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Under Further Review – This week, Under Further Review returns from vacation in time to take aim at the early NHL season, plus observations from around the NFL, MLB post-season and Raptors training camp. 

We’re Baaaack! – It’s been a month since our last blog was posted so there’s obviously lots of fuel for the fire.  I enjoyed a fantastic three-week adventure in Italy and have promised to stay away from anything that starts with a P for the next month.  That includes pastries, pizza, pasta, panini, prosciutto and yes, prosecco and pinot grigio. Italy was great but they might want to work on providing public toilets and perhaps think about eliminating smoking in public places. Does the Pope smoke or what’s the deal?

Now that my great friend Bro Jake Edwards has officially retired from TSN 1040 in Vancouver there is no real urgency to post blogs each and every Friday prior to his show. Therefore, expect my posts to be somewhat sporadic from here on but I’m sure I won’t be able to hold off for too long because there will always be something that sparks my ire and spurs me into action.

Early Season NHL Observations – If you look across the Canadian NHL landscape, there’s reason for optimism in some of the markets but lots of cause for concern as well. Let’s start in the east and move westward.

The Montreal Canadiens have aspirations of being a playoff team but sorry, I just don’t see it although they should be part of the chase. Their defense consists of Jeff Petry and Shea Weber and a whole lot of nothing. Apologies to Victor Mete but you are not a top four defenseman. If I were the Habs, I would stay the course, let the young kids play and continue to build. Keep the salary cap space and make it count when opportunities arise and they will in today’s NHL.

Rookie coach D.J. Smith appears to be having a nice impact on the young Senators who earned a huge win over the weekend against the mighty Tampa Lightning. Still, nothing will change in Ottawa until Uncle Eugene gets struck by a car.  It’s absolutely remarkable that the NHL continues to defend Eugene Melnyk. NHL Mouthpiece ‘Won’t You Come Home’ Bill Daly says the NHL is very satisfied with Melnyk’s ownership and don’t agree with how he’s being portrayed in the media. Well, if the NHL didn’t like how Melnyk was being portrayed, they won’t enjoy reading this article on the man being called “the Worst Owner in All of Sports.” I particularly enjoyed Melnyk’s excuses for running up gambling debts.

Senator fans should cheer for a big San Jose Shark pratfall this year since they own the Sharks first round pick in next summer’s draft thanks to the Erik Karlsson deal. Could this be the year the Sharks finally tank? The Sens could end up having two lottery picks, you never know. Ottawa’s rebuild won’t gain traction until they land a stud centreman to build around.  Hello, Quinton Byfield?

OK, now to Hogtown and this is where the fun starts. I thought maybe they had handed the Leafs the Stanley Cup while I was in Italy but apparently not. Don Cherry got it right when he said this is not a team that is built to win the Cup. When half your payroll is tied up in four forwards, you have a big problem. Boy Blunder has boxed the team in so they can’t do anything to add the necessary pieces both up front and on the back end.

Can you believe the media is already speculating that the Leafs may replace Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe if things don’t improve? Let me get this right – you want to turf one of the best coaches in the game who has a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal with a stooge who should have been thrown in jail for past indiscretions?  Read Steve Simmons book on the sickening David Frost affair for all you need to know about young Sheldon.

Back to the Leafs who are about as flawed a team as you can find. They won’t last a minute in the playoffs when ‘heavy’ hockey takes over and the whistles go out the window. You can produce all the analytics you want, the playoffs are a different brand of hockey. We can talk when the Leafs start beating playoff teams and not just bottom feeders.

The Leafs have switched up five of their defensemen from their opening night lineup a year ago.  Morgan Reilly is the only holdover but nothing has changed. They started the season with two rookies – Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin – in their third pairing and that lasted about three games.

Smart managers don’t overpay to keep their best players. They retain them at the number they want or they move on. The Leafs, on the other hand, grossly overpaid for Taveras, Mathews, Marner and Nylander and now they are hog-tied.  It’s money in and money out or they can’t make any trade at all. If Freddie Andersen goes out with a long-term injury, their season is toast. What’s more, they have already surrendered next year’s first rounder to Carolina for the luxury of removing Patrick Marleau from the roster. The Leafs have zero impact prospects in their system. Sorry Shanny, but you made a fatal error in letting Lou go and placing all your faith in your Dubie brother.

Like the Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks and probably many others, the NHL salary cap has devastated the Winnipeg Jets. They were THE up-and-coming team and now they have been stripped to the bone along the blueline and the future is not so bright.

Gone from their opening night defense from one year ago are Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chariot.  That’s the whole right side of their defense. The Jets season and immediate future is contingent on the speedy development of a host of young defensemen including Neal Pionk, Ville Heinola, Anthony Bitetto, Tucker Poolman, Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom and Logan Stanley. They had better hope there’s rapid growth from among this group because the Jets have suddenly become a borderline playoff team that will have to outscore their mistakes.

In Alberta, goaltending remains a huge question mark in both Calgary and Edmonton. David Rittich is shouldering massive pressure to carry the Flames and you have to wonder if he’s ready for the challenge. Cam Talbot is a highly questionable backup. The West is such a deep conference that a playoff spot is anything but a sure thing.  Losing emerging young defenseman Juuso Valimaki for the season was a big blow to the Flames and severely hurts their blueline depth.

As per usual, the Oilers are off to a good start and have everyone all giddy in Edmonton but I would hedge my bet on this team being playoff bound. It’s all about depth in today’s NHL and I just don’t see the depth up front or on the blueline. Koskinen and Smith may prove to be adequate in goal but on a lot of nights, the Oilers will have trouble scoring because outside of McDavid and Draisaitl, there’s not much there. Whether the coaching change can give them a big enough lift is questionable and there penalty killing will have to be much improved if they want to grab one of the final playoff spots.

Oh yes, the Canucks. There’s no doubt this team should be improved. You have to be better when you add J.T. Miller, Michael Ferland, Tyler Myers and Jamie Benn to your lineup.  The added size should be a big factor. It will also help to have quicksilver rookie Quinn Hughes for the full season. He’s already having an impact on the power-play.  Where the issues arise is in the bottom six forward group. I would still like to see someone other than Brandon Sutter centering the third line. The Canucks might be better off with Miller centering the third line if Adam Gaudette doesn’t seize the job.  Miller, Antoine Roussel (when he returns from injury) and Josh Leivo is the kind of third line you need to compete for a playoff spot. You get next to nothing offensively from Sutter and Jay Beagle as your two bottom six centremen.

The Canucks have added enough depth to their lineup that they should stick around the playoff hunt right until the final weeks of the season. Whether they get it in or not is another question. Superior goaltending could be their ticket.

By the way, when is it time to consider Jake Virtanen a bust? He needs to play with a left-shot centreman whose natural pass is to the right side but unfortunately, Virtanen is not good enough to play with Horvat or Pettersson. For now, he’s a fourth-liner and that’s not much payback for a guy who was selected sixth overall in the 2014 draft.

Elsewhere – I like the New York Rangers rebuild but I would have never broken the bank to sign Artemi Panarin. He has a cap hit of $11,642,857 which is second highest in the league behind some guy in Edmonton. That much for a winger? Not a chance. The Rangers will come to regret the move. But that’s always been part of the problem in New York.  They always have to have the shiniest toy because it’s New York.

Cody Glass is making a big first impression in Las Vegas.  He’s the big right-shot centreman every team covets.  Glass was selected right after the Canucks nabbed Elias Petterson fifth overall in 2017. At the time, I was one of the guys who wanted the Canucks to take Glass because of his size and oh yes, he’s Canadian. Glass is already centering the Golden Knights second line in between Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. How would you like to have those two wingers?

The Colorado Avalanche are off to a quick start and appear to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender despite their youth. Adding Nazem Kadri was a solid move and part of their off-season plan to add quality depth up front. The blueline remains a work in progress but how would you like to have Cale Makar and Bowen Byram on your blueline for the next ten years?

You think the Canucks have a problem with Louie Eriksson’s contract?  How about Nashville and Kyle Turris. He’s playing on their fourth line and has five more years at six million per. I can’t believe he’s fallen that far out of favour.  If you watched him at last year’s World Championships, you would have thought he could be a boost to any lineup. Something has to give there.

Dallas and St. Louis have been slow out of the gate but both teams are too strong not to be in the mix at the end of the season.  Of course, when you win the Cup the off-season is very short. You have to like what Doug Armstrong has done in St. Louis.  A year ago, his job was on the line. He’s been able to re-sign all of the team’s core players at reasonable rates and the Blues are poised to take another Cup run with essentially the same roster.

One team that continues to fly under the radar is the Carolina Hurricanes.  NHL pundits are starting to realize their playoff run last year was not an aberration after all.  They’ve got some great young pieces up front and their blueline is outstanding.  However, it’s hard to buy stock in a team that features Petr Mrazek and James Reimer in goal.

The Tampa Bay Lightning received the same love in pre-season prognostications despite their flame-out in last year’s post-season. I still don’t see the kind of playoff-built roster you need to win a Stanley Cup and I am certainly not sold on their overall blueline play.  Don’t count me as one of their proponents.

One team that may be a little better than advertised is the Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson is, hands down, one of the top three goaltenders in the game and that counts a lot. The Ducks season will depend on the growth of their bevy of young forwards.

How do they keep the wheels from falling off in Pittsburgh?  I look at their roster and see a team in deep decline yet Sidney seems to keep the team on track. There’s no way the Penguins should be a playoff team!

Alain Vigneault will work his magic in Philadelphia and get the Flyers to the post season.  Carter Hart is the real deal in goal and will be key to any success the Flyers enjoy this season.

The Buffalo Sabres are mirroring their start from last season when they broke out of the gate only to fade in November. Rookie Victor Olofsson is doing a pretty good Mike Bossy impression so far. I do not know why Ralph Krueger has not been coaching in the NHL for the past several seasons. The Oilers made a huge mistake letting him go and he’s wasted no time having an impact in Buffalo. The NHL is so slow to adapt.  We should have had more European managers and coaches in the league a long time ago.

Speaking of impact, you have to wonder if Joel Quenneville will be able to turn things around in Florida.  The Panthers have some nice young pieces up front but I am not buying what they have along the blueline outside of Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson. Sergei Bobrovsky had better be worth the investment because they are going to need him.

Around the NFL – The 2019 Miami Dolphins are taking tanking to a whole new level. In their first four games, the Dolphins were outscored 81-0 in the second half of games. After years of mediocrity, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has authorized a wholesale gutting that has turned the team into a laughingstock.

Since the start of the season, Miami has traded away three of their top players including recent first round draft picks, cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. They have now accumulated three first round picks and two second round picks in the 2020 draft plus two first rounder’s and two second rounder’s in 2021. Sure, it sounds good but it’s a cautionary tale, just ask the Cleveland Browns. The Dolphins have also been slashing payroll to clear cap space. They currently carry a league high $55 million in dead money from players they have cut or traded away.  A perfect 0-and-16 season is very much within reach.

It seems like every year there are more good teams in the NFC than in the AFC and that’s the case again this season. I’m not buying stock in the Kansas City Chiefs. Their defense is non-existent. What did I say about the merits of investing close to $20 million a second in former Seahawk Frank Clark?  Big mistake! He’s had no impact on their pass rush and is part of the reason why they are getting shredded in the run game. Losing defensive tackle Chris Jones was the final straw.

The 49’ers and the Saints are playing championship caliber defense and could be separating themselves from the pack in the NFC. The 49’ers are doing this year what everyone thought they would do last year when they were the sexy pick to rise up in the NFC West. GM John Lynch has quietly built a speedy defense to mirror the defense he played on in Tampa Bay when they won a Super Bowl.  The 49’ers pass rush is dominating with Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and rookie sensation Nick Bosa. Just ask the Los Angeles Rams whose offensive line was run over on Sunday as the 49’ers took over the division lead.

It points up the fact that offensive line play in the NFL is critical to success. Look at any bad team and I guarantee they have a porous offensive line. The Dallas Cowboys emerged as a solid team after investing three first round picks over a four-year period on offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. Likewise in Indianapolis where mauling Quentin Nelson is emerging as the top offensive lineman in football.  Ask any Seahawk fan about how painful it was to watch the Seahawks before they finally started to invest in their offensive line by trading for Duane Brown and signing new OL coach Mike Solari.  It’s a cliché but you have to win the battle up front.  The Rams season is in peril because of a massive drop-off in the play of their offensive line. Mark it down now, the Rams don’t make the playoffs this season and that will be a major reason why. Late Breaking News – the Rams have acquired All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsay from the Jaguars in exchange for a pair of first round picks and a fourth rounder.  This is the work of a desperate team!  Let’s bring another headcase into your already volatile locker room!

The Seahawks are sitting at 5-and-1 and should be giving divine thanks to the sublime play of quarterback Russell Wilson who has been nothing short of spectacular. Wilson is more than living up to his massive new contract. He’s tossed 14 touchdowns in six games without a single interception. If Wilson is not the lead horse in the NFL MVP race then something is wrong.  Seattle will go as long as he takes them and it may be further than you think. The Seahawks defense is still a work in progress but don’t judge it until All-Pro defensive tackle Jarran Reed returns as the final piece on the refurbished defensive line.  Reed is back this week after serving a 6-game suspension. Let’s see what kind of pass rush they can muster once everyone is in there.

Can you please explain to me why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would continue to hitch their wagon to Jameis Winston? He’s a turnover machine.  They could have walked away from him in the off-season with very little financial impact yet they chose to bring him back for another season. If he really studies hard, he could be another JaMarcus Russell.

Don’t look now but the New England Patriots could go 16-and-0. Their defense is playing at an historically high level, giving up only three touchdowns in their first six games. Can Brady and Belichek just retire, please?

You would have to be a complete idiot to take the head coaching job in Washington with the Redskins. Who would want to work for Daniel Snyder?  This is a guy who fired a coach with a 5am phone call.  He must have taken lessons from Eugene Melnyk and Jeffrey Loria.

Postscript – Hey, Antonio Brown!  How’s the bank account doing?

MLB Post-Season – You have to feel for Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw who again played the role of goat in the Dodgers quick post-season demise. Kershaw is a sure-fire Hall of Famer yet has been unable to capture any magic in the post-season. These reputations can be almost impossible to escape and I just don’t think it’s a fair reflection of a players overall body of work. I was at the Big O in Montreal when Rick Monday hit the playoff home run off Steve Rogers so don’t ask me about the wisdom of bringing starters out of the bullpen in relief in playoff games. To me, it makes zero sense unless your name is Madison Bumgarner. The Yankees also tried it in game 2 of the ALCS by calling JA Happ out of the bullpen and Carlos Correa sent his first offering into the stands for a walk-off home run. End of story!

In some roundabout way, I guess we should be cheering for the Washington Nationals to win the World Series even though they are long since departed from Montreal. The Nationals success certainly points up the fact that you can go a long way if you have two wipe-out starters like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasberg. Both these guys look unbeatable.

Being the Yankee hater I am, I can’t help but cheer for the Astros to knock off the Evil Empire. Houston needed both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to be lights out to win the ALCS and so far, both have delivered. Cole is unbeaten in 25 starts going back to May 22. He’s 3-and-0 in the playoffs with a 0.44 ERA and in line for a huge payday as a free agent this off-season.  Both lineups are scary so you had better get some well-pitched games every night.

It makes me ill every time a player is criticized for leaving the team to be on hand for the birth of a child.  Can you believe that Astros Daniel Hudson would be raked over the coals on social media for being with his wife for the birth of their third baby girl?  None other than self-absorbed baseball wannabe David Samson, the son-in-law of former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria, weighed in and criticized Hudson. Samson, who wouldn’t know a baseball if it hit him in the forehead, apparently felt that we actually wanted to hear his opinion on the matter.  I love these guys who get into sports management because of family ties and suddenly become experts on the game.

The Jays Way Forward – Needless to say, this is going to be an important off-season for the Blue Jays. It’s head to get excited in a year when they lost close to one hundred ball games but there’s no doubt they laid the groundwork with the rookie debuts of Guererro Jr., Bichette and Biggio. However, the heavy lifting has just begun.

One of the keys for the Jays will be the off-season plan for Vladdy Jr. He seems to have received the message that his long-term success will be tied to his overall conditioning and that’s going to be a big story this off-season. If he wants to stay at third base long-term, he will have to drop some weight.

I’m still really bullish on the Jays farm system.  There’s a ton of depth and it should allow them to do some things on the trade market when the time is right. Here’s a really good look at the developments throughout the minor league system this year.

The big story in Toronto right now is whether the Blue Jays are going to extend the contract of Club President Mark Shapiro.  General Manager Ross Atkins and Manager Charlie Montoyo are both signed through the 2021 season. It will be interesting to see what the suits in the Rogers tower have in mind for Shapiro whose overall body of work since arriving in Toronto is uneven at best.

Diamonds in the Rough – The Toronto Raptors have a well-deserved reputation as being one of the finest organizations when it comes to player development. Is there a better team in the NBA at uncovering ‘diamonds in the rough’?  No one thought Pascal Siakam would develop into a burgeoning superstar. Fred VanVleet is another well-documented Raptors success story.  Masai Ujiri and his staff deserve a ton of credit for having the patience and the commitment to develop young talent that might not get more than a cursory look elsewhere in the league.  And yes, there may be others on the horizon.

King of Diplomacy – So when did Lebron James become an expert on China? Have I missed something while on holidays. Did he retire and become a Chinese diplomat? The backlash from his uninformed comments has been swift in Hong Kong and we should not be surprised. For a change he might learn to keep his trap shut.

Quit Golf – If you are like me and have a love-hate relationship with golf, here’s some sage advice for you. It’s sure to help your game!

Pulled into Nazareth – We leave you with a salute to one of the great anthems from the 1960’s – The Weight – the Band’s iconic tune that is celebrating a 50-year anniversary.  If you haven’t checked out the Playing for Change Foundation playlist on YouTube then I highly recommend going there and checking it out for yourself. They have re-worked a ton of great tunes. Enjoy!