Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy with special thanks to Jordan Moss and our mystery contributors in Vancouver and Montreal. This week, the Canucks spend their way into oblivion. We take you around the NHL where the Price is not right in Montreal. We check on Tiger and it’s time to throw the first pitch in Dunedin.
Canucks Notebook – A week from now, the Canucks will be at the midway point in the season. Forget about the playoffs. That’s not happening. We can start spinning the draft lottery wheel because that’s all that’s left to hold onto to in a season that hit the dumpster in rapid fashion. Jim Benning’s overspending on under-performing role players has pretty much wiped away any faint hopes.
Expectations may have been set too high after last year’s playoff success but it hasn’t stopped the discontent. Social media is boiling with Benning the lightning rod. The Canucks sit at 8-14-2. They have two wins in February. Thank goodness for a physical AND mental break over the weekend before back-to-back games in Winnipeg starting on Monday. They will need a split to avoid the ignominy of being caught by the Senators. The Canucks are only two points clear of Ottawa who were pegged by everyone to occupy the North Division basement.
The Canucks are getting killed in low-scoring games. They are 0-11 when scoring two goals or less. The power-play has short-circuited. The unit was fourth in the NHL last season with an efficiency of 24.2%. This year, the PP has fallen to 22nd in the NHL with a 15.9% rate. Goals at key times are not coming.
Want to make changes and improve the situation? The owner won’t spend a dime and the GM has locked the team into salary cap prison. If you watched the Canucks get white-washed by the Oilers on Thursday night, you would have noticed Jujhar Khaira in the Oilers lineup. He was placed on waivers earlier this season and was available to every NHL team. At $1.2 million, his contract is palatable but the Canucks stood by and did nothing. You can’t tell me he’s not an upgrade on Antoine Roussel. The Canucks had no cap space and the owner probably wouldn’t have given approval anyway. Defenseman Oliver Kylington was placed on waivers by the Flames. He’s making under one million and has excellent puck skills. We’re not saying these guys are saviors but when your roster is as shallow as the Canucks, you need to find bodies wherever you can. Take a flyer and hope it pays dividends. Paging Francesco, are you there? Perhaps he’s too busy writing alimony cheques.
Don’t expect a lot of activity at the trade deadline considering the challenges of the pandemic. Benning has reportedly talked to every team in the league recently. It’s highly unlikely the Canucks will be able to recoup draft picks for Pearson, Sutter and Benn. Managing a sell-off at the deadline has never been Benning’s strong suit. Forget about shedding any salary. It’s not going to happen. Teams are resisting any urge to add salary. It may sound ludicrous to some but I would be checking to see if there is any interest in J.T. Miller. Haven’t been impressed with his body language and high-risk game.
The Canucks should be focusing on the expansion draft. With so many burdensome contracts, the Canucks are at little risk of losing talent to Seattle other than perhaps Kole Lind. Their protection list should be pretty straight forward. Can the Canucks make the expansion draft work in their favour by working with teams with protection issues? Perhaps, but again, that would require being proactive and creative, not a Benning strength.
The Canucks have a potential future bottom-six line playing together in Utica. 2017 second-rounder Jonah Gadjovich is playing with rookie centre Carson Focht, a 2019 fifth-rounder, and Will Lockwood, taken in the third round in 2016. Defenseman Jack Rathbone (2017, 4th round) has been assigned to Utica from the taxi squad. He needs game action.
We can rule out Vasily Podkolzin putting on a Canuck uniform this season. The young Russian is expected to be selected to play in the World Championships which are scheduled to start on May 6. If the tournament is cancelled, it’s still unlikely he will arrive here since the Canucks season ends on May 8.
NHL Notebook – Here are some random thoughts and observations from around the National Hockey League this week.
- Winnipeg General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff flies under the radar and doesn’t get enough credit for the job he’s done with the Jets. The team has suffered devastating losses on the blueline over the past few years yet Cheveldayoff has somehow been able to hold things together. The Jets lost defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in a short time frame, a setback that would cripple most teams. Cheveldayoff went out and stole Dylan DeMelo from the Senators for a 2020 third-round pick and has him signed for three more years at $3 million per season. Rather than paying Trouba, Cheveldayoff sent him to the Rangers for defenseman Neal Pionk and a 2019 first-round pick which he turned into promising Finnish blueliner Ville Heinola. On many nights, Pionk has been the Jets best defenseman and he’s a bargain at $3 million. The Rangers gifted Trouba a seven-year, $56 million dollar contract and right now, few GM’s would trade Pionk for Trouba straight up.
- The Edmonton Oilers have won 10 of 12 and are suddenly chasing down the Leafs atop the North Division. 38-year-old Mike Smith is 6-and-0 since coming off the injury list with a .944 save percentage and is turning back father time. It’s still a thin roster but Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are playing at a level that pulls everyone along with them.
- The Maple Leafs are riding high in the North Division but you have to wonder if things would be different if they weren’t feeding off several less-than-perfect Canadian teams. It’s going to be a season-long question until the playoffs come around and the Leafs are tested more severely. Still, you have to give kudos to Leafs GM Kyle Dubas for some of his off-season acquisitions. Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian and T.J. Brodie have all made important contributions.
- The surprise team in the NHL so far this season has to be the Florida Panthers. They lead the Central Division with a record of 13-4-and-2. The Panthers made some nice low-cost additions in the off-season in defensemen Radko Gudas, Markus Nutivaara, Gustav Forsling and Noah Juulsen plus forwards Carter Verhaeghe, Alex Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, and Patric Hornqvist. All have made nice contributions. The biggest addition may be goaltender Chris Dreidger, a third-round pick of the Ottawa Senators way back in 2012. Dreidger is 7-2-and-1 with a 2.18 GAA and a .928 save percentage. He’s outplayed the Panthers high-priced No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
- Did you catch the story out of Buffalo about the Sabres fan who had purchased a cardboard cutout at KeyBank Arena to honour the memory of his mother? Well, Chris Calarco became so frustrated with how the Sabres were performing, he contacted the club and asked to have the cardboard cutout removed. He said he didn’t want his mother watching that garbage.
- The Boston Bruins blueprint is to be admired. With several off-season losses, everyone thought the Bruins would take a step back. Think again! They just keep rolling along despite a roster without a bunch of top ten picks. Beyond the top line with Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak, all of the Bruins bottom-nine forwards are over six feet. On the second line, Charlie Coyle is 6’3”, 220 pounds, Nick Ritchie is 6’2”, 230. The fourth line consists of Trent Frederick (6’2”, 205), Sean Kuraly (6’2”, 213) and Chris Wagner (6’0”, 200). Size. Grit. Competitiveness. It’s the Bruins performance model. They take away the ice and make it very tough for any opponent to find open space.
- How bad is it in Calgary? It’s an organization in crisis. When Milan Lucic is one of your best forwards, there’s something wrong. Lucic is actually having a decent season while the rest of the Flames forward group is floundering. A lot of hockey insiders thought the Flames were in need of a major makeover during the off-season. They added Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev but failed to addresses the shortcomings up front. The Flames have had four coaches in six years. Take away 2015 and the Flames have missed the playoffs or lost in the first round every year since 2010. Something got to give in Calgary soon because the playoffs are slipping away fast.
- How about the play of Columbus native Jack Roslovic since becoming a Blue Jacket? He’s put up better numbers than Patrik Laine and Pierre-Luc Dubois although you know it won’t last. Roslovic has 12 points in 14 games. Laine has 10 points in 11 games. Dubois has 5 points in 4 games after being forced to quarantine for 14 days.
- After losing his job to Robin Lehner late last year, did anyone see Marc-Andre Fleury turning in a Vezina-caliber season? The Golden Knights shopped the veteran goalie in the offseason but couldn’t find any takers. Fleury has posted an 8-3-0 record, with a league-best .942 save percentage and a 1.55 goals-against average.
- Mike Babcock went on the redemption tour to tell everybody that would listen that he’s not a bad guy. Good luck with that! In the meantime, Babcock has taken a volunteer coaching position with the University of Saskatchewan. If it doesn’t work out, I hear the NAIT Ookpiks may have interest.
- To think that Kevin Lowe is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and Paul Henderson is not is one of the biggest slights ever. Lowe is now going to be honoured by Hockey Canada with the Order of Hockey in Canada. WTF! Did no one notice that he drove the Oilers into the ground when he was managing the team? He made Jake Milford look like Sam Pollack.
- Hall of Fame goalie and highly respected writer Ken Dryden penned an article in The Athletic recently making the case for larger nets. Dryden reasoned that the size of modern-day goaltenders, combined with the size of modern-day goaltending equipment (double XL), fundamentally changed the game from the way it was played in his era. When goaltenders were smaller and equipment was half the size, there was all kinds of space to shoot at. Goals were scored off the rush. Goals were scored from long range, even if a goalie wasn’t screened by a cluster of players parked in front of him. Deep within Dryden’s complex analysis is this suggestion: “Maybe you have to make the net bigger … Maybe only six inches or a foot wider and maybe only six inches higher — and only for those in junior and college leagues and above, just so a goalie’s carefully constructed, seamless wall can’t cover everything.”
- Looking over the NHL’s divisional standings, one thing jumps out at you — the Eastern Division should have a big advantage come playoff time. There’s eight teams, all in the same time zone, and the longest trip would be Boston to Washington. The Central Division has two time zones with teams strung from Florida to Dallas and Chicago. The West has three time zones, while the North has four time zones. Granted, each division only has two series to determine a winner but soft vs difficult travel will still give that eventual East winner an advantage.
The Price is Wrong – Like many scribes, we had the Montreal Canadiens at or near the top of the North Division this season. After an 8-2-2 start, who would have thought Claude Julien would be in the CERB lineup? We assumed the Canadiens would have above-average goaltending from Carey Price. Harry Neale said it best with his famous line: Goaltending is 75 percent of your game — unless you don’t have it, and then it’s 100 percent.
When Price was right, the hallmarks of his game were incredible quickness and an uncanny ability to read the play. That’s suddenly eluded him. He will be 34 in August with over 700 games on his resume. This season, his play has slipped precipitously. Price’s GAA is 3.13 with a frightening .888 save percentage. Since February 1, 2020, only one goalie in the league has a save percentage worse than Price’s .885. By comparison, backup Jake Allen is riding a 2.14 GAA with a .932 save percentage. Why play Price? The Canadiens keeping hoping for a ‘reset’ and it’s not happening. Price is making $10.5 million per season and is locked in for five more seasons through 2025-2026.
When you look at the Canadiens roster you have to wonder if they are heading in the same direction as the Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks, two teams that got locked into an abundance of long-term contracts to players that got far too comfortable. Look at the long-term contracts on the Canadiens roster. Gallagher – six more years. Anderson – six more years. Weber – five more years. Petry – four more years. Toffoli – three more years. How will all these deals age? And is contract security always a good thing? Not so sure. Add Price into the mix and it’s a good question.
When insiders made their selections for Team Canada for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Price was the obvious choice in goal. Will Price be in the Canadian net when the games begin next February? That’s doubtful. If you asked me right now for my goaltending selections for Team Canada, I would go with Marc-Andre Fleury, Mackenzie Blackwood and Jordan Binnington. Carter Hart is not exactly standing on his head in Philadelphia.
Building a Winner – Recently, in chatting with a good friend, we somehow got around to discussing what makes a good organization in professional sports. Why some teams succeed and others do not. There’s a reason the Buffalo Sabres are bad. There’s a reason the Cincinnati Bengals are perennial losers. And there are reasons good teams are good.
The discussion grew out of what motivated the Pittsburgh Penguins to recycle Ron Hextall and Brian Burke. As Emily Kaplan of ESPN wrote, “it was emblematic of the NHL’s hiring practices.” We’ve seen NHL coaches recycled for decades but it’s not much different at the management level. It’s time to diversify front offices and start broadening the search for strong candidates including Europe.
You have to wonder who’s leading the job search and are they really capable of conducting the interview process? You can’t convince me it’s not a ‘hire-a-friend’ mentality. Did you notice that Flames GM Brad Treliving was ebullient in his praise of the Penguins hiring of Burke? Burke hired Treliving in Calgary. If Treliving gets dumped by the Flames, no doubt he’ll land in Pittsburgh. This is how it works. As Kaplan further wrote “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.”
There are so many factors that go into building a winning organization. Say what you want about the Seattle Seahawks but there’s a positive vibe around the team. It’s a happy workplace. We’ve often stated – show me a bad owner and I will show you a bad team. It’s the most critical element. Seahawks ownership has provided all the necessary means to success. They’ve hired the right people and stepped out of the way. Good owners stay in the background. Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Lightning, is rarely in the public spotlight. The team lost respected GM Steve Yzerman and did not have to go outside the organization to find a replacement. Julien BriseBois had the experience and the confidence to make several key moves that put the team in a position to win a Stanley Cup. Smooth transition thanks to leadership at the top.
In any normal workplace, managers are required to present annual work plans that detail goals and outcomes for the entire year. At the conclusion of the year, annual reports are presented and annual reviews are conducted by upper management. You have to wonder how much of this has been done over the years within some NHL organizations. How much scrutiny is there? In some cases, it can go the other way where scrutiny becomes micro-managing and you chase good people away.
There have been many instances where owners have inserted wives and siblings into the equation with disastrous results. It’s happening now with the Arizona Coyotes. It happened with the San Diego Chargers under the ownership of Alex Spanos. There have been stories about Kim Pegula in Buffalo. You have to question the whole vetting process when it comes to hiring. How often are teams hiring a head-hunting organization to vet candidates and help find the best person for the job? Clearly, not often enough based on how many guys are being recycled.
Some owners cross the line and get in the middle of personnel decisions. Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder reportedly overruled his entire scouting staff prior to the 2019 NFL draft. The staff had finalized their draft board when Snyder entered the War Room and ordered the team to select Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins with the 15th pick in the first round. Haskins was cut less than a year and a half later.
Personnel departments in the NFL are sophisticated operations. They are run like large corporations. The NHL has lagged behind and much of it points back to the “old-boys club” manner in which the teams are run. NFL assistant coaches and coordinators are paid more than many NHL head coaches. No one is stopping NHL teams from having more coaches, more scouts and more player development staff. It’s the best way to gain an advantage on other clubs. Budgets being what they are prevent many teams from gaining that advantage.
There’s a place for “old school” in hockey. Long-time scouts can eye-ball a player and see things others cannot. But in today’s game, you cannot overlook analytics. The key, however, is getting the kind of Intel on players that reveal who they are, their habits and what’s inside that will make them great or make them fail. This is where good organizations can find a huge advantage. How deep are you willing to dig? How good are your communication skills in order to ask the right questions and draw out the most reliable information?
Good teams have performance models. Determine what qualities you want in a player and the qualities you want for each position on the field or on the ice. Most important, stick to the criteria you have established. If the best model for your third-line left-winger is 6’2”, 200 pounds with some bite, then try and find that player. Don’t settle for a guy who’s 5’10” and 190 and plays on the perimeter. Establish the performance model with certain characteristics and qualities and don’t move away from what you believe in. In today’s economic climate, ideally you should not pay a back-up goalie more than $1.5 million. Don’t go out and overpay for Braden Holtby who earning $4.3 million to play second fiddle. Find a solution. Chicago uncovered 25-year-old Kevin Lankinen in the Finnish League and paid him the league minimum. Lankinen won the starting job and has put up a sparkling .927 save percentage. There are alternatives. You just have to find them. If the Buffalo Sabres had a proper performance model, do you think they would have signed Jeff Skinner to an eight-year, $72 million dollar contract? They were desperate to improve and thought writing a fat cheque was the answer. One player is never going to make a big difference. A thoughtful performance model helps a team create its identity and a vision for how they want to construct the roster.
Every team is going to make mistakes whether it’s a bad draft decision or handing out an ill-advised contract. The key is ensuring your best practices are correct. The overused phrase we often hear is “sticking to the process.” Bad teams make snap judgements and spur-of-the-moment decisions. The team has a losing streak. Fire the coach! The team makes a bad trade or a bad draft. Fire the GM! It’s not always the answer. Good teams are stable. They stay the course and TRUST the process.
How often do you see teams embark on a rebuild and announce they have a five-year plan. When the Senators stripped the roster down two years ago, Ottawa gas-bag Eugene Melnyk famously predicted the team would enter a run of “unprecedented success” by the 2021-2022 season. We know how that fit of hyperbole is playing out. The Senators and the Canucks are operating with skeleton staffs so it’s not surprising both teams are struggling. Both teams have reputations for widespread turnover both on the ice and off. Don’t forget, it took years of disappointment for several teams including Tampa, Washington and St. Louis before they were finally able to break through and win a Stanley Cup. Patience is in short supply for many organizations and that impatience usually starts at the ownership level.
If you want to synthesize the secret for success down to one thing, it’s communication. The good teams seem to get it right. For the poor teams, dysfunction grows out of bad communication, poor messaging and EGOS that get in the way of a common goal.
Recovery Road – Here’s what we know at this point about Tiger Woods in the wake of his horrible car accident this week in Los Angeles. He suffered a comminuted fracture of both the upper and lower portions of both the tibia and fibula, which means there were multiple breaks and open fractures that punctured the skin. Think Alex Smith of the Washington Redskins. You will remember Smith contracted a staph infection and it nearly led to amputation. Woods reportedly had a rod placed in his tibia and screws and pins inserted in his foot and ankle during emergency surgery. Sources say Woods sustained an injury to his talus bone, which connects the bottom of the lower leg to the top of the foot. The bone is a pivot point for motion and crucial for weight-bearing. Sources say that screws were likely inserted into the area to help it heal, and if all goes well, eventually allow for normal movement.
Woods was moved to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center which is known for its treatment of serious orthopedic injuries. He reportedly has undergone additional procedures since arriving there. It will be six months before Woods is able to walk again. You don’t need a doctor to know that a golf swing relies on balance. You would have to be an eternal optimist to think that he will ever play the game at a high level again. However, when it comes to Tiger, we would be foolish to rule it out.
Hopes Spring Eternal – The Blue Jays rise from the ashes is far from complete but how can you not be optimistic about the club’s future as spring training gets underway. Even when they reached the American League LCS in 2015 and 2016, you didn’t really get the impression they were World Series material. This is different. It’s been a wholesale remodeling and they’ve done it the right way. The Blue Jays as currently constructed are built for the long haul and with a few more additions to the pitching staff, they should be ready for sustained success. In 2015 and 2016, you knew it wasn’t going to last.
Were the Jays reluctant to go all goofy this off-season in the free agent market chasing starting pitching because they were confident that some of their top pitching prospects are closer than we think? We already know about Nate Pearson. He is ready to bust out and may be on the verge of stardom. Pearson is a legit front-of-the rotation prospect. Right-hander Alex Manoah, chosen 11th overall in the 2019 MLB draft, is also coming fast. He’s only pitched 17 innings at the pro level due to the pandemic but at 6’6”, 260 pounds, Manoah is a man-child and should make a rapid rise through the Jays system. Right-hander Simeon Woods Richardson was the cornerstone in the deal that sent Marcus Stroman to the Mets. Fans were so upset at losing Stroman, they lost sight of the inner-workings of the trade. The Jays received Woods Richardson plus bespectacled leftie Anthony Kay, a decent prospect in his own right. Woods Richardson has a complete arsenal with a fastball that features a 98-percent spin efficiency, a measure only 17 MLB’ers averaged in 2020. According to Gil Kim, Toronto’s director of player development. “Sim is one of the fiercest competitors we have in the organization. That guy just wants to beat you when he’s on the mound.”
Behind the two high ceiling arms are Adam Kloffenstein, CJ Van Eyk and Elvis Luciano who returns this season following Tommy John surgery. Rather than dishing out big bucks in free agency or surrendering prospect capital in a trade, maybe the best option for the Jays is to stay patient and wait for the next wave of starters to arrive.
There’s certainly a ton of excitement around the team as the Jays get ready for their opening exhibition game on Sunday against the New York Yankees. Vladdy Guerrero Jr. is getting plenty of attention after shedding 42 pounds in the off-season. One under-reported benefit of the off-season additions of George Springer and Marcus Semien is their leadership. The two were targeted for their character just as much as their skill.
Leftovers – Much ink has been spilled over the Russell Wilson soap opera in Seattle. There have been numerous reports about a potential trade. Wilson’s agent, Mark Rodgers, told ESPN his client “has not demanded a trade” and “he wants to play in Seattle” but Wilson would be willing to go to the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders or New Orleans Saints. Can we please stop all the chatter? Wilson is going nowhere for one simple reason. If the Seahawks deal Wilson this off-season, they would carry a $39 million dollar dead cap hit in 2021.
Watching the Raptors play the 76’ers last Sunday night reminded me of why I don’t watch a lot of basketball. The refereeing stinks! The Raptors get absolutely no respect from the officials even though they are just a year removed from winning the NBA title. They may as well be from Latvia. Philadelphia had 35 trips to the foul line in the game. The Raptors has 18. Toronto didn’t have one free throw in the final quarter until less than two minutes remaining. The Raptors still managed to win the game as Chris Boucher went 5 for 5 from three-point range. After starting the season 2-8, the Raptors are finally playing like an Eastern Conference contender.
It’s been a rapid decline for the Boston Red Sox. The team did little in the off-season to improve the roster. Last place in the American League East is not out of the question. The pitching staff is in complete disarray. There are still some power bats in the lineup but it’s going to take some time for the Red Sox to rebound. It seems like just yesterday they had the best outfield in baseball with the Killer B’s, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Adam Benintendi. If Bradley signs elsewhere as a free agent, all will have departed Fenway by the start of the season.
Spotify Song of the Week – Lyle Lovett is one of the great American troubadours and songwriters. Check out “Her First Mistake” from the album “The Road to Ensenada.” It plays like a short story. Brilliant lyrics!
Music Artist of the Week – Chicago blues vocalist and harmonica player Junior Wells was born Amos Wells Blakemore Jr. in Memphis in 1934. He was one of the pioneers of the amplified Chicago blues sound. Wells performed and recorded with many blues greats including Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. I have always thought Wells had the best voice of any blues singer and he was an underrated harp player as well. He told this story about how he got his first harp.
“I went to this pawnshop downtown and the man had a harmonica priced at $2.00. I got a job on a soda truck… played hookey from school … worked all week and on Saturday the man gave me a dollar and a half. A dollar and a half! For a whole week of work. I went to the pawnshop and the man said the price was two dollars. I told him I had to have that harp. He walked away from the counter – left the harp there. So I laid my dollar-and-a-half on the counter and picked up the harp. When my trial came up, the judge asked me why I did it. I told him I had to have that harp. The judge asked me to play it and when I did he gave the man the 50 cents and hollered ‘Case dismissed!'”
Here’s Junior and Buddy performing “Messin’ with the Kid” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974.
Here’s Junior and Buddy at Montreux in 1978 performing “Come on in This House.”
Here’s a classic version of “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” performed with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in 1984. Yes, that’s Buddy Guy and Mick Taylor on guitars.
You gotta love the coat on Buddy in this video from 1974. And how about the afro on the rhythm guitar player? Check out this fine version of “Mystery Train.”
Junior Wells died in Chicago in 1998 at the far too early age of 64. He had suffered from severe health problems, including cancer and a heart attack.
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