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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy and special thanks to Jordan Moss. This week, the Canucks show signs of life but is it too late? Lots to talk about from around the NHL. There’s dysfunction in the desert and we have a listen to the great Ronnie Earl.  

Canucks This Week – The Canucks have managed to right the ship to some extent but they still face a tall order if they want to reach the playoffs. Some nights the Canucks look like world-beaters with their ascending stars soaring. Other nights, the many holes in their lineup get exposed and well, you’ve seen the results.

It will be very difficult for the Canucks to climb out of the hole they have dug. If you believe it will take around 63 points to make the playoffs, the Canucks will have to collect 48 points in their final 37 games in order to qualify. That’s a 104-point pace and highly unlikely they can maintain that level of play.

One of the reasons the Canucks have had trouble finding real traction this season is the lack of bite on their power-play. After 19 games, the Canucks were sitting 20th in power-play efficiency. Last year, they finished fourth in the league. The Canucks second power-play unit has been completely ineffective. They have scored only one goal and have surrendered two short-handed markers. Pretty sick when a PP unit has permitted more goals than it has scored.

The idea that Jim Benning is some kind of draft genius just doesn’t wash. The scouting department swung and missed on Olli Juolevi and Jake Virtanen, two top-six picks. They hit on Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, both taken in the top seven, but you are supposed to nail those picks when you are selecting that high in the draft. And how much did Judd Brackett influence those picks? Lots of teams have landed stars near the top of the draft recently. Jim Nill grabbed Miro Heiskanen. Joe Sakic landed Cale Makar.

Two of Benning’s second round choices look like hits, Thatcher Demko in 2014 and Nils Hoglander in 2019. The jury is still out on the other second-round picks – Kole Lind, Jonas Gadjovich, and Jett Woo. To date, there’s nothing to show for the third round. The Canucks third-round selections since 2014 were Nikita Tryamkin, Guillaume Brisebois, Will Lockwood, Michael DiPietro, Tyler Madden and Joni Jurmo.

Considering how things are going for the Canucks, they could very well end up with a top 10 pick in this year’s draft. You can bet they will be looking for a defenseman or a center. Maybe this will be the year the Canucks move UP in the draft instead of falling several spots. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Canucks landed Luke Hughes from the U.S. National Team Development Program? Yes, he’s Quinn’s kid brother and will be following him to Michigan. Like his brothers, Luke is an outstanding skater and although he may not have the elite skill of Quinn and Jack, Luke has size (he’s 6’2”) and tremendous hockey sense. He should become a top pairing NHL defenseman.

The Canucks have to do a better job of finding talent outside the draft. They’ve often struck out on the trade market so mining players from other sources is key. The Canucks have had limited success with college free agents despite spending freely in that marketplace. They missed on Connor Mackey, a local kid who’s found a home in Calgary on the Flames third pairing. The Canucks have had next to no success at identifying European free agents. A good example of how a team can benefit is Senators defenseman Artem Zub. The Sens signed him from SKA St. Petersburg last May on an entry-level contract. The 25-year-old right-shot defenseman has worked his way into the lineup with smart decision-making and solid defense. Zub has chipped in with a goal and two assists in nine games and is plus one, which is a miracle in itself.

We can all probably agree that Jake Virtanen could use a fresh start. His name has been tossed around in trade speculation. However, you have to wonder where his value sits right now. Jake has only one point, a goal, in 15 games this season and only four points in 31 games going back to last year. With the Canucks looking to shed salary, a deal may not be easy if no team wants to surrender a draft pick for a guy with a back-loaded two-year deal. Harman Dayal of The Athletic brought up the possibility of a buy-out this season and surprisingly, it may be a decent alternative.

If the player is younger than 26 at the time of the buyout (like Virtanen would be), then the NHL CBA mandates that the team is only on the hook for one-third of the remaining salary. In Virtanen’s case, his base salary for 2021-22 is $3 million once his $400,000 signing bonus has been paid out. One-third of $3 million means that the Canucks would owe him $1 million split over two years ($500,000 for 2021-22 and 2022-23 respectively). That $500,000 times two years is the salary the Canucks would owe, but because Virtanen’s contract is back-loaded, the cap hit clocks it in at a much lower rate.

To calculate the buyout cap hit, you start by taking Virtanen’s original cap hit ($2.55 million) and subtract the original base salary ($3 million), which amounts to negative-$450,000. That number gets added to the buyout salary ($500,000) and you have your hit of $50,000 — that’s how much he would cost against the cap in 2021-22. In essence, this means that a Virtanen buyout would clear $2.5 million of his original $2.55 million cap hit. He would cost $500,000 the year after in 2022-23, so that’s the crucial consideration, but when you look at the Canucks’ roster they need the flexibility in 2021-22 far more than they need it in 2022-23.

Dysfunction in the Desert – Katie Strang’s investigative piece in The Athletic on the Arizona Coyotes under new owner Alex Meruelo has caused a furor. She chronicled dysfunction in the front office, heavy-handed dealings with contractors and questionable financial reporting to the league.

Apparently, Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo thinks he can run a hockey team like he runs his casinos or chain of pizza joints and radio stations. Meruelo has his son involved in the front office and we’ve seen that dance play out before. Nice to hear Alex Jr. is spending his time in the office looking at YouTube videos! Workplace harassment, sexual harassment. Where do you think this is headed? Reports of financial problems. This mess is not going away.

It’s hard to fathom why Gary Bettman keeps going to the wall for the Arizona franchise. This nonsense has been going on for what seems like forever. It makes you angry to think the Coyotes could have been in Quebec City for the past ten years with solid ownership and a rabid fan base.

Can someone please explain the vetting process in the NHL for new owners? Apparently, the only prerequisites are – you must be alive, have picture ID and a bank account. It’s harder to get a fishing license than it is to become an NHL owner. The list of names of questionable NHL owners is lengthy and the only explanation is desperation. It’s not as though Alex Meruelo is the first.

Remember Nashville Predators owner William (Boots) Del Biaggio? He was packed off to the big house for eight-plus years for fraud after pleading guilty to forging financial documents in order to obtain $110 million in loans used to purchase controlling interest in the team. He misappropriated funds from banks and investors including Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leopold and AEG, owners of the L.A. Kings.

Who can forget admitted fraudster John Spano who got six years in the slammer for his audacious attempt to buy the New York Islanders in 1996? Spano convinced the NHL he was worth hundreds of millions. The NHL quickly approved his purchase for $165 million but his trust-fund scam crumbled when Spano failed to pony up a $5 million dollar down payment.

Years passed and Spano hadn’t learned his lesson. In 2015, he was sentenced to ten years in prison after pleading guilty in Ohio to 16 counts of forgery. He was convicted of collecting thousands of dollars in commissions from false accounts he’d created while working as a salesman for a company that provides linens to health care facilities. A fine fellow indeed!

As founder of Adelphia Communications, John Rigas was welcomed into the NHL in 1997 as owner of the Buffalo Sabres. However, his empire crumbled in 2002 when Rigas was indicted on charges of bank fraud, wire fraud and securities fraud. The old fraud trifecta! The case got dragged through the courts and it was not until 2005 that Rigas was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. It was revealed that Rigas and his two sons had taken $3.1 billion dollars in loans that were not recorded on the books, concealed liabilities from corporate investors and used corporation funds for their personal gain.  Following the arrest, the NHL stripped Rigas of his authority over the Sabres. After more than a year as a ward of the league, the franchise was sold to Tom Golisano.

One footnote to the story.  On December 14, 2015, Rigas’ lawyers announced that John was terminally ill with bladder cancer and had one to six months to live. Under his sentencing, he could seek compassionate release if he had less than three months to live. A federal judge issued a release order on February 19, 2016. Rigas got his ‘get-out-of-jail’ free card. It is shocking to know that John Rigas is alive and well and now 96-years-old. He was never ordered back to jail. Justice at work!

NHL Notebook – The NHL is venturing to Lake Tahoe this weekend for a pair of games in its Winter Classic series. Colorado faces Vegas on Saturday while Philadelphia takes on Boston on Sunday. The NHL has set up an outdoor rink on the 18th fairway of the Edgewood Tahoe Resort. It’s the same location where they’ve played the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament televised by NBC, since 1990. It’s going to be a risky game presentation with no fans. In order to shower after the game, the players will walk back to the resort hotel. Lake Louise was reportedly under consideration as a potential site and would also have offered a stunning mountain backdrop. However, there were many challenges including a lack of available infrastructure and limited sponsorship opportunities because the game would be held inside a federally-owned national park.

We are not sure what to make of the NHL’s All-Canadian North Division at this point in the season. Every team has serious shortcomings so it’s hard to say how they will fare when the stakes go up in the playoffs. The Leafs have built a cushion in the standings but when you blow a 5-1 lead to the Senators and lose 6-5 in overtime, have you really changed your stripes? Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have been lights out for Toronto. You have to wonder if they can continue to carry the team all season. Montreal had a nice start but is again having trouble scoring goals. Edmonton has to out-score everyone because goal prevention is a huge problem. Calgary and Vancouver are wildly inconsistent. Winnipeg can’t seem to get untracked and Ottawa has not had the uptick that many predicted. Only Montreal and Winnipeg are getting any production from their bottom-six forward groups. Bottom-six scoring and sound two-way play is a big problem in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa.

Can the season get any worse for the Jets shiny new acquisition Pierre-Luc Dubois? He had to sit in a hotel room and go through a 14-day quarantine after being acquired from the Blue Jackets and after a brief cameo in the Jets lineup, Dubois has gone on the injury list with a lower-body injury. Tough way to debut with a new team.

We have been critical of the NHL draft lottery system for good reason and we can only hope changes are coming. The New York Rangers have reaped the benefits for two straight seasons, landing Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko second overall in 2019 before hitting the jackpot with the first overall pick in 2020 and Alexis Lafreniere. However, nothing is certain. Kakko is playing Krappo with two goals and one assist in 14 games. It’s been determined he has Type-1 diabetes and celiac disease. Lafreniere is struggling big-time with just one goal in 13 games. He’s yet to register his first assist and is minus-7.

After watching Quinton Byfield perform in the past two World Junior tournaments, we came away with a less than optimistic view of his long-term prospects. Was it an issue of consistency? What is a lack of overall on-ice awareness? What is commitment to defense? Something was missing. He had moments of brilliance coupled with long stretches of uninspired play. Was it too easy for him coming up through the ranks? Was he ever really challenged? What Byfield needs is a coach like John Tortorella who will give him some tough love. So many teams get infatuated with size in the draft and it comes back to bite them. How is Byfield doing with the Kings AHL farm team? He has one goal and three assists in six games and is minus-5. Byfield has some growing up to do.

Will things ever improve in Buffalo? Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner are making a combined $27 million. Eichel has 2 goals and 10 assists in 13 games and is minus-9. Hall has 1 goal and 8 assists in 13 games and is minus-10. Skinner has a measly 1 assist in 13 games. Eichel is playing like he’s already left town. Constant losing just rips the heart out of players.

Have you noticed how the NHL’s middle class is getting squeezed? There’s a long list of players who were making huge bucks just a few years ago that are now playing for less than a million on one-year contracts. The Maple Leafs are so top- heavy they have been forced to build a bottom-six forward group made up almost entirely of players making close to the league minimum. Expect this trend to continue in a flat cap world. Perennial 30-goal man Mike Hoffman had to wait several months before signing a one-year deal for $4.5 million with St. Louis. If Hoffman doesn’t deliver this season, he’s probably looking at another salary haircut next season. It’s clear we are going to see a lot more one-year contracts in the future. The void between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is growing. The fall-out from albatross contracts handed out to mid-tier players like Loui Eriksson, James Neal, Milan Lucic and Andrew Ladd has made GM’s increasing gun-shy.

Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong promises next year’s Olympic team will include plenty of youth. The weakest area of the team seems to be on the left side of the defense. Don’t be surprised if Avs rookie Bowen Byram gets a long look. He played 25 minutes in a game against Vegas this week with Sammy Girard and Erik Johnson sidelined with injuries.

On the other side of the coin, while youth is being served, Armstrong would be wise not to overlook 37-year-old veteran Blackhawk Duncan Keith. You can’t tell me a defense pairing with Keith and Shea Weber would still not be rock solid. Here’s a feature on Keith’s legendary workout regime. Shades of Chris Chelios.

The Toronto media, err, Maple Leaf Minions, were quick to include John Tavares and Morgan Rielly in their Team Canada selections. We should not be surprised that Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston had both among his selections. Sorry, neither one makes our team. Tavares has lost a step and can’t keep pace. Rielly has his moments but still can’t be trusted defensively. He’s still prone to blatant turnovers.

The NHL coaching ranks have been safe so far this season but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any changes. One coach who could be in trouble if the team doesn’t shake its inconsistency is Geoff Ward in Calgary. GM Brad Treliving is under a lot of pressure in the wake of all the off-season free agent additions and there is no shortage of veteran NHL coaches currently unemployed. When you watch the Flames, you have no idea what team will show up on any given night. Missing the playoffs (the Flames currently sit fifth in the North Division) was not part of the equation this season so it’s a situation worth monitoring.

The biggest shocker at the quarter pole of the season has to be the Chicago Blackhawks. Don’t forget, this is a team that openly announced it was embarking on a rebuild, yet the Hawks are sitting in second place in the Central Division 18 games into the season. And they’ve done it without sparkling young star Kirby Dach and ageless captain Jonathan Toews. Good on the Hawks for not throwing in the towel on the season.

We’ve been beating the drum for years on the NHL’s hiring practices. Last week, we questioned the Penguins motivation in recycling Ron Hextall and Brian Burke. We are glad to see that Emily Kaplan of ESPN echoes those sentiments.

While I know knew Pittsburgh president of hockey ops Brian Burke and GM Ron Hextall are well-known hockey men with experience running NHL teams — something the Pittsburgh Penguins coveted, given their urgency to maximize the end of the Sidney Crosby era — you have to ask yourself: Are there really only 40 people qualified for these types of jobs, and at what point do we stop cycling through them? Again, not a total slight to the Penguins here, what they did is just emblematic of hockey’s hiring practices. Last year, NHL coaching agent Neil Glasberg — a champion for diversifying front offices, including the consideration of more European candidates — called this the NHL’s groupthink problem. We’ve talked about it in relation to coaches, but it’s just as bad with management positions.

“The easiest way to frame it is an unwillingness to consider — let alone listen — to anybody who isn’t widely known by the hiring manager, whether it’s the GM, the [assistant] GM, owner, or whoever is running the search,” Glasberg said. “Which I think is selling themselves short. Why wouldn’t you want to talk to as many qualified people as possible? Instead, most NHL teams have this ‘hire-a-friend’ mentality. I hear this from my guys all the time: ‘It’s not the best candidate that gets hired. It’s the candidate with the best network or who is the best known.’ That’s not how you build success. No company would ever be successful if they were just hiring people they knew.”

A couple of footnotes to the major cuts in the radio business in Canada. One major factor that’s gone under-the-radar is the fact people aren’t driving around in their cars as much since the pandemic outbreak. It’s hurt the overall numbers. Plus, podcasts had already eaten into the ratings before the radio industry was side-swiped by COVID.

We are hearing a ton of complaints about the television schedule on Sportsnet. They’ve got to do something about the black-outs. The Jets and the Oilers were on SNW the other night, yet we couldn’t watch it. Instead, we get Florida and Tampa. Earlier this season, we were getting Pittsburgh and Washington instead of a premier matchup of two Canadian teams. Don’t expect the CRTC to do anything. They’re as limp as Ron Jeremy. Sportsnet thinks that if you live in Vancouver, you are a Canucks fan. Same in the other Canadian markets. I have a ton of friends in B.C. who are Jets fans and yet, they have been unable to watch their favourite team.

Alex Galchenyuk never had time to leave Canada after being traded from Ottawa to Carolina. He was placed on waivers by the Hurricanes before he could board a plane. The Leafs put in a waiver claim and now he won’t have to deal with a quarantine.

Reaching the 100-point mark is a big deal in the NHL these days. For Wayne Gretzky, it was half a season. Five-point nights are a rare feat in the NHL. Unless you are the Great One. He did it 91 times. That’s not a typo!

Exactly 42 years ago, Ken Dryden posted his 46th and last regular season shutout by blanking the Washington Capitals. The victory gave Dryden a 22-1-4 record over his final 27 regular season games. He would go on to back-stop the Canadiens to playoff series wins over the Leafs, Bruins and Rangers before retiring at the age of 31 with six Stanley Cups in his eight-year career.

$34,555. No, that’s not the total prize money from the San Jose Sharks 50/50 jackpot. That’s how much Erik Karlsson is earning per minute this season. So far, that equates to about half a million bucks per shot or $2.875 million per point. Sweet deal! And only six more years to go!

NHL Rookie Watch – This year’s crop of NHL rookies is decent but certainly looks like it lacks star power.  The race for the Calder Trophy is wide open. Let’s have a look at some of the candidates who have come into the league this season and made an early impact.

  • Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche – D – The Avs already had Calder Trophy-winning Cale Makar and mobile 22-year-old Samuel Girard on the blueline, and now they’ve added another offensive dynamo in the 19-year-old Byram, the fourth overall pick in 2019. Look for Bryam to have a growing impact as the season rolls along.
  • Kirill Kaprisov, Minnesota Wild – LW – After a lengthy stint in the KHL, the 23-year-old left-winger is an early Calder favourite with 9 points in 13 games. Kaprisov also leads all rookie forwards in ice time and should continue to build confidence as the season goes along.
  • Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens – D A steal in the second-round pick (38th overall) in 2018, Romanov has made a smooth transition onto the Canadiens defence. He’s playing 19+ minutes a night and is seeing duty on both the power play and penalty kill. It would not be surprising to see Romanov lead all rookies in plus-minus.
  • Pius Suter, Chicago Blackhawks – C – The 24-year-old is an undrafted unknown from the Swiss National League who’s ascended to the Hawks top line with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. He leads all rookies with six goals and is tied in points with 10. Fellow rookie forward Philipp Kurashev is also turning heads.
  • Tim Stutzle, Ottawa Senators – LW – You have to wonder if it would have been wise to leave Stutzle in Germany for another year. He’s getting his feet wet on a bad Senators team but his minus-14 plus-minus rating is a major concern. It would not be surprising to see him lead all rookies in scoring.
  • Gabe Vilardi, L.A. Kings – C – While Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte may be the Kings top prospects at center, its Vilardi who’s earning his stripes in the middle right now. The 11th overall pick in 2017 is stuck on six points after a quick start.
  • Dylan Couzens, Buffalo Sabres – RW – The Sabres have high hopes for the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft. Couzens is 6’3” and while he may end up at centre, the Sabres have him playing on the right side. Unfortunately, Couzens is currently out of the lineup with an injury.
  • Nils Hoglander, Vancouver Canucks – RW – The Canucks second-round pick (40th overall) in 2019 has been a revelation in an otherwise dismal season. The 5-foot-9 winger has fit it seamlessly with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson on what’s been the Canucks best line. Hoglander has nine points in 20 games.
  • Juuso Valimaki, Calgary Flames – D – Valimaki had his rookie season wiped out last year by an ACL injury. Drafted 16th overall in 2017, the 22-year-old is a solid defender with a big shot. He’s going to be a fixture in Cowtown for a long time.
  • Josh Norris, Ottawa Senators – C – Stutzle has received the most hype, but it’s Norris making the biggest impact. It shouldn’t be that surprising – the 6-foot-2, 192-pound center was the AHL’s rookie of the year last season. Norris ranks among NHL rookie scoring leaders with ten points.
  • Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils – D – The 20-year-old offensive defenseman, drafted 17th overall in 2018, has been impressive right from the get-go this season. He leads all rookie defensemen in scoring with 8 points in only 11 games.

Some other names to watch include forwards Liam Foudy of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ty Dellandrea of the Dallas Stars, and Eetu Luostarinen of the Florida Panthers. There’s a strong group of defensemen including the Kings Mikey Anderson and Kale Clague, Evan Bouchard and William Lagesson of the Oilers, Vegas’ Zach Whitecloud, Jakub Zboril of the Bruins, Pierre-Oliver Joseph of the Penguins and K’Andre Miller of the Rangers. There are several rookie goalies around the NHL trying to make their mark including Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers, Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals, Kevin Lankinen of the Chicago Black Hawks and Kaapo Kahkonen of the Minnesota Wild.

Seahawks Off-Season Notes – Don’t expect the Seahawks approach to change when free agency opens on March 17. Seattle has always eschewed the big fish and instead reeled in an assortment of mid-level veterans on one-year contracts. It may sound like a responsible methodology but the results have been mixed at best. Last year, they signed B.J. Finney, Phillip Dorsett, Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa and only Mayowa made a ripple in the water.

The Seahawks are just $4 million under the projected cap so the first order of business is to open up cap space. Several veterans are expected to have their contracts extended to free up room or in the case of Russell Wilson, have a portion of their 2021 contract converted into a signing bonus.  Bobby Wager, Tyler Lockett, Jarran Reed and Carlos Dunlap are the likely candidates to have their deals re-worked.

There’s been chatter online that the Seahawks may be interested in trading for Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. After the failed Greg Olsen acquisition last season, the Seahawks should look elsewhere to bolster their tight end room. Two free agents who may be of interest are the Titans Jonnu Smith and the Rams Gerald Everett. If Seattle wants to keep Russell Wilson happy, they should be looking for a capable third receiver. There’s a couple of free agents worth considering. The Panthers Curtis Samuel had a 79% catch rate last season, tops in the NFL. He had 848 yards and 3 touchdowns receiving and added another 200 yards and two scores on the ground. Another late-bloomer is Tennessee’s Corey Davis. He’s only 26 and broke out last season with 984 yards. Marvin Jones of the Lions might be a nice veteran addition.

Last week, we mentioned the big ticket offensive linemen on the free agent market if the Seahawks want to dive in deep. On defense, Leonard Floyd of the Rams would be a great catch if the Seahawks don’t bring back Carlos Dunlap. We like edge rusher Romeo Okwara of the Lions as well. The Seahawks have a big need at cornerback. Pete Carroll likes tall corners so 6’2” Michael Davis of the Chargers fits the bill. William Jackson of the Bengals is another quality corner on the market.

Jays Training Camp – The Blue Jays have announced they will start the season by playing their first two regular season home series at their spring training base in Dunedin, Florida. The club has conceded they will likely play home games in Dunedin, Buffalo and hopefully at some point, Toronto this season. It all depends on the continuing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lot of different sites have been revealing their top prospect lists in Major League Baseball. Keith Law of The Athletic put out his farm system rankings and had the Blue Jays third in all of baseball. Here’s his summary of the Jays Top Ten prospects.

  1. Nate Pearson, RHP

Pearson’s debut in the majors was tantalizing, but as with his first full pro season in 2018, it was interrupted by injury, leaving him still eligible for these rankings. Pearson averaged 96.3 mph on his four-seamer, showed a full four-pitch mix, all three of which at least missed bats, although he leaned most on his slider and the pitch wasn’t as consistent as it has been in the past. He’s 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds, with a good delivery that he has learned to repeat since the Jays signed him, so in theory he should be durable. Still, he had several fluky injuries in 2018 that limited him to one inning, and a flexor strain sent him to the injured list in late August, after which the Jays used him for just a single relief appearance. If he can stay healthy, there are very few starting pitching prospects who can match his stuff and size, which give him the ceiling of a No. 1 starter.

  1. Austin Martin, SS

The best prospect in the 2020 draft class slipped to the Blue Jays, who picked fifth and were probably delighted to have a player with his kind of potential get to their selection. Martin has exceptional hand-eye coordination and plus-plus bat speed, striking out only 36 times with 50 walks in 392 PA over his last year-plus at Vanderbilt. He’s probably best suited to third base, but the Jays intend to try him out at shortstop — which he has the athleticism and foot speed to handle — with third, second or even center field all possibilities. He did have some throwing trouble in the brief college season in 2020, but it’s not supposed to be a long-term issue and the Jays seem comfortable with his throwing post-draft. This bat at a skill position is pretty unusual and gives him some MVP upside, although we should be a little cautious since he has yet to take a pro at-bat.

  1. Alek Manoah, RHP

Manoah was the top college right-hander in the 2019 draft but the Blue Jays got him with the 11th pick on some concerns about his size and minor health issues before his draft year. It looks like a steal now as Manoah continues to stay healthy and throw hard, while improving his conditioning over the course of 2020 and the last two off-seasons. Manoah sits 93-94 and can touch 98, with an above-average slider and above-average changeup as well as a curveball he can land for strikes. He is big, 6-6 and 260 in college, and only pitches from the stretch, but he throws strikes and attacks guys consistently with his fastball, an approach that should continue to serve him well as he moves up the ladder. He does have to keep his body in shape, but if he stays healthy he should be in the Blue Jays’ rotation within the next two seasons, with mid-rotation upside.

  1. Alejandro Kirk, C

Kirk got a surprise call-up to the majors and was very impressive for a kid who’d never played above High A, and had just 151 professional games total before he reached the big leagues. His bat-to-ball skill and swing decisions are both excellent, leading to very low strikeout rates, while he’s got explosive acceleration at the plate and showed in the majors he can hit for power the other way and turn on 97 in. He’s a solid catcher who can frame, block and throw well, but he’s on the big side already for a catcher at age 22 and has to maintain his conditioning. He was listed at 5-foot-8 and 265 pounds last year, and while he’s apparently lost weight heading into spring training, that’s going to be an ongoing issue for him so he can stay behind the plate, as there’s no other position for a player with his build. His bat will make him a longtime regular as a catcher, with a chance to be a star if he keeps his body in shape for it.

  1. Orelvis Martinez, SS

Martinez is still just 19 but finished the summer at the Blue Jays’ alternate site, impressing the team with his production against older pitching. The ball explodes off his bat thanks to his plus bat speed and present power, while he has already shown glimpses of advanced plate discipline. In the field, he’s got a plus arm and great hands, still playing shortstop but with a body that might eventually push him to third base. I noted last winter that he might be the Jays’ best prospect in a year, but with no minor league season to show progress and the addition of the best player in the 2020 draft in Austin Martin, Martinez has to wait a year for any such coronation. He has an enormous ceiling as a strong OBP guy with 25-30 homers and plus defense at third. We just need to see how the bat plays at higher levels.

  1. Jordan Groshans, 3B

Last year I wrote this about Groshans: “A full, healthy year in 2020 will help establish just how advanced his bat is and whether he has the power to be a star even in a corner.” Ah, well, it was a good thought, but because of the pandemic Groshans hasn’t taken an at-bat in an actual game since May 2019. Groshans did spend the summer at the Jays’ alternate site, facing a lot of pitchers who had appeared in the big leagues or were close to doing so, which is better than no experience but doesn’t give us much new information, such as whether he’s still rotating his hips early and cutting off some of his potential power. He does have a great swing path and has shown an ability to make some adjustments in the limited experience he has in pro ball. I’d just like to see him produce over a longer period against better pitching now.

  1. Gabriel Moreno, C

Moreno spent the summer at the Jays’ alternate site and hit well even though he was just 20 years old and had no experience above low A going into the year, then went back to his native Venezuela and hit .373/.471/.508 in 18 games for Lara, with 11 walks and just six strikeouts. He has an above-average arm and is athletic, needing work on the other defensive aspects of catching, but got some of that experience in 2020 when most prospects got little to none. I’m in.

  1. Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP

Woods Richardson came with Anthony Kay in the Marcus Stroman trade and impressed the Blue Jays in spring training 2.0 and at the alternate site. His stuff has backed up slightly since high school, with a solid-average fastball and above-average changeup, along with very good control. His arm is extremely late relative to when his front leg lands and he hasn’t shown an average breaking ball yet, so he has several obstacles ahead of him to reach his mid-rotation ceiling.

  1. Miguel Hiraldo, SS/2B

Hiraldo has good hand-eye coordination with high contact rates even though he can collapse his back side by over-swinging, which you’d associate with power hitters who strike out all the time. The Jays have worked on getting his swing more consistent and worked on his physique so he might stay at short, although he projects as a more likely second baseman who hits for average and doubles power.

  1. CJ Van Eyk, RHP

Van Eyk might have ended up in the first round had there been a full spring in 2020; he looked great in preseason and in his first outing, was up and down for three outings after that, then the world ended before he could prove the early version was real. He was 91-95 mph with a nearly 12/6 curveball that was plus when he was at his best and a hard changeup. I didn’t love the cutoff in his delivery, which limited his ability to go to his glove side, but the Jays can probably get him more online to the plate. He has a good chance to be a No. 4 starter, with a ceiling a tick above that.

Leftovers – San Diego Padres transcendent star Fernando Tatis Jr. agreed to a 14-year, $340 million dollar contract this week. It’s now been revealed that during his time in the minors, he entered into a deal with Big League Advance, a company that offers select minor leaguers upfront payments in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings. Tatis will reportedly now have to pay BLA an estimated $27 million as part of the agreement he signed in 2018 while playing minor league ball. According to Tatis, he’s OK with it and was fully aware he was going to have to buck up at some point. The company is set up like the stock market. Players do not have to repay the money if they never make it to the majors. Still, the company has come under increasing scrutiny. Even as far back as 2016, the MLB Players Association warned in a memo that it “‘categorically’ did not endorse or approve of BLA and its products and warned the future earnings the company sought from players were significant.”

Music Artist of the Week – One of the very best performances I ever witnessed at the Yale Hotel in Vancouver was Ronnie Earl, the erstwhile blues guitarist from Boston, Mass. B.B. King once said of Ronnie “I feel the respect and affection for him that a father feels for his son. He is one of the most serious blues guitarists you can find today. He makes me proud.”

You may be familiar with Earl from his stint with Roomful of Blues and later with Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters. He had a successful run with Stoney Plain Records based in Edmonton. He’s released over 20 albums. If you want to check out one of Ronnie Earl’s many great recordings, we recommend “Grateful Heart: Blues and Ballads” from 1996.

Let’s start with “Mean Old World”. Ronnie performing with Smokin’ Joe Kubek at the North River Blues Festival in Marshfield, Massachusetts in 2015.

Here’s Ronnie sitting in with Canada’s own Sue Foley at the Utah Blues Festival in Salt Lake City in 2019. The song is “Jimmy Lee.”

Here’s Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters performing “Natural Born Lover” at B.B. King in New York in 2016.

Here’s Ronnie in 2013 with Janiva Magness performing “Little by Little.”

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