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Under Further Review – February 15 Edition – 

Learning to Fly – The Canucks victory over the Kings on Thursday night was their 12th one-goal win of the season.  Why is that important?  Well, they had only 11 one-goal wins all of last season. The team is learning to win close games, a clear sign of growth.

As they try and chase down a playoff spot, the Canucks need to do a reality check prior to the trade deadline and stop deluding themselves into thinking the playoffs are the be all and end all. Of course, it would be nice for the group to experience playoff hockey but it’s not essential. Just the fact the team is playing meaningful games in February should be valuable enough. No way should the playoffs be the primary focus.

Pressure from the fans, media and ownership can make it difficult to convince yourself to be a seller at the deadline but that’s exactly what the Canucks should be doing.  Despite the standings, you need to come to grips with where you are in your competitive cycle and react accordingly. The last few months of the season should be focused on acclimating more youngsters into the lineup including Zack MacEwan, Adam Gaudette, Guillaume Brisebois, Thatcher Demko and when he arrives, Quinn Hughes. Whether the team can survive the recent rash of injuries is uncertain but it should not influence your decision-making at the deadline.

How in the name of Dunc Wilson did the Canucks get themselves into a position where they had nobody in their system who could fill in as a backup to Jacob Markstrom? When Thatcher Demko got hurt, they had to call up Mikey DiPietro from the Ottawa 67’s as a backup. The Canucks had no one in Utica who could fill the void. This pickle could have and should have been avoided. The Canucks had five weeks to find a backup goalie after dealing Anders Nilsson to Ottawa, yet couldn’t find a solution. They ended up surrendering a seventh round draft pick for Marek Mazanek but it seems the whole episode could have been avoided. Meanwhile, Nilsson has been performing extremely well in Ottawa on a bad Senators team.

Grounded Jet – The Winnipeg Jets will be facing a huge salary cap crunch this summer when three young franchise cornerstones become restricted free agents. Patrick Laine, Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba will all be looking for big paydays and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is going to hard-pressed to keep everyone happy. As well, defenseman Tyler Myers will be an unrestricted free agent and will be very tough to retain.

So what’s the answer? If I am the Jets, there is no chance I will be handing Laine a multi-year deal at 10+ million dollars a season.  To me, Laine is a one-trick pony who plays one end of the ice. If you are going to dish out that kind of money, you want a more complete player. The Jets would be better off putting in a call to Ottawa and trying to bring home Winnipeg native Mark Stone.

Laine is as streaky as they come.  He is a prototypical ‘Cy Young’ scorer – lots of goals and very few assists.  Through 58 games, he has 25 goals and 11 assists and has posted by far the worst plus-minus on the team at minus 17. When he’s going bad like he is now, his body language stinks. And don’t forget, he was terrible in the playoffs last year when the team needed him most.

It would not be surprising to see any of the Jets three RFA’s be the target of an offer sheet this summer. One thing that has changed the landscape is the emergence of Connor as a premier goal-scorer. It certainly makes Laine less important in the Jets pecking order. And for that matter, why would you pay a guy playing on the second line 10+ million a year? As I mentioned in a previous edition, the Jets could have ten players on their roster next season making over five million a year. That’s not sustainable. They are going to have to make some tough decisions and personally, I would start with Laine. It may also be advisable to see if there is a market for Dustin Byfuglien. This is what happens in a salary cap world when your roster is loaded with high end talent.

Incidentally, one name that has surfaced in trade scuttlebutt involving the Jets is Minnesota centre Eric Staal. He’s a UFA this summer. I don’t see the Wild dealing him because they have already lost Mikko Koivu to a season-ending injury but no there’s doubt Staal would be a great fit in Winnipeg.

Everything’s Ducky – The Anaheim Ducks stink – period! Is this another case of waiting too long to blow it up or what? My old high school classmate Bob Murray has taken over behind the bench for Randy Carlyle in a last ditch effort to get the team out of a prolonged funk.  The Ducks are 3-15-and-4 since December 18. During that span, they have scored only 35 goals and have surrendered 82. You can’t win games like that! The Ducks power-play had been firing at 12% and their penalty killing is at 79%.  Ryan Kesler has four goals and two assists to show for the entire season and a contract nobody wants. You could see this coming yet Murray was slow to the trigger and kept waiting for a turnaround that was not going to come.

Punchless Preds – Nashville is looking to add scoring as the trade deadline approaches and for good reason. After the top line of Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, the offence falls off the map. Problem for David Poile is he has run out of assets to flip at the deadline to boost the attack. If the Preds are going to land a scorer like Mark Stone or Artemi Panarin, they are going to have to offer up top prospect Eeli Tolvanen plus picks and probably a roster player.

Free Agent Bounty – The BC Lions used CFL free agency to completely remake their roster and reinvigorate the organization and the fan base. Not only did they land the big fish in quarterback Mike Reilly, they added several excellent young Canadians including receiver Lamar Durant and offensive lineman Sukh Chungh.

The CFL has to be concerned, however, with the massive spike in salaries in the quarterback market. Quarterback salaries jumped by 40 percent and you have a big problem when Trevor Harris can land a deal in Edmonton for half a million per season. The CFL salary cap is not going to increase significantly anytime soon so the signings only serve to create downward salary pressure on the rest of the roster. The money has to come from somewhere, right? All this is happening when the CFL is under heavy pressure to find players amid new competition from the American Alliance of Football and the XFL.

The New Jays – Make no mistake, the Blue Jays competitive window was slammed shut in 2018.  Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins spent their first three years in Toronto desperately trying to extend the window but that charade is finally over. Even in the two years in which the Jays made the playoffs, the team still couldn’t win 90 games.

How bad was it last year?  Attendance dropped by over 27% which translates to 878 thousand fans. The Jays went 16-and-41 against American League East foes New York, Boston and Tampa Bay. The team was ponderous on the basepaths. Kevin Pillar led the team in steals with 14.  No other Jay had more than five. Thanks to John Gibbons, they rarely sacrificed. The Jays laid down five sacrifice bunts last year, the lowest total since the stat was first recorded by MLB in 1894. The pitching was terrible. Marco Estrada led the team with 143 innings pitched and we know how good he was. No less than 13 players made their major league debut last year as the Jays began the rebuild in earnest. They set a club record both in the total number of players used – 63 – and in the number of pitchers used – 36.

So the Blue Jays start this season entirely focused on the future and holding the best prospect in the game and few financial commitments now that they’ve exorcised the contracts of Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. Vladdy Guerrero Jr. is not expected to arrive until late April so the Jays can extend club control by a year. He’ll take over at third and instantly become the face of the franchise.

The good news is the Jays have a consensus top five minor league system and several veterans on the roster with some degree of market value. They should be in big time sell-off mode come this year’s major league trade deadline. One thing is for sure, the team is going to look a whole lot different come September.

Random Observations – My schmuck of the week has to be golfer Matt Kuchar. It’s been revealed that ‘Short-Armed’ Matt basically stiffed a fill-in caddie that carried his bag back in November when he won the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. Kuchar, who is tenth in career earnings with over 47 million dollars, took home 1.3 million for the victory.  Normally, caddies receive up to 10% for a win which would have made for a nice payday of $130,000.

It all came about when Kuchar’s regular caddie wasn’t available. Kooch found a local looper named David Ortiz and agreed to pay him $1,000 if he missed the cut, $2,000 if he made the cut, $3,000 for a top-20 finish and $4,000 for a top 10. When Kuchar won the tournament, he decided to pay another $1000 to make it a nice round five grand. Such generosity!  At some point, Kuchar had second thoughts and reached out to Ortiz and offered to pay him another $15,000. Ortiz said no and reportedly asked for an additional $45,000. Kuchar later announced publicly that Ortiz had agreed to his terms and said what he paid Ortiz “was fair.”

Of course, the whole thing has blown up on social media and Kuchar is now being vilified, and rightly so, for stiffing the poor caddie. He might want to have considered the fact the caddie’s life would have changed forever if he had just written him a cheque for $130,000.  Today, we learned that Kuchar has apologized and agreed to pay Ortiz 50 grand. It may have had something to do with the fact Kuchar was rounded booed by fans during the opening round of the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Strangely enough, Kuchar is scheduled to return to Mexico next week to play in the WGC-Mexico Championship. Something tells me he may opt not to go.

It’s no surprise that the settlement of the collusion grievance between Colin Kaepernick and the NFL comes with a confidentiality agreement. Kaepernick and Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid filed a grievance against the league alleging collusion against signing the players. Kaepernick drew national attention back in 2016 when he chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest over police brutality and social injustice. Reid was the first player to join Kaepernick.  There are reports that Kaepernick may receive as much as $60-$70 million as a settlement. Beats getting your head cracked open as a quarterback!

It’s sickening to think the NFL won’t give Kaepernick and Reid an opportunity to play yet they give second and third chances to guys who slap around their wives and girlfriends. The Cleveland Browns just signed Kareem Hunt despite the fact he has yet to be punished by the courts or the NFL for kicking and slapping his girlfriend outside a hotel elevator. Browns General Manager John Dorsey said the team doesn’t condone his actions but believes in second chances. Of course, we have heard this garbage before as a stock rationalization. Do you really think Hunt would be getting a second chance if he wasn’t one of the top running backs in the NFL?

John Elway was a Hall of Fame quarterback but it seems rather strange he hasn’t been able to find a quarterback for his Broncos that can actually play.  The list of failed quarterback projects is lengthening every year. Names like Brock Osweiler, Trevor Simien, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum and now Ravens retread Joe Flacco.  You would think Elway could identify a quarterback but apparently not.

Did you notice that ‘Team LeBron’ — that’s an oxymoron — drafted Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard for the upcoming NBA All-star Game? That gives him plenty of opportunity to recruit both these guys to La Lakers. Could it be more obvious that NBA Commissioner LaBron James sets the rules?

Did you catch where Masai Ujiri said he believes the Raptors have a very good chance of resigning Leonard? It’s a lot easier to convince a guy to stay when he’s already experienced first-hand what the organization is all about. Why leave a winning team to play somewhere else? Leonard has played in only 43 of 58 games so far this season as the team manages his usage after last year’s injury-shortened season. Alex McKechnie, the Raptors Director of Sports Science and legendary Canadian sports therapist, has done a brilliant job working with Leonard. It would be great to see him pay them back by sticking around.

What a meteoric rise for Canada’s budding tennis star Bianca Andreescu! The 18-year old is 18-and-2 in her first 20 matches so far this year.  She’s won 37 or 46 sets to date and is now the third highest ranked under-19 player on the WTA Tour.