Finally: Alex Ovechkin Gets His First Cup

 

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After 13 seasons… finally. After over 1100+ career NHL games… finally. After years of criticism… finally, finally Alex Ovechkin is a Stanley Cup Champion. Now if you ever attempted to besmirch Ovie and his love for the game, I want to say shame on you, tell me this guy does not care. Some of you were lucky enough to watch that live. Whereas my evening came to its peak when I was attempting to find a stream on a usual Twitter streaming feed and instead found that beautiful man’s reaction. I want you to know I almost cried watching that. Ovie is such a special player, he plays with so much heart, energy and passion, it always bothered me how the Capitals as a team did not always radiate the same qualities, however this season they did. And finally, they got over the hump. This piece does not have much direction, and for me is informal, but it is a reaction and in some ways an appreciation article, for the man who deserves it most.

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As mentioned in my previous article, this man was thought to be potential trade bait at this time last year, which is absolutely ridiculous. The Great Eight has played 121 playoff games tallying 117 points (5th best) since the 2005-06 season. Yet he was described by pundits as distracted and a non-big game player, those pundits were proven to be erroneous. Ovie not only won the Cup, but took home the Conn Smythe as MVP of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with 15 goals and 27 points. He was the most valuable player of this year’s playoffs, on and off the ice, inspiring his teammates to move on and move forward.

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In a year where hockey has made me real sad, Ovie was the last flame of hope. Keeping me interested, and then finally pulling me in for a full-fledged ride when he got another chance to slay Crosby. Upon punishing the Penguins for past crimes committed to the Capitals, I saw a man who was relieved and who was full of pure happiness. Right there and then, I was hooked again, all in for Ovechkin and his Capitals. The series against the Lightning turned on its head, and the Capitals looked to be in trouble, but after a valiant Game 6 performance from the Capitals. Their leader exploded and propelled them to a Game 7 win. There and then, as the Capitals celebrated their 4-0 win, my father, not the biggest sports fan said “They are going to be terrified”. Of course he was referring to Vegas, who he believed were doomed to succumb to the awesome power of the Capitals. Well he was proven right, as in 5 games the Washington Capitals vanquished the Cinderella Golden Knights.

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“We’re not gonna be suck this year”, a promise Ovechkin made in September to his teammates, fans and himself. It was an absolute rollercoaster of emotions for Ovechkin, but he never shied away, even when nailed in the face by an errant puck. He was clutch, he was passionate and he was relieved. Nobody deserves it more to be told that finally… Alexander Ovechkin, you are a Stanley Cup Champion. What do we do now Ovie?

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1 Game: The Great Eight’s Chance at Destiny

 

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Alexander Ovechkin has always been a lightning rod for criticism. He has been called selfish, a coach-killer and not a team-player. A year ago, Ovechkin’s critics even said it was time for the Capitals to explore trading the 7-time Maurice Rocket Richard winner. And to whom was Ovechkin supposed to be traded to you ask? None other than the Vegas Golden Knights, the same team awaiting Game 7’s winner.

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Ovechkin who was dangled as aforementioned trade-bait, lit up the league in goal-scoring this year. The Russian Machine scored a league-best 49 goals, which was 19.14% of the Capitals goals and he had 87 points in a full workload of 82 games. To explain just how valuable he was this year, the Capitals record when Ovechkin scored a goal this year was 28-7-2. When he did not score the Capitals were mediocre with a 21-19-5 record. He is the fuel which powers this locomotive. The Capitals regular-season success, for once, has translated to success in the playoffs.

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They were down 2-0 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and looked bound for another playoff failure. However, they showed resiliency. The Capitals went into Ohio and turned their playoffs around winning 4 in a row to oust the young Jackets. Then came a familiar foe, Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Everyone had written them off, the memes were ready, Penguin fans were packing their bags for Tampa Bay, and then this happened. The so-called choker led his team to an improbable Game 3 win in Pittsburgh, and this lit a new fire underneath the Capitals. With the split in Pittsburgh, they came home to Washington and won a highly-contested Game 5. Then come Game 6, the Capitals once more got a clutch play from their Russian captain. The Great Eight sprung Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway, which sent my elliptical workout into a full sprint. This full sprint turned into a full stop as Kuzy deposited the puck past Murray. I accordingly jumped off to celebrate, and also to shove it in my editor’s face that Ovechkin and the lads had finally beat the Penguins. Once more, with their backs against the walls this evening Ovechkin and the Capitals fought off the Tampa Bay Lightning and earned themselves a Game 7.

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Ovechkin on Monday was asked if Game 6 was the most important game of his life, he said “probably”. He then claimed “Tonight is the night”, in response to the Capitals meager home-ice success throughout these playoffs. Ovechkin delivered tonight, and surprisingly not on the scoresheet, but rather by leadership and example. The Russian superstar used his body to deliver punishing hits and was a ball of desperate energy, attempting to will the Capitals to victory. His efforts inspired his teammates, who played their best game of the playoffs. The Capitals knew it was life or death, and they played like this was their last chance. Come Wednesday they will need a similar effort, if they aim to knock off the Lighting in Tampa Bay. As someone who has followed the Capitals closely during the Ovechkin era, let me say this year truly feels different. The Capitals were pegged as early outs, and a non-juggernaut, yet here we are, Alex Ovechkin and Washington are 1 game away from the Stanley Cup Final. Would it not be fitting for Ovechkin’s rebound season to be capped off by beating the team who was rumoured to be exploring a trade for him?

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It is truly a showdown fitting of its stage, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 1 game to decide it all. It would be naïve of me to not acknowledge Tampa Bay’s deep lineup and efficient system, however the Capitals have met teams such as this head on all season. They have been through and hell and came back, their desperation and ability to fight back will be front and centre during Game 7. All 18 skaters will give every last iota of energy and effort they can muster, and Holtby will have a great game. Ovie’s teammates will follow their brave leader into battle. I am totally going to regret this, but Game 7 will be a 3-2 Capitals win. There is your bold claim, please feel free to @ me when this goes wrong. I will leave you saying if you are still an Ovechkin doubter, then I ask you to simply recognize the determination and passion this man plays with, he is truly one of a kind. Go Caps Go, and let’s keep the ride going Ovie.

Put Up or Shut Up: The Raptors’ Roadmap to Beating King James

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For the 3rd straight year, the Toronto Raptors will face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs. The past 2 years were immensely disappointing for the Raptors. 2016 saw them lose a 6-game series, where they were, quite frankly out-classed in Games 5 & 6. To add salt in the wound, last year they were utterly embarrassed as they got swept to the curb in 4 games. In both of those series the Raptors were underdogs according to seeding, talent and experience. However this year, while the Raptors remain underdogs in talent and experience, they hold the seeding advantage over the Cavs. Accordingly, they hold home-court advantage – the Air Canada Center is a hostile environment where the Raptors are not only comfortable, but thrive. Therefore, the excuses need to stop, it’s time to put up or shut up for the Raptors.

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Of the 3 years the Raptors have met Cleveland, the Cavaliers have never been weaker. Kyrie Irving is gone, Kevin Love has been woefully inconsistent as of late and the Cavaliers’ bench and role players are a shell of their former selves. The Cavaliers are more dependent on LeBron than ever before. He willed them through a grueling 1st round series against the Indiana Pacers, which went 7 games and came down to the wire. That being said, the Raptors cannot stop King James offensively and they absolutely cannot match him in star power. But, there are 4 ways in which they can improve their chances at dethroning King James – and they will need to excel at all 4 if they want a chance at redemption.

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#1: Sticking To The Game-plan

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Raptors underwent a drastic culture change. A team who undermined themselves in the playoffs with their isolation-heavy offense, the Raptors took a step forward this year by improving their ball movement and 3-point shooting. The Raptors attempted 35.4% more 3-pointers this season as compared to last, and ranked 4th in 3-pointers made. During the 1st round, the Raptors torched the Washington Wizards from 3-point land, cashing in on 41% of their attempted 3’s – up 5.2% from their regular-season numbers. Re-visiting ball movement, their assist numbers were also up 31.5% as they have increasingly emphasized team basketball. This helped up the Raptors scoring to 111.7 points per game, good enough for 4th in the NBA. Unfortunately, their ball movement has begun to dip during post-season play. The Raptors dropped from 24.3 assists per game to 22.2, and DeMar DeRozan – the Raptors best player in isolation – has seen his scoring frequency drop from 49.2% in the regular season to 36.8% during the 1st round. With DeRozan likely to go head-to-head with LeBron on offense, isolation will want to be avoided, as the Raptors ball movement and team basketball will prove to be more successful than asking DeRozan to consistently beat LeBron 1-on-1.

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#2: More Jonas and Less Serge

Toronto’s Head Coach Dwane Casey is finally starting to see value in his starting center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas averaged 24.7 minutes per game during the regular-season, but during the first 4 games of the 1st round he played 23 minutes or less. Including playoffs when Valanciunas plays 23 minutes or less the Raptors are 33-15 (68.75%) compared to 27-10 (72.97%) when Valanciunas plays 24 minutes or more. The Raptors series against Washington changed altogether when Valanciunas got court-time during the 4th quarter something that had previously eluded him under Casey’s tutelage. The Raptors were +25 in just under 15 minutes when JV played in the 4th quarter, as opposed to the Raptors usual 4th quarter center, Serge Ibaka who was just +2 in slight less than 24 minutes of 4th quarter play. Ibaka is not what he once was, and his overall effectiveness, particularly this post-season is similar to that of his sophomore year. Furthermore, JV has proven to be a much better match-up versus Cleveland this year compared to Ibaka, who despite more minutes was significantly outdone by JV in points per game, rebounds per game, plus-minus and shooting efficiency against Cleveland. The Cavaliers have failed to find consistency at center, as Tristan Thompson has been an up and down rollercoaster all season, so this would be the ideal time for Valanciunas to bang bodies down low. He would be tested defensively, specifically if he was matched up with Kevin Love who can spread the floor, but this is the challenge JV needs to reach another level. I believe Valanciunas is the x-factor for this Raptors team, and that he can be a difference maker. With an uptick in minutes for JV, and a reduction in minutes for Ibaka, both players can benefit. Valanciunas being a match-up nightmare, and Ibaka providing more impactful minutes with his additional rest.

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#3: Contest the Glass and Shots

It is easy to see why the Raptors must contest the glass, as the more rebounds they grab the less time they give LeBron to run the Cavaliers offense. While the Cavaliers do not excel at grabbing rebounds (14th of 16 playoff teams), they are tough on their opponents down-low, as they contested 39.1% of the rebounds in their series versus Indiana (3rd of 16). Contesting rebounds wears down opponents, and can slow down their offense or even create extra possessions for your offense. The Raptors contested 35.8% of the rebounds versus Washington, and while that is great, their rebounding overall was underwhelming. The Raptors lack great rebounders as they try to play small, but this is where Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl are important as they can make a huge difference on the glass. The European duo will likely be rotated on and off for each other in many of the Raptors lineups against Cleveland, and accordingly when on the court these 2 need to be absolutely ferocious in the paint. Among qualified players, only 14 players have contested 50% or more of their rebounds this playoffs – and both JV and Poeltl find themselves on this list. These numbers not only need to be maintained, but improved by the supporting cast. Rebounding must be by committee, just like the defense. At 1:22 of TSN’s segment with Jack Armstrong & Leo Rautins, the pair expertly break down how the Raptors closed out Game 6 versus Washington. Not only were shots being contested, but as soon as the ball went into the air 4 Raptors collapsed into the paint, so as to box out and rebound the ball. The Raptors led round 1 of the playoffs in contested shots, contesting 70 shots per game. However, that was largely because of their defense inside the perimeter. The Raptors ranked 2nd last in contested 3-pointers, something which will need to improve against a potent 3-point shooting team like the Cavs. The Raptors will need to contest everything versus the Cavaliers, and accordingly wear them down.

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#4: The 1-2 Bench Punch

The bench includes the unsung heroes of the Toronto Raptors; from Delon Wright to Pascal Siakam, the Raptors bench is the best in the league. They can go deeper than any other team and they can mix and match with the best because of their depth. They bring defense, energy and team basketball. Anyone can get hot from the field, many can lockdown a hot scorer and they will all go to war. However, there are 2 players who stand above the rest. In the 1st round the Raptors were without Fred VanVleet, an undrafted sophomore out of Wichita State, but his impact was felt in Game 6. The Raptors were +12 with VanVleet on the court, and he gives them unmatched poise and confidence in the 4th quarter. VanVleet has shown this poise and confidence, by playing more 4th quarter minutes than any other Raptor this season. He is crucial for helping close out games, but he has help in Delon Wright who has also been incredible down the stretch for Toronto. Wright is longer than VanVleet and offers more versatility defensively as despite being a point guard he stands at 6’5 with a 6’7 wingspan. Watch here, how Wright uses his length and size to create something out of a dead possession. Not only is he a floor general when Lowry is not on the court, but he is also lethal off-the-ball as his basketball IQ helps him find open shots. From the same game as before, we see Wright never take his eyes off the ball while moving his feet to give Lowry a secondary option, which in turn results in a high percentage 3-pointer. These 2 will be vital to match Cleveland when they go small, and they can protect Toronto’s big men by closing out the perimeter.

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At the end of the playoffs last year I was admittedly frustrated with the Toronto Raptors and thought they were cooked. However, with a reworked culture and playstyle, the Raptors have gone to another level, and have a legitimate shot at beating the Cavaliers. Now while they can, the million dollar question is: will the Raptors be able to defeat LeBron James and the Cavaliers? Unfathomable to my former-self a year-ago, I am now going to answer yes. In most scenarios I would pick LeBron regardless of who he was playing against. But, this year feels different. LeBron’s supporting cast is as weak as ever, and the Raptors have never been stronger. This smells like a 7-game series that will be a war. One thing I am certain of is that the Raptors need to stay the course with their reworked culture, while following the outlined roadmap. Otherwise King James will simply be all too much to handle. This is it Toronto, there is no time for talking or complaining.

 

It is time to put up or shut up.

 

Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful day. Go Raps Go!

LeBron Season: Where will LeBron James land this summer?

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LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world –  this is an irrefutable fact and needs to be acknowledged. On numerous occasions he has won the NBA Championship, each time as the best player in the world, and has even delivered upon his promise to bring the fledgling Cavaliers franchise a championship.

Getting down to business, LeBron is in the last year of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers made a number of  moves at the trade deadline to help them both in the future, and for the remainder of this season. This begs the question: will LeBron stay, or go? I believe his mind is already made up. This July, LeBron will be taking his talents to a new destination.

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The Cavaliers have been attempting to prepare for life without LeBron for awhile. The team’s recent moves, while productive and calculated in the short-term, are more focused on the future rather than the now. The players they brought in (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance) are not rentals, but rather insurance policies, as the Cavaliers know the likelihood of LeBron’s departure is quite high. With LeBron’s departure seemingly imminent, the question remains: where would LeBron go? Let’s visit where LeBron is at both professionally and personally.

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He is one of the most accomplished basketball players of all-time, achieving the title of world’s best player, as well as building a global brand. LeBron’s brand includes: Klutch Sports Group – the brainchild of Rich Paul and LeBron – was the 34th ranked sports agency by commissions ($20.7M) in the world during 2017. During the All-Star Game, LeBron had the phrase “More Than an Athlete” on his shoes, a slogan used by both him and his production company Uninterrupted. LeBron’s initial $1 million investment in Blaze Pizza is now estimated to be valued at a minimum of $35 million. On top of all of this, LeBron has a minor stake in Liverpool FC. It is clearly evident that one of the world’s top athletes’ business interests extend well beyond the basketball court. Therefore, it would only make sense for LeBron to take his talents to a bigger U.S. market in an effort to further expand his brand. According to this theory, only 3 NBA teams would make sense for LeBron.

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Firstly let’s open with the obvious one. The Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron have been linked for some time. LeBron has had quite a few television and movie ventures, so it would only make sense that the star makes his commute to Hollywood much shorter. Furthermore, Klutch Sports’ current location is Cleveland, Ohio. Assuming LeBron wants to continue its growth, a bigger market such as Los Angeles would be a great business move. In December, LeBron, who spends off-season time in L.A., bought a second home in the Brentwood neighbourhood. Additionally, rumours have surfaced that LeBron’s family has been scoping out private schools in the Brentwood area for his children. However, recently the Los Angeles Lakers have cooled off on their expected pursuit of LeBron.

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First reported by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers are intending to shift their focus and priorities to the 2019 free agency class. A class which would include the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson, both Los Angeles natives. However, the Lakers did make moves at the trade deadline to clear cap space for not only the summer of 2019, but for this summer as well. The hunt for LeBron could still be on for the Lakers, but I believe their little brother could slip in and steal The King away.

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“Our ultimate goal isn’t to beat one other team…. It’s to beat 29 other teams. If you tell me you were the top team in L.A., but the 28th team in the league, I say to heck with that.” Steve Ballmer, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has made it apparent that his intentions for NBA success remain focused on winning the NBA Championship. What better way to position your franchise than to have the best basketball player in the world? LeBron could easily end up on the Clippers. The Clippers off-loaded Blake Griffin’s max contract this season to make cap room, and, with some tinkering of the roster, there could be a Clippers future with LeBron James. With the Clippers front-office working overtime to make cap room, Jerry West, now a consultant for the Clippers, has the opportunity to lure LeBron to the franchise. A man LeBron refers to as “The Godfather”, West was brought in by Steve Ballmer for this exact purpose: to attract and recruit the best basketball players in the world. It must be reiterated that this move for LeBron would not only be a great move on the court, but off the court too, as he would not only be in Los Angeles, but he would also be aligned with multi-billionaire Steve Ballmer. The Clippers may seem to be a darkhorse in this race, but as time continues to pass, it seems more and more plausible for LeBron to be a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.

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Another plausible destination for LeBron is Houston. Teaming up with Chris Paul, James Harden, and the rest of the Rockets,they could turn an already established title-contender into a potential favourite, even over the Warriors. This move for LeBron would undoubtedly be more oriented towards winning and basketball, but it would also leave room for growth off the court as well. Houston is a Top 10 media market in the U.S., one of the fastest growing cities in America, and has tax exceptions to allow LeBron to retain more of his paycheque. Houston would be a great location for LeBron to move his empire. It seems like a perfect fit, except for one potential problem. LeBron is very passionate about politics, and going to Texas means he would be in a state which primarily supports Donald Trump – someone who LeBron does not see eye to eye with. Many are probably thinking, “Ya, but why would LeBron care?” To those people, remember LeBron’s motto “More Than an Athlete”. Would this be a deal-breaker for LeBron? No way, but I believe that LeBron’s political agenda will certainly have an influence on his decision as to where he would like to play.

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Those are the three teams which best fit my theory for LeBron. Does this mean LeBron to Los Angeles or Houston is a sure thing? Absolutely not, there are plenty of other teams which may make sense too. But, none seem to compliment LeBron’s on-court play and off-court interests quite like these three franchises. A lot of things could change by July, but rest assured, we will be kept guessing and theory-crafting all the way up until LeBron James signs his next contract.  

Disagree with me, or have some feedback? Let me know on Twitter (@sassysaslove), on my personal Facebook, or in the comment section below. Please do not forget to share my work with your friends, and to stay tuned for more of my posts. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to grab your attention again sometime soon.  

Unforgivable: Trading Away The Ottawa Senators

Unforgivable: Trading Away The Ottawa Senators

How did it come to this?

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May 25th, 2017, Chris Kunitz made a whole city stand still and weep. That evening, in double overtime the Pittsburgh Penguins sunk the Ottawa Senators ship, and the most magical season I have experienced as a Senators fan was over. The season had it all; drama, adversity, ecstasy and excitement, but most importantly it made me proud to be a Sens fan. The Ottawa Senators were the choo-choo train that could, the underdog, a sign of inspiration. Clarke MacArthur, who scratched and clawed just to play was defying the odds and producing in the playoffs. Craig Anderson, whose mind was certainly at home was able to shut down potent offenses and carry the Sens to victories. And finally, the fearless captain of the Ottawa Senators, Erik Karlsson, on one foot was introducing the hockey world to his awesomeness that had been gifted to Senator Fans throughout his career. It was simply magical. 9 months later that feels like a lifetime ago, and the Ottawa Senators could be days, maybe even hours away from trading Erik Karlsson.

How did it come to this?

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My Twitter timeline used to be filled with optimism. Is this the beginning of something special? Could Bobby Ryan be a serviceable Top-6 forward? Are the Sens poised to be a playoff team for years to come? All these questions were asked, and for the most part, the Sens fan-base happily discussed these questions. Today, my Twitter timeline makes me want to cry. We have evolved from, what will the Erik Karlsson’s next Senators contract look like? To when will Erik Karlsson be traded from the Sens?

How did it come to this?

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The franchise player, a generational talent and the captain of the Ottawa Senators being dangled as trade bait. It is appallingly bad. I am more insulted by this, then when Eugene Melnyk publicly denounced the Sens fans. In what world can a franchise improve by trading its best players, who’s in his prime? Karlsson has endured a tough season, but the blame is certainly not all on his shoulders. His teammates, management and ownership have all performed poorly. Yet he we are, seriously debating as to when he will be traded. He is the beginning of the solution to the woes of this franchise, he is the franchise player.

How did it come to this?

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July 5th, 2013, Ottawa was left confused and horrified when Ottawa Senators’ captain Daniel Alfredsson walked. The greatest Ottawa Senator of all-time left the only NHL franchise he had ever known. On that day many fans walked away with Alfie, leaving the Sens. I myself even took a pause from Sens fandom, to heal the wounds that were left by Alfie’s departure. These wounds only began to reach a fully healed state last year, when I felt comfortable enough to allow this team to consume me. Along with myself, many fans have returned. The Sens even created new fans last season with their magical run. Yet after all that, here we are again. The Ottawa Senators are once again preparing to move on from their captain. Letting Alfredsson walk, thereby hurt the Sens relationship with their fans. Trading Karlsson would not hurt the relationship with Senator Fans, it would end it.

How did it come to this?

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Before last season I explained to many that the Ottawa Senators would arguably be a bottom-five team in the NHL without Karlsson. This season, they would unquestionably the worst team in the league without him. If the Sens trade Karlsson forget about being the worst team, the Sens become the worst franchise in the NHL. Hell, they would become one of the worst franchises in professional sports. Ottawa is a fair-weather town, and Karlsson will take the sun and fans with him. Fans will stop buying season-tickets, children will choose heroes outside of Ottawa and Ottawa sport fans’ support will shift towards Lansdowne.

How did it come to this?

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Two months ago I would have said there was no possible way the Sens would trade Karlsson. A month ago I would have said they would only trade him if he refused to re-sign with the Sens. Today I believe they are going to trade him, get absolutely fleeced, and look back on it, thinking “why in the world did we do that?” At that same moment the Ottawa Senators will have played their last game in Ottawa. At that same moment, Quebec City will be preparing to welcome a relocated franchise, and former Ottawa Senator Fans will be left thinking about what could have been. If the Sens trade Erik Karlsson, I truly do not see a future for the franchise under the tutelage of Eugene Melnyk.

How did it come to this?

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Mr. Melnyk has been adamant that he wants to maintain ownership of the Ottawa Senators, despite his damaged relationship with the fans. The relationship between himself and the Sens fan-base would be unrepairable if he was to trade Karlsson. And yes, I say he, because he has made it extremely clear that this is HIS hockey team. He made that clear when Daniel Alfredsson left. He made it clear when Kyle Turris was traded. He made it clear when he hi-jacked the NHL 100 Classic festivities to take shots at his own fans. The man who once saved the Sens from complete implosion has become not just a villain, he has become hated. #MelnykOut was and still is a popular trend in social media used by fans to describe their disdain for the Sens owner. Instead of seeing the end of Melnyk’s tenure in Ottawa, we could be days, maybe even hours from the end of Karlsson’s tenure in Ottawa. It is an awful nightmare. This has been the saddest and toughest season I have ever experienced as a Sens fan. I am embarrassed to be a Sens fan, and I am not sure if I will be able to stomach a trade involving Erik Karlsson. Trading Karlsson would be in a word, unforgivable. How did it come this?

 

 

Thank you for reading as always.

The Case for Canada: Adding a Canadian Team to March Madness

The Case for Canada: Adding a Canadian Team to March Madness

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March Madness is one of the greatest spectacles in sport. For nearly a full month, 68 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division 1 schools fight to be the sole survivor and be crowned NCAA champions. This tournament has exploded in popularity over the past 2 decades. The tournament’s audience has also expanded north of the border, as Canadians have begun to join in on the basketball craze. In 2015, Bell Media reported a 24% increase in viewership for March Madness compared to the 2014 tournament. In total, 6.9 million unique Canadian viewers took in a portion of the 2015 tournament. Furthermore, that year’s Final saw a 62% increase in viewership compared to 2014’s. ​

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Much of this increase in viewership came with TSN’s expanded coverage of the NCAA in 2014, but in particular their coverage of the Kansas Jayhawks because of young Canadian Andrew Wiggins. However, for the viewership to not only hold, but increase in 2015, it showed excellent promise for the future marketability of March Madness in Canada. This poses the question, other than viewership, how could the NCAA market March Madness to Canadians? This has been done with Canadian players. In 2017, 26 Canadians took part in March Madness, highlighted with the Oregon Ducks and their trio of Canadians (Dillion Brooks, Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis) who made a Final Four run. Canadian basketball and its influence on the NCAA is at its peak, as Canada continues to churn out high quality prospects, highlighted by next year’s #1 recruit R.J. Barrett. Barrett has committed to Duke University, and will certainly be garnering the attention of Canadians in the lead-up to March Madness.

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In the fallout of next year’s tournament, and in the wake of potential increased viewership, the NCAA should take the next step for expansion into the Canadian market. Give the U SPORTS champion a spot in March Madness. Currently, U SPORTS men’s basketball holds their annual Final 8 tournament the week before March Madness. Therefore, it would only make sense that the winner of the Final 8 would gain a spot in the NCAA tournament and represent Canada in March Madness. This idea may seem far-fetched, but hear me out. NCAA pre-season games vs U SPORTS schools have shown that Canadian schools can hang with mid to high majors and even some Power 6 teams. The Carleton Ravens, the class of USPORTS men’s basketball, played 11 pre-season games versus D-1 NCAA schools in 2017. They went 9-2, winning all 3 games against Power 6 conference teams. Furthermore, in the majority of these games the NCAA schools were playing their starters. Alabama, who lost 84-71, played projected NBA lottery pick, Collin Sexton. Sexton went 4 of 13 from the field and was held to just 15 points. While these may be pre-season games, they should also be huge indicators of the quality U SPORTS possesses.

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In spite of this talent, I do agree it would be unfair to take away a spot from an NCAA team who earned it, especially mid-major schools. But, there is a solution. When the First Four was introduced it took March Madness from 64 to 68 teams, adding in 4 “play-in” games for bubble teams and low mid-major conference winners. The winners of the First Four games make it to the First Round of March Madness, joining 60 other teams. The First Four is annually held in Dayton, Ohio on the Tuesday and Wednesday before March Madness begin, and has helped expand the tournament’s length and media presence. With this in mind, why not have 2 First Fours? This solution appeases 2 populations; the angry fans of bubble teams who missed out on the tournament thanks to the selection committee, and it appeases Canada who would get to see a U SPORTS school do battle with NCAA schools in March Madness. Angry populations of many NCAA mid-majors could benefit from additional at-large bids. Schools such as Monmouth, who, despite a 27-7 record, missed out on March Madness last year, would instead get an opportunity to participate with these additional “play-in” games.

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The venue for this second First Four could easily be Buffalo, who hosted First/Second round March Madness match-ups last year. Putting the second First Four in Buffalo also gives a pipeline for Canadians to come and take in the First Four action as it borders Canada. Consequently, Southern Ontario and Toronto itself could make the trip down. These two regions have never been more interested in basketball with the Toronto Raptors rise in popularity. While adding more teams to March Madness may seem over-saturated, an additional 4 teams makes much more sense than the NCAA’s pondered expansion to 128 teams.

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This expansion would do wonders for the NCAA, as it is not only an expansion of their tournament, but of their market. Furthermore, it could elevate Canadian basketball to an even higher level and encourage more youth to dribble a basketball. In a time where the NCAA has seen some of its basketball programs go under FBI investigation, it may be wise to shed a positive light by granting a huge opportunity to a U SPORTS school. Is it possible to expect anything like this to happen within the next 5 years? Probably not. But, the NCAA would be naïve to brush this aside. The numbers do not lie, and they spell success for the NCAA with the addition of the U SPORTS champion to March Madness.

Diamond In The Rough: Mark Stone’s Emergence As A Leader     

Diamond In The Rough: Mark Stone’s Emergence As A Leader

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On July 8, 2009, the Ottawa Senators traded Alex Auld to the Dallas Stars for their 6th round draft pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The trade would become a memorable one for Sens fans. With the pick, the team selected Mark Stone from the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. Once projected to be a Top-50 pick, the forward’s injuries and below-average skating ability hampered his draft stock.

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After being drafted, Stone would score 229 points in 137 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings, and, in 2012, would give Senator fans a glimpse into their future. The Senators chose to recall Stone for a pivotal 1st round Game 5 match-up vs the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Stone played a meager 8:43, but showed his offensive capability by recording 3:35 in power-play time and recording the primary assist on Jason Spezza’s game-winning goal.

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It was not until the 2014-15 season, though, that Stone secured an opening night roster spot. Since then, Stone has become a treat to watch due to his offensive abilities. In his first 226 games, Stone tallied 179 points and 339 takeaways, over 100 more than any other player in the NHL. Stone is a masterful two-way forward, able to pick opponents’ pockets and turn takeaways into offensive opportunities.

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Outside of Ottawa, many fans have overlooked Mark Stone. He was left off of TSN’s list of the top 50 players for the 2017-18 season, and his projected goal total was just over 20. Stone has exploded this season: in 43 games, he has 18 goals and 42 points. In a year where the Senators have struggled, Stone has been an offensive mainstay. Stone has used his quick hands in tight to fill the net this season.

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Stone has not lost sight of the main goal; to win hockey games. In December, frustrated with his team’s play after another blowout loss, Stone called out the locker room, This has not been the only time Stone has been the loudest voice among his peers. A no non-sense approach, accompanied by blunt and critical statements, has made Stone a leader on and off the ice. This approach has grabbed the attention of the Senators organization and management.

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Shortly after these comments, the Senators asked their players for their no-trade lists, signalling that change could be on the way. For a period of time, the entire Senators organization was being openly scrutinized. Then, Pierre Dorion and the Senators made their best decision of the season. While Dorion did indicate the Senators were ready to make roster moves, they also made it clear that Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone were untouchable. The once-6th round pick was not only having a spectacular season, but his value was deemed so important that the Senators found him unmovable. Once a diamond in the rough, Mark Stone is now one of the few positives found on an underachieving hockey team as they have hit the mid-point of their season.

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The Senators are in rough shape, and no bye week could hide that. But, this team and organization has a knack for stringing together wins in the second half of their season. It would be surprising to see them tank, and there is no way Stone will stop playing hard. As many may remember, the “Hamburglar” run of 2015 was the Andrew Hammond story. Yet, this was the beginning of Stone’s coming out party. In his last 27 games of 2014-15, Stone recorded 31 points, and finished the season on a 9-game point streak. If the Senators are going to have any hope of making the playoffs, they will need this sort of production from Stone. A tall task, but it would be a shock if he did not provide it.