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.