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Under Further Review – Happy New Year!  We say goodbye to the decade with a final edition of Under Further Review for 2019. This week, a shaky start for Canada at the World Juniors, we select our 2020 Olympic hockey team and diagnose the current state of the Canucks and the Seahawks. 

We’re #6 – Team Canada is anything but a sure bet to win a medal at the World Junior Championships in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. Their 6-0 meltdown against Russia was one of Canada’s worst losses in history. It was Team Canada’s first shutout loss since ’98 and the first ever loss by six or more goals. Russia has now beaten Canada in 6 of the last 9 meetings. To add insult to injury, the presumptive first overall pick in next year’s NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere, hurt his knee in the game and his status the rest of the way is in question although there is late word that he did not suffer any fracture or knee ligament damage. As bad as Canada played against Russia, they can still win their pool by beating Germany and Czechoslovakia in their final two preliminary round games, thanks to the U.S. victory over Russia.

The question for Team Canada is – are they going to improve as the tournament rolls along, or are they going to come up lame when it counts the most? That was certainly the case last year when they were sent packing in the quarterfinals. If things don’t work out, I would suggest Hockey Canada might try to find the right Hunter. They tried Tim Hunter last year in Vancouver and Canada finished a disappointing sixth in the tournament.  This year, it’s Dale Hunter aided by his brother Mark Hunter.  I would suggest they maybe give Tommy Hunter a call.

Canadian Hockey Supremacy – As the World Junior Championships play out over the holidays in Czechoslovakia, it’s a good time to ponder what Team Canada would look like if we had an Olympic hockey competition coming up in February. It’s been far too long since we’ve been able to enjoy a best-on-best competition. The last time all the top hockey powers were brought together was for the World Cup in Toronto back in 2016. Yes, in case you forgot, Canada won the tournament.

Under Further Review turned General Manager and here’s what we think the Canadian team might look like if the Olympics were to be played this coming February. Our picks at centre are Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, Petrice Bergeron and Mark Scheifele.  The left-wingers are Taylor Hall, Brad Marchand, Ryan O’Reilly, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Matt Duchene.  The right-wingers are Mark Stone, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Steve Stamkos and Jonathan Marchessault.  The notable omissions are Jeff Skinner, John Tavaras, Sean Couturier, Mathew Barzal, Jonathan Huberdeau, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Logan Couture.

On defense, we would go with Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, Cale Makar and Drew Doughty on the right side. On the left side, our selections are Thomas Chabot, Josh Morrissey, Mark Giordano and Jakob Chychrun. Notable omissions on defense are Brett Burns, Morgan Reilly, Aaron Ekblad, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dougie Hamilton, Kris Letang, Matt Dumba and Colton Parayko. In goal, the choices are Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Jordan Binnington.

The American team is certainly not chopped liver. At centre, they would line up Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Dylan Larkin, Brock Nelson and Vincent Trocheck.  The U.S. team would be loaded on the left side with Patrick Kane, Clayton Keller, Kyle Connor, Anders Lee and Matthew Tkachuk. On the right side, we would slot in T.J. Oshie, Johnny Gaudreau, Blake Wheeler, Charlie Coyle and Alex DeBrincat. Notable omissions up front would include Max Pacioretty, Brady Tkachuk, Jack Hughes, Brock Boeser, Cam Atkinson, Jake Guenzel, Phil Kessel, Jason Zucker and J.T. Miller.

On the American defense, we like John Carlson, Seth Jones, Charlie McAvoy, Jacob Trouba, and Brett Pesce on the right side. On the left side, we would go with Zach Werenski, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Suter, Jaccob Slavin and Quinn Hughes. Notable omissions include Tory Krug, Erik Johnson, Cam Fowler, Brian Dumoulin, and Nate Schmidt. In goal, it’s John Gibson, Connor Hellebuyck and Ben Bishop.

If you look at the two teams, the Canadian squad has a notable advantage down the middle. The centre ice group is remarkable and what separates them is the fact each player plays a 200 foot game. The same cannot be said for the American centres. The Canadian contingent is so good we moved O’Reilly, Dubois and Duchene to the left side because you do not want to leave them off the team. Tavaras could play the left side as well as he did in 2016. It’s certainly a formidable group. The weakest part of the Canadian team is the left side of the defense. The right side is so strong, there may be some consideration given to playing two right side D-men together. As noted, there would be a lot of really talented right-shot defenseman left off the squad.

The gap between Canada and the U.S. has continued to narrow since the last World Cup. In 2016, Canada had 37 more players drafted than the U.S. In 2017, that number was reduced to 17 and to 16 in 2018. In 2019, it was down to only 4 as 63 Canadians were taken in the NHL draft and 59 Americans.

Riddle in the Middle – The Western Conference playoff race is going to be a wild cat-fight. At last glance, 3 points separated 7 teams. Even Minnesota, left for dead a month ago, has entered the race. The Canucks had been holding on for dear life but suddenly find themselves on a 5-game winning streak that has vaulted them into a tie for second spot in the Pacific Division.

The lowly L.A Kings came into Vancouver on Saturday night and ventilated the Canucks with 50 shots. The Canucks were still able to escape with a 3-2 win, thanks to a sensational goaltending performance from Jacob Markstrom. 24 hours later in Calgary, they played one of their best games of the season in dispatching the Flames 5-2. The Canucks have a very favourable schedule between now and the All-star break so it will be important to somehow bank points in what are a number of very winnable upcoming games.

When I look at the Canucks I am still not sold on Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson as a long-term, one-two punch at centre. I have always viewed Horvat as an ideal #3 centreman who can move up the lineup when needed. Kind of like the role Nazem Kadri played in Toronto. If you look at recent Stanley Cup teams, you need a pair of stud centremen to win championships.  Look no further than Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh, Kopitar and Carter in L.A. and Kuznetkov and Backstrom in Washington.

Thanks to the injury to Josh Leivo, the Canucks have been rolling out a second line of Horvat, Tanner Pearson and seldom-used Louie Eriksson. Sorry, it’s a matchup nightmare for Travis Green. The line is getting exposed defensively. They simply cannot defend top lines with any consistency. This will be interesting to watch as the playoff chase continues.

NHL Notebook – The morning skate is slowly being phased out of the NHL. It was originally introduced as a way of getting the players limbered up on game day before an afternoon pre-game nap. Many of the teams are now skipping the morning skate in favour of additional rest. There’s just so much travel and so many games that rest is more beneficial. The skates are getting ditched in favour of rest, relaxation, recovery or off-ice workouts. Makes sense.  I always questioned the value of the morning skate. It seemed completely unnecessary.

When is the NHL going to wake up and do something about the 3-on-3 overtime? It’s turned into an exercise in retreat and regroup. Teams are wasting all kinds of valuable time backing up and regrouping, even leaving the offensive zone at times, in order to re-set, spread teams out and attack with speed. The NHL needs to force teams to move the puck forward instead of retreating all the time. Perhaps a time clock or a loss of possession would help prevent the slowdown. It’s taking a lot of the excitement out of the 3-on-3 overtime.  Teams are playing not to lose rather than trying to win.

It’s interesting to learn that pro teams under dual ownership are developing valuable relationships that are proving to be very beneficial. The Leafs and Raptors coaching staffs are said to be communicating regularly. The Sabres and the Bills also have a good working relationship. Ralph Krueger of the Sabres has apparently met numerous times with Bills head coach Sean McDermott sharing ideas on training methods and how to communicate with today’s athlete.

Oiler fans are not so thrilled any more about last summer’s acquisition of James Neal from the Flames. He started the season like a house on fire running side saddle to Connor McDavid.  Neal scored 6 goals in the Oilers first 3 games but the hot start is a distant memory now. Overall, Neal has 16 goals and 23 points in 41 games but his plus-minus has sunk to minus-24.  Yes, his plus-minus is higher than his point’s total. What’s more, 10 of his goals and 14 of his points have come on the power-play.  It’s all about speed in today’s game and Neal simply can’t handle the pace. Overall, the Oilers lack team speed and it’s no surprise they are in a free fall.  Edmonton is 2-and-8 in their last 10 games and their playoff hopes are fading fast.

If Steve Yzerman wants to turn things around in Detroit, he should fire his entire scouting staff. The Red Wings record at the draft table is abysmal. Over a 5-year period from 2014-2018, the Red Wings drafted only four players on their current roster – Dylan Larkin, Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek and Filip Zadina – and the jury is still out on all but Larkin.

Last summer, the Wings reached for German defenseman Moritz Seider with the sixth overall pick, passing on Dylan Couzens, Philip Broberg, Trevor Zegras and Vasily Podkolzin. We will see how that works out. In 2018, the Red Wings passed on Canucks wunderkind Quinn Hughes in order to select Zadina, ignoring the fact Hughes had lived in Michigan for part of his childhood, playing youth hockey there before a year of college hockey with the University of Michigan. In 2017, Detroit overlooked several quality players currently in the NHL in order to take towering centre Michael Rasmussen. In 2015, the Wings whiffed completely with their first round selection of Evgeny Svechnikov.

The Red Wings are at the bottom of the league for a reason. Their draft record stinks. You can bottom out all you want but if you can’t identify impact players, especially outside of the first round, you are not going to move the needle.

The Don is Gone – It appears as though Sportsnet is taking a hit since the departure of Don Cherry.  The Hockey Night in Canada ratings have dropped dramatically and you have to believe it’s hurting the network financially. Love him or hate him, Grapes was a cash cow.

A Season in Peril – The Seahawks are full value for their effort against the 49’ers last night in Seattle as Russell Wilson nearly fashioned another miraculous fourth quarter comeback.  Now they have to get ready to head out on the road for next Sunday’s wildcard game in Philadelphia against an equally injury-riddled Eagles team.

Three weeks ago, the Seahawks were riding high at 10-and-2 and in contention to win the division and grab the #1 seed in the NFC.  Three losses and a bevy of injuries later and the Seahawks season is in a shambles.  You never like to see a team’s fortunes determined by injuries but that’s the case this year in Seattle. At last count, they were missing 10 players on offense and another half dozen on defense.

NFL Notebook – The attrition rate for NFL coaches should be high on Black Monday. Doug Marrone is already gone in Jacksonville. Likewise for Ron Rivera in Carolina.  Jason Garrett in Dallas will likely follow him out the door. Likewise for Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland. Others on the hot seat include Anthony Lynn of the Chargers, Pat Shurmur of the Giants and Matt Patricia with the Lions. Several coaches will be spared simply because they are just finishing their first or second year as head coach.

Can we stop calling the Dallas Cowboys ‘America’s Team?’ They haven’t won diddly since 1997 which, by my calculations, is 23 years. How can they possibly retain that ridiculous moniker? Jerry Jones is a buffoon who continues to delude himself into thinking he can serve as the team’s General Manager. This is a guy who wanted the Cowboys to draft Johnny Manziel.

The Plowboys will miss the playoffs in a feeble NFC East and face huge salary cap issues in the off-season. They need to sign quarterback Dak Prescott and will have to overpay to keep him.  Quarterbacking is at such a premium in the NFL that Prescott will ask, and likely receive, in excess of $30+ million per season. We will see how that works out.  Prescott’s accuracy is in serious doubt.

There are reports that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers plan to resign quarterback Jameis Winston. Can you explain why? Winston led the NFL in interceptions this year with 30, 11 more than the second place finisher Philip Rivers of the Chargers.  Winston threw four interceptions a week ago Saturday vs. Houston including a pair of pick sixes on the opening two possessions, the second of which was called back by a penalty. He served up six pick sixes on the season.

If you were wondering, the NFL single season record for interceptions is 42 set by George Blanda in 1962.  Since 2000, the highest total had been 29 by, you guessed it, Brett Farve of the Packers in 2005. Why would you stick with Winston when you know he’s a turnover waiting to happen?

Minnesota invested a ton when they signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million dollar contract. He’s got one more year to go at a cap hit of $31 million. Cousins has proven to be completely incapable of winning a big game. Whenever he is asked to lead his team to an important victory, Cousins is sure to turtle.  He’s 0-and-9 in Monday night games. Cousins and the Vikings could muster only 7 first downs in their recent Monday night divisional showdown with the Packers. Don’t bet on the Vikings winning in New Orleans next weekend in the other NFC wild-card game.

I was doing back-flips when Miami upset the Patriots in New England.  The Patriots are now forced to play again next weekend hosting Tennessee in one of the AFC wild-card games.  Even if they win, without the #1 seed, there is no chance New England goes on the road and wins a playoff game against either Kansas City or Baltimore.

Dream Match-up – You could not ask for a better matchup to decide the NCAA Football National Championship. Clemson and LSU will showcase the likely first overall pick in each of the next two NFL drafts. LSU’s Joe Burrow is expected to go first off the board to Cincinnati in next April’s NFL draft while Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is sure to go first the following year if he decides to declare for the draft following his junior season.

Both players were sensational in their respective semi-final games. Burrow threw for nearly 500 yards and 7 touchdowns, all before halftime, as LSU bulldozed Oklahoma 63-28 in the Peach Bowl. For good measure, Burrow added an 8th TD himself on a 3-yard run. The 7 TD passes tied a record for touchdown passes in any bowl game in history.

Clemson, meanwhile, needed a furious late rally to hold off Ohio State 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl, keeping their hopes for a second straight national championship alive. The Buckeyes had built an early 16-0 lead but could not hold on. Lawrence led a late 94-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown that took all of four plays.  He also scampered for a 67-yard touchdown earlier in the game. Both Burrow and Lawrence have big arms and NFL size.  Unfortunately for Burrow, getting drafted by the Bengals is a fate worse than death. He should pull an Eric Lindros and refuse to go to Cincinnati.

The Joe Schultz Quote of the Week – From former Chicago Bulls forward and North Korean diplomat Dennis Rodman when asked about the Bulls team chemistry:

Chemistry is a class you take in high school or college, where you figure out two plus two is 10, or something.”

Video of the Week – We leave you this week with a fantastic performance from Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples performing ‘Live Wire’ from Sheryl’s new album ‘Threads.’ I know you will enjoy it.