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Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy. Coming up this week, the last days of Jim Bob, the Flames rope in a new coach, we dive into Burkie’s track record and take a pre-season peak around the American League. 

Late News: The Canucks score three in the third to rally back and beat the Maple Leafs 4-2, their second straight over the Leafs without Elias Pettersson in the lineup. We have news for Leaf fans.  Don’t plan on any Stanley Cup parades! Nice turnovers by Mitch Marner on the third and fourth goals. No way he’s one of my Team Canada picks. Did you see Joe Thornton’s checking effort on Miller’s winning goal? Feeble! Hang ‘em up Joe!

Canucks Notebook – Let’s not beat around the bush. Canucks GM Jim Benning should have been fired three years ago. Francesco Aquilini is an absentee owner who has either been sold a bill of goods or is simply not paying attention. Take a look at the big picture and it’s undeniable. It’s mismanagement at the highest level.

Benning’s Friday media availability was high comedy. Who is this guy kidding? He tells a restless fan base that the Canucks should be ready to contend for the
Cup in two years. Benning will be nine years into his tenure by then and you are asking for more patience? Maybe he had a nine-year plan? Here are the other big takeaways from his 35-minute ramble-a-thon:

  • He claimed the team has underperformed this season because there were no exhibition games, a lack of practice time and a brutal early-season schedule. As if any other team had exhibition games and all kinds of practice time. Of course, it had nothing to do with the roster he’s constructed.
  • Benning believes the team still has hopes of making the playoffs. Sure Jim!
  • He’s not sure yet if the team will be sellers at the trade deadline. Are you serious? It’s no-plan Jim in action again!
  • He plans to open contract talks with the agents for Pettersson and Hughes following the trade deadline. How passive can you be? He should have been working on that file a long time ago.
  • Benning claims the team is still hoping to extend pending UFA Tanner Pearson and keep him around past this season. Why would you even consider extending Pearson if you don’t think you will be contending for a Cup for another two years?

Do the arithmetic! The contracts of the Canucks five best players – Pettersson, Hughes, Miller, Boeser and Horvat – add up to less than $20 million dollars. The exact figure is $18,446,667. Take into account the NHL salary cap is set at $81.5 million and that leaves about $63 million to fill out the remaining 18 spots on a 23-man roster. You would then have an average of $3.5 million to spend on every one of those 18 players. That would get you a pretty damn good hockey team. It’s a stark illustration of how poorly the roster has been constructed. The number of inefficient contracts is astounding.

It’s not as though there have been any lessons learned. The bonehead move of the year was the free agent signing of goaltender Braden Holtby. He’s earning $4.3 million and for what? In five starts during February, Holtby had a save % of .879. Of the 57 goalies who played at least three games last month, that ranks 53rd. Thatcher Demko has posted a save % of .927 over the same period. What’s worse, Holtby is on the books again next season. In Benning’s never-ending wisdom, he back-loaded Holtby’s contract so Holtby will carry a cap hit next season of $5.4 million. For a back-up goalie! Good work Jim Bob!

You have to wonder what Trevor Linden is thinking right now. He got fired because he wanted to conduct a wholesale rebuild. He said it would take four years and predicted the Cup window would open by 2022. That’s next year! Mike Gillis was run out of town. He has to be laughing at what he sees now. Certainly Gillis must think he would have done a better job given all this time. Benning’s record is there for all to see. Two playoff berths in seven years and it’s about to become eight.

How can anyone not concede that ownership is complicit? Aquilini has stood by and watched this nightmare unravel. He’s signing the cheques. HE wanted a soft rebuild so the team could continue to accrue playoff revenue. It’s Aquilini who has left Travis Green to sway in the wind without negotiating a new contract in earnest. It’s Aquilini who has caused the exodus of talent at the executive level – Linden, Laurence Gilman, Lorne Henning, Victor de Bonis, Jeff Stipec and Judd Brackett. Are they voices ownership didn’t want to hear?

Benning is right about one thing. It is going to take two more years to clean up this mess. Think 2022-2023 and that’s why it’s doubly important that someone else handles the clean-up. It’s also critical that the team add another layer of management. Before hiring a new GM, they need to bring in a Club President or Director of Hockey Operations to oversee the entire organization. That person can decide the fate of Benning and Green. It’s something that has been sorely missing since Linden’s departure.

Numerous sites are already speculating on possible candidates to replace Benning. Former L.A. Kings executive Mike Futa was linked to the job back in 2014 before the Canucks hired Benning. He was later promoted to Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel with the Kings. Futa has been openly campaigning for the job during his regular stints on Sportsnet.  Eric Tulsky is Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy for the Carolina Hurricanes, a position he’s held for the past six seasons. He’s one of the leading proponents of analytics. Tulsky is definitely a bright guy. He has a degree in chemistry and physics from Harvard and a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC-Berkeley. Rangers Assistant GM Chris Drury has been mentioned as a candidate along with former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and surprise, surprise…Gillis, who seems to pop up on every list but has been out of work for seven years.

The top candidate, in our mind, is Chris MacFarland, the assistant GM of the Colorado Avalanche.  He spent 16 years in the Columbus organization and has been working alongside Joe Sakic in Colorado for the past six years. MacFarland has great credentials. How can you argue with the body of work with the Avalanche who are knocking on the door of a Cup championship? MacFarland has been linked to several recent posts including New Jersey, Arizona and Pittsburgh. It’s just a matter of time before he gets scooped up.

Leftovers: The Canucks have shown an amazing ability to fold up the tent whenever they fall behind. They are 0-13 when giving up the first goal in a game. Not surprisingly, they are 0-13-and-1 when trailing after the second period. That says a lot about the team’s confidence and current state of mind.

At least there’s a bit of good news down on the farm in Utica. Defenseman Jack Rathbone is off to a great start. He put up a goal and four assists and +4 rating in only three games. The Canucks have also been experimenting with Kole Lind at centre where there’s a huge organizational need. Lind has five goals and eight points in eight games.

Deadline Dilemma – This year’s NHL trade deadline is shaping up to be a dud. There’s several reasons starting with the simple fact there appears to be more sellers than buyers. Who wouldn’t want to shed a bad contract at this time of year considering the economic realities brought on by a pandemic?

The quarantine issues in Canada only serve to complicate matters. If you want to make a deal, you had better hurry up and get it done early. With players coming to Canada having to serve a 14-day quarantine, the acquired player may only play in a handful of games. Then there’s the starkest fact of all – MONEY! No team wants to take on dollars so any deal is liable to be – money in and money out. Owners are not prepared to take on payroll with no fans in the stands. There have been numerous depth players placed on waivers this season without any takers, a sure sign teams are working with tight budgets.  Over half the league is using LTIR, so for many, it will be very difficult to add any salary.

We can probably expect some of the top teams to try and add around the edges before the April 12 deadline but any major deals will probably have to wait until the summer. If a team does plan to make a deadline deal, it will probably happen sooner rather than later. It would not be surprising to see deals between Canadian teams so they don’t have to wait 14 days for the guy to enter the dressing room.

NHL Notebook – The Calgary Flames keep changing the wall colour but never really get to the foundation. Geoff Ward has been shown the door and old standby Darryl Sutter has been installed behind the bench. Flames ownership apparently wanted a coach who could rope a calf and looked good in a 10-gallon hat. If you are counting, Sutter is the Flames fitth coach in seven years. Let’s review. There was Bob Hartley (Bad Cop), followed by Glen Gulutzan (Good Cop), Bill Peters (Bad Cop), Geoff Ward (Good Cop) and now Sutter (Bad Cop). Do you see a pattern? The real problem lies with general manager Brad Treliving who keeps shuffling the deck chairs without success. The Flames lack an identity. Kind of like another team I know. He does seem to have some success in free agency though. I’m told it’s because his dad Jim can offer 15% off at Boston Pizza.

Here’s a few other tidbits.

  • Bruins sharpshooter David Pastrnak has 10 hat tricks in his young career in only 399 games. Only three Bruins in history have more: Phil Esposito with 26 in 625 games, Cam Neely with 14 in 525 games and Johnny Bucyk with 12 in 1,436 games.
  • The Kings are showing the first positive signs of Rob Blake’s rebuild in L.A. There’s a reasonable chance the Kings could make the playoffs. Dustin Brown with 12 goals has been drinking from the fountain of youth. Normally, Brown might be a decent trade deadline pick-up, but under today’s economics, he may be hard to move.
  • It’s not surprising that two teams who have made the biggest jump this season, Florida and Minnesota, both have GM’s that have been willing to take chances. Bill Guerin took over the Wild last season and immediately starting making changes. The Wild don’t overwhelm you with scoring but they have an outstanding group of defensemen – Brodin, Dumba, Spurgeon, Suter and Carson Soucy – and Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen have provided surprisingly good goaltending.
  • The Chicago Black Hawks must have set some kind of record this week for money placed on LTIR. With the retirement of Brent Seabrook, the Hawks now have a total of $26.3 million dollars on long-term injury. Seabrook joins Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, Andrew Shaw, Zack Smith and Alex Nylander on the list.

Burke’s Law – Do you really think the Pittsburgh Penguins conducted a thorough background check on Brian Burke before hiring him as President of Hockey Operations? If they had, they would have learned that he leaves teams in worse shape than when he found them. Burke has held GM positions in Vancouver, Anaheim, Toronto and Calgary. He’s also held the title of President of Hockey Operations.

After becoming GM in Vancouver in 1998, the Canucks proceeded to miss the playoffs for the next three years. In 2001 and 2002, the Canucks suffered first-round losses. In 2003, the Canucks were upset in the conference semi-finals. In 2004, it was another first-round ouster. Burke departed and the Canucks missed the playoffs in two of the following three years. He didn’t exactly hit it out of the park in Vancouver and left the cupboard bare.

It was on to Anaheim where Burke won his only Stanley Cup thanks to two defensemen named Pronger and Neidermayer. He stayed there until 2008. The Ducks missed the playoffs in 2009-2010 and suffered first-round losses the following two years before missing the playoffs again.

Burke landed in Toronto and was lauded as the Leafs saviour. He made the ill-fated Phil Kessel deal, surrendering a pair of first-round draft picks. Burke left Toronto in January, 2013. The Leafs missed the playoffs for three years immediately following his departure. They have lost in the first round in each of the past four years.

The Calgary Flames hired Burke as President of Hockey Operations in September, 2013. He hired Brad Treliving as GM in April, 2014. Burke would remain in Calgary until 2018. His playoff record in Calgary was abysmal. The Flames only playoff series win under Burke was in 2015. How have the Flames done following Burke’s departure? They have lost in the first round both years.

You get the picture! Burke is all about the here and now and doesn’t have the patience to build a team for the long haul. All four teams he has managed have struggled big time after he left because he had dealt away draft picks and prospects to win now. Burke has pissed away more draft choices than any GM in NHL history. Give me one reason why you would hire this guy?

American League Forecast – MLB spring training is in full swing so we thought we would go around each league and offer up a few observations for the start of a new season. This week, let’s look at the American League.

AL East – Tampa – The defending AL champion Rays have lost their top two starters in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton but the Rays always seem to find a way to remain competitive. They have the richest farm system in baseball and will be unveiling baseball’s top prospect Wander Franco this season. Hard-throwing Luis Patino, the centerpiece of the deal for Snell with the Padres, should arrive soon. Manager Kevin Cash is all about matchups and the Rays have the most versatile lineup in baseball.

New York Yankees – The Yankees are relying heavily on bounce-back years from several starting pitchers including former Cy Young winner Cory Kluber, Luis Severino and Canadian right-hander Jameson Taillon, acquired in the off-season from the Pirates. All return from arm problems to bolster a rotation fronted by $324 million dollar man Gerrit Cole. The lineup has plenty of pop although the odds of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge making it through the season injury-free are slim and none. When you have the financial muscle of the Yankees, re-enforcements are just a phone call away.

Toronto Blue Jays – Few teams did more in the off-season to improve than the Blue Jays.  George Springer and Marcus Semien were huge additions to an already strong lineup. They add experience, character and much-needed defense. Vladdy Jr. is poised for a break-out season after dropping 42 pounds in the off-season. The Jays will go as far as their starting rotation takes them. There have been encouraging signs so far this spring. The bullpen is underrated and should be solid. The biggest off-season move may have been locking up president and CEO Mark Shapiro on a new, five-year extension.

Boston Red Sox – Alex Cora returns to manage the Red Sox. It will be interesting to see if he can light a fire under them. The Sox have done little to add to a team that is declining fast. They look like a .500 team at best and last place is not out of the question. A lot of work needs to be done to re-make this team and get it back into contention. Expect the sell-off to continue as the Sox continue rebuilding the farm system.

Baltimore Orioles – How much longer is this team going to tank? When you have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, you are not going to contend in the ultra-tough AL East. The Orioles will continue to introduce young players including top overall 2019 draft pick Adley Rutschmann, an impressive catching prospect who could make his MLB debut by season’s end.

AL Central – Chicago White Sox – The White Sox made some nice additions in the off-season and should be the class of this division. The Sox feature some of the most exciting young players in baseball including Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. Off-season pick-up Lance Lynn gives the starting rotation a huge boost. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf insisted on bringing in 76-year-old Tony LaRussa as manager. The situation is worth monitoring.

Cleveland Indians – The Indians window is closed after the off-season blockbuster that sent shortstop Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets. Canadian-born Cal Quantrill has a chance to win a spot in the starting rotation which is led by Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. This will be the final season under the Indians name and it won’t include another playoff trip.

Detroit Tigers – He may be tainted by the Astros sign-stealing scandal but the hiring of A.J. Hinch as manager should have a big impact on the rebuilding Tigers. There’s plenty of talent on the way including pitcher Casey Mize, outfielder Daz Cameron and 2020 first overall pick Spencer Torkelson, a slugging first baseman. Escaping last place would be a good first step.

Kansas City Royals – If the AL Central seems occupied by non-entities, it is. The Royals are about as non-descript as they come save for ascending shortstop Adalberto Mondesi. The Royals do have some promising young pitchers including right-hander Brady Singer.

Minnesota Twins – The Twins are a very well-run organization. Unlike a lot of teams in baseball, at least they are trying to win. A lot will depend on the continued maturation of core players like Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Kirilloff. The Twins keep falling short in October. Can they take the next step?

AL West – California Angels – You have to pity Mike Trout, arguably the best player in baseball. He’s put up three MVP awards since arriving in 2011. The Angels have one playoff berth during that time. The Angels have drilled through three managers and three general managers during Trout’s time in L.A. Don’t expect things to change. The Angels farm system is one of the worst in baseball. 

Houston Astros – The Astros championship window may not be shut but its closing fast. Houston still has core pieces in Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa but losing George Springer leaves a huge hole. The pitching staff is declining and there’s no word on when Justin Verlander will return from an elbow injury. The good news is another division title is easily within reach.

Texas Rangers – A wholesale rebuild is underway in Texas. The Rangers will be looking to sell off fading veterans Roughned Odor, Elvis Andrus and Joey Gallo. This could easily be one of the worst teams in baseball this season. The Rangers have shed a lot of salary. Look for them to spend big a year from now when they can fill up their new stadium.

Oakland A’s – The A’s have been getting it done with smoke and mirrors for years. Is this the year it falls apart? Losing Marcus Semien and closer Liam Hendricks will hurt. However, don’t rule out the A’s earning a fourth consecutive post-season berth.

Seattle Mariners – The Mariners should begin to show upward movement this season as a rich farm system starts to pay dividends. Kyle Lewis and Jarred Kelenic are already fixtures and Julio Rodriguez is not far behind. Any success will hinge on the development of young pitchers like Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.

NFL Notebook – The Russell Wilson melodrama in Seattle is SO overdone. Can we just put it to rest? We do agree that the Seahawks need to address their offensive line. Just look at the division rivals. They all have scary-good pass rushes. The Rams come after you with Aaron Donald and company. The 49’ers feature Nick Bosa and several other first-round linemen. The Arizona Cardinals added J.J. Watt this week to pair with returning veteran Chandler Jones. Jones and Watt are 1-2 in the NFL in sacks since 2012. We will see how the signing of Watt works out. He’s played only 32 games in the past four years. Frankly, I wouldn’t have touched that one.

Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic put out his 12-step plan to keep Russell Wilson happy. Here’s his strategy for the Seahawks this off-season.

  1. Smooth things over with Russell Wilson
  2. Restructure Wilson’s contract to create cap space
  3. Extend key veterans to make even more cap space
  4. Re-sign K.J. Wright
  5. Tell Chris Carson you won’t go higher than $6.5 million per year
  6. Call Richard Sherman and check on Quinton Dunbar’s knee
  7. Buy an offensive line
  8. Avoid overpaying on another veteran tight end
  9. Hit the ‘bargain’ market for a pass-rush upgrade
  10. Do not use your top draft pick on a running back
  11. Trade back in the draft for more picks
  12. Find another backup quarterback

Expect to see a 17-game NFL schedule next season. That’s almost a certainty. The NFL plans to run the season one week longer which would push the Super Bowl to February 13 in L.A. We could also see a Monday night wildcard playoff game since it would no longer conflict with the NCAA national championship game.

As aggressive as John Lynch has been since taking over the 49’ers, I would venture to say there is ZERO chance that Jimmy Garoppolo returns next season as quarterback. You can be sure the 49’ers are talking to numerous teams and it would not be surprising to see them move up in the draft to grab a QB. That’s too good a team to risk another season with Garoppolo behind center.

The NFL draft is still close to two months away but we are hearing there could be at least five Canadians picked in the draft this year. A lot will depend on how they perform at their individual pro days. The group is led by slot corner Jevon Holland from Coquitlam, BC. He played at Oregon for the past three seasons and has excellent coverage skills.  Holland is expected to be selected on Day 2 in either the second or third round. Tennessee receiver Josh Palmer, from Brampton, Ontario, could go as early as the fourth round. He’s part of another  strong and deep receiver group. Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, from Sherwood Park, Alberta, had a disappointing season and watched his draft stock plummet. Hubbard led Division 1 in rushing in 2019 with 2.094 yards but he had an injury-plagued 2020 season. His speed cannot be overlooked. Montreal native Benjamin St-Juste is an intriguing prospect. He’s an athletic 6’3” corner who turned heads at the Senior Bowl. You know how Pete Carroll loves tall corners. Might he be on the Seahawks radar? Alaric Jackson, from Windsor, Ontario, was a four-year starter at left tackle for the University of Iowa. He should get consideration in the late rounds. Oklahoma State linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, who hails from Calgary, should also get late-round consideration.

Sad Goodbyes – We would be remiss if we did not say goodbye to two incredible human beings. The greatest hockey Dad of all, Walter Gretzky, died at the age of 82 following complications from Parkinson’s disease and other health issues. There was never anyone more humble and true to his community than Walter. He was a proud Canadian who called Brantford “the center of the universe.” Here is the Great One eulogizing his Dad.

We also lost CFL great and long-time TSN broadcaster Chris Schultz this week from a heart attack at the age of only 61. At 6’7”, Schultz was a true “Gentle Giant.” A lot of people forget he played for Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys and blocked for Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett before enjoying a long career and a Grey Cup victory with the Argos. I’ve had the privilege of meeting both Walter and Chris and you will not find two nicer people.

We would also like to say goodbye to Mark Pavelich, the diminutive forward who played on the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” team that shocked the Soviets in Lake Placid. Mark died at 63 at a treatment center for mental illness. We are told his death was self-inflicted. Pavelich was undergoing treatment as part of a civil court ruling for assaulting his neighbor in Cook County, Minnesota, in August 2019. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pavelich thought the man had spiked his beer. He was charged with felony assault but the judge found he was incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness. According to a psychologist report, Pavelich suffered from delusions and paranoia. Another psychologist found he suffered from a mild neurocognitive disorder due to traumatic brain injury, likely related to repeated head injuries playing hockey. It’s yet another case of the NHL and the NHLPA failing a former player in desperate need of help.

Leftovers – The NBA trade deadline is coming up on March 25. Coincidentally, it’s also Kyle Lowry’s birthday. The Raptors have a huge decision to make on Lowry who scheduled to become a free agent this summer. There have been several rumoured deals including a trade that would send the Philadelphia native to his hometown Sixers. Lowry is a bulldog and could put the right team over the top. The L.A. Clippers and Miami Heat could also use a veteran point guard with Lowry’s pedigree. Matching the money will be difficult but not impossible. Lowry carries a $31 million dollar price tag. The question for Masai Ujiri and the Raptors is – do you want to part with a franchise icon?  In the meantime, Lowry has reportedly sold his five bedroom, ten bathroom Toronto mansion for $5.12 million.

The University of Kansas has placed head football coach Les Miles on administrative leave following scathing reports of inappropriate behavior toward women while at LSU. According to an internal report issued by LSU this week, Miles was banned from being alone with female students following a 2013 sexual harassment investigation. The initial report alleged Miles texted female student workers on a burner phone, drove them alone to his condo and kissed a student on at least one occasion. Miles, who was directly involved with hiring student employees, reportedly “made it clear that he wanted these employees to have a certain ‘look’ (attractive, blond, fit).” Employees at the time who did not fit the description were to be given fewer hours or fired, according to the report.

According to the law firm conducting the internal investigation, former athletic director Joe Alleva recommended Miles be fired for cause, citing “insubordination, inappropriate behavior, putting the university, athletic department and football program at great risk.” However, no action was taken by the university. It’s another case of a big college football program having no checks and balances.

Canada’s Corey Conners is a shot out of the lead heading into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Florida. Lee Westwood has the lead at -11, one better than Conners and Bryson DeChambeau. Jordan Speith, who’s in the midst of a career resurgence, is two shots back. Speith led the tournament by two shots at one point on Saturday before slipping back. Corey’s silky-smooth putter has been on form this week and could be the difference on Sunday.

Spotify Song of the Week – Check out “Almost Fed Up with the Blues” from John Hiatt & the Goners new album “Beneath This Gruff Exterior.”

Music Artist of the Week – Here’s a collection of videos that we have uncovered recently. We start with a full concert featuring Thorbjorn Risager and the Black Tornado. Yes, he’s big in his native Denmark. Make sure to listen to the song “Long Forgotten Track” at the 56-minute mark.

British singer-songwriter David Gray had a big hit with the song “Babylon.” Here’s the official music video.

Here’s the marvelous Nora Jones performing “Don’t Know Why” at the House of Blues in New Orleans.

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