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Under Further Review – February 8, 2019 – 

Wild Wild West – NHL parity has reached a new low in the Western Conference where seven points separate the bottom nine teams in what is shaping up to be a slow crawl to the finish line for the two wild-card playoff spots.

Minnesota looked to be a strong bet until they lost their top forward Mikko Koivu this week to a season-ending injury. St. Louis and Chicago, long thought to be dead in the water, are suddenly resurgent and back in the race. Anaheim has won only two of their last 20 games, yet find themselves only four points out of a playoff spot. Edmonton has been spilling oil for weeks yet are still breathing. It’s so bad you can’t even rule out the L.A. Kings.

An injury-plagued week helped slow the Canucks recent run of success. Losing Alex Edler to the gruesome concussion and facial injury in Philadelphia is a massive blow. Don’t underscore losing back-up goaltender Thatcher Demko either. Jacob Markstrom has now made six straight starts and has been in net for 12 of the last 13 games. Assuming he plays Saturday night against the Flames and Monday night against San Jose, it will be eight straight and 14 of 15. An over-worked goalie is never a good thing!

A year ago at this time, Ben Hutton was a wreck. He was a press box regular, the coach had questioned his fitness and his confidence was at an all-time low. His future as a Canuck was in serious doubt. Few fans believed he would be with the team once this season began. Well, credit Travis Green and the Canucks for sticking with Hutton because he is playing with new-found confidence and maturity. He was a horse in Philadelphia after Edler went out, logging a team-high 28 minutes. Of late, Green has been partnering Hutton with Troy Stecher and they are suddenly being used as the team’s ‘shutdown’ pair. Who would have thought of that a few months ago? Not bad for a fifth round pick and a college free agent!

NHL Happenings – The latest manifesto from beleaguered Senators owner Eugene Melnyk screams of nothing more than a feeble PR move. I will guarantee you that if and when the Senators ever spend to the cap, Melnyk will no longer be the owner. The underlying message from his speech to sponsors at an event in Toronto was – “Be prepared, we have no intention of signing Duchene and Stone to big money deals.” I was surprised he didn’t bring along defenseman Mark Borowiecki for another fireside chat.  Hey Boro! – put your teeth in and tell us what’s really happening!

It’s an embarrassment to have Melnyk represent the city of Ottawa and their great hockey fans. I blame the NHL for not stepping in and putting an end to this nonsense. Find a new owner, offer market value for the team and get Melnyk the hell out of there, whether he likes it or not. The NHL lets these sagas play on like a Shakespearean drama when they should be booting his ass to the curb.

Have you noticed that there is a strong possibility that the Leafs and the Canadiens could meet in the first round of the playoffs?  How about that? The Leafs and Habs have not met in the playoffs since 1979 when the Canadiens ousted the Leafs in four straight games.

Long before the incomparable Bobby Orr burst onto the NHL scene, there was the Canadiens Doug Harvey who many still claim was the greatest defenseman ever.  He won six Cups with Montreal and was named an NHL all-star eleven times. In 1964, Harvey was added to the lineup of the Montreal Jr. Canadiens along with Gump Worsley and Red Berenson for an exhibition game against the Soviet National Team.  Harvey played almost 50 minutes in a 3-2 loss. In addition to hockey, Harvey was a boxing champion in the Canadian Navy, a top lacrosse player as well as an outstanding Double A’ baseball player who one scout claimed could have played in the majors.

For years, Harvey battled alcoholism while suffering from bipolar disorder. He died of cirrhosis of the liver a week after his 65th birthday. There were reports that he ended up living in a railroad box car – it was, in fact, a caboose that had been remodeled into an apartment by a wealthy Canadiens fan who wanted to help him out.

Harvey would have excelled in today’s game. Bobby Hull said whenever he had the puck he controlled the entire game.  (Thanks to my friend Ian in Montreal for his insight into Harvey’s life)

Life of Reilly – The Edmonton Eskimos just announced they are giving quarterback Mike Reilly permission to speak with other teams prior to the opening of CFL free agency on Tuesday. The 34 year old Reilly has just finished a two-year deal in which he was the league’s highest paid player at $500,000 per season. The Eskimos reportedly granted permission back in January so you can assume the BC Lions have already spoken with Reilly and his agent. Current Lions GM Ed Hervey traded for Reilly’s rights when he was with Edmonton back in 2013 so you know there’s a strong connection. At the time, Wally Buono didn’t have much choice but to deal Reilly. The Lions would have lost him to Ottawa in the expansion draft. Reilly would go on to win two Grey Cups in Edmonton and a Most Outstanding Player award.

Signing Reilly is a no-brainer for the Lions.  They desperately need to re-ignite the fan base. Right now, there’s no compelling reason to buy a ticket to watch the team. They are swimming in mediocrity with no name-brand player recognition. Reilly alone would change that. Better yet, he makes his off-season home in the Seattle area. Lion QB Travis Lulay was the best man at Reilly’s wedding. I would be shocked if he is not in a Lions uniform to start next season.

Meantime, there are about 250 players available in free agency so let the bidding begin. The Lions have all kinds of needs and half their roster to fill. They will be looking for help across the board but definitely also need to go out and find an impact receiver…or two.

Stupor Bore – The Patriots stirring 13-3 win over the Rams will not only go down as the lowest scoring game in Super Bowl history but certainly the most boring. New England was ripe to be beaten and the Rams failed to take advantage. There were about six NFL teams that could have beaten the Patriots on Sunday. How bad was it?  The Rams punted on their first eight possessions. It was 3-0 at halftime and 6-3 at the end of the third quarter. L.A. had two first downs and 47 yards at the break. And here’s the kicker!  There was one Red Zone play in the entire game, the one yard touchdown run by the Patriots Sony Michel.

The Patriots whole defensive game plan was to force Jared Goff to think on the fly. The Rams use a coach-to-quarterback communication to adjust calls based on what the defense is showing, up to the point where that communication cuts off, with 15 seconds left on the play clock. New England completely negated the advantage by showing one formation prior to the snap and then switching into a different coverage post-snap. I had written several weeks ago about Goff’s passing percentage against man-coverage versus zone.  Over and over again, Goff looked totally confused, held the ball too long and failed to make the proper reads. It was classic case of ‘deer in the headlights.’ Goff looked and played like Napolean Dynamite!

The highlight of the entire game was the fur coat worn by Big Boi during the halftime show. Looked to me like a Johnny Rodgers hand-me-down!

Kawhi Not – The window for reaching the NBA pinnacle looks perilously short for the Raptors. General Manager Masai Ujiri tossed all of his chips onto the table at this week’s trading deadline when he acquired veteran centre Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies.  Make no mistake, even at 34, Gasol is still one of the best ‘bigs’ in the NBA.  He is a premier passer out of the post.  He can draw defenses out by hitting the ‘3’ and he’s a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year. There’s no doubt Gasol’s versatile skill set makes the Raptors a better team. The problem is one of their biggest strengths, their depth, has been dramatically reduced. In fact, the Raptors have only eight solid rotational players at the moment and have been left with four open roster spots that will need to be filled, presumably in the buy-out market. Shooting and rebounding weaknesses have been exposed big time in recent weeks so they had better find additional reinforcements. I still maintain that unless Kyle Lowry steps up his game, the NBA Finals is a pipe dream.

In the big picture, the whole season and short-term future of the team is directly linked to the status of Kawhi Leonard. If they can convince him to stay, even on a short-term deal, then the Raptors have a fighting chance to contend again next season.  If Leonard departs as a free agent this summer, well, let the rebuild begin. Right now, the Raptors are hamstrung by the luxury tax and limited in what they can do to bolster the lineup. It looks like they will be forking out over 34 million in luxury tax this season for going over the mandated NBA salary cap.

Masai Ujiri deliberately built in a reset button when he acquired Leonard last summer. If Leonard departs, the Raptors will be in position to shift directions in quick motion and begin a tear down in earnest.

Bottom Feeders – If you look at the NBA, parity is a pipe dream. There are about half a dozen good teams, a pack of mediocre teams and a whole host of bottom feeders. There are no less than five teams with under 20 wins, four of them with 12 or less.

Atlanta sits at 18-and-36, Chicago is 12-and-42, Cleveland is 11-and-43, the woeful Knicks are 10-and-43 and Phoenix is 11-and-45. The Knicks and Suns are both currently on 10-game losing streaks.  Meanwhile, the NHL doesn’t have one team with less than 20 wins.

In the NBA, the inmates are running the asylum.  The top players dictate where they want to play and with whom. LaBron James has been responsible for the firing of at least four coaches. He’s now working on having Luke Walton turfed. How many players have been traded thanks to LaBron’s behind the scenes influence? The guy is a self-aggrandizing phony! So far, the LaBron Method hasn’t been working so well for La Lakers.

So Saudi – I cannot understand why golfers would even consider playing in a tournament in Saudi Arabia right now. Are they completely out of touch with world affairs? Or am I so naïve to think they are going to turn down lucrative appearance fees?

Dustin Johnson hung on to win a European Tour event held in – hold on – King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia.  Three other prominent Americans also played – Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. The tournament, new to the Euro Tour, was held despite scrutiny over Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record and world-wide condemnation following the brutal slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Apparently, Dustin and friends paid no attention. Thanks for being socially conscious boys!