Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy and special thanks to Bill Myles and Jordan Moss. This week, it’s time for Thatcher Demko to take a bow. The Leafs are looking over their shoulder in the NHL North. We have lots of NHL chatter, NFL free agency and can someone buy Jesse a new helmet?
Canucks This Week – For 50+ years, the Canucks have been loveable losers. Problem is, they don’t even know how to lose properly. Their chances of making the playoffs this season are miniscule, yet they keep on winning one-goal games without their best player in the lineup. Instead of landing a high pick in the draft lottery, they will likely select much lower and end up swinging and missing. The whole season will be a waste. Their best trade chip at the deadline was Tanner Pearson and now he’s gone for a month with a leg injury and his value has plummeted.
The Canucks recent surge has come on the back of Thatcher Demko. He is 8-1 in March with a .950 save percentage. Demko has put himself into the Vezina conversation and that’s not idle banter. He has lapped the field since February 19 in goals saved above expected (GSAx), which is considered the gold standard in advanced goaltending statistics. No goalie in the NHL has faced more high quality scoring opportunities than Demko. Comparing him to the other two top goalies, Marc-Andre Fleury and Andrei Vasilevskiy doesn’t tell the whole story. Look below the surface and the Canucks defensive numbers are at the bottom of the NHL. In shots against, the Canucks are 30th. In slot shots against, the Canucks are 29th. Rush chances against – 30th. Expected goals against – 31st. Seldom has a goalie carried a team like this.
You can be sure that the price on a new contract for “Bubble” Demko just went up. He’s a restricted free agent after the season with arbitration rights and his performance is making a strong case for a contract that’s much higher than earlier anticipated. Demko is just two years away from unrestricted free agency so his next contract is all about term. How many free agent years can you buy? A short-team deal is not on the table. At the start of the season, we thought $3.5-$4.0 million would be the number on a new deal. Not any longer. Ottawa gifted Matt Murray a four-year, $25 million dollar contract. St. Louis just gave Jordan Binnington six years and $36 million, matching the deal Calgary handed to Jacob Markstrom. Demko may not be in store for a similar jump in salary but his bargaining position is improving by the day. Demko is finishing up a two-year, $2.1 million contract, peanuts for the kind of goaltending he is providing the Canucks right now. The Canucks could be looking at up to $20 million dollars to wrap up Demko, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes with new contracts.
Pettersson has missed seven games and counting. He was originally expected to miss only a week with a reported wrist injury but he may not return until the end of the month. Hughes is playing his best hockey of the season. His value in 3-on-3 overtime is off the charts. He seems to be learning that sometimes less is more. The pairing with Travis Hamonic has helped settle Hughes down. His early season defensive play was chaotic. During his rookie season last year when he finished second to Cale Makar in Calder voting, Hughes had 53 points in 68 games. He was the first rookie defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1989 to lead NHL rookies in scoring. The only other defenseman to do that in the last 80 years is Bobby Orr. Pretty darn good company!
You can hear crickets in the Canucks front office. Is anyone home? There has to be concern about the lack of movement on a new contract for Coach Travis Green. And how about the status of goaltending Guru Ian Clark whose contract is also up after the season. When you consider the breakout season Demko is enjoying, can the team afford to let Clark get away? Extending Clark should be an absolute priority.
If the Canucks are paying attention, there could be some excellent opportunities to acquire players prior to the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. The Colorado Avalanche are going to have protection problems along the blueline with a glut of outstanding defensemen. The Avs are going to be forced to protect Erik Johnson because of his no-movement clause. Add in Cale Makar and Colorado will be in position to lose one of Sammy Girard, Devon Toews and Ryan Graves. Toews is from Abbotsford and would be a top pairing defenseman in Vancouver. Trouble is he would be expensive to acquire. Graves might be a more realistic target. He’s 6’5” and has proven to be very solid alongside Makar. Carolina will also likely have protection issues. Forward Warren Foegele should be available. He’s only 24 years old and is a pending RFA without arbitration rights, making just over two million this year. The Canucks would be smart to make a call on Foegele.
Can someone page Jim Benning? Wayne Newton called and wants his hair dye back. Danke Schoen!
Leaf Love Lost – Now you know why we refused to jump on the Maple Leafs bandwagon. The Leafs were as flawed a first place team as you will ever see. We knew they were in for a pratfall. It was only delayed by the overall ineptitude of the North Division. We saw this coming. When you have mediocre goaltending and you can’t defend, how can you ever expect to advance in the playoffs?
Goalie Freddie “Krueger” Andersen is the new whipping boy. The Maple Minions are blaming it all on poor Freddie. Andersen’s numbers have been dropping for four consecutive years. He’s middle-of-the-pack at best. His save percentage is a pedestrian .897. Did they think he was suddenly going to morph into something else? More alarmingly, Andersen ranks just 37th in goals saved above expected.
Just a few weeks ago, Leaf Nation was beaming over a potential Presidents’ Trophy. Kyle Dubas was being touted as GM of the Year. It was the usual giddy stuff. Oh, how things can change when you are not nearly as good as you are made out to be. Placing all the blame on Andersen is simply off the mark. The Leafs rank 21st in scoring chances against per minute. At 5-on-5, they’re 17th in high-danger chances against and 16th in expected goals against. Middle-of-the-pack my friends! In the important giveaway/takeaway category, the Leafs are -72. Only eight teams in the league are worse. The Leafs have registered 16.80 hits per game. That’s second to last in the NHL, ahead of only Minnesota. We don’t need to be reminded what a lack of toughness means come playoff time.
In Sunday’s loss in Ottawa in the horrid St. Pat’s uniforms, the Leafs left-wing contingent was comprised of Joe Thornton, Zach Hyman, Ilya Mikheyev and Jimmy Vesey. Don’t tell me that’s championship calibre. The fourth line contained Vesey, Jason Spezza and Travis Boyd. Don’t tell me that’s championship calibre. Vesey was later waived and Boyd was banished to the press box as the Leafs search for answers. But here’s the thing. The Leafs lack structure and structure matters. Look at the other top teams in the league. Boston, Tampa, Vegas, Carolina, the Islanders. They all have structure. Lou Lamoriello has created it without a bunch of stars. Do you think the U.S. Olympic team would have beaten the Soviets in 1980 without the structure that Herb Brooks installed? Good teams play the right way and that will never change. Call it whatever you want but structure matters.
The best line I’ve heard about the Leafs to date – “They have too many Toller Cranston’s and not enough Elvis Stoyko’s.”
NHL Notebook – It’s a subject that has always been touchy but needs to be addressed. Why do the Montreal Canadiens continue to insist on having a French-speaking coach? All it serves to do is limit the number of good coaching candidates. Dominic Ducharme had success at the junior level but how can you compare him to Claude Julien who’s won a Cup and has had success wherever he’s been? No one can convince me Ducharme is a better coach. It was change for change sake. The greatest coaches in Canadiens history – Dick Irvin, Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman – spoke very little French, if any. They could not hold a media briefing in French. It’s important. I get it. But at what point does it become counter-productive when the entire roster speaks English and the best coaching candidate available may be unable to speak French? The whole tired policy needs to be reconsidered. It seems like the team is held hostage by the French media.
Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot may be out of the lineup until the playoffs after surgery to repair a broken hand. He suffered the injury in a fight with the Canucks J.T. Miller. Can you think of anything more ridiculous than throwing punches at a guy wearing a helmet and a visor? If I was a GM, I would absolutely forbid any of my players from fighting someone outfitted with helmet and visor. It’s not like these guys can land an uppercut on the chin like Marvin Hagler.
What’s with the Canadiens in overtime? They finally broke the curse on Saturday night and beat the Canucks 5-4 in a shootout. Up to that point, the Habs had dropped nine games this season in overtime or a shootout. Have you watched the Canadiens constantly regrouping in overtime when they should be attacking? A little bit of advice – don’t put Jonathan Drouin on the ice in OT and don’t call his number in a shootout. The cutesy act doesn’t work 3-on-3 and once the puck is turned over, Drouin can’t check his coat.
If the Olympics were starting tomorrow, is there any question that Marc-Andre Fleury would be the starting goalie for Team Canada? Fleury’s revival in Vegas has been completely out of the blue.
Another goalie who was turned back the clock is Edmonton’s Mike Smith. Smith is 10-3 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average. Who saw that coming? At nearly 39, I thought Smith’s career was over. Don’t hold your breath on Smitty holding up for the entire season, however.
What can you say about the brothers Tkachuk? Talk about gamers. Since 2018-2019, Brady Tkachuk has drawn 98 penalties which ranks first in the NHL. Matthew has drawn 80 penalties which ranks fourth. Who wouldn’t want either of these guys on their team?
If you agree the Leafs left-wing depth chart is bad, how about the Oilers? Behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have been wheeling out Dominik Kahun, Tyler Ennis, James Neal and some slug named Joakim Nygard.
Instead of calling Joe Thornton “Jumbo Joe”, why not call him “Big Mama” Thornton in tribute to the legendary blues singer?
Why have none of the so-called hockey experts mentioned Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech as possible selections for Team Canada 2022? The Islanders blueline duo may be the best overall defense pairing in the NHL right now.
The Carolina Hurricanes are the NHL’s best-kept secret. They are fiscally responsible and rarely make a poor roster decision. We’ve said it before, you have to walk away from players when the price gets too steep. Colorado does it and Carolina does it. Teams that overpay to keep their own players often end up regretting it.
The Canes power-play is lights out and now leads the NHL at 31.8 percent. Pair that with a top-10 penalty kill and you have a well-rounded hockey club. Did we mention they are doing it with Leafs castoff James Reimer in goal? Rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic has also stood out with starter Petr Mrazek sidelined with injury.
The NHL trade deadline is coming up on April 12. The big question facing Canadian teams is – will the quarantine be relaxed by Health Canada before the deadline? You may be wondering, if a player is traded from the U.S. to Canada has been vaccinated, will he be able to avoid the quarantine? The answer is no. He will still need to sit it out for 14 days.
Detroit should be active at the deadline. Steve Yzerman has been collecting veterans so he can be in selloff mode. Sam Gagner, Luke Glendening, Bobby Ryan, Marc Staal and Jonathan Bernier all could be on their way out of Motown by next month.
You can see the changes in the Flames since Darryl Sutter took over behind the bench. The Flames have battened down the hatches. They are far more aggressive on the forecheck and are limiting zone entries. Shots on goal are down. You can be sure the Flames are going to be in a lot of one-goal games from here on in.
The Flames were far too hasty in giving up on defenseman Adam Fox before he had ever played a game in Calgary. Fox is proving last year’s outstanding rookie campaign with the Rangers was no fluke. Scouts thought he was just all-offense. Fox is now part of a shutdown pair with Ryan Lindgren and facing top lines on a nightly basis. The Flames included Fox in the deal that sent Dougie Hamilton and Michael Ferland to Carolina for Noah Hanifan and Elias Lindholm. Fox couldn’t come to terms with the Hurricanes after leaving college and was sent to the Rangers for a second-round pick and a conditional 2020 third-round pick.
You can hand out the Calder Trophy to Kirill Kiprozov right now. The Minnesota Wild winger has been sensational this season, leading the Wild in scoring with 10 goals and 25 points in 29 games. You can see what a difference it makes when a player comes over from Russia at 24 with six seasons in the KHL under his belt.
Is there a better third line in the NHL right now than the Jets Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault?
You don’t think seasoning in the American Hockey League is important? Check the rookie goaltenders in the NHL this year who spent time building their game in the minors last season.
- Minnesota’s Kaapo Kahkonen: 11-4-0, .918
• Washington’s Vitek Vanecek: 11-5-3, .906
• Chicago’s Kevin Lankinen: 10-4-4 0.919
• New York’s Igor Shesterkin: 6-7-1, .921
• Carolina’s Alex Nedeljkovic: 5-2-1, .927
• L.A.’s Calvin Peterson: 4-4-4, .914
• Dallas’s Jake Oettinger: 3-1-4, .918
Ken Dryden can always be relied upon to take a studious look at issues around the NHL. This week, he offered up his thoughts on the Tom Wilson cheap-shot on the Bruins Brandon Carlo. Definitely worth reading his column.
Not sure if Erik Karlsson has taken a puck to the head recently but he seems to have selective amnesia. He opened up to the media this week saying “I did not sign here in San Jose to go through a rebuild or go through what I did for 10 years in Ottawa.” Erik the Great needs to be reminded that the Senators made the playoffs in five of Karlsson’s nine years in the Nation’s Capital.
What’s there to say about the situation in Buffalo? Ralph Krueger was removed after 12 straight losses. The Sabres have the Edmonton syndrome. They keep on hiring rookie coaches and rookie GM’s. When are they going to realize that experience matters? Kevyn Adams is a rookie general manager. So were Tim Murray and Jason Botterill. Phil Housley was a rookie head coach. Interim coach Don Granato and both of his assistants, Dan Girardi and Matt Ellis, have no NHL experience. What do they expect? At a time when many teams are adding staff to increase scouting coverage due to limited viewing opportunities for draft eligible players, the Sabres are sitting with the thinnest front office staff in hockey.
You have to pity Rasmus Dahlin, the Sabres supremely gifted defenseman who was the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. He’s dead last in the NHL in plus/minus at minus-28 and is minus-48 since entering the league. All the losing has to wear on the kid and his confidence is shot. By the way, Sam Reinhart is minus-20. Eric Staal is minus-18 and Taylor Hall is minus-17.
News Flash: The next head coach firing in the NHL may be Alain Vigneault of the Flyers. That 9-0 pasting at the hands of the rival Rangers was not a good sign.
Can someone find the Oilers Jesse Puljujarvi a helmet that fits? Have you seen the head on this guy? He’s barely able to get his helmet onto his mammoth cranium. He’s the Jim Plunkett of the NHL!
Blue Jays Spring Training Update – Here’s a few random observations from the Blue Jays spring camp in Dunedin, Florida.
- Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, Steven Matz and Tanner Roark look like they have a hold on starting jobs in the rotation to open the season. Ross Stripling is likely to land the fifth spot until Nate Pearson returns from injury. Ray and Matz have exceeded expectations so far and most importantly, they are throwing all their pitches for strikes.
- Pearson has resumed throwing bullpen sessions after being sidelined with a slight groin pull. You would have to think he’s a longshot to start the season with the Jays. It will probably be better to slowly build him back up. It’s going to be very difficult to get the 24-year-old prized prospect stretched out before opening day. He’s going to be on an innings limit this season so there’s no need to rush him back.
- The Blue Jays top two pitching prospects not named Pearson are Alex Manoah and Simeon Woods Richardson. Both have exceeded expectations this spring. Manoah faced the New York Yankees last Sunday and threw three shutout innings. At one point, he struck out seven Yankees in a row, hitting 96.6 on the gun, and flashing a wipeout slider that induced nine swings and misses. Manoah has now thrown five shutout innings this spring and not one ball has been hit out of the infield. The filthy stuff could play in the majors right now but it’s worth remembering, he’s only thrown 17 innings since turning pro. Manoah’s last start was more than 18 months ago in August, 2019 with the Vancouver Canadians. The 2019 first round pick is now just a phone call away and should make his major league debut by September, if not before.
- Like Vladdy Jr., catcher Alejandro Kirk shed weight over the winter and is making it very difficult for the Blue Jays to deny him a roster spot. Kirk was 5 for 10 in his first six games this spring and is showing improved awareness behind the plate. The 22-year-old made his Jays debut last season, jumping all the way from High A. Kirk used the off-season to improve his fitness and conditioning and has worked hard on his communication and game-calling. Scouts love his bat. If Kirk is sent down, it’s only because the Jays don’t want to risk losing back-up catcher Reese McGuire on waivers. I’m still not convinced that Jays starting catcher Danny Jansen will ever hit major league pitching.
- The Jays are suddenly flush with major league-level outfielders. Jonathan Davis, Josh Palacios and Forrest Wall have all performed well this spring and could help several teams right now. The Jays are going to have to make decisions on a number of players this season because some are going to run out of options.
The Money Tree – The NFL is heading for another media windfall following a new rights agreement signed this week. The NFL will nearly double its overall media revenue to more than $10 billion a season when the new deal with Amazon Prime kicks in beginning in 2022. Amazon Prime will have exclusive streaming rights to Thursday Night Football. The NFL is earning $5.9 billion a season with its current contracts.
It’s been a frantic week in the NHL with the start of free agency. The $15 million dollar drop in the salary cap thanks to the pandemic left many teams scrambling. What’s lost in the cap crunch is the fact most teams were projecting a cap of around $210 million this season. COVID changed that. Instead, teams had to pivot quickly with the cap dropping nearly $30 million from what had been projected.
It’s hard to say where the Seahawks stand. They are likely trying to create more cap space by extending players who are heading into the final year of their contracts, or by restructuring deals. They were able to get bell-cow running back Chris Carson back on a two-year deal. Are you happy Russell? One thing is for sure, the Hawks are not a team to splurge. That’s not their DNA. Taking a backseat in the first wave of free agency is standard operating procedure for the Seahawks. They will be waiting for the second and even third wave of free agency before addressing some of their many off-season needs. They have a lot of holes to fill.
This is the goofiest time of the year in the NFL. Teams get out the checkbook and do stupid things. Check out some of the deals that have been signed in the past few off-seasons, all for more than $70 million, and see the results. The Detroit Lions gave Trey Flowers $90 million and he’s produced nine sacks in two years as an edge rusher. Jacksonville signed quarterback Nick Foles for $88 million before dumping him off to Chicago. Foles is 2-and-9 as a starter since signing the deal. C.J. Mosley hoodwinked the Jets for $85 million. In two years, he’s collected $29 million, playing only 121 snaps and then opting out last season. Kirk Cousins got $84 million from the Vikings. He’s a good but not great starting quarterback. Byron Jones left Dallas for an $82.5 million dollar jackpot in Miami. Jones allowed a passer rating of 117.0 in 2020, second worst among cornerbacks who played 500 snaps or more. Trumaine Johnson signed with the Jets for $72.5 million. He was benched for good in his second season with the Jets. Defensive end Robert Quinn left the Rams for Chicago and $70 million. He had two sacks in his first year with the Bears in 2020. Of course, all the contract totals are inflated because all that really matters is the amount of guaranteed money but still, what did these teams see on film that made them dole out that much cash?
The New York Jets are the kings of wastefulness. They dished out $155 million in guarantees and got next to nothing. Mosley was guaranteed $43 million, Johnson ($34 million), Le’Veon Bell ($27 million), center Connor McGovern ($18 million), receiver Jamison Crowder ($17 million) and linebacker Avery Williamson ($16 million). Crowder performed fairly well. The rest are long gone.
Leftovers – Team Canada is off on the right foot at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico. Tajon Buchanan had both goals as Canada shut out El Salvador in their opening game of the eight-team tournament. Canada meets Haiti on Monday and another victory would put them into the semifinal with a chance to qualify for the Tokyo games.
Even after having more time to think about it, I still can’t understand why the CFL has a Bro-mance for the XFL. The upstart U.S. league is not even planning to play this season. Yes, it’s all about the lure of U.S. TV money. What I also can’t understand is why the CFL is insistent in having to be a 12-man, three-down league. Oh, and don’t forget the rouge. If you are on your last legs and desperate for money, wouldn’t you be willing to change the rules?
Chris Bosh is a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Am I missing something here? I never once watched Bosh play and thought he was a Hall of Famer. That’s like putting Dick Duff in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The 85th Masters is coming up April 8-11 but once again, it will be conducted with limited attendance. The 2021 Masters will use the same health and safety measures that were used for the 2020 Masters back in November. Very unfortunate!
Spotify Songs of the Week – Our recommendations this week – “Hypotheticals”, the new hit track off the album “Obviously” by Lake Street Dive. Check out “Mississippi” from the album “Country Ghetto” by JJ Grey and Mofro. Also, Joanna Connor is on fire with “Walking Blues” from her album “Nothing but the Blues.”
Music Video of the Week – Big Head Todd and the Monsters have been fans of blues music since their first days together playing music in high school in Colorado. In 2011 the band delved into the blues with their first Big Head Blues Club project, “100 Years of Robert Johnson”, which featured guest appearances by B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Musselwhite and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. That album led to a limited number of tour dates under the Big Head Blues Club moniker.
In 2016, Big Head Todd and the Monsters combined forces with three second-generation blues stars, Mud Morganfield, Billy Branch and Ronnie Baker Brooks, to pay tribute to one of the pillars of modern blues, and one of the most influential songwriters of early rock and roll. Together, they released “Way Down Inside” featuring an incredible playlist of songs from Willie Dixon, possibly the most prolific and accomplished songwriters in modern blues and rock n’ roll.
Here’s a full performance of the band in Meridian, Mississippi. You may have to cut and paste it into the URL on Google. Fantastic show!
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