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Under Further Review – This week, we take the temperature of the Canucks near the midway point in the NHL season. We have a few tidbits from around the NHL, NBA and the NFL and a look back at the President’s Cup.  Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays Everyone!

The Eye Test – We are fast approaching the midway point in the NHL season and we are starting to get a pretty good book on every club. The Canucks fast start is in the rearview mirror.  The structure they were showing early on is gone. Teams are breaking them down defensively and the goals against are rising – fast.

Here’s my take. The NHL game is being played at warp speed and the Canucks do not have the overall team speed to compete with the top teams. If you look at the all-important centre ice position, the Canucks group does not stack up. After Elias Pettersson, you have Bo Horvat, Adam Gaudette, Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle. None of those guys are going to win a track meet. Go down through the entire Canucks lineup and there’s just not enough team speed. Yes, it was great that they added some much-needed size and grit to their lineup in the off-season but, as a team, they are just not fast enough to keep up with the top teams. Where speed comes in handy is on the back check where elite teams can apply tremendous back pressure and prevent you from getting easy zone entries. The Canucks are getting beat in transition because they are unable to apply back pressure to the same degree. The centre ice group, as a unit, leaves a lot to be desired in the faceoff circle. Pettersson doesn’t even take draws. That’s handled by J.T. Miller. Horvat is decent. Gaudette is awful. We all know what happens when you lose a draw.  You spend the whole shift trying to get the puck back.

When you are constructing an NHL team, you cannot rely on free agents to fill out your roster. It’s too expensive and there are no assurances the players you sign are going to move the needle. Look down the Canucks roster and there are no less than eight players that were signed as free agents – Louie Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Tim Schaller, Jordie Benn, Tyler Myers, Michael Ferland and Oscar Fantenberg. That’s too many. All it has served to do is put them in a salary cap bind.

Last summer, they opened the vault and signed Myers, Benn and Fantenberg to add depth to their back end. It turns out they would have been much wiser with  more modest signings. Ben Chiarot left the Jets for the Canadiens on a very reasonable 3-year, $3.5 million dollar per season deal. The Canucks targeted Ferland hoping he would be a facsimile of the terror they faced vs. Calgary in the playoffs in 2015 but instead, he has had no impact and is out long-term with concussion issues. For the same money, they could have had Joonas Donskoi who signed with Colorado for 4 years at $3.9 per. I will take Chiarot and Donskoi over Myers, Benn, Fantenberg and Ferland any day of the week.

Decisions in July can bite teams in the butt as we have seen over and over every summer.  In 2020, the Canucks are going to be carrying $13 million in what amounts to ‘dead money’ starting with the $3 million dollar Roberto Luongo contract recapture.  Add in the $6 million due to Eriksson, the $1 to Ryan Spooner for his buy-out, plus Sven Baertschi who is due to make another $3 million and he’s currently on waivers.  So instead of an $82 million dollar salary cap, you suddenly are working with a $70 million dollar cap. This is by far the worst cap management in the league. Even the L.A. Kings with $11 million in dead money for next year with Dion Phaneuf, Mike Richards and Ilya Kovalchuk can’t match the Canucks. The only way for the Canucks to improve is for the pipeline to deliver more young talent but that’s asking a whole lot.

Jim Benning has made a number of mistakes during his tenure as GM of the Canucks. One of the most regrettable is signing Baertschi to a 3-year, $10 million dollar extension two summers ago. I was highly critical of that move at the time and nothing since has changed my mind. I had a similar bad feeling when the Jays signed Randal Grichuk to a 5 year, $50 million dollar extension. You are praying that they are going to reach the highest level of their potential yet you know in your gut they never will.

To make matters worse, Trader Jim felt compelled to throw in a third rounder in addition to the first in the deal with Tampa Bay for J.T. Miller. The Lightning used that pick to select goalie Hugo Alnefelt who will be one of the two Swedish goalies at the 2020 World Juniors. Alnefelt helped Sweden win gold at the U-18 worlds last year and was named one of the top three goalies in the event. He has a 1.95 GAA and a .920 save percentage in the Swedish Hockey League. Canucks have an organizational depth shortage in goal, do they not?

For a team that has suffered so many humiliations over the past 50 years, is it any wonder the fans run for cover whenever the team goes on the skids? Vegas came into the league only two seasons ago and have already reached the Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks have faced off against Vegas ten times since they joined the NHL and have only two overtime wins to show for it. How can the fans continue to be tormented?

NHL Leftovers – The San Jose Sharks season is down the toilet and if you want answers, look no further than the net. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell own the worst save percentage in the NHL for the second straight season. The Sharks managed to play above the issue last season and make it all the way to the conference final but there’s no masking the problem this year. When you can’t get a big save, it’s demoralizing.

Classy move by Peter Laviolette to send out his #1 power-play unit the other night vs. the Islanders with the Predators already up 8-3 late in the third period. You don’t think other coaches will hear about that. Barry Trotz won’t soon forget.

Can you really fault the Arizona Coyotes for surrendering draft picks and young assets to acquire Taylor Hall?  They haven’t won diddly since arriving in the desert and have been bleeding money since they got there.  To judge them by Canadian team standards just doesn’t jive. They have a playoff spot in their sights and it’s hard to argue with moves that may ensure they get there. If the Yotes make the playoffs, one of the Canadian teams in the Pacific Division will most assuredly be out.

Alex Gets the Newhook – Canada’s World Junior brain trust made a huge mistake cutting Alex Newhook.  The Victoria Grizzlies grad and Avs first rounder was among nine players released before the team headed overseas. Newhook can flat out fly and was one of Canada’s top players during international competitions last summer. This is age-old Hockey Canada prejudice toward the CHL. Players who play tier two and head to U.S. colleges are always under-scouted and overlooked when it comes to the selection process. Mark and Dale Hunter will always pick players from the OHL ahead of college kids.  Let’s see how much they miss Newhook when they are having trouble scoring goals once the tournament gets underway.

Hockey Canada seems to have learned its lesson and is leaning on more 18 year olds this year.  It’s a 19 year old tournament but you still have to pick the best players regardless of age. They got burnt last year when they left Kirby Dach, Dylan Couzens and Bowen Byrum off the team and ended up with a sixth place finish.

Comrade Vlad – If we were to compile highlights of the year, we would have to include Vladimir Putin putting on a scoring clinic during an exhibition game in Russia. Risking a train ride to the Gulag, the defense parted whenever the Putinator had the puck. In case you missed it, it’s good for a laugh especially when he does a face plant on the carpet.

NFL Notebook – The Seahawks survived a raft of injuries to win at Carolina and cap their best-ever season on the road. The Hawks went 7-and-1 away from Seattle and did it with six starters out of the lineup at one point last Sunday. They will need to get healthy in a hurry if they want to win the division and maintain the #1 seed in the NFC.

It’s obvious now that as goes the Big 3 – Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett and Chris Carson – so goes the Seahawks. When their top offensive performers are delivering, the Seahawks are a tough team to beat.

We should not be surprised that the Seahawks were snubbed in NFL Pro Bowl voting. It’s eastern bias and it happens nearly every year. They are 11-and-3 yet only two Seahawks were named to the team, Wilson and Bobby Wagner. Maybe if Seattle goes 13-and-3 they will wake up and give Pete Carroll the nod as Coach of the Year. If Carroll somehow coaxes this team to 13 wins, it will be his greatest coaching job ever. Don’t forget, a lot of so-called experts had them going 7-and-9 this year and missing the playoffs.

You have to wonder what it will take for Russell Wilson to get his due. Lamar Jackson will likely win NFL MVP because he has made more spectacular plays this year but he is also surrounded by 12 Pro Bowl selections. Wilson is surrounded by one. Wilson has been under siege whenever he drops back to pass and has been sacked 42 times. The Seahawks are 27th in the NFL in total defense, giving up 378 yards per game. They are 29th against the pass and 29th in sacks with only 24.  I ask you – where would the Seahawks be without Russell Wilson? Seattle has won 10 games by one score or less. To me, he’s the MVP in the NFL this year, hands down.

Hands up if you actually thought Josh Gordon would last the season in Seattle? He’s been suspended for the 8th time by either his team or the NFL for substance abuse and it may well be the last time we see Gordon in an NFL uniform. So much wasted talent. Gordon is a troubled young man and I just hope he can get some long term help.

Look out for the Kansas City Chiefs. Out of nowhere their defense has suddenly come alive. Over the past 5 weeks, the Chiefs are giving up only 11 points and about 285 total yards per game. They could be a very tough out in the playoffs because we know they are going to score points.

The next time we see the Raiders play a home game it will be in Las Vegas. They said goodbye to Oakland on Sunday and it came as no surprise that the Raider crazies went a little wacko.

Raiders owner Mark Davis has moved into our Top Ten Bad Owners in Sports. Following Sunday’s final home game in Oakland, Davis was anything but nostalgic about leaving Oakland. Apparently, he forgot all about the money the fans put in his pockets over the years. Heartless scumbag!

On the subject of Neanderthals, how about Tom Coughlin who was ousted this week at Executive VP of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jags owner Shad Khan was reportedly going to sack Coughlin at the end of the season but decided to fire him immediately following the release of a letter from the NFL Players Association.

In the letter, the union questioned the merits of signing with Jacksonville as a free agent because more than 25% of the grievances filed by NFL players in the past two years have been against the club, and that players “continue to be at odds with Jaguars management over their rights under the CBA far more than players on other clubs.”

It was an unprecedented move by the NFLPA and Khan quickly realized the potential consequences. Khan had no choice but to can Coughlin who has a well-deserved reputation as a hard-ass. He blatantly disregarded the league’s rules governed by the collective bargaining agreement.

A lot of the stuff he wouldn’t allow was petty – no sunglasses, all meetings start 5 minutes early – but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Coughlin had every clock in the Jags facility adjusted to 5 minutes ahead. What was the first thing the organization did after Coughlin was sacked? They changed all the clocks back to the regular time.

He fined defensive end Dante Fowler more than $700,000 in 2018 for missing “mandatory” appointments at the Jags facility during the off-season. Fowler appealed and won. The Jags were also on the wrong end of other high-profile battles thanks to Coughlin involving running back Leonard Fournette, cornerback Jalen Ramsey. All involved fines or voluntary sessions that Mr. Taskmaster wanted to somehow make mandatory. Coughlin can head straight to the home because he will never get another top job in the NFL.

NBA Leftovers – Any reader of this blog will know I am not a big Lebron James fan. However, you have to give the guy his due. King James is leading the NBA in assists with 10.8 per game in his 17th season. Amazing!

James Harden of the Rockets is hands down the best scorer in the NBA. He recently posted two games in a row scoring 10+ three-pointers, one of only two NBA players ever to accomplish that.  Harden has poured in 50 or more points on five separate occasions already this season.

What a tough week for the Raptors.  They go into Detroit and knock off the Pistons on Wednesday night and suffer three devastating injuries in the same game. Pascal Siakam is out indefinitely with a groin strain, Marc Gasol is out indefinitely with a hamstring pull and Norm Powell is out for a good stretch with a shoulder subluxation. The Raptors depth is really going to be challenged now.

Here’s a new addition to the All-Name team in sports – Brooklyn Nets Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. I would assume they are calling him TLC for short.

President’s Cup Fallout – Let’s face it, the President’s Cup has been nothing more than a biannual flogging. The Americans had won seven straight Cups heading into this year’s matches in Australia and there had seldom been any real drama. Certainly nothing to match the Ryder Cup. At least this time, there was a little bit of resistance put up by the Internationals that even stirred up a few moments of genuine animosity.

It was still painful to watch the International team fritter away an opportunity to capture the Cup at Royal Melbourne. The U.S. dominated Sunday’s singles matches 8-4, putting the final touches on a 16-14 win.

Here are a few observations from the 4-day competition:

  • Adam Hadwin, Canada’s only International team representative, finished with a record of 1-1-1. However, he could have easily gone 3-and-0. Hadwin had a wedge in his hand on 18 from 131 yards during foursome competitions on Friday but left his shot woefully short. He then watched American Patrick Cantley hole a birdie putt to take the match 1-up. Then in his singles match on Sunday, Hadwin missed a very makeable birdie putt on 18 against Bryson DeChambeau that would have given him the full point.
  • The collapse of the century came during a foursomes match on Saturday. Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler held a 5-up lead after 10 holes only to crap the bed on the back nine and halve their match with Australia’s Marc Leishman and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer. Ancer was solid throughout the week and turned in the best performance for the Internationals, going 3-1-1.
  • Leishman and Adam Scott did not handle the pressure of playing in front of the home crowd. Neither got untracked and both putted very poorly. International team captain Ernie Els probably made a mistake in not playing the other Aussie, Cameron Smith, more than three matches.
  • International team rookies Joaquin Niemann of Chile and Haotong Li of China did not respond to the pressure, looked nervous and went a combined 1-5-and-1.
  • Sungjae Im of South Korea was one of seven rookies on the International team and matched Ancer with the best record for the Internationals. He was also one of only two Internationals to win a singles match on Sunday. This kid looks like a future major winner. Byeong Hun An of South Korea and C.T. Pan of Japan were also up to the challenge.
  • For the U.S. team, don’t be surprised to see Tony Finau, Patrick Cantley or Xander Schauffele win a major sometime soon. I can’t say the same for Rickie Fowler. He can’t make a putt when it counts and until he does, he’s destined for golfing purgatory. He may be the next to wear the label “best golfer never to win a major.”
  • Justifiably, Patrick Reed was mocked by the Aussie fans from the time he walked onto the course. At one point, fans were wearing t-shirts that read “We love a Tiger, but we hate a Cheetah.”
  • The simple fact the Americans play the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup in alternate years has to be a big advantage for the U.S. team. They ran out basically the same team as last year’s Ryder Cup and from experience alone, it has to help. The Internationals only get to do this every two years and in team-building alone, it’s hard to compete.

We will see how things shake down next time around at Quail Hallow but for now, at least the Internationals have won back a semblance of respect.

The Joe Schultz Quote of the Week – This week, it’s from New York Mets legendary reliever Tug McGraw. When asked if he preferred grass or Astroturf, McGraw replied “ I dunno.  I’ve never tried Astroturf.”

From the Oldie but Goodie Joke Department – Question: Where do you find a full set of 32 teeth?  Answer: In the first four rows of a wrestling match.

Video of the Week – We have a treat for you this week.  Back in 2007, JJ Cale and Eric Clapton toured together to promote an album they did together called “Two for the Road.” Here’s an incredible soundcheck before a concert in San Diego. A very young Derek Trucks sits in on slide.  Make sure to watch it until the end.