By Far, Stanley Cup Playoffs are Better Than NBA Playoffs

Standard

There has been a lot of talk about how the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have been dominating their opponents in this year’s NBA playoffs. So-called basketball fans and media have long cheered for the Cavaliers and the Warriors to battle it out for the NBA title.

The Toronto Raptors made things interesting last year when their Eastern Conference Final series with Cleveland was even after the first four games. That produced excitement for us fans here in “The Six” but it caused quite a shock to the rest of the United States. Dare I say more shocking than Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election. As great as it would have been to see the Raptors in the finals, there are those who got their wish and saw Golden State and Cleveland battle it out for the championship. And by the looks of it, it will happen again for the third straight year.

This year’s NBA playoffs has been predictable. Unless you live in Cleveland or in the Bay Area, there hasn’t been much excitement. Even Charles Barkley doesn’t seem interested in what’s happening in the NBA Eastern Conference Final.

https://www.clippituser.tv/c/rvvyng

Compare that the Stanley Cup Playoffs where it has been unpredictable and exciting. Most of the excitement is coming from teams like the Nashville Predators, an 8th-seeded team in the Western Conference who will be making their first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. How can you not like what is happening with the Predators? They have taken Music City by storm and it’s not just because team captain Mike Fisher’s wife is a famous musician. The Predators are making the Ottawa Senators look like the Florida Panthers when it comes to fan base.

Standing in the way of bringing Lord Stanley to the Volunteer State are the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are the only team left in the playoffs with a true superstar player, or in this case two, in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Which buries the theory that you need one to be a championship contender. Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, they are all watching the playoffs from home. Add to that, top teams like Chicago, Montreal, Washington, and last year’s finalist San Jose were eliminated early.

There is also the fact that five of the seven Canadian teams made the playoffs this year, a year after there were none. The return of the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs certainly helped even though they were not able to get by the Capitals in the first round. The Senators, perhaps, went further in the playoffs than anyone would have expected. Erik Karlsson is one of the best defenseman in the game and he is showing us why in the playoffs. Had Ottawa made it to the final, it would have been an interesting storyline with one-time Senator fan favourite Fisher facing his old team for the Cup. The Penguins and Predators have their own storyline in the finals. The two teams at one time were considered being sold to a Canadian tech billionaire. Jim Balsillie wanted another team in the Southern Ontario market but nearly ran his successful smartphone company into the ground in order to do it.

Sure, playoff hockey isn’t without its flaws. The Senators still are able to employ the neutral zone trap. But until there are rules in place to outlaw it, defensive hockey is still the way to go in the playoffs. Another is, you guessed it, the lack of fighting in hockey. There’s been some animosity in the playoffs but very few resulting in the drop of the gloves. The Gary-Bettman-doesn’t-want-a-Canadian-team-to-win-the-Stanley-Cup mantra is growing old but there are folks who still cling to it like those in the southern United States who many say still cling to the confederate flag. But despite all that, the Stanley Cup Playoffs remains compelling because of its unpredictability.

The NBA can have all the superstar power they want. I’ll take the blue-collar attitude that comes with playoff hockey. It is by far the best playoff action anywhere.

Also see:

The Raptors are Playing with House Money
Bettman is the Best Commissioner in Professional Sports
Everyone Loves an Outcast

 

Crosby Owns Ovechkin

Standard

If the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were a heavyweight boxing match, Sid the Kid would be beating Ovie so bad that: a) the match would have been stopped halfway through, and b) you would not be able to recognize Ovechkin’s face. Boxer Roberto Duran once uttered the famous words “No Mas”, meaning no more in Spanish, during a match where he was being dominated by “Sugar” Ray Leonard. I’m not sure how you say no more in Russian but Ovie maybe muttering those very words right now.

The head-to-head match up between these two superstars has been a one-sided affair. You can’t compare the rivalry to Magic-Bird, or Manning-Brady. Ovechkin could not get over that hump on Wednesday despite being at home, despite having the momentum of coming back from a 3 games to one deficit to force a Game 7, and despite having Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, on the same team. Crosby found a way to lead his team to a big win once again.

The two are close when it comes to individual awards. Ovechkin sports three Hart Trophies as league MVP, Crosby has two. Crosby led the league in scoring twice, Ovechkin won the Art Ross once. Perhaps the one area Ovechkin can brag about is the number of times he led the league in goals scored. Ovie is a 6-time Maurice Richard winner, Crosby won it twice.

But the glaring difference is the number of rings. Crosby has two Stanley Cup Championships. Ovechkin? Zero. Olympic gold medals in hockey? Again, it’s Crosby 2, Ovechkin 0. Since the two came into the league in 2005, Penguins have eliminated the Capitals in all three head-to-head match ups in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Simply put, Crosby owns Ovechkin where it matters the most. There’s no contest.

Part of reason Crosby has gotten the better of Ovechkin is that Crosby is more than just putting pucks in the net. He is a player that likes to get dirty. That why you often see him get under opponents’ skin, knock players down, and occasionally drop the gloves when necessary. But maybe the finishing move for Sid is that he has battled through injuries throughout his career, and that has not stopped him one bit. In fact, one could argue that some of the setbacks he had to endured has only made him better. Ovechkin likes to crash and bang too but it doesn’t seem to have the same effect the way Crosby does.

Crosby is a first-ballot Hall of Famer even if he had decided to hang up the skates after getting decked by Washington’s David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic. Ovechin will also be in the Hall of Fame one day. There is still time for Ovechkin to get his shot at winning the Cup, or a gold medal. But until then, Sid’s got the crown. And it will take more than a head shot to knock it off.

Also see:

Backers Abandon Cam, Broncos Win One for Peyton
Hockey is a Tough Sport, Get Use to it
Winners Blaze Their Own Trail

The Young Maple Leafs will Learn from Their Playoff Run

Standard

Sunday night saw the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs season, a heart-breaking 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. As disappointing as it is to be out of the playoffs, being eliminated, especially by the league’s top team, was not the end of the world.

Rookies like William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner now have an idea about what it takes to get to the next level. They found out the hard way that they can’t go far into the playoffs by their skill alone. They realize they need to fight, both figuratively and literally, if they want to become Stanley Cup contenders. They should no longer be satisfied with just making the playoffs next season. Every one of them will now have a huge chip on their shoulder. And that, to me, is a good thing.

There will be some changes to the roster. I suspect Lou Lamoriello will be shopping around for veteran help especially on the blue line where the deficiency was glaring in the last few games of the regular season and in the first round of the playoffs. He may have to dangle a guy like James van Riemsdyk or Nazem Kadri in order to do that. Lamoriello could have acquired that kind of player at the trade deadline. But I believe there is a reason why Maple Leafs management stood pat. They wanted to see how the rookies respond when the game is on the line, when the playoffs are on the line, and whether they have what it takes to win the big game. There was plenty of effort but, as we saw on Sunday, not enough to get over the hump.

Make no bones about it. I was expecting a different outcome in the series. But like I said before, what the Maple Leafs do in the playoffs is gravy. They were playing with house money. For a roster where their best players are not allowed to drink beer in the United States, this Maple Leafs team took great strides this season. I expect to see more of that next season.

Also see:

Maple Leafs’ Season a Credit to Management
The Maple Leafs Need Their Own Bringer of Rain
Maple Leafs Banking on Moneypuck

We Should Have Seen This Coming

Standard

The Blue Jays are off to their worst start in franchise history. A lot of people are not only disappointed by the 2 and 10 record but are also surprised by the poor start to the season. I’m not. Not to toot my own horn but if you’ve been reading this blog over the last couple of years, I have mentioned some of the problems the Blue Jays are experiencing. The slow start should come as a surprise to no one. In fact, we should have seen this coming.

The problems began well before the start of the season, before spring training, before free agency. I would say even before the start of last year’s postseason. One of the reasons the Blue Jays are struggling is because they have been unable to gets hits with runners in scoring position. This is largely due the hitters showing a lack of patience at the plate. They didn’t show much that last September when they fell out of first place in the American League East and had to settle for a wild card berth. That same approach carried into the American League Division Series, the American League Championship Series, and the first two weeks of the 2017 season.

Secondly, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was not able to attract any quality left-handed hitters to the Blue Jays in the off-season save for switch-hitter Kendrys Morales. Not to say the Blue Jays should have gone after a guy like Kyle Schwarber or Bryce Harper. But adding one or two players of that calibre from the left side would have easily balanced out what was and still is a right heavy line up. I can bet you no one would have been shedding a tear about Edwin Encarnacion, and perhaps Jose Bautista, leaving.

Another thing I have mentioned before is the Blue Jays have to stay healthy for the entire season if they expect to contend. Right now we have two starters (Aaron Sanchez and JA Happ) and a former MVP (Josh Donaldson) on the shelf. That’s not good. The closer, Roberto Osuna, was also injured but his stay on the disabled list was minimal.

As a result, the Blue Jays went from early season favourites to win the division to wondering if they will be sellers at the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Perhaps it is too soon to suggest the Blue Jays should trade away the veterans and go with youth. They should not approach this like the Maple Leafs did two years ago where the intention was to tank the regular season in order to draft your next superstar. Baseball is different in that aspect. But if things don’t turn around quickly, we are going to be in for a long season even before summer officially begins.

Also see:

There is No Substitute for Patience
Is the Media Cheering for a Blue Jays Demise?
Blue Jays Need Players… Ones That Don’t Get Hurt Easily

 

 

Maple Leafs’ Season a Credit to Management

Standard

The Toronto Maple Leafs clinched a playoff spot on Saturday. Nobody expected them to reach the playoffs this season despite an influx of good young players led by their number one pick, Auston Matthews. Brendan Shannahan, Lou Lamoriello, and Mike Babcock should get all the credit for the Maple Leafs’ turnaround this season.

Before I continue on, I predicted before the season that the Maple Leafs would make the playoffs, get 40 wins, knock the Habs out of the playoffs, and Mitch Marner and Connor Brown would each get 20 goals in their rookie season. I’m 3 out of 5 at this point. Not too shabby, huh?

There are many who are quite surprised of the turnaround that the Maple Leafs had this season. It was one year ago that the Buds were dead last and were a lottery ball away from officially drafting Matthews. But it didn’t surprise me, mainly because there was a management team in place that believed in them. They drafted, developed, and played them in the minors. They believed enough in them that they didn’t go out to land a major acquisition at the trade deadline. Now we are seeing how they fare against the big boys.

Another thing to add is health. As of Saturday, 9 players have appeared in all 81 games. 4 more missed a total of 16 games due to injury: William Nylander (1), Tyler Bozak (4), Marner (5), and Morgan Reilly (6). You can’t make the playoffs with your best players on the sidelines. Part of it is luck but how you manage those injuries is also key and that is where good management comes in.

Frederik Anderssen rebounded after a slow start, Nazem Kadri is playing like he did when he was a star with the London Knights under Dale Hunter, and Bozak and James van Riemsdyk are having a revival thanks to the infusion of youth. If the Maple Leafs hadn’t had blown so many third period leads early on in the season, they would have been challenging the Habs for first place in the Atlantic and Washington for the President’s Trophy.

People who spent the entire season second-guessing decisions of management, or were banking on a late-season collapse, are going to be on a steady diet of crow the next few weeks. What the Maple Leafs do between now at the end of the playoffs is gravy. The fact that they exceeded everyone’s expectations should make this season a success. And you can thank the three amigos for it.

Also see:

Why Not Shanahan?
The Leafs Got Babcock… Now What?
The Maple Leafs Need Their Own Bringer of Rain

 

Have Attitudes Towards Athletes Who Boycott/Strike Changed?

Standard

News of the United States Women’s Ice Hockey Team threatening to boycott the upcoming IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships in Plymouth (near Detroit) sent shockwaves especially on this side of the border. The women wanted USA Hockey to pay them the same wage as their male counterparts. The boycott, however, gained so much momentum that the US Men’s Hockey Team was considering not taking part in this year’s IIHF Men’s World Championships to show their solidarity with the women. Other American female athletes such as soccer star Alex Morgan and former tennis champion Billie Jean King have thrown their support behind the US Women’s Hockey Team.

The good news was that a deal had been reached days before the tournament was to open. The US Women’s Team dropped their boycott and participated in the tournament as scheduled starting with their opening game against their main rivals, Canada. Everyone in the end was happy. Now, was the threat of boycotting the tournament made by the US Women’s Hockey Team changed people’s minds towards athletes threatening not to play over money? CHL players are currently looking to unionize and asking to be paid minimum wage. How will hockey fans in Canada react to that? How will the public react when the next professional sports league decides to halt the game over money? If you change the word ‘strike’ to ‘boycott’, does it become more acceptable? What about the idea of organized labour? No union argued on behalf of the US Women’s Hockey Team and yet the players were able to reach a settlement. We have seen in the past player’s unions decertify or consider decertifying which has led to collective agreements being reached more quickly.

Public opinion towards work stoppages in sports have not been kind to athletes in the past, or owners for that matter. If it’s two sides bitching about money, fans don’t want to hear about it. So now you have the US Women’s Hockey Team in a dispute with USA Hockey over money. Not much positive reaction towards the women but hardly any negative ones either. I would hazard to guess because there is money involved, there is that same sentiment from fans if it were professional players. But  you also have to consider the players on the women’s team don’t make millions of dollars like their male counterparts in the NHL. So you kind of have to see their side for taking this course of action. One other factor that no one is bringing up is gender. No one dares to raise their voice towards the US Women’s Hockey Team for fear of criticism. Yes, opposing their boycott of the World Championships could be seen as sexist. Men, however, remain fair game.

I’m of the belief that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. I’m not in favour of any level of government offering any kind of financial assistance to corporations. But I also think corporations should be able to apply and receive such funding if it’s available. The reason being is that taxpayer’s money is there for everyone to benefit from. EVERYONE. No matter how big or small you are. Therefore, if it is acceptable for the US Women’s Hockey Team to carry out their threat to boycott, there is no reason not to give any other organization the same benefit of the doubt. This is suppose to be about treating everybody equally. So the next time baseball, hockey, basketball, or football players threaten to walk off the job over wage disputes, let’s give them the respect that they deserve, or risk having your pinko card revoked and being forced to wear a “Make America Great Again” cap.

Also see:

A CFL Strike? It is Bound to Happen
Sports is Not a Platform for Activism
Olympics are All About the Games

No Rest for the Wicked

Standard

There was a time no one liked to be sitting on the bench while another player gets some playing time. How times have changed. Getting benched is not what it use to be. No longer is it seen as a form of punishment, it is now viewed as a reward of some kind.

Many sports teams usually give their star players a night off in certain games. The idea here is by having your best players not face any game action, they will be at their best during the playoffs. I can understand that. Some teams rest their starters once they have clinched a playoff spot, or division title, or secured home court advantage in the post-season. But more recently, we are seeing teams sitting their whole starting line up for the entire game, even if a playoff spot is still in doubt. Is that good? I suppose many Knicks fans in New York would be pissed that they forked out $300 to see the World Champion Golden State Warriors only to find out the day before game that Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson would all be sitting out the game.

I also get that it’s the fans who end up paying their salaries, but I also want to ask which fans? I would like to think people in Pittsburgh are the ones paying Sidney Crosby’s salary. Therefore, my opinion on whether he should play or sit should not matter any more than a true Penguins fan living in Pittsburgh. If someone in a city outside Toronto bitched and whined about the Maple Leafs not dressing Auston Matthews to play in a game against their home team, I would have kindly told them to worry about their own team… then I would have flipped him/her the bird. But as I mentioned before, hockey players are a different breed than any other athlete. They don’t take nights off, or make political stands, and often plays hurt.

Giving players the odd night off is smart but I also think resting your entire starting line up is not the way to go. If mailing in a game is the secret to being a champion then I don’t want to be a part of it. I believe the team should compete in every game regardless of the circumstances. Health is important but I think when you start to worry about injuries, that is when it starts to affect your team.

In a previous post, I mentioned fatigue should be a factor when determining the winner of the game. I think the same applies to the determining the league champions. I think when teams take their position for granted, it will come back to bite them. Nobody won a title resting on their laurels. Champions ought to be measured by how much sweat they lose.

Also see:

Play ‘Til You’re Dead: Why Overtime is the Best Way to Decide a Game
Two Views on the Valencia Move and the Importance of Role Players in Sport
People Don’t Watch Sports, Fans Do

Looking Out for the Next Number One

Standard

This week, I attended the OHL Cup tournament in Toronto. The tournament features the top minor midget hockey teams in Ontario and parts of the United States. It also acts as a way to showcase players for managers and scouts of major junior teams. Since much of the players in this tournament will be in junior hockey next year, and since the Barrie Colts are picking first overall in this year’s OHL Priority Selection, I was curious to see who will be in the league come September.

The last time the Colts selected first overall was in 2011. They took a 14-year-old from Belle River, Ontario named Aaron Ekblad in the draft that year. The rest as they say is history. This year, many OHL scouts, coaches, general managers, and media I have talked to are speaking highly of Jack Hughes (pictured), a talented forward from Orlando, Florida who is playing with the Toronto Marlboros of the GTHL (the Marlboros are one of the teams taking part in the OHL Cup). Despite his small size (he’s listed as 5’11” but many think he’s shorter than that), they feel he has the skill-set to be an impact player for the Colts. But Hughes is also being attracted by NCAA schools and the United States National Development Team. The Colts have been burned in the past for using their first selection to draft players (particularly those who are American-born) that intend or have made commitments to other programs. So whether the Colts will take him at number one at the April 8th draft remains to be seen.

While we’ve seen the likes of Ekblad and Connor McDavid at the NHL level, many have not seen the two develop in the junior ranks. I was fortunate enough to cover these two players as they spent a good portion of their teenage years in the OHL. I also had the pleasure of watching Jason Spezza, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, and Bobby Ryan play in the league. It is fascinating to see them play at a high level well before they became household names.

Despite what you hear in the media, hockey players (and other athletes) do not grow on trees. Finding a great hockey player is more than about whether he can score goals. There are a number of factors involved. How well does he skate? How is his hockey IQ? Does he make too many mistakes with the puck? What about the program he is currently in? Is it constantly developing good hockey players? Does he make other players on the team better? What’s he like away from the rink? What about his upbringing? His family?

This kind of thinking also applies to other sports especially when it comes to family. Lonzo Ball is projected to go number one in the upcoming NBA draft. But most of the talk isn’t about the UCLA standout, it is about his father, former US collegiate basketball player LaVar Ball. The elder Ball seems to have taken control of his son’s budding basketball career, bragging about his abilities and putting an enormous value and unnecessary pressure on him. Add to that, LeVar Ball is willing to pick fights with anyone who criticizes him like Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. These things would scare many NBA teams into not drafting Lonzo Ball, not because of his talent, but the unpredictability of his father. Fortunately, there are few people like LeVar Ball in this world.

It is interesting to find out who the next Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, or Mike Trout will be. They can be found in places like the OHL Cup, the local ball diamond, or high school gymnasium. Go see them play at your local arena before you have to fork out $200 to do the same at the Air Canada Centre.

UPDATE April 8:

The Barrie Colts selected forward Ryan Suzuki of the London Junior Knights as their first pick of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection. His older brother Nick plays for the Owen Sound Attack.


Hughes, by the way, was taken by the Mississauga Steelheads 8th overall.

Also see:

Draft, Schmaft
Getting the First Overall Pick: Big Deal? Or Big Deal?
Lessons From the World Juniors

Canadians Expected to Compete in Every Sport

Standard

A couple of observations from this past weekend. Abbotsford, British Columbia’s Adam Hadwin won the Valspar Championship, his first victory on the PGA TOUR. Meanwhile, Team Canada were winless at the World Baseball Classic. Two sporting moments, two different outcomes, but both had the same expectation: to win it all.

Maybe it is too much to say that the Canadian WBC team was expected to win it all or even advance to the next round. Even if you had every Canadian Major League Baseball player on the team, there are holes in a few positions, namely in middle infield, where they are lacking significantly. In the case with Hadwin, he has been close to winning before, most recently at the CareerBuilder Challenge where he shot a round of 59. It was simply a matter of time before he would eventually be in the winner’s circle. Next stop for him is the Masters in Augusta.

It used to be if a Canadian was in an event such as the Masters, or Wimbledon, or the Indianapolis 500, the notion is: “we are just glad to be here.” Not anymore. With the exception of perhaps soccer, Canadians are expected to compete, if not win, on a regular basis in every sport, not just hockey. That is a different mindset than say 10 years ago or even longer where we would settle for a participation medal. With better athletes and better training, Canadians are expected to take home the hardware when they take on the rest of the world.

The difference I believe is attitude. At one time, winning a championship was seen as too difficult of a task. Now it is looked at as a challenge everyone wants to face. To me, that is a good sign that Canadians have goals, some albeit lofty, that they expect to meet. The days of just hoping and praying are over. Today’s Canadian athletes are able to control their own fate more often.

Now, there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to actually winning championships. Canada’s baseball team needs a middle infield to go with the strong pitching and power hitting. Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard will have to overcome their physical setbacks before they can compete in major tennis tournaments. Canada’s basketball team is one Center away before they become a serious threat to the dominating US team.

But one thing is for sure, athletes need to continue to aim high. That separates the participants from the contenders and it will bode well for Canada in producing not just great athletes, but champions.

Also see:

Do You Need International Success to be a Great Canadian Athlete?
Lessons From the World Juniors
Olympics are All About the Games

 

There is Something to be Said About Loyalty

Standard

there-is-something-to-be-said-about-loyaltyThe late Tony Gwynn played 20 seasons with one team, the San Diego Padres. Despite a Hall of Fame career that included 8 batting titles, 5 gold glove awards, and 15 all-star appearances, Gwynn appeared in only 2 World Series, both times he was on the losing team. The Padres franchise had just a handful of winning seasons with Gwynn on the team. But the thought of leaving for another team never entered his mind. Gwynn is perhaps an example of loyalty.

There are other two names that come to mind, Shane Doan of the Arizona Coyotes and Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns. Both players have established themselves of being elite players on teams that would be best described as mediocre. Both deserve to be in their respective Hall of Fames once their careers are over. But neither have asked to be traded to a contending team nor have they gone on the market and signed with another team. They decided to stay where they are.

You could be excused if you were someone like Kevin Durant or LeBron James who left their respective teams to join ones who are already championship calibre or a so-called “Super Team” where the line up is made up of superstar quality athletes. But to those who stuck it out with one team or one organization throughout their entire career, you should be saluted. To them, it is more about being associated with one team than it is about winning championships. I find that people appreciate a player’s loyalty even if they had every reason to leave.

Loyalty is perhaps the most unappreciated quality in the world. No one seems to care if you dedicate yourself to one team or organization. In fact, loyalty is often seen by some as being associated with losers. But if you are one who works hard and shows up everyday, you maybe on a losing team but you are hardly a loser. Sometimes being a big fish in a small pond is better than being one of million in an ocean.

So let’s give kudos to those who are staying with the only place they knew for their entire lives. One maybe a lonely number, but for some, it is the only number they know.

Also see:

Stability Key to a Successful Team?
Backers Abandon Cam, Broncos Win One for Peyton
Is it Always Good to Go Out on Top?