Tyler Madden of the U.S. and diminutive defenseman Toni Utunen of Finland. The Canucks nabbed Madden in the third round.  He’s the son of long-time Devils centre John Madden. He is shifty and has more offense to his game than his Dad. Utunen was selected in the fifth round and needs time. He will have to spend a few years in Utica.

Chicago, Philadelphia and Montreal have the most drafted players in the tournament with seven each.  Boston and Vegas have six.

The Canucks This Week – After tonight’s game against the Flames, the Canucks will be right at the midway point in the season.  Right now, they sit at 18-18-4, good for 40 points and just one point out of the final playoff spot in the West.

While it’s great to see the Canucks finally showing some improvement, it’s also a double-edged sword.  They are currently tracking to finish 13th or 14th overall and will miss the opportunity to add another key building block in next summer’s draft. I like the way they have been developing but there’s still plenty of heavy-lifting still to come.  Just reaching the playoffs is the easy part. Winning the Cup is a whole different ballgame.

The Canucks have taken a big step in a couple of important areas.  They have gone from 26th in the league last year in goals scored per game to 12th this season, 2.66 goals per game to 3.05 per game, a huge improvement. Thanks Elias! Their penalty-killing has also been noticeably better, especially of late. At one point recently, they killed off 22 straight penalties, their best streak in five years. They also went eight straight games without giving up a power-play goal, a new club record.

NHL Tidbits – Have you noticed that the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are almost all solidified?  It looks like there may be no battles for the final few playoff spots. Pending unforeseen circumstances, the top eight teams in the Eastern standings at the moment will probably all be there at the end.

In the West, it looks like five teams will battle it out for the final two playoff spots – Dallas, Anaheim, Vancouver, Edmonton and Minnesota. The Wild are in tough with the long-term injury to Matt Dumba who was playing the best hockey of his career and keying their power-play. Give the edge to Dallas and Anaheim. Ducks goalie John Gibson is having an MVP season.

I got a good laugh when I read that Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock was complaining to the league about the refereeing for not making more calls on Connor McDavid. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!  Hitch says the non-calls are hurting the game, taking away room from skilled players and shutting down offense. Hitchcock apparently has a poor memory because he and Jacques Lemaire did more to take away room from skilled players and slow down the game than any two coaches in NHL history.

The s**t-show continues in Ottawa where a potential new arena deal has all but fallen through. Questions about the Senators future in the Nation’s Capital will no doubt be resurfacing. It looks like it will be at least four years before a new arena is built.  The question becomes – can the team survive that long? By the way, is there a more underrated player in the NHL than the Sens Mark Stone. Ottawa has the worst goals against average in the league yet Stone somehow is a plus 11.

Can you explain to me why Maple Leaf fans were holding their breath waiting for the triumphant return of Michael Nylander? He has had zero impact since returning to the Leaf lineup. I would have traded his ass for a defenseman a long time ago. Babcock has a little chat with him this week.  We will see if it has any effect.

Sympathies to the family of long-time Montreal Canadiens scout Lorne Benning who died this week at 77.  Lorne spent almost five decades scouring the western junior leagues for the Canadiens and played a key role in the Habs selection of goalie Carey Price.  Of course, Lorne is the father of Canucks GM Jim Benning.

Here’s some post Christmas gifts for the seven Canadian teams:

Vancouver – SIZE! Give me some BEEF!

Edmonton – A scoring winger, anybody not named McDavid who can put the puck in the net!

Calgary – Goaltending. Their whole season depends on it.

Winnipeg – A true number two centreman.

Toronto – A defenseman, anyone!

Ottawa – A new owner!

Montreal – SIZE.  See- Vancouver.

Christmas Carroll – Seahawk fans should be ecstatic with the news that Pete Carroll has signed an extension through the 2021 season. What he has done to turn the team around in one season is nothing short of remarkable. He’s having the last laugh at critics who said his rah-rah schtick was wearing thin. Sorry, Richard Sherman but your act wore thin!

In the off-season, Carroll made a renewed commitment to his core values as a coach – competition for jobs, a power running game, ball security and competing for every inch on the football field. He made key changes on the coaching staff bringing in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and offensive line coach Mike Solari.

On offence, the improvement in the offensive line has been miraculous. It’s triggered a league best running game led by Chris Carson who went over 1,000 yards for the season on Monday night with a 116 yard effort against the Chiefs. He’s the new bell cow in the mold of Marshawn Lynch.

Russell Wilson gets no love around the league but he may be having his best year. Wilson has thrown for three touchdowns with no interceptions on five separate occasions this season. Tyler Lockett has had a breakout season and Doug Baldwin is finally looking like his Pro Bowl self (7 catches for 126 yards Monday Night) after an injury plagued season.  Overall, the offense is 6th overall in scoring which will probably surprise a lot of people. If you wipe out the first two games which were disastrous, the Seahawks are averaging over 170 yards rushing a game.  Overall, they are averaging 15 more yards rushing per game than the next best team.

Defensively, the Seahawks have parted ways with six Pro Bowlers including Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Sheldon Richardson and Earl Thomas. Plus the team has been without Pro Bowl linebacker K.J. Wright for most of the season. Carroll reestablished the culture of competition and a host of young players have emerged on defense.

Turnover differential is one of the most important stats in the NFL. One of Pete’s big mantra’s is “it’s all about the ball.” I guess it should come as no surprise that the Seahawks lead the NFL with a +14 turnover differential.  They’ve gone eight games without a turnover and have only 10 all season long and five of them came in the first two games. They also cleaned up the penalties against the Chiefs with only 3 for 20 yards after the debacle in San Francisco.

What a lot of fans don’t realize is this team is young and its best years are still ahead.  Give John Schneider another draft and another year of free agency and look out. The Seahawks will have about 70 million dollars in cap space for next season so they will be positioned to bring in more reinforcements.  But it starts with Pete Carroll and he deserves a ton of credit for sticking to his convictions and getting back to what he believes is the winning formula.

Looking ahead to the final game of the season against Arizona, this should be no contest.  The Cardinals are dead last in the league in most offensive categories and on defense, they are dead last in stopping the run.  Guess what the Seahawks plan to do?  Yes, run it down their throat!

Poona Mania – You have to admire the Seahawks for unearthing talent from the unlikeliest of sources.  If they are not turning a basketball player like George Fant into an offensive lineman and now a tight end, they are turning a 6’5” safety like Trey Flowers into the next Richard Sherman.

Their latest project is 5’11” defensive tackle Poona Ford. He went undrafted out of the University of Texas despite the fact he was the 2017 Big 12 defensive lineman of the year. He is disruptive, shoots the gap like a madman and gets into the backfield constantly. The Poona-man has quietly gone from a near training camp cut to playing 50+ plays per game. He says he signed with Seattle because they were the only NFL team that brought him in for a pre-draft visit. Poona already has a signature celebration move.  He rubs his prodigious belly every time he makes a big play.

NFL Tidbits – Pro Bowl selections in the NFL are a complete joke. If you look at some of the players selected, they were seemingly chosen on reputation alone. Sorry, but there is no way Packers QB Aaron Rodgers should have been selected this season. Russell Wilson was completely overlooked despite the fact he has thrown the third most touchdown passes in the league and the third LEAST interceptions.

The Sunday night game should be a dandy when Indianapolis goes to Tennessee with a wildcard playoff spot on the line.  The Colts have been a revelation this season so look for them to take out the Titans and make the playoffs.

Lebron-a-Palooza – The blatant and shameless recruiting that is being permitted in the NBA is sickening.  Lebron and the Lakers are waging an all-out campaign to recruit Anthony Davis to L.A. while the Clippers have made no secret of their quest to steal away Kawhi Leonard from the Raptors when he becomes a free agent next summer.

Davis is represented by Lebron’s agent and childhood buddy, Rich Paul so you know there’s tampering go on there. The Lakers were fined last year for tampering in their not-so-subtle recruitment of Paul George. The NBA needs to step in and put a stop to this once and for all. Sending out a memo this week to all teams with a stern warning is not enough.