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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Editor Bill Morphy. Happy New Year Everyone. This week, the Canucks are in heady company. Time to size them up. We have NHL news, the Raps big deal and how about those Washington Huskies?

Follow the Process – The most overused phrase in the sports lexicon has to be “the process.” How many times have you heard players and coaches referring to “the process?” “We’ll be OK if we just follow the process.” Nobody can clearly explain it but everybody says it.

What it really comes down to is playing to a standard. Players either execute the game plan or they do not. Every team has systems. The good ones can stick to it even when they are not at their best. How do you explain the Boston Bruins putting up a record 135 points last season with a roster that was not exactly the ‘75 Montreal Canadiens? The Bruins were a juggernaut because they had a performance standard and executed for 60 minutes almost every night.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have talent but they are wildly inconsistent. They put together a full 60-minute effort about once every five games. Last year’s version of the Vancouver Canucks had the same issues. Too many stretches where the level of play and effort dropped off. Fast forward to this year and the transformation has been phenomenal. The systems are better. A standard of performance has been set and the players are making themselves accountable. The team has become almost better than the sum of the parts because everyone is buying in and the lapses in effort have almost completely disappeared. The coaching staff can step back and let the players police themselves. Let the leaders lead.

Process may be overused but it certainly explains the commitment that’s necessary to build a winning program. Accountability crosses over to all the major sports. Name an elite team and chances are they have it. Talent is great but it’s often not the most important element. It’s amazing what can happen when everyone just fulfills their role. More talented teams without the same dogged commitment can easily be beaten. Park the egos and pull together. It’s what makes every good team great. The Canucks new hockey operations department has been successful in setting a standard. The team is living up to it almost every night. It’s been fun to watch.

That Bloody Cap – With the break over the Christmas holidays, we had time to take a deep dive into the Canucks salary cap situation. Our mission was to try and determine where the Canucks stand against the cap heading into next season and find out how much money they may have to improve the roster. The Canucks front office has done a superlative job digging out of the mess left behind by the previous regime. The Canucks cap picture is brighter but there are plenty of dark clouds ahead.

Next season’s salary cap is expected to be about $87.7 million. For the purpose of this exercise, we plugged in all the players under contract for next season and then added in forecasted numbers for players who will require new deals. The biggest challenge will be finding money to sign Elias Pettersson and Filip Hronek who are both enjoying career seasons. We pegged Pettersson’s next contract to be in the neighborhood of $11 million. We have Hronek at $6.5 million. It may be very difficult to bring back all six pending UFA’s. The list includes Dakota Joshua, Sam Lafferty, Ian Cole, Teddy Blueger, Nikita Zadorov and goalie Casey DeSmith. They are all making strong contributions this season.

Here is the potential forward group with projected salaries for the 2024-25 season. Elias Petterson ($11 million), J. T Miller ($8 million), Brock Boeser ($6.65 million), Andrei Kuzmenko ($5.5 million), Ilya Mikhevev ($4.75 million), Sam Lafferty ($2.5 million), Teddy Blueger ($2.5 million), Pius Suter ($1.6 million), Nils Hoglander ($1.1 million), Dakota Joshua ($1.8 million), Nils Aman ($825,000), Phil DiGiuseppe ($775,000). Valeri Podkolzin is an RFA. We would expect the Canucks to sign him to a new short-term deal at around $1.0 million. That’s 13 forwards under contract at a total cost of $48,000,000.

On defense, Quinn Hughes is under contract for $7.85 million. We project Hronek to come in at around $6.5 million. Carson Soucey is signed for $3.25 million. Noah Juulsen is at $775,000. We have the Canucks re-signing Zadorov for $4.5 million and Ian Cole for $3 million. That group of six defensemen would come in at $25,875,000. In goal, Thatcher Demko is a bargain at $5 million. DeSmith is a UFA. If he returns, we project the number at $1.8 million. If the Canucks want to save money, they could go with Arturs Silovs who would cost about $900,000. Projected cost of goaltending is $6.8 million.

Add it all together, forwards ($48,00,000), defense ($25,875,000) and goaltending ($6.8 million) and you have a grand total of $80,675,000. Add in the OEL buy-out of ($2.35 million) and you are at $83,025,000. That would leave only $4,450,000 in cap space to make any roster additions. You have probably noticed that we have not included Conor Garland in the equation. With some many valuable free agents needing new contracts, we would expect the Canucks to move Garland ($4.95 million) in the off-season to open up much-needed cap space.

As you can see, the never-ending cap dance continues. Clearly, some of the UFA’s will move on. If they are offered term somewhere else, chances are they will exit. In a best-case scenario, some of the players listed will sign with the Canucks for less than we projected, opening up a few extra dollars. The Canucks are now a more desirable place to play so there could be some hometown discounts.

Canucks Notebook – You don’t think size matters? Last year, we wrote about the size of the Vegas Golden Knights defense corps and how big a factor it played into their Stanley Cup run. The Vegas defense averaged six-foot-three and 216 pounds. Go back further and the Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues also boasted sizeable defense groups.

Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre has documented the transformation of the Canucks defense over the past year into one of the biggest in the NHL. With Carson Soucey back in the lineup, the Canucks six-man defense unit now averages six-foot-three and 213 pounds which is almost identical in size to the Golden Knights championship blue line. That’s even factoring in the top pairing of Quinn Hughes (5-10, 180) and Filip Hronek (6-0, 190). As MacIntyre points out, the Canucks bottom four on defense – Soucey, Myers, Cole and Zadorov – average a robust six-foot-five and 228 pounds. The transformation has not happened by accident. The Canucks brass clearly identified the need to bulk up the back end if the team had any intentions of advancing deep into the playoffs.

Sitting in first place in the overall NHL standings at the Christmas break is heady stuff for Canuck faithful. The numbers back it up. The Canucks are tops in the league in scoring at 3.86 goals per game. They are second in goals against with a GAA of 2.51. Their .930 save percentage is fifth. They have the best goal differential at plus-46. They are 20-0 when leading after two periods. Best of all, they hold a 16-point playoff cushion so a playoff berth this season is almost assured.

If you were handing out hardware at the mid-point of the season, the Canucks would be in line for several major honours. Rick Tocchet is a clear favourite for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year. Quinn Hughes is building a strong case for the Norris as top defenseman. He leads all D-men in scoring with 44 points and is a league-best plus-28. Hughes should also get consideration for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. No Canuck goalie has ever won the Vezina Trophy. Could this be the year Thatcher Demko brings home the award? According to the website MoneyPuck, Demko leads all NHL goaltenders in goals saved above expected, a pretty good indicator of his performance.

NHL Notebook – If you are a fan of parity (and we are not), then you have to be happy with how many teams are within striking distance of the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, ten playoff-hopeful teams are within six points of each other. Teams that appeared to be in solid position a few weeks ago, like the Detroit Red Wings, are now on the outside looking in. Lose a few in a row and your fortunes can change quickly. In the Western Conference, seven teams fighting for their playoff lives including Calgary and Edmonton, are within seven points of each other.  Gary Bettman might like it but it seems the salary cap has only created a whole lot of mediocrity.

It took forever but the Ottawa Senators mercifully removed D.J. Smith as head coach. Longtime Sens bench boss Jacques Martin stepped in and will guide the team through the remainder of the season. Martin should be able to install some better systems play. The team waited far too long before making a change. It will be interesting to see if the Sens progress under Martin or continue playing wildly inconsistent period to period and game to game.

A couple of names to remember when the Sens get around to naming a new coach. John Gruden, the former Sens defenseman, is coaching the AHL Toronto Marlies. He brought Micheal Andlauer and Steve Staios an OHL championship in 2018 as coach of the Bulldogs. The Senators would be smart to wait and see what happens with Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina. He’s in the final year of his contract and if Brind’Amour becomes available, he would be an ideal candidate.

The Winnipeg Jets have found magic with the newly formed line that includes Mark Scheifele, Nik Ehlers and Gabe Vilardi. The trio put up 25 points in a recent four-game stretch. Vilardi scored in five straight. Vilardi had a slow start to the season after coming over in the off-season trade with the L.A. Kings. Once healthy, Vilardi has been a point-a-game producer. All three could be on their way to career highs in points. Meanwhile, the key piece going the other way, Pierre-Luc Dubois, is playing third-line minutes in Los Angeles. Dubois is on pace for a career low in points.

What’s happened to Connor Brown? The Edmonton Oilers were generally applauded for signing the veteran winger in the off-season. He played junior hockey in Erie with Connor McDavid and it was presumed they might rekindle some magic. That has not happened. Brown is yet to score and has only three assists in 27 games with a minus-8 beside his name. Another Ken Holland blunder.

The off-season trade with Nashville that netted Ryan Johansen has not worked out for Colorado. Johansen has not delivered as the Avs 2C. The Flames Elias Lindholm would be a great fit in Colorado but the acquisition cost will be high and the Avs may not have the assets to make it work.

Don’t rule out Dallas as a potential landing spot for Flames defenseman Chris Tanev. The Stars are definitely in the market for a right-shot defenseman.

The Vegas Golden Knights have run into goaltending problems. Both Adin Hill and Logan Thompson have been injured. The team has been forced to use pair of unknowns, Jiri Patera and Isaiah Saville, who had four career starts between them. The Golden Knights defense is so strong they can probably survive on a short-term basis.

Remember when scoring 50 goals in 50 games was considered one of the greatest feats in hockey? Only five players have ever done it. The “Rocket” Maurice Richard was the first. He scored 50 in 50 in 1944-45. Mike Bossy of the Islanders was next with 50 in 50 in 1980-81. The “Great One” Wayne Gretzky did it three times including the all-time mark of 50 goals in only 39 games. In that 1981-82 season, Gretz ended up scoring 61 goals in his first 50 games. The others to perform the feat were Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull who accomplished it twice.

All of which makes us wonder if the Maple Leafs Auston Matthews could take a run at it this season. It’s not entirely out of the question. Matthews has ripped home 29 goals in the Leafs first 33 games. Matthews may also take a run at 70 goals. No player has topped the 70-goal mark in over 30 years since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny both scored 76 goals in the 1992-93 season.

Under Further Review regulars scoffed when we predicted the Leafs were no lock to make the playoffs this season. Don’t look now but the Leafs are in an increasingly precarious position. They could easily be below the playoff bar once their current three-game road trip is over. Considering the state of the Leafs goaltending, nothing is certain right now. Over the past eight seasons, the Leafs have marched out a succession of failed experiments in goal including Freddie Andersen, Jack Campbell, Matt Murray, Ilya Samsonov, Petr Mrazek, Curtis McElhinney, Michael Hutchinson, Erik Kallgren, Garret Sparks and Martin Jones. Waiting for Joseph Woll to return from injury and hope he’s the answer may be the Leafs biggest mistake yet. As the astute Ray Ferraro recently commented, “You don’t need the best goaltending but you can’t have the worst.”

World Junior Hockey Notebook – For the second straight year, it looks like a Vancouver kid will be the number one overall pick in the NHL Draft. Macklin Celebrini is the consensus choice to go first. Celebrini will follow in the footsteps of Connor Bedard and look to fulfill the massive expectations of a top pick. He’s the son of Rick Celebrini who’s director of sports medicine and performance for the Golden State Warriors. Rick worked previously with the Canucks and numerous Canadian Olympians. The senior Celebrini oversaw his son’s rehab last summer after Macklin underwent shoulder surgery. Macklin decided to go the U.S. college route rather than playing junior hockey in Canada. He’s starring at Boston University where he put with 25 points in 15 games before departing for the World Juniors.

After having very few prospects in the World Junior tournament over the past several years (thanks Jim), the Canucks finally have some exciting kids to watch this year. The key prospects are all playing key roles with Team Sweden. Defensemen Elias Pettersson and Tom Willander are both logging top four minutes on the Swedish blueline. 2022 first-round pick Jonathan Lekkerimaki is playing on the top line as he continues to bounce back from a disappointing post-draft season. Pettersson was a 2022 third-round pick who is showing outstanding promise. He’s a big kid at 6-4, 205 pounds but has excellent skating ability. It’s looking like the Canucks may have an EP2 in their lineup in a couple of years.

Seahawks Central – After an embarrassing loss on home field to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Seahawks are again fighting for their playoff lives. The Seahawks close out the regular season next Sunda in Arizona against a Cardinals team fresh off an upset of the Eagles.

Even if the Seahawks made the playoffs, we don’t see them going anywhere even in a  watered-down NFC. Our issue is how a post-season berth might colour the Seahawks plans in the off-season because the team is far from a finished product. How can you be optimistic when you are getting your lunch handed to you by Mason Rudolph?

Fixing the run defense was a major point of emphasis in the off-season. It hasn’t happened. The Steelers rang up 145 yards rushing in the first half before finishing with 202. How’s that for stripping away your manhood? Heading into the game, the Seahawks were 27th in both run defense and total yards allowed. Sunday’s game will only make those numbers look worse.

For a team that was supposedly built to run the football, the Seahawks are 29th in the NFL in rushing attempts and yards rushing. How can you be considered a Super bowl threat when you can’t run the ball or stop the run? Sure, the Seahawks may squeak into the playoffs but are they really any closer to winning another Super Bowl? Definitely not.

A lot of Seahawk watchers are speculating whether Jamal Adams has played his last game in Seattle. If that’s the case, good riddance. The acquisition of Adams from the New York Jets will go down as the worst deal in franchise history.

You can also hand out a lump of coal to D’Wayne Eskridge who looks every bit the part of another Seahawks wasted second-rounder. He’s appeared in 24 of a possible 50 games and only four games this season with zero catches. Time for D’Wayne to pack his bags.

Let Russ Rot – It will go down in NFL lore as one of the worst trades in history. Right up there with the Herschel Walker bonanza. It’s become obvious the Denver Donkeys are going to rip off the band-aid and part ways with Russell Wilson. The team will let Wilson rot on the bench for the final two games of the season rather than risk an injury. Had he been hurt and unable to pass a physical by next March, it would have triggered $37 million in contract guarantees for 2025.

This sets the Broncos up to cut Wilson altogether even though the team will carry an $85 million dead cap hit spread over the next two seasons. The Wilson deal with Seattle will not only go down as one of the worst trades in NFL history, the subsequent mega contract handed Wilson may be one of the worst contract signings ever. When Wilson arrived in Denver, the Broncos inked him to a seven-year, $245 million dollar contract extension that included $165 million guaranteed. He will end up collecting over $120 million for less than two full seasons. Plus, Wilson will collect another $39 million for the 2024 season even though he will be playing elsewhere.

The question now becomes, who would want him? He’s got a reputation as a diva. He’s 35. Is there a team desperate enough to take a shot? Several teams have been mentioned including New England, Washington and Las Vegas. The Raiders would have to find a way to dump Jimmy Garoppolo first but it does seem like a potential landing spot.

Unwrapping the Raptors – The Toronto Raptors are kicking off the New Year with a major remodeling. O.G. Anunoby is off to New York in a six-player swap that netted the Raptors two rotation pieces – guard Immanuel Quickley and wing R.J. Barrett, who comes home to Toronto to give the team some much-desired Canadian content.

The Raptors have no intention of embarking on a complete tear-down. They wanted players who would fit with franchise cornerstone Scottie Barnes. Barrett is 23. Quickley is 24. Both should have every opportunity to grow their game in Toronto. Barrett’s shooting has been erratic. A lot of scouts around the league think Quickley has huge upside. Quickley may flourish in a starting role. He started 21 games last season following an injury to Jalen Brunson. He averaged 22.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists in those games so it’s a gamble worth taking.

Still, the shine is off Toronto Raptors major domo Mesai Ujiri. The team is stumbling along at 12-20 and often play in a fog. They just helped the Detroit Pistons end a 28-game losing streak and avoid the ignominy of breaking the all-time NBA futility mark.

It was decision time in Toronto. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. are all slated to become free agents next summer. The Raptors can’t afford a repeat of last summer when they lost Fred VanVleet for nothing. Ujiri and Raptors GM Bobby Webster have not exactly hit it out of the park with their recent transactions. They got very little when they sent Kyle Lowry to Miami in a sign-and-trade in 2021. They missed out on several good young players in the 2022 draft when they traded down 13 spots and acquired veteran Thaddeus Young at the trade deadline. Last year’s deadline deal that landed Jakob Poeltl cost the Raps a first and two second-round picks. To top it off, VanVleet walked away with no return. It’s not exactly a sterling record of late.

You have to think the Raptors are far from done. They have been listening on Siakam for over a year. At 30 and headed to a huge payday, Siakam may be better off with a team ready to win right now. With five weeks to the trade deadline, there should be no rush. No doubt, it’s a big opportunity for the Raptors to change the makeup of the team and the organization’s long-term outlook.

MLB Notebook – After whiffing on Shohei Otani and Juan Soto, the Blue Jays are now in scramble mode as they try to fill out their roster for next season. The Jays re-signed Kevin Kiermaier to another one-year deal, ensuring strong outfield defense but doing little to add much-needed punch to the lineup. The Jays also added former Yankee utility-man Isiah Kiner-Falefa. If the Jays move away from Matt Chapman, IKF may see a lot of duty at third base. The signings probably rule out any on-going interest in Cubs free agent Cody Bellinger. Until the Jays land an impact bat (or two), it certainly looks like they will be running it back with essentially the same team that won 89 games last season. To date, the Jays off-season has been completely uninspiring. There’s still time to do something impactful but the worry meter is definitely rising.

Major League Baseball released their luxury tax penalties and it is going to be very costly for the New York Mets. The Mets must pay a record luxury tax of almost $101 million despite finishing in fourth place in the NL East. The Mets had a tax payroll this season of $374.7 million which is another all-time high. The Dodgers held the previous high payroll of $291 million in 2015. The Blue Jays will be paying a luxury tax for the first time. They owe $5.5 million.

Leftovers – How about those Washington Huskies? Dem’ Dawgs will play for the U.S. college football championship next Monday night against number one-ranked Michigan. The Huskies knocked off Texas 37-31 in the Sugar Bowl to advance to the national final. Michael Penix Jr. picked apart the Longhorns with 430 yards passing. (Were you watching Seahawks brass?) Michigan edged out Alabama in the Rose Bowl.

It’s a welcome change to see the Washington-Michigan matchup. A SEC team has won the national title each of the past eight years. And kind of ironic as well since Washington will join Michigan in the Big Ten next season. The Huskies are one of ten schools fleeing the Pac-12 for other Power Five conferences.

U.S. college football has never been in such turmoil. The entire playoff system needs to be revamped. Conferences are crumbling. Players are transferring from school to school for cold, hard cash. This year’s Orange Bowl was a microcosm of the issues. Georgia crushed Florida State 63-3. The 60-point margin of victory was the largest ever in a bowl game. 29 Florida State scholarship players did not suit up rather than risk injury and damage their NFL prospects. Without a better national championship playoff system, the flood of opt-outs will only continue. The Seminoles went 13-0 during the season yet were left out of the College Football Playoff. Why bother playing in a meaningless non-playoff bowl game? What’s the motivation? College football has brought this on themselves.

Remember the name Landon DuPont. He’s the 14-year-old son of former NHL defenseman Micki DuPont. He’s playing  and dominating with 18-year-olds on an U18 team in Calgary. The young defenseman is already being compared to Cale Makar. If he decides to play in the WHL, he will likely seek exceptional status so he can play in the league as a 15-year-old. Watching DuPont run a power-play at that age is just incredible. It reminds you how advanced young players are these days.

We’re holding our breath for a deal between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund that would end the unsettled state of professional golf. Something needs to happen soon because the PGA Tour simply can’t win a cash war with the Saudis.

It will be interesting to see where all this leads. LIV Golf has bled most of the needle-moving stars away from the PGA Tour save for Rory McIlroy. It’s about time the PGA Tour answered back. They’ve been seeking investment into a new entity called PGA Tour Enterprises. ESPN reported that more than $3 billion may be injected by a consortium of billionaire team owners from major U.S. sports franchises. Tiger Woods has joined the Tour’s policy board so you can be sure he will impact the decision-making.

Spotify Tracks of the Week – The band The Nighthawks have been around for what seems like forever. They were formed in Washington, DC in 1972 with Jimmy Thackery on lead guitar. Their first big album, Full House, came in 1979 with guest appearances from Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin. The band is still around today and has released a single entitled I’ll Come Running Back to You. Give it a listen.

Could not find any bio information on an artist named Noah Fitzgerald. Spotify is featuring his first ever release called Man’s Soul.  We recommend the tune Finally, Say. Definitely worth checking out.

Pittsburgh-based roots band Ghost Hounds features lead singer Tre’ Nation. We recommend the title track and Love You Too Hard off the band’s fourth studio album First Last Time released in 2023. From the album You Broke Me, check out the tracks Through Being Blue Over You, Still You and On Your Trail.

Dion DiMucci is an American music legend who’s still kicking out the jams at 84. Dion teams with Susan Tedeschi on a new track entitled Soul Force. It’s available for download on Spotify.

For some female vocals, check out the 2015 release Hold On from Shawn Colvin.

Special thanks to our regular contributors including Jordan Moss, Ian MacPhee, Dave Kittle, Ted Tait, Peter Hucul, Glen and Bill Myles, Howard Steiss and Rob Wagner.

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