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Under Further Review – This week, we look under the hood of the Canadian NHL teams, plus all the news that’s fit to print from around the NHL, NBA, MLB and hopefully, a laugh or two along the way. 

Cross-Canada Check-up – As we move into December and the heart of the NHL campaign, it’s time to check in on each Canadian team and see how they are progressing. Let’s start in Montreal where the Habs recently broke an 8-game losing streak.

The Canadiens – The Habs remain a team without an identity. They are not big. They are not tough. They don’t punish you on the power-play. Montreal has a decent prospect pool but very few impact-type players. The media loves to blame Carey Price every time the team slips but the fact is, the Canadiens are wasting a Hall of Fame-type career while the team languishes. And please don’t tell me it’s Price’s fault.

As long as ownership insists in having a French speaking GM, a French speaking coach and French players, the Canadiens are destined to wallow. If you asked Hab fans to choose between winning a Stanley Cup and having a French coach and GM, what do you think the answer would be? Half the problem is all the comb-over scribes in Montreal who seem to dictate every move made by the front office.

It appears like the best hope for the Habs this season is to grab the final playoff spot in the East. Bon Chance! Playoff chances – 22%.

The Senators – D.J. Smith has done a fabulous job with the Senators this season. Case in point.  They get lit up in the first period in Vancouver then bounce back Wednesday night with a solid win in Edmonton. For now, the Sens are buying what Smith is selling.

Ottawa needs to continue the sell-off at this year’s trade deadline and take their chances in the draft lottery.  Sens fans are salivating at the thought of landing Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield. Another core piece to match up with Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot would move their rebuild along nicely. Playoff chances – zero.

The Maple Leafs – Now the fun starts! The Sheldon Keefe honeymoon lasted about three games. The same problems still exist. The Leafs can’t beat anybody that’s any good. Until the Leafs start beating contending teams, there is no use even discussing their playoff chances let alone any Stanley Cup aspirations. They have lost to the Blues, Lightning, Isles and Pens.  They have lost twice to both the Caps and the Bruins with a single OT victory against Boston. The Leafs are 1-and-2 against the Flyers and 1-and-1 vs. both the Golden Knights and the Avalanche.  That’s 5 wins in 16 games against some of the top teams in the league. Case closed.

When your top players are not your hardest workers, you have big problems. Your top players also have to be committed to playing defense. Auston Matthews is minus 5 with no goals in the Leafs past 5 games. What a leader!

The Leafs are so up against the Cap, they can’t fix their goaltending issues. They are 0-6-and-1 when their backup goalie is in net. If Leafs backup Michael Hutchinson keeps improving, he could develop into another Andre ‘Red Light’ Racicot. Sporting a 4.55 GAA, Hutchinson already has burns on the back of his neck. As of today, only the Red Wings have given up more goals than the Leafs. That tells you everything. Playoff chances – 25%.

The Jets – Winnipeg operates in complete contrast to the Maple Leafs. Don’t overpay at the bargaining table and don’t try and speed the process. Winnipeg may be taking a step back this year because of all the free agent losses but don’t think for a minute their window is closing. It’s tough to stay among the NHL elite when you lose the entire right side of your defense. The Jets have had a few nice developments this year, the first of which is the bounce-back year from goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He’s been lights out and has kept the Jets competitive every night. The key for the Jets this year and beyond is the growth of their young defensemen. If they can build their D-corps back up, they should be able to return to contention. Playoff chances – 65%.

The Flames – Calgary is the poster-child for teams taking a step back this season. Bill Peters may not have lasted the year regardless of the revelations. The Flames lack strength down the middle and that’s a major shortcoming. It’s Sean Monahan and not much else and Monahan is having a horrible season. I just don’t buy stock in a team that rides on the coattails of Johnny Gaudreau. The Flames should clean house at the end of the season and start looking ahead to when the new downtown arena is built. The core of this team is just not good enough. If they are smart they will look in the mirror and do a realistic self-evaluation. Playoff chances – 20%.

The Oilers – Edmonton has been riding high in the Pacific Division for much of the season but there are cracks in the foundation. When the Senators come into your building and spank you around, it’s not a good sign. You have to wonder how long they can ride McDavid and Draisaitl. When a team lacks depth, sooner or later, there is going to be slippage. You are starting to see it lately. The Oilers have enjoyed very solid goaltending to date but if that slips, look out. I don’t see Edmonton holding on and winning the division but I do see them making the playoffs. A few more fringe trades to add depth would help. When you ride one line, you have problems. Don’t forget the Oilers racked up 22 points in their first 15 games and only 15 in the 15 games since then. That’s not trending well. James Neal has been MIA since being taken off McDavid’s flank. Playoff chances – 75%.

The Canucks ‑ Vancouver leads the NHL with 30 power-play goals. That’s an average of just over one goal per game with the man advantage. Edmonton is next with 26 power-play goals and they lead the NHL in power-play percentage. How much improved are the Canucks with the man advantage this season?  Well, they scored 43 PP goals all of last season. Quinn Hughes has been the big difference-maker in making the power-play roll. The Hughes Effect is massive.

The Canucks are fourth in the league with 97 goals behind only Washington, Colorado and Boston. The win against Ottawa on Tuesday night was the 12th time this season the Canucks have scored 5 or more goals in a game.

Adam Gaudette has 13 points in 19 games and should remain in the lineup when Brandon Sutter returns from injury this weekend.  Sutter may center the fourth line until Jay Beagle returns but I would definitely shift him to the right side at some point and keep Gaudette in the middle. Playoff chances – 60%.

The Fallout Continues – The fallout from the Bill Peters Affair continued unabated this week. Players are coming out of the woodwork to trash former coaches. Mike Babcock is under heavy fire.

Black Hawks Assistant Coach Marc Crawford has been given a leave of absence In Chicago while the team investigates accusations of physical and verbal abuse issued by former players.  When we jokingly posted out Top 10 ‘Coaches Who Should Run for Cover’ in last week’s blog, we had no idea the benches would empty. Clearly, there’s a reckoning underway and there’s no indication when it will end. As a buddy commented to me this week regarding the coaching fraternity, “the pendulum has swung the other way and I doubt it is ever going to swing back.”

Here’s a snippet from a recent column in the Globe & Mail.

Players are finally waking up to the fact that the NHL isn’t junior hockey where a coach can ruin your career.  They are realizing that the media aren’t just a nuisance. They’re a weapon they can use. A bulb has gone off and a thought bubble has appeared:  “Wait a minute. Nobody pays to watch the guy in the suit.”

The NHL This Week – The New Jersey Devils have reportedly put Taylor Hall on the market. He’s headed to free agency next summer and at 28, you have to wonder how prudent it would be for the Devils to lock him up until he’s 36 on an eight-year, contract that could come in around $10 million per season. Hall has only four goals this season so common sense says he’s as good as gone. The Devils would be wise to try and find a ‘Mark Stone-type deal’ that is centered around an elite defense prospect. Colorado, Montreal and Boston have been mentioned as possible destinations but I think Arizona is the most likely dance partner.

There was some feel-good news in the NHL this week.  Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki took down a would-be thief while in Vancouver.  He certainly lived up to his nickname ‘Borocop.’ The Vancouver Police Department should put him on the beat.

Also from Ottawa this week, a medical mix-up that had Senators forward Tyler Ennis just a wee bit concerned.

Can you believe the monster season being turned in by Capitals defenseman John Carlson?  The NHL should just hand him the Norris Trophy right now.  Carlson leads the team with 42 points after only 30 games which is 8 more than any Canuck defenseman had all of last season.

What’s up with Tampa Bay and Vegas? Both teams were expected to be at the top of the league and both have been wildly inconsistent. Part of the problem is neither team has been punishing teams on home ice. The Lightning are 6-5-and-1 at home and are not out-gunning teams like last season. The Knights are 7-5-and-3 on home ice with only a +5 goal differential after 31 games played.

Prime Time Players – During the Pete Carroll era, the Seattle Seahawks are 29-5-and-1 in prime time including a 10-and-2 record on Monday night. They will be looking to extend that record on Sunday night in L.A. against the Rams. Meantime, the Seahawks are 24-and-9 in December since Russell Wilson came on board in 2012.

The Seahawks have suddenly wrestled control of the NFC West from the 49’ers. Seattle has a great chance to win the division especially if they can knock off San Francisco a second time on the final weekend of the season at Century Link. The Hawks may actually be cheering for the 49’ers to win at New Orleans on Sunday. The Saints now have the #1 seed in the NFC because they hold the tie-breaker after beating Seattle earlier this season. If New Orleans loses and the Seahawks win this weekend, Seattle will temporarily gain the top seed.

The Seahawks have cranked up the running game again at just the right time. The Hawks had 174 yards on the ground against the Eagles two weeks ago, then followed it up with 218 yards rushing against the Vikings on Monday night. Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny look like a two-headed monster and may be the best one-two punch in the NFL. The Seahawks punished the Vikes defense with 43 carries.

The best news for Seattle is the fact the defense has now turned in three good performances in a row. The pass rush has finally come alive.

NFL Odds and Ends – It’s pretty clear that Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson has moved ahead of Russell Wilson in the NFL MVP race. Jackson is now 16-and-3 as a starter. The Ravens are 12-and-0 when Jackson rushes for 70 yards or more.  Baltimore has overtaken New England as the #1 seed in the AFC and they may just win out all the way to the Super Bowl.

Who is Raheem Mostert?  The 49’ers running back ripped the Ravens for 146 yards rushing in the rain last Sunday in Baltimore. Not bad for a street free agent who was originally signed by Philadelphia back in 2015.

The Cleveland Browns had an opportunity to move into a wildcard playoff spot last Sunday with a win in Pittsburgh. They rolled out to a 10-0 lead and promptly messed the bed, imploding in the second half and losing 20-13. Baker Mayfield, who now has to be considered the most overrated quarterback in the NFL, went 18 for 32 for 196 yards and of course, one crucial interception.

The NFC East is starting to rival the AFC East as the worst division in football.  Dallas may win the division with a .500 record.

Rise of the East – When the Raptors lost at home to Miami this week, it stopped their franchise-record 9-game home winning streak to start a season.  If you look at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, the home court dominance is absolutely mind-boggling.

The Raptors, 76’ers, Celtics, Bucks and Heat are a combined 44-and-3 at home so far this season.  The Sixers, Celtics and Heat have yet to lose at home.  This may be more of a statement about the number of bad teams in the NBA than anything.

The Raptors performance vs. the Jazz on Sunday was astonishing. The Jazz came into the game with the 5th-best defense in the NBA.  So what happens?  The Raptors opened up a 40-point lead at halftime, the largest halftime lead in Raptors history and the 8th largest in NBA history.

You will remember the Raptors under Duane Casey struggled to play solid defense for years. Now, it’s their calling card even without Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors are 3rd in the league in points per game allowed.  They are #1 in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed and #3 in 3-point FG% allowed.

The Raptors are playing with tremendous pace.  They lead the NBA in fast break points and scouts have noticed they are one of the only teams to inbound the ball quickly after allowing a bucket. They send five guys up court quickly and attack. It’s allowed them to put added pressure on the opposition and its paid big dividends so far this season. They could still improve their rebounding on the defensive end, thus the rumours they are interested in bringing Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson home to Toronto.

James Dolan has done it again in New York. The Knicks fired Coach David Fizdale after the team’s 8th straight loss.  The Knicks are 4-and-18 on the season and dead last in the Eastern Conference. New York will now turn to its 13th coach since Dolan took control in 1999. Pity poor RJ Barrett having to play in that cesspool. Masai Ujiri would have to be out of his mind to consider working for Dolan. Those rumours are just New York writers dreaming in technicolour. To illustrate the dysfunctional nature of the NBA.  Phoenix, Memphis and Detroit have also gone through 12 coaches since Dolan took over the Knicks.

MLB Off-Season Notebook – Did you catch the news from Major League Baseball that there are plans to eliminate 42 minor league teams following the 2020 season? The Vancouver Canadians will apparently survive the purge but the Northwest League may be reduced to only six teams. Salem and Tri-City are among the teams on the chopping block. Bluefield is the only Blue Jays affiliate getting the axe.

Teams are being retained based on several factors including proximity to the parent team, proximity to teams they play against (they want to reduce long bus rides), and factors like the quality of locker room facilities, playing fields and hotels/living arrangements. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the 42 would be encouraged to enlist in a Dream League (his words), an independent league using undrafted and released players. Good luck with that.

It’s been a rough off-season to date for the Blue Jays front office. They have not been able to acquire any impact arms in free agency or on the trade market and have suffered two significant losses in the front office. VP Ben Cherington left for Pittsburgh to run the Pirates baseball operations department, followed soon after by Steve Sanders who followed Cherington to Pittsburgh as assistant GM. Sanders was the Jays former amateur scouting director.

There were two former prominent Blue Jays among the list of non-tendered players this week.  Aaron Sanchez was non-tendered by the Astros while Kevin Pillar was set loose by the Giants.

It is getting nauseating to keep hearing Sportsnet and TSN report that the Jays have interest in every single free agent out there.  They were supposed to be in on Yasmani Grandal, then it was Zack Wheeler, Michael Pineda and now Dodgers lefthander Hyun-Jin Ryu. Wake me when they actually sign somebody with any value.

Bad Lie (r) – It came as no surprise to learn that serial cheater Patrick Reed was at it again at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Reed was penalized two strokes for moving sand while playing a shot out of a bunker. Video from the TV coverage made it pretty obvious.

Of course, Reed tried to maintain innocence following the round.  This is a guy who was dismissed from the golf team at the University of Georgia for accusations of cheating and stealing from teammates. Reed transferred home to Augusta State where there were more incidents with teammates and more accusations of cheating.

Reed is a wonderful son. He hasn’t spoken to his parents or his younger sister since he married Justine Karain in 2012. Reed did not invite his parents or his sister to his wedding. Reed’s family has continued to attend tournaments where he played, even after Reed asked security to escort them out of the 2014 U.S. Open.  Fine fellow!

The Joe Schultz Quote of the Week – This week it comes from the great Shaquille O’Neal.  Asked while in Greece if he had visited the Parthenon, O’Neal responded, “I can’t really remember the names of all the clubs that we went to.”

Music Video of the Week – Who doesn’t love Boz Scaggs?  He’s still relevant at 70!  Here he is several years back doing one of his old classics “Loan Me a Dime.”