Under Further Review – Douglas Smith with Contributing Editor Bill Morphy and an assist from Bill Myles and Jordan Moss. This week, an abrupt end to the Raptors season, the Canucks count the dollars, the Bolts and Stars on a collision course and a Seahawks season preview.
Dethroned – It’s been an incredible two-year run for the Toronto Raptors. They followed up their world championship title with a .736 win percentage (53-19) in 2019-2020, the best regular season record in team history which included a franchise-best 15-game winning streak. Nick Nurse was named Coach of the Year and Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam were voted to the all-star team.
Now, after bowing out in game seven against the Boston Celtics, the Raptors get to go home following three months in the bubble. They may look very different when the next regular season begins. Change is definitely coming. Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet are unrestricted free agents. Lowry, Nurse and President Masai Ujiri are heading into the final year of their contracts. Gasol lost weight during the shutdown but was missing in action against the Celtics. The Raptors were minus 20 during Gasol’s 14 first half minutes in game seven.
Pascal Siakam was not himself inside the bubble. He was 4 for 32 from beyond the arc in the series. Siakam averaged 13 points, a far cry from his 22.9 regular season scoring average. Certainly not a performance worthy of a ‘max’ contract. The Raptors were out of sync in game seven, shooting 8 for 28 from three-point range with an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers. Was it fatigue or did they simply buckle under the Celtics defensive pressure?
You can be sure much of the off-season talk will center around opening cap space to take a run at Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo who’s one year away from free agency.
Allocating Resources – When you start to conduct a post-mortem on the Canucks season, there are many takeaways. Their playoff run reinforced the notion that they have a core they can build around and ultimately, win with. That’s the good news. What is still obvious however, is there’s a big gulf that still remains between the Canucks and teams like Vegas. When the opposing team has 103 more shots on goal in a seven-game series, you can’t deny there’s still plenty of work to do.
In game seven, the Canucks had two shots on goal in the opening period and they came from Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, whose lone shot was from 82’ out. The Canucks had just six shots on goal after two periods. It’s just not good enough. You can make the argument they were still tied 0-0 midway through the third period but I’m not sure that serves any purpose. If I were to second-guess anything, I would question the wisdom of pulling the goalie with 2:33 remaining and trailing by just one goal. They already had an offensive zone faceoff. I would have waited but that’s just me.
Going forward, Jim Benning and the Canucks front office have a lot of tough decisions which will be made more difficult by the compressed off-season. When your season ends in April and free agency doesn’t hit until July 1, you have almost three months to prepare. This year, Benning and company will only have a few weeks to figure out what to do.
Thatcher Demko’s heroic work against Vegas was incredibly fortuitous and demonstrated to everyone that he’s a legitimate starting goalie. It may completely shift the Canucks off-season plan of attack. Had he not played a game, it may have completely shifted the Canucks course of action.
Canucks coach Travis Green has earned a contract extension. That should be a top priority. Benning must decide what to do with key UFA’s Markstrom, Toffoli and Tanev plus impending restricted free agents in Stecher, Virtanen and Motte. The number one priority has to be creating cap space so you have room when Pettersson and Hughes move out of entry level deals. It may be difficult but taking a pass on Markstrom and Toffoli may be the wisest move. Re-signing Tanev should be a priority. Demko will earn $1.05 million next season. If you walk away from Markstrom, you basically clear up enough room to re-sign Tanev. Benning should also try to re-up Oscar Fantenberg who proved to be a revelation in the playoffs. Benning needs to demonstrate he’s not a pushover at the bargaining table and get players under contract on shorter term deals. If he does sign Markstrom, it should not include no-move protection so the Canucks have options with Seattle expansion on the horizon. Something tells me this negotiation may be tougher than anyone expects.
The Canucks need to look hard at adding another quality centreman. Adam Gaudette is not ready for a prime-time role and simply cannot be trusted defensively. Adding a center to anchor the third line should be a high priority. When you start to project out, you have to look at the roster as a whole. If you bring Stecher back, it should be on a very short-term deal. I can’t see a defense in two years that contains Hughes, Stecher and Jack Rathbone. You can’t have three guys on your defense that can be manhandled by bigger teams.
When you start to allocate resources and look at ways to improve the team, it will all depend on how successful Benning is in clearing cap space. He has almost $19 million committed next season to Ericsson, Sutter, Roussel, Beagle and Baertschi. Any hope of improving the roster starts with clearing some of those contracts off the books. Ownership has yet to indicate whether the team will spend to the upper limits of the salary cap but you would have to think that will be the case. Cost-cutting elsewhere in the organization is far more likely.
Free Agent Frenzy – There are a few veteran centers that will be available that may be a fit for the Canucks. Two names that may be of interest are Colin Wilson of the Nashville Predators and Mattias Janmark of the Dallas Stars. If the price is right, the Canucks may want to take a serious look. They need to upgrade their third line if they want to compete against the top teams in the league. Janmark was a third round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2013 who’s been doing a good job defensively for the Stars in this year’s playoffs.
On defense, there are a few names that could be worth exploring but most are simply out of the Canucks price range. Three BC boys – Tyson Barrie, Brenden Dillon and Justin Schultz – are probably not on the radar. One player I thought the Canucks should check on is Joel Edmundson of the Carolina Hurricanes but his rights were traded late Saturday evening to the Montreal Canadiens for a fifth round draft pick. The Habs now have about three weeks of exclusive negotiating rights to try and get him under contract.
Depending on the doctor’s report, the Canucks probably have interest in re-signing winger Josh Leivo. Two other depth forwards who might be of interest are Tomas Nosek of Vegas and the Avs Valeri Nichushkin, who turned his career around this year in Colorado. It’s all meaningless, of course, if the Canucks are unable to clear significant cap space.
NHL Playoff Takeaways – The Dallas Stars are just a win away from the Stanley Cup final after slipping by Vegas 2-1 on Saturday night. Stars GM Jim Nill has done a great job of mining talent from Finland. Forwards Roope Hintz and Joel Kiviranta and defensemen Miro Heikanen and Esa Lindell have all been key contributors to the Stars playoff success. Vegas, meanwhile, is suddenly firing blanks. The Gold Knights are 2-and-5 in their last seven games and have scored only ten goals, two of them empty-netters.
We now have clarity on the timing of the NHL Draft and the start of free agency. The 2020 NHL Draft will be held virtually over a two-day period with Round 1 taking place Tuesday, October 6 and Rounds 2-7 on Wednesday, October 7. Free agency will open on Friday, October 9 at 12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT. It doesn’t give NHL teams a whole lot of time to prepare.
The Tampa Lightning are holding their breath on the injury status of budding Conn Smythe candidate Brayden Point. It remains to be seen if he will return for the remainder of the Eastern Conference final against the Islanders. Point missed game three and his absence was noticeable. He’s tied for second in playoff scoring with teammate Nikita Kucherov.
NHL scouting directors have to be wondering why they overlooked Point in the 2014 draft. The Lightning selected Point late in the third round, 79th overall. Teams questioned his lack of size and average skating. Point is generously listed at 5’10” and 166 lbs. All he’s done is put up 262 points in 295 career games.
As we have seen in these playoffs, great goaltending never goes out of style. The Flyers would not have reached a seventh game against the Islanders without the stellar work of Carter Hart. The Canadiens would not have upset the Penguins without Carey Price and of course, you know what Demko meant to the Canucks fortunes.
Alain Vigneault and Chuck Fletcher still have some work to do in Philadelphia. The Flyers power-play went 0-for-13 in the series vs. the Islanders. A lot of the Flyers highest-paid veteran players simply didn’t show up.
Sweet Lou Lamoriello has the Islanders in the conference final and we should not be surprised. Lou knows more about roster composition than just about anyone in NHL history. He went out and acquired veteran rearguard Andy Greene and diminutive center Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline and both have given the team a huge lift. Don’t go for the home run. Incremental improvements baby!
The Leafs keep looking for scape-goats yet it’s funny how everyone who leaves the organization comes up smelling like roses. Lou is elevating the Islanders to great heights. Michael Hutchinson steps in and helps Colorado reach a seventh game while Nazem Kadri resurrected his career with 9 goals and 9 assists for the Avs in this year’s playoffs. The media hordes in Toronto now have the microscope set on goalie Freddie Andersen and seem intent on running him out of town. According to reports “the Leafs aren’t actively shopping Andersen but there has been plenty of calls about his availability.” Can you guess where those rumours are emanating? It wouldn’t be the Leafs front office would it?
The Washington Capitals coaching search has included interviews with three veteran bench bosses – Mike Babcock, Gerard Gallant and Peter Laviolette. Babcock is still owed close to $18 million by the Maple Leafs. His $5.875 contract is guaranteed for three more years through 2023. The Leafs hope someone signs him so they will only need to pick up the portion of whatever is left on his contract, assuming he signs for less money.
Don’t be surprised if the World Juniors are played inside the bubble in Edmonton this year. It’s a distinct possibility based on the success the NHL has enjoyed during these playoffs.
Seahawks Season Preview – The Seahawks believe they are primed to challenge the 49’ers for the NFC West title and the #1 seed in the NFC. They are in ‘win-now’ mode as Russell Wilson enters his ninth season in Seattle. The Seahawks open the season in Atlanta and all the pieces seem to be in place.
Offensively, Wilson may be surrounded with the best talent he’s ever had to work with. Last season, he threw for over 4,100 yards and 31 touchdowns. The Seahawks have added tight end Greg Olsen, receiver Phillip Dorsett and running back Carlos Hyde. The depth at running back should avoid a repeat of last year. Watch out for second year wideout D.K. Metcalf who’s poised for a breakout after a solid rookie season with 58 catches and 900 yards. The offensive line has been overhauled with three new starters. If the changes work out, the Hawks should roll on offense.
The Seahawks fortunes will ultimately be determined by the performance of the defense. Seattle’s pass rush was among the worst in the NFL last season and that was with Jadeveon Clowney. The Seahawks defense ranked 22nd in the NFL last season and they were tied for 29th in sacks so clearly the pass rush is a major concern. Pro Football Focus ranked Seattle’s defensive line as the worst in the NFL in a recent analysis.
The full scoop on Clowney is starting to emerge. After registering only three sacks last season, the Seahawks were not willing to meet Clowney’s asking price of $20+ million per season. Reports say they offered a two-year deal at $13 million annually in the early stages of free agency.
Once the pandemic hit, the Seahawks changed course and signed veterans Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa to one-year deals. While they didn’t completely move away from Clowney, the likelihood of him resigning in Seattle started to diminish. Does the absence of Clowney create a massive hole in the Seahawks defense? Not so sure. The Seahawks and the Patriots have always preferred to build their defense from the back end to the front and it’s a methodology that’s worked well for both teams.
Clowney ended all the drama by signing a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans worth a reported $12 million with incentives that could push it to $15 million. It’s likely his decision had more to do with the fact he wanted to reunite with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. Clowney had seasons of 9 and 9.5 sacks while Vrabel was the Texans defensive coordinator. Also, it appears that Clowney would prefer to play in a 3-4 defense instead of Seattle’s 4-3.
When Seattle acquired Clowney at the start of last season, they were excited about having him in the lead role rushing off the edge. However, things didn’t turn out that way. Clowney ended up playing more on Seattle’s strongside spot, or five-technique end, the role Michael Bennett filled for years. Clearly, it didn’t exactly enhance Clowney’s chances for a big payday. But while Clowney may not have posted big sack numbers during his one year in Seattle, he was excellent against the run and there’s still a big question about the Seahawks run defense.
Seattle heads into the season believing it has upgraded its rush end spot with the signings of Irvin and Mayowa plus the addition of rookies Alton Robinson and Darrell Taylor who will begin the season in injured reserve. The five-tech spot will be manned by Rasheem Green and L.J. Collier. It’s a stretch to believe the pass rush has been improved significantly. With salary cap space still available, you can expect John Schneider to sign a veteran defensive lineman at some point, perhaps Clay Matthews.
The linebacking unit will be solid with veterans Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright along with Cody Barton, who’s entering his second year, and top draft pick Jordyn Brooks out of Texas Tech. The backfield should be much-improved with the additions of safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Quinton Dunbar. Marquise Blair has seized the nickel corner spot after a sparkling training camp.
Bottom line? The Seahawks have made a number of strong additions to the defense and overall, they should show marked improvement. However, if the pass rush remains an issue, it could jeopardize their season and leave a lot of people second-guessing the Hawks off-season priorities.
It will also be interesting to see how playing in an empty CenturyLink Stadium will affect the Seahawks. Seattle will play at least the first three home games without fans and who knows if fans will be permitted at any point in the season. Home field has been a massive advantage for the Seahawks who are 57-23 under Carroll in the regular season at home. The NFL still needs to decide the level of noise that will be permitted to be played during games. Expect the Seahawks to turn up the volume.
NFL Notebook – Pat Mahomes made it look easy in the season opening Thursday night game. The Chiefs barely broke a sweat in rolling past Houston behind Mahomes 3 touchdown passes. KC unveiled rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire who ran for over 100 yards in the opening half. That’s all Mahomes needs…another shiny new toy.
The NFL had good success with COVID-19 testing during training camp. It remains to be seen how things will go once the season starts and teams start to travel. The rules around the league for allowing fans into stadiums differ and that’s a huge red flag. It’s hard to argue with coaches who say it’s a competitive advantage for some teams who will allow fans into their stadium while others won’t. As of now, five teams are allowing fans to some extent.
There will be two extra wild-card playoff spots this year, increasing the total number of playoff teams to 14. The big change is that only the top seed in each conference will get a bye. You will now be able to watch two extra playoff games on wild-card weekend.
Fans also need to know that pass interference is no longer reviewable. The NFL brought in reviews for PI last season but it was an unmitigated disaster. The move came in response to the egregious missed PI penalty that cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl in the 2019 NFC Championship game.
Playoff Chase – Heading into the week, the Blue Jays had 18 games left on the schedule with ten of them coming against the rival New York Yankees. The two teams met for three games this week in Buffalo with the Jays taking two of three. They will clash again this week in New York before finishing the season with four more games in Buffalo.
The Yankees have been decimated by injuries. When play started on Monday, the Yanks were 5-and-13 in their last 18 games. The roll call in the Yankee infirmary is a long one. Outfielders Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, third baseman Gio Urshela, starters Luis Severino and James Paxton, and relievers Tommy Kahnle and Jonathan Loaisiga are all on the injured list. Infielders DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres and reliever Zack Britton only returned to the lineup in the last week. In that 18-game stretch, the Yankees hit .207 as a team and .198 with runners in scoring position. No one would have guessed that Luke Voit would be leading the team with 16 home runs.
However, no one is feeling sorry for the Yankees. The Tampa Rays have been hard hit by injuries and the Blue Jays have been without their top hitter Bo Bichette for an extended period and are now without Teoscar Hernandez who was in the midst of a breakout season at the plate. Bichette returned on Saturday against the Mets and should give the Jays a much-needed boost. They also unveiled portly 21 year-old catcher Alejandro Kirk. At 5’8″, 265 pounds, he makes Vladdy look svelte. Kid can rack though!
If the Jays want to make the playoffs, they have to clean up the fundamentals. Heading into play on Friday, the Jays were minus 30, second worst in the majors, in Defensive Runs Saved. They lead the majors with 22 outs on the basepaths and that does not include 5 pickoffs and 5 caught stealing.
Amidst all the positive stories around the Blue Jays this season, two that stand out are bullpen aces Jordan Romano and Julian Merryweather. Before going on the disabled list, Romano, from Markham Ontario, has been lights out with a 1.23 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 15 innings. Merryweather, you will remember, was the player-to-be-named-later in the deal that sent Josh Donaldson to the Cleveland Indians. At the time, the trade was much criticized. Merryweather was coming off Tommy John surgery and seemed a long shot to reach the majors. Well, fast forward two years and Merryweather is establishing himself as a potential future closer. He throws in the high 90’s and is fast becoming a high leverage reliever.
Crazy Canucks – These are heady days for Canadian tennis. Team Canada made headlines at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in New York with three players busting through to the round of 16. Denis Shapovalov, Vasek Pospisil and Felix Auger-Aliassimme all advanced. Pospisil and Auger-Aliassime were knocked out in the fourth round. Shapo moved onto the quarter-finals but was eliminated in five sets by Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta. Shapovalov lost two sets in tie-breakers. He also had 76 unforced errors to Busta’s 42 and had 11 double faults to only one. While Shapo had 26 aces in the match, Busta had a 54-40 margin in second service win percentage. Clearly, Shapovalov is right there but needs to learn to close out sets and close out matches in order to make the next jump into the top ten.
Shapovalov is an interesting story. Here’s his bio from Wikipedia:
Shapovalov was born in Tel Aviv, Israel the son of Russian-Israeli citizens Tessa and Viktor Shapovalov. His mother was on the Russian national tennis team, and moved from Russia to Tel Aviv with Denis’ father when the Soviet Union was collapsing. She eventually became a tennis coach there. His mother is Jewish and his father is a Russian Eastern Orthodox Christian.
The family moved from Israel to Vaughn, Ontario before Denis’s first birthday. He started playing tennis at the Richmond Hill Country Club, where his mother got a job as a coach two weeks after arriving in Toronto from Tel Aviv. Denis began playing tennis at age 5, and quickly became obsessed with the game. When it became difficult to get Denis enough time on the Richmond Hill club’s courts, his mother left her job and eventually opened her own tennis academy named TessaTennis, to help give him a home base to train and to teach the game to other juniors. She is still his coach, along with Martin Laurendeau, the long-time Canadian pro. Shapovalov is fluent iin Russian. He now lives in Nassau, Bahamas but retains his Canadian citizenship.
Golf Notebook – MacKenzie Hughes is now the top-ranked Canadian on the PGA Tour. Not bad for a guy who started the season ranked 264th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He now sits 57th after his 14th place finish at the Tour Championship. It was a remarkable turnaround considering he started the season missing 9 of his first 11 cuts. Hughes posted scores of 66-67 on the weekend, earning a tidy paycheque of $620,000 from the FedEx pot of gold. Hughes is enjoying a well-deserved week off before heading to New York for next week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Dustin Johnson is the clear favourite heading into the U.S. Open. Fresh off his FedEx Cup championship, Johnson is playing the best golf of his career. It has taken more than ten years but golf fans have finally started to ‘buy into’ the whole FedEx Cup fall series, well, sort of.
In 2019, the total bonus pool was increased by $25 million to $70 million, with the FedEx Cup champion earning $15 million. Among that $70 million is a $10 million Regular Season bonus pool, sponsored by Wyndham, tied to the final Regular Season FedEx Cup standings. This recognizes the 10 players who earn the most FedEx Cup points through the Wyndham Championship with the Regular Season champion earning $2 million.
Starting in 2007, earnings from the FedEx Cup race were placed into each players tax-deferred retirement accounts, not given in cash. Players under 45 are not able to access any 2007 FedEx Cup bonuses (as opposed to prize money earned in the tournaments themselves) until turning 45. They can invest their bonus in any manner they choose, and once they turn 45, can choose to defer payment until they turn 60. Once a player chooses to take payments from his fund, he will receive monthly checks for five years.
Because of possible legislation affecting deferred retirement plans, in the wake of business stories that speculated that Tiger Woods could amass a $1 billion retirement fund if he won the FedEx Cup six more times, the PGA Tour announced a change to the payout system effective in 2008. The top 10 finishers now receive the bulk of their FedEx Cup bonuses in cash up front; for example, the 2008 FedEx Cup champion received $9 million up front and $1 million in his tax-deferred retirement account. FedEx Cup bonuses to finishers below the top 10 are still paid solely into the players’ retirement accounts.
This weekend marks the official start of a new PGA Tour season with the Safeway Open in smoke-filled Napa, California. Apparently anybody can play in this tournament. How about these names currently sitting in the top ten – Sahith Theegala, Harry Higgs, Kristoffer Ventura, Doug Ghim – not exactly household names. A couple of Canadians sit in a tie for 18th at 12 under – Michael Gligic and David Hearn.
What’s happened to Jordan Speith? His stock has fallen so far that he entered the Safeway Open hoping to use it as a springboard into next week’s U.S. Open. How did he do? Speith missed the cut with rounds of 73 and 70. The former world #1 is currently ranked 67th and that may be generous. He won three majors by the age of 24 and looked like a generational talent. Once again, golf is proving to be a ruthless sport.
The ladies are playing in oppressive heat in Rancho Mirage, California at the Ana Inspiration, one of the LPGA majors. It’s the Mission Hills course, site of the old Dinah Shore tournament. Canada’s Brooke Henderson is tied for the lead with Nelly Korda at minus 12 after posting a scorching 7 under par 65 on Saturday. It may only be a matter of time before Brooke becomes the top-ranked female golfer in the world.
Stroll to the Podium – Canada’s Lance Stroll reached his second career F1 podium with his third place finish at the Italian Grand Prix. At the restart, Stroll was in second place and it looked like Stroll might have a great chance to win. Stroll has moved into a tie for fourth in the driver standings so it appears as though he’s starting to break through into the upper echelon of Formula One drivers.
Music Video of the Week – We have a double treat for you this week – two great performances captured live at Daryl’s House. First, have a listen to Cee Lo Green and Daryl Hall perform the classic Hall & Oates hit “I Can’t Go for That.”
Here’s the great Smokey Robinson performing “Sara Smile” and “Ooo Baby Baby.”
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