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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with contributing editor Bill Morphy. This week, we clear the decks and assess the true contenders for the Stanley Cup. Baseball takes the center stage with the MLB draft and its shaky history on race.  Plus, the NBA restart and other assorted minutiae. 

Standing on Shaky Ground – At the risk of being too dramatic, we are at a pivotal point in our history. The ground is shifting below our feet. Who do we want to be as a people? What do we want from our governments and from our police? Are we willing to stand up and be counted? We need to change. We’ve had centuries to evolve yet we hold on to the same old tired standards and philosophies. Can we not own up to our mistakes and start treating everyone with the respect they deserve? It’s not that difficult. Why do we have to see colour when we look at someone? We, as a white race, have been privileged and cannot begin, for a second, to understand their suffering. Let’s start by welcoming everyone into our lives with open arms and no preconceptions. We’re better than this!  

Lord Stanley’s Mug – It’s clear now that the chase for the Stanley Cup will indeed take place this summer. It’s been so long since any games were played that it’s hard to handicap the frontrunners. We see five teams that can categorized as the top contenders.

Boston: The Bruins were six points clear of the entire pack when the season was halted.  The gap would have been greater if Boston had not gone 0-7 in shootouts this season. The Bruins had the second-best power-play and the third-best penalty kill. They were far and away the best defensive team in the league, giving up only 167 goals in 70 games.  Their goal differential was also tops. The Bruins added Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase from Anaheim at the deadline to bolster their depth up front. Everything is there for another Cup run in Boston.

St. Louis: The Blues were on an 8-2 tear when the season ended.  They sat atop the Western standings and were sitting second overall in the league. You have to think all the pieces are there for another serious Cup challenge.  Better yet, they will get Vladimir Tarasenko, their top offensive weapon, back for the playoffs. When he went out early in the season with left shoulder surgery, it looked like he would not be ready for the start of the playoffs. He’s now had an extra three months of rehab and will be ready to go. You could make the argument that the Blues are even better than last year. Jordan Binnington is no longer unproven and St. Louis has added Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella to an already deep blueline.

Tampa Bay:  It’s all about the psyche with this team.  A year ago they were coming off a 62-win regular season before getting gut-punched four straight by Columbus in the opening round. They had steam-rolled through the league and hadn’t been pushed in months. The Lightning found out you can’t simply turn the switch when the playoffs start. There are no excuses this time. Tampa added Blake Coleman from New Jersey and Barclay Goodrow from San Jose at the deadline to give their ridiculously deep forward group more bite. It’s the blueline and the mental toughness than worries me. The Bolts have the horses but can they get over past failures?  They were 3-6-and-1 in their last 10 games before the break.  Not a good sign.

Washington: The Capitals have Stanley Cup pedigree to fall back on and no other team will benefit more from the added rest than the Caps. The only thing consistent about the Caps is their inconsistency. They were just one point up on Philadelphia in the Metropolitan Division when the season was stopped. The Caps can score with anyone but it’s their defensive play that is concerning. Deadline acquisition Brenden Dillon should help.  Rookie Ilya Samsonov may be the choice in goal over veteran Braden Holtby who had the worst statistical season of his career. It will be tough coming out of the east, but if the Caps can address some of their defensive issues, they could easily go on a deep run.

Colorado: How can you not include the Avalanche in the group of top Cup contenders?  The Avs are universally regarded as having the best future of any team in the league. They are legit now and for several years to come. A year ago, the Avs were a one-line team with MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen. Off-season acquisitions Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin have made the Avalanche a far more difficult team to keep under wraps. The goaltending remains a question mark but there’s no doubt the Avs will be a very difficult matchup for any Western hopeful. Only three teams in the west gave up fewer goals than Colorado so it’s not as though this team is one dimensional.

Sorry, I didn’t include the Leafs as prime Stanley Cup contenders. This may not be their year.  However, I predict a Cup win in 2067 when they will be wearing rocket-packs on their backs.

Short Strokes –

  • It certainly seems like no Canadian cities will be designated as a Hub City when NHL play resumes. Las Vegas appears to be a sure bet but I wonder about the ice conditions in Vegas in the middle of August. Deciding a Stanley Cup on crappy ice does not seem like a good idea. It’s 120 degrees in Vegas in October.
  • Play-by-play announcers will not be allowed to be on site to call the games. They will have to broadcast the games from a remote location which will not be a lot of fun. Creating the same emotion and excitement without being there and without the crowd noise, good luck!
  • We were all set to blast Senators owner Eugene Melnyk again this week. (You know how we enjoy to do that) Last week, we chronicled how he has created a rift with the Sens own foundation. However, accusations that he benefited from his own charitable organization appear to be erroneous. Melnyk has the Ottawa Sun back-peddling on stories published this week.

Footnote to Melnyk – From Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts published on Friday:I don’t believe the NHL is looking to remove Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk, or anything like that. But I do believe he needs to address allegations that the The Organ Project — which he created in 2016 — donated just 0.5 per cent of its 2018 revenues towards the cause. You can’t let that go unanswered.”

Dirty Dancing – What was ESPN thinking in producing two, 2-hour 30 for 30 segment’s on Lance Armstrong? Take the ‘n’ out of narcissist and you have the best description for Armstrong?  He makes Donald Trump look humble. Armstrong spent the entire show making himself out to be a victim.  He takes ‘woe is me’ to a whole new level. You cheated Lance. What part of that don’t you get? Had his ego not brought him out of retirement after three years, he may have avoided disgrace and his legacy may still be intact. Personally, I’ll watch the Tour de France again when they race on mustang bikes with banana seats and streamers coming off the handle bars. Now that would be a real test of fitness and determination!

Major League Bickering – The clock is ticking on getting a deal done to restart the major league baseball season.  Otherwise, they are going to have to push back the proposed start date. Once again, MLB and the players association can’t agree on anything including the proposed length of the season and reduced compensation. You have to wonder what the future holds for baseball when the fan base is largely over 40.

In light of everything that has happened recently, does it not just make it more obvious that major league baseball is embarrassingly behind the times when it comes to social justice? They were the last of the four major pro sports to issue a statement in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

It’s no secret that MLB has allowed systemic racism for decades. Just ask any black ball player who has played in Boston. Red Sox fans are notorious for racist slurs. Former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter insisted on having a no-trade clause in his contract so he couldn’t be dealt to Boston. Hunter is just one of many black ballplayers who dealt with overt racism when playing at Fenway Park in Boston.

Given the popularity of the NBA and the NFL, it’s no surprise baseball is fighting a losing battle in attracting the best black athletes to the sport. According to the numbers from last season’s Opening Day rosters, the black population in the game was down to 7.7 percent—just 68 players among the 882 total.  According to USA Today, eleven of the 30 MLB clubs last year had no more than one black player on Opening Day rosters. There were just three black players total on active rosters in the entire National League West. The raw numbers tell the story. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, from 1973 to 1988, black players made up between 17.3 and 18.7 percent of the game’s population. For the past 25 years, that percentage has declined almost annually.

Back when I covered the Montreal Expos in the early 80’s, the roster was full of outstanding black ballplayers. The Expos outfield had Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine and Jerry White. The infield featured Tim Raines, Rodney Scott and Al Oliver. The starting staff included Ray Burris. When the Pirates came to town you could see Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Bill Madlock and Dave Cash. That’s no longer the case. Baseball is simply not attracting the best black athletes and kids generally aren’t playing the game in the same numbers as in the past. You have to wonder how relevant the game will be in another 25 years.

Jays in Bloom – Major League Baseball held its abbreviated June draft this week.  It was reduced from 40 to only 5 rounds, reportedly so teams could save money. The Blue Jays held the fifth overall pick and selected Austin Martin from Vanderbilt University.  Martin was listed as a shortstop but he’s a multi-positional guy and may end up in center where the Blue Jays have a glaring need.

Some baseball insiders had Martin rated as the number one player in the draft.  He was expected to go second overall to the Baltimore Orioles but they went off the board and Martin ended up dropping to the Jays. He hit .368 during his career at Vandy and has been compared to Mookie Betts which is high praise. Martin is likely to be a fast riser in the Jays system and could be in the majors within two years.  He’s already an advanced hitter and what’s great is the fact is he’s not one of these ‘swing and miss’ guys. Martin can get on base and walks as often as he strikes out which will make him a good table-setter in the lineup.  He’s also a winner having won a national championship at Vanderbilt and a state Florida state championship as a high schooler.

Since their inception, the Blue Jays have had great success in the international market particularly in Latin America. Names like Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado come to mind. The Jays are again stock-piling an impression group of Hispanic prospects led by a kid named Manuel Beltre.

Five Canadians were selected in this year’s MLB draft. Outfielder Owen Caissie from Burlington, Ontario went 45th overall to the San Diego Padres. Caissie gained notice this spring when he homered against the Jays in the annual game against the Canadian junior national team. He joins a Padres team that already includes fellow junior team grads Cal Quantrill and Josh Naylor.  Caissie is looking at a $1.65 million dollar bonus allotment for his draft position.

Two Canadian born players went in the third round – Rice University shortstop Trei Cruz to Detroit and outfielder Jordan Nwogu to the Chicago Cubs. Cruz was born in Toronto when his dad Jose Cruz Jr. was playing for the Blue Jays. Nwogu is from Ottawa and attended the University of Michigan. David Calabrese, a speedy outfielder from Maple, Ontario was selected by the L.A. Angels. Pitcher Logan Hoffman from Muenster, Saskatchewan was taken in the fifth round by the Pirates. Hoffman played his college ball at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.

NBA Restart – The COVID-19 shutdown may have benefitted the Raptors as much as any team in the NBA.  The Raptors were among the league leaders in man-games lost to injury when the season was halted. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred Van Vleet, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol have all missed at least 11 games due to injury. Gasol missed 28.  When play resumes, the roster will be whole. The fact the team had the same 46-18 record through 64 games as last season playing without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green is downright amazing. And oh yes, statistically they had fashioned the best defense in the NBA. The Raps are a mature, experienced team that plays well on the road so they should have no problem playing in a neutral site. Don’t be surprised if they reach the NBA Final again this season.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri will have some tough decisions to make once the season is over. Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred Van Vleet will be free agents. Letting everybody walk would leave the team with a mountain of cap space and set them up to bid on the big free agent prize in the summer of 2021 – Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo. On the other hand, bringing everyone back would vault the Raptors into or right up against the luxury tax. The best bet is Ujiri will try and keep the team together for one more year on short-term deals and keep his options open next summer.

Over the past couple of decades there may be no more thoughtful coach in all of sports than the San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich. When it comes to social consciousness, Pop is always there to step forward and be counted. In the wake of the George Floyd killing, he took to social media to air his thoughts on the systemic racism that has plagued the U.S. for so long.

Trivia Time – It was 82 years ago this week that Johnny Van Der Meer pitched the first of his back to back no-hitters. Never been done before.  Never been done since.  Oddly enough, it’s not the record for hitless innings pitched. That honour belongs to the immortal Cy Young who went 24 innings over 17 days without giving up a hit.

In 2018, the White Sox became the first team in MLB history ever to start three outfielders in one game with the same surname – Avisail Garcia, Leury Garcia and Willy Garcia. The Alou brothers never did have the opportunity to start a game in the same outfield.

In 2011, the Astros became the first team since 1900 to use three pitchers with the same surname in the same game – Wandy Rodriguez, Fernando Rodriguez and Aneury Rodriguez.  Don’t you love baseball for all the quirky stats and records?

Joe Schultz Sports Quote of the Week – This week, we turn to long-time Yankees manager Casey Stengel.  Addressing players in the clubhouse, Casey offered this sage advice, “Don’t drink in the hotel bar, that’s where I do my drinking.”

Music Video of the Week – Ask Eric Clapton about his influences and he will invariably mention Peter Green, the leader and founding member of the original Fleetwood Mac. His story is bittersweet, marred by excessive use of LSD, undiagnosed schizophrenia, and time spent in mental hospitals undergoing shock therapy. A lot of people forget that he wrote ‘Black Magic Woman.’ Green’s meteoric career basically drifted into obscurity until he was able to get off medication in the late 90’s. To learn more about Green and the story of Fleetwood Mac, click on this two-part BBC documentary.

Green formed Fleetwood Mac with two fellow former members of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. Here’s a great compilation of songs from 1968-1970 including Shake Your Moneymaker, Homework and I’m Worried. Green’s voice and guitar work are in fine form.

After emerging from his long illness, Green formed The Splinter Group with Nigel Watson in the late 90’s.  Here’s a full concert from 2003.  Green’s voice is gone but his guitar work had returned. Don’t forget to check out ‘Look on Yonder Wall’ at the 1:25:00 mark.