Under Further Review – December 22, 2020 – Douglas Smith with Contributing Editor Bill Morphy. This week, COVID threatens the World Juniors, home alone for Canadian NHL teams plus crunch time in the NFL and Charlie makes a precocious debut.
World Junior Preview – As hockey fans, we all love the World Junior Hockey Championships which are set to begin on Christmas Day in Edmonton. But the mere fact the tournament is going ahead amidst the worst period of the pandemic crisis is absurd. This is a money grab by the IIHF, Hockey Canada and TSN and nothing more. Considering the number of positive tests in the lead-up to the tournament, the most prudent thing to do would be to cancel the tournament altogether. Selfishly, of course we want to watch the World Juniors over Christmas when we are confined to home. But you can’t tell me it was the right call. It’s a cash cow for Hockey Canada. We might be more supportive if we thought the money was going to help support kids who can’t afford to play what’s become an elitist game. The World Juniors are of national importance in Canada. Would it make that much difference to all the other teams if the tournament was cancelled? Not really.
While Team Canada appears loaded, it’s important to remember none of the players have had game action so far this year and exhibition games against university opponents had to be cancelled. Meanwhile, many of the European players have been performing on a regular basis in various leagues across Europe. It could make a big difference. How would you like to be the Chicago Black Hawks if Kirby Dach contracts COVID or suffers a serious injury because he is not game-fit?
Team Canada opens the tournament on Boxing Day against the COVID-plagued Germans. For Canada, the game should be no more than a warm-up. No less than eight German players tested positive for COVID-19. Most of the German team must remain in quarantine until Christmas Eve.
The whole tournament schedule has been thrown into disarray. Canada’s exhibition game against Sweden had to be cancelled because of Sweden’s extended quarantine. Canada will now play a pre-tournament game on Wednesday against the Russians.
Here’s a player by player look at Team Canada from Sportsnet.ca
One player we won’t be seeing at the World Junior Championships is defenseman Owen Power, the consensus first overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft. Power is playing at the University of Michigan and he wasn’t granted permission to leave the team and join the Team Canada training camp. Maybe Michigan knew what they were doing in not allowing Power to travel to Edmonton.
Power is an imposing 6’6” left-shot defenseman who possesses a complete tool set including size, strength, mobility and hockey sense. The Mississauga native is already drawing comparisons to Tampa Bay star Victor Hedman.
Home Sweet Home – It remains to be seen if all seven Canadian NHL teams will be allowed to play games in their home arenas. Each Canadian team is subject to health regulations in their own jurisdiction. Will Bonnie Henry let the Canucks play their home games at Rogers Arena? Who knows?
The NHL deserves some credit for the stringent guidelines that have been put in place. Don’t forget, the NHL managed to get through the entire Stanley Cup playoff run last summer inside the bubble in Toronto and Edmonton without a single positive COVID-19 case. They conducted over 33 thousand tests. This year, all teams will travel by charter, eat all meals inside their hotels with no outside dining or shopping permitted. Good thing hockey players are so subservient. Why is the NHL so hell-bent to play out a 56-game schedule without any fans in the stands? Simple – to maintain franchise values and fulfill TV and sponsorship contracts. And yes, maybe somehow get a more attractive US television deal when the NBC contract runs out at the end of the season.
NHL Notes – Thanks to the formation of an All-Canadian division, one Canadian team is guaranteed reaching the Final Four this season. It’s been 27 years since a Canadian team won the Cup. Yes, the Canadiens back in 1993. There’s a good chance we could at least see a Canadian team in this year’s Cup final.
Look for the Canucks to pass Loui Eriksson through waivers at the start of the season and place him on the proposed taxi squad. They could then replace him on the roster with a player making the league minimum (Nils Hoglander) and accrue valuable cap space. The benefit is to improve your cap situation so you can make a deal later in the season.
The Maple Leaf sycophants in Toronto are predicting the Leafs will finish atop the NHL’s All-Canadian division this season. Of course, and they will win the Cup for sure. What they seem to forget is the Leafs have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round four years running and remain one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
The Leafs also have a rapidly diminishing return in centre John Tavaras. You will remember the Leafs signed Tavaras with great fanfare on July 1, 2018 to a seven-year, $77 million dollar contract. He’s now 30 years old with 11 full seasons under his belt. No question Tavaras has had a solid career with 345 goals and 769 points in 814 games. But there’s a lot of tread off those tires. In 36 career playoff games, he has 30 points and is minus 13. Last year, his 5-on-5 stats took a big dip and his footspeed is declining. It certainly looks like this contract will not age well.
We suggest the Leafs form an all-geriatric line with Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds. They can call it the Iceberg Line. Or better yet, maybe the 1998 Line because their prime happened about ten years ago.
Rumour de Jour – One rumour making the rounds has the Tampa Lightning dealing forward Tyler Johnson and his $5 million dollar cap hit to Detroit in return for Henrik Zetterberg’s contract. Tampa could then place Zetterberg’s deal on LTIR. There’s also talk the Lightning may put injured star Nikita Kucherov on the injury list to start the season in order to try and stay cap compliant. The Lightning still have to sign two quality RFA’s – Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak. Ten NHL team still remain over the cap so expect some action soon.
The New York Rangers have been quietly and patiently building a very nice young core. According to The Athletic, the Rangers have the top-ranked group of under-23 prospects in the NHL. After this season, the Rangers will also have a good chunk of cap space as several buy-outs come off the books. In a year or so, the Rangers may be an elite centre away from serious contention. Calling Jack Eichel!
While NHL players are expected to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, you have to question whether Canada should be there at all. With China still holding two Canadians in prison, a potential boycott should be on the table. Many athletes are also still seething in wake of the mere two-year ban handed the Russians as a result of the doping scandal. The Russians get caught in a state-run cheating operation yet their athletes can still compete on their own but just can’t wear a Russian jersey or hear their national anthem if on the podium. Some punishment!
Seahawks This Week – The Seahawks are playoff-bound for the 8th time in the last nine seasons following their nervy 20-15 win over the Washington Football Team. Seattle showed us the best way to neutralize a great pass rush is to run the football. Here are some key stats from Sunday’s game
- The Seahawks churned out 181 yards rushing – a seven yard average – against a defensive line rotation that features five first round draft picks.
- Russell Wilson passed for only 121 yards and third down conversions remain a big problem. The Seahawks were 5 for 12 on third down and the offense sputtered in the second half after Seattle built a 20-3 lead.
- The defense continues to impress. Over the past five games, Seattle has given up 21, 17, 17, 3 and 15 points, an average of 14.6 points, a far cry from earlier in the season.
- The Seahawks defense had a pair of interceptions on errant throws from diamond-studded, earring-wearing Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
- Seattle had four sacks on the day including three on Washington’s final drive. The Seahawks had only nine sacks in their first six games. They have 31 in the past eight, running their total to 40, which is sixth in the league. What an amazing turnaround in the pass rush department.
- The Hawks are now 10-and-0 when they finish with zero or one turnover.
- Jason Myers hit a pair of field goals to set a franchise record with 31 straight.
The Seahawks did indeed neutralize the Washington pass rush with an effective ground game, that is, until the fourth quarter when Russell Wilson went 4 for 17 for a measly 15 yards with an interception. Wilson’s sub-par performance aside, the offensive line did a nice job, opening up big holes in the ground game and holding WFT without a sack despite being without starters Brandon Shell and Mike Iupati who excited with a neck injury. Rashaad Penny made his first appearance of the season following knee surgery a year ago. Unlike last season, the Seahawks now have three healthy running backs heading into the final two weeks. The Seahawks may get Shell, Tre Flowers, Quinton Dunbar and tight end Greg Olsen back next week for their showdown against the Rams with the division title on the line.
Without the late-game heroics, the Seahawks could be outside a playoff spot. Sunday’s game marked the fourth time that an opponent has had the ball inside the Seattle 30 in the final minute with a chance to tie or take the lead. Don’t forget, New England had the ball at the Seattle 1-yard line with one second left and lost. Dallas had the ball at the Seattle 26, facing third-and-14 with 16 seconds left, and lost. In their second meeting of the season, Arizona was at the Seattle 27, trailing by seven points with a minute left, and lost. Is it heroics or just an inability to put teams away?
Seahawks General Manager John Schneider has taken some heat over the past few seasons for his draft record but he may have restored his reputation with this year’s crop of rookies. It looks like every single player in the 2020 draft class will make solid contributions. Second round defensive end Darrell Taylor has been out the entire year after off-season surgery so the jury is still out on that selection.
First round linebacker Jordyn Brooks is rapidly coming into his own and looks like a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. Third round pick Damien Lewis has started at guard since day one and looks like a potential future All-Pro. A pair of fourth round picks, running back DeeJay Dallas and tight end Colby Parkinson, have both made contributions as has sixth round receiver Freddie Swain. Two other draft choices, defensive end Alton Robinson and tight end Stephen Sullivan, have also suited up this season and could be long-term contributors. If Taylor can reach his potential, the 2020 draft could be one of the best ever for Schneider and the Seahawks.
NFL Notes – Did you notice what happened when Pete Carroll challenged where the referee spotted the ball late in Sunday’s game? The video evidence showed that the placement of the ball should have been overturned, forcing Washington into a fourth down gamble. However, they refused to admit the spot was incorrect and ruled Washington had made a first down, taking away a Seattle timeout. The officiating crew also made an incorrect spot in the Tampa Bay-Atlanta game that wiped out any chance of a Falcons comeback. It’s almost like they don’t want to overrule the call on the field because it may prompt coaches to challenge the spotting of the ball more often. My question is – in this age of technology, why are they still using chain gangs on the side of the field? Can’t they use a laser or something? I am waiting to see Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson moving the chains on the sidelines.
We’ve mentioned the important of third down conversion and for good reason. The Seahawks are 24th in the NFL with a conversion rate of 40%. Should we be concerned, you’re damn right! Look at where the top teams in the league rank in third down conversion. Buffalo is #1, Green Bay #2, Kansas City #4, Baltimore #5, Cleveland #7, Tennessee #8, New Orleans #9 and Pittsburgh #10 – all of them playoff teams. It matters as much or more than turnover differential and time of possession. Green Bay is #1 in time of possession, #2 in third down conversion and #6 in turnover differential. No surprise they are the #1 seed in the NFC.
The Seahawks had a club-record seven players named to the NFL All-Pro team. The Dallas Cowboys were among five teams without a Pro Bowl selection. The Jets, Jags, Bengals and Panthers failed to have a player selected. Oh, how South America’s team has fallen.
Remember when the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals had a strong divisional rivalry? If it seems like eons ago, it is. Ben Roethlisberger was 24-and-0 against the Bengals in his career before the Bengals upset of the Steelers on Monday night. The equivalent of 12 full seasons. Some rivalry! After starting 11-and-0, the Steelers are in jeopardy of finishing the season with five straight losses. They have the second worst running game in the league. Talk about peaking too soon!
Coverage of the NFL is so intense that every bit of minutiae becomes a big story. Have you noticed that almost every week someone is getting all giddy over one team or another? First, it was the Buffalo Bills following their big win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Josh Allen was ordained as the second coming of John Elway and the Bills were the flavour of the week in the AFC. Last week, we had to listen to Stephen A. Smith, everyone’s favourite gasbag, gushing over Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns even though they had lost the wild Monday night’er against Baltimore. In a fit of giddy hyperbole, Smith extoled the virtues of the Browns running game and said they could take down the mighty Kansas City Chiefs. Fat chance!
In previous weeks, it was the Steelers and the Titans and the Ravens getting all the praise. Over in the NFC, the Saints, the Bucs and more recently, the Packers have been anointed potential Super Bowl candidates. You get the point. However, I am reminded that the Chiefs are 22-and-1 in their last 23 games and until someone knocks them off their perch, I am not buying stock in anyone else.
Thanks to their stunning upset of the L.A. Rams, the New York Jets have relinquished the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both teams are 1-and-13 but the Jags hold the tiebreaker based on strength of schedule. The pain being inflicted on Jets fans is beyond torture. Of course, the prize is Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and he will find Jacksonville a much better landing ground. The Jags have multiple picks in the 2021 draft including a pair of firsts, two seconds and two fourths. They could also have the second most cap space. The vacant Jacksonville GM post may be the most attractive in the NFL. Meantime, the Jets remain cursed.
If the Seahawks win the NFC West, they will likely host “Hang Down Your Head Tom Brady” and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opening round. Brady and the Bucs could be a dangerous opponent. They trailed Atlanta 24-7 with 7:34 left in the third quarter on Sunday. Brady proceeded to go 18-of-24 for 254 yards, and two touchdowns as the Bucs pulled off the comeback win. Brady may be 43 and in his 21st season, but it would not be wise to write him off.
The Falcons should consider unloading veteran receiver Julio Jones in the off-season. He will be 32 and could still fetch a nice return. Calvin Ridley has taken over as the Falcons top receiver with 77 catches for 1,192 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. It’s time for Atlanta to start a serious rebuild. I wonder if anyone would be interested in veteran quarterback Matt Ryan.
Here’s why the Tennessee Titans won’t be a factor in the playoffs. The Titans failed to register a sack again on Sunday against the Lions and have registered only 14 sacks all season, dead last in the NFL. In the off-season, they dished out $22 million to Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley in an effort to bolster their pass rush. They got ZERO sacks out of the pair. Beasley was released and Clowney is on IR after knee surgery. Without a pass rush, the Titans have no chance to advance far come playoff time.
What can you say about Titans running back Derrick Henry? He has bludgeoned opponents for 1,679 yards. In case you are wondering, the NFL record for rushing in a season is 2,105 yards, set by Erick Dickerson of the Rams in 1984. Despite his sensational season, Henry still needs 426 yards in the final two games to match Dickerson’s record.
Don’t sleep on the Indianapolis Colts. They may have the best defense in football. What did we say about the 49’ers trading DeForest Buckner to the Colts? It was not a good idea. The Colts may be a tough out come playoff time.
The Washington Football Team has a cornerstone franchise stud in rookie defensive end Chase Young, this year’s number two overall pick out of Ohio State. He’s the likely defensive rookie-of-the-year. Young was a massive factor in recent wins over Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Against the 49’ers, Young scooped up a fumble and rambled 47 years for a score. He also had a forced fumble in that game plus a sack. He is looking every bit the part of a perennial All-Pro.
The New England Patriots are learning what it’s like to be without a franchise quarterback. They signed Cam Newton as a stop-gap starter this season and it looks like it will be a one-year experiment. Executives around the league say Newton is no longer a starting calibre quarterback. He has only five touchdown passes in his last 17 games. His mechanics, throwing motion and accuracy are questionable. Still looks good in a hat though.
It looks like the end of an era in New England. The Patriots will miss the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons. It’s their first non-winning season in 20 years and ends their NFL-record run of 11 consecutive playoff appearances. The Patriots have won 19 AFC East titles since the Buffalo Bills last won the division. Without a franchise quarterback and with an aging roster, it may be a while before the Pats rise again.
We often talk about quarterback busts in the NFL and there are plenty of them. How about a team getting it RIGHT! The Los Angeles Chargers have a keeper in rookie Justin Herbert. Everyone knew he had arm talent. What they may have undervalued was his intelligence. Herbert won the academic Heisman at Oregon with a 4.01 grade-point average. After leading the Chargers to an upset win over the Raiders on Thursday night, Herbert has now passed for 3,781 yards and 27 touchdowns with a 66.5 completion rate. He’s tied with Baker Mayfield for the all-time record for touchdowns in a season by a rookie quarterback, a record Herbert is sure to beat.
The Las Vegas Raiders have a decision to make at quarterback this off-season. Derek Carr is set to make over $22 million next season while Marcus Mariota is scheduled to earn over $10 million. That’s a lot of cash for a pair of quarterbacks who are outside the upper echelon.
A lot of mid-level NFL veterans with little or no guaranteed money left on their contract could be casualties this off-season. The NFL salary cap will not be rising and several teams will be feeling the crunch. The New Orleans Saints are in the worst shape. Right now, the Saints project to be $95 million over the cap floor of $175 million. Drew Brees is expected to retire and join the broadcast booth but that will still not be nearly enough for the Saints to avoid a roster purge. Watching Brees struggle against the Chiefs in his return from broken ribs, reminded me of watching Tom Wilkinson at the end of the road in Edmonton. He can no longer make basic throws.
No one can argue with the Philadelphia Eagles for using the 53rd pick in last year’s draft on Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts. He’s been sensational since taking over for Carson Wentz. The Eagles biggest issue will be trying to find Wentz a new home in the off-season. Wentz has turned it over a league-leading 19 times this season.
How about long-time Dallas Cowboy long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur? The 39-year old Montreal native played in his 251st NFL game on Sunday when the Cowboys hosted the 49’ers. He moved past place-kicker Eddie Murray for the most games ever by a Canadian. Ladouceur joined the Cowboys as a free agent during the 2005 season. He’s been a model of consistency. He hasn’t missed a game or botched a snap once in his career. Ladouceur is unsure whether he will return for another season. If he does, he will have a chance to break Jason Witten’s club record for games played (255).
Sorry to disappoint 49’er fans but the Chiefs Travis Kelce is the best tight end in football. He’s the only tight end in history with five consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. Yes, George Kittle is a force but he’s been injured for most of the past two seasons. Kelce is Pat Mahomes’ safety blanket. His stats this season are ridiculous – 98 receptions for 1,318 yards and ten touchdowns. End of argument.
It was sad to learn of the death of NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene at the age of 58. Greene had 160 sacks during his career which is third all-time behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White. No cause of death was given. You can’t help but think of steroids when a former NFL player dies that young.
The Next One – Remember the name Ajou Ajou. (Pronounced uh-Joe) He’s a freshmen receiver from Brooks, Alberta and has a chance to be the best football player to ever come out of Canada. Ajou was recruited by the Clemson Tigers, a national power in U.S. college football. Ajou is 6’4” and 220 pounds and is an outstanding all-around athlete. He excelled as a basketball player and high-jumper in high school. Dave Naylor of TSN chronicled his journey from war-torn South Sudan to small-town Alberta.
The Prodigal Son – Charlie Woods, the precocious 11-year old son of you-know-who, made his national TV debut over the weekend at the father-and-son PNC Championship and it was must-see TV. Tiger’s kid has already developed a beautiful golf swing. Here’s a look at a few of Charlie’s shots in the opening round.
Here’s highlights from their Sunday round which featured a pair of eagles and a Tiger-esque fist pump from precocious Charlie.
Tiger and Charlie posted back-to-back rounds of 62 to finish at 20-under, five shots off the winning score of Justin Thomas and dad Michael.
A Few Leftovers – The slow-moving MLB free agent market may not get going until after the New Year. The Blue Jays are ready to spend but are free agents willing to play in Toronto? The Jays have many competitive disadvantages when it comes to luring free agents north. Higher taxes alone are a huge deterrent, let alone playing in a foreign country and dealing with customs. How about bringing your young family to Canada and getting them enrolled in school? Many players reside a long distance away and it’s not exactly a short hop to their off-season home. The Blue Jays want to make a splash this off-season but it may be easier said than done.
There’s no early Christmas present coming for the Toronto Raptors. They were holding out hope that Giannis Antetokounmpo might opt to become a free agent next summer. Instead, he signed the Milwaukee Bucks supermax extension offer. He’s reportedly agreed to a new five-year contract worth $228 million, the largest deal in NBA history. It’s a huge victory for small market NBA teams. Raptor fans were hoping Giannis might sign with Toronto because of his ties to Raptors President Masai Ujiri. Ujiri was instrumental in getting Giannis out of his native Nigeria and safely into Greece. Thus, the Greek Freak nickname.
The Oklahoma City Thunder could feature an All-Canadian backcourt this season. If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander takes over at point guard as expected, he could be joined by Luguentz Dort in the starting lineup. Dort is already an outstanding defender. If his shooting improves, it could be a nice young backcourt pairing.
Anthem Gaffes – The editorial board here at Under Further Review (comprised of me and my buddy Bill) have a big issue with national anthems being played prior to sporting events. Do we still need to do this? What’s the point?
Every time the Canadian national anthem is performed at a U.S. venue, we should be holding our collective breath. The number of times it’s been butchered is endless. One of our all-time favourites took place on July 16, 1994 before the Las Vegas Posse’s first CFL home game. The anthem singer was Dennis Park although the font on the screen suggested his name was Greg Bartholomew. At one point, he seems to be singing O’ Canada to the tune of “O’ Christmas Tree.” It was a car accident and an instant classic!
Two weeks after butchering the Canadian national anthem in Las Vegas, Dennis Park was invited to redeem himself at a Hamilton Tiger-Cats game on July 28, 1994. He nailed it!
Then there was Josie Dye who, for some unexplained reason, was given an opportunity to fulfill a bucket dream wish and sing the national anthem at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. It didn’t go well.
It’s not as though Canadian anthem singers can’t screw up the U.S. national anthem. Here’s Canadian jazz singer Alexis Normand singing the Star Spangled Banner prior to a 2013 Memorial Cup game between the Halifax Mooseheads and the Portland Winterhawks.
This is not a butchered version but how can we forget the splendid performance turned in by former Canucks anthem singer Mark (The Anti-Masker) Donnelly at a Penticton Vees junior hockey game. Mark had a little trouble multi-tasking while singing the anthem on skates.
So let’s leave you by getting it right. Here’s Burton Cummings singing the national anthem before the 2012 Grey Cup game.
Music Feature of the Week – Arlen Roth is an American treasure. He’s considered to be one of the most influential guitarists of all time. From 1982 to 1992, he was a columnist for Guitar Player magazine. Those ten years of columns became a book, Hot Guitar. Roth has toured and recorded with scores of artists. In 2015, he released “Slide Guitar Summit”, an album featuring duets with a host of other formidable guitar players including Cindy Cashdollar, Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Jimmy Vivino, and Johnny Winter. It would be Johnny Winter’s final recording.
A few years ago, Roth stopped by Don Odell’s Legends for an evening of incredible guitar playing. The session included an instrumental version of “When a Man Loves a Woman”.
Arlen is one of the greatest slide guitar players around today. Check him out doing a little blues improv with his “COVID-19 Blues”.
Here’s a rare video from 2007 with Arlen performing “Blues Attack” with the great Sonny Landreth at the Towne Crier Café in Pawling, New York.
Here’s Arlen ripping it up on the Conan O’Brien Show back in 1994 with his version of “Tequila”.
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