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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with contributing editors Bill Morphy and Dave Kittle. This week, panic in the streets in Vancouver, observations from around the NHL, rays of hope for the Blue Jays and Canadian content in the NFL. 

Impending Doom – So for one night at least, the Canucks are off the snide. They snapped a four-game losing streak in beating the red-hot Colorado Avalanche 6-3 on Friday night, snapping the Avs nine-game road winning streak. To say panic had been setting in around Canuck Nation would be putting it mildly. Just under two weeks ago, the team was basking in the glow of a 9-3 blowout of the Bruins and there were visions of a Pacific Division title. Since a win in Montreal to start a four-game road trip, everything has been unraveling.  

Coach Travis Green is saying all the right things as you might expect. “I love where we’re at right now,” he told reporters on Friday. “I don’t love that we haven’t got points in our last four games, but we’re going through some adversity and that’s OK. We’re going through some pressure and that’s alright as well. And I know when we get there we’re going to be so much better off for it.” Sounds good for public consumption but the reality says something else.

Can somebody tell the Canucks that it’s not March Break? As far as I know, the spring vacation hasn’t started yet. However, if they don’t right the ship in a hurry, their summer vacation will be starting in early April. The Canucks were fortunate to pick up a single victory on their four-game trip back east and now the hold on a playoff spot is tenuous at best. The Columbus Collapse was particularly unnerving and it is becoming more apparent each game that the injury to Jacob Markstrom may have short-circuited their season altogether.

It was disconcerting, to say the least, because the Canucks were leading in the third period of two games on the road trip and were tied in another, essentially leaving 5 or 6 points on the table. After having a 9-point cushion on a playoff spot a month ago, the Canucks are now among six teams chasing three playoff spots and there are no guarantees.

The veterans, who are supposed to be showing the way, have to be far better. Brandon Sutter and Antoine Roussel took needless penalties that spurred the Columbus comeback. Roussel, in particular, has been invisible most nights and should be taken out of the lineup altogether. His goal Friday night was his first in a month. Could someone explain why he was on the ice with the goalie pulled in the last 90 seconds against Arizona on Wednesday night?

You don’t become a playoff team or a Stanley Cup contender until you learn to play reliable, shutdown defense. Remember the high-flying West Coast Express? They could score goals with the best of them. Then they got into the playoffs and were sent home by Jacques Lemaire’s smothering Minnesota Wild who could play it tight until the cows came home. The Canucks are learning that defense wins at this time of year.

The Canucks now have Columbus, the Islanders, Arizona and Colorado again coming up in the next week.  If the narrative doesn’t shift in a hurry, we may be talking seven days from now about the merits of bringing back Green and Benning next season.

NHL Leftovers –

  • The NHL cap projection of $84-$88.2 million for 2020, up from the $81.5 million dollar limit this season, is just what the doctor ordered for many NHL teams, the Canucks and Leafs included. Somehow I don’t see it going to the higher end but it could still represent an additional player or two on every roster.
  • Something has got to give in Florida this off-season where the patience of owner Vinny Viola (yes, that’s his name) has to be running thin. Vinny dished out big bucks last summer for Sergei Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville and nothing much has changed in South Florida. Attendance is under 14,000 per game. Expect big changes to happen this summer.
  • The NHL finally woke up and changed the offside rule at the GM meetings this week. From 2017-18 until now, 45 of 71 ‘skate in the air’ challenges would have been reversed. That constitutes more goals and that’s important.
  • The Flyers are rolling under Alain Vigneault. They’ve won eight straight and 11 of 13 and have to be considered a dark-horse challenger in the Eastern Conference. Uniting Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek has been the key to their hot streak. That line is playing as good as any in the league.
  • Kevin Fiala has caught fire in Minnesota and is a star-in-the-making. His numbers since the all-star break are as good as anyone in the league not named Draisaitl. David Poile would like a do-over on that deal.
  • How about Mika Zibanejad of the Rangers? Five goals in one game and now 38 on the season. Speaking of do-overs?  Do you think Ottawa would like to have that transaction back?  They sent Zibanejad and a second round pick to the Rangers for Derick Brassard.  Ouch!
  • How can you not cheer for the Winnipeg Jets? They lose the entire right side of their defense last off-season, the absolute strength of their team, and yet they are still alive in the Western Conference playoff race. They are 5-and-0 in their last five home games. Connor Hellebuyck, who should be in the Vezina Trophy discussion, has a 1.20 GAA in those five games with a .962 save % and two shutouts.
  • Pity the poor Carolina Hurricanes. They lose their top defenseman Dougie Hamilton for the season and now will be without another solid D-man Brett Pesce with right shoulder surgery.  Worse yet, Sami Vatanen has yet to get on the ice with a LBI after being acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline and there are reports it has not improved. Tough season for Carolina. They are a better team than the Leafs but may not make the playoffs.

RIP Henri – Growing up in Cornwall, Ontario in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the bigotry and hatred toward French Canadians was palpable. The city was 50% French and 50% English and there was almost a demilitarized zone between the two communities. In most cases, you were either a Leafs fan or a Habs fan. By osmosis, I became a Leafs fan and learned to hate the Canadiens.

My Dad happened to be a die-hard Chicago Black Hawks fan and loved Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. So it was easy to cheer for the Black Hawks when they met the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup final in 1971. I have a vivid memory of game seven when the Hawks entered the third period with a 2-1 lead on home ice. The Canadiens would storm back in the third to win 3-2 with Henri Richard scoring the series-deciding goal.  Henri would retire with a record 11 Stanley Cups. The memories surged into my head on Friday when I learned that the Pocket Rocket had died at the age of 84 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  Rest in peace Henri.

We Can Only Dream – One team to watch in the NHL this off-season is the Ottawa Senators. They hold a war chest of draft picks in the July Entry Draft but will also have a ton of valuable cap space. You can be sure teams will be circling around the Senators trying to offload contracts because Ottawa will need to add salary in order to reach the NHL’s salary cap floor.

The Senators lead the pack with 14 selections in the upcoming draft and an enviable nine picks in the first three rounds.

As much as Ottawa is stocking the shelves with draft picks and young prospects, nothing will change until owner Eugene Melnyk is out of the way. Melnyk turfed Senators CEO Jim Little this week after only 54 days on the job. Something about ‘inconsistent with the core values of the team.” I didn’t realize Melnyk knew anything about ‘values.’ Since 2017, this is an owner who has parted ways with CEO’s Little, Tom Anselmi and Cyril Leeder, COO Nicolas Ruszkowski and Chief Marketing Officer Aimee Deziel. Enough said!

What needs to happen first and foremost in Ottawa is an ownership change. The best thing that could happen is for someone with deep pockets like Quebec media mogul Pierre Peladeau to take over the club and oversee the construction of a new downtown arena. Can you imagine how the Senators would flourish if this would happen? Ottawa has great fans and they deserve so much better. It would revitalize a franchise just as the rebuild is taking shape.

Blue Jays Spring Notebook – There’s a ton of buzz in the Blue Jays camp around #1 prospect Nate Pearson. The big right-hander has been clocked at 104 MPH and looks the part of a died-in-the-wool frontline starter. Pearson is 6’6”, 245 pounds and in addition to the heater, he has a wipe-out slider and an improving change. He had 119 K’s in 101 innings in the minors last season with a 2.30 ERA while moving up the ladder to Triple ‘A’ Buffalo. The Jays are expected to limit his innings this season to 130-140 but expect him to be in a Blue Jay uniform by mid-May. There’s little doubt the Blue Jays will send him to the minors to start the season in order to max out his service time. If he started the season in Toronto, Pearson would be eligible for free agency after the 25’ season. They can delay that to the ’26 season by holding back his debut.

If the Blue Jays are going to make a leap forward this season, a lot will depend on the development of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Vladdy spent much of the off-season training at the Jays complex in Dunedin, Florida and came into camp in far better shape.  Reports suggest he has lost 10-15 pounds. He looks much more agile at third base. Guerrero posted some of the worst defensive metrics in baseball in his rookie campaign last season.  He also faded badly as the season wound down in September and much of it was attributed to poor conditioning. Here’s more on what appears to have been a productive off-season.

Blue Jay fans can also be excited about the early reports on Jordan Romano, the Canadian-born relief pitcher. He also had a productive off-season and looks to be much better prepared to handle a full season workload in the majors. Romano’s velocity is already up in the 95-96 MPH range, a good sign heading into the season. It would be great to see some Canadian content on the Blue Jays roster. Considering the lack of arms in the Jays bullpen, the Markham, Ontario native has a chance to solidify a spot this season.

Any faint hopes that the Jays can hang around the American League pennant race this season will depend on how the pitching staff develops. Both the Yankees and the Red Sox are suddenly having all kinds of issues with their starting pitching staffs. In Boston, the Red Sox are now facing the prospect that Chris Sale won’t be ready to start the season. The Yankees have already lost two front-line starters in James Paxton and Luis Severino and it’s looking now like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge may both be out long-term. It certainly opens the door for Tampa Bay and perhaps even the Blue Jays.

Mac Attack – Nineteen missed cuts over two seasons will make anyone question their future on the PGA TOUR. For Canada’s MacKenzie Hughes, the pressure to perform was certainly mounting and there is no doubt his career was at a crossroads. When you are ranked 308th in the world, you had better start performing.

Things changed dramatically for Hughes with his second place finish last Sunday at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Yes, the $763 thousand dollar pay cheque will cover a whole lot of bills but the near victory will do wonders for his confidence. Hughes posted a pair of 66’s on the weekend and finished solo second behind 21-year old South Korean Sungjae Im who got into the winner’s circle for the first time.

Hughes made an improbable 54-foot putt on the 17th hole to temporarily tie for the lead, a putt that will no doubt be on many year-end highlight reels. A poor tee shot by Im on the par-5 18th opened the door for Hughes to force a playoff with a birdie.  But the Dundas, Ontario native duck-hooked a 3-wood from 255 yards into the gallery which pretty much dashed his hopes. Hughes has not been in contention often enough so it was not surprising he would hit an errant shot when the pressure ramped up.  Next time, the experience at the Honda may help Hughes produce a different result.

It’s amazing what one good finish can do to your rankings. MacKenzie is now 158th in the World Golf Rankings, up from 308th. He also moved up 157 spots in the FedEx standings from 223rd to 66th.

Canadian Content – Two Canadians made a huge impression at the recent NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Oklahoma Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore posted a 40-yard time of 4.79 seconds, becoming one of only two defensive linemen who weighed more than 300 pounds to clock a sub 4.8 40-time since 2006. Scouts say Gallimore, who’s a native of Ottawa, has moved up draft boards and may go as early as the second round. Gallimore moved to St. Catherines in his mid-teens in order to attend Canada Prep Academy, a private school that plays U.S. competition.

The other standout Canadian with fast-rising draft stock is Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool. Claypool grew up a Seahawks fan in Abbotsford, B.C. He’s a big target at 6’4” and 238 pounds and could end up being an H-back or Flex-type tight end in the NFL.  His willingness to play special teams will add to his value. Claypool caught 66 passes for the Irish last season for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns. He didn’t hurt himself by running a 4.42 40-yard time at the combine. It was the fastest time for a receiver over 230 pounds since Lions legend Calvin Johnson in 2007. Claypool also ranked among the top 5 receivers in bench press (19) and vertical jump (40’5”).

One mock draft now has Claypool going in the second round ahead of Gallimore.  The 2020 NFL draft is said to have the deepest pool of receivers in history.  As many as 25 receivers could go in the first three rounds. If you were wondering, not a single Canadian was selected in the NFL draft last season, a first since 2010.

Decisions Decisions – The free agency period in the NFL opens on March 18. The Seahawks have a good chunk of cap space but still have some big decisions to make. They have already made it known they would like to sign Jadeveon Clowney to a long-term deal but I suspect they don’t want to go higher than $18-$20 million per season and that may not get it done. The problem for Clowney is there may not be a lot of other suiters.

The Seahawks would also be wise to look at cutting ties with some veterans who are out-earning their level of performance. They will probably try to re-structure the contract of center Justin Britt rather than cutting him loose. There are some other candidates who could be let go as well, chief among them linebacker K.J. Wright.

Cuban’s Missiles – Don’t’ you just love it when NBA owners sit courtside and abuse officials? The biggest perpetrator is Dallas Mavericks owner, and distant cousin of Jug Head Mark Cuban, who was fined $500 grand by the NBA this week for berating officials. The fine raised Cuban’s total tab for NBA fines to $3.1 million. At least, Cuban can justify his behavior with the knowledge he donates the equivalent of the fine amount each time to a charity.

New Sensation – Can you believe the crop of young Canadians on the world tennis circuit?  Add Laval’s 17-year old Leylah Annie Fernandez to the list. She came up just short of winning her first WTA event last weekend in Acapulco, losing in the final of the Mexican Open. Fernandez came into the tournament ranked 190th in the world.  She was moved up to 126th in the latest rankings posted this week.

It’s been a good run for Canadians. We have had a Canadian in a WTA or ATP Tour event final in each of the past four weeks. Felix Auger-Aliassime did it twice while Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil also came up short.

The Joe Schultz Sports Quote of the Week – While we normally want to find the funniest sports quote we can find, it’s hard not to overlook quotes that just resonant with you in a more profound way. Michael Jordan did just that when he said the following about his incredible NBA career I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Music Video of the Week – Since we are highlighting Canadian talent this week, why not look back at the career of The Band.

Fed up after years of touring, Robbie Robertson convinced his fellow Band members to retire from the road.  He came up with the idea of a huge farewell concert called “The Last Waltz”. The concert took place on November 25th (American Thanksgiving Day) at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in front of an audience of 5,000 (a full turkey dinner was served to the guests prior to the concert itself). It featured the five members of the Band – Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko along with a horn section (arranged by the late Allen Toussaint) and numerous special guests including two that played a major role in the early development of the group, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. A number of other artists that they admired or had worked with in the past like Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dr. John and Van Morrison also appeared.

The concert was recorded by director Martin Scorsese and made into a feature film, which was released in April 1978 (the three-disc soundtrack album came out around the same time). Following the concert, Scorsese continued filming for several days on a soundstage in Los Angeles. There, the Band performed with both Emmylou Harris, doing the song “Evangeline” and the Staple Singers, with a knockout version of “The Weight” both of which were included in the final film.

Years later, Helm criticized “The Last Waltz” claiming Scorsese and Robertson (who produced the film) conspired to make it look like the Band were simply Robertson’s sidemen. He also said he felt “The Last Waltz” was the biggest ‘f*#king’ rip-off that ever happened to the Band and that he, Danko, Manuel and Hudson never received any money from the various CD’s, soundtracks and home video’s that were later released.

Here is the stirring rendition of “The Weight” complete with supporting vocals from The Staples Singers.

One of the special guests at “The Last Waltz” was Neil Diamond. Many eyebrows were raised at the time as to what connection he had with the Band (in fact, much like when Joan Baez appeared in the “Woodstock” movie, everybody in the theatre headed to the can, much the same can be said for when Diamond takes the stage in “The Last Waltz”).  It was reported later (it may or may not be true but it sounds credible) that Robbie Robertson wanted Diamond in the show because he had recently produced his album “Beautiful Noise” and thought the exposure would help with sales. In fact, the song Diamond sings in the film “Dry Your Eyes”, which he co-wrote with Robertson, is on that LP. Coincidence, I think not. Maybe, Levon and the boys were right in their criticism of Robertson. To this day, he’s still tight with Scorcese and scored the soundtrack on his latest film “The Irishman.”