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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Contributing Editor Bill Morphy and with a big assist from TB and Peter Hucul. This week, good riddance to 2020. We offer our NHL season preview, more World Junior observations and bring on the NFL post-season.

NHL Season Preview – The NHL season is set to get underway on January 13 and it will be a sprint with 56 games in 116 days. Seven Canadian teams will be vying for four playoff spots. Make no mistake, every Canadian team has warts. There are no elite teams in the Canadian division. In fact, it may be the weakest of the four revamped NHL divisions. It should be a monumental scramble for playoff berths. Every setback will be felt hard in Canadian markets where the spotlight is bright.

In our preview, we will illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of each team. What needs to go right for each team to succeed and what could hold them back? We will count the order of finish down from 7-to-1 and you may be surprised at how we see things stacking up.

#7 – Ottawa – This one may be the easiest to predict. Ottawa has been an NHL bottom-feeder each of the past three season, finishing 30th, 31st and 30th.  After an extensive off-season roster makeover, the Senators are ready to rise from the depths. The Senators have added a number of veterans to add stability and insulate the youngsters expected to dot the lineup. The Senators may prove to be the most improved team in the NHL this season.

General Manager Pierre Dorion has done yeoman work on a tight budget. Out the door from last year’s team are both goalies, Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson. Bobby Ryan, Anthony Duclair and Mikkel Boedker have exited up front while Ron Hainsey and Mark Borowiecki have been deleted from the blueline. Incoming forwards include Cedric Paquette, Evgenii Dadonov, Austin Watson, Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk. On defence, the Sens have added Braydon Coburn, Eric Gudbranson and Josh Brown. In goal, Matt Murray is the most important addition. Collectively, this is a massive upgrade. The Sens will no longer be an easy ‘out.’ Toss in the youngsters who’ve been ripening on the farm and suddenly there’s promise. Underrated in the roster makeover is the injection of ‘bite’ into the lineup. No one will be taking liberties with prize rookie Tim Stuetzle.

Unfortunately, there are dark days still ahead until the Sens clearly establish 1C and 2C centres and incorporate all the premium draft picks into a shallow defence corps.  The best is yet to come but at least for now, Senator fans have renewed hope. If nothing more, the raft of off-season acquisitions will provide Dorion with more ammunition come the trade deadline.

Youngsters to Watch: The scorched-earth rebuild in Ottawa has helped produce a bountiful prospect pipeline. Stuetzle has been playing in the German Elite League for two seasons and should stick. He’s a franchise cornerstone and will give the PP a huge boost. Forwards Drake Batherson, Josh Norris and Alex Formenton spent last year in Belleville and should be ready for prime time duty this season. There’s plenty more blue-chip talent on its way to the Nation’s Capital including Team USA defenceman Jake Sanderson, the second of three first round picks this year. Sanderson is the son of former NHL’er Geoff Sanderson.

#6 – Edmonton – The Oilers endured an ignominious finish last year when they were punted by the 12th seeded Black Hawks in the qualifying round. Ken Holland took a run at Jacob Markstrom in the off-season but he landed in enemy territory in Calgary. It was a gut-punch to Edmonton’s off-season plans. The goaltending remains a huge question mark and overall depth is still a big issue. The Oilers live and die on their league-leading power-play. Edmonton was 26th in the NHL last season in five-on-five scoring.   

Simply put, the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and soon-to-be 39 Mike Smith is not playoff calibre. Holland may regret not upgrading in goal although he may still be working the phones. To make matters worse, Oscar Klefbom, the Oilers best defenceman, will miss the entire season because of a chronic shoulder injury that required another procedure. Klefbom’s 25-minutes-a-night further depletes an already thin defence group. Tyson Barrie was added from Toronto in free agency and will help the power-play but Oiler fans won’t like his defensive play. The other off-season additions, Dominuk Kahun, Slater Koekkoek and Kyle Turris, offer modest upside.

No one can match the Oilers one-two punch in the middle with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They love to get it to 3-on-3 overtime where the superstars can take over and grab valuable points. Unfortunately, two of the best in the game is not enough to overcome the Oilers lack of scoring depth and suspect goaltending. Bottom line? Goal prevention remains a massive issue in Edmonton. Connor McDavid misses the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

Youngsters to Watch: Years of poor drafting left the cupboard bare. Holland is trying to change that. 2017 first round pick Jesse Puljujarvi returns from Finland for a second go-round. Can he be trusted defensively to play in the top-six? It would sure help if he can. Two young defencemen will look to make their mark. Philip Broberg (2019 first round, 8th overall) will be given a long look in camp after leading Sweden at the World Junior tournament. Evan Bouchard (2018 first round, 10th overall) is hoping to crack the lineup after a year in Bakersfield.

#5 – Vancouver – Jim Benning’s free agent generosity and irresponsible salary cap management has left the Canucks with precious little money to improve a lineup that has been decimated by free agent defections.

The departure of Jacob Markstrom stings but the Canucks should still get above-average goaltending from Thatcher Demko and free agent Braden Holtby. Holtby has struggled the past two seasons in Washington but it’s hard to believe his career is over at just 31. The goaltenders would be better served if the Canucks stopped giving up a hideous number of high-grade scoring chances.

On defence, the departure of Chris Tanev will sting but the subsequent addition of Nate Schmidt from Vegas was heaven-sent. Along with Quinn Hughes, Alex Edler and Tyler Myers, the Canucks have their best top-four D-group in a decade. Hughes is a one-man tour de force. He helped the Canucks score 228 goals last season, second most in the Western Conference behind Colorado (237). The third pairing got a late boost with the signing of Travis Hamonic to a PTO contract. Once Michael Ferland is placed on LTIR, the Canucks will make the deal official. Hamonic logged over 21 heavy minutes a night with the Flames last season and will be a welcome addition on the penalty kill.

Up front, the top-six lost Tyler Toffoli, opening a massive opportunity for wayward winger Jake Virtanen. It’s time for Jake to answer the call or he could be out of town by the trade deadline. Tanner Pearson remains in the top-six when the team would be better served with Pearson further down in the lineup. It’s imperative the Canucks maintain their proficient power-play, 4th in the league last season. The Canucks scored 56 goals with the man advantage last year and surrendered only four shorties. The +52 differential led the NHL.

The bottom-six is a dog’s breakfast of overpaid and underachieving veterans past their best-before date. We have the Canucks missing the playoffs as a result of a lack of scoring punch in the bottom half of their lineup. For the Canucks to secure a playoff spot, the youngsters in the lineup and on the taxi-squad will need to exceed expectations. The Canucks could be facing a one-year reset. It’s likely to happen whether they want it or not.

Youngsters to Watch: The cavalry is coming. Shifty Swede Nils Hoglander is hoping to find an immediate role. He’s already famous for ‘lacrosse-style’ goals but there’s more to his game than flash. Hoglander is a workout fiend and has top-six potential. Vasili Podkolzin will arrive once the KHL season is completed. He will help the second power-play unit immediately and looks like a sure-fire play-driver. 2016 first rounder Olli Juolevi is finally healthy and should slot into the third defence pairing. AHL all-star Brogan Rafferty and Harvard grad Jack Rathbone should stick around in a depth role. Rathbone has huge upside. It will be interesting to watch his development this season.

#4 – Toronto – Kyle Dubas has played musical chairs with the roster but it still comes out looking like the ugly sister. When you spend half the salary cap on four players, this is what you get. The goaltending is inconsistent, the defence is soft and the bottom six is wretched. The Leafs defensive shortcomings have not been fixed. The red light will be working overtime in Toronto.

In a fit of comical hyperbole, here’s what Luke Fox of Sportsnet had to say about the Leafs prospects this season. The overhauled blueline and leadership corps makes for the best, deepest and most balanced Maple Leafs roster — on paper, that is — of this century.”

Talk about rose-coloured glasses! When you stop and think about it, the constant hype in Toronto may be part of the problem. The team is constantly swooned over without every accomplishing a bloody thing.

There are some positives. The Leafs top-six forward group is dynamic and can be a matchup nightmare. Auston Matthews and John Tavaras are a formidable one-two punch. Mitch Marner and William Nylander add speed and scoring. Throw in Zach Hyman and Russian Ilya Mikheyev and it’s tough to match the firepower in the Leafs top-six.

On defence, the addition of T.J. Brodie should more than make up for the loss of Tyson Barrie. The Leafs will likely pair Brodie with Morgan Reilly to form the top unit. Jake Muzzin will play in the second pair. After that, it’s pot-luck time from a group that includes Justin Holl, Zach Bogosian, Travis Dermott and KHL cast-off Mikko Lehtonen. The right side is frightfully thin. Unless Wayne and Larry Hillman come to the rescue, this defence corps won’t get it done.

If the defence is thin, the bottom-six forward group is anorexic. It’s sprinkled with washed-up veterans Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds and easy-to-play-against types like Alex Kerfoot, Jimmy Vesey and Pierre Engvall.  In order to land the final playoff spot, the goaltending tandem of Freddie Andersen and Jack Campbell absolutely MUST hold up.

The Leafs penalty-killing continues to be a major issue. Unless there’s dramatic improvement, we are not buying all the usual pre-season hype. The Leafs have put on some lipstick but overall, we still see a very poor defensive hockey team which was 25th in the league last season in goals allowed.

Youngsters to Watch: If you listen to the Toronto media hordes, you would think Nick Robertson is the second-coming of Frank Mahovolich. The 2019 second rounder may have top-six potential but for now, he’s a huge defensive risk. The Leafs are hoping he can hold up in limited minutes. Defenceman Rasmus Sandin (2018 first round, 29th overall) will be among a cluster of D-men looking to secure a lineup spot. He got pushed around in his audition last year.

#3 – Calgary – You can’t underscore the acquisition of Jacob Markstrom. Goaltending has been a sore spot for the Flames since the days of Miikka Kiprusoff. The defence is underrated and while goal-scoring remains an issue, we are predicting enough one-goal wins to get the job done.

The blueline is the strength of the team. Captain Mark Giordano is getting up in years but is still a horse. Former Canuck Chris Tanev brings a steady hand to the right side and will be a quality penalty killer. Young veterans Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifan are solid. Finnish rookie Juuso Valimaki and Swede Oliver Kylington should hold up well.

Good teams are built down the middle and this is where the Flames run into problems. Sean Monahan is not an elite 1C. The Flames plan to move Elias Lindholm off the right side and audition him at centre. There’s even talk of moving Sam Bennett back to the middle. Mikael Backlund would be more valuable in a third line role. Much of the Flames success will depend on sorting out who’s playing where.

The Flames forward group is overly dependent on the bite and scoring offered by Matthew Tkachuk. He will need to continue his ascendance. Johnny Gaudreau faces a crossroads season. He should be highly motivated after being the whipping boy for Flames playoff collapses.

With just one playoff series win in seven years, this will be a franchise-defining season in Calgary. The Flames desperately need another top-six forward in order to grab this spot. Look for Calgary to make a deal if the team starts slow.

Youngsters to Watch: Valimaki missed all of last season with a torn knee but has been playing in Finland and reports are very positive. He has all the traits to be an elite NHL defenceman and future top pairing fixture. Former Team Canada captain Dillon Dube is a breakout candidate. He excelled in last year’s playoffs on a line with Bennett and Milan Lucic. Dillion is versatile, can play either wing and has the ability to move up in the lineup. Two members of Team Canada, Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier, are at least a year away.

#2 – Winnipeg – Our three top-rated teams earn their positioning for a reason – GOALTENDING. Connor Hellebuyck provides Vezina Trophy-level goaltending on a nightly basis. The Jets forward group is deep and talented. The defence is unheralded but we are betting it’s capable enough to help the Jets secure a playoff berth. Penalty-killing is an issue in Winnipeg and needs to improve.

There’s a ton of speculation around Patrik Laine who’s heading into the final year of a bridge deal. The Jets will likely reunite Laine and Nik Ehlers with off-season acquisition Paul Stastny, making his second tour of duty in Winnipeg. Mark Scheifele remains the key to the Jets hopes. He exited the playoffs after only three shifts with a high ankle sprain and the Jets season went down the tubes with him. The top-six forward group does all the heavy lifting. Kyle Connor, Ehlers, Laine, Scheifele and Blake Wheeler all had 20+ goals last season.

It’s essential the Jets get their power-play back to top-5 level with Laine as the triggerman. If Laine is dealt in-season, looks for the Jets to acquire a sturdy right-shot defenseman or another quality centre. Winnipeg is thin on right wing after Laine and Blake Wheeler so they may want to think twice before shopping the big Finn. The Jets may be better served to deal Kyle Connor to maintain left-right balance in their top-six. Connor gives back as much defensively as he provides offensively.

Veteran Bryan Little is on LTIR which gives the Jets $5 million to play with. They need to use it to upgrade the blueline. The Jets are currently spending only $16 million on seven defencemen. In addition to Laine, the Jets have trade chips in Mathieu Perreault, Sami Niku and Jack Roslovic, who has asked to be traded and won’t be reporting to camp. The Jets could look much different a month from now.

Youngsters to Watch: A lot hinges on the development of two young defencemen – 2019 first round pick Ville Heinola and 2017 second round pick Dylan Samberg. Heinola will join the Jets straight from the World Junior tournament and should walk right into this year’s lineup. Samberg is turning pro after his junior year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth but will likely need seasoning in the AHL. Centre David Gustafsson will challenge for the fourth line centre role. It could be a make or break year for 2017 first round selection Kristian Vesalainen, a big and rugged left-winger. 2020 first rounder Cole Perfetti is playing on the wing for Team Canada. It would be a huge boon to the Jets if he can play centre in the NHL.

#1 – Montreal – No team helped themselves more in the off-season than the Montreal Canadiens. You can question the generosity of some of the contracts but the Habs are arguably the deepest team in Canada and the goaltending is first rate. Add in good coaching and the Canadiens are the consensus top seed in the Great White North Division. All bets are off, however, if the Canadiens don’t improve on the power-play where they finished 30th and 22nd over the past two seasons.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin had a production off-season, adding goaltender Jake Allen, defenceman Joel Edmundson, and forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli. Corey Perry and Michael Frolik were last minute depth additions. Finding a suitable back-up for Carey Price has been an adventure. How can you not like the physical presence of the Canadiens blueline? The defence may be the best in the All-Canadian division led by Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, as good a one-two punch on the right side as you will find in the NHL. Add in Edmundson, Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak and highly-touted Russian Alexander Romanov and the Canadiens blueline is set.

Goals may still be hard to come by up front but the Habs have added enough punch to carry Montreal to the top of the divisional standings. It continues to be a riddle in the middle with Phillip Danault as the presumptive #1 centre. One key to watch is the continued maturation of the Habs two young centres, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. Any significant step back in their development will damage the Habs hopes severely. The right side is now a strength with the additions of Anderson, Toffoli and Perry to go along with Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia. The Canadiens had better hope Anderson is fully recovered from a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a fractured clavicle. He has a lot of convincing to do to justify a new, seven-year, $38.5 million dollar contract.

Youngsters to Watch: If Romanov comes as advertised, the Canadiens defence will be well fortified. The best-case scenario has Romanov taking a spot in the top four with either Weber or Petry. After suffering a concussion early last season, centre Ryan Poehling is hoping to get his career back on track. His progression will be watched closely. Who can forget his hat trick plus shootout winner in the final game of the 2018-2019 season? It seems like eons ago.   

NHL Notebook – Canuck fans should be sounding the alarm when it comes to contract negotiations with Travis Green on the heels of a couple of other recent exits out of town. What’s holding up a new contract for Green? This should not be a difficult negotiation in light of the team’s progress under Green’s leadership. Couple that with the exodus of Judd Brackett, Director of Amateur Scouting, to Minnesota and assistant coach Manny Malhotra to Toronto, and you start to get very concerned. Is it natural attrition or are guys anxious to leave the organization? Every case is different. Brackett reportedly wanted more control over the draft. Malhotra is from back east and perhaps wanted to be closer to family in Toronto. But did money play a factor in their departures? A good organization will fight hard to keep good people. I would have done everything possible to keep both Brackett and Malhotra, that’s all I know. You keep hearing about cash flow issues with owner Francesco Aquilini. Did that play a part? We will learn a lot more in the months ahead if the exodus continues and if contract talks with Green don’t progress.

It looked for the longest time like the Tampa Bay Lightning were locked deep in salary cap hell. All of a sudden – POOF – they are cap compliant to start the season without losing any players of note. Nikita Kucherov has surgery just before camp is about to begin and his salary goes on LTIR. Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette, a couple of spare parts, are shipped off to Ottawa in exchange for the contracts of Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson, who are also quickly dumped on LTIR. It’s like magic. Should we be applauding GM Julien BriseBois for playing his hand beautifully or is it a case of cap circumvention? None of the players who were expected to be dealt out of Tampa were cap casualties. Kucherov will return for the playoffs when the salary cap doesn’t matter. The Lightning will have all the bullets in their holster plus Steven Stamkos who didn’t factor in their Cup run last season due to injury. From our vantage point, the Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche are a cut above every other team in the league. If you want Cup favourites, it’s them.

Very sorry to hear that Jonathan Toews is having lingering health issues. The Black Hawks have announced that Toews is out indefinitely due to an undisclosed illness with no timetable set for his return. In a statement, Toews said he has been consulting with doctors since experiencing fatigue during the off-season that’s left him drained and fatigued. The immediate reaction is to wonder if Toews contracted COVID at some point this year and is now dealing with severe after-effects. Chicago will start the season with Toews, Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw all on LTIR totaling $21,275,000.

Brendan Shanahan has no playoff series wins in seven years as Maple Leafs President. Where else would be keep his job?

If the Canadian division is as close as everyone expects, it may come down to how each team fares against Ottawa. Lose the season series to the Senators and those lost points could be the difference in making the playoffs or not.

The Boston Bruins have always been very mindful when it comes to handing out contracts. They just walked away from 43-year old Zdeno Chara rather than paying him for a diminished role. By our calculations, the Bruins have nearly $29 million dollars coming off the books following this season. It’s going to allow the Bruins an opportunity to add significant payroll. Look for Boston to be shopping around for another defenceman and more scoring up front.

What a mess in San Jose where the Sharks are on the other end of the payroll spectrum. How can you embark on a rebuild when you have over $60 million in salary cap commitments three years from now? There’s going to be prolonged agony in San Jose.

World Junior Notebook – It will be Team Canada and Team USA in the final of the World Junior Hockey Championships on Tuesday night in Edmonton. It has all the makings of a classic. Canada reached the gold medal game with a resounding 5-0 whitewash of the Russians. The U.S. held off Finland 4-3 in the other semi-final. Both teams have star power. Canada has 20 first round picks in the lineup. The U.S. has 9 including Trevor Zegras, the Anaheim Ducks prospect who is challenging Dylan Cozens as the best player in the tournament. The Americans have been killing teams on the power-play. Fortunately, Canada has taken only one minor in each of the last three games. It’s an all-Florida Panthers goaltending matchup. Spencer Knight (2019 first round, 13th overall) for the U.S. and Devon Levi (2019 seventh round, 212th overall) for Canada. Levi has been lights out with a .975 save percentage and 0.53 GAA, the best numbers ever in the tournament.  Canada is yet to trail in any of the six games and has not been scored against at even strength.

Canada will be looking for their second straight title and third in the last four years. The U.S. will be seeking their first gold medal since 2017 when they knocked off Canada in the final. The U.S. has won the last three head-to-head goal medal matchups, two in dramatic fashion, in overtime and in a shootout.

  • Canucks faithful were concerned after top prospect Vasili Podkolzin failed to post a single point in the opening two games of the tournament. He finally broke through with two goals and an assist – all the first period – in an easy Russian victory against over-matched Austria and showed why he will be a future Canucks fixture. Nobody drives the net like this kid.
  • The Russians halted Sweden’s 54-game winning streak in group play. Sweden hadn’t lost in the preliminary round in 15 years since New Year’s Eve 2006 when they dropped a 3-2 decision to the U.S. Sweden fell to Finland in the quarter-finals and remains a mystery at crunch time.
  • An oddity on the Russian team. Every player on the roster is a left shot except for one reserve defenceman.
  • The Detroit Red Wings had five players on the Swedish team including towering 6’7” centre Elmer Soderblom. Third round pick Eemil Virro also looked good for the Finnish team. Detroit appears to be continuing a Euro-centric focus in their scouting.
  • Team Canada was waiting for centre Quinton Byfield to assert himself. The Kings 2020 #2 overall draft pick erupted for two goals and six points in a 10-0 cakewalk over Switzerland. Byfield has enormous potential. He was the youngest player on Team Canada last year and is still the youngest this year. We will see if he can demonstrate consistency.
  • Dylan Cozens has been dubbed “the Workhorse from Whitehorse” and he’s clearly Canada’s leader. Cozens reminds me a lot of a young Trevor Linden and like Linden, he may be best suited to play right wing in the NHL rather than centre. He has a job waiting with the Sabres this season.
  • Canadian centre Connor McMichael (2019 first round, 25th overall) looks ready to step right into the Washington Capitals lineup. Another kid with a great release. He looks better than several players picked ahead of him. McMichael could also be future captain material.
  • The Carolina Hurricanes have been doing a quiet but effective job at the draft table. They had two good-looking forwards playing in the tournament. Swedish winger Noel Gunler (2020 second round, 41st overall) has a rocket for shot. Centre Vasily Ponomarev (2020 second round, 53rd overall) was one of Russia’s best players. He plays with Shawinigan in the Quebec League.
  • The Florida Panthers have a good one in Finnish centre Anton Lundell (2020 first round, 12th overall). Five years from now, if you re-do the 2020 draft, he may be a top five selection.
  • Nashville first rounder Phillip Tomasino has been a big plus for Team Canada. He’s a heady hockey player and always seems to be around the puck.
  • Team Canada defenceman Bowen Byram has picked up his game and is demonstrating incredible skills. He’s an effortless skater with great hands and can close gaps in a hurry.
  • A year ago, Finnish forward Aku Raty was heralded as a potential first overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft. His stock has plummeted in this tournament following a less than impressive start in the Finnish Liiga this season.

From this year’s World Junior rosters, here’s our list of players who we believe have a chance to see action in the NHL at some point this season.

  • Los Angeles Kings– USA – Arthur Kaliyev, F; USA – Alex Turcotte, F; CAN – Quinton Byfield, F; SWE – Tobias Bjornfot, D
  • Detroit Red Wings– SWE – Lucas Raymond, F
  • Anaheim Ducks – USA – Trevor Zegras, F; CAN – Jamie Drysdale, D
  • New Jersey Devils– SWE – Alexander Holtz, F
  • Minnesota Wild– AUT – Marco Rossi, F; USA – Matthew Boldy, F
  • Buffalo Sabres – CAN – Dylan Cozens, F
  • Colorado Avalanche –CAN – Bowen Byram, D
  • Ottawa Senators– GER – Tim Stuetzle, F
  • Arizona Coyotes– SWE – Victor Soderstrom, D
  • Vegas Golden Knights— CAN – Peyton Krebs, F
  • Winnipeg Jets – FIN – Ville Heinola, D
  • Edmonton Oilers– SWE – Philip Broberg, D
  • Vancouver Canucks– RUS – Vasily Podkolzin, F
  • Washington Capitals – CAN – Connor McMichael, F
  • Dallas Stars– CAN – Thomas Harley, D
  • Florida – FIN – Anton Lundell, F

Seahawks Sunday – Let the playoffs begin. The Seahawks looked anything like world-beaters but the 26-23 win over the 49’ers gave Seattle its first division title since 2016. It’s the fifth division title for the Seahawks under Pete Carroll and ninth playoff appearance in 11 seasons.

Close games and wild finishes are standard procedure. 14 of 16 Seahawk games this season were decided by ten points or less. The Seahawks offence was brutal through three quarters. At one point, they went 27 minutes without a first down. They had only three yards in the third quarter. It took three touchdowns in the final quarter to do it including a pair of TD catches by Tyler Lockett, who may just be the most underrated receiver in football. Lockett had 12 receptions on the day to finish with 100 on the season, the first Seahawk ever to reach the century mark. He also went over the 1,000 yard mark, giving the Seahawks a pair of thousand-yard receivers. D.K. Metcalf finished with 83 catches for 1,303 yards, a new franchise yardage record. Both had 10 touchdowns. Russell Wilson dialed up a short pass to David Moore on the final series which allowed Moore to reach 35 catches and earn a $100,000 bonus. A great gesture from the coaching staff!

It’s been a nightmarish season for the 49’ers. They had to place 33 players on injured reserve and 21 onto the COVID-19 list. The season can’t finish quick enough.

The Seahawks turnaround on defense has been nothing short of miraculous. You can question the quality of the opponent but the Seahawks held its final eight opponents to 23 points or less. Statistically, they were the fourth-best defence in the NFL in the second half of the season. Things started to change after Carlos Dunlap arrived to bolster the pass rush. In Weeks 1-7, the defense registered just 9 sacks and surrendered 479 yards per game. In Weeks 8-17, the Seahawks racked up 37 sacks while surrendering 305 yards per game.

The talent on defense was always there which made things so frustrating. No less than six Seahawk defenders have been to the Pro Bowl – Adams, Dunlap, Quandre Diggs, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Shaquille Griffin.  On offense, D.K. Metcalf and Russell Wilson were named to this year’s Pro Bowl team. Duane Brown, Mike Iupati and tight end Greg Olsen have all been to the Pro Bowl before. Five special teamers including receiver Tyler Lockett have been Pro Bowl picks. That’s 16 players in total. The league high right now is 17.

There’s big concern with injuries suffered in the 49’er game. Jamal Adams suffered a shoulder injury while defensive tackle Jarran Reed hurt his oblique. The Seahawks will face the L.A. Rams in one of three wild-card games on Saturday which gives both players one less day to get ready. It makes you wonder if Adams can play a full season without injury considering how hard he plays. Credit the Seahawks for the most remarkable stat of all – 16 games played and not a single player tested positive for COVID-19. What a tribute to the organization!

NFL Notes – It was Black Monday in the NFL with more pink slips handed out in the coaching ranks. There are now six coaching vacancies – Jets, Jaguars, Chargers, Falcons, Lions and Texans. The hot rumour has former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer going to Jacksonville. Meyer reportedly is asking for $12 million per season to coach the Jags.

The NFC Least won 23 games TOTAL between the four teams. Washington went 6-and-10 and gets to host a playoff game while 10-and-6 Miami goes home. That doesn’t seem right.

Since taking over the head-coaching job in Green Bay two years ago, Matt LaFleur is 26-and-6 in the regular season with a pair of division titles. At 37 and in his 16th year, Aaron Rodgers threw 48 touchdown passes with only 5 interceptions. What more can you say about his performance? MVP for sure.

Derrick Henry of the Titans ran for 250 yards on Sunday to finish with 2,027 yards rushing this season. Henry has four 200-yard games in his last 17 regular season games. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders each had four in their careers. You could make a good case for Henry being a co-MVP.

In eleven years in Seattle, Pete Carroll has 131 wins (11.9 wins per season including the playoffs) and has had nine winning seasons in a row, yet Pete has never won Coach of the Year and will almost certainly not win it this year. Doesn’t seem right.

The Cleveland Browns secured their first post-season berth in 18 years. Baker Mayfield ran all over the field with his arms in the air. You would think he was Rocky on the steps of City Hall.

The Buffalo Bills went 6-and-0 to finish the season The Bills out-scored their opponents in those games 229-110, a margin of nearly 20 points per game. Their 13 wins matched a franchise record. Expect Buffaloto reach the AFC title game.

You have to be happy for Washington head coach Ron Rivera. He somehow willed his team to a playoff berth. Rivera was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in August and lost over 40 pounds during treatment. How can you not cheer for the guy?

The New York Jets should think long and hard about trading the number two overall pick in the NFL draft. Yes, they need to determine whether Sam Darnold is the man to lead them out of the wilderness but the Jets could easily turn the pick into a pair of first rounder’s and probably more.

Matt Patricia was hailed as a defensive genius when he was hired by the Detroit Lions from the Patriots. Well, how did that work out? Detroit’s defense broke franchise records this season by allowing 519 points and 6,716 yards. It’s pretty sad when your best player is your place-kicker. Matt Prater hit a 54-yard field goal for the Lions against Minnesota. It was his 59th field goal of 50 or more yards in his career, breaking the all-time record held by Sebastian Janikowski. Prater also holds the NFL record for the longest field goal ever – 64 yards. See, we don’t always make fun of place-kickers.

Ex-Winnipeg Blue Bomber Chris Streveler went 11 for 16 for 105 yards filling in for Kyler Murray as the Rams grabbed the final NFC wild-card spot with a win over Arizona. Streveler also threw an interception that was returned by Troy Hill 84 yards for a touchdown.

MLB Takeaways – The American League East is looking like the American League Least when it comes to starting pitching. Unless something drastically changes between now and the start of spring training, the rotations among AL East teams is looking rather shaky. The Tampa Rays have lost two aces, lefthander Blake Snell and righty Charlie Morton. The Blue Jays have lost starters Taijuan Walker and Matt Shoemaker to free agency. Unless things change, the Yankees stand to lose Matsuhiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton. The Red Sox starting staff is already a mess.

The American League Champion Rays struck first by dealing former Cy Young winner Blake Snell to the San Diego Padres for a bushel of top prospects. The Rays already have the best farm system in baseball so consider it a preemptive strike, something the Rays do with regularity. Snell was guaranteed only $39 million over the next three years but it’s a case of ‘striking while the pot is hot.’ The Rays are so rich in young talent that they may still be the best team in the division.

The San Diego Padres have been the most aggressive team so far this off-season. In addition to Snell, the Padres also acquired right-hander Yu Darvish from the Chicago Cubs. The trade gives the Padres a starting rotation of Darvish, Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack and MacKenzie Gore, who should be a 2021 NL Rookie of the Year candidate. The rotation will be even better a year from now when Mike Clevinger returns after Tommy John surgery. Darvish will love working in a pitcher’s ballpark in San Diego rather than the Wrigley Field bandbox.

Leftovers – After losing to Boston on Monday night, the Toronto Raptors are 1-and-5 to open the season. They started 0-and-3 for the first time since 2005 when the starting lineup included Loren Woods, Mike James and Joey Graham. They blew double-digit leads in all three of those games. Pascal Siakam is completely out of sorts. After fouling out against the Sixers, he walked straight to the locker room with 26 seconds to go. Spicey P then watched the next game against the Knicks from the bench in street clothes. Nick Nurse was smart to discipline Siakam for his early exit to the showers. Unlike a lot of NBA teams, the Raptors actually have expectations of behavior. If we have learned one thing so far this season, its the Raptors are terrible on the glass. They are sitting 30th in the league in rebounding.

It’s hard to fathom but it’s over between P.K. Subban and Lindsay Vonn. What will TMZ do?

Music Video of the Week – Delta Blues great David “Honeyboy” Edwards was born in Mississippi in 1915. He learned to play music from his father. At the age of 14, he left home to travel with bluesman Big Joe Williams, beginning life as an itinerant musician. Edwards is renowned for performing with the legendary Robert Johnson, with whom he developed a close friendship. Edwards was present on the night Johnson drank the poisoned whiskey that killed him and his story has become the definitive version of Johnson’s demise. Edwards also knew and played with other leading bluesmen in the Mississippi Delta, including Charley Patton and Johnny Shines. He described his early life trying to make ends meet playing the blues:

“On Saturday, somebody like me or Robert Johnson would go into one of these little towns, play for nickels and dimes. And sometimes, you know, you could be playin’ and have such a big crowd that it would block the whole street. Then the police would come around, and then I’d go to another town and where I could play at. But most of the time, they would let you play. Then sometimes the man who owned a country store would give us something like a couple of dollars to play on a Saturday afternoon. We could hitchhike, transfer from truck to truck, or if we couldn’t catch one of them, we’d go to the train yard, ’cause the railroad was all through that part of the country then…we might hop a freight, go to St. Louis or Chicago. Or we might hear about where a job was paying off – a highway crew, a railroad job, a levee camp there along the river, or some place in the country where a lot of people were workin’ on a farm. You could go there and play and everybody would hand you some money. I didn’t have a special place then. Anywhere was home. Where I do good, I stay. When it gets bad and dull, I’m gone.”

Back in the days when the Yale Hotel in Vancouver was going strong, I was lucky enough to see some great old blues artists. Thanks to my good friend Ron Simmonds, who used to book blues shows into the Yale, I was able to catch David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who was in his 90’s at the time.

Here’s some rare footage of “Honeyboy” Edwards, playing on a street corner in 1942.

“Sweet Home Chicago” is a blues standard first recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936. “Honeyboy” claims that Johnson stole the song from him. Here’s “Honeyboy” performing “Sweet Home Chicago” in 2009 when he was 94 years old.

Here’s “Honeyboy” performing “Gamblin’ Man” in 2011 just a short time before his death.

David “Honeyboy” Edwards died of congestive heart failure on August 29, 2011. He was 96. He had lived on the South side of Chicago since 1956.

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