Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Contributing Editor Bill Morphy with a big assist from Bill Myles and Big E. This week, a COVID warning. We have an NFL wild-card weekend preview, thoughts on the NHL and World Juniors and our first annual NHL All-Overpaid List.
Late Breaking News: Professional sports has done a fancy two-step around COVID-19 for the past ten months. The NHL and the NBA managed to complete their seasons inside a bubble. MLB crowned a World Series champion. Now, in the midst of a rapidly-escalating second wave, leagues are starting up again and it appears as though, this time, they may not be so fortunate. Team facilities are being shut down. Players are being forced into quarantine and it is becoming more and more apparent that the new seasons may not go so smoothly.
Here’s the latest. Six Dallas Stars and two staff members are COVID positive and Stars facilities have been closed. The Columbus Blue Jackets held a number of players out of practice for precautionary reasons and COVID protocols. The Philadelphia 76’ers are currently quarantining in New York after a player tested positive following a game against Brooklyn? Seven Cleveland Browns players are COVID-casualties prior to this weekend’s wild-card game.
The NBA season is just underway and the NHL season hasn’t even started. Are players getting more lax with their behavior? Don’t forget, they are no longer playing in a bubble. They are travelling from city to city as if it were a normal season. Something tells me this is not going to work!
Wild-card Weekend – Are you ready for some football? The NFL’s expanded playoffs serve up three wild-card games on both Saturday and Sunday. The simmering inter-divisional rivalry between the Rams and the Seahawks continues with a post-season matchup that should be a ‘knock ‘em down, beat ‘em up’ affair. It’s the ninth home game of the season for Seattle and who would have thought the stands would still be empty? You play all season to win the division and get home field advantage and what good does it do you?
Missing from the Seahawks attack in the second half of the season as the offense sputtered has been explosive plays. You have to wonder if the raft of turnovers in the middle of the season has somehow made Russell Wilson tentative. Guess what? The Rams are #1 in the NFL in limiting explosive plays. If the Seahawks are smart, they will focus on mid-range plays and in particular, plays across the middle against the Rams zone. Yes, it would help if the running game is productive.
The Seahawk offense will welcome back two starters on the offensive line, Mike Iupati and Brandon Shell. When the O-line has been whole, (which has been for only six games) the offense has rocked so it will be interesting to see if a healthy line makes a difference. Tight end Greg Olsen and running back Carlos Hyde will also return. Luke Willson has been activated to add his unmistakable energy. On defense, Jarran Reed and Jamal Adams are OK to go. Shaquille Griffin has a bad hamstring but is expected to play. Tre Flowers returns to add depth at cornerback. Bottom line? Seattle is fully healthy. No excuses.
Can you imagine how different the Seahawks season would have been if they had capitulated and signed Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal in the $12-
$15 million dollar range? It would have prohibited them from trading for Adams, let alone leaving money on the table to sign several other players. Sometimes the deals you don’t make are more important that the ones you do.
1:05 p.m.: Indianapolis (11-5, AFC 7 seed) at Buffalo (13-3, AFC 2 seed)
Line: Bills (-6.5). Prediction: Bills to win and cover.
The Bills have been running up the score of late and are a legitimate touchdown favourite. Buffalo has scored over 47 points per game over their last three. The Colts will need to play a clean and perfect game. The Indy defense is for real. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor will need to produce and help Phillip Rivers control the clock. It would help the Colts cause if Stefon Diggs is unable to play.
4:40 p.m.: L.A. Rams (10-6, NFC 6 seed) at Seattle (12-4, NFC 3 seed)
Line: Seahawks (-3). Prediction: Seahawks to win and cover.
This will be the third meeting between the two teams this year and the second in a matter of three weeks. It’s not clear if Rams quarterback Jared Goff will play after thumb surgery, leaving untested John Wolford to lead the offence. Don’t see how the Rams will score enough to win this game.
8:15 p.m.: Tampa Bay (11-5, NFC 5 seed) at Washington (7-9, NFC 4 seed)
Line: Washington (+8.5). Prediction: Take Washington + Points.
Bucs All-Pro receiver Mike Williams is a game-time decision with a bum knee. If he can’t go, Tom Brady loses his #1 target. Brady will have to get rid of it quick with Chase Young and Montez Sweat breathing down his neck. Alex Smith will try and manage the game, keep it close and avoid turnovers. Washington will need a huge game from the defense in order to keep it a one-score game.
1:05 p.m.: Baltimore (11-5, AFC 5 seed) at Tennessee (11-5, AFC 4 seed)
Line: Titans (+3.5). Prediction: Ravens to win and cover.
If you thought the Seahawks defense was bad earlier in the season, the Titans D is worse. Third worst in the NFL this season in sacks with only 19. Both teams have been pounding the football on the ground. The Ravens will focus on shutting down Derrick Henry. Can Lamar Jackson finally deliver in the playoffs? Big question!
4:40 p.m.: Chicago (8-8, NFC 7 seed) at New Orleans (12-4, NFC 2 seed)
Line: Saints (-10). Prediction: Saints to win and cover.
The Saints finished the season strong and are very tough to beat at home, crowd or no crowd. Alvin Kamara’s status is up in the air due to positive COVID best. Does anyone really think Mitch Trubisky will clutch up in the playoffs? The Bears will go with a heavy dose of running back David Montgomery. The Saints pass rush pressure will force turnovers.
8:15 p.m.: Cleveland (11-5, AFC 6 seed) at Pittsburgh (12-4, AFC 3 seed)
Line: Steelers (5.5). Prediction: Steelers to win and cover.
Late word was the Browns had at least seven players on the COVID list. Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski may not be available after contracting the virus. Two key defensive players, pass rusher Olivier Vernon (Achilles) and cornerback Denzel Ward are sidelined. In fact, most of the starting secondary is out. It will come down to the Browns strong running game versus the Steelers dominant passing game. We see Cleveland getting destroyed.
Canucks Camp Notes – Lots of interesting developments from the early stages of Canucks training camp. Nils Hoglander, the 2019 second round pick, has been given an audition on the right side with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson and so far, he’s aced the test. Not surprisingly, it’s dropped Jake Virtanen down in the lineup which may actually be a good thing. You would have to think that Virtanen’s days with the Canucks are numbered especially when Vasili Podkolzin arrives later this season. Podkolzin is most comfortable on the right side. Hoglander could then shift back over to his preferred left side.
From the scrimmages, you can see how the roster is shaping up. Here’s how the lineup may look on opening night in Edmonton on Wednesday night. Jamie Benn may have to play in place of Hamonic until he can be signed and added onto the roster.
Miller – Pettersson – Boeser
Pearson – Horvat – Hoglander
Roussel – Gaudette – Virtanen
Motte – Beagle – Sutter
Hughes – Benn
Edler – Schmidt
Juolevi – Myers
NHL Training Camp Notes – With provincial approvals now in place, all seven Canadian teams can play home games in their own buildings. With no exhibition games scheduled prior to the start of the regular season, every team is going to have to hit the ground running. I can’t imagine being a goaltender and not having any pre-season games to get ready. Sorry, training camp scrimmages don’t count! Getting off to a quick start has never been more important.
In the 2016 NHL draft, the Vancouver Canucks were hoping to move up into the top three in the draft lottery. One of their targets was centre Pierre-Luc Dubois who ended up going third overall to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Credit the Blue Jackets because they got it right. The Canucks reversed course and selected defenseman Olli Juolevi, the only first round pick from that draft who is yet to play an NHL regular season game.
Fast forward to today and the Jackets are facing a big time dilemma. Dubois wants out. He just signed for two more years but has issued the Blue Jackets a trade request. Needless to say, there will be no shortage of suitors. The Montreal Canadiens are an obvious choice. They could easily start a trade package with centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi who may interest Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen since both are Finnish natives. Could the Winnipeg Jets get in on the action and send another Finn, disgruntled Patrik Laine, to the Jackets for Dubois? The Rangers could jump in with a package centered around Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko, last year’s #2 overall pick. Expect Columbus to slow-play the market and perhaps wait till next summer’s draft to make a deal.
Question? If you were running the Canucks, would you take a run at Dubois and would you be willing to offer up captain Bo Horvat as part of a deal? That’s a tough one.
It’s worth mentioning. The Canucks get screwed with the Roberto Luongo salary-recapture penalty while other teams circumvent the salary cap and the NHL does nothing. Have you noticed that the Canucks are now basically paying Luongo to be the Panthers goalie coach? Meanwhile, the Lightning get under the cap by stashing the contracts of Anders Nilsson and Marian Gaborik on long-term injury reserve. Doesn’t seem right. It’s been going on for several year swith the contracts of Pavel Datsyuk, David Clarkson, David Backes, Nathan Horton and several others. Time for the NHL to put a stop to it.
Just wondering but when you look closely at the situation in Toronto and the lack of unbiased journalism around coverage of the Maple Leafs, is it a question of access? Are reporters afraid to criticize the Leafs because they are worried they may not get close access to players and front office staff? The sheer volume of reporters at a Leafs practice is incredible. The entire Toronto media horde has amnesia when it comes to the Leafs. Do they forget the Leafs have been bounced in the opening round of the playoffs for four consecutive years? At least in the Montreal market, you have reporters like Jack Todd and Pat Hickey who will criticize the hockey club if it is deserved. In Toronto, it’s all pie-in-the-sky all the time.
NHL’s Most Overpaid List – In a year when a tidal wave has struck the NHL’s fiscal foundation, it’s become increasingly clear that anchor contracts are going to burden teams more than ever before. The salary cap may stay frozen for up to three years so every dollar counts.
It’s a perfect time to offer up our list of the NHL’s Most Overpaid Players and the list is lengthy. The San Jose Sharks are the poster-boy for bloated contracts and it will be years before the Sharks see daylight. Start with rapidly-declining Erik Karlsson who will be pocketing $11.5 million for each of the next seven years. Toss in five more years of 35-year old Brett Burns at $8 million, six more years of 33-year old Marc-Eduoard Vlasic at $7 million, Evander Kane-five years at $7 million, Logan Couture-seven years at $8 million and Martin Jones-four more years at $5.75 million and well, you get the picture. Someone needs to tell Doug Wilson to put away his cheque-book!
To make it easier, we will start with the highest tier and work down from there. We are not saying that all of these players are not still producing, it’s just that the price vs. productivity just doesn’t match.
John Tavaras: $11 million; Mitch Marner: $11 million; Drew Doughty: $11 million; Jonathan Toews: $10.5 million; Anze Kopitar: $10 million; Sergei Bobrovsky: $10 million; Jamie Benn: $9.5 million; Nik Backstrom: $9.2 million; Tyler Sequin: $9.85 million; Jeff Skinner: $9 million; P.K. Subban: $9 million.
Steve Stamkos: $8.5 million; Claude Giroux: $8.3 million; Jakub Vorachek: $8.25 million; Oliver Ekman-Larsson: $8.25 million; Ryan Johansen: $8 million; Matt Duchene: $8 million; Jacob Trouba: $8 million; Zach Parise: $7.5 million; Ryan Sutter: $7.5 million; Kevin Hayes: $7.1 million; James Van Riemsdyk: $7 million; Max Pacioretty: $7 million; Marc-Andre Fleury: $7 million.
Brent Seabrook: $6.9 million; Phil Kessel: $6.8 million; Justin Faulk: $6.5 million; Cam Fowler: $6.5 million; Erik Johnson: $6 million; Loui Eriksson: $6 million; Kyle Okposo: $6 million; Dustin Brown: $5.9 million; James Neal: $5.75 million; Marc Staal: $5.7 million; Andrew Ladd: $5.5 million; Jeff Carter: $5.3 million; Milan Lucic: $5.25 million; Frans Nielsen: $5.25 million.
Sour Ending – The World Junior Hockey Championships gave us a much-needed diversion during the Christmas holidays but unfortunately, it didn’t provide a happy ending. Team USA was full marks for their gold medal victory, continuing a pattern of U.S. dominance in championship game matchups. It was the fifth head-to-head meeting in the final and the Americans have now taken the last four.
Canada came into the game having never trailed in the tournament with 41 goals scored and only 4 against. They had not surrendered a single even-strength goal. That all changed in the final as Patrick Kane-clone Trevor Zegras walked the walk with a goal and an assist. Zegras’s bravado rubbed off on a relaxed and confident U.S. team. After an early flurry, Canada was tentative and on their heels much of the night.
We all love Bob McKenzie but you had to know Canada was in trouble when he said in the pre-game show “If Canada wins tonight, this team could go down as the greatest Canadian team in World Junior history.” Yikes!
Post-game, there was a lot of talk that Canada had never really faced any adversity and was not battle-tested. Sorry, we’re not buying it. Canada faced all kinds of adversity. How about being quarantined in a 300’ room for 14 days? Team Canada simply played their worst game at the wrong time and don’t underestimate the immense pressure these kids face every year.
Clearly, the loss of Captain Kirby Dach was a massive blow. Canada seemed to lack a difference-maker. It didn’t help that Alexis Lafreniere chose not to play in the tournament. We kept waiting for Quinton Byfield to step up but it never happened. He could not match the pace. The Ottawa Senators must be privately giving thanks the Kings chose Byfield instead of Tim Stuetzle, who was chosen the tournament’s top forward.
2021 Blue Jay Resolutions – For the Blue Jays to factor in again this season in the AL East, they must improve in several key areas. At the top of the list is base-running. It’s one thing to be aggressive on the base-paths, it’s another to be sloppy and constantly make poor decisions. By any stat that measures base-running, the Jays were near the bottom of the league. The Jays were too often picked off base, caught stealing or caught trying to take an extra base. That must change.
We all know the Blue Jays were a poor defensive team last season. Again, the stats don’t lie. In Defensive Runs Saved, the Blue Jays were 39 runs below average, second-worst in baseball. Outfield defense was a big problem, ranking in the bottom tier. Now you know why the Jays are targeting good defenders in free agency.
When it comes to pitching, the Jays staff was bottom of the league in strike- throwing. Blue Jay pitchers had a 61 percent strike percentage in 2020, two points below the MLB average of 63 percent. They ranked 29th in the majors in that category. It only follows that the Jays had one of worst walk rates in the majors. Their 10.8 percent walk rate was also 29th. Blue Jays starters had a 9.5 percent walk rate, while the relievers walked 12.1 percent of batters. The staff has to improve its ability to find the strike zone. Plain and simple.
It’s in the Mail – Over the Christmas holidays, 84 golfers received a little white envelope in the mail inviting them to participate in the 2021 Masters April 8-11 in Augusta. Three Canadians were invited – Corey Conners, Mackenzie Hughes and past champion Mike Weir. There are still a few ways to earn an invitation between now and April. The winner of any of the 13 remaining full PGA Tour events who have not already qualified will get in. Additionally, anyone in the top 50 of the World Ranking a week before the tournament will also get an invitation. It will sure be nice if patrons are allowed to attend this year.
Music Artist of the Week – Ruthie Foster is a quintessential crossover artist. She mixes a wide palette of American song forms, from gospel and blues to jazz, folk and soul. Like many black artists, she began signing in the church choir in her hometown of Gause, Texas. She later joined the Navy and started developing her talents in a naval band. Check her out from the Dallas International Guitar Show in 2017 singing the classic blues “Call It Stormy Monday” with the great Robben Ford on guitar.
Here’s Ruthie performing live at the Paramount with a full orchestra. It’s an outstanding version of “Death Came a Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes).
Here’s an official music video from an excellent album called “Joy Comes Back” which we highly recommend.
To finish off, Ruthie does a great cover of the Patty Griffin-penned tune “When It Don’t Come Easy.”
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