Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Contributing Editor Bill Morphy. This week, turbulent times in professional sports. We weigh in. Plus, a look around the NHL playoffs, the fast-charging Blue Jays and a big salute to Big Mac!
Watershed Moment – It’s been a difficult week when it comes to rationalizing everything that has been happening. We are not going to try to wax eloquent about the situation as it pertains to the Black Lives Matter movement and the role of professional athletes, teams and leagues. We can no doubt all agree the time for talk is over. NBA coach Doc Rivers said it best when he stated “Why do we keep loving our country when it does not love us back?”
The NHL was slow – once again – to take a stand. Baseball was tone-deaf. Even the Blue Jays, as a team, voted to continue playing. The NBA took the lead and shut down immediately following the senseless shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For real change to occur, however, it is going to take a lot more than that. The Washington Post has tracked police shootings since 2015, reporting more than 5,000 incidents since their tracking began.
If NBA players had really wanted to effect change, they would shut the season down and gone home. Lebron James likes to talk a big game but is he willing to withhold services and miss a few paycheques? Apparently not. Tiger Woods is incapable of taking a leadership role. He continued playing this weekend, and poorly, at the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields in Illinois. He was once again missing in action when it came to speaking out for the black community.
The sad truth is social justice and pro sports probably don’t mix. NBA ratings have plummeted recently. Fans apparently don’t want the politicization of their favourite sports. A recent playoff game between the Lakers and the Trail Blazers drew less than one million viewers. Tucker Carlson on Fox Television regularly draws more than four million viewers nightly. Go figure! Yes, a sad truth.
What is it going to take? We need more than a two-day work stoppage by pro athletes who, in the eyes of much of the general public, are overpaid to begin with. Over the weekend, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll held a news conference to talk about racism in America. Here is his word for word statement. It’s definitely worth reading.
Hopes Fading – At the start of the NHL playoffs, who would have thought the Canucks would be the last Canadian team standing? If we can take one thing away from the Canucks post-season performance, it’s that they are pretty resilient. The situation looked grim on several occasions during these playoffs and each time, the Canucks came back with surprisingly strong efforts. Think about it. They looked horrible in the opening game against Minnesota before rebounding big time in game two. They looked dead in the water when down 3-1 in the second period of game five against the Blues before storming back to win the game and the series. They also delivered a feeble effort in game one against Vegas before responding with an outstanding performance to win game two.
In the second game of back to backs on Sunday night, the Canucks ran out of gas and surrendered three third period goals as Vegas rallied for a 5-3 win. For the first time in the playoffs, Jacob Markstrom looked tired. Vegas had the luxury of turning to Marc-Andre Fleury. The Canucks stuck with Markstrom and it cost them. Now, down 3-1 vs. the Golden Knights, do they have one last hurrah left? The revised NHL playoff schedule doesn’t favour the Canucks. If they want to somehow push the Knights to seven games, they would have to play five games in seven nights. Don’t like their chances!
The young guns have led the way which brings hope for better days ahead. Quinn Hughes has 13 points, just one back of the all-time playoff record for points by a rookie defenseman. His 12 assists is the highest ever. As good as he’s been, Hughes has struggled in the series against the Golden Knights. He is minus 7 in the series at even strength and has taken a lot of punishment.
The Canucks have been hurt by a lack of scoring from the bottom six forward group who have simply not carried their weight. The bottom six has zero points against Vegas. ZERO in four games! The Canucks will not jump into the top echelon of teams until they fix that problem.
NHL Playoff Takeaways – It certainly looks like we are headed for a Tampa-Vegas final. The Lightning have Boston on the ropes and seem to be using last year’s playoff embarrassment as motivation. The Final Four is beginning to take shape. The Islanders are one win away from eliminating Philadelphia. Dallas can eliminate Colorado on Monday night. The Canucks must win Tuesday to stave off elimination.
One of the break-out players of this year’s playoffs has been Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier. Playing on a line with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, Beauvillier has been outstanding. He is tied for second in NHL playoff goal-scoring with seven. Bo Horvat of the Canucks leads with nine. The Islanders struck it big when they drafted Beauvillier 28th overall in the 2015 draft. The Isles are tied for second in total goals scored with 40 through 12 games. They have given up only 20. Their +20 goal differential is tops among all playoff teams.
Colorado was the sexy pick to advance out of the Western Conference this year. The Avs hopes went out the window when goaltender Philipp Grubauer was injured. At the time, his post-season GAA was 1.87. His replacement, Pavel Francouz, has been a sieve. His goals against average is 3.23.
The Flames made a hasty exit to the sidelines following the injury to Matthew Tkachuk. Calgary lost three straight to Dallas once Tkachuk left the lineup which doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the team. TSN’s Ray Ferraro predicts big changes in Cowtown and if ownership is smart, they will blow it up now and not wait. If anyone thinks signing Calgary native UFA Taylor Hall is the answer, they are delusional. Fans point the finger at Johnny Gaudreau but the problems run way deeper. The goaltending is sub-par and the Flames are simply not strong enough down the middle which is the spine of any good team.
Flames General Manager Brad Treliving has had six years to figure things out. During that time, he’s drilled through four coaches – Bob Hartley, Glen Gulutzan, Bill Peters and Geoff Ward. It’s doubtful any of the four will ever be a head coach in the NHL again which speaks volumes. Treliving has made the biggest mistake any general manager can make – trotting out 11 goalies during his six-year tenure.
Poor upper management has been a problem in Calgary and Edmonton for years. Part of the problem is neither organization has been willing to pay top dollar for executives until the Oilers hired Ken Holland last summer. Both teams have also had a succession of poor coaching selections, many of which were rookie hires. If the Flames continue with Treliving and his patch-work approach to team-building, they will be destined for several more years of mediocrity.
The ever-building Oilers are no further ahead. Holland has already frittered away the Oilers second, third and fourth round picks in this year’s draft. Connor McDavid will enter his sixth NHL season this fall and has, officially, one playoff appearance. Two if you count this year’s disastrous qualifying round loss to Chicago. Edmonton still has big questions in goal. They should take a hard look at Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov when they make the ninth overall selection in the 2020 draft. Holland also needs to figure out what to do with the diminishing asset that is Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft. If Puljujarvi again refuses to report to Edmonton, Holland needs to recoup something of value in return.
The Maple Leafs threw Nazem Kadri to the curb last summer when they needed a scapegoat for yet another first round playoff exit. Kadri had been suspended in each of the last two playoffs and was an obvious fall guy. How has that worked out? Kadri has been a playoff sensation for the Colorado Avalanche and has put up seven goals and 14 points so far. The Maple Leafs Big Four with over $40 million in combined salary – you know them, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavaras – totaled six goals and 17 points in the 5-game loss to Columbus. Kadri has now scored more goals than the lot of them!
Meantime, the Leafs have started shedding salary. The trade of Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh saves Toronto $3.2 million against the cap. In the deal, the Leafs acquired the 15th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft which they may flip to acquire much-needed blueline help. Rabid Leafs media types have already speculated the team may go after Blues UFA defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Yes, that’s what the Leafs need! Another $9 million dollar a year player on the down side of his career. The blueline answer to John Tavaras.
The search for a new general manager is on in two NHL markets – Arizona and Florida. Instead of looking at all the usual retread suspects, I would be talking with several former players including Mark Hunter, Sean Burke and Scott Mellanby. You also have to wonder when former L.A. Kings assistant GM Mike Futa is going to be given an opportunity.
Whoever takes over the Coyotes has got a major mess on their hands. The Coyotes are without any picks in the first three rounds of this year’s draft and are without a first and a third in 2021. They have a tight cap situation for next season and may be forced to trade defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson among others.
Open Mic – It’s been a tough week for aging, white broadcasters who can’t keep their mouths shut. Mike Milbury has stepped away from NBC for the remainder of the playoffs after making disparaging remarks about women. Long-time Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman was suspended by Fox Sports after a homophobic slur made it on the air during a game in Kansas City. Brennaman has also been removed from NFL telecasts.
Milbury’s comments make it clear that he doesn’t think women belong in hockey, and are just scenery in life generally. “Boy, good thing girls aren’t here with their cycles and icky parts and cooties that these fine young men wouldn’t be able to control themselves around!” Milbury, undoubtedly the worst general manager in sports history, immediately backpedaled. In a statement, he said “I sincerely apologize for making the comment. It was not my intention to disrespect anyone. I was trying to be irreverent and I took it a step too far. It was a regrettable mistake that I take seriously.” I would argue that it was a little more than a STEP too far Mike!
NBC Sports apparently has a double standard. The network suspended Jeremy Roenick indefinitely without pay in late December after he made series of questionable remarks about fellow hockey broadcasters Kathryn Tappen, Patrick Sharp and Anson Carter during an appearance on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. It appears as though Milbury may return despite his sexist comments.
Blue Jay Banter – Monday is trade deadline day in Major League Baseball. The Blue Jays are currently sitting in the final wildcard playoff spot in the American League. They bolstered their starting rotation with the acquisition of right-hander Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners. Hats off to Walker who threw six shutout innings in his Jays debut against Baltimore on Saturday night. It was his first outing after learning that his father and siblings, who live in Lake Charles, Louisiana, lost their property and belongings in Hurricane Laura.
The Jays are 18-14 and suddenly four games over .500. They’ve won 11 of their last 14 games and find themselves just one game back of the Yankees in the American League East. Some good stories are emerging. Vladdy Guerrero has caught fire and is riding a 12-game hitting streak. Cavan Biggio has reached base in 22 consecutive games.
We will see what happens on Monday but don’t be surprised if the Jays are not done shopping.
The Raptors Way – The Raptors served up a stinker in the opening round of their Eastern Conference matchup with the Boston Celtics. They shot an uncharacteristic 10 of 40 from three-point range. We should not be surprised. It’s been an emotional week for the Raptors and a letdown can be expected. However, the Celtics could prove to be a tough matchup for the Raptors. The Celts are long and athletic and seem to have the Raptors number inside the Bubble.
Last season, the Toronto Raptors were the first team in NBA history to win a championship without a single lottery pick on their roster. It was an unprecedented feat because the NBA is a league where it’s widely believed you need stars to win and you only get them at the top of the draft board.
Raptors President Masai Ujiri and his staff take a more holistic approach to the draft and it has paid huge dividends. The Raptors pay attention to every prospect, but specifically narrow in on players they believe will be more in their draft range and who hold the qualities they covet – talent, character and work ethic. You can’t argue with the results. No team has unearthed more ‘diamonds in the rough’ than the Raptors. NHL teams could learn a lot from the Raptors approach to player recruitment and development.
Still with basketball – How about Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets? Murray poured in 50 points on Sunday night to lead the Nuggets to a 119-107 win over the Utah Jazz, forcing a game seven in their Western Conference playoff series. The winner advances to meet Kawai Leonard and the L.A. Clippers. It was Murray’s second 50-point game of the series. He set a new record for the most points by a Canadian in a playoff series with 183, and counting. Steve Nash had the old mark.
Big Mac – What a weekend for Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes at the BMW Championship. He had to roll in a five-foot par putt on the 72nd hole in order to stay within the top 30 in the FedEx standings and quality for next week’s Tour Championship at East Lake outside Atlanta. Talk about pressure. If he makes the putt, he goes to East Lake. He misses the putt, he finishes outside the top 30 in the rankings and goes home disappointed.
It’s been an incredible turnaround for Hughes this season. He missed nine of his first 11 cuts before rebounding in the second half with a second place finish, a tie for third and a tie for sixth. Hughes will now play in the lucrative season finale where last-place prize money is $400,000. Good on him!
The final few holes at Olympia Fields produced some incredible golf. Dustin Johnson drained a 45-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force a playoff with Jon Rahm. The Spaniard then closed the deal with a miraculous 66-foot putt to win the tournament. Rahm is now likely to retake the world #1 ranking from Johnson with the victory.
NFL Notebook – It should have come as no surprise to see former Seahawk safety Earl Thomas released by the Baltimore Ravens.
Thomas got into a fray with defensive back Chuck Clark during a training camp practice after Thomas admittedly blew a coverage assignment. Words were exchanged and the two came to blows. The Ravens wasted no time cutting ties. If Thomas was released outright, Baltimore would have taken a $15 million salary-cap hit this year and $10 million in 2021. By voiding his $10 million guaranteed salary for conduct detrimental to the team, he will count $5 million against the cap this season and $10 million next year.
Thomas’ reputation as a high-strung prima donna was well-established before his arrival in Baltimore last year. We will see who is foolish enough to pick him up. The Cowboys perhaps?
NFL analysts are wondering if this is the year the New England Patriots finally fall off their perch atop the AFC East. All eyes are on western New York where the Buffalo Bills are coming off a 10-and-6 season and a playoff berth. Can they unseat the Patriots? A lot will depend on the development of quarterback Josh Allen. Is he the real deal or the next Mitch Trubisky? The Bills have done everything they can to surround Allen with offensive talent including trading for Vikings All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs.
Who Wants Next? – The CFL season is over before it started and you have to wonder what the future holds. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie appeared to be in over his head when it came to trying to salvage the season. You have to wonder if the CFL Board of Governors will go looking for a scape-goat which seems to be their pattern whenever problems arise.
Since 1988, the CFL has had eleven commissioners plus two more who held the position on an interim basis. Here’s the roll call – Doug Mitchell, Bill Baker, Larry Smith, J. Donald Crump, Roy McMurtry, John Tory, Michael Lysko, Tom Wright, Mark Cohon, Jeffrey Orridge and Ambrosie. Jim Lawson and David Braley both acted as Commissioner on an interim basis. Braley has to be the only guy on the planet to own two teams in a league at the same time and also be Commissioner. What’s the point? Simple. You can’t drill through a top executive every two years and expect to see growth and success. Unlike other top pro sports leagues, the CFL is run by the Board of Governors and not the Commissioner. He’s just their puppet.
Dog Gone It – Here’s some advice for dog owners in North Korea – don’t answer the door! North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has started ordering citizens to turn in their pets so they can be used for food. The government has even been sending the military door to door to collect. That would be the day they would get me to turn in my dog! People are starving throughout the country but North Korea can afford a nuclear weapons program. Here’s more.