Saturday, June 4, 2011

*Why Tomas Kaberle Hates Money


    Tomas Kaberle's playoff goatee looks like it belongs on a greasy carney magician. Fitting because he's actually pulled off a pretty sloppy magic trick of his own: He's making three plus million dollars disappear from next year's contract! Ta-daaa! 

    Hockey karma manifested itself all over Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli's face when he gave up a first round pick and top prospect Joe Colborne in an attempt to bolster the B's powerplay with the pass-happy Czech. Boston's powerplay percentage has literally been cut in half since Kaberle's arrival on the team, and that struggling aspect of their game could prove to be their undoing in this Stanley Cup final. Suddenly the Phil Kessel fleecing is not quite as painful.

    On paper the pairing of Kaberle and Chara on the PP was a match made in heaven. Chara has the hardest shot in the league, and Kabby has a no-shot clause in his contract. But here we are in the middle of the Cup finals and Chara is trying to do his best Dustin Byfuglien impression in the blue ice in front of Bobby Lu. Something seems terribly wrong about that. 

    Granted, it isn't Tomas Kaberle's fault that the hulking Milan Lucic has played like a pussy cat all through the playoffs and can't do that duty himself. One would think however that the absence of Chara from the blue line might allow Kaberle a little more space and opportunity, but whatever the case may be he is not capitalizing in the slightest.

    In a perfect scenario Kaberle and the Bruins could still pull out a series win and take home the cup, but as his contract runs out can anyone reasonably expect Boston to re-sign him based on his performance in Beantown? 

    Kabby has shown all the hallmark signs of a player in decline. His skating and decision making have both begun to slow down, and it seems evident that he'll have to start readjusting his style of play if he wants to continue to be employed in the NHL. He's not played himself out of the league, he has too much Toronto clout for that, but he has certainly played himself out of a contract anywhere near the 4.25 million dollars he's earning now. He can kiss that no-movement clause goodbye as well.

    After considering all he has at stake, we have to wonder just what is it that went wrong for Tomas Kaberle? Is his heart still in Toronto?The last time we saw him playing meaningful hockey was the year before the lockout, when the 100-point Leafs were ousted in the second round, and Kaberle was one of the most solid players on that squad. He had a track record of playing well in the playoffs for Toronto, so why has this experience in Boston been so difficult for him? 

    It will be interesting to see where Kaberle's career takes him after this, whether he can rebound, and whether he can fit in on a team not called the Maple Leafs. If he can regain form he could wind up being a home run signing for a lucky GM, but I would suspect a deal like that to be in the short term. No one is going to commit four to five years to an aging creampuff whose only trademark is a quickly eroding ability to pass. Regardless, he will forever be an enigma. The most over-rated under-rated player the league has ever seen, and potentially the most irrelevant player to ever win a cup. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

*Manchester United: The Dog's Bollocks


A right bloody triumph 'appened at Old Trafford this weekend, it did. Manchester United locked up their record breaking 19th Premier League title wif a draw versus a poxy bunch in the Blackburn Rovers. Wayne Rooney secured the draw wif a picture perfect strike from the penalty spot and turned the city of Manchester absolutely bonkers.

    The heavy lifting was done a week earlier when Man U faced off in a massive fixture in London against a rival Chelsea squad who were, at the time, nipping at the heels of the Reds. By securing the three points Manchester became authors of their own destiny, making themselves nearly untouchable wif only a pair of matches left.

    Dimitar Berbatov has been brilliant throughout, leading the league in scoring, Nani showed a new level of maturity, Edwin Van Der Sar continued to defy father time having another superb season at age 40, and somehow it all got eclipsed by a man who wasn't even on the pitch.

    The old codger calling the shots for the Red Devils, Sir Alex Ferguson is the business. When he took the reins back in 1986 he made a specific personal goal of "knocking Liverpool off of their fucking perch", which is to say he intended to usurp Liverpool as the most-league-championships-of-all-time record holder. At the time it was a tall order, but here we are 25 years later and he's finally done it. So let the retirement speculation begin then eh? (Stop that, stop that.)

    Fergie has been a model of consistency during his tenure in Manchester and will leave behind a legacy of championship glory. It would be hard to believe he wouldn't step down after such a spectacular season, and there's a perfect capper on a silver platter when Man U faces Barcelona in the UEFA Champion's League finals (a rematch of the 2009 finals in which Barca emerged victors). A chance to avenge the loss, against arguably the best team in the world, for one of football's most prestigious club trophies. Not bloody shabby.

    However it's Sir Alex's pride I think will bring 'im back next year. He's got a group right now that's as mentally tough as any in the world. They aren't the exquisite United sides of ages past, where sublime talent reigns supreme, but rather a group of committed, hard-working battlers that never say die. Not to suggest this group dudn't 'ave it's share of talented stars. Surely Berbatov, Rooney and the like can be placed in that class, but there ain't a George Best, or Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch, is there? Ballon D'Or players they have not.

    That intangible ability to inspire players to greatness is what makes Sir Alex such a magnificent manager. His players believe in 'im. When Wayne Rooney publicly questioned Manchester's upper management, and wanted out, saying United lacked "the continued ability to attract the top players in the world" it was Ferguson who eventually brought the young superstar back down to earth. Wayne Rooney is a spoiled brat, and Sir Alex Ferguson knows exactly how to handle spoiled brats.

    As the contract negotiations and media battle raged on, Sir Alex carried on inside a conference room, as Rooney and his reps listened in awkward intrigue, and delivered a foggy metaphor about cows, with the inference being "the grass is always greener" or something of the like. Everybody scratched their noggins and wondered silently about whether the man had either lost it, or if this rambling was in fact a profound insight bore of experience. It turns out it was the latter, as Rooney's name was inked onto a fresh five year extension twenty four hours later.

    That is the perfect illustration of the way Sir Alex Ferguson carries himself. He commands the respect of his players, in return he delivers results. He's a force of nature and he imbues that force into those privileged enough to play under him. That's why Man U are sitting atop the Premiership. That's why they're competing in the Champion's League finals. And that's why they've knocked Liverpool off of their fucking perch and have more league titles than any side in history. (Stop that, stop that)

 That's why this man is the best coach in the history of the game.  

Monday, May 2, 2011

*UFC 129: Epic Achievement of Glory

    At a time of year when the NHL and NBA playoffs are giving us so much juicy drama to talk about, the UFC came along and, for one night at least, rendered them both completely irrelevant. No big.

    The massive spectacle staged Saturday night at Toronto's Rogers Centre was a full-on coup for the world's biggest fight promotion. A living metaphor for the sport's validity in the global landscape. The sheer magnitude of the event was enough to make it a classic, but the action on the card is what truly made the evening a resounding success.

    A record ten Canadians competed on the UFC 129 card, a piece of intelligent and strategic fight picking on behalf of Dana White and his staff. The Canucks went six for four on the night, and even those who lost put on a great show. Ontario native Mark Hominick may have gotten the largest ever ovation for a dude who got thoroughly beaten down. Featherweight champ Jose Aldo laid the smackdown on Hominick through the first four rounds, but the deformed Hominick riled his hometown crowd into a frenzy when he turned the tables in the fifth and nearly knocked Aldo out. 

    Seven out of the twelve fights on the card were finishes, with a few nasty ones, like Randy Couture eating a Steven Seagal kick from Lyoto Machida, and gritty veteran Jason MacDonald getting the W with a textbook triangle choke. The important part here is that the fans got some literal bang for their buck, which goes a long way when lower level seats are being sold for four-digit numbers.

    The aforementioned Couture capped off his legendary career by receiving an emotional ovation from the record crowd, the type of moment that alone is worth the price of admission. A Randy Couture retirement fight is big enough to headline any UFC event, but rather than hog the spotlight, "The Natural" opted to be a part of history. And history it was.

    Canadian demi-god Georges St-Pierre put in yet another workman-like victory over top contender Jake Shields, playing it safe by feeding Shields a steady diet of his trademark jab, and scoring some takedowns late in the fight to secure the victory. The impressive aspect of the win was that GSP maintained control throughout the fight, despite being blind in one eye for more than half of it. No big. Winning is what legends do. I for one would still love to see a rematch with Shields, but that doesn't seem to be a thought shared by anyone in the industry.

    In the aftermath it is difficult to even reflect on the magnitude of what was accomplished in this city on Saturday night. It was not just a big show with a big gate. This was a symbol. This time last year mixed martial arts was not even legal in this province, and no signs of that changing were on the horizon. Dana White and Canadian director Tom Wright (he of former CFL commissioner fame) did a fantastic job of convincing the McGuinty government of how good this could be for the local economy. 

    The real victory is in how significant this event was on the world stage, and in raising the profile of the city. This ain't no Pan-Am games, and sports fans know that. There was a special feeling in the building on Saturday. A feeling that those in attendance were a part of something special. A part of history. From the layout of the floor, to the positioning of the screens, to the selection of the fights, to the performances of the fighters themselves, the UFC scored a unanimous decision: epic achievement of glory. No big.

Friday, April 22, 2011

*Concussions Starting To Make My Head Hurt

    The NBA and NHL playoffs are upon us, the MLB season is just starting to pick up steam, the UFC is setting it's biggest stage in my hometown, and all I seem to hear on TV and radio are "headshots", "concussions", and "suspensions". This is getting fucking ridiculous. Correction, it's been ridiculous for some time now, I've just had enough of it.

    It seems like there are daily segments on my favorite TV and radio stations discussing the questionable hits of the previous night, and whether or not the league handled them properly. Should we not be enjoying and discussing the amazing action that is the first round of the playoffs? The Knicks and Celtics, the Bruins and Habs, not Colin fucking Campbell and his credibility as a disciplinarian. 

    The NHL (and the NFL, if and when they return) needs to cut the shit and redefine their stance on the issue of headshots. It is starting to become a serious detriment to their overall product. San Jose manufactured an epic comeback the other night to win in overtime, and what am I listening to on the radio? A James Cybulski interview with Colin Campbell discussing headshots. An interview in which Colie more or less lost his shit and called out Cybulski and writer Dave Feschuk on the ridiculousness of the subject.

    Do I believe that headshots should be ignored or swept under the rug? Absolutely not, they're a huge problem that needs to be addressed immediately because it's been going on far too long. My issue is that it has taken the league this long to just put their foot down and say "we're in charge, and we're not going to deal with this shabby bullshit". Make clear and definitive rules about the supplementary discipline involved in dealing with these incidents, and implement new some rule changes to help curb the amount of incidents occurring. Players should not have to keep dropping like flies in the meantime while they continue to waffle over what to do.

    The people who really suffer in this are the fans (that's not counting the people who actually endure this horrific brain trauma for our enjoyment). What I mean by that is that these things should not be clouding up the sports atmosphere at a time when there is so much legitimate, juicy, engrossing sports stories that deserve our attention. With anywhere from six to ten hockey / basketball playoff games going on every single night, there is no shortage of narratives, epic finishes, and upsets that should be painting brilliant tapestries of the wonder of meaningful games. Instead we're locked in this perpetual debate of "whatever should we do". Cut the shit, that's what. Just cut the shit. 

    They say any publicity is good publicity, but when there is an overwhelming amount of actual good publicity you should be trying to embrace that and cut down on the stupid shit that makes you look stupid. It's unnecessary, and it's a slap in the face to fans who just want to enjoy the games they love. It's bad enough we have to hear about NFL court proceedings, and about Phoenix relocating to anywhere but Phoenix, we shouldn't have to be constantly reminded of the incompetence of the people running the show.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

*The NBA Playoffs: Where The Cool Kids Hang


    Tonight the most irrelevant round in all of sport gets under way: round one of the NBA playoffs. The time of year when all the teams who battled so very hard to get into the post season are reminded that they play in a league of haves and have nots. Geeks and jocks. It's not often in basketball that a lower seeded team gets the job done in round one, but some competitive match-ups can be expected. Let's look at how the first round shapes up...

    The NBA's best Chicago Bulls take on possibly the least exciting team to make the cut: The Indiana Pacers. This series is going to be a wash, and it serves as a metaphor for the uneven landscape of the NBA's first round. Indiana has nowhere near enough talent to compete with the Bulls and I would be very surprised if they can even pull off a single win. The Bulls are a young team, and are getting their first taste of life in the Association's upper-echelon, but they are a team with the pieces to win now. Derrick Rose is the odds on favorite as the league MVP this year and has the goods to take this team on a deep run. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah provide the powerful inside presence that is a must-have to do any real damage. Bulls in 4

    Many people (myself included) have a real hate on for the Miami Heat. For much of the year they had trouble jelling and sat around the middle of the playoff pack, making it hard to believe that they would be able to win right away like a lot of people predicted after the farce that was "The Decision". The Philadelphia 76ers will have a tough time making this series competitive, but their starless team-oriented approach could surprise a few people. Miami will play the way they have all year, coasting on talent for three quarters and turning it on late to frustratingly steal wins. Talent trumps substance. Heat in 5.

    Easily the highest profile match-up of the first round sees the suddenly mortal Boston Celtics taking on the inconsistent New York Knicks. The dumbfounding loss of Kendrick Perkins has left a gaping hole in the paint for the once powerful Celtics, and the team has spent the last month of the season trying to find an answer. Kristic and Green have not brought a lot to the table, and Boston is heavily relying on the so-old-he-can-barely-move-yet-somehow-still-manages-to-contribute Shaquille O'Neal. They are going to need The Big Shamrock as well as Jermaine O'Neal to lock down the inside game of Amar'e Stoudamire. The Knicks have enough talent to make this a series, especially if they're allowed to penetrate, but ultimately the Celtics are the better team. They may not seem to have the goods to go back to the final again, but one should never discount experience (plus Rondo is just better than Billups). Celtics in 6.

    The one series that may have the best chance of going to the wire is the 4-5 pairing of Orlando and Atlanta. Atlanta has been consistently improving year after year, with their young core growing into NBA adulthood together, whilst the Magic seem to be in a a bit of a decline. Orlando may have peaked two years ago when they lost in the finals, and one would have to think that sooner or later Atlanta is going to break out and go on a legitimate run. The biggest difference maker? Dwight Howard. He's the most dominant centre in the game and the Hawks are going to have a hard time handling him, especially if the Magic's outside shooters get hot. Orlando has been successful with the drive and kick in the past and it could be the dagger in this series. If Jason Collins and his sprained ankle can cause problems for D12 like he has all year then Atlanta may have a shot in this one, but I'm not willing to bet against Orlando just yet. Magic in 6.

    The Spurs are back on top of the western conference, and they've done it while dealing with intermittent injuries to some of their key players. That said, Memphis provides probably the second most lopsided opponent in these playoffs. Zach Randolph has had a beastly year, but it will not be enough to take out the mighty Spurs. The Grizzlies are out-matched at virtually every position on the floor, and should provide little resistance for San Antonio. Spurs in 5.

    The aforementioned "second most lopsided match up" is topped only by the Lakers versus the Hornets. This series is going to be a beat down. The only storyline providing any glimmer of hope for New Orleans is the fact that L.A. back-up point guard Steve Blake is fighting the chicken pox, while Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum (who is already out with another knee injury), and Kobe Bryant have never had chicken pox before. If it becomes a full blown epidemic for the purple and gold then the Hornets may be looking at a decent chance. Not likely though. Lakers in 4.

    The Dallas Mavericks seem to follow a similar script year after year: have a great season, usually with 50+ wins, only to fizzle out in the post season. There is not a whole lot to indicate that this year will be any different, no matter how easy a time they should have with the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers have finally started to see the fruits of their draft day labour start to pay off, and they're growing into a legit team in the west, but there is now way they've got what it takes to get past Disco Dirk and the Mavs. The ageless Jason Kidd continues to be one of the best point guards in the league, further fueling my theory that he is in fact a super-villain with a high-profile alter-ego. This one will be short and sweet. Mavs in 6.

    As it is in the east, the western 4-5 match-up also promises to be the most competitive. The Thunder-Nuggets series (which is just so much funny to say out loud) should be a lot of fun. Kevin Durant has continued to play MVP-calibre ball, and after fleecing the Celtics to acquire Kendrick Perkins the Thunder are no longer missing that interior presence keeping them from elite status. Denver on the other hand has had an incredible run since trading away Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, proving that addition by subtraction can sometimes be a valid formula for success. The Nuggets play an aggressive style, and their record is a testament to the motivational coaching abilities of George Karl. This one is going to be a lot of fun to watch, especially if Denver can steal a game in Oklahoma City early on. I still think the Thunder are going to make a lot of noise this year. Pun intended. Thunder in 6.

   In the Finals I'm going with the Lakers and Celtics, for the simple fact that the NBA is the most crooked, most fixed league in North America and another epic Boston - L.A. final would be very good for business. Lakers will take it in 7 games. You heard it here...well, not first, but you heard it here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

*The Most Wonderful Time of the Year


    It's every puckhead's favorite time of the year (unless you're a Leafs fan): playoffs. Business time. Downtown Beardsville. When the Canadian media is overrun with predictions and analyses, and American media is brimming with indifference, and discussions about Brett Favre's latest comeback. Well, this year is no different. There are plenty of story lines writing themselves in the days leading up to the start of the 'second season', and most of them don't even have anything to do with Brett Favre (sorry, America).

    The most intriguing by far has to be the best in the west, the Vancouver Canucks, facing off with the reigning Cup champs, and recurring nightmare incarnations, the Chicago Blackhawks. The 'Hawks barely snuck into the playoffs this year, and are a far different team than the one that spanked the 'Nucks the past two playoffs. On paper it would seem that this is Vancouver's year; Chicago is relying on a rookie netminder, and there's no more Byfuglien unfolding his lawn chair in Luongo's crease and enjoying a relaxing spring picnic. To write off the 'Hawks however would be foolish. Jonathan Toews is an absolute beast in pressure situations, and Vancouver is missing two key cogs in their bottom six in Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres (not to mention a perpetually battered blue line). Upsets are bound to happen and this might be the sleeper that compulsive gamblers are looking for. I'm still taking Vancouver in seven.

     The Red Wings could have their hands full with a Coyotes team that most people are writing off before the puck even drops. Bryzgalov is an elite goalie and that could be a huge difference in the series as Jimmy Howard has been beat up down the stretch and is struggling. Having Joey MacDonald on the bench isn't very encouraging either. Add to that a pair of hobbled stars in Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and the time might be just right for a 'Yotes upset. Smart money takes Goliath though, no matter how good David is with a sling. Detroit in seven.

    The Sharks should be able to take care of a depleted Kings squad, but are they deep enough to exercise their demons and go on a legitimate run? I doubt it. Niemi was brilliant winning the cup for Chicago last season, but San Jose is nowhere near as well rounded as that team was. San Jose should fizzle out by the second round. Sharks in five.

    Nashville and Anaheim has the potential to be a seven game slobber-knocker, and a lot of experts seem to be leaning towards the Ducks. Not a bad assumption, given how Anaheim blazed down the stretch to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round, and Corey Perry's MVP-calibre season. Nashville however is one of the best defensive teams in the league, and Pekka Rinne has grown into a bona fide star between the pipes for the Preds. He's got to be a finalist for the Vezina this season, and everybody knows goaltending wins cups. Anaheim has the edge, but Rinne could very easily be this year's Niemi. Anaheim in six.

    In the east we see some usual suspects at the top of the standings, with Washington taking first place yet again. Although their seeding hasn't changed this year, the method by which they attained that seeding certainly has. These Caps, while still being an offensive heavyweight, have a newfound commitment to team defence, which should bode well for a team with three young goalies who all have upside, but are also all far from being upper-echelon. This team is deeper, bigger, tougher, and should make quick work of a Rangers unit that will be reliant on King Henrik to carry them on his back. Lundqvist is bound to have a lights-out post-season sooner or later, but it's doubtful it will happen against an Ovechkin-led powerhouse that has home-ice advantage. Washington in five.

    Buffalo is the trendy pick this year as the most likely upset, over the struggling Flyers. Current team ogre Chris Pronger is battling the injury bug and is doubtful for game one of the series, which could be a major blow to Philly's blue line. Bobrovsky is an unproven rookie tender who has shone behind one of the league's deepest rosters all season, and would likely be in over his head in a goalie's duel against Ryan Miller. Buffalo plays a stifling trap system that would be ideal for shutting down the talented Flyers. Hard to count out a team that boasts Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, and Claude Giroux, but Philly may very well be a victim of the match-up game. Buffalo in six.

    Another very intriguing matchup is Pittsburgh versus Tampa Bay. Not many people would have picked Tampa as a playoff team this season, but they quickly established themselves in the "not-effing-around" category early on. The prolific Pens on the other hand have cobbled together another fantastic season despite missing two of the best players on the planet. That says alot about your team's depth, tenacity, goaltending, and coaching. Those are all qualities equated with playoff success so Pittsburgh is by no stretch of the imagination a pushover. Tampa has had an amazing season, as Stamkos continues to shine as one of the world's best, St. Louis has re-established himself as a top player in the league, and Roloson has provided stability in net. This is going to be one hell of a series, as both teams match up very evenly. Too close to call, but I'm saying Pittsburgh in seven.

    The juiciest rivalry of the year has been between original-sixers Boston and Montreal. There is so much bad blood between these two teams, with bench-clearing brawls, classless taunting, and one unfortunate instance of a near-crippling. Montreal doesn't have the same make-up as last year's Cinderella team. This year's Habs are more rouge and mascara: SOFT. The big bad Bruins will have their way with les Habitants, no matter how brilliant Carey Price can be. There's a guy on the other side of the rink named Tim Thomas who led the league in GAA, and set a new record in save percentage. Yeah, he's okay. Oh, and if he gets injured there's this Finn on the bench who led the league in GAA and save % last season. With the addition of Kaberle, and one of the deepest forward units in hockey The B's are as poised as ever to go deep. Boston in six.

    As for the big picture, I'm sticking with the picks I took at the beginning of the year, and I think The Vancouver Canucks will fall in six games to the Boston Bruins. No matter how it shakes out this spring, it's going to be one hell of a show. Get out your shovels and dig it.


Friday, April 1, 2011

*AA's Vision Taking Shape


This off-season Alex Anthopoulos has been busier than Charlie Sheen's dealer. Okay, you're right, no one is THAT busy (move over Seacrest, Sheen's dealer is the new hardest working man in showbiz. ZING!). Two months ago I wrote about some of the moves he's made and the direction he sees the team moving in (read the article by clicking here). Not a whole lot has changed since then as far as the roster goes, but the identity of this team has begun to show itself over the course of spring training. With the home opener now upon us, a few predictions and assessments are in order.
    Let's take it from the top. John Farrell, the new manager of the Toronto Blue Jays gets nothing but rave reviews from people around the league. His baseball IQ is showered with praise, he's respected immensely by his former players, and he seems to be a perfect fit here in Toronto. The question will be whether or not he can get the same level of production out of this young roster as Cito Gaston did last year. 

    There have been a few changes , with Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Shaun Marcum all playing in new cities this year, but the nucleus of the roster remains in tact. Will the addition of players like Rajai Davis change the way the Jays' offence produce runs? Will they still be a power team? I say yes. You have a freshly minted Jose Bautista returning, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill are both good for 25+ dingers, and Travis Snider and Edwin Encarnacion should provide around 20 each as well. The long ball shouldn't be an issue. With Davis at the top of the order, we should see a few more multi-run homers (last year's Jays not only led the league in home runs, but also in solo homers). The extra bases should in theory translate into a more balanced offence.

    On the other side of the diamond, the Jays have a similar look. The "Jose-Bautista-at-third" experiment has been turfed heading into tonight's opener, with Encarnacion reassuming his duties, and Bautista heading back into right field (where he was top 5 in the league in outfield assists last season, and where he's most comfortable). Encarnacion also impressed team officials with his glove during the spring at first base, giving Farrell a viable option should the Adam Lind project fall through. To that end, Lind has delivered what most people expected: a decent glove that still needs a lot of work. How Lind does at first base could be a pivotal point to how well this team's defence performs, and could also have a ripple effect on Adam Lind's net worth to the team in the long-term. With him under contract for several seasons, the Jays will not be keen on paying him big money to just DH, so if he fails as a first baseman look for Lind to become trade fodder by the time the deadline rolls around.

    On the mound the Jays are yet again one of the deepest teams in the league, even after losing their top pitcher two years in a row (Roy Halladay, and Shaun Marcum respectively). The starting five will be Romero, Cecil, Morrow, Drabek, and Litsch. A scary unit for any batter. Lefty Jo-Jo Reyes will start the season as a starter while Morrow recovers from a minor injury, and has the potential to make it tough on management. Reyes has some top-notch stuff, and although he would still be effective as a situational reliever, with a couple solid starts there could be a bit of a debate over who stays in the top five. 

    The bullpen is overflowing with able arms, although most are right handers. The team is going to have to send some very capable pitchers down to AAA to start the season, but that depth will be a key during the exhaustingly long regular season, when there are certainly going to be injury issues along the way. Frank Francisco is pencilled in as the closer, but possible NBA reject Jon Rauch will get an audition in the role to start the year while Francisco recovers from a minor injury (Rauch is the tallest player in MLB history at 6 foot 10). 

    Some of the most promising young pitching in the league won't count for much unless there is a capable body calling the game from behind the plate. Enter J.P. Arencibia. Everybody knows the kid has a bat, he was the AAA MVP last season after clocking 30+ dingers, and there are few people in Hogtown who don't remember his epic 4 for 5, two home run Major League debut. Possibly the most key question mark for this year's Jays will be how Arencibia handles the game-calling duties with an unseasoned pitching staff. He's going to have to get the most out of every starter for this team to compete this year, and in the years to come. Jose Molina is said to be a great mentor, is a very serviceable backup, and can gun down nearly anyone trying to sneak in a stolen base. The catcher position does prove to be a pivotal point of production for the Jays to succeed.

    You have to factor in the invariables that will certainly pop up over the course of 162 games. There are going to be injuries. There are going to be slumps. How do you balance out the producers with the lame ducks? Simple: depth. This team is deeper with young talent than any Blue Jays squad in recent memory, with stars like Brett Lawrie lurking in the shadows. For the record, I do believe Lawrie will get a shot somewhere mid-season, and if his spring training was any indication, he'll stick. This kid is a bona fide blue-chipper, a Canadian, and could be the answer for years to come at third for the Jays. Adeiny Hechavarria will put the heat on Yunel Escobar to perform in his contract year, and should provide further stability to the infield picture down the road. He could see some time with the big club as well if injuries become an issue.

    When you weigh all these factors together, you've got a  pretty talented group. The question is can this group produce now rather than later? I think the Jays will wind up in the 85-90 win range, much like last year, but they'll pick up those wins in a different fashion. Rather than clobbering the ball game in and game out, we're going to see a much more balanced team, with a greater focus on team defence. With the big guns in New York and Boston, they'll have to play defence if they want to at least duplicate last year's 85 wins. The Rays are thinner, but still not a pushover, and the doormat Orioles have a bolstered lineup as well that will be tougher. One thing that never changes in the AL East is the level of competition, but the Jays look poised to start a major upswing over the next few years. They just won't kick down the door to the playoffs right off the bat. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

*Bringing the Madness North of the Border


    I am a walking maple flavoured stereotype. I have a beard and a lumberjack's jacket, I love beer, I'm polite, witty, and I only pretend to know about sports other than hockey. I might know a little more than your average Bob and Doug, but only because it's my job to. I know hockey because I love hockey. I grew up on hockey. So how is it that I've come to be captivated by the distinctly American spectacle that is the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament? Well, it's not hard, so take notes.

    Basketball was a sport I never much bought into as a kid. I would watch the Jorden-led Bulls, as did anyone with a working set of lookin' balls in that era, but it wasn't a sport I was personally invested in. The Raptors didn't hit the scene until I was in about the sixth grade, and it wasn't until "Vinsanity" that I started to take notice. Over the years though, and particularly since Colangelo took the helm, the Raptors have made their way into my heart. 

    This year is an especially hurting edition of the team, but there is a glut of young talent there that is ready to take the next step. The Dinos are currently looking at a bottom-five finish and a potential lottery pick for this year's draft, which instantly drew some intrigue to college ball for me. I want to know who these young guys are. I want to have an idea of who the Raps could get their claws on come draft day, and thus the seed was planted. 

     Step one for anyone like me, who have never followed March Madness to any serious degree, is to fill out a bracket of your own. You don't have to know much about the teams, they're all ranked, and you just take a few gambles on the inevitable upsets. Joining a pool, or at least having friends to compare brackets with, will instantly push you to follow what is happening on a night to night basis, and you'll find yourself watching games and highlights on the regular. 

    There is no way to not enjoy NCAA basketball. It's like watching "Lost"; you get one episode in and you have to know how the whole series ends. The amount of nail-biting finishes and unlikely upsets are enough to keep even the most casual hoops fan screaming at the television. This year has brought a healthy abundance of bracket busting underdogs with teams like Butler, Marquette, VCU, Richmond, and Florida State still alive in the sweet sixteen round.

    So why is any of this important? The reason I'm giving you the play by play account of my discovery of March Madness, is because I'm such a stereotypical Canadian fan. So many sports fans north of the border are missing out, as I had been for so many years. 

    It's not like the tourney isn't well-covered either. Over the last few years, the profile of the college game has risen incrementally, with heavy hitter TSN landing the coverage rights this year, after The Score did the heavy lifting of creating inroads to Canadian fans. TSN does a decent job of covering the tournament as a whole, by simulcasting several American feeds at once. It's very court-surfing-esque, and gives you a great overview, with high entertainment value. It's just not shoved down your throat the way it is when TSN are covering puck.

    This year the NCAA tournament featured a record number of Canucks, several of whom were impact players for their teams. It's imperative to the national program that the foundation be laid for young Canadians to be successful in a sport other than hockey. There's no shortage of hockey heroes for kids to look up to in this country. Everybody in Canada knows somebody in the NHL. What we don't have is legitimate hoops icons. Beyond Steve Nash it's pretty slim pickings. People like Robert Sacre, Tristan Thompson, and Cory Joseph are real NBA prospects, and represent a new wave of improved Canadian contribution to the sport.

    The NCAA has after all begun introducing select Canadian universities in lower divisions. Just saying.

    March Madness is one of the most exciting tournaments in sports, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be a more mainstream fixture in the culture here. It takes a bit of a mental effort to introduce a new major sporting event to your normal routine. Many of us in the Toronto area are so deeply entrenched in Leaf fever that it's hard to concentrate on anything else. You can't blame us, we're Canadian. 


     After teams like Texas and Pitt crushed my, and many others' brackets, I decided to give my picks a facelift. Here's who I've got for the sweet sixteen:

Duke over Arizona - Arizona won't be able to keep the magic alive against the West's top ranked team. Duke's shut down D will take the wind out of their sails.

UConn over San Diego State - Kemba Walker will have another big game. San Diego will get a case of the "i'm-just-happy-to-be-heres" despite great team toughness.

Ohio State over Kentucky - This one will be a barn-burner, two talented teams. Ohio State is the nation's best for a reason, I like them in the clutch.

North Carolina over Marquette - UNC is too talented, and too strong in the front court.

Kansas over Richmond - Richmond has had an epic run, but neither of the first two opponents were in the class of Kansas.

VCU over Florida State - VCU has been dominant thus far, it's hard to see that momentum slowing down.

Wisconsin over Butler - Butler is the trendy pick as an upset because of their run to the finals last year, but Wisconsin is a smart, responsible team who will force Butler to play their game.

Florida over BYU - Jimmer Fredette will Jimmer Fre-durp. He's an amazing player and can take over a game, but the well-coached Gators will focus more on his supporting cast and the offence will dry up.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

*Toronto FC Enters Awkward Adolescence


The kid's gloves are off for the rabid supporters of Toronto FC. They may have graduated from "new kids on the block", but there is still a period of growth and self-discovery they must go through before they're truly ready to take on the grown-up world. Smells like teen spirit so to speak.

    Through the first four years of their existence (the so-called "childhood" of the franchise) we watched with wide-eyed adoration as the team stumbled around, learning how to crawl (five scoreless games to start their inaugural season), then walk (winning the nearly meaningless Nutrilite Canadian Championship), learning the difference between good and bad (mostly by being bad), and eventually learning how to talk and question the world around them (hometown star Dwayne DeRosario demanding more money).

     Now entering their fifth season there is a sense of new beginnings. They've had a bit of coming of age, as they played decently through the first half of the 2010 season, only to fall apart down the stretch, and the fans are now clamouring for improvement. Welcome to the awkwardness of adolescence.

    Dutchman Aron Winter has taken over as technical director and head coach (the sixth head coach the team has seen as they enter their fifth season), and he has promised to instill a Dutch style "total football" approach, which should bode well for a team short on scoring punch. What it means is that any player on the pitch can play any position on the pitch, filling in for a team mate who gets pulled out of position, thus maintaining the team's organizational structure. It should be an improvement on last year's ketamine-laced, defence-first style.

    Defence shouldn't be a big problem, with Toronto's blue-chip goaltender Stefan Frei returning to trounce teams trying to tickle the twine. Frei was a top draft pick of TFC back in '09 and has quickly become one of the most reliable 'keepers in the MLS, and that development should continue to progress this year.

    Sticking with the theme of defence being one of the team's stronger suits, Toronto's reigning player of the year, and hometown boy, Adrian Cann is returning, along with fellow Canadian international Nana Attakora, and they should steady the centre of the defensive unit. There are still some question marks, as there are throughout the roster, with the team's response to the new system still yet to be seen, but the defensive end of Toronto's game should be one of the steadier aspects.

    The midfield has some real talent as well with American international Nathan Sturgis, and designated player Julian de Guzman being steady defensive-style midfielders, but the defense isn't going to be the issue with this team.

    The real red flag for the Reds is with scoring, and as any idiot will tell you, the point of the game is to score more goals than the other team. The loss of Chad Barrett and the disappointing Mista will only serve to hurt Toronto's attack, unless there are some pleasant surprises from some of the team's young strikers. Sometimes addition by subtraction is a winning formula. Not often, but sometimes. Maicon Santos will be asked to play a bigger role this year, and how he responds will have a ripple effect on the team's record.

    The biggest story of this season lies with the team's biggest name. Scarborough native, and team captain Dwayne DeRosario has been at odds with management since late last season. DeRo makes the (extremely valid) case that he's worth much more than the $770,000 he made last season, and believes he should be given designated player status like de Guzman, to put him in the same pay scale (in the million and a half range). Although doubling a player's pay is not that common in sports, take into account that DeRo scored thirteen of the team's 30 total goals last season, and with a far less-seasoned forward unit on the 2011 edition, you can count on that percentage rising. DeRosario is the face of the franchise, the heart of the team, and the hands-down fan favorite.

    It's no secret that Toronto FC has one of the most loyal and enthusiastic fan bases in the league, and it is safe to assume that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the team's owner, isn't exactly hard-pressed for cash. It's vital that management recognizes DeRo's importance to this squad, and to this city. Cut the crap and write the guy a cheque. This team can not afford to have it's star distracted in a year when the fans are raging for the playoffs.
    Realistic expectation dictates that the team will struggle yet again, as they are at the beginning of a rebuild, but the fans also want something to cheer for in the short-term. It's not completely out of the question to think this team can be a playoff threat. Toronto is in the midst of sports puberty, and it may take a while for their voice to drop, but with the youth on their roster, and solid leadership now at the helm, they could graduate into full-fledged adulthood sooner than later. Just expect some teenage melodrama in the meantime.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

*NFL vs NFLPA: F The Fans


    If the NFL were a clothing company, the Players Association would be an Indonesian child labour sweat shop. Okay, so it would be a lavish and extravagant sweat shop where the child labourers were adored by millions of people worldwide, but the metaphor still rings true.

   As the reality of an NFL lockout grows more probable by the minute, one question seems to come to the minds of many fans: What did we do to deserve this? Players are fighting for a larger cut of the revenue, the owners are fighting to maintain control of that revenue, and in the meantime the people who generate said revenue are left hangin' in the wind.

    How does the most lucrative sport in North America get to the point where it is willing to shut down operations for an entire year? If you have yet to pass the B.A.R. exam it may cause you brain pain to examine the complexities of the situation. Quite simply, the owners have a good thing going here, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep it that way.

    The NFL generates more revenue than any other sport on this continent, an estimated 9 billion a year. Despite these massive numbers, NFL players are on average the lowest paid in comparison to the other three major team sports. Take for example the NHL; a league which has attendance and revenue issues with at least one quarter of their franchises, yet the average NHLer makes about triple the amount their NFL counterparts are bringing in.

   You're probably thinking "what preposterous fuckery!". Indeed, and it gets better. The NFL is also the only major North American sport not to offer it's players guaranteed contracts, which means a team can cut a player for any reason at any time, and not owe him another penny. For example Donovan McNabb, who signed a multi-year deal for 80+ million dollars could very well be cut before the coming season (if the season in fact comes), and the Redskins would only be on the hook for about four million. 

    As if all of that isn't enough for the players to have a valid case for being disgruntled, take into account that the average length of an NFLer's career is only three and a half seasons, and they also have the highest injury rate per player than any other North American team sport. Although these guys are famous, and well paid (minimum rookie salary is $225,000 which is nothing to sneeze at, although the NHL's rookie minimum is somewhere around $850,000) they are truly getting the shit end of the stick in the sports world. The proverbial raw deal.

    In an attempt to fight fire with fire, the players have decertified the NFL Players Association, turning it from a union to a trade association. What they hope to accomplish by this is to counter the threat of a lockout by filing a class-act antitrust lawsuit against the owners. Whether this will fly or not is yet to be seen, as the NFL, along with the NBA, NHL, and MLB have government-granted antitrust exemption. This could be overturned in the hands of the right judge, and the owners would be barred from locking the players out, thus greasing the wheels for a new collective bargaining agreement to be approved, and averting the public relations disaster that the lockout would create. All of this is yet to be seen, and extremely hard to forecast, as there are a multitude of issues involved in a single case.

    There is a somewhat ignorant notion amongst casual sports fans that athletes are already grossly overpaid, and shouldn't be crybabies asking for more, but the fact of the matter is that sports is a business driven by revenue. The people generating that revenue should get their rightful percentage of it. Actually, to be fair, a recent twitter post by Drew Brees, one of the players leading the charge in the battle against Scrooge McDuck and the rest of the NFL owners, speaks volumes to the resolve of the players: "Not once have the players asked for more money during this negotiation. That is a FACT. I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for us".

    What they are fighting for is fair working conditions (meaning NOT adding two extra games to the season), better pension plans to protect the financial future of their union members, and transparency from their domineering, tyrannical employers so that a fair percentage of revenue sharing can be established. These guys are giving themselves severe long-term brain trauma to make thirty-two old men very, very rich. All they want from their bosses is what most of us want from our bosses: for them to cut the bullshit.

Oh, and NBA: pay attention. You're going to be dancing to this tune very soon...


Monday, February 21, 2011

*Dunk-Off Underlines NBA Anti-Canadianism

Why don't they just call it "Dunk Idol", and have Steven Tyler and J-Lo decide the best dunks? The results of the NBA Slam Dunk competition more resemble America's favorite popularity contest than a legitimate judgement of slam dunk creativity. Blake Griffin was the media darling heading into the All-Star festivities, even before his best friend died and endeared him to fans everywhere. The NBA got the result they were looking for and Griffin walked away champion, even though his dunks really were nothing that special (a 360? really? no dunk that can be pulled off in a game should be in a dunk competition). 

Maybe I'm speaking out of Torontonian bias here, but Demar DeRozan's first dunk was arguably the best of the round, and was unfairly under-rated by a panel of judges who, like most of the NBA, likely don't see Toronto as a genuine basketball market. This underlines a larger problem around the league in the perception of Canada's only team. 

Tracy McGrady recently made comments about fans in Toronto "not even knowing what they're booing about", heating up the discussion about Toronto's attitude towards former players, and the NBA's attitude towards the Great Frozen North in general. Trust me Tracy, we know why we're booing you. It's the same reason we boo your cousin Vince, the same reason we boo Hedo, and Benedict Arnold-Bosh: You're all douche bags.

It isn't Toronto undervaluing or misunderstanding the politics of the sport of basketball, but the famed ignorance of the American public rearing it's ugly head in the form of spoiled basketball players not wanting to be cast-offs to the island of misfit toys known as the T-dot. There is a prevailing notion that we somehow are uneducated fans, or that we only know about hockey. We may know hockey in and out, and it may be the big ticket north of the border, but Torontonians are some of the most knowledgeable sports fans in North America.

The perceived indifference of fans stems from mismanaged teams that leave very little to cheer about, not from ignorance to the nuances of the game. If anything, that should be an indication of our sophistication, but these ego maniacal morons can't wrap their narrow minds around the concept of being wrong. Of having carried themselves in a less than classy fashion. Of having disrespected the franchise that made them millionaires, and the adoring fan base that made them stars in the first place.

If there is one thing that defines Toronto as a sports market, it's that we are suckers for our stars. We latch our hopes and dreams onto them and label them as "ours". When the revolving door spins around, as it always seems to do in this city, we can't help but feel betrayed because we held up our end of the bargain.

When DeRozan scored a 44 on his first dunk, the city of Toronto collectively shook it's head. That dunk was creative, original, and took an amazing amount of skill. The people he was beaten by pulled off dunks that mostly had been done before. There was nothing special about them, but the theatrics that were employed; the flag-bearers, the double net, the choir, were what won them points. Not dunking skill. Why is it that a hometown guy can't even get his due respect just because he's wearing that god awful word on the front of his jersey? Toronto.

The NBA obviously had an agenda with this event. In Blake Griffin they have a fresh new superstar to market. They have a solid gold story to play on with his friend having passed away only days before the competition (all due respect to the poor young man's family). And what better way to have a coming out party for the NBA's most exciting dunker than to hand over a gift-wrapped slam dunk championship? I have seen dozens of people dunk over cars, and actually over the car, not half-assing it over the hood, which Griffin really didn't need to do. He has the hops to have pulled the move off properly. Not only that, but McGee looked as if he wasn't even trying to win with his final dunk. It was certifiable SLACK.

DeRozan was screwed out of his due two years in a row, and likely won't have another chance to showcase his talents at the next All-Star weekend, and it really is a shame. He's got the skill and athleticism to be a legitimate star in this league, but never had a fair shake at showing it on one of the biggest stages.

The NBA's credibility as a league seems to dwindle yearly, with a crooked match-fixing ref, labour disputes on the horizon, and self-indulgent stars ganging up to set a dangerous precedent that will condemn the notion of parity for years to come. Unfortunately, we here in Toronto are regarded as idiots, quite possibly because we are the only market in the league that doesn't buy the NBA's bullshit.

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss - Part 3

Part 3: The Future

During the writing process of this blog over the last two weeks, the future of the Toronto Maple leafs has been shaping itself in real time. First Francois Beauchemin is shipped back to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul and prospect Jake Gardener, then new-kid-on-the-block Kris Versteeg gets the harsh goodbye as well for a pair of picks, and the yearly Tomas Kaberle trade rumours came back out of hibernation, only this time they actually materialized into a solid prospect and a first round pick. Not too shabby (it's better than they ever got for Mats Sundin). In a matter of weeks the face of the roster has been significantly altered, answering some questions and raising several others. We are presently in a time that could prove itself to be the fulcrum to the future.

First let's take a look at how the roster is currently constituted and pose the question "when nobody is safe, who will find themselves in the lineup on opening night in 2011-2012"? The chosen few who may be safest are Dion Phaneuf, and Phil Kessel, most likely James Reimer and Keith Aulie aren't going anywhere, and the team's emerging young leader: Luke Schenn.

Schenn has taken his game to another level this season, finding himself near the top of the league in blocked shots and hits for defencemen, and after Kaberle packed up for Beantown, Schenn was the one to take over his assistant captain duties. At 21 Schenn is the second-longest serving Leaf, behind only Nikolai Kulemin by two games, and has quietly become an impact player. He's also a free agent at year's end, and should be retained on a three or four year deal in the range of 3.5 million dollars per season, allowing him to be appropriately paid as he reaches his prime years, when the team will have a better view of how his development will turn out, and can either give him a big raise, or retain him for market value.

Keith Aulie appropriated the bulk of Beauchemin's minutes, and has handled them like a boss, using his size and strength to make himself a force to be reckoned with in the corners. Forwards now have a to keep their heads up on both sides of the rink; you go out of your way to avoid a patented Phaneuf open-ice hit, you're going to get wiped out on the boards by a mini-Pronger. This kid is going to become a minute muncher in the next couple of seasons, while still on a entry-level rookie contract.

Carl Gunnarsson is a decent puck mover, is responsible in his own end, and could reasonably become a solid contributor on the power play. Mike Komisarek's contract is about as movable as a heavily sedated Mexican ox, which is ironically what he resembles when he plays. Expect him to be back in the fifth or sixth slot. Add to the mix up-and-comers Juraj Mikus, Korbinian Holzer, and Jake Gardener, and the blue line seems like one of the more solid areas on this team in the near future.

Goaltending is a fairly safe area as well, with James ("Optimus Reim") Reimer proving that he can handle the big minutes, and put the heat on Jonas Gustavsson to show some better poise and composure on a nightly basis (all too often lately Gusto has looked like a fish flopping around on a dock longing for the icy embrace of a merciful death). Gigeure will limp his way into the end of the year and become an afterthought in the minds of hockey fans in Hogtown, while Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens will continue to develop on the farm, likely getting spot starts next season when The Monster has another monster heart problem.

The really intriguing part of this team is the unit of forwards. The lineup as is today could potentially have a massive turnover by the time the next season rolls around.

Kessel and Lupul will likely remain linemates into next season, as would the Grabovski - Kulemin - MacArthur line, assuming the Leafs are willing to pony up the cheddar to keeep MacArthur in blue & white.

The team needs to deal for a big-bodied, top-line centre, an asset which is hard to come by in today's NHL. Sombody Joe Thorntonesque. Bozak should, in all fairness, be bumped to the third line where he would be far more comfortable in a two-way role, and his commitment to the backcheck could go to good use. Colby Armstrong is bound to be a staple on the third line as he was all of this year.

A fourth line of Colton Orr, Tim Brent, and Mike Brown seems likely to return, as all three have proven themselves very effective in their given roles, although the lower you go on the talent scale, the more expendable you become, and the Leafs will be looking to upgrade at all positions.

This is what makes Fredrik Sjostrom expendable. He's a one-dimensional player who is highly effective on the penalty kill but does very little else over the course of a game (let it state for the record that Sjostrom is highly effective on one of the league's worst penalty killing units. Take that for whatever it's worth. Just saying). Joey Crabb, and Daryl Boyce are a couple of other guys who have to be on the cusp. While both have been solid for the Leafs this season, neither seem to be the calibre of player to remain at the NHL level on a team deep enough to contend.  

There will be, at best, four to five spots up for grabs at the forward position for this coming year, and there are going to be alot of players vying for them. Youngsters like Nazem Kadri, Jerry D'Amigo, and Joe Colborne will be looking to snag a chance at becoming impact players, while returnees like Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi will get strong consideration, all battling with the likes of Brent, Boyce, Crabb, and Brown for those last few spots. 

These are just questions for the coming year. Those who know sports know that it's more like chess than checkers, and having a sense of foresight in your transactions is essential. So what are the answers long term for this group? 

The best thing that could happen to this team is if they were to finish dead last for one or two more seasons, and have their poor finish actually pay off with a couple more top picks. By this time Phaneuf and Kessel will have either given us a great return for their hefty paycheques, or will have proven themselves failures and will be dumped for much needed cap space. Ditto goes for Joffrey Lupul who makes a little too much for what he provides, but in an undermanned, undersized forward unit, he could flourish. This would also give upper management a chance to see young players like Kadri, D'Amigo, Gardener, Aulie, and Colborne develop, as well as the next wave of youngsters like Greg McKegg and potential Darcy Tucker clone Brad Ross.

All of these personnel changes mean nothing without the proper voice providing direction, and it would seem that Ron Wilson's is not that voice. One potential solution to this problem is currently working about an hour down the highway.

Lindy Ruff has been coaching the Sabres for about fifteen years, keeping them consistently competitive despite the lack of many bonafide impact players, save for the people between the pipes. It's a situation not unlike the one in Toronto, where goaltending and defence are the strengths of the roster, and a guy like Lindy Ruff could get a sub-par group of forwards committed to back checking with one stern discussion. Buffalo has not offered Ruff an extension for next season and the general consensus around the league is that the team is going to be going in a new direction.

With Ruff looking for work, and a prefect fit just up the highway from the place he's called home for such a long period of time, it would seem only natural that the Leafs move on from Wilson now, while his stock is at an all-time low. Kris Versteeg seemed elated to be out from under Wilson's reign of terror, and Kessel made his feelings about his relationship with the coach abundantly clear. Wilson seemed like a great fit at first, but the time has come to move on, and the team needs a confident new leader.

Speed, leadership, and commitment to team defence. These are the areas that the Leafs need to master to return to respectability, and there needs to be a healthy dose of realism in the public perception. They're still pretty far off from being a real team, and the fan base needs to be ready to suffer through a little more mediocrity. The calls are going to come for Burke's head, but patience is the key.

If Burke is allowed to see out the length of his six year deal, and possibly beyond, he can and will make this team a winner again. Vancouver made the mistake of giving up on Burkie's vision, and some of the moves he made in his time there are still paying them dividends, and his work is part of what is currently putting them head and shoulders over the entire league in the standings.

We still hang our hearts on a polished turd in this city, but there are things to be excited about. Toronto is a team on the upswing, and depending on the magnitude of the moves they can pull off before the deadline, and in the coming off season, they could be back in the playoff picture sooner than later. Never too soon to plan the parade for a city that's been refining the route since 1967. Keep the faith, Leafers, and take comfort in the fact we're still better off than Ottawa...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss: Part 2

Part 2: The Present

Where were we? Ah, yes, we left off with the Toronto Maple Leafs having been mired in a vicious cycle of underachieving teams that are constantly overestimated in their proximity to competitiveness. John Ferguson Jr. led the charge as Leafs GM through the first four and a half post-lockout years, bumbling his way through a series of awful roster decisions en route to getting politely asked to F-off in January of 2008. Brought in to pick up the pieces was senior citizen discount card holder Cliff Fletcher, who did his best to help set the table for eventual predecessor Brian Burke but ultimately helped compound the team's problems rather than address them.

The one move with the most lasting effect on the current edition of the Leafs was the hiring of Ron Wilson. It's common practice for a team in a period of transition in the front office to allow the incoming GM to hire his own coaching staff. It's his team, why shouldn't he get to hire the staff he thinks best suits his intended style of play? In their desperation to land the established GM, the Leafs hired Burke's close friend Ron Wilson in the hopes that it would lure the burly cup-winning executive. Whether it did or not is a mystery, but Burke did resign from his post in Anaheim for the "plum job" in Toronto.

I'm not suggesting that Ron Wilson is a bad coach, but it put Brian Burke in an awkward position going forward, no matter how good an idea it seemed to be at the time.

Burke came into Toronto like a pimp comes into a whore house. With swagger, self-assured confidence, and promises of a better future if you'll comply with his style of business. Like noble prostitutes we gave him every bit of our trust, and he knew exactly how to handle us. He allowed us to believe his spiel about us not being far off from success, but in a few short months Burke had decided the charade was over and began to clean house.

At the top of Burkie's shit list were the unreasonable contracts on the roster, like Jason Blake & Vesa Toskala, both of whom were promptly shipped out (Burke employed a similar strategy in Anaheim, ridding the team of bulky contracts like that of Sergei Fedorov). Shedding contracts that bad is a win in itself, but Burke really branded the team with the Dion Phaneuf deal.

In one foul swoop Brian Burke changed the face of the Leafs for years to come, by acquiring Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie, in exchange for four pilons. They had shed a few underachievers with bad contracts, for a possible stud defenseman, a solid penalty killing specialist, and a prospect who looks and plays like Chris Pronger's illegitimate love child, faster than you can say "plan the parade".

That momentum led him right into a deal that would be viewed as the pivotal point of his Toronto tenure; During his first training camp as Leafs GM he sent out two first round picks and a second round pick for Phil Kessel. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Leafs had the general notion (as they had pretty much every year since the lockout) that they were "one legitimate sniper away" from being a playoff contender, and the valuable picks given up were deemed expendable as the team was ready to compete now. The result? Dead last in the eastern conference and one of the worst seasons in team history. Maybe my math is off, but I'm pretty sure the Leafs could have finished dead last without the help of Phil Kessel and his brand spanking new five year contract.

Poor finishes usually pay dividends in the draft, but instead the Buds handed over the second overall pick (Tyler Seguin) to a division rival who was already stacked at the forward position.

The heat was now on for Burke to put something tangible together over the summer, because another cellar-dwelling season would be viewed as a massive failure.

The tough part of navigating this market is not succumbing to the overwhelming outside pressure when people are clamouring for change, and Burke did not get Rob Babcocked into another bad move. He played his cards safely, holding onto top asset Tomas Kaberle, and shaping the team in his image by singing free agents like Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, and Clarke MacArthur, who all have become solid contributors to the organization in different ways. Kris Versteeg was also brought in via trade and has become the team's best two way forward, and has plenty of up side.

Despite an improved roster, it's a long way up from the bottom and the Leafs bumbled through the first half of the 2010-2011 season. Fans were growing increasingly restless and could be heard chanting "fire Wilson" at several poor home games. The feeling began to grow around hockey's most knowledgeable fan base that the team had been lost to Wilson and his sarcastic attitude, and that the players were no longer buying what he was selling. The standings seemed to agree.

The All-Star break rolled around and the Leafs were again sitting near the bottom of the eastern conference. Phil Kessel, the Leafs not-so-worthy All-Star representative, had the unsavoury distinction of becoming the first player to be chosen last in the NHL's new fantasy draft selection format. It was a not-so-subtle slap in the face to the organization, and if there ever was a rock bottom for this team, certainly this would be as close as they could come. Or was it?

Less than a week later a league-wide player poll showed that 24% of players in the league had voted Ron Wilson as the coach they would least like to play for, and with thirty coaches to choose from that is a pretty hefty percentage. If Wilson's loss of credibility was in question before, surely it couldn't be now. Phil Kessel put the exclamation mark on an embarrassing fortnight by publicly calling Wilson out on his bullshit when he told a scrum of reporters "me and Ron don't really talk...that's all I have to say about that". Bitch move? Yes, but maybe this will finally be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Wilson needs to go, and no amount of Anaheim Duck-fleecing is going to change that (really, how many different ways can we screw that team? Toskala. Blake. Now Beauchemin for Lupul, Gardener and a pick? Thanks losers! Might as well call you the Anahaim SUCKS!).

As the standings sit today, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in twelfth place, seven points out of a playoff spot, and barring a comeback of epic proportions, will miss the playoffs yet again. Brian Burke has done an admirable job rebuilding this team with very little assets to speak of, but until he gets up the gumption to let his BFF Ron Wilson go, this team will not compete going forward. There are options on the horizon, and if they're not taken advantage of soon then Toronto is as doomed as any pimp-ho relationship. The ho winds up ODing on whatever junk she's been strung out on, or simply facedown in a ditch somewhere, all used up, and if she isn't dead, she'll be void of any emotion or ability to return to a normal existence. The pimp? Well he just finds a new btich and keeps on pimpin', baby.

I'll talk more about some of the options for improvement facing the blue & white brigade in my final installment, part 3: The Future. Until then, you stay classy Toronto.