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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy.  The NHL returns to ESPN in a blockbuster TV deal, Demko saves the season, the NFL silly season is upon us and we take a tour around the National League as spring training rolls on. 

Broadcast Rights – The NHL is returning to ESPN! It’s a seven-year deal starting with the 2021-2022 season. The ESPN deal will pay the NHL a reported $420 million per season. The NHL returns to ESPN for the first time since 2004 in a multi-platform agreement with Walt Disney Company, owners of ABC/ESPN. The network will broadcast four Stanley Cup Finals on ABC over the span of the contract and more than 1,000 games. The NHL chose to split U.S. TV rights into two packages. The ESPN agreement is the A package. The B package will go to another yet-to-be-named network and could bring in an additional $200 million per season. It’s a massive increase in overall TV revenues at a time when teams are bleeding cash because of the pandemic. The NHL was smart to leave the rights to the Stanley Cup open every other year in order to sweeten the B package. NBC has indicated they would like to continue as a broadcast partner but don’t be surprised if Fox enters the picture.

The current deal with NBC is expected to bring in around $340 million this season. In total, the new agreements will net the NHL $620 million, so it’s incredible news for the league and for NHL players who have been frustrated for years that hockey highlights are rarely played on ESPN’s SportsCentre. But before we get too carried away, don’t expect the salary cap to increase. One NHL source predicts the cap could stay flat for up a five years. In the year prior to the pandemic, hockey-related revenues had grown to $5 billion. With buildings empty, revenues this season may only be $2 billion. As a result, the player’s escrow debt could reach $880 million. That escrow debt will need to be repaid to the league before the cap can move upward once again. It’s estimated that will take at least two years.

The announcement comes as frustration over hockey coverage is at an all-time high in Canada. On Tuesday night, the Leafs and the Jets opened a crucial three-game series that was must-see hockey. TSN holds the regional rights to 18 Leafs games this season and blacks out the games elsewhere around the country. Without access to that game, hockey fans in the west were served up the Islanders and the Penguins on Sportsnet Pacific. It’s complete BS!

Canucks This Week – The biggest single positive to come out of the Canucks otherwise disappointing season to date is the continued maturation of goaltender Thatcher Demko. Take away the opening few games when the team was in complete disarray and his overall performance has been outstanding. The numbers back his case. Since late January, Demko has posted some of the best advanced goaltending stats in the NHL. He has posted the fourth-best save percentage in the league (.926, minimum eight games) since Jan. 23. Demko is third in the NHL with 11.59 goals saved above expectation as of Saturday’s 4-2 win against the Leafs. Only Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury have been better. Pretty heady company. Demko has improved his GAA to 2.87 and his save percentage to .914.   Having another solid foundational piece gives the Canucks plenty of reason for optimism if the salary cap mess can be sorted out over the next two years.

The Canucks need to make a decision on pending UFA Tanner Pearson. Passive Jim Benning says he would like to keep Pearson around past this season but is it really the right choice? Pearson is probably the Canucks best trade chip at the deadline. He’s a steady veteran with Cup experience and would be a good middle-six addition for any Cup contender. Pearson will be 29 before the start of next season. His productivity is likely to decline. The Canucks would be advised to move him at the deadline. He’s may fetch a third-round pick, perhaps a late second.

If you watched J.T. Miller play centre with Elias Pettersson out of the lineup, you can’t help but wonder how good the Canucks might be with another solid centreman in their lineup. We have been singing this tune for a couple of years. Strength down the middle is so important. Miller has played the position before in the NHL and often takes many of the draws instead of Pettersson. In the two games against the Leafs, he was much more engaged defensively (because he had to be) and used his size to nullify Tavares and Matthews in head-to-head matchups. We continue to maintain that acquiring another centreman with a 200-foot game should be a Canucks priority.

NHL Notebook – The NHL trade deadline is still a month away but we should expect teams to pull the trigger early this season due to the complications brought on by the pandemic. There are very few teams with available cap space to actually make a move. The Boston Bruins have about $3.4 million dollars in cap space and are looking for a defenseman. The Bruins can join the line for Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm. The Carolina Panthers have $4.6 million in projected cap space and you would have to think they are in the market for a goaltender. The surprising Florida Panthers have $5.8 million available and could use an upgrade on the back end. St. Louis Blues blueliner Vince Dunn would be an obvious target. After watching the Maple Leafs falter against the Canucks, it would be shocking if the Leafs aren’t active at the deadline. They could definitely use another productive forward up front. The Montreal Canadiens should absolutely be looking to add at the deadline. The Canadiens have 14 picks in the upcoming draft and could sweeten the pot with Victor Mete or Joel Armia. They should be able to find a dance partner.

Some of the rumoured trade deadline deals that are circulating make sense. Sam Reinhart from Buffalo to Calgary works although the price may be too steep. The Flames are in desperate need of a productive right winger. Eric Staal from Buffalo to Edmonton is a good fit. The Oilers need a reliable centre to anchor a woefully-unproductive third line. Travis Hamonic from Vancouver to Winnipeg makes sense as well but Hamonic has a no-movement clause and may not accept a trade.

The NHL is tweaking the draft lottery AGAIN! There will be two big changes – teams will be prevented from winning the lottery more than twice in a five-year period and will not be allowed to jump more than 10 spots with a lottery win. Somehow we think the NHL never goes far enough. Seems like lipstick on a pig!

It didn’t take long for Patrik Laine to fall out of sorts in Columbus. The track record for Finnish players selected in the top ten recently is not exactly sterling. The two best selections without a doubt are Nik Ehlers by Winnipeg and Miro Heiskanen by Dallas, third overall in 2017. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was taken 8th by Buffalo in 2013. Bo Horvat went to Vancouver with the next pick. In 2016, Laine went second overall. His reputation has taken a major hit. Jesse Puljujarvi went fourth and Olli Juolevi fifth in 2016. Neither one has stepped up. The Canadiens gambled and took Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall in 2018. He’s still trying to find his way. Kaapo Kakko went second overall in 2019 to the Rangers and he’s had a slow start to his career. I wouldn’t be jumping to select Aatu Raty, the top-rated Finn in this year’s draft.

We’re not buying stock in the Maple Leafs. It’s still a thin roster up front and the defense and goaltending is inconsistent. The Leafs are fortunate to be playing in the North Division. We are still not convinced this is a team that is built for the playoffs. The good news is one Canadian team is going to waltz out of the division and straight into the final four.

An NHL team would be wise to bring in former Penguins GM Jimmy Rutherford as a consultant for the remainder of the season. Makes too much sense for the Canucks to do it. He could be very valuable in Buffalo. Sabres GM Kevyn Adams used to play for Rutherford in Carolina.

Despite all the analytics and advanced stats in today’s game, plus-minus is still a pretty good indicator of a player’s value. The highest career plus-minus belongs to Larry Robinson of the Montreal Canadiens. The Big Bird played 1,384 NHL games and was plus-722.  Some guy named Bobby Orr is next in line at plus-582 in only 657 career games.

Banned for Life – When will the NHL do something to protect its most important commodity – the players? Can the NHL please do something about the menace that is Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals? He was slapped with a seven-game suspension for his cheap-shot to the head of the Bruins Brandon Carlo who remains out of the lineup with a concussion. It was the fifth suspension of Wilson’s career which has now reached a total of 30 games. It would be higher but the 20-game suspension he received in 2018 was reduced to 14 by an arbitrator.

A highly-respected associate who covered the NHL for years has long suggested the NHL create a disciplinary program similar to the points system used for drivers who continually break the law. Under such a system, players would be given a total number of points. Each time they are suspended, points would be deducted. Every time they reach a certain threshold, the punishment would become more severe. In the case of Wilson, he would already be at or near the limit and would potentially have his playing privileges revoked. The European leagues handle head shots far more severely.

The NHL has had its collective head in the sand for far too long. Matt Cooke had a long history of cheap shots and should have been punished from the NHL. Cooke drove his skate into the back of Erik Karlsson’s left leg, severing his Achilles tendon. Karlsson was never the same player. Cooke also ended the career of Marc Savard. The injuries to Savard and Karlsson could have been prevented had Cooke been banned from the NHL. No one ever bought a ticket to watch Tom Wilson or Matt Cooke. Fans in Ottawa worshipped Karlsson.

Such a system would have a major impact in free agency. Can you imagine if Wilson became a free agent but was in a position where one more suspension could result in a one or two-year suspension? There’s no way a general manager would be willing to offer him a long-term contract.

Despicable Crime – Good on TSN’s Gino Reda for suggesting the Hockey Hall of Fame set up a showroom featuring Gretzky memorabilia. Reda noted that the Hall has a replica Montreal Canadiens dressing room. Why not a Gretzky family basement showcase?

It makes the theft of Gretzky memorabilia from the family home last summer all the more deplorable. A senior OPP officer has been charged along with an associate. She was a trusted friend to Walter who allegedly stole numerous items and sold them to collectors across the country. The items, including game-used jersey’s, gloves and sticks, were recovered last August in Edmonton and Fort McMurray. They had a reported value of $600,000 but were obviously priceless to the family. One of the two people charged was 58-year-old June Dobson, the commanding officer of the Grenville OPP detachment in Prescott, Ontario.

Blue Jays Spring Notebook – We are a couple of weeks into spring training and there’s plenty of reason for optimism in the Blue Jays camp. The starting pitching has been very effective for the most part. It’s great to see pitchers throwing strikes. Last year, Blue Jay pitchers allowed the second-highest walk rate in the majors (10.8 percent). Clearly, this is an area of focus. Lefthander Robbie Ray has been finding the plate. Last year, Ray led the majors with 45 walks in only in 51 2/3 innings.

Spring training is also helping to determine how the Jays deploy their glut of position players. Manager Charlie Montoyo has more starting-calibre players than he can write into the lineup. The two players who may feel the squeeze the most are outfielder Randal Grichuk and first baseman Rowdy Tellez. Unless someone is traded, there may not be enough at-bats to go around.

Super prospect Austin Martin, the fifth overall pick in last year’s MLB draft, has been in the Jays camp and has had a handful of exhibition at-bats. His skills are so advanced he may only need one year of minor league seasoning. The Jays plan to move him around to a variety of positions. Martin will see time at shortstop but you have to wonder what his long-term position will be. I don’t see him as a super-utility guy like Cavan Biggio.

National League Forecast – We are just a few weeks away from the start of the Major League Baseball season.  This week, we take a visit around the National League.

NL East – Atlanta – Alex Anthopoulos must have felt like he died and went to heaven when he landed with the Braves. This is a top-tier organization with a perpetually-rich farm system. The Braves feature some of the brightest young stars in the game in Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Christian Pache. Freddie Freeman is the anchor. Charlie Morton joins a strong, young rotation featuring Canada’s Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson. Soroka returns from a torn Achilles. Expect another deep post-season run.

Miami Marlins – How this team made the post-season amidst a COVID outbreak is beyond comprehension. You would think a dive back to the basement is in the forecast but watch out for the Marlins young starting staff. There’s some electric arms led by Sixto Sanchez and Trevor Rogers. Not much in the everyday lineup however. Kim Ng takes over as the first female general manager in baseball history.

New York Mets – Billionaire Steve Cohen paid nearly $2.5 billion to purchase the Mets in November and he’s been tossing around greenbacks ever since. Highly-regarded Sandy Alderson joined the Mets as team president. The addition of all-world shortstop Francisco Lindor is a game-changer. Carlos Carrasco came over from the Indians in that deal as well to solidify an already strong rotation fronted by Jacob deGrom, who may just be the best pitcher in baseball. The Mets grossly overpaid for catcher James McCann but his bat and pitch-framing will play well in New York. 

Philadelphia Phillies – Hard to figure this team. The Phillies are poorly put together. They were able to re-sign catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius. Red Sox discard Dave Dombrowski takes over as the new President of Baseball Ops. The Phillies spent $700 million on free agents over the past three seasons, something Dombrowski is very good at. Trouble is, Phillies ownership turned that tap off this winter because of pandemic belt-tightening.

Washington Nationals – The Nationals took a free-fall to fourth place last season just one year after winning the World Series. Don’t expect a bounce-back. This is an aging roster and the pitching after Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is lacking. Off-season pick-ups Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber add punch to the middle of the order. 

NL Central – Chicago Cubs – Not sure where the Cubs are headed after losing club president Theo Epstein. They managed to make the playoffs last season but they have done nothing to improve in the off-season. Yu Darvish has exited to San Diego and Kris Bryant and shortstop Javier Baez are a season away from free agency. Do I hear rebuild?

Cincinnati Reds – The Reds made a series of bold moves last season and it resulted in a third place finish. So what did they do? Let’s start another tear-down. The Reds do not have a clear and consistent plan. It seems to be all-or-nothing. Expect a further selloff at the trade deadline. Canadian Joey Votto, a long-time Cincinnati fixture, has turned into a millstone. He batted a career-low .226 last season and has three more years on his contract at $25 million per. What’s worse, he recently contracted COVID.

Milwaukee Brewers – Unlike a lot of major league teams, at least the Brewers TRY to win. They have an outstanding manager in Craig Counsell who somehow gets an average team to over-perform. The Brewers may have the best 1-2 bullpen punch in baseball in leftie Josh Hader and right-hander Devin Williams. Milwaukee is banking on Christian Yelich to rebound to an MVP-level performance.

Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates are the dregs of major league baseball. This is a Triple-A roster. Ben Cherington was hired from the Blue Jays as general manager and his task is formidable. The one saving grace is third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes who is quickly becoming a mega-star. He debuted last year with a .376 average and belted five home runs in 24 games.

St. Louis Cardinals – The rich get richer. The Cardinals stole third baseman Nolan Arenado from Colorado in a one-sided heist for a pocketful of mid-level prospects. All Arenado has done is hit 37 or more home runs five times. Did we mention he’s also won a Gold Glove eight times? The deal should lead the Cards back to the top of the division. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is money in the middle of the lineup. Canadian Tyler O’Neill was a surprise Gold Glove winner in left field. The pitching staff is solid.

NL West – Arizona Diamondbacks – It’s tough sledding in a division with the Dodgers and the Padres. The D-backs seem to be heading in the wrong direction after three winning seasons. They made a huge mistake signing Madison Bumgarner last off-season to a five-year, $85 million dollar deal. There were, however, able to get out from under the Zack Greinke contract. Converted shortstop Ketel Marte is now a fixture in center and the Diamondbacks best player.

Colorado Rockies – The Rockies had two things going for them – Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. Arenado is gone. Story is one year away from free agency. How would you like to be a fan of this team? Story is a gamer. He led the NL in steals with 15 and makes all the plays at short with a plus arm. Oh, and did we mention he hit .289 and tied for fourth in hits with 68? Pitching in mile-high Denver is frightful so attracting free agent pitchers is next to impossible.

Los Angeles Dodgers – The Dodgers are the presumptive pre-season choice to again dominate the division and return to the World Series. They have it all right across the board and out-spend every team in baseball by a country mile. Need pitching?  Just add NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.

San Diego Padres – No team in baseball improved themselves more in the off-season than the Padres. They bolstered an already deep starting pitching staff with the additions of Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. Fernando Tatis Jr. is the most exciting player in the game and he’s now also rich after signing a huge 14-year, $340 million dollar deal in the off-season. Korean star Ha-seong Kim solidifies the middle of the infield.

San Francisco Giants – Canadian native Farhan Zaidi is in charge of the rebuild going on in the Bay area. He learned well in the Dodgers system and has the Giants on the right track. Zaidi is building it back up piece by piece and can’t wait until next off-season when four anchor contracts belonging to Buster Posey, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford come off the books. Top catching prospect Joey Bart is a big part of the Giants future.

NFL Notebook – Its crunch time in the NFL, as in, crunch the NUMBERS time. With free agency about to begin in less than a week, over half of the league is either over the salary cap or have less than $10 million dollars in available space. Four teams started the week more than $20 million over the cap. Like every league, NFL revenues are down due to the pandemic. The 2021 salary cap has been set at $182.5 million. That’s a drop of over $15 million from last year. A storm is definitely brewing. Every team has to be in compliance by March 17. Yes, it would not be wise to be making any big purchases if you are a borderline NFL player. There’s going to be an avalanche of players cut in the next few days.

As things stand right now, the Seahawks have only one pick in the top 125 of this year’s NFL draft. Their first pick will come in the second round, 56th overall and many draft watchers predict they will trade down out of that selection to acquire additional picks. The Seahawks need to acquire another target for Russell Wilson and this shapes up to be another strong class for receivers. In the last two drafts, teams have picked a total of 30 wide-outs in the first three rounds. This year, 19 receivers have received grades in the top three rounds. Seattle should look long and hard at a receiver in the second round.

The Seahawks started getting their house in order by releasing defensive end Carlos Dunlap rather than guaranteeing him more than $14 million. Dunlap spurred the Hawks defensive resurgence last season after coming over from the Bengals. There’s still a chance that Dunlap could return to Seattle but usually when players are released, it’s already been determined a deal is unlikely.  Seahawk fans will be thrilled to know the pass rush is once again a position of need.

If I’m the New York Jets, I am drafting BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the second overall pick and trading Sam Darnold. A reported eight teams have inquired about Darnold. If the Jets can land a second rounder, they should jump at the opportunity.

Golf Notebook – A quartet of Canadians qualified for this weekend’s Players’ Championship at Ponte Vedra, Florida. Corey Conners carried over his fine play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and is the top Canadian at minus-4. Conners sits in a tie for 14th spot. Adam Hadwin rallied on Friday with a 69 and jumped up 46 spots to T36. Nick Taylor is at even par right at the cut line. Mackenzie Hughes missed the cut. Lee Westwood leads the tournament at minus-9. Bryson DeChambeau is lurking at minus-6.

Conners, the pride of Listowel, Ontario, continues to impress on the PGA Tour. He gained a ton of experience and learned what it’s like to be in contention on Sunday at Bay Hill. Conners finished solo third behind DeChambeau and Westwood. Conners shot a two-over 74 in very difficult final round conditions. He was tied for second after an eagle on 16 but bogey’s on 17 and 18 ended his day. Corey’s putter let him down in the final round. Nonetheless, it was great experience for the 29-year-old who’s one of the more solid players on tour tee to green. Conners picked up almost $650,000 and moved to 44th in the World Golf rankings, passing Mackenzie Hughes as the top Canadian.

It was expected but still incredibly disappointing to learn that the RBC Canadian Open has been cancelled for the second straight year. Golf Canada was hopeful the tournament could be played but it became impossible to overcome all the hurdles including border restrictions and quarantine measures still in place by the Canadian government. The Canadian Open is the first PGA tournament to be cancelled this year due to the on-going impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the shutdown hit last year, the Canadian Open was one of 11 tournaments that were cancelled during a 13-week pause. While there is nothing official yet, it’s expected the 2022 Canadian Open will still be held at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto.

Leftovers – Word that the CFL and the XFL have been engaged in exploratory talks smacks of desperation. We give CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie credit for at least looking at alternatives in a post-pandemic universe. There’s no doubt the CFL has to find new revenue streams. But is a partnership with the XFL really the answer or is it just a trial balloon to garner publicity? It harkens back to the league’s ill-fated expansion into the U.S. twenty years ago. You know how much we long for the return of the Shreveport Pirates! Paging Lonnie Gleiberman! We have long insisted the best pathway forward for the CFL is through a partnership with the NFL, not some upstart league. The way things are going for the CFL, they may be the ex-CFL even without transforming into the XCFL.

What is the definition of insanity? That would have to be the decision by Texas Governor George Abbott to lift the mask mandate in Texas and open the state back up. It’s prompted the Texas Rangers to open Globe Life Field to fans for opening day. The stadium has a capacity of 40,300 and the team hopes to fill it. Guess who the Rangers are playing for their home opener on April 5? Yes, the Toronto Blue Jays. The Rangers plan to have a slightly reduced capacity with “social distancing pods” for the remainder of April and May. The Jays can’t be too excited about it.

Spotify Song of the Week – Let’s give some love to the great Dee Dee Bridgewater. Check out a couple of tunes from her album “Memphis…Yes I’m Ready.” We recommend “Yes, I’m Ready” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad).”

Music Artist of the Week – Steve Miller was one of my favorite artists growing up. It may surprise you but he’s now 77 years old. Miller was born in Milwaukee to a musical family. One of his neighbour’s and a frequent visitor to his house was the immortal guitar player Les Paul. After leaving university, Miller got immersed in the Chicago blues scene and performed with Paul Butterfield and jammed with blues icons Muddy Watters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy.

Miller moved to San Francisco in 1966 and formed the Steve Miller Band which, for the first two albums, included Boz Scaggs. The Band recorded a series of outstanding albums including “Sailor,” “Children of the Future,” “Brave New World,” and “Your Saving Grace.” Starting in 1973, Miller enjoyed a massive renaissance with major hits like “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Jet Airliner.” Over his 40+ year career, Miller has sold over 40 million records.

At a guitar auction in 2011, Miller revealed that he owns more than 450 guitars. From 1976 to 1986, Miller owned a 420-acre ranch in rural southwestern Oregon in the hamlet of Williams. In 2016, Miller put his bay-front home and 39 fenced acres on Washington’s San Juan Island up for sale for $16.8 million. According to the real estate listing, the two-story, contemporary house, built in 2011 on sheltered Friday Harbor, had only two bedrooms tucked inside 11,686 square feet of living space. The spread included a 360-foot, deep water dock to accommodate a large yacht. It ended up selling for $8.5 million. Miller moved to a 13-acre retreat in Ketchum, Idaho which included an 8,000-square-foot house, three guest cottages and a 4,000-square-foot recording studio. He put that home up for sale in 2019 for $16 million.

While living on San Juan Island, Miller was a staple every summer on the outdoor concert schedule at nearby Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery outside Seattle. When the pandemic is over and things return to normal, keep an eye on the Chateau Ste. Michelle website for an announcement of their lineup because Miller has been a mainstay.

Here’s an outstanding version of “Fly Like an Eagle” from a concert in Chicago in 2011.

Here’s Steve performing “Jet Airliner” in 2012.

Of course, Miller’s roots are in the blues. Let’s take you back to 1992 when Miller teamed up with Carlos Santana and Ry Cooder for a classic rendition of “All Your Love.”

Just for the fun of it, let’s take you back to 1976 for a studio performance of “Space Cowboy.” Love the shirt! Gotta get me one!

Following his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, (long overdue), Miller went off on organizers during a press conference following the induction.

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