Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy and contributions from Jordan Moss, Bill Myles, Dave Kittle and the Big E in Montreal. This week, only four are left standing in the NHL playoffs. The Jays bullpen collapses while Vladdy bops. And we introduce the newest long-driver on the PGA Tour.
Memo to the Toronto sports media: Can you please stop the nonsense for at least a couple of months and give us all a break? Seth Jones and Jack Eichel are NOT coming to Toronto any time soon. Take a timeout and let us clear our heads.
NHL Playoff Notebook – Now that we are down to the final four, it’s a good time to wade in with some observations and takeaways on some of the playoff teams that remain and a few that have exited.
Tampa Bay Lightning – A lot of hockey watchers are very upset about how the Tampa Bay Lightning have circumvented the salary cap system this year. The Lightning have used Long-Term Injury Reserve excessively including having Nikita Kucherov’s $9.5 million dollar contract on LTIR for the entire season. The final cap hit for their payroll this season is $98,840,470. The LTIR total used was $17,340,469. You can see why some NHL executives are complaining. It’s an issue that’s going to have to be addressed because it’s given the Lightning a distinct advantage this season. No wonder Dougie Hamilton made mention of it in his season-ending media availability. Kucherov, by the way, is atop the playoff scoring list with 18 points.
Who says small players can’t flourish in the playoffs? Tampa’s Brayden Point doesn’t seem to have any issue with the tight checking. In his last 34 playoff games, Point has scored 22 goals and put up 45 points. He also has five game-winning goals. Not bad for a third-round pick that everyone overlooked in the draft.
Montreal Canadiens – In talking to friends back east, it’s apparent that Montreal is alive with playoff fever. The Canadiens have written a great story to date. When you have an iconic legacy like the Habs, you can call on any number of alumni to spread the gospel. Bob Gainey visited the team this week and talked about the importance of staying focused during the layoff leading up to Monday’s semi-final opener in Vegas.
The Canadiens have not trailed at any point since game four of the opening round against the Leafs. That’s a string of 437:53. Amazing! The Habs penalty kill has been outstanding. They are actually plus-1 while killing penalties so far in the playoffs. Think about that for a minute!
When the Canadiens trailed the Leafs 3-1 in the opening round, we were all set to write a blistering account about why the Habs could never win with their current crop of centers. Funny how things can change on a dime in the playoffs. In the blink of an eye, the Canadiens four centermen are suddenly a playing their best hockey of the season. Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Philip Danault and late arrival Eric Staal have all played in a big role in series wins over the Leafs and the Jets. Staal has teamed with ageless Corey Perry and former Jet Joel Armia to form a very competitive fourth line. Danault, who passed up a lucrative extension in the off-season and proceeded to have an underwhelming regular season, has reestablished his value as an effective two-way center. Danault is going to get a lot of attention when free agency opens in July.
New York Islanders – The New York Islanders are the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. They just can’t get no respect. The matchup with the Bruins was the Islanders eighth playoff series since Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz took control of the team three years ago. They now have six series wins and counting, more than the franchise had in the past 30 years. The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since Lou left. The Washington Capitals haven’t won a series since Trots left after the Cup win in 2018. In an interview with Iain MacIntyre of Sportsnet, Trots explained the kind of resilience, mental toughness and relentless physicality that is necessary in the playoffs.
“You start to take the other person out of their game. That’s what physical play does. It wears you out, it wears you out mentally. Some guys are mentally stronger than others. Some guys have a bigger backbone, as I would say, when it comes to those situations. And that’s why, I think in playoffs, (hitting) gets ramped up a little bit. It’s like a boxer. You get hit enough, at some point you’re going to go down. That’s how you win fights. You’ve got to … win your battles to get free from people, and get to the inside. And that’s what playoff hockey is. As much as it is about skill, it’s as much about will.” Sounds just like the Leafs!
As much as Lou Lamoriello has done to assemble a Cup contending roster, he’s greatest achievement is in creating a winning culture. Trots handles the on-ice structure. Lou puts the organizational foundation and philosophy in place. Winning follows. It’s not hard to see how the Islanders do it. What team could get four wins out of goalie Ilya Sorokin in the first round, then get four wins out of fellow Russian Semyon Varlamov in the second round? Lou just seems to pull all the right strings. He picked up Kyle Palmieri at the deadline for a first-round pick. Palmieri had only two goals in 17 games to close out the regular season. He now had seven goals in 12 playoff games.
Colorado Avalanche – We have been singing the praises of the Colorado Avalanche all season long. The President’s Trophy winners won six in a row to open the playoffs. They were just minutes away from taking a 3-0 series lead against Vegas. It all came tumbling down with four straight losses and big questions heading into the off-season. Philipp Grubauer, the Vezina Trophy finalist, was 6-0 with a 1.66 GAA and a .943 save percentage to open the playoffs. He was 0-4 with a 4.07 GAA and a .872 save percentage to finish off. GM Joe Sakic has to be questioning whether he did enough at the trade deadline. Sorry, Patrick Nemeth, Devan Dubnyk and Carl Soderberg is not exactly going ‘all-in.” Sakic’s conservative approach only goes so far. You have to wonder about the future of Nazem Kadri in Colorado. Kadri would have been eligible to return from his eight-game suspension for game seven had the Avs extended the series to the limit. He’s now been suspended six times for a total of 27 games including 16 playoff games. Talk about letting your team down!
Sakic will have to deal with three key UFA’s in July. Grubauer, captain Gabriel Landeskob and Brandon Saad will all be looking for new contracts. Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar is coming off his entry-level contract and needs to be extended. Thomas Chabot’s eight-year, $64-million dollar deal is probably the comparable. The Avs also have protection problems and will likely lose a quality player to Seattle in the expansion draft.
Winnipeg Jets – It’s time for the Winnipeg Jets to fix their problems along the blueline. No more patchwork jobs. No more stop-gaps. The Jets have simply not been able to find solutions since the departures of Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Jacob Trouba. They have three promising defence prospects in Logan Stanley, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg. They may have to part with one of them in a package to obtain a quality veteran. Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk are keepers. After that, the quality falls off quick.
Mark Scheifele didn’t do himself any favours by not taking ownership of his vicious hit on the Canadiens Jake Evans that netted him a four-game suspension. It hastened the Jets departure for sure. Scheifele blamed the NHL Department of Player Safety for the length of the suspension. It’s not a good look when your best player is not accountable. The hit was inexcusable and indefensible.
Toronto Maple Leafs – In the aftermath of the Leafs crash landing, one NHL executive got it right when he said the Leafs need to conduct “a brutally honest philosophical self-assessment.” The idea that you can outscore your opponent in the playoffs with a high octane offence is misguided. The Leafs need to re-think their strategy for team-building. Assembling a top-heavy lineup is disruptive to team chemistry. Trying to wedge a bunch of spare parts onto your roster because of limited cap space is never going to work.
Veteran New York hockey writer Larry Brooks summed it up best. “This isn’t so much about whether a team can succeed when it commits 49.7% of its cap allotment to four forwards in what has become a flat-earth NHL. It is about what happens when the forwards who embody your vision and around whom you have built your team flame out spectacularly in the crucible. It is about what happens when you might have given the money to the wrong people. It is about what happens when Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, neither of whom has a particularly appealing public persona, fail to produce after a season of producing zany numbers.”
By the way, how are the Leafs doing in this week’s NHL Playoff Power Rankings? Are they still second? Former New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells always had an icy relationship with the media. Several years ago, he did utter this gem: “You ARE what your record says you are.” That couldn’t be truer when it comes to the Leafs string of playoff collapses. It’s why standing pat should not be an option.
Connor Brown was another victim of the Leafs unbalanced salary structure. The heart-and-soul winger assisted on all three goals including the overtime winner by Sens teammate Nick Paul as Team Canada captured gold at the World Championships in Latvia. He led the tournament in scoring with 16 points. Brown is just the kind of gritty player the Leafs are now lacking.
NHL teams with cap space and no protection issues are going to be in an envious position leading up to the expansion draft. There are going to be some very serviceable players available. Several teams are going to have protection issues including Colorado, Tampa Bay, Carolina and St. Louis. The Blues are expected to protect Justin Faulk, Colton Parayko and Torey Krug from among their blueliners. That will make pending RFA Vince Dunn available to Seattle. Makes sense for the Blues to make a deal before losing him to the Kraken.
There could be big changes in Boston this summer. Goalie Tuukka Rask and veteran center David Krejci are UFA’s and while the Bruins would like to have them back, it opens up over $14 million in cap space. Don’t be surprised if the Bruins go big-game hunting. Might Dougie Hamilton be interested in a return to Beantown? Might the Bruins make a play for Jack Eichel? Stay tuned.
Shuffling the Deck Chairs – The Canucks made a series of coaching moves this week. They added two new faces to the coaching staff including veteran NHL assistant Brad Shaw and longtime Portland Winterhawks assistant Kyle Gustafson. The Canucks parted ways with Newell Brown and reassigned Chris Higgins back into the player development role he had held prior to this season. The Canucks will have three assistants on the bench next season: Shaw and the two holdover assistants, Jason King and Nolan Baumgartner.
The move important announcement, however, was the signing of highly regarded goaltending guru Ian Clark to a new five-year contract which matches the term of Thatcher Demko’s extension. Clark is a Vancouver native and has spent ten years with the Canucks in two stints with the team.
Blue Jays This Week – The torrent of injuries to the Blue Jays pitching staff has pretty much derailed their hopes in the AL East. In the first 30 games of the season, the Jays bullpen had an ERA of 2.40. In the last 30 games, the pen has compiled an ERA of 5.37. Blue Jay relievers have given up 10 bases-loaded walks this season. Tyler Chatwood, who started well and has faded fast, has an ERA in June of 33.75. His relief appearance against the Red Sox in Friday night’s debacle was his second frightful effort in a week. Next time he pitches, I’m turning the TV off.
Only one player in the majors has won the Triple Crown in the past 54 years. That was Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers in 2012. Could Vladimir Guerrero Jr. be the next? Guerrero Jr. ranks first in the American League in batting, home runs, RBI, total bases, OBP, slugging, OPS and WAR. He could be a runaway American League MVP. The Jays have had only two MVP’s in club history, George Bell in 1987 and Josh Donaldson in 2015.
MLB Notebook – The Boston Red Sox are one of the biggest surprises in MLB this season. They lead the majors with 23 comeback wins. It’s feast or famine with the Red Sox. When they score four or more runs, they are 25-3. When they are held to less than three runs, they are 4-23.
The New York Yankees are like the New England Patriots. They both like to cheat and they think it’s OK to do so. Alarm bells had been going off around Yankees $340 million dollar pitcher Gerrit Cole over a sharp spin rate drop-off in some of his recent starts. Asked this week whether he has used a banned, grip-enhancing substance called Spider Tack, Cole had a rather confused and guilty-looking response.
The conversation around these substances picked up steam following a Sports Illustrated article entitled “This Should Be the Biggest Scandal in Sports.” First, it was the hitters getting the advantage with steroid use and sign-stealing. Now it’s the pitchers with the upper hand. Major League Baseball has no option but to act. Rule 6.02 has always been there. It goes back to 1920 when the spitball was banned from baseball. It basically states that a pitcher cannot have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance that could deface the baseball.
No one in baseball history was a bigger pitching savant than one-time Montreal Expo Mike Marshall who died last week ago at the age of 78. He was an incredibly intelligent man who had an IQ was that off the charts. Marshall was asked one time why he no longer kept in touch with people in baseball. His response? “I got tired of appeasing the stupid.” Check out this fine account of Marshall’s pitching genius by Jeff Passan of ESPN.
Normally, I don’t pay too much attention to team uniforms. I have never been a fan of the softball-type uniforms that have been introduced in major league baseball. The Blue Jays often wear the dark blue tops. I’m also not a big fans of the Jays baby blue uniforms. Teams are constantly switching things around in an apparent nod to merchandise sales. Personally, I would like to see more of the throwback sleeveless uniforms that have been worn over the years by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A’s. That’s a great look!
Don’t look now but the San Francisco Giants are leading the National League West. Who would have predicted that? The Giants are built around pitching since they play in pitcher-friendly parks in San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego within their own division. They also get to pad their record against NL weaklings Arizona and Colorado. Farhan Zaida, the native Canadian, has done a masterful job running the Giants. He’s been patiently building up the Giants farm system. Zaida has a PhD in behavioral economics from Cal University. He seems to understand the balance between the raw numbers and baseball’s old school thinking. One thing is for certain. The Giants playoff odds have increased from 5% to 55% since the start of the season.
NFL Notebook – Aaron Rodgers is digging in and it’s becoming more likely he will not report to the Packers this season. Rodgers failed to show at this week’s mandatory minicamp. The Packers best hope at this point is to convince Rodgers to return for one more season with the promise that he will be traded before next year’s NFL draft. Staying in Green Bay is his best chance of winning. The Pack are 28-8 over the past two seasons. If Rodgers refuses to report, he will have to pay back a $6.8 million dollar roster bonus that he received in March, not to mention the massive fines he would accrue by not reporting.
The Seahawks held OTA’s this week. All players are expected to report for a three-day mandatory minicamp next week. It’s looking more and more like the Seahawks may open training camp without veteran linebacker K.J. Wright. Jordyn Brooks has moved into Wright’s spot on the weakside. Frankly, the Seahawks should prioritize the lack of quality at defensive tackle and cornerback ahead of resigning Wright.
Golf Notebook – There’s a new Big Bopper on the PGA Tour. His name is Wilco Nienaber. The South African started creating a buzz during his rookie season on the European Tour last year. The 21-year-old has put on an exhibition this week at the Palmetto Championship in South Carolina. In the opening round, he had five drives over 350 yards including one that registered 376 yards. His average for the week is 340.3 yards. Next best is Jhonattan Vegas at 326.3.
Veteran Mark Hensby was slapped with a record ten-shot penalty at the Palmetto Championship. It’s the most severe penalty for an infraction in PGA Tour history. Here’s the full story on how it all came down.
Olympic Transgenderism – Here’s an absolute must-read from Barbara Kay in the National Post this week. She has co-authored a book with Linda Blade entitled “Unsporting: How trans-activism and science denial are destroying sport.” Once again, the IOC has got it all wrong.
Leftovers – The King of Clay, Rafael Nadal of Spain, has been denied his 14th French Open tennis title. Nadal was beaten by Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in a four-set semi-final on Friday night. Expect Djokovic to capture his 19th Grand Slam title when he meets 22-year old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in Sunday’s final. Nadal is 105-3 on the clay at Roland Garros with two of the losses now coming against Djokovic.
What’s up with Canada’s budding tennis prodigy Bianca Andreescu? It’s going on two years since she shocked the tennis world and won the U.S. Open. She’s had nothing but one injury setback after another since then. The 21-year-old lost in the opening round of the French Open. She’s had to pull out of several other tournaments. She was bounced out of the Australian Open, the first major of the year, by a 35-year-old unknown. Time for her to get it together.
Kawhi Leonard reasserted his dominance in the deciding game of the Clippers opening round series against Dallas. Leonard had 28 points on 10 of 15 shooting, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 steals with zero turnovers. He’s the second player since 1983 with a 25/10/5 game with no turnovers in a game seven. The other was Kobe in 2002.
Charles Barkley is the best commentator in sports television. He likes to come up with nicknames for NBA players. His best moniker of late is “Street Clothes Davis” for Anthony Davis of the L.A. Lakers, in obvious reference to the fact Davis has spent more time on the bench out of uniform thanks to a never-ending series of injuries.
Police in Tokyo are investigating an apparent suicide after a man jumped off a platform and in front of an oncoming train at a subway station. The victim involved has been identified as the head of accounting for the Japanese Olympic Committee. There was immediate speculation that the person may have been involved in corrupt mismanagement of Olympic funds.
There was word this week that trainer Bob Baffert and the owners of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit have filed a lawsuit against Kentucky racing officials. If you want our opinion, it’s nothing more than an intimidation tactic. The message is clear. If you nail us with a positive drug test, we will answer back with messy and expensive litigation. Leave us alone to do our dirty business and everything will be just fine.
Joe Schultz Sports Quote of the Week – This week, let’s take a departure from our usual menu of zany quotes and turn to the legendary Jesse Owens for some incredible words of wisdom. “In the end, it’s extra effort that separates a winner from second place. But winning takes a lot more that, too. It starts with complete command of the fundamentals. Then it takes desire, determination, discipline, and self-sacrifice. And finally, it takes a great deal of love, fairness and respect for your fellow man. Put all these together, and even if you don’t win, how can you lose?”
Spotify Songs of the Week – Not sure if you caught the Great Performances concert on PBS this week featuring Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood and a cast of all-stars. It was recorded at the London Palladium. The concert was a tribute to Peter Green and the early years of Fleetwood Mac. An album is available and we recommend a couple of tracks in particular: “It Hurts Me Too” featuring Fleetwood Mac original Jeremy Spencer and former Stones bassman Bill Wyman and “Love That Burns” with Rick Vito on vocals.
Sticking with the blues, have a listen to Robben Ford’s guitar chops on “Blue and Lonesome” from his new release “Sunrise.”
If you like acoustic blues, check out “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Curtis Salgado and Alan Hager from their offering “Rough Cut.”
And finally, “Silver Rain” from jazz artist Marcus Miller from an album of the same name. On vocals and guitar, a guy you may have heard of…none other than Eric Clapton. ENJOY!!!
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