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Under Further Review – May 30, 2021 – Douglas Smith with Co-Editor Bill Morphy and contributions from Jordan Moss. This week, the Leafs prepare for an epic collapse while the Canucks prepare for an uncertain off-season. Plus, we have the fallout in Edmonton and Alek’s striking debut.

Those Mighty Leafs – We saw this coming so there’s no surprise the Canadiens have forced a game seven against the Maple Leafs on Monday night in Toronto. We’re talking about a team that hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years, not to mention the four straight first-round exits. The last time the Leafs were up 3-1 in a playoff series was 1987 and guess what happened? They lost! Never has a team been built up to such heights without accomplishing a damn thing. Toronto rock stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have combined for one goal in six games. Marner has not scored in 17 playoff games. They earn a combined $22,543,250. Cue the excuses!  We may not stop chuckling until August.

Summer of Trepidation – The Canucks head into the off-season with what is essentially a lame-duck general manager whose sole focus seems to be making the playoffs next season and somehow keeping his job. When you crunch the numbers, it’s pretty apparent it will be another full year before the roster cleansing is complete. Can Jim Benning show the kind of fiscal responsibility that is necessary? Or will be start pissing away more draft picks in a desperate attempt to make the playoffs?

If ownership had not imposed budgetary restrictions this season, the Canucks could have exercised buy-outs on Sven Baertschi and Brandon Sutter which would have saved the team $3 million against the 2020-2021 cap. It would have allowed the team to re-sign Tyler Toffoli. The lack of willingness by ownership to step up set the Canucks on the disastrous course that followed. They can’t make the same mistake again. The first buy-out window opens 24 hours after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final.

While GM Jim Benning stated publicly at his season-ending briefing that the Canucks would be active with buy-outs, in reality, there’s not a whole lot to be gained once you crunch the numbers. Jake Virtanen offers the best option for a buy-out. If the Canucks were to buy-out his contract, it would cost only $50,000 against the cap with a cap saving of $1.375 million. The cap carryover to next season would be $500,000. There is also a possibility Virtanen’s contract could be terminated depending on the result of accusations of sexual assault.

The Canucks may consider a buy-out of goaltender Braden Holtby. However, the benefit is questionable. It would come with a cap hit this year of $500,000 but the cap carryover to next season would be $1.9 million. It’s a hefty price to purchase a cap saving this season of $2.675 million from his projected cap hit of $4.3 million.

Anyone hoping for cap savings for buy-outs on the contracts of Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson can forget about it. The buy-out cap hit on Eriksson for this season would be $4 million with a cap savings of only $875,000. There would also be a cap carryover into next season of $1 million. The cap savings for a Roussel buy-out would be only $141,666. Plus, there would be a carryover of $663.334. For Beagle, it’s a similar story. The buy-out cap hit would be $2.2 million with a cap savings of only $325,000 with a carryover to next season of $400,000.

Bottom-line on potential buy-outs? Outside of Jake Virtanen, the Canucks have few options this off-season. There’s little sense pushing the cap hit from buy-outs forward. The aggregate cap savings aren’t worth it. The Canucks will be better off burying Beagle, Roussel and Eriksson in Abbotsford next season. Maybe they can market a $12 million dollar all buy-out proof line of washed-up NHL vets.

Benning’s other big decision is what to do with the contract of Michael Ferland. If he is placed on LTIR next season, the Canucks can exceed the $81.5 million dollar salary cap by the amount of his $3.5 million dollar contract. Offloading Ferland’s contract to a contending team with major cap issues is a far better alternative. LTIR is a double-edged sword. By utilizing this option, a team loses the ability to accrue daily cap space throughout the season. Plus, since you are over the upper limits of the salary cap, all bonuses paid to players on an entry-level contract are automatically applied to your total cap space the following season. With Vasili Podkolzin, Nils Hoglander and Jack Rathbone all on entry-level deals, this would be a tough pill to swallow.

If you look closely at the 28 players who were listed on the Canucks roster this season by CapFriendly, the Canucks are in position to safely walk away from 17 of them prior to the start of the 2022-23 season. It provides the team with every opportunity to remake the roster over the next 16 months. It’s also the reason they need to avoid doing anything stupid.

City of Chumpions – You didn’t need to be a pro scout to watch the Edmonton Oilers exit meekly in the playoffs and determine they are a long way from being a serious Cup contender. After all, the Canucks, Flames and Senators had the exact same number of playoff wins this year as the Soilers. That would be zero. Oilers GM Ken Holland claimed the hasty playoff exit is just part of the growing pains each team has to suffer as they build toward a championship. Who’s he trying to fool? This is pure fantasy. Years of poor drafting has left the Oilers with one of the thinnest rosters in hockey. They are not just a few players away. The Oilers roster is miles away from what might be considered Cup-worthy.

If you are conducting a post-mortem, you need to start with Connor McDavid. His body language and long face during the Jets series is not what you need from a supposed team leader. He may be the best player in the world but he did not exhibit the kind of leadership you need from a player of his calibre. I don’t remember ever seeing Jonathan Toews show that kind of body language when things didn’t go right for the Black Hawks. The Oilers record in McDavid’s six years in Edmonton is there for everyone to see. The team has missed the playoffs three times, been bounced in the opening round twice and advanced to the second round just once.

The Oilers certainly face an uncertain off-season with three key players, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie, headed for unrestricted free agency. Can you imagine where the Oilers would be if all three decided to leave this summer? An already thin roster would be devastated. This is not an easy fix. Fact-of-the-matter, Edmonton is still paying for several horrid transactions – Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, Matt Barzal for Griffin Reinhart and Jordan Eberle-Ryan Strome for essentially diddly-squat. None of the Oilers recent high draft picks have made a significant impact and that includes Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg. This is what happens when you swing and miss in the opening round and continually fail to hit on talent in subsequent rounds. Holland says he’d like 39-year-old goalie Mike Smith to return next season. If that’s part of the blueprint moving forward, then it’s a sad-day in Oil-town.

City of Shills – If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know we have been very critical of the state of sports journalism here in Canada. There have always been ‘homers’ when it comes to reporting on local pro sports teams but the situation has reached a crisis point. The fault lies in the monopolization of network television and team ownership by the two major telecommunication giants – Rogers and BellMedia. Anyone working for TSN or Sportsnet lives in constant fear of losing their job so criticizing the fortunes of the Maple Leafs, in particular, is seemingly fraught with great risk. Instead, what you have is a pack of fainthearted cheerleaders who checked their objectivity at the door long ago. In the case of the Leafs, it’s as if they are trying to make up for 54 years of Cup frustration with a non-stop geyser of unabashed bootlicking. Case in point – Rory Boylen of Sportsnet has the Leafs ranked second in his latest NHL Power Rankings behind only Colorado and ahead of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, whom he mysteriously has ranked fifth. What he fails to consider is the quality of the Leafs first-round opponent. If this year’s NHL schedule was as normal, it’s questionable whether the Montreal Canadiens would have even qualified for the post-season. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It’s all about feeding the Leafs hype-train. For the most part, we have tried to find the humour in the Leafs coverage because we know they are headed for an ignominious fate. Still, it’s a sad state of affairs when reporters are so willing to throw their credibility out the window. Where have you gone Edward R. Murrow? He must be turning over in his grave.

NHL Playoff Notebook – It’s inconceivable that Jim Benning and Brad Trevliving would both keep their jobs this off-season. At the moment, that looks like it will be the case. Many observers are expecting big changes in Calgary. Most of the speculation surrounds Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, two long-time Flames mainstays. But what about shopping Matthew Tkachuk? The annoying left-winger did not exactly hit it off with Darryl Sutter. Tkachuk is the Flames highest-paid player with an AAV of $7 million per season. He’s headed into the final year of a three-year bridge deal. Tkachuk’s salary next season actually rises to $9 million so that’s the number the Flames would have to pony up on a qualifying offer in order to retain his RFA rights at the end of next season. The Flames might be smart to float his name out there in trade talks.

Wayne Gretzky resigned his post as vice-chairman of the Oilers. Did anyone even know that’s what he’s been doing for the past five years? Gretzky has agreed to join TNT as a studio analyst when the network starts broadcasting NHL games this fall. Gretzky knows the game and can see things we may not but he won’t be offering any strong opinions or pointed criticisms any time soon. It will probably be a heaping helping of vanilla.  If you are expecting Charles Barkley-esque personality, forget it. There’s still no one better, however, to sell the game in the U.S.

Publicly, the Great One says he’s not bothered by the sexy poses posted by attention-seeking daughter Paulina on social media. Somehow I have trouble believing that. According to Paulina, she was offered big bucks by Playboy to pose nude in the magazine but partner Dustin Johnson did not approve. Paulina says Johnson offered to match any money being offered to ensure she didn’t go through with it. She claims the offer was made in 2013 shortly after they started dating.  “They gave me an amount, a number, and Dustin was like, ‘Absolutely not. I’m going to match it. You’re not doing it.’” Such are the difficult decisions of the idle rich.

12 years ago, Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom broke a record previously held by Larry Robinson when he played in his 228th consecutive playoff game. Lidstrom (1991-2012) and Robinson (1972-1992) are the only two players in NHL history to play in 20 straight playoff seasons.

Class of 2021 – The NHL’s list of unrestricted free agents is lacking in high quality depth at the top but there are certainly some interesting names as you digger deeper. Alex Ovechkin and Dougie Hamilton are the best available. You would have to think that Ovechkin isn’t going anywhere.

If you are wondering who the Canucks might target, there’s a few names that should be of interest but only if the price is right. On defense, I would check in on Jamie Oleksiak of the Dallas Stars along with Adam Larsson of the Oilers, David Savard of the Lightning, Zach Bogosian of the Leafs and Tucker Poolman of the Winnipeg Jets. Up front, it would be worth making a call on Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Alex Wennberg, Riley Nash, Tomas Nosek, Brock McGinn and Sean Kuraly.  NHL free agency opens on July 28.

Blue Jays This Week – What can you say about the debut of Blue Jays man-child Alek Manoah? The rookie right-hander tossed six shutout innings at Yankee Stadium and did it in unflappable fashion. He allowed only two hits and two walks while striking out seven. 60 of his 88 pitches were strikes. Manoah is giving every indication he has the overpowering stuff to be a front-of-the rotation starter. Nervously watching from the stands, his Mom was a show, all on her own!

It’s going to be a battle for the Blue Jays to stay alive in the American League East pennant race. A rough six-game losing streak dropped the Jays to the .500 mark on the season. The never-ending string of injuries to the pitching staff caught up to them. Amidst all the various trips to the DL, they’ve now lost relievers Kirby Yates and David Phelps for the season. We are starting to see the cracks in the foundation. In April, the bullpen had an ERA of 2.52. In May, it rose more than two runs to 4.62.

Vlad the Impaler – Vladdy Guerrero Jr. is making a very strong case for American League MVP along with Rafael Devers of the Red Sox. Vladdy’s numbers across the board are incredible. Through 50 games, Vladdy is third in the majors in batting average at .331. He is tied with Adolis Garcia of the White Sox for the MLB lead in home runs with 16. He’s T-4 in RBI’s with 41. He’s first in total bases. He’s first in OPS with a mark of 1.092. He’s second behind Max Muncy of the Dodgers in on-base percentage at .440. He’s just a whisker behind Nick Castellanos of the Tigers in slugging percentage at .652. Vladdy also has more wins above replacement than anyone in MLB. He’s on pace for 55 homers and there’s no telling what his numbers might look like by the end of the season. At just 22, his career is just taking off.

MLB Notebook – It’s sad to watch Mike Trout’s decline as the best player in baseball. He’s out at least two months with a calf strain. In the first five years of his MLB career, Trout never missed more than three games in a row. That all changed starting in 2017. That year, he missed 39 games with a torn thumb ligament. He missed 19 games in 2018 because of wrist inflammation. He missed 19 more games in 2019 after foot surgery. Trout should come to his senses and realize he will never win anything playing in L.A. During this forced absence, Trout should think long and hard about finding a new home where he has a realistic chance to win a World Series title.

Phillies pitcher Spencer Howard said his struggles on the mound in a recent game stemmed from him not being able to regroup and slow his heart rate after running to first base during an at-bat. No problem Spencer. We’re totally sympathetic. Baseball is such a hard game.

Only in baseball would this happen. Cleveland Indians pitcher Zach Plesac has been placed on the injured list after breaking the thumb on his pitching hand while yanking off his undershirt after getting rocked in a game against Minnesota. Maybe he should have sucked his thumb instead.

NFL Notebook – Julio Jones, the Falcons star receiver, wants out of Atlanta. He could help a lot of teams but carries a $15 million dollar salary for the upcoming season. The 49’ers are one of the teams have the cap space to bring him on board. The Seahawks had better hope he lands somewhere else.

OTA’s in the NFL are voluntary workouts. Many veteran players have opted not to attend the workouts and are planning to continue training outside the team’s facilities. That’s fine unless you get hurt working out on your own. Teams could choose not to guarantee your salary because you were injured away from the facility. It’s a tough choice for young players trying to make an impression. Do you show up for the OTA and try and earn a roster spot or do you support the union and your veteran teammates? A mandatory minicamp is scheduled for all players in mid-June.

Jon Gruden should be thankful that fans haven’t been able to attend a Raiders game in the new stadium in Las Vegas as of yet. They would probably be burning his ears with boos. Gruden has coached the Raiders to 19 wins in his three seasons as head coach. He’s making $10 million per season so that equates to over $1.5 million per win. The man he replaced, Jack Del Rio, had 25 wins in his three seasons at the helm.

Former Seahawk defensive coordinator and Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn is Dallas’ third defensive coordinator in 18 months. Good luck working for Jerry Jones Dan! The Cowboys defense gave up 33 or more points in 8 of 16 games last season. In the feeble NFC East however, Dallas should still be favoured to win the division.

We’ve contended for a while that criticism of the Seahawks draft record is unfair. The data doesn’t back it up. Seattle may not have had any success in the first-round but since 2017, the Seahawks rank second behind Dallas in starts from players drafted in the second through seventh rounds. Where they fall down is their pickup rate on the fifth-year option for first-round picks. Seattle has not retained the fifth-year option when it became available on Rashaad Penny (2018), Germain Ifedi (2016), Bruce Irvin (2012) and James Carpenter (2011). It will be interesting to see what happens when the options for L.J. Collier (2019) and Jordyn Brooks (2020) come due.

Leftovers – The odds of Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship were 280-1. No one saw it coming. The 50-year-old leftie had made a sparkling debut on the PGA Champions Tour but he had only two Top-20 finishes on the regular tour over the past two seasons. But there he was last Sunday raising the Wanamaker Trophy as PGA champion just a month shy of his 51st birthday. With a two-shot victory over Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen, Mickelson became the oldest golfer ever to win a major.  It was the sixth major title of his career. Next up is the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

Want to know why Bryson DeChambeau failed to be in contention at this year’s first two Majors? Hard-swinging Bryson leads the PGA Tour in Driving Distance with an average of 322.5 yards. Problem is, DeChambeau is ranked 178th on Driving Accuracy at just 54.63%. Until that percentage improves, he’s going to have a tough time contending.

The Toronto Raptors are currently positioned in seventh place in the NBA Draft Lottery which is scheduled for June 22. The Raptors have a 31.9% chance of landing in the top four. Their odds of landing the #1 overall pick are 7.5%. The NBA Draft is slated for July 29. Here’s the NBA Draft simulator. Give it a whirl.

Remember the name Catherine Raiche. She’s a 32-year-old Montreal native who’s become the highest-ranking woman in an NFL personnel department. She’s been named vice president of football operations by the Philadelphia Eagles. How about that? Raiche will be involved in all areas of football operations and player personnel, including pro and college scouting, contract management, player/staff development, and football research.

You have to give her full marks. She left a law career in 2015 to start working with the Montreal Alouettes as an intern. Raiche was named assistant general manager of the Alouettes in 2017. She left the Als to join the Toronto Argonauts as director of football administration in 2018, working for Jim Popp, the GM who hired her with the Als. In 2019, she followed Argos coach Marc Trestman to the XFL’s Tampa Bay franchise before landing a front office job in Philadelphia.

Joe Schultz Sports Quote of the Week – From immortal Yankees manager Casey Stengel – “All right everyone, line up alphabetically according to your height.”

Music Video of the Week – For a few years now, we’ve been touting the Playing for Change Foundation songbook featuring a compilation of amazing artists from around the world performing classic songs. Here’s “Love Train” featuring Jason Mraz, Yo-Yo Ma, Keb’ Mo’ and the kids from Turnaround Arts.

Here’s a little something else we thought you would like. It’s Levon Helm and his Dirt Farmers Quartet performing “Deep Elem Blues” at the 2011 Americana Awards nominee’s event.

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