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Under Further Review – This week, we sing the praises of the suddenly resurgent Canucks, take a tour around MLB and the NFL and applaud the Lions for a coaching firing that should not have been delayed.  

Start Believing – It’s hard to believe that it’s been eight going on nine years since the Canucks ill-fated Stanley Cup run in 2011. Many Canuck-watchers, myself included, wanted the team to take the conventional rebuilding road, blow it up, plummet in the standings, and reap the rewards. Instead, they held out hope of one more run with the Sedin Twins and resisted a major rebuild.

Fast forward to today and it doesn’t really matter whether you took a conventional route, the fact of the matter is the Canucks are a vastly improved team and may be headed for their first playoff berth since 2014. They have reached that point of critical mass with a gifted group of youngsters augmented by the requisite number of foot soldiers. The numbers bear it out.

  • The Canucks allow the 10th fewest shots and 9th-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. They generate the 4th-most shots and 5th-most shot attempts. They also sit second in the NHL in faceoff percentage.
  • If you want to be a top-level team, you have to control the play. They are out-attempted their opponent in 11 of 16 games. They haven’t been out-attempted in their past 12 games.
  • If you want to be a top team, you must have great special teams. The Canucks boast the league’s #8 power play at 22.1 percent and #6 penalty kill at 86.4 percent.
  • They have yet to be beaten in regulation at home with a 4-0-and-2 record and have played more road games than any other team. With 35 more home games still to come, they should be in good shape.

Under Further Review has been very critical of Canucks GM Jim Benning for a whole host of reasons widely chronicled. But he had himself a hell of an off-season and despite the unconventional rebuild, it certainly looks like the Canucks have arrived as a legit playoff contender, and you never know, maybe more.

Maple Leaf Diatribe – OK, so the Maple Leaves have won four straight and suddenly the knives have been replaced with the usual superlatives. But I still contend this is a fatally flawed team. When you have been bounced in the first round for three straight years and you haven’t won a playoff series in 15 years, you should know the problems are deep-rooted.

The Maple Leafs sleep-walked out of the gate and were 6-5-and-3 after their first 14 games with only 15 of a possible 28 points. They won only 4 of their first 8 home games. Mike Babcock is right – they are a team still searching for an identity. We know they are not tough.  We know they are not defensively sound. What exactly are they?  Earlier this week they were out of a playoff spot in a demonstrably weak Eastern Conference!

If you watch the Leafs on a regular basis, they are completely disjointed – soft defensive zone coverage, mental lapses with a power-play that’s been sitting near the bottom of the league. The roster overhaul that took place last summer in an effort to get money off the books has been a disaster. They swept out Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Conner Brown, Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau.  Say what you will but they are competitive guys and offer a ton of leadership.

It’s a cliché perhaps but your best players have to be committed to playing defense. Look no further than guys like Sid and Ryan O’Reilly and Anze Kopitar. Here’s an interesting take on the Leafs from Hall of Fame writer Jay Greenberg.  He nailed it with his nickname for William (Oh, Was That My Guy?) Nylander.

Apparently the Leafs did protect themselves when they sent next year’s first round pick to Carolina in the Marleau salary dump. Should the Leafs fall to the bottom third of the league this season, they will retain the pick. If only the Leafs could bring back Turk Broda, Allan Stanley and Pete Stemkowski, they would make the playoffs for sure.

Meantime, the Leafs face two western road trips in the next six weeks so they had better start showing marked improvement.

Kane Not Able (To Pay) – Will Evander Kane ever grow up? We learned this week that Kane is being sued by the Cosmopolitan Casino in Vegas for a half-million-dollar gambling debt. In the lawsuit filed on Monday, The resort claims it extended $500,000 in gambling markers to Kane during his stay at the property in April. Those markers, which helped Kane access large sums of money to gamble with, came in eight different installments, each between $20,000 and $100,000. He has allegedly failed to pay back the sum and now the casino is seeking restitution plus repayment of legal fees associated with the lawsuit.

Interestingly enough, the lawsuit states that the casino extended the markers to Kane on April 15, or the day between Games 3 and 4 of the Sharks-Golden Knights first-round playoff series in Vegas. The Golden Knights won both of those games but would lose the series in seven games. Kane signed a 7-year, $49 million dollar extension with the Sharks last year.

Kane’s latest brush with the law brings to mind the Band’s great tune – ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’.  Here are the new lyrics:

“Evander Kane was his name and he gambled before the big game.  Evander Kane was his name and he stiffed them again and again.”  Whatta ya think? (From the brilliant and sometimes demented mind of my Under Further Review co-conspirator).

NHL Notebook – We all shook our heads when the Oilers and Flames got together for the James Neal-Milan Lucic deal last summer. Rarely do the two teams make trades with each other. What’s the early verdict?  Neal is rolling along with 11 goals playing sidekick to Connor McDavid.  Lucic is languishing on the Flames fourth line and has zero, yes zero, goals after 17 games.

We all were shocked when the Oilers signed Leon Draisaitl to an 8-year, $68 million dollar extension a couple of years ago. Peter Chiarelli was pilloried for offering that much. Well, it’s not looking so bad anymore! Hey, Chiarelli was a genius!

Lack of depth up front is killing the Oilers. McDavid, Draisaitl and James Neal have combined to score 32 goals.  The rest of the punchless forward group has scored a grand total of 14 goals.

It sure looks like Taylor Hall is headed to free agency next summer. It certainly appears as though he is as good as gone out of New Jersey.

What’s become of the Chicago Black Hawks? They’ve tried to rebuild on the fly around Kane and Toews and the old guard while sprinkling in young talent but it simply isn’t happening. The bottom half of their roster stinks and they haven’t been able to hit on many impact youngsters. Kind of reminds of the Canucks when they tried in vain to keep soldiering on with the Sedin Twins.  The Hawks need to re-think their long-term plan and get serious about a REAL rebuild.

One of my favourite players over the past decade is the Black Hawks Jonathan Toews. Captain Serious has led the Hawks to three Stanley Cups but the wear and tear has caught up to him. Toews is only 31 but has a ton of miles on the old odometer and his production has fallen off the cliff.  He has scored two goals in the Hawks first 15 games.

I got a kick out of Bobby Ryan demanding a trade from the Senators. What a joke! There’s zero market for Ryan who’s making $7.25 million this year and next. I’ll offer a two for one at Arby’s and the rights to Carl Brewer.

Get out Your Cheque Book – Everyone is assuming the Blue Jays will not be active in free agency this winter. However, with so much money coming off the books, they should at least check in on some of the top free agents. Gerrit Cole of the Astros is probably out of the question because he’s likely headed home to the Angels since he grew up in the Anaheim area.

Mike Moustakas of the Brewers would be a nice addition because of his bat and versatility.  The Jays need to consider adding a few quality veterans who can insulate all the youngsters and provide much-needed leadership. The big need, of course, is starting pitching. The Jays got the ball rolling by trading for Milwaukee starter Chase Anderson. He certainly adds a reliable arm to their threadbare rotation. And it didn’t cost them much, only a fringe minor leaguer while exercising on his $8.5-million option for 2020.

I would test the waters on a few other free agent starters including Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler and Michael Wacha. I suspect the Jays will continue to look for value-play arms for the bullpen where they have had some good success in recent years while taking a flyer on a bunch of retreads.

Nick Castellanos of the Tigers is another solid bat worth consideration.  Adding speed, defense and athleticism should be a big off-season priority. The Jays are probably not going to be able to trade for that elusive center-fielder since most of the top ones are homegrown and teams know the value of speed and defense in centerfield.

One footnote to the World Series. The combined contracts of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander were a whopping $809 million. They will be even more next year because Strasburg has opted out of his deal with the Nationals and will be one of the premier free agents on the market this off-season.

Russell for MVP – Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been brilliant but you can make a pretty strong MVP case for Russell Wilson at this point in the season. The Seahawks might only have one or two wins were it not for Wilson. He’s thrown a league-best 21 touchdowns with only one interception. He’s led the Seahawks to 4 fourth quarter comebacks already.  On Monday night against the 49’ers, Wilson will break the franchise record with his 122nd consecutive start.

The Monday night matchup figures to be a dandy. Yes, the 49’ers are the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL but check their schedule.  The combined winning percentage of the teams they have played to date is around .320.  The Seahawks schedule has not been overly difficult but the winning percentage of the teams they have played is still .430. Let’s wait and see until the 49’ers actually play a legitimate Super Bowl contender. They have Arizona the following week so it may be a while before we find out.

NFL Notebook – Have we heard enough about Baker Mayfield? There was so much hype about the Cleveland Browns heading into the season including a cover story in Sports Illustrated. Instead of leading the Browns into the post-season, Mayfield has been a turnover machine, leading the NFL with 12 interceptions and doing his best Johnny Manziel impression.

What do you do when your quarterback decides it’s more important to take the time to shave his moustache at halftime? That’s exactly what Mayfield did last weekend.  NFL halftimes are only 12 minutes long and this bozo thinks his facial hair is more important than preparing for the second half.

Until they ran into the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots defense was allowing only 7.6 points per game.  The Pats had scored as many touchdowns – 4 – as they had allowed and have a league-best 28 takeaways.

Do you remember former NFL tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.?  His dad was a Hall of Fame tight end and arguably the best ever at the position. Kellen Jr. also had a ton of talent but not the toolbox.  He’s certainly been making his Dad proud. Check out his latest escapade – accused of sexually harassing a 77-year old woman.

One and Done – It didn’t take long for the BC Lions to decide the fate of embattled head coach DaVone Claybrooks.  I guess they had seen enough of him being interviewed on TV with the tilted baseball cap. He was clearly in over his head in his rookie season as a CFL head coach. Claybrooks was an excellent defensive coordinator in Calgary but was way too buddy-buddy with the players to gain the kind of respect you need as the head master.

Meantime, Rick Campbell exited quickly in Ottawa after a dismal 3-and-15 season with the RedBlacks. General Manager Marcel Desjardins has made a mess of the roster in the Nation’s Capital and Campbell wisely walked away. He’s already on the Lions radar and they would be smart to snatch him up early.  Any coach who could lead a mediocre roster in Ottawa to three Grey Cups in four seasons clearly knows how to build a winner.

Hey, Pick Me! – I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Tiger Woods picked himself to be part of the US team in the upcoming Presidents Cup in Australia.  Woods used one of his four wild-card selections on himself along with Tony Finau, U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and Patrick Reed. He will be the first playing captain in 25 years.

International team captain Ernie Els selected Canada’s Adam Hadwin with one of his four picks along with Joaquin Niemann, Jason Day and Sungjae Im. The Presidents Cup is slated for Dec. 12-15 at Royal Melbourne.

Kawhi’n Time Again – In what world do you get paid full-time for doing part-time work? That’s basically the case with Kawhi Leonard.  Last year with the Raptors, he missed about one-third of the games thanks to the team’s load management program and yet he pocketed every dime in his contract.  Now, this season with the LA Clippers, the same scenario is being replayed. I would love a job where I could be absent from work 30 percent of the time and still collect my paycheque.

The REAL Music Capital – We leave you this week with a nod to Austin City Limits and their 45 years of showcasing great roots music. Here’s a star-studded video from their 40th anniversary show back in 2014.  How many performers can you name?