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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Contributing Editor Bill Morphy and special thanks to Bill Myles and Jordan Moss. This week, the World Juniors, the Seahawks clinch and a whole whack of NFL takeaways. Plus, we follow Dwayne Haskins to the strip joint. 

December Madness – When you think about it, the World Juniors are the Canadian equivalent of March Madness. The tournament has become a Christmas ritual in Canada. It’s every Canadian kids dream to win a gold medal wearing a Maple Leaf sweater. Nine million Canadians watched last year’s final between Canada and Russia, meaning one in every four Canadians were glued to their TV watching Canada win gold on TSN. It never gets old and that’s the secret to the tournament’s incredible success.

World Junior Observations – There’s a ton of talent in the World Juniors every year. This year is no different. Here’s some of our observations from the opening round games played so far.

  • What did we say about the dangers of playing in the tournament? Team Canada Captain Kirby Dach is out 4-5 months with a fractured wrist. If I am the Chicago Black Hawks, I am PISSED! Let’s not sugar-coat it.  Team Canada was supposed to play eight pre-tournament games. Instead, they played just one against Russians and Dach gets hurt. Dach hadn’t played a meaningful game in eight months and all of a sudden, he’s playing against a stacked Russian team. Thanks, Hockey Canada! Much appreciated!
  • Will the lack of preparation have an effect on the outcome? We will find out. Where the lack of preparation is being felt is on the power-play. Not enough time to work on systems. It could be the difference in an important medal round game.
  • The German dressed only 14 skaters for their opening games against Canada due to a rash of nine positive COVID cases. Not surprisingly, they were humiliated 16-2. That game should have been called off after the second period with some kind of mercy rule. Not impressed with Canada running up the score against the under-manned Germans.
  • Bowen Byram looks like he’s trying to do too much. The Vancouver Giant defenseman had three brutal turnovers in the neutral zone against Russia and Germany that led to a goal and two Grade A’ scoring chances. Byram needs to use his teammates better and stop trying to be a star. You will never hear that from TSN. It would be nice if, once in a while, the commentators made an unfiltered comment when a player screws up.
  • The Ottawa Senators have four 2020 draft picks in this year’s tournament. Two of their three first round picks are playing – Germany’s Tim Steutzle and U.S. defenseman Jake Sanderson. Both of the Sens second round picks are also playing. Finnish winger Roby Jarventie has a big-time release. Tyler Kleven is a towering 6’4” defenseman for the U.S. team. What an infusion of talent into the Ottawa system! The Kings may rue the day they picked Quinton Byfield ahead of Stuetzle. The Senators may use Stuetzle on the wing to start but he will be a big-time addition on the PP right away.
  • If you get a chance, have a peak at Finnish right winger Brad Lambert who’s playing in the tournament at just 16 years old. Lambert is already playing in the Finnish Liiga. In fact, he played four games in the men’s elite league as a 15-year old. His Dad Ross played with the Saskatoon Blades before embarking on a pro career in the UK. His uncle Lane played with the Red Wings. Brad’s mom is a flight attendant from Finland and met Ross in Toronto. Brad was born in Finland and will be draft eligible in 2022. He projects to eventually play at centre and with his skating ability and incredible mitts, he’s already drawing comparisons to Matt Barzal.
  • S. centre Trevor Zegras is an absolute wizard with the puck. Zegras was a 2019 first round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, ninth overall. He is expected to turn pro after the tournament and may earn a job with the Ducks this season.
  • The L.A. Kings are flush with prospects at this year’s World Juniors. The Kings have no less than nine prospects playing in the tournament. Centre Alex Turcotte went to Germany to play, got COVID and had to return. Not a very good decision. Winger Arthur Kaliyev is also on the U.S. team. He’s a gifted goal-scorer but I really wonder about his skating and whether his game will transition to the NHL.
  • Finnish defenseman Ville Heinola looks like he is ready to crack the Winnipeg Jets lineup when the NHL season gets underway. Great skater and puck-mover. Very poised.
  • Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov looks like a star-in-the-making. He’s big and agile and handles the puck extremely well. Nashville got him with the 11th pick in this year’s draft. New Jersey, Buffalo and Minnesota all had a chance to select Askarov but passed, a decision they are sure to regret. It would be interesting to know whether Edmonton, with the 14th pick, tried to trade up to get him. The Oilers took Dylan Holloway who’s a decent prospect but Askarov has the potential to be a franchise-altering player. In the KHL this season, Askarov has a 0.96 GAA with a .962 save percentage. Ridiculous numbers!
  • It’s scary to think how good Colorado will be when Bowen Byram, Justin Barron and Alex Newhook – all members of the Canadian team – get acclimated into the Avs lineup.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning have been mining talent from Russia better than any other NHL team. They may have found another sleeper in forward Maxim Groshev. They stole him in the third round of this year’s draft.
  • A lot of eyebrows were raised when the Canucks selected Swedish winger Nils Hoglander in the second round of the 2019 draft. Vegas had the very next pick and grabbed Team Canada defenseman Kaedan Korczak from Kelowna. Down the road, who do you think will help you win more? The 5’8” winger or the 6’4” shutdown defenseman? Time will tell. Give me the big, right-shot defenseman any day.
  • Centre Arvid Costmar was given an opportunity to play for Sweden as a result of several positive COVID cases. The Canucks took a flyer on him in the 7th round of this year’s draft. He could eventually be a decent depth forward. Never hurts to have a right-shot centre who is defensively responsible.
  • Forward Cole Perfetti fell to the Winnipeg Jets at number 10 in this year’s draft. Some said his skating was not elite. I don’t see an issue. He is very shifty and has tremendous hockey sense.
  • Calgary defense prospect Yan Kuznetsov came to North America at just 16. He’s now a sophomore at the University of Connecticut studying Business Management. The Flames got him in the second round of this year’s draft. The guy is a giant at 6’5” and could be in the Flames lineup within two years.
  • The Russian team looks very strong with former Canuck Igor Larionov behind the bench. He has the team going back to their roots in the manner in which they retreat and regroup in their own zone rather than turning the puck over in the neutral zone. Larionov has shown the team old videos of the Red Army team. NHL teams would be wise to try and lure Larionov back to North America.
  • Draft pundits went scrambling during this year’s NHL draft when three veritable unknowns were taken in the first round from obscure Russia outposts. The Leafs took flashy forward Rodion Amirov with the 15th selection. New Jersey grabbed defenseman Shakir Mukhammadullin with the 20th pick while Columbus followed by taking forward Yegor Chinakhov at 21. All three have been impressive in the tournament so far. Mukhammadullin is rail thin at 6’3” and only 180 pounds. Good organizations are scouting Russian heavily. I’m not sure every team does.
  • Buffalo selected German forward J.J. Peterka early in the second round of this year’s draft. He could end of being better than a number of players selected in the first round including Canadian forward Jack Quinn who was taken by the Sabres 8th overall.
  • Sweden is now 53-and-0 in group play going back 13 years. The unbeaten string may end in this tournament as the Swedes play Russian on December 30 and the USA on December 31 to finish out the preliminary round. It’s remarkable the Swedes have won only two World Junior Championships despite all their success in group play.

NHL Quick Hits – The 2016-2017 season was a historically bad year for the Colorado Avalanche. The finished the season dead last in the NHL with a mere 48 points, winning only 22 of 82 games. Although they failed to win the lottery, they still landed a budding star in defenseman Cale Makar. The Avs have been in the playoffs every year since and they are sure to be one of the Cup favourites this season. Is there a lesson here? It kind of brings to mind what’s in store for the Canucks this season. Are they a playoff team in a tough All-Canadian division? With all their salary cap issues, maybe the best thing for the Canucks is to take a step back this season, hope for better luck in the draft lottery, land another franchise cornerstone and like the Avs, embark on a sustained period of serious contention.  

It’s almost a certainty that Canucks winger Michael Ferland will be placed on LTIR at least to start the season. Most observers think he will be forced to retire because of repeated concussions. One of the disadvantages of placing Ferland on the long-term injury list, it will disqualify the Canucks from using this year’s taxi squad as a means of accruing savings in order to have more salary space available at the trade deadline in April.

After seeing the numbers, it’s completely shocking how not a single NHL team put in an offer sheet on Tampa Lightning RFA defenseman Erik Cernak. The Bolts signed Cernak to a three-year, $8.85 million dollar contract which averages less than $3 million per season. Any team in the league could have submitted an offer sheet on Cernak of up to $4.3 million per season and it would have only cost them a second round pick. I simply cannot understand why a team would not have jumped in and done that. Meantime, the Lightning announced that Nikita Kucherov will miss the entire NHL season following hip surgery. It allows the Lightning to put Kucherov on LTIR and get under the salary cap.

The Ottawa Senators have made a couple of moves to further insulate the youngsters in their lineup. The Sens have acquired centre Derek Stepan from Arizona and Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn from Tampa Bay. Ottawa will not be a sure-win, bottom-feeder this season.

The Montreal Canadiens may have the deepest team among all the Canadian clubs. The Habs just took a flyer on Michael Frolik and Corey Perry at the league minimum. They may not make much of an impact but depth is so important in the NHL. It allows you to move guys in and out of the bottom of your lineup.

Leaf fans may be coming to their senses after hearing reports about Joe Thornton’s stint in the Swiss League. A scout reported that “if his name wasn’t Joe Thornton, he would have been cut.” If Thornton was slow for the Swiss League, what does that tell you? At 41, how is he going to perform in the NHL?

Seahawks Sunday – It was prove-it time for the Seattle Seahawks. Heading into Sunday’s showdown with the L.A. Rams, everyone was wondering if Seattle was a legitimate Super Bowl contender or would they just go meekly in the divisional round again this year?

It may not have been pretty, yes it brought back memories of the Rams-Patriots Super Bowl game, but the 20-9 victory gave the Seahawks their first divisional title since 2016. Sean McVay had gotten the better of Pete Carroll in five of the last six meetings. It was time to turn the tables.

The Seahawks did it against a Rams defense that is arguably the best in football. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Rams ranked first in the NFL in pass defense and second in rushing defense. They have given up only 192 yards passing per game. Compare that to the Seahawks who had been giving up 293 yards per game, dead last in the NFL.  On the ground, the Rams had been giving up only 94.1 yards per game.  So it was not surprising that the Seahawks offense was bottled up for most of the game. But credit to Russell Wilson who led the Hawks to a pair of second half touchdowns.

For several years, NFL watchers called the Seahawks offensive line one of the worst in football and rightfully so.  Surrendering 50 sacks a season was standard practice. This year, the Seahawks have given up 46 sacks, fifth-highest in the NFL. Russell Wilson has been sacked 392 times in his career, more than any other quarterback in his first nine years. But sorry, you can’t put it all on the offensive line. Wilson needs to get rid of the ball quicker. Full stop!

D.K. Metcalf rebounded with a strong game on Sunday after being shut down by Jalen Ramsey in the team’s first meeting this season. Metcalf is just a few yards short of breaking the Seahawks all-time single-season receiving record of 1,287 yards set by Steve Largent in 1985 – a record that has stood for 35 years.

The turning point in the game was the Hawks goal-line stand late in the third quarter. The Rams ran the ball four straight times and were stuffed on each occasion. Jamal Adams’ sideline shoestring tackle on Darrell Henderson Jr. prevented a touchdown and proved to be a game-saver. With the Seahawks defense showing so much improvement, Wilson no longer has to win games by himself. The Seattle defense has now held five straight opponents to under 20 points.

All the so-called NFL draft experts who criticized the Seahawks for selecting linebacker Jordyn Brooks in the first round of this year’s draft were dead wrong. Brooks is flourishing in his first season in Seattle. He had eight tackles on Sunday against the Rams and played a big role in the goal-line stand in the second half.

The Seahawks will finish out the regular season with a game against San Francisco. The game will be played in Arizona since the 49’ers were forced to move their home games because of COVID regulations in their home county. The Hawks need to finish strong against the arch-rival 49’ers.

NFL Takeaways – The NFC East has been a collective train-wreck this season. We could have a division winner with a record of 6-and-10. There is no way a team that far below .500 should be allowed anywhere near the playoffs while a team in another division at 10-and-5 does not get in.  One of five AFC teams with a 10-and-5 record – Cleveland, Tennessee, Miami, Baltimore and Indy – will not make the playoffs.  

The Dallas Cowboys were left for dead when they were 3-and-9. Now, with a win at the Giants and a Washington loss at Philadelphia, the Cowboys will not only make the playoffs but will play host to a wild-card game. How ridiculous is that? There is a scenario where Washington, the Giants and the Cowboys all finish at 6-and-10. The Giants would then win the division based on having the best divisional record.

There’s a couple of other key games to watch. Chicago is in if the Bears beat Green Bay or if Arizona loses to the Rams. Cleveland is in danger of blowing their playoff chances if they lose at home to the Steelers. Four Browns receivers not wearing masks jeopardized the team’s playoff hopes by being in close contact with a COVID-positive teammate in a therapeutic hot tub. The great Baker Mayfield (just ask him) fumbled three times in the loss against the Jets, a game in which the Browns could have clinched.

The Las Vegas Raiders will miss the playoffs again this season. Jon Gruden is 18-and-29 after three seasons with the Raiders. Remember their famous credo – Commitment to Excellence? They should change it to Commitment to Excrement!

Considering the competitive nature of the NFC West, it’s hard to believe the 49’ers and the Rams won’t be making a change at quarterback in the off-season. Sean McVay has lost patience with Jared Goff who’s turned the ball over 39 times since 2019, more than any other QB in football. If you get in his grill, Goff will make poor decisions. He plays scared. Goff has that ‘deer in the headlights’ look when pressured. Elite quarterbacks play like they are enjoying themselves. Goff looks like there is no ‘joy’ in his game whatsoever. That’s what happens when your confidence is shot.  Meantime, Jimmy Garoppolo has played in only 25 of 48 games due to injury since becoming the 49’ers starter. I don’t see any way Kyle Shanahan brings Garoppolo back next season. At least the 49’ers deserve some sympathy. They’ve used 81 players this season and 111 different players have been through their facility during their injury-ravaged season.

The Rams had better win next weekend against Arizona or there’s a chance they could be out of the playoffs altogether. Goff broke his thumb against the Seahawks and may not be available. The Rams may have to start a guy named John Wolford at quarterback who’s never played an NFL game. Wolford last played in the Alliance of American Football. If that’s not bizarre enough, how about this? If Kyler Murray can’t go for Arizona following a leg injury on Sunday, the Cardinals will start former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Chris Streveler. Wolford vs. Streveler. Must-see TV!  By the way, I love the L.A. Rams helmets but what’s with the white alternate uniforms? They look like a high school team.

Never been a Tom Brady fan. The guy always rubbed me the wrong way. Too rich. Too handsome. Too perfect. Gisele the perfect wife. But man, how can you argue with Brady’s career record? Without Brady, the New England Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Tampa Bay has 10 wins, the most it’s had in a decade. Brady has had 10 or more wins 17 times in his career. All Brady does is win. There’s a chance the Seahawks will host Tampa Bay in a wild-card playoff game. That will be no walk in the park.

Speaking of quarterbacks, did you know that among the eight current division leaders – Chiefs, Bills, Steelers, Titans, Packers, Saints, Steelers, Seahawks and Washington – none drafted their starting quarterback first overall? In fact, none even drafted their starting QB in the top five. Tanking for the first overall pick is no sure sign of success.

The Packers stomped all over the Tennessee Titans 40-to-14 on Sunday night in the snow at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers threw four more touchdown passes and now has 40 on the season with only four interceptions. Rodgers have overtaken Pat Mahomes in the MVP race.

I’m still not sold on Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa as franchise quarterbacks. Murray is erratic and turns it over far too often. His accuracy is also questionable. Tagovailoa has not demonstrated he can make all the throws downfield. Do you think the Dolphins are already second-guessing their decision to pick Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert? Miami is crazy if they don’t start Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday against Buffalo with their season hanging in the balance.

Do you think that J.J. Watt is sick and tired of the losing in Houston? Watt went on a post-game rant following Sunday’s loss to lowly Cincinnati that dropped the Texans to 4-and-11.

To make matters worse, the Texans have traded away their first round pick in next year’s draft to Miami thanks to the trade for tackle Leremy Tunsil. The pick is currently slated to be third overall.

Remember last week we mentioned the NFL has an issue with the placement of the ball on first down measurements? It’s got to the point where it can affect the outcome of games. Well, Peter King weighed in on that subject in his ‘Football Morning in America’ column on NBC Sports. Here’s what he had to say and we couldn’t agree with him more.

“Lord, how was this measurement at a crucial juncture of the fourth quarter of Bucs-Falcons called a first down? The NFL is playing with fire with this quaint and stupid tradition of using a chain gang and totally inexact science to determine first downs in a $16-billion business.”

The Saints superb running back Alvin Kamara had six rushing touchdowns in the Saints Christmas Day win over Minnesota. It was the first six-rushing-TD game since 1929. The Vikings feeble attempts at tackling were laughable.

Two Bricks Shy – Heading into their biggest game of the season next Sunday with a playoff spot on the line, the Washington Football Team announced they have released quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Haskins started on Sunday versus Carolina and was yanked in the second half after throwing two picks and losing a fumble.

Haskins release was not a surprise. He was caught breaching COVID protocols for the second time this season following last week’s game against Seattle. Photos surfaced on social media showing a mask-less Haskins partying at a Washington strip club. According to Haskins, he was celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday. Who the hell celebrates his girlfriend’s birthday by taking her to a strip club? Apparently his two interception performance against the Seahawks was worth celebrating. The punishment? He was stripped of his captaincy and fined $40 grand. My question – who made this guy a team captain? What were you possibly thinking? Back in October, Haskins was fined nearly $5,000 by the team for making a reservation for a family friend at the team hotel. Family friend? Right. Was she female? Brian Billick got it right when he commented on TV on Sunday: “This is what happens when the owner does the drafting.” In the 2019 draft, Washington owner Dan Snyder insisted the team draft Haskins in the opening round. I wonder what Haskins score was on the Wonderlic test prior to being drafted?

It’s a foregone conclusion that Haskins will clear waivers on Tuesday. He’s got $1.81 million fully guaranteed on his deal for 2021 and $2.46 million fully guaranteed for 2022.  Any team picking him up off the waiver wire must take on those contract terms. The chances of that happening are slim and none…..and you know the rest.

Christmas Leftovers – The MLB free agent dam may be about to burst. It looked for a time like the Blue Jays were the frontrunners for Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim but instead, he’s inked a deal with the San Diego Padres.  Something tells me the Blue Jays are being used as leverage in negotiations. Playing on the west coast has always been more attractive for Korean and Japanese players. Couple that with the uncertainty of where the Jays are going to play their home games to start the season and suddenly Toronto is in a tough position.

Sports Illustrated published their pre-season NBA Finals predictions and nearly every writer picked the Lakers and the Nets to meet in this year’s final. Why bother playing the season? Just start the final now.

The Raptors opening night loss to New Orleans may be a sign of things to come this season. The Raps will live and die by their long-range shooting. They looked like they had the game against the Pelicans under control until they went 0-for-10 in the third quarter from three-point range. Without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in the paint, it looks like the Raptors defense will take a hit. The Raptors are going to have to make a decision on Kyle Lowry at some point this season. He’s a free agent this summer and could be a potential trade chip at the deadline. Lowry would be a great addition to a playoff-bound team. It’s highly unlikely the Raptors will re-sign Lowry so a deadline deal may be the best option.

After being the third overall pick in this year’s NBA draft, LaMelo Ball’s career did not get off to a distinguished start. His LaMelo-ness went scoreless in Charlotte’s first game, a 121-114 loss to Cleveland. He had three assists and three turnovers in 16 minutes of action. Ball joined a dubious list by becoming just the fourth top-3 pick to go scoreless in his NBA debut and the first since Otto Porter Jr. in 2013. Another great Michael Jordan draft selection!  If LaMelo doesn’t pan out, we will be giving him a new handle – LaSmello Ball. His brother was a bust with the Lakers. What made the Hornets think this guy was going to be any different? Last time I checked, they both had the same nut-ball father.

In case you missed it, the IOC, in its infinite wisdom, has announced it will include breakdancing in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Yes, you heard that right! In an effort to promote diversity and include more “popular” urban sports, the IOC will introduce breakdancing as a medal sport. Maybe Snoop Dogg can make it into the Olympics? The rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games will see the debut of skateboarding, surfing and sport-climbing.  Can’t wait!

Phil Niekro RIP! The great knuckleballer passed away this week. He posted 318 wins with a career 3.35 ERA and 3,342 strikeouts. Niekro ranks fourth in major league history in innings pitched, 11th in strikeouts and 16th in wins. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. Niekro is among a dying breed of workhorse pitchers, the likes of which we will never see again.

From David Halberstam’s wonderful book “Summer of 1949” – Amazing fact. In 13 seasons, Joe Dimaggio was never thrown out going for a double and never thrown out going from first to third on a single. Not once. He was something else! Dimaggio was asked at an event in the late 80’s what he would be paid today. His answer? “I think I would be part owner.”

Music Video of the Week – ‘Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson is working on a documentary entitled ‘The Beatles: Get Back.’ He has 56 hours of footage of the Fab Four. Editing of the project has been delayed due to COVID-19 but it is now scheduled to be released in August, 2021. Jackson recently released a sneak preview. Looks like it should be a lot of fun.

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