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Under Further Review – This week, the tragedy in Calabasas, the Canucks in first place, (get used to it), plus a ride around the NHL and a thought or two about Super Bowl 54.  

Kobe RIP – Much has been said and written since the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and so many others in the helicopter crash in Calabasas, California last weekend. There is nothing I can say that will add depth or clarity to such a horrific occurrence.

I am struck by so many questions as to why this had to happen. Why would a helicopter pilot with 2,000 hours of experience choose to fly in dense fog when police helicopters had already been grounded? We feel for the loss of Kobe and his lovely daughter but we should not forget how devastating it must be for all the other families affected.

Canada’s greatest all-time basketball player Steve Nash remembers the special relationship he had with Kobe.

Kobe was an iconic figure to say the least. Five NBA titles and 18 all-star appearances. He was a ruthless competitor.  What I admire most is what he was doing outside the game post-retirement. It’s disappointing he was not able to experience and enjoy induction into the NBA Hall of Fame before his passing.

Canucks This Week – Since getting pummeled in back to back games in Florida, the Canucks have been a different team. Somehow, out of the wreckage of that weekend in the Sunshine State, the Canucks have resurrected their season and found a new identity. The lines have structure, the defense has dug in and the goaltending has been sublime. There’s been a complete commitment to team defense and it was on display against the St. Louis Blues on Monday night in Vancouver. When you can hold the Stanley Cup champions to one goal, something is going right.  How can you argue with 13 wins in 16 games over the past six weeks?

It’s hard to picture a scenario right now in which the three Canadian teams in the Pacific Division don’t make the playoffs. It would be fantastic for Western Canadian hockey fans. Here’s a few other tidbits:

  • The Canucks have reeled off nine straight wins at home which ties the second longest home winning streak in club history. The record is 11.
  • If the Canucks want to win the division, they will need more solid goaltending efforts from Thatcher Demko like Monday night’s 36-save performance against the Blues. Demko is 10-5-and-1 this season and is an astonishing 11-1-and-1 at Rogers Arena in his young career.
  • It’s been fun to watch the growth in Jake Virtanen’s game this season. Jake has a career-high 16 goals in just 51 games. Getting to play on the top line with Pettersson and Miller has done wonders for his confidence. It’s bumped Brock Boeser down to the third line with Gaudette and Roussel where he is having trouble getting good looks. Gaudette is not a great distributor so it’s not the best fit for Boeser. Wouldn’t Nazem Kadri look good in a Canucks uniform as a third-line centre?
  • T. Miller has already exceeded his scoring totals from last year with Tampa Bay. Miller has 19 goals and 31 assists for 50 points in 51 games. He had 13 goals and 47 points in 75 games all of last year with the Lightning.

The Athletic has been posting a ranking of all NHL teams Prospects Pools.  They have the Canucks system ranked #13.  If you consider overall depth, it could easily be ranked in the top six. The recent graduations of Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko and Adam Gaudette has impacted the final ranking.

Great inside look this week from Herman Dayal of The Athletic on the 2018 NHL draft and how Quinn Hughes dropped to the Canucks with the 7th pick overall.

There’s been a lot of buzz in the media in recent weeks about a possible reunion between the Canucks and towering Russian defenseman Nikita Tryamkin. Everyone seems to assume that if he returns to Vancouver, he will immediately find a spot in the lineup. Not so fast! A lot of scouts around the league feel he is no better than a fifth or sixth defenseman. It’s not like he is going to return and immediately jump into the top four.

NHL Observations – Considering all the sycophants who follow the Maple Leafs, I think it’s time to officially change the name of Sportsnet to Leafnet. It’s only fair. At least this way there’s no escaping the heavy dose of Leaf coverage and the complete imbalance when it comes to covering Canadian NHL teams and the number of Leaf games carried live in comparison to everyone else.

Speaking of those beloved Leafs, need we remind everyone that they haven’t won a thing since 1967. That’s 53 years since their last Stanley Cup. Most Leaf fans weren’t even born then. Five of the six original expansion teams have won Cups. 27 of the current 31 teams have either won a Cup or at least been to the finals. Even Vancouver and Buffalo have made it to the Cup final twice. Only Columbus, Winnipeg, Arizona and the Minnesota Wild have not been to a final and they are all expansion teams of fairly recent vintage.

The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series in 16 years yet you would think this team is the ’75 Montreal Canadiens. Wake me when the Leafs actually win something? You will need cryogenics because otherwise, I will be long gone. The hyperbole around the Leafs knows no bounds. After rookie defenseman Rasmus Sandin scored his first goal this week vs. Nashville, the headline on Leafsnet read: Maple Leafs’ faith in seamless Sandin yields elite contributions. You get the gist. Sandin scored the first goal in his career and they are already calling him elite.

When you look realistically at the scene in Toronto, the Leafs and the Raptors are at opposite ends of the spectrum in how they operate. It starts from the top down. Compare the two management teams and the current state of affairs is rather self-evident. Maple Leafs front office management has had rabbit ears for decades. As the old saying goes, “If you listen to the fans long enough, you will be sitting up in the stands with them.”

Zach Sanford of the Blues is one of the best-kept secrets in the NHL. At 6’4”, he creates a lot of room out there. Of course, it helps to be playing alongside a complete centre like Ryan O’Reilly.

The Blues hope to get Vladimir Tarasenko back in late April after shoulder surgery.  It’s a six month recovery.  You have to think that Doug Armstrong will be fishing around for a top six forward at the trade deadline to boost the Blues chances for a Cup repeat.

Caps goalie Ilya Samsonov is 15-2-and-1 on the season and a clear Calder Trophy candidate. His numbers are ridiculous – 2.06 GAA and a .927 save percentage. I cannot see any scenario where the Capitals re-sign pending UFA Braden Holtby in the offseason.

We knew the Nashville Predators were in trouble but did you see them dropping this far this quickly? A string of bad trades has hurt them badly but there’s no excuse for walking away from two of the best coaches in the NHL in Barry Trotz and Peter Laviolette. Do you really think this group will respond to John Hynes?

The Buffalo Sabres are staring down the barrel of their 9th consecutive season outside the playoffs. If they miss the playoffs next year, and they probably will, they will tie the Oilers for the longest playoff drought in NHL history. Not surprisingly, the knives are out in Buffalo and you can understand why.

Of course, we know the root problem is ownership. Terry Pegula and his wife know nothing about professional sports. They also own the Buffalo Bills and you know how that movie is showing. Yes, they had a nice season but do you really think they will ever win a Super Bowl?

The Sabres have some outstanding core pieces to build around but never seem to get over the hump. General Manager Jason Botterill made a monumental error last summer when he re-signed free agent Jeff Skinner to a massive extension – 7 years @ $9 million per. Skinner has 11 goals and 19 points in 41 games and is a minus 12. No forward on the Sabres outside of their top line of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson has more than 22 points.

The Sabres can never develop the kind of depth needed to sustain a prolonged period of excellence. Things would be so different in Buffalo if they had selected Leon Draisaitl with the second overall pick in 2014 instead of Reinhart. Draisaitl went third to Edmonton and for once, the Oilers got that one right.

Columbus has a decision to make with rugged forward Josh Anderson.  He had a career year last season with 27 goals. This season has been a nightmare. Anderson has only 4 points in 26 games and has been snake-bitten by injuries. He’s an RFA this summer and a year away from unrestricted free agency. I would be looking hard at him as a bounce-back candidate. If the price is right, I would jump. Playoff guy all the way!

Culture Smulture – ‘Culture’ has to be the most over-used word in sports. It’s as if you can wave a magic wand and suddenly your team will morph into something special. When general managers and coaches join an organization, it’s the first thing they say – “We are going to change the culture.” When, in fact, there’s so much more to that slavish term.

Show me a good so-called ‘culture’ and I will show you a team that knows how to bring out the best in their players. And it helps to find the right ‘people’ in the first place.  Good front offices have a certain mindset and mentality.  You can’t always follow convention. You can’t always be drawn to only a certain type of player.

Culture is when you have players who reach a level of success and the players behind them see it and it makes them want to reach higher and most importantly, work that much harder. This is not something that happens overnight and if it were so easy, every team would have a great ‘culture.’ Every team has a chance to draft players, not every team is good at developing them and creating the right environment around them.

Super Bowl 54 – As we get ready for Super Bowl Sunday my gut instincts have not really changed a whole lot in the past two weeks. I still think it will be very difficult for the 49’ers to outscore the Kansas City Chiefs. There’s a big talent differential at the quarterback position where Pat Mahomes has a canyon-sized advantage over Jimmy Garappolo. I can’t get past Garappolo’s performance against the Seahawks in Week 11 when he tossed a pair of interceptions and Seattle knocked the 49’ers from the ranks of the unbeaten. Garappolo looked very shaky throughout that game as you may recall, he could very easily have thrown 5 INT’s.  For a change, the Seahawks applied good pressure that night and Garappolo did not respond well.

The 49’ers are going to try and apply heavy pressure on Mahomes and hope to force some turnovers. We know they have a tremendous front. However, if Mahomes stays erect, bet on one thing happening.  He will gut you!  Listen, I have always subscribed to the theory that a strong running game and a violent, playmaking defense is the receipt for success in the NFL.  San Francisco has that formula. I just think the Chiefs will prevail in a high-scoring Super Bowl game on Sunday. Plus, as a Seattle fan, I have to cheer against the 49’ers.  Go Chiefs!

Spring Fever – Major League Baseball spring training is less than a month away. There is a heck of a lot more optimism around the Blue Jays than there was a year ago. The rotation is much improved so it should, at least, keep them in games. Here’s a look at where the Jays are most vulnerable heading into the 2020 season.

Meantime, it seems like the Blue Jays were directly impacted by the Astros sign-stealing. A Houston fan has done an in-depth study of all Astro home games in 2017 and it shows the Astros were very effective in identifying pitches and relaying information to hitters. The Jays were just one of the victims.

We know Chiefs quarterback Pat Mahomes is an amazing athlete.  His dad pitched in the majors so he’s got the bloodlines. Here’s a great read on Mahomes early baseball career and it’s pretty clear he could have made his way to MLB.

Lady in Red – Christine Sinclair etched herself in the record book this week when she scored the 185th international goal of her amazing career against St. Kitts at a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. She becomes the all-time leading scorer in international soccer history breaking the previous mark held by American Abby Wambach. She’s been called the “Wayne Gretzky of Women’s Soccer” and is, inarguably, one of the greatest female athletes in Canadian history. No hype required.

The feat was three decades in the making, beginning in March, 2000, when she stepped onto the pitch in Burnaby for the first time for Canada as a 16 year old. Two days later, she scored her first career goal against Norway at the Algarve Cup. To put Christine’s record in perspective, the next closest current career scoring leader for Canada is Janine Beckie with 27 goals.

The Joe Schultz Quote of the Week – How can we possibly leave Harry Neale out of the mix when it comes to great sports quotes?  When the Vancouver Canucks were in the midst of one of their many losing seasons, Neale was asked what he could do as a coach to stop the bleeding.  Neale remarked: “We can’t win at home and we can’t win on the road. My failure as a coach is not finding somewhere else to play.”

Music Video of the Week – One of my favourite artists out there right now is Amos Lee. He was born Ryan Anthony Massaro in Philadelphia in 1977. In 2011, his album ‘Mission Bell’ debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Amos has toured as an opening act for the likes of Norah Jones, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and the Dave Matthews Band. He has a very unique voice and is an outstanding songwriter.  Check him out performing “Seen It All Before” with Daryl Hall from Hall and Oates.