Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy and reporting from Jordan Moss. This week, the Canucks fade to black. Will there be consequences? Get ready for the NHL playoffs. We have a preview. Plus, our NHL notebook and the Blue Jays battle the injury bug.
Spring Cleaning – Change is coming. It has to. This excruciating season is coming to a merciful end and there will be consequences. Try selling the status quo for another season. Ain’t happening! The Canucks will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons. As ignominious as the Canucks have been in their 50+ year history, that is something they have never done until now.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Saturday that former Canuck Geoff Courtnall has been approached by Canucks ownership and may be providing input into the direction of the team, namely hockey operations. Courtnall has been friends with Canucks managing partner Francesco Aquilini going back to the 90’s. Friedman reported that Courtnall nearly joined the Canucks in an advisory role after Trevor Linden was pushed out in 2018. It’s unclear whether Courtnall will be getting further involved. He has no hockey management experience. What is abundantly clear – the Canucks need a new direction and a fresh injection of management experience. With John Davidson and Jimmy Rutherford, two veteran hockey lifers available, you would think Courtnall or Aquilini will at least be picking up the phone. If reports that the Canucks have lost between $20 and $30 million this season are correct, ownership has to be getting trigger-happy.
Talk about playing out the string. The COVID-19 outbreak forced the Canucks to postpone and reschedule 11 games. The result was having to play the final 19 games in only 31 days and the final 7 in 10 days. The NHL playoffs will be well underway by the time the Canucks season ends on Wednesday. The three remaining games against the Flames are sure to be sleep-inducing. With Saturday’s win against the Oilers, we can expect the Canucks to leap-frog several teams and reduce their lottery odds. Minor-league call-ups Jonah Gadjovich and Will Lockwood have finished their quarantines and are eligible to be added to the roster as early as Sunday and may play in the final three games.
Once this disheartening season is over, the first order of business has to be dealing with the glut of inefficient contracts on the roster. You know you have problems when you are carrying the NHL’s most expensive taxi squad player in Loui Eriksson and the most expensive AHL player in Sven Baertschi. Cap space is at a premium throughout the NHL so the Canucks will need an accommodating owner if they want to dig out from under the mess that’s been created. Hoping Seattle remedies the situation by taking one of the bloated contracts in the expansion draft is highly unlikely. Would you take Tyler Myers or Nate Schmidt or Braden Holtby off their hands? Finding a way to carve out cap space has to be at the top of the off-season to-do list.
When the Canucks re-signed Tanner Pearson to a new, three-year contract at $3.25 million per season, it was met with immediate criticism. Whether you agree with the contract or not, the result was of the Canucks own doing. Any agent would point out the deals for Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel and say there’s no chance my client is going to sign for less. It’s why teams like the Bruins are so careful to keep contracts in line even for the middle class and bottom-end players. When you hand bottom-six forwards $3 million a season, you are going to pay the piper down the road.
Under the current economic climate, the Canucks would be smart to negotiate bridge deals for both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. Something in the $7 to $7.5 million range seems like the right price. If you can get them under contract for 3-4 seasons, that should be the goal. Negotiating a long-term deal at $10+ million, similar to what the Leafs did with Mitch Marner, does not seem like the most judicious move right now.
Outside of the emergence of Thatcher Demko as a bonafide number one goaltender, the biggest good news story has to be the inspired rookie season turned in by Nils Hoglander. He’s put up 12 goals and 14 assists in 53 games with a plus-minus of minus-4. Not bad for a first year player and incredibly good when you consider Tanner Pearson is minus-13 in 49 games. Hoglander’s scoring numbers have come with little power-play time. He leads the team in 5-on-5 points with 25 and is the only Canuck over 50% in Corsi – the ratio of shot attempts for and against when on the ice at even strength. The future is bright for this kid.
Russian winger Vasili Podkolzin, the Canucks top prospect, is headed to play in the World Hockey Championships in Latvia. Once the tournament concludes in early June, Podkolzin will be free to sign his first NHL contract.
NHL News & Notes – The 2020-2021 season has been a gut-punch for the NHL. League revenues have taken a huge hit. The NHL has reportedly missed out on at least $3.6 billion dollars from ticket sales and in-arena purchases because of pandemic restrictions. When the regular-season is concluded, NHL attendance will be just over one million. Compare that to the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 season when total attendance was 22,002,081. When you are hosting 21 million fewer fans, you know you have a problem. What’s more, it’s estimated that fans spend an average of $100 at each game in addition to the ticket price. The $3.6 billion dollar revenue loss was determined by using an average estimated across-the-league ticket price of $77 in addition to the estimated in-arena spending model. The devastating impact of this season is going to be felt throughout the league for years to come.
The Colorado Avalanche finished the season with 82 points to clinch the West Division title and the Presidents’ Trophy. Home ice could come in handy for the Avs. They went 16-0-1 in their final 17 home games. For the playoffs, Colorado will be allowed to have 42% of capacity which should give the team a little more juice. Two teams, Pittsburgh and Vegas, are being allowed 50% capacity.
There’s no word yet on what will happen once the final four teams are determined. With Canada still trying to climb out of a third wave of COVID-19, it’s unclear if U.S. teams will be allowed to enter the country without mandatory quarantine. It’s a delicate issue. If nothing is worked out, the North Division champ will likely play out of a U.S.-based arena that is located close to its semi-final opponent.
It looks as though there’s going to be plenty of movement in the NHL coaching ranks this summer. Already there are vacancies in Columbus, Arizona and in New York with the Rangers. Expansion Seattle is yet to name a coach. You also have situations pending with the Canucks, Anaheim, Buffalo and possibly Detroit. You could even have coaching changes on some teams that have made the playoffs.
There’s an ever-growing list of veteran coaches on the market. If you are looking to fill a vacancy, you can pick between John Tortorella, Mike Babcock, Bruce Boudreau, Claude Julien and Gerard Gallant. Travis Green will be without a contract on May 19 if nothing happens between now and then. There’s plenty of other names to choose from including Patrick Roy who’s lobbying to return to the NHL. Among NHL assistant coaches, Lane Lambert of the Islanders and Mike Vellucci of the Penguins are getting some buzz. In the AHL, some of the names getting attention include Kris Knoblach of Hartford, Pascal Vincent of the Manitoba Moose, Jay Leach of Providence and Troy Mann of Belleville. Knoblach could be in line to take over from David Quinn in New York. Team Canada and Ottawa 67’s head coach Andre Tourigny is another rising coaching prospect.
There are sure to be some openings in the general manager ranks as well. Colorado’s Chris MacPharland is getting mentioned whenever there is an opening. Mike Futa is working with Sportsnet but is sure to interview when opportunities come up. Scott Mellanby is another name to watch. He’s paid his dues as an assistant GM in Montreal and probably deserves consideration. Kevin Weekes is working as an NHL Network analyst but, at some point, is poised to become the first black GM in NHL history. Another top candidate is Carolina assistant GM Eric Tulsky. He’s been with the Hurricanes for seven years and is a Harvard graduate who holds a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley. Just the kind of bright mind the NHL could use more of.
It’s shocking to see the foot-dragging in Vancouver and Carolina when it comes to new contracts for Travis Green and Rod Brind’Amour. How can you argue with what Brind’Amour has done in three seasons with the Hurricanes? He’s 120-66-20 and has won three playoff series with more to come this playoff season. Quit grinding the guy!
You have to give the Ottawa Senators a ton of credit for the growth they made this season. The Sens started the schedule with only five points in their first 15 games. Since February 13, the Sens went 21-16-4 to finish at 23-28-5. They played .750 hockey in May. Fans in the Nation’s Capital have a lot to be excited about.
The Senators have an alpha dog in Brad Tkachuk. He is among the NHL leaders in hits and shots on goal. In a full season, Tkachuk could become the first player to reach 300 shots and 300 hits. That’s an achievement that has never been reached in NHL history. The Sens should make him captain in the off-season.
The trade that sent Erik Karlsson from Ottawa to the San Jose Sharks is the gift that keeps on giving. It has the potential to be one of the most one-sided trades in NHL history. Here’s the original terms – Karlsson and Francis Perron for Chris Tierney, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers, Dylan DeMelo plus a 2019 second round pick (Jameison Rees), a conditional first-round in the 2020 draft (Tim Stutzle), a conditional second-round pick in the 2021 draft and conditional first-round pick in the 2022 draft. The 2021 second-round pick was conditional on Karlsson resigning with the Sharks so it will take effect. The conditional 2022 first-rounder was conditional on the Sharks winning the Cup so it will not be triggered. DeMelo was flipped to Winnipeg for a 2021 third-round selection which Ottawa can now use this summer. Meantime, Karlsson’s play continues to diminish. He finished seventh on the Sharks in scoring this season with 8-14-22 in 52 games and was minus-18. Both Norris and Stutzle out-scored Karlsson while establishing themselves as key cornerstones in the Senators rebuild. It’s pretty obvious the trade tree from the Karlsson deal will continue to pay dividends for the Senators for years to come.
When the Senators Tim Stutzle notched his first NHL hat trick recently, fans in Ottawa were disappointed they were not able to be in attendance to help celebrate the moment. Seems a bunch of local kids got the idea of tossing hats into the yard of Stutzle’s rental unit. The video went viral.
Meanwhile, it’s encouraging to know that Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was keeping busy during the height of the pandemic.
We remain adamant that the Winnipeg Jets should have made a coaching change this season. Paul Maurice is a likeable character but his best-before date expired in Winnipeg a while ago. In 23 NHL seasons, Maurice has a winning percentage of .528. He’s missed the playoffs 12 times. In 88 playoff games, he’s 37-47 for a winning percentage of .440. His playoff record with the Jets is 12-19. Case closed.
Pierre-Luc Dubois has not exactly set the world on fire since landing in Winnipeg. Could he be on the move again this summer? How about a deal to the Montreal Canadiens? It would solve the Canadiens appetite for a big centre. Nick Suzuki would have to be headed the other way as a starting point. There’s no chance the Jets would be interested in Jesperi Kotkaniemi as a centerpiece.
It looks like Jack Eichel is half way out the door in Buffalo. There’s one other Sabre who could be on the move as well and that’s Sam Reinhart. Reinhart is an RFA this summer and will be looking for a major pay hike. His 25 goals this season ranked tenth in the league. Reinhart is a native of West Vancouver. Would a deal involving Brock Boeser make sense for the Canucks?
The Maple Leafs may well make it out of the North Division and into the final four this season but you still have to question the wisdom of their trade deadline deals. In order to acquire Nick Foligno, Stefan Noesen, David Rittich, Riley Nash and Ben Hutton, the Leafs surrendered a total of six draft picks. They gave up a first-round pick, a third, two-fourths, a fifth and a sixth-rounder. Rittich has provided one win and a .888 save percentage. Noesen and Nash have yet to play a game. Foligno has 4 assists in seven games. Hutton has played four games and is yet to register a point. That’s a whole lot of draft capital for a whole lot of nothing. The Leafs would have been far better off to trade for Kings forward Jeff Carter. He had nine goals in 14 games after joining the Penguins. The Pens acquired Carter for a conditional third-round pick.
This summer’s NHL Draft is going to be one of the most uncertain in history. NHL scouts have had very few opportunities to view the top players. It’s going to make selections risky and precarious.
When making Team Canada selections, one goaltender that may be getting overlooked is Adin Hill of the Arizona Coyotes. The 6’6” Comox, B.C. native went 9-9 in a backup role this season with a .913 save percentage on a middling Coyotes team. The 25-year-old may just be coming into his own.
First-Round Matchups –
Toronto vs. Montreal (1 vs. 4)
The Leafs and the Canadiens meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1979. This series is a mismatch on paper with the Leafs taking the season series 7-2. But until the Leafs win a playoff round, something they haven’t done since 2004, nothing is assured. The Leafs have big problems on special teams. They’ve been outscored 22-9 in odd-man situations since March 3. Their net penalty-killing percentage is the second-worst among playoff teams while their net power-play percentage is the worst among all 16 playoff teams. That won’t get you far. Unless things change dramatically, the Leafs will remain vulnerable. Health is a big issue for Montreal. They are hoping to get Carey Price, Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher back for the series.
Edmonton vs. Winnipeg (2 vs. 3)
This is all about Connor McDavid. He should be on a mission since the Oilers haven’t won a playoff round since 2017. McDavid lapped the field in the scoring race with 105 points in 56 games, 21 more than his nearest rival which was teammate Leon Draisaitl. For the third straight season, Connor Hellebuyck led the league in shots faced and saves made. He will have to be lights out for the Jets to stand any chance.
Pittsburgh vs. New York Islanders (1 vs. 4)
The Penguins won the season series 6-2 and have a distinct advantage up front. The Islanders have the more steady defence and superior goaltending. This has all the earmarks of a seven-game affair. Should the Pens prevail, it will be the finale for Nassau Coliseum as the Isles are set to move into a new arena next season.
Washington vs. Boston (2 vs. 3)
This is another series that could go the full seven games. They split 4-4 during the regular season. The big storyline has Zdeno Chara facing his old team. This series should be determined by special teams. Both have outstanding penalty-killing and top 10 power-play units.
Carolina vs. Nashville (1 vs. 4)
On paper, this series could be over early. The Hurricanes dominated the season series going 6-2 against the Preds. The Canes have deadly special teams. They had the second-best power-play and the third-best penalty-killing this season. It will be interesting to see if Carolina turns to rookie Alex Nedeljkovic in net who has all but supplanted Petr Mrazek as the Canes number one goalie.
Florida vs. Tampa Bay (2 vs. 3)
This is going to be the first-ever All-Florida playoff battle. It was 27 years in the making. The Panthers are one of this season’s surprise teams but they haven’t won a playoff round since 1996. The season series was close with Florida holding a 5-3 advantage. Injuries may tell the story. Victor Hedman will reportedly require surgery when the season is over. The Lightning are hoping Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are ready to go.
Colorado vs. St. Louis (1 vs. 4)
The Avalanche are heavy favourites and for good reason. The top line of Nathan McKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen is the best in hockey. They have an expected-goals percentage of 63% when playing 5-on-5. There is concern about MacKinnon’s health however. He’s played only one game since May 5. The Avs have the best talent, top to bottom, in the NHL. Now it’s time to prove it.
Vegas vs. Minnesota (2 vs. 3)
The Wild went 5-1-2 against Vegas during the regular season so this has the potential to be an upset special. Marc-Andre Fleury should give Vegas an advantage in goal over Cam Talbot of the Wild. Minnesota is very stingy defensively and is among the league leaders in limiting high quality shots. This will not be a cake-walk for the Golden Knights.
Blue Jays This Week – With no end in sight to the ridiculous run of injuries so far this season, the Blue Jays are operating in survival mode. There are performing exceptionally well to keep pace in the American League East. The Jays have had 18 players on the injury list already. Nine arms have been on the DL. On Saturday, the Jays placed reliever David Phelps on the 60-day injured list with a right lat strain. Lefty reliever Ryan Borucki was added to the injury list as well with a left forearm flexor strain. Pitchers are dropping like flies. To give you an idea of how bad things are going right now, right-hander Yosver Zulueta tore up his knee while covering first base in his debut at Low-A Dunedin. He made all of three pitches before being injured. Zulueta will undergo surgery and is done for the season.
The Jays have held their own despite playing a league-high 25 road games. They face the Phillies, Red Sox and Rays on their current home-stand before saying goodbye to Dunedin and moving north to Buffalo in early June. The Jays have also had a more difficult schedule than the rival Red Sox and Yankees who have been beating up on Baltimore and Detroit, two teams the Jays have yet to play. In fact, they have 19 games left against the Orioles.
As much as the Jays could use some help to bolster the starting rotation, they were wise to send prize prospect Nate Pearson back to Buffalo after one shaky start. He lasted only 2.1 innings against the Astros. His command was horrible. Pearson issued five walks. All told, he threw 64 pitches with only 28 of them strikes. He has now issued 18 walks in 20.1 innings since his MLB debut last July. Pearson needs to find his command in the minors before he can become a fixture in the rotation.
The Jays are trying to stay patient with left-fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. but he needs to get untracked soon. Gurriel is a noted streaky hitter who is prone to chase pitches. He struck out 28 times in his first 123 at-bats. His chase rate is 38.3 percent. His walk rate of 2.8 percent ranks in the bottom 2% in the majors.
Defense was such a big issue for the Blue Jays last season and early on this season but things have suddenly taken a dramatic turn. The loss of weight has helped Vladdy Guerrero Jr. become much more comfortable at first base. Vladdy is yet to commit an error this season. Overall, the Blue Jays are third in the American League in fielding behind Houston and Tampa. They have committed only 18 errors in 37 games for a .986 fielding percentage. Very solid considering their shaky start.
MLB Notebook – How about the early season performance being turned in by 28-year-old Nick Pivetta, the Victoria, B.C. native. The big right-hander has been Boston’s best starter. He has a 5-0 record in eight starts with a 3.16 ERA and 42 K’s in 42 innings. Pivetta was acquired last August from the Phillies for relievers Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman. Hembree is already gone from Philly and Workman is back in the minor leagues with the Red Sox.
The Los Angeles Dodgers 2021 payroll is $256.9 million dollars. Their record is 21-17. The have won three in a row after going 2-and-8 in their previous 10 games. The Dodgers had lost five straight series. I guess a quarter of a billion doesn’t buy you what it used to.
NFL Notebook – The NFL released the 2021 schedule this week. In case you missed it, the NFL is going to a 17-game schedule. The Seahawks are tied with the Chiefs with the 11th toughest schedule in the league. Seattle opens the season at Indianapolis on September 12. The Seahawks face the AFC South this season in inter-conference play. They will close out the schedule in good fashion with Houston, Chicago and Detroit over the final three weeks.
Disgruntled quarterback Aaron Rodgers has reportedly demanded the Packers fire general manager Brian Gutekunst. Rodgers has his nose all out of joint and somehow believes he’s been disrespected. He apparently wants to be more informed about transactions. As Peter King pointed out this week, the Packers are 34-17-1 in regular and post-season play since Gutekunst was named GM. In that same period, the Patriots are 33-19. Rodgers should be thankful he plays for a franchise that strong.
Baffert Banned – Bob Baffert has trained a record seven Kentucky Derby winners. He’s legendary in the horse racing business. He is also an alleged cheater. Baffert has been suspended by Churchill Downs Raceway in Kentucky after Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a postrace drug test. The horse was found to have 21 picograms of the steroid betamethasone in a postrace sample. That’s double the allowable amount. Betamethasone is the same drug that was found in the system of Gamine, another Baffert-trained horse who finished third in the Kentucky Oaks last September.
The New York Times said in November 2020 that Baffert-trained horses have failed at least 29 drug tests in his four-decade career. According to Churchill Downs, if the findings are upheld, Mandaloun will be declared the winner. It’s absolutely disgraceful that Medina Spirit was allowed to race in Saturday’s Preakness, the second jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown. Fortunately, the horse finished third behind Preakness winner Rombauer.
In case you were wondering, if the result of the Kentucky Derby is changed, it will not affect the final pari-mutuel betting on the race. Once a race is over, the betting results are final, no matter what happens afterward. It is described as “one of the most irrevocable standards in racing” and said to be law in every state. Back in 1968, Derby winner Dancer’s Image was disqualified because of a positive drug test and Forward Pass was declared the winner. Pari-mutuel payoffs were considered final then as well.
Leftovers – What has happened to American tennis? Did you know that not a single American is currently in the Top 30 on the ATP Tour? Meantime, three Canadians are among the Top 20. Denis Shapovalov is ranked 14th, Milos Raonic is 19th and Felix Auger-Aliassime is 20th.
The New York Knicks have been one of the big surprises in the NBA this season. They have earned a playoff spot after years of languishing in the backwaters. The Knicks revival has been led by Canada’s R.J. Barrett who is finally living up to his status as the number three pick in the 2019 NBA draft. After shooting just 32% from three-point range in his rookie season, Barrett went to work on improving his shot and it’s paying off. Barrett hit the gym in the off-season and often put up 400-500 shots during each session along with 100 or more free throws. Barrett is now shooting 39.9% from 3-point range and 74.5% from the foul line, up from 61.4% last season. It will be great to see Barrett here in Victoria this summer as Team Canada makes a final push to secure a spot in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, if indeed the games take place.
Two years ago, the NBA averaged 15 million viewers for prime time games. This year, it’s under 3 million. Do you think perhaps fans have little appetite for politics in sports?
Joe Schultz Sports Quote of the Week – Back by popular demand. For those of you who may have just subscribed recently, Joe Schultz is the former Detroit Tigers manager who was known for his off-handed and offensive quotes. We felt the need to bring this segment back to honour the sharp-tongued Schultz.
This week, we go to another former major league manager Leo Durocher who said this after watching Willie Mays launch a home run. “I haven’t seen a fuckin’ baseball get out of the fuckin’ ballpark that fuckin’ fast in all my fucking’ life.”
Spotify Songs of the Week – Here’s a few suggestions when you are searching around for a few new tunes. Quirky offering entitled “Just Like That” from Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch from the release “You Can’t Save Everybody.”
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry do a nice reprise of the old John Hartford-penned tune “Gentle on My Mind” from the album “Shine a Light.”
Paul Carrack does a fine remake of the Rascals “Groovin’ from his release “Still Groovin.”
Joe Ely tells a good story in “The Road Goes on Forever” from the album “Love and Danger.”
And finally, we recommend the song “21st Century Gypsy Singing Lover Man” by Jon Cleary from the album “Dyna-mite.”
Music Video of the Week – Check out Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Here’s the official video for “Downey to Lubbock.”
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