A League Of Its Own: Irving for Thomas

A League Of Its Own: Irving for Thomas

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Kyrie Irving will play his first game of the 2017-18 NBA season in Quicken Loans Arena on October 17th. Irving won’t enter as a Cavalier, though. People called Celtics fans crazy when trade rumours hinted that Irving could be traded for Isaiah Thomas. Yet, on Tuesday evening, an impossible deal became a reality. Danny Ainge’s overhaul is complete: Kyrie Irving is the final piece of the puzzle. But, will Kyrie be enough to push the Celtics over Cleveland?

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Isaiah Thomas’ injury in the 2017 NBA Playoffs brought Boston’s championship hopes to a halt, as the team managed only one victory against the Eastern champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics and Cavaliers will likely meet in the same place this year. But, the series will now focus on LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. This is the dream scenario. The greatest basketball player in the world versus his former sidekick, who was accredited with winning him a title in 2016. LeBron who got back in the gym immediately after losing the NBA Finals vs Kyrie who mocked LeBron with Steph Curry after the video was posted. The series will pit the greatest player in the world against an old teammate. The rivalry will be good; however, Irving will need to elevate his play to make it great.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving is an extremely talented player, who has shown an ability to step up in important moments. However, Irving has never been “the guy”. Having lived in LeBron’s shadow for the majority of his NBA successes, Irving has played a supporting role alongside one of the all-time greats. Now, Irving has been given the starring role on the Celtics, and must run with it. These improvements must come in his play-making ability. Irving did not control the ball while in Cleveland, despite being point guard. Ball-handling duties lay with Lebron James, and Kyrie benefited from his elite play-making. It will be a different story in Boston, as Irving will be running the show. For the Celtics to excel, Irving must thrive as the star of the team.

Now what has LeBron been left with in Cleveland?

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The full package for Irving saw Cleveland receive Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets 2018 1st round pick. Thomas is a downgrade from Irving in the long-term; though, Thomas had a spectacular season last year, leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland knows exactly what it will get from Crowder, a gritty defender who will come off the bench and play tough minutes. Zizic and the Nets pick give the Cavaliers flexibility. If the season goes poorly, they can hold onto these assets and start stacking prospects and picks. Although, the more likely avenue is for the Cavaliers to shop Zizic and the Nets pick, and get another piece. That begs the question: who will this piece be?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at New Orleans Pelicans

The exiled, loud mouthed, and talented Demarcus Cousins. Why not? One of the best big men in the NBA, and a considerable upgrade over Tristan Thompson. Cousins is likely on his way out of New Orleans by the end of the season anyways, as he has an expiring contract. This way, the Pelicans can stockpile an extremely valuable pick with the Nets pick, and potentially even land a prospect in Zizic. Another weapon that LeBron can spread the floor with would bring the Cavaliers that much closer to the Golden State Warriors, and maybe help them create an inside presence that the Warriors could not handle. Obviously, this is the best case scenario for the Cavs, and would not happen overnight. This is a trade that would likely happen mid-season if the Pelicans’ experiment with Cousins and Davis continues to fail. It would be a gamble. With this likely being LeBron’s last season in Cleveland, the Cavaliers may sell the proverbial farm for one final run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

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The first of its kind, the Irving-Thomas trade has the chance to be historic for both sides. A win-win trade, where both teams could be better in the short-term. Boston will be better off long-term, if Irving takes the next step. Although, the onus now falls on the aforementioned Irving. He got his wish, he is the finally “the guy”. The Duke product needs to seize this opportunity and never look back. Kyrie has a chance to step out of LeBron’s shadow, the spotlight is on him.

Head on over to my Twitter (@sassysaslove) or my Facebook to continue the discussion!

Please also vote on this week’s Twitter Polls:

Thanks to everyone who read this article, it feels great to be back writing after the summer off, and I will be trying to pump out even more content this year! As always, thank you to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing process, and I will hope to see you again next week for more of JSST!

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Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (May. 4-10)

Something Smells: The NBA Playoffs Are Not Special

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It would be an understatement to say that I like sports: if I’m not watching a game on TV, I’m likely checking scores in other games or following breaking stories on the Internet. This spring, though, I have found myself watching little of the NBA playoffs. While I stay up to date on Twitter watching highlights and clips, I cannot bear to sit through an entire game. The game has become dominated by two super-teams, and the first three rounds serve only as formalities in reaching their inevitable faceoff. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are both 8-0 through the first two rounds and their average margin of victory is 13.06 points. It is rare that their opponent is competitive. While Cleveland and Golden State’s runs are impressive, they represent the worst of sports.

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A third-straight Cavaliers/Warriors Finals is the product of the larger issue in the NBA playoffs: a lack of parity. The problem lies with the lack of competitiveness in the playoffs now. Only one lower seed has been able to beat a higher seed in the NBA playoffs thus far, when the Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. The series was unquestionably the best of the NBA playoffs in the first round. The largest margin of victory in any game was eight points, and every game was tight. Though, the victor of that series had little to celebrate: Utah would go on to play the Warriors in the second round, and be bumped to the curb in four games and forgotten.

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Where is the parity? The NBA has a flawed model allowing teams to spend into the luxury tax. The luxury tax is in place to attempt to increase parity by taxing teams who spend over the salary cap. This cap is a “soft cap”, allowing teams to go over it by paying a penalty. The absence of a “hard cap”, however, has resulted in unprecedented disparity. Teams are able to assemble rosters of superstars that can only be beaten by one team – coincidentally, another super-team. The Golden State Warriors have benefited from Stephen Curry’s inexpensive contract, but have spent well past the salary cap in acquiring the likes of Kevin Durant. The Cavaliers, with Lebron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, have also employed this strategy.

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The era of Cleveland/Golden State finals match-ups has shown the need for a hard salary cap to ensure parity in the league. A hard cap would keep super-teams from assembling and make the early rounds of the playoffs competitive. Consider the National Hockey League for proof of a successful hard cap. While the NHL had endured decades of super-teams, the 2005-06 season brought a hard cap, and with it, newfound parity.

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The hard constant dogfight to stay at the top. NHL teams are constantly forced to re-organize, bring in short-term players, and be loose with their players in order to create their best product. Consider the Chicago Blackhawks. Their general manager, Stan Bowman, has been remodeling the team since their Stanley Cup in 2010. The Hawks have had to trade the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Andrew Ladd, and Nick Leddy to stay within the salary cap. These trades have seen elite players improving their new teams, furthering parity throughout the league. But, these moves have also kept the Blackhawks competitive for nearly a decade.

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Conversely, consider the Golden State Warriors. They have traded away worse players for upgrades. This summer the Warriors managed to acquire Zaza Pachulia for Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, and then traded Festus Ezeli. It does not seem to make sense to trade away all these role players, but of course they used this freed up money to acquire Kevin Durant. Instead of having to downgrade, the Warriors in their third year at the top of the NBA got a serious upgrade easily. The Hawks finally won a title after 49 years and instantly had to trim the fat. If the NBA wants to have competitive playoffs with consistent parity, there needs to be a shift in how money is spent on players, by spreading the talent of the league.

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The NBA is a wealthier enterprise than the NHL, and with their latest TV deal of $24 billion it is very difficult to argue that owners are not making money. With this mind, there is lots of money in place that could make the league much more competitive. With a proper salary cap in place, it is reasonable to believe that the NBA playoffs could truly be unpredictable. When was the last time the NBA had a Cinderella win the NBA Championship? 1995 is the answer. The Houston Rockets came in as a sixth-seed, having only won 47 games in the regular season. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets were able to upset three 60-win teams, and then take down the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA Finals. This was an incredible run, and can be best defined as unpredictable, something like this would never happen in the NBA today.

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The consistent results, and predictable outcomes are getting old. Charles Barkley from the NBA on TNT, provided a quality soundbite this past Monday, when he said he would rather watch the NHL playoffs than the NBA playoffs. Barkley went onto talk of how the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets match-up hardly mattered, as whoever would win that would simply be served to the Golden State Warriors on a platter. The Spurs and Rockets could play seven games against one another, and could have the best series of the playoffs. Yet, like the Utah Jazz in the second round, it will all be squandered by a super-team from Golden State.

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It is difficult to argue that super-teams are good for basketball, even from a financial standpoint. Super teams could bring a massive drop in the NBA’s viewership. This past season national viewership dipped by a modest 6%. However, the NBA took a big hit in local ratings. As of the first week of February, NBA regional sport networks reported they were down 15% in viewership. The ratings were not just dropping in small markets either, with Cleveland seeing a 28% drop-off in viewership compared to 2015-16 and seeing a 35% drop-off in viewership. Chicago and Cleveland are considered two of the NBA’s hottest markets, yet even they are seeing a large drop.

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It is time for change in the NBA. The Canadian markets are on fire right now, as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ local viewership rose by 27%, and Edmonton Oiler broadcasts were up an astounding 40%. CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada block at 7pm EST saw a 9% increase in viewership, while the 10pm EST block saw a 6% increase. The NBA lacks this growth, because they are bound to have the same narrative of Cavaliers and Warriors for three years in a row. While their ratings will not likely take a hit in the Finals, they will experience pain on the way there. No one will want to see the 28 other teams. All they will want to see is the two super teams play each other. Make every game matter again NBA.

 

Note to my readers: Sorry I could not provide you with the tidbits this week! I believe that with my schedule this summer I will subtract the tidbits for the summer, as I simply do not have the time to complete them and be satisfied with them. I will continue to attempt to punch out an article each week, however, and hope you stay along for the ride! Thank you for your support as always!

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 30-Apr.5)

Stubborn and Naïve: The Growing Rift Created between the NHL and its Players & Fans

Photography by Kristian Bogner Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved.

On February 28th, 2010, I found myself alone at home. My father was on the outskirts of Ottawa, helping run his motorsport club’s ice race, and my mother was at work at the hospital. I was alone watching the Canada/U.S. Gold Medal hockey game of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The game was a back and forth battle, pitting two bitter rivals against each other in a hostile environment. Late in the third period, the U.S. tied the game with 25 seconds left on a goal by Zach Parise. Watching Canada’s lead slip away was devastating, as the game moved on to an overtime period. The overtime had a feverish pace about it: chances were abundant on both sides and the crowd gasped and roared, depending on who had the puck. About seven minutes in, Sidney Crosby carried the puck through the neutral zone, only to lose it upon entering the American end. Jarome Iginla picked it up for Canada and fed Crosby, who, from an improbable angle scored, the most iconic goal of the 21st century. Canada stood up and cheered, as their sons had won Gold on home soil.

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There are children in Canada, and around the world, who over the next decade, will not get to experience this feeling as their NHL heroes will not likely be headed to the Olympics. On Monday, the NHL officially announced that they were not sending their players to the 2018 Winter Olympics. The decision is especially controversial considering the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) had made accommodations for insurance and transportation issues the NHL had. The NHL and its owners, though, fear of injuries, like that of John Tavares at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which cost the New York Islanders’ captain the rest of his season.

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This is a selfish move by the NHL. The league, and its owners are now going to have a problem with rogue players, irritated fans, and the loss of international growth. The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) released a statement shortly after the league released their decision, saying that they were “extraordinarily disappointed” and that they “adamantly disagree with the NHL’s short-sighted decision.” The NHLPA echoed the potential growth for the game and the NHL’s opportunity to showcase their talent in Asia, an untapped market. With the following two winter Olympics taking place in PyeongChang, South Korea and Beijing, China, it serves as an excellent opportunity for hockey to grow internationally. Yet, the NHL’s stubbornness and inability to cooperate hinders such an opportunity. Some NHL players plan to go, regardless of what the league mandates. One of the biggest stars in hockey, Alexander Ovechkin, has stuck to his guns and maintained his positon that he would play in the 2018 Winter Olympics. This puts the NHL in a tough spot: should they suspend Ovechkin? If so, for how long? The debate and decision has become a media circus, and it will likely get even bigger when someone, like Ovechkin, receives undeserved backlash.

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The fans will not side with the owners and the NHL. They will always back the players who entertain them. In refusing to play in PyeongChang, the league is failing to gain access to a new group of fans in Asia. Recently, the Kontinental Hockey League expanded into China, and the Kunlun Red Star began playing in Beijing. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, only six years away, China wants hockey to grow, and the KHL offered them a great platform to do so. What they did not expect was the absence of the NHL. The league has failed to realize that China is the biggest untapped market in the world. Their opportunity begs comparison to the NBA, and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Throughout the 2000s, the NBA had grown its market in China with Yao Ming’s success; but, then after the Beijing Games, China found an honourary son in Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba is a legend in China, and the crowds went crazy for him when the NBA toured through China in the pre-season of 2013. This all stemmed from his appearance at the 2008 Olympics, where he and the entire American team put on a show.

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Kobe was not the only reason the NBA and basketball has become so popular in China, though. The NBA put offices in Shanghai and Beijing and, held grassroots tours throughout the country. For their attempts, the league received rave reviews. Forbes reporter Robert Tuchman compared the NBA’s success in exporting their product to China to the “same prestigious echelon” as that of Apple and Disney. The numbers match this lofty claim: in 2012, it was reported NBA China’s revenue was at $150 million USD. That number approached $200 million USD in 2014, and it continues to grow.

Why, then, would the NHL skip the Olympics? It is difficult to be global, and they do not have a Yao Ming, but the NHL has the Winter Olympics. They have back to back Winter Olympics in Asian countries, and will have all of the world’s attention. Yet, they hide their product and restrict it. The exposure and potential revenue outweighs the few consequences that would come from letting the players go to the Winter Olympics.

Gary Bettman thinks he has discovered the solution to ownership’s concerns. He believes that the IOC should switch hockey to the Summer Olympics. This solution is insulting. Hockey is not meant for the summer, and that’s the belief of the Great One. In 2008, Wayne Gretzky stated kids should have an “off-season”, a three-four month window where they play other sports. This lesson comes from Walter Gretzky, who would not let Wayne touch ice in the summer, and instead had him play baseball, lacrosse and other sports. Putting hockey in the Summer Olympics raises the same problem as the World Cup: injuries because players are not in peak shape, taking away their vacation, and a poor setting. Hockey is not played on the beach; it is played in the snow. Putting Olympic hockey in the summer would be a terrible decision, and would satisfy no one other than the NHL.

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The game’s best came out and vocalized their opinion on the NHL’s decision on Monday. Erik Karlsson called the NHL’s decision “crap”, adding that “whoever made that decision has no idea what they are doing.”  The NHL’s decision to not participate is unique, as the NHL is the only league in the world that is not allowing their players to go. The KHL, SHL, AHL and many more have made it clear they will still be sending their players to the Olympics. These leagues, especially the KHL will have a huge opportunity for growth, as they have already made headway into China with Kunlun Red Star, and will likely look to grow into countries like South Korea and Japan. This is a missed opportunity for the NHL. China’s president Xi Jinping made a commitment to get 300 million people “on the ice”. With the 2022 Winter Olympics around the corner, this would be an opportune time to grow the sport. Yet, the NHL continues to restrict their global audience and have squandered this opportunity.

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The 2010 Winter Olympics averaged 24.4 million viewers in prime-time, and the 2014 Winter Olympics saw peak viewership during the Canada/U.S. hockey semi-final. NBC reported that 61.8 million unique viewers tuned into the 2014 Winter Olympics. There would be a similar audience for NBC in 2018 and 2022, perhaps even bigger. For once, there would be a large audience in Asia. The potential exposure is astronomical, but, once again, it seems like it will not be a reality. This is truly a shame, and once again is a one-sided decision. The fans, players, IIHF and the IOC want the NHL players to be in PyeongChang and Beijing. The only opposition is the NHL and its owners. This opposition will likely rip away the potential of another moment like Crosby’s 2010 game-winner, and there will be children who will never get to share the joy I felt back in February of 2010.

 

NHL News

The Penalty Box

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  • Brad Marchand was allegedly considered a changed player by much of the hockey community. I am not buying that at all. Marchand’s statistics and offensive abilities have improved significantly, but he is still an ass, for lack of a better word. Marchand has attempted slew foots and dangerous plays on unsuspecting opponents this season and in the past. In an important game for the Boston Bruins on Tuesday evening, he chose to spear Jake Dotchin of the Tampa Bay Lightning for no particular reason. Dotchin was okay, but Marchand got a five-minute major and a game misconduct, and is scheduled to have a hearing with NHL officials. This means Marchand could miss one of two or both of the Bruins’ remaining regular season games, which will impact their matchup in the post-season dramatically.
  • The New York Islanders have tied together an impressive second half of the season to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. However, those hopes received a crushing blow last Friday when Islanders’ captain John Tavares went down awkwardly and immediately was favouring his leg. It sucks to see players get injured, especially the stars of the game. One can only hope this is not one of the last memories Islanders fans will have of Tavares, as he enters the last year of his contract next season and the pressure mounts on management to sign him or trade him. The Brooklyn era of the Islanders will be defined by Tavares and management’s decision.

Stars of the Week

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  • The Ottawa Senators looked to have crisis on their hands until two surprises happened. On Monday evening at 5pm, unannounced, Erik Karlsson showed up at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit to tell the Senators he would play. Karlsson’s appearance grabbed the Senators a crucial point and he looked fabulous while being on one good leg. On Tuesday Karlsson played once again, but the Senators got another late acquisition, which was Clarke MacArthur. After 538 days MacArthur finally played in an NHL game again, and it was incredible. On his first shift Mac looked comfortable and in control, laying a hit on Red Wings’ Danny Dekeyser and getting into the corners right away. He finished with 9:44 of ice time, and helped the Senators get two massive points with a 2-0 win. After the game he received the third star, a standing ovation and had an emotional interview. As a Sens fan and personally a huge fan of Mac it was a tear-jerker to see him get emotional last night, the Sens are happy to have him back.
  • The Washington Capitals are hitting their stride at the right time, as the league leading Caps are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. Leading the way has been Nicklas Backstrom who has 21 points in 17 games since March 1st. Backstrom has a team-high 85 points, and has shown he is more than just Alexander Ovechkin’s sidekick. Backstrom leads the NHL with 35 powerplay points and is a huge reason why the Capitals have a top tier powerplay and offense. Backstrom will need to carry this success into the playoffs, if he and the Capitals wish to finally get over the second round hump.

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors

  • The Toronto Raptors have won eight of their last ten and have looked pretty consistent in doing so. The Raptors have finally passed the Washington Wizards, but will need to continue to tally wins if they look to keep third place in the Eastern Conference. If the Raptors can continue to get secondary scoring down the stretch they should be able to put a nice playoff run together. Especially with the return of all-star guard Kyle Lowry on Wednesday night.
  • Head Coach Dwane Casey will be tasked with finding minutes for young guard Delon Wright as Kyle Lowry comes back. Wright has filled in excellently by coming off the bench and providing anywhere from 15-25 minutes a night for the Raptors. He has served as a floor general who also excels defensively. It would be an oversight for Casey not to use Wright in the playoffs when defense and having a deep bench can be so crucial. With Lowry likely to not have his legs right away, having Wright in the lineup will be key for the Raptors’ post-season success.

 

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Warriors (64-14)
  • That is twelve wins in a row for the Golden State Warriors and their foot is still on the gas. The Warriors have an easy schedule for their four remaining regular season games and will most likely get the Portland Trail Blazers or Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Regardless of who it is, they will likely serve as a victim to the Warriors who look scary good. Remember, the Warriors still do not have Kevin Durant back, if Durant’s teammates are playing this well when he comes back then the sky is the limit for the Warriors.
  1. Spurs (60-17)
  • The San Antonio Spurs have bounced back and rattled off three straight wins. All of these wins came against Western Conference playoff teams, and one saw them beat their likely first round opponents, the Memphis Grizzlies. This series would be a grind for the Spurs, as Memphis similarly to San Antonio plays hard defense, but it would certainly get them accustom to the playoff atmosphere. Regardless the Spurs will take on all comers, and will be tough to beat with Kawhi Leonard leading the way and Gregg Popovich running operations on the bench.
  1. Celtics (50-27)
  • The Boston Celtics host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday in a potential conference decider. Both teams sit atop the Eastern Conference at 50-27, and with the playoffs looming this will be their final matchup before a potential Eastern Conference Finals meeting. The Celtics expect Avery Bradley to play on Wednesday despite his illness, and have said Jae Crowder will be a game-time decision after the MRI on his elbow came back negative. The Celtics understand the importance of home court advantage and will look to lock that up until the NBA Finals, with a win on Wednesday.
  1. Cavaliers (50-27)
  • Cleveland has won their last three games, because of their scoring attack. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith have all scored 10 points or more in all three of these games. This balanced scoring attack helps spread the floor, and lead the Cavaliers, further enabling LeBron to setup his teammates and dominate defenders. The Cavaliers are going to beat teams by making it a track meet, so getting their offense cooking before the playoffs has been crucial, and could carry them to a win over the Celtics on Wednesday.
  1. Rockets (52-25)
  • The Houston Rockets did not have a good week, but with Ryan Anderson coming back they will get some much needed help. Anderson missed over a week with a sprained ankle, and his contributions are needed that much more after Sam Dekker suffered a broken hand. Dekker’s injury will only see him miss three-four weeks of action, which can be considered a blessing for the Rockets who feared he would miss much more time. This team still does have MVP candidate James Harden to carry them, until they are fully healthy, so they should be okay in a first round matchup, minus Dekker and having a less than 100% Ryan Anderson.

 

NCAA Bracket Results

I said I would give shoutouts to everyone who beat my official bracket, so with that in mind….

Shoutout to the following people or accounts (if I couldn’t figure out who you were!):

Special shoutout to: Chase Casey on being the official winner of the JSST Bracket!

Now here is everyone else who made me cry at night!

  • Matthew Saunders
  • Justin Young
  • Hannah Kocsis
  • Brayden Cavanagh
  • Janson Bautista
  • Fraser Curry
  • Kameron Beatty
  • Tristan DM
  • Kyle Poole
  • Ethan Brown
  • Shawn Corcoran
  • Espn82844012 (Erkcity)
  • Ryan Bili
  • Steve Rozanec
  • Espn64182605
  • Kelsey Swindall
  • Lucas Vani
  • Parker Wilson

Thank you to everyone who participated and congratulations to everyone who beat me! It was a pleasure and I hope you will re-enter next March!

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Wednesday: Blue Jays vs Orioles 7:05pm ET, Cavaliers vs Celtics 8:00pm ET, Thunder vs Grizzlies 8:00pm ET, Rangers vs Capitals 8:00pm ET
  • Thursday: Senators vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Lightning vs Leafs 7:30pm ET, Celtics vs Hawks 8:00pm ET, Blackhawks vs Ducks 10:00pm ET, Oilers vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
  • Friday: Yankees vs Orioles 7:05pm ET, Lightning vs Habs 7:30pm ET, Heat vs Raptors 7:30pm ET
  • Saturday: Senators vs Rangers 12:30pm ET, Red Sox vs Tigers 1:10pm ET, Capitals vs Bruins 3:00pm ET, Blue Jays vs Rays 6:10pm ET, Penguins vs Leafs 7:00pm ET, Clippers vs Spurs 8:30pm ET, Flames vs Sharks 10:00pm ET
  • Sunday: Blue Jays vs Rays 1:10pm ET, Senators vs Islanders 5:00pm ET, (Last game at the Joe) Devils vs Red Wings 5:00pm ET, Penguins vs Rangers 7:00pm ET
  • Monday: Cardinals vs Nationals 7:05pm ET, Dodgers vs Cubs 8:05pm ET, Jazz vs Warriors 10:30pm ET, Rockets vs Clippers 10:30pm ET
  • Tuesday: Cardinals vs Nationals 7:05pm ET, (Jays’ Home Opener) Brewers vs Blue Jays 7:07pm ET, D-Backs vs Giants 10:15pm ET

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 22-29)

No Edwin No Problem: The Toronto Blue Jays Pitching Will Carry The Loadmaxresdefault

Many Blue Jays fans felt this off-season went poorly for the team, outside of salvaging Jose Bautista’s contract. I am not one of them. This roster is one that, when healthy, could be World Series caliber. I believe that, this off-season, the Jays got much better as a whole. They addressed many issues and were able to solve many internal problems by giving opportunities to younger players. Some fans are blind to what the Jays began to display last year, and that is a rotation that, has the potential to be among the MLB’s best.

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The five-man rotation that John Gibbons has designed for the Blue Jays this year is the best rotation they have had since 2008. While there is no established ace at this point, they have five pitchers who are proven winners. Marco Estrada is the Blue Jays Opening Day starter, and is coming off an excellent season. Estrada had the third best opponent batting average in the MLB amongst starters last year at .203. There were two other Jays in the Top 20 of this statistic, JA Happ and Aaron Sanchez, who combined for a win-loss record of 35-6 last season in 62 starts. The remaining two starters are Marcus Storman and Francisco Liriano. Neither had their best season last year, but both have the capability of adding 12+ wins apiece to a deadly Jays pitching staff. This Jays rotation is deep, and will give Toronto a chance to win every ballgame. Pitching is what carries teams in today’s MLB: four of the past five World Series champions were Top 10 in team earned run average (ERA). Of the past five years, last year was the only time the Blue Jays were amongst the Top 10. With four of last year’s five starters returning and the addition of Liriano, the Jays can expect to see even better pitching this season from their starters.

While Toronto’s starters were great last year, a struggling bullpen plagued the team all season. The Blue Jays team ERA last season was 3.78 with opponents hitting .242; the bullpen’s ERA was 4.11, and opponents’ batting average was .254. The Texas Rangers were the only other playoff team with a bullpen ERA over 4.00 last season, and they were swept by Toronto in the divisional round. Moreover, the Jays bullpen was the least active in the MLB last year, pitching only 464 innings. The mediocre bullpen held the Jays back last year substantially, and put an extra amount of pressure on their starters. The Jays 2017 bullpen, however, is slated to eliminate this weakness.

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The Blue Jays have a mixture of youth and veteran talent to carry their bullpen this season. Jason Grilli became a staple in the Jays pen when he arrived from Atlanta, posting a 3.64 ERA in 46 games last season. Much of the team’s off-season shopping was done to bring new faces to the bullpen. Joe Smith, Mike Bolsinger, and J.P. Howell were all added to bolster the relief staff. Smith is coming off a World Series win with the Chicago Cubs, and posted a 3.46 ERA during 2016. Howell had an okay 2016, but has made over 60 appearances in each of his last four seasons and is a workhorse. Bolsinger is entering his first season in the bullpen, and is somewhat of gamble. However, the 29-year old earned the trust of Jays manager John Gibbons and will start 2017 in the majors. The three other key members to the Jays’ bullpen success will be Ryan Tepera, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna. Tepera has never played a full season in Toronto, but has been impressive in 52 career appearances, posting a 3.16 ERA over that span. If this trend continues, he could become a valuable right-hander for the Jays. Biagini was the surprise of 2016 for Toronto, as the rookie logged 60 games, second most among Jays’ pitchers, and posted a 3.06 ERA. If Biagini can build on this fabulous rookie season, he could become the Jays’ star setup man. If so, Biagini would be setting up star closer Roberto Osuna. Osuna is a dominating closer who logged 74 innings, a 2.68 ERA, and a team-best 0.93 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) last season. Osuna and Biagini will not have to carry as heavy of a load this season, as the Jays have finally provided their bullpen with an excellent staff to grind out tight ballgames.

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Tight ballgames are not what Jays fans are used to. They are used to the team outslugging their opponents en route to victory. But, this has changed. Fans were left upset and felt betrayed when management and Edwin Encarnacion could not come to terms on a new contract. Encarnacion is now in Cleveland, which has left a sour taste in Jays’ fans mouths. The Jays acted quickly to get an insurance policy for Encarnacion, and that came in 33-year old  Kendrys Morales. Morales is not going to be Encarnacion, but, he has potential to hit .270, 30HRs and 90 RBIs. While this may still be a downgrade, the Jays finally have depth elsewhere in the lineup, and can rotate players in and out accordingly.

Melvin Upton Jr. struggled to find his stride in Toronto last season, so manager John Gibbons has decided to make Upton earn his spot and will have the speedy outfielder come off the bench. Upton’s ability to drive the ball and provide speed on the base path can have him pinch hit or even pinch run in key situations, which brings much needed versatility to the Jays. Next off the bench comes the underrated Steve Pearce who will play all around the diamond for the Jays. Pearce played every base defensively last year, and played both left and right field, showing his defensive versatility. He also brings a .288 batting average to the plate. Pearce will be Toronto’s contact hitter coming off the bench.

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The Jays bench was usually home to Josh Thole when Dickey was pitching. But, with Dickey gone so is Thole, so Jarrod Saltalamacchia jumped at the opportunity to play behind Russell Martin. Saltalamacchia, while primarily a catcher, can also play first base. Defensively his abilities are sound, while offensively he drives the ball, though he struggles to find contact. If Saltalamacchia can settle his bat down and hit .220 he will be more than serviceable for the Jays. Finally, the Jays are backed up defensively by Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, who can play anywhere in the infield. Barney is the better hitter of the two, as he hits for contact consistently above .250. Other young names in the Jays system to keep an eye on are: Dalton Pompey, Richard Urena, Harold Ramirez and Anthony Alford, who could all potentially see some time in Toronto this season.

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While it would be nice to see those young names on the roster, let us hope it does not come to that. The Toronto Blue Jays are a good baseball team, no question, and their stars are young and in the prime of their careers. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are beginning to build for an arms race, meaning that now is the time to win. The Jays can win, but they need to be healthy. Devon Travis is vital to the Toronto’s success, the past two seasons he has posted Top-10 second baseman numbers when healthy. But, Travis has missed a lot of time over these past two years, and the Jays struggled to replace him in the interim. Furthermore, Jose Bautista was in and out of the lineup last year, and both Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki had injury woes. The team cannot win if it does not stay healthy. Toronto’s key to success will be their health. They have all the tools to make a World Series. The team’s pitching has not been this good since 2008, and the bats, while not as star studded as years past, remain strong and have newfound depth. The clock is ticking, and it is nearly high-noon in Toronto. If this team can stay healthy, they will be in the World Series.

 

NHL News

The Penalty Box

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  • The Minnesota Wild have gone from Stanley Cup contenders to Stanley Cup pretenders. In their last 10 games the Wild are 1-7-2, and, despite consistently leading the Chicago Blackhawks throughout the season, the Wild will find themselves as the #2 seed in the Central Division. The Wild’s lack of success comes in large part to Devan Dubnyk’s recent play. At one point this season he seemed like the frontrunner for the Vezina, but in March, Duby’s numbers tell a different story: 3-8-2, a .889 save percentage and a 2.94 goals against average. Dubnyk will need to improve on those numbers if the Wild want to have any success in the playoffs.
  • How often do the Colorado Avalanche score a goal? Not very often. It is so rare that their Twitter account grew impatient on Wednesday night. This tweet was hilarious, as has been the Avalanche’s season. The Avalanche somehow actually manage less than two goals per game, which makes it easy to understand why they are dead last by a country mile. Do not worry, though, Avalanche fans. You have a friend in the Arizona Coyotes, who share your feeling of mediocrity.

Stars of the Week

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  • The Carolina Hurricanes have surprisingly made a late-season charge. The Canes have earned at least a point in 12 straight games, thanks in large part to the goaltending duo of Eddie Lack and Cam Ward. Over this twelve game span, the tandem has a combined 2.5 goals against per game. They have been complimented by a red-hot Jeff Skinner who has 11 goals in this 12 game span. Skinner is having a career year with 31 goals and 55 points, and will need to continue to deal damage if the Canes want to make up the four-point gap between themselves and the Boston Bruins.
  • The Anaheim Ducks have won seven of their last eight games. In six of these eight games, the Ducks have allowed two goals or less. This speaks volumes to their defensive structure and goaltending. Surprisingly, the goaltending success recently has not come from John Gibson, but instead from Jonathan Bernier. After being dealt from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Ducks in the off-season for a conditional pick, Bernier has been solid with a record of 19-7-3, a .919 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average. Gibson may be struggling, but Head Coach Randy Carlyle has to be satisfied with having a goaltending competition, if it is resulting in wins.

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

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  • The Toronto Raptors won three out of a possible four games this week, winning comfortably in all three. Norman Powell and Cory Joseph have both been getting more touches offensively and putting in their fair share of baskets. This backcourt scoring has helped take some pressure off of DeMar DeRozan, who continues to torch opponents from the mid-range and inside with 27.2 points per game on the season
  • The Raptors now trail the Washington Wizards by a single game, and have even closed the gap on first place in the Eastern Conference, as they now trail the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers by three games. While it is appearing less likely the Raptors could overtake the Cavs or Celtics, there is still a strong possibility they could catch the Wizards for third. With an easier schedule the rest of the way, other than an April 12th meeting with the Cavs, the Raptors could feasibly run the table or take six of their last seven games.

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Warriors (61-14)
  • Full credit to the Golden State Warriors. They battled back from being down double digits against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and surprised a lot of people, myself included. The Warriors have now won their last nine and with their win over the Spurs, have almost certainly locked up first place in the Western Conference. Steph Curry has elevated his game over this stretch scoring at least 20 in all but one of those nine wins. If Kevin Durant can be back in time for the playoffs, watch out, because the Warriors seem to be clicking once again.
  1. Spurs (57-17)
  • Gregg Popovich had a reason to smile, but also a reason to scold his team this week. The Spurs continued their winning ways, stringing five wins together, including a 103-74 thumping delivered to the Cavs; but they blew a big lead versus the Warriors. After getting off to a hot start, the Spurs struggled to find their touch and shot 41% from the field. The season series is at 2-1 in favour of the Spurs, but this one has to sting for the Spurs as there were stars resting during this affair.
  1. Celtics (48-27)
  • The Celtics are tied for first in the Eastern Conference, and their fans are pretty excited about it. However, it is important to note that this team has not reached their peak just yet. There is still lots of work to be done by the Celtics and they were humbled by the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday in a 103-100 loss. The Celtics still have a good shot at holding onto first, despite having played more games than the Cavs, as the two meet on April 5th. If the Celtics win this game, they may just be able to lock up first place.
  1. Rockets (51-23)
  • The Houston Rockets have scored 100 points or more in every single game they have played since November 21st. That is ludicrous, and speaks volumes to how good James Harden has been as the Rockets’ catalyst offensively. The team goes as Harden goes, and the bearded one is averaging 29.3PPG, 8RPG, and 11.4APG. Those numbers are MVP-like, and have made it a two horse race between him and Russell Westbrook. However, Harden is likely not concerned with that, as his primary concern will be the playoffs, which are just around the corner.
  1. Cavaliers (47-26)
  • The Cavaliers are still tied for first in the Eastern Conference, which is great, but they have been nothing of the sort lately. Cleveland got whacked by the Wizards and then the Spurs this week, with LeBron James in the lineup for both games. The Cavs do not appear high and mighty, and LeBron will have to likely carry this team if they want any shot at taking down the Warriors or Spurs. At this rate, it may be fairly difficult for them to get past the Celtics, which does not bode well for Cleveland.

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Thursday: Cavaliers vs Bulls 8:00pm ET, Leafs vs Predators 8:00pm ET, Sharks vs Oilers 9:00pm ET
  • Friday: Penguins vs Rangers 7:00pm ET, Spurs vs Thunder 8:00pm ET, Blue Jackets vs Blackhawks 8:30pm ET, Sharks vs Flames 9:00pm ET, Rockets vs Warriors 10:30pm ET
  • Saturday: March Madness 6:09pm ET, Canadiens vs Lightning 7:00pm ET, Ducks vs Oilers 10:00pm ET
  • Sunday: Bruins vs Blackhawks 12:30pm ET, Jazz vs Spurs 3:30pm ET, Capitals vs Blue Jackets 6:00pm ET, Wizards vs Warriors 8:00pm ET, Ducks vs Flames 9:30pm ET
  • Monday: National Championship Basketball TBD, Senators vs Red Wings 7:00pm ET, Leafs vs Sabres 7:00pm ET
  • Tuesday: Lightning vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Blue Jackets vs Penguins 7:00pm ET, Raptors vs Pacers 7:00pm ET, Grizzlies vs Spurs 8:30pm ET, Flames vs Ducks 10:00pm ET, Rangers vs Sharks 10:30pm ET

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 15-21)

The Man Who Can Stickhandle Between Raindrops: The Underrated Marian Hossa

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As a young hockey fan, I did not understand trades. When Marian Hossa was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers, I presumed that meant I could not like Hossa anymore. He was not on the Ottawa Senators, which meant he was the enemy! Around the age of 14, I realized how amazing Hossa was, and how stupid I was for pretending he did not exist. Watching him tear through the playoff with the Chicago Blackhawks was truly a gift. I watched those Blackhawk games with my father, who is not much of a hockey buff, but he always enjoys watching the Senators and the playoffs. After Hossa made a fabulous play, stickhandling around just about everyone on the ice, my dad said one of my favourite lines ever. “Josh, ya know what they used to say about Hossa on the Sens broadcast? They said he could stickhandle between raindrops.” My dad is not one to remember sports history, but there is a reason that stuck with him. It was an apt description for a magnificent hockey player.

Marian Hossa has played 1300 games in the NHL and recorded 1128 points. But, these solid statistics still do not do him justice. Hossa deserves an immense amount of praise for his ability to be effective without the puck. The Slovakian superstar has received votes for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) in 12 of his 18 seasons, and in 6 of those was in the Top 15 in voting. Selke Trophy winners are typically rough and tough competitors, and you would not think of a smooth-skating European being good defensively. But, Hossa uses his lower-body strength and his terrific stick to create turnovers and transition into an offensive breakout. It is a unique talent to do the things Hossa can do with his stick in such tight spaces, and in one motion. Hossa is one of the smoothest operators there is, and is able to be smooth even when in the dirty areas. Hossa’s ability to be continuously active without the puck in the defensive zone, neutral zone and even offensive zone while fore-checking makes him invaluable.

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Hossa’s contributions without the puck are exceptional, but it is important to understand that he was not just an average two-way forward; he was, and is, among the league’s best. Hossa may not be the top guy anymore, or an all-star, but he is undoubtedly one of the best 35+ year old players in this league. When Hossa joined the Blackhawks in 2009, he was 30. Since joining the team, his numbers have been startling. Since the 2009-10 season, Hossa has 409 points in 525 games and is a +133. There are only five players with a higher plus/minus than that (Crosby, Toews, Marchand, Bergeron and Chara). Hossa’s penalty killing ability is otherworldly as well, as he has the third most shorthanded points in the league (24) since 2009-10. His crafty stick work translates to offensive opportunities, and he plays a true 200 foot game. Hossa’s stick has led him to becoming an astoundingly good playmaker, as he can find his teammates without hesitation.

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Hossa is also an underrated goal scorer, and earlier this season reached the 500 goal plateau. Hossa has been a consistent threat throughout his career, having scored 20 goals in 15 of his 18 seasons; for context, there are only 25 other men in league history who have recorded 15 or more seasons of 20+ goals. Hossa’s gift as a goal scorer comes from his wonderful hands, quick release, and most importantly, his patience. Hossa, when given space, will make a goaltender look like a confused gymnast, and stretch them all over the net. He will conclude by using his quick release to deposit the puck in the gaping net.

As a fan, it is important to have fun watching these players. Ryan Getzlaf may be an elite centre, but his style of play can be boring to watch. Hossa is fun to watch, and he does it all. He can hit, use his acceleration to create a scoring opportunity, or stickhandle through a platoon of players. Hossa covers all bases.

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But, this begs the question: how great is Hossa? He has 1000 points, 500 goals, and three Stanley Cup rings. After losing in 2009 Stanley Cup Final, Hossa signed a 12-year $62.3 million contract with the Blackhawks. Hossa took heat for the contract, which led to an apparent investigation, as the contract was front-loaded and the NHL doubted Hossa’s likeliness to play until 42. Amid controversy, Hossa produced 51 points in 57 games during the 2009-10 season, then chipped in with 15 points in 22 games during the playoffs to, bring Chicago its first Cup in 49 years.

Had Hossa not signed with Chicago, he might have been one of the greatest ever to not win the Cup. But, he saw potential in the Blackhawks, and by joining a dynasty he solidified himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Hossa has never been “the guy,” but he is one of the greatest sidekicks of all-time. Hossa has lined up alongside the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Toews. Hossa is more than just a secondary contributor, though. He is one of the league’s best winners. Since the 2000-01 season, no one has played in more playoff games than Marian Hossa, and the margin is significant. Hossa has played in 191 playoff games since 2000-01; the closest to him is Pavel Datsyuk at 157. More importantly, Hossa has the most points since 2000-01 with 147. In his career, Hossa has played 201 playoff games, good for 19th all-time. At this pace, and given Hossa’s longevity, he has a good chance to pass Chris Chelios (266 games) for the most all-time.

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As an Ottawa Senators fan it still hurts me that management decided to trade Hossa for Dany Heatley in 2005. Hossa’s proven playoff performance begs the question: did losing Hossa cost the Senators the Stanley Cup? Ottawa should never have given up Hossa. The Atlanta Thrashers were in a tight spot when Heatley asked for a trade after the car accident that killed, Dan Snyder. Other trades could have been pursued to keep Hossa in Ottawa. The Blackhawks ended up with one of the best players of his era, and he has rewarded fans with magnificent play on a nightly basis. No fan, in Ottawa, Chicago, or any other city in the NHL, will ever forget watching the man who could stickhandle through raindrops.

 

NHL News

The Penalty Box

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  • The Boston Bruins have hit a rut. After going 12-3-0 under interim Head Coach Bruce Cassidy, the B’s have now lost three in a row and have the Toronto Maple Leafs hot on their tails. If the Leafs overtake the Bruins, Boston will fall to the second wild-card spot and have a date with the Metropolitan Division’s winner in the playoffs. That is, assuming the Bruins can hold off the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, who have games in hand on the Bruins. Brad Marchand has led the way all year for the Bruins, and he will need to be play his absolute best if he wants to assure the Bruins post-season hockey.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning have allowed 15 goals in their last three games, and the heavy workload has taken its toll on young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy is a talented individual, but he has never logged more than 32 games in an NHL season (post-season included). He has already appeared in 42 games this year for the Lightning, and fatigue has caught up to him. His teammates have not given him their best effort in the last three games, as they came out flat against Toronto, were beaten by a better team against Washington, and lost a must-win against Arizona. The Toronto game was winnable, but the Arizona loss is inexcusable. Tampa Bay is now four points back of the playoffs, and their playoff hopes looks grim.

Stars of the Week

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  • In an odd turn of events, the St. Louis Blues have made a serious playoff push despite trading Kevin Shattenkirk. The Blues now find themselves third in the Central Division, and have won eight of their last nine games. Much of this turnaround can be credited to tighter defensive play, and serious improvements from Jake Allen. Allen has had seven starts over this nine game stretch, winning six of the seven and sporting, a 1.29 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. He has been lights out. Vladimir Tarasenko has done his part offensively, as he has six goals and eight points over the nine game stretch. It appears as though St. Louis will see post-season hockey, but their success from there on out will dependent on how well Jake Allen plays.
  • Huge praise goes to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season the Blue Jackets had 34 wins and 76 points. This year, with 11 games remaining, they have 100 points, have clinched a playoff position and may win the Metropolitan Division. Head Coach John Tortorella should win the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) for their incredible turnaround. Sergei Bobrovsky has been phenomenal after dropping weight this summer. Bobrovsky has a league-best 39 wins, and has a .931 save percentage and 2.04 goals against average. Expect Bobrovsky to be the front-runner for the Vezina.

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

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  • The Toronto Raptors had a rallying cry on Tuesday. The Raps were getting pummeled by the Chicago Bulls, and the Bulls looked to be on route to their twelfth consecutive victory over the Raptors. Then, chaos erupted. Raptors’ power forward Serge Ibaka gave Bulls’ centre Robin Lopez a shot in the back, and a scuffle ensued, with Lopez and Ibaka throwing punches. Players, officials and coaches came to break up the fight, which saw ejections for both Ibaka and Lopez. Trailing 88-72, the Raptors went on a tear led by DeMar DeRozan and erased the 16 point deficit to force overtime, where they would win 122-120. The Raptors had been cursed against the Bulls since 2014, but on Tuesday evening they broke the curse. The team should rally around this victory, and use it as an example of perseverance for the remainder of the season.
  • The Raptors now trail the Washington Wizards by half a game, and still have the Boston Celtics in their sights trailing by three games. Over the next two weeks the Raptors will have an easier schedule, playing some of the NBA’s lesser talented clubs. If they want to catch-up and pass both of the aforementioned teams, they will need to go on a run. With a three-game winning streak right now, the Raptors have a good chance to go a run, and the post-season approaches it is vital they play their best basketball.

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Spurs (54-16)
  • San Antonio may be second in the Western Conference, but they have both wins over the Golden State Warriors, and they will likely stay in first until the Warriors beat them. This could come sooner rather than later, as the two teams are slated for a showdown on March 29th. Hopefully, for the sake of the fans, the superstars will play. Controversy aside, the Spurs had two close losses this week, but as usual they bounced right back with two wins and will look to build momentum towards next week’s rematch against the Warriors.
  1. Warriors (57-14)
  • The Warriors’ bad form has been pushed aside, as they overtook the Spurs for first place in the Western Conference and are on a five-game win streak. The turnaround can largely be attributed to their fourth quarter comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers, which kicked off this win streak. Since that game, Steph Curry has not had to play a single fourth quarter minute, as the game was out of reach after the third. The Warriors will need to uphold this high standard of play if they want to beat the Spurs in a week, and you can bet they have that date circled on their calendars.
  1. Cavaliers (46-23)
  • Another big game on national television, and another trio of stars were given the night off. A common theme in the NBA, accompanied by another common theme: that the Cleveland Cavaliers cannot win a game without LeBron James. Without the big three, the Cavs were thrashed on Saturday by the Los Angeles Clippers. They, still managed to win their games against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers, though, so it was a standard week for Cleveland.
  1. Celtics (45-26)
  • The Boston Celtics continue to chip away at Cleveland’s lead in the East, and now trail by only two games. They had an impressive win against the Wizards on Monday, which saw the Celtics’ depth shine, with five players reaching double digit point totals. This depth will be vital down the stretch, as Isaiah Thomas cannot carry this Celtics team every night without suffering fatigue. The Celtics will look to close the gap on the Cavaliers before their April 5th showdown, which could play a huge factor in deciding the top seed for the Eastern Conference.
  1. Raptors (42-29)
  • There is some East bias here, but the Raptors have won four of their last five, all without Kyle Lowry, and look ready to hit that next level. This is not just a Raptors team that is winning without Lowry, but it is one that looks strong. That makes Lowry’s return that much more exciting. Could this Raptors team really top last year’s run? Time will tell. But, continuing to win without Lowry would give them the swagger and confidence to believe they could.

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Wednesday: Maple Leafs vs Blue Jackets 7:00pm ET, Islanders vs Rangers 8:00pm ET, Oilers vs Ducks 10:00pm ET
  • Thursday: March Madness 7:09pm ET, Lightning vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Blue Jackets vs Capitals 7:00pm ET, Penguins vs Senators 7:30pm ET, Raptors vs Heat 7:30pm ET, Grizzlies vs Spurs 8:30pm ET
  • Friday: Islanders vs Penguins 7:00pm ET, March Madness 7:09pm ET
  • Saturday: March Madness TBD, Jazz vs Clippers 3:30pm ET, Senators vs Canadiens 7:00pm ET, Flames vs Blues 7:00pm ET, Islanders vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Wizards vs Cavaliers 7:30pm ET, Sharks vs Predators 8:00pm ET, Rangers vs Kings 10:30pm ET
  • Sunday: March Madness TBD, Thunder vs Rockets 3:30pm ET, Grizzlies vs Warriors 8:00pm ET, Rangers vs Ducks 9:00pm ET
  • Monday: Blackhawks vs Lightning 7:30pm ET, Cavaliers vs Spurs 8:00pm ET
  • Tuesday: Panthers vs Maple Leafs 7:30pm ET, Capitals vs Wild 8:00pm ET, Warriors vs Rockets 8:00pm ET, Kings vs Oilers 9:00pm ET, Rangers vs Sharks 10:30pm ET

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 8-14)

March Madness: The Spring Phenomenon that makes North America Bleed Basketball

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You can know absolutely nothing about basketball, but this spring you will have a chance at winning nearly $20,000 right here. In five to ten minutes, someone who has never heard of over half of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament can suddenly be invested in this crazy event by creating a bracket. The heart of the tournament is not in perennial powerhouses thrashing opponents, though. Every year at least one or more teams become household names and are thrown into the spotlight by playing the role of Cinderella. These underdogs, complete an unprecedented upset and the audience becomes captivated. A team like Florida Gulf Coast who made March Madness in their second of year of eligibility, as a 15 seed got the label of “Dunk City” and got the 2013 ESPY Award for Upset of the Year. This tournament grabs the attention of even the most casual sports viewer, as the viewer goes on a roller-coaster ride accompanied by Cinderella.

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In 1985 March Madness changed forever by expanding from 53 to 64 teams. A marketing gamble by the NCAA, it would soon prove to be genius. But, it was almost short lived. It was in 1989 that the tournament’s new format proved its capabilities. The Princeton Tigers, a 16 seed came in to their first round matchup against the #1 seeded Georgetown Hoyas. By 1989, no #1 seed had lost their first round game, and only one had won by less than five points. The mismatched first round games were proving to be guaranteed blowouts, and the domination sparked discussion. The NCAA had begun discussing reducing the tournament size to 32, and the Power Six conferences, where most of the big schools played during the season, had even begun to discuss creating their own tournament to increase profits. Back to Princeton vs Georgetown. The Hoyas, led by Alonzo Mourning, were the clear favourites. However, Princeton Head Coach Pete Carril gave his Tigers a near perfect game-plan. The Tigers slowed down the game by milking the shot clock, playing hard defense and forcing their opponent to hit free throws. At halftime Princeton was ahead by eight points, and all of a sudden a game that was believed to be a cakewalk became a spectacle.

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Sports fans love to see David beat Goliath. This was just that. For the first time in NCAA tournament history, David was leading at the half significantly. At halftime, when ESPN cut to their studios, analyst Dick Vitale was left speechless by the game. The Hoyas realized that their game-plan was not working, and began feeding the ball to Alonzo Mourning. With 15 seconds left, Princeton had the ball, down 50-49. Bobby Scrabis had a chance to hit the game-winning shot with seven seconds left, but his shot was blocked by Mourning, and the ball bounced out of play. Princeton had the ball was one second left, and one last chance to pull off a Cinderella story. They inbounded the ball, and the shot was once again blocked, Princeton cried for a foul, but it was to no avail. Princeton may have lost, but they gained the moral victory. March Madness was saved during that game. A 20+ point underdog had nearly knocked off one of the best teams in college basketball. The impact was immense and can still be heard today.

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A 16 seed has still not beaten a 1 seed to this day. Number one seeds are a combined 128-0 all-time against the sixteenth seeds, but Cinderella stories live on in the 1989 Princeton team’s image. In 2011, Virginia Commonwealth University entered March Madness in the First Four, meaning they needed to play an extra play-in to even earn their seeding in March Madness. VCU beat the University of Southern California in the First Four, then went onto upset Georgetown and Purdue in their first week of March Madness. With none of these games being close, VCU carried their momentum into a nail-bitter with Florida State, whom they beat by one point through a dramatic defensive stand in overtime. On top of the world, VCU would go on to beat the number one seeded Kansas Jayhawks. While they would fall to the Butler Bulldogs in the Semi-Finals, their presence was felt. All five of VCU’s wins in March Madness that year came against Power Six schools, and using this momentum, VCU moved conferences from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10. The Atlantic 10 just happens to be second highest ranked conference in the NCAA, excluding the Power Six. Troy Daniels a reserve player with a short career, was the only player from that VCU team to make an NBA roster. The underdog had become household names in the span of the month.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-Dayton vs Ohio State

The nobodies are not just good for the spirit of the sport, but these nobodies are best for business. In 2014 Brigham Young University statisticians did a study to formulate a model, which would predict the highest viewership for potential March Madness Final Four teams. The Dayton Flyers, a Mid-Major from the Atlantic 10 conference, were first. 2014’s Cinderella had captivated the nation and were projected to rake in 22.2 million viewers had they made the Finals. One statistician explained the theory as follows: “The Cinderella teams, with all the national media attention they get, become a national star. It’s not that these schools have an established national fan base, it iss that the NCAA tournament celebrates the Cinderella more so than other sports.” The model suggests that, on average, a Final Four match-up with a smaller market team or Cinderella would garner 35% more viewers than a game featuring two powerhouses. These Cinderella stories captivate the casual fan, who made a bracket for fun and does not have a team to root for. This fan tunes into one game, sees the emotion and energy of the underdog, and quickly becomes attached to them. March Madness makes dreams come true and turns casual fans into sports consumers, who become invested in the storyline and become engulfed in emotions of March.

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Come March 16th, the sports networks will suddenly cut back on their professional sports coverage, and converge on this annual tournament. March Madness is not just a sporting event, it is a March tradition. Its widespread impact and viewership across North America has sponsors jump on the bandwagon to gain exposure and publicity. The Werner ladder, which players and coaches climb to cut down the net after the winning the National Championship is “The Official Ladder of the NCAA.” The tournament is North American consumerism and sport at its finest, it can be simply described as organized pandemonium. March Madness makes us scream and rejoice at the sight of a Cinderella’s triumph, or crumble and cry when a shocking defeat takes out the underdog. This tournament is built for the underdog, where anything can happen and, nothing is outside of the realm of possibility. Maybe one day a 16 seed will finally beat a 1 seed. Regardless of when or if that day comes, March Madness will always make us dream and believe. Welcome back March Madness, I missed you dearly. To new fans, welcome to the greatest annual sporting spectacle on the planet.

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

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  • Without Kyle Lowry the Raptors’ ball movement is merely a shadow of what it used to be. During the month of March the Raptors are averaging 16.1 assists per game, which happens to be their worst assist average of the season. 16.1 looks even worse when you look at November and December when the Raptors were clicking, as they were averaging over 20 assists per game through that two-month stretch. Toronto needs to focus on team basketball, if they want to challenge the Boston Celtics for first place in the Atlantic division, or even maintain their current position in the standings.
  • Norman Powell has been a bright spot for the Raptors in March. With DeMarre Carroll in and out of the lineup, Powell has had opportunities to start, and has shined. In March Powell is shooting nearly ten shots a game, at 49.3%, which is good for nearly 15 points a night. Powell also excels defensively, and provides some ball movement for the Raptors, who are in dire of need it. The sophomore is showing flashes of brilliance, and could be close to breaking out into a consistent NBA starter. Raptor fans have a reason to be excited about Norman Powell.

 

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Spurs (52-14)
  • The Game of the Year thus far turned out to be a joke, as all of the superstars in Saturday’s matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors were held off the court. In such fashion, the Spurs thrashed the Warriors, and the Spurs are now 11-1 in their last 12 games. In over half of these wins, the Spurs have been resting a starter as well, so it is quite evident how deep this Spurs bench goes. San Antonio is prepped and ready for a deep playoff run.
  1. Warriors (53-14)
  • The Warriors nearly lost their fourth game in a row on Tuesday evening at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers, but were able to come back and win. While the win is a good sign for the Warriors, they have little to smile about. Golden State is 5-5 in their last 10, which is their worst stretch in recent memory, and Andre Igoudala has voiced his frustrations with Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr. After the Warriors’ loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, Igoudala referred to Kerr as “master” and had to be informed by the media that he would be benched for the Warriors matchup against the Spurs. Igoudala was not impressed with the decision, and obviously has some tension with his coach.
  1. Celtics (42-25)
  • Game recognizes game. The Boston Celtics have beaten both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in March. This feat is impressive and cannot be ignored, as both games were no fluke. The Celtics are putting their full arsenal to use and with a healthy Avery Bradley they can beat anybody. Health will be key to the Celtics long-term success. Isaiah Thomas carries the team, but having a healthy Al Horford and Avery Bradley will be necessary if the Celtics want to grind it out in the playoffs.
  1. Cavaliers (44-22)
  • Andrew Bogut is a sad man. He played one minute on March 6th before suffering a season-ending injury. Bogut’s fractured tibia opened the door for the Cavs to invite Larry Sanders to join them. Sanders has accepted the invitation, and many are keen to see what the freak athlete can still do. Sanders is the case of a young man whose mind took over his game. Sanders dealt with depression and anxiety issues and had walked away from basketball. It is really nice to see Sanders back, and I am rooting for him to succeed. The Cavaliers will need to play better, if they would like to succeed come playoff time, as their 4-6 record in their last 10 games is less than impressive.
  1. Jazz (42-25)
  • The Utah Jazz are a team many sleep on. The Jazz play at an incredibly slow pace, but compliment this slow pace with an intense defensive structure led by their star Gordon Hayward. Hayward averages 22 points per game, with over 5 rebounds and over 3 assists per game. He helps anywhere and everywhere for the Jazz and has made this young team dangerous. The Jazz bring youthful energy to their game with only two players over 30 (Boris Diaw and George Hill). Look for the Jazz to potentially come close to pulling off an upset against the NBA’s elite in the post-season, as this young team is eager to get their names thrown into the spotlight.

NHL News

The Penalty Box

NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils

  • The New Jersey Devils are either trying to tank or Taylor Hall is required to finish at the bottom of the standings. Either way the Devils have lost their last 10 games and have been shutout in three of these games. They have the second worst offense in the NHL, they take the least shots per game, and they are still playing the trap. It has been nearly 14 years since the Devils last Stanley Cup, yet they are insistent on playing an archaic and boring style of hockey. The Devils are so bad right now that a snowstorm even beat them on Tuesday night, as their match-up against the Winnipeg Jets was postponed due to the storm.
  • The Philadelphia Flyers were once challenging for a wild card positon in the East, but since February 1st they boast a mediocre record of 6-9-2. Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux is on pace for his worst season, since 2009-10 and has only recorded two even-strength points since February 1st. Giroux, who would usually help lead the charge towards a potential playoff spot has been underwhelming, and the Flyers have followed suit.

Stars of the Week

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  • Many people do not like him, but Patrick Kane is an incredible hockey player. Kane has 27 points in his last 17 games, 16 being goals, and he has thrown himself back into the Art Ross chase. Over the same 17 game stretch the Blackhawks are 14-3-0, and that can largely be attributed to Kane’s play. Kane has the most even-strength points on the year at 57, and as usual has the Chicago Blackhawks among Cup favourites.
  • The Calgary Flames have turned their season around in spectacular fashion. A dramatic shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday evening saw the Flames match their franchise record for consecutive wins with their 10th in a row. The Flames have gone all the way from being on the outside of the playoff picture to second place in the Pacific division, with a strong chance of home-ice advantage in the first round. Brian Elliott has finally become consistent, boasting a .943 save percentage and 1.74 goals against average during this 10 game win-streak.

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Wednesday: Grizzlies vs Bulls 8:00pm ET, Bruins vs Flames 9:00pm ET, Blues vs Ducks 10:00pm ET
  • Thursday: March Madness 12:15pm ET (ALL DAY), Thunder vs Raptors 7:00pm ET, Jazz vs Cavaliers 7:00pm ET, Blackhawks vs Sens 7:30pm ET, Maple Leafs vs Lightning 7:30pm ET, Flames vs Oilers 9:00pm ET, Blues vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
  • Friday: March Madness 12:15pm ET (ALL DAY), Bulls vs Wizards 7:00pm ET, Raptors vs Pistons 7:30pm ET
  • Saturday: March Madness TBD (ALL DAY), Canadiens vs Senators 7:00pm ET, Rangers vs Wild 7:00pm ET, Blackhawks vs Maple Leafs 7:00pm ET, Cavaliers vs Clippers 8:30pm ET, Jazz vs Bulls 9:00pm ET, Spurs vs Grizzlies 9:00pm ET, Ducks vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
  • Sunday: March Madness TBD (ALL DAY), Senators vs Canadiens 7:30pm ET, Kings vs Flames 9:30pm ET
  • Monday: Bruins vs Maple Leafs 7:00pm ET, Wizards vs Celtics 7:30pm ET, Warriors vs Thunder 8:00pm ET, Kings vs Oilers 9:00pm ET, Knick vs Clippers 10:30pm ET
  • Tuesday: Bulls vs Raptors 7:00pm ET, Flames vs Capitals 7:00pm ET, Senators vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Sharks vs Wild 8:30pm ET

 

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 1-7)

#TheSystem: A Signal of Change in Ottawa

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If you have not heard about The System, then you clearly have not been following the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators. For the first time in many years, the Sens are icing a team that is more than just average. This team continues to find ways to win. After their win over the Boston Bruins on Monday night, the Senators moved to 23-8-6 in games decided by one goal or games that were one goal before the empty net goal(s). This Senators team does not buckle under pressure, something that will be key come playoff time. Ottawa is now six points clear of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and, barring a tremendous collapse, will make the playoffs. They will also likely do so with home-ice advantage in the first round and even possibly the second round. If they want that second round home-ice advantage though, they will need to leapfrog the Montreal Canadiens.

Starting on March 18th, the Sens and Habs will play each other on three times in eight days. In all likelihood, the division will be won in this mini-series. With the Senators chasing, they will most likely need to take two out of three, if not all three, to surpass the Canadiens. This may seem difficult, but Ottawa has won both meetings this year with Montreal and has not had a losing season against Montreal since 2011-12. If the Senators were to surpass the Canadiens and take first place in the Atlantic Division they would play the top-seeded wild card team, likely to be the New York Rangers. A playoff series with the Rangers would be less than ideal, but it is something the Senators would not be opposed to. The Sens elevate their game against the league’s best teams: with a 17-9-4 record against teams in a current playoff position. This includes a 7-1-2 run in their last 10 against these same teams (playoff teams as of March 6th). The Senators are able to compete with the league’s best on a nightly basis.

Erik Karlsson

This team’s success has been driven by team captain Erik Karlsson who is having an incredible season. Karlsson is excelling offensively once again, leading the Senators in points. He is also on pace to be the first defenseman to lead his team in points for four consecutive seasons since Denis Potvin did from 1973-74 to 1976-77. But, Karlsson’s defensive game is where he has made most his greatest improvements this season. While Karlsson has been criticized in the past for his defensive ability, the tape shows a significant improve this season.

Exhibit #1: https://twitter.com/ChartingHockey/status/838929365941514240

Exhibit #2: https://twitter.com/travisyost/status/838204452213436416

Exhibit #3: https://twitter.com/CallumFraser18/status/836017966898638849

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Karlsson has become fabulous in his own end and especially using his speed to backcheck and pressure opponents. Karlsson never quits on a play and this relentless effort has translated down throughout the lineup this year. Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a shutdown center and, can play against anyone in the league. Statistics prove Pageau’s dominance against the league’s best. In nine games against Pageau, Alex Ovechkin, Max Pacioretty, John Tavares and Sidney Crosby have combined for one point.  Pageau’s shifted focus to the defensive zone shows up on the other team’s scoresheet, as the stars of opponents have consistently put up zeroes against Pageau.

Example: http://www.csnmidatlantic.com/washington-capitals/alex-ovechkin-wrestles-jean-gabriel-pageau-ice-his-head.

Senators Head Coach Guy Boucher has called Pageau the “Ultimate Soldier”, and mentioned that he should be in the Selke Trophy conversation. Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler are all frequently in the Selke Trophy discussion. Including Pageau shows that he is on his way to becoming an elite shutdown center.

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Both Karlsson and Pageau have benefited greatly from Guy Boucher’s system, but they are not the only two that have improved. Goaltender Craig Anderson returned to the crease less than a month ago, after a leave of absence to be with his wife Nicholle during her cancer treatment. Since his return, Anderson has been among the best goalies in the league. Over his past nine starts Andy is 7-2-0 with a goals against average of 1.78 and a save percentage of .944. Despite missing over two months of game action, Anderson did not miss a beat returning to the Senators lineup. Anderson has been a beneficiary of The System, and his numbers show how an improved defensive structure can make a goalie great. The Ottawa Senators are third in the league in blocked shots, an underrated statistic, which allows goaltenders to have a security blanket.

One of these men who make up the security blanket is Dion Phaneuf, who is having his best season since the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Phaneuf has done a great job for the Ottawa Senators since his trade last year. While his contract is horrible, the Senators are interested in winning now and have cap space, and bringing in an experienced top four defenseman like Phaneuf makes sense. Phaneuf has nine goals, 28 points, well over 100 blocked shots and hits, and is contributing over 23 minutes a night for Ottawa. Phaneuf has his quirks; bad penalties, his contract, and at times mediocre skating. But, he gets the job done, and can even make a highlight reel or two.

Exhibit A: https://twitter.com/ChartingHockey/status/831687739724685314

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Yes, that was Dion Phaneuf. He can still skate when he wants to, and his offensive contribution is on pace to be the best offensive season by a Senators defenseman not named Karlsson since the 2011-12 season. Phaneuf’s ability to help out offensively, while being a thorn in opponent’s sides and providing relief for his goalies has helped him fit well into The System. Phaneuf’s trade has seen him transition into the Senators lineup very well.

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Trades sometimes affect a team and more specifically the player. This player coming in tapers off for a period of time, as they attempt to adjust to the new play style. This has not been the case for the Senators this year. Tommy Wingels has fit in nicely on the fourth line for the Senators, and quickly adjusted, but two recent acquisitions have adjusted just as well if not better. On February 27th, Sens fans collectively face-palmed as they saw Alex Burrows being traded to the Senators for prospect Jonathan Dahlen. I will be the first to say it was an overreaction on my part and on the fan-base’s. With little-to-no draft picks to trade, Senators’ General Manager Pierre Dorion overpaid for Alex Burrows. But, the team got the guy they wanted. Since acquiring Burrows, Ottawa is 3-0-0, and Burrows has four points in three games. Yes, Dahlen’s numbers are comparable to that of Filip Forsberg at 19 years old. I am sure he will be a good player one day. But, Ottawa saw him as a project. Wanting to win in the now, they saw Burrows as the better option. You do not have to agree with it, you do not have to like it, but it is the reality and Burrows has been great so far. Burrows is an experienced veteran who has been to a Cup Final, as has Wingels. The Senators other deadline acquisition Viktor Stalberg has won a Cup with the Blackhawks. The trend emerging from Ottawa is experience and a winning culture, they have positioned themselves and The System for playoff success.

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Here is the situation. Erik Karlsson is on a terrific contract right now, earning six and a half million dollars a year, which is ludicrous value for arguably the best defenseman in the league. After this year, Karlsson will be under contract for two more years with the Senators before having to find a new deal, which ultimately could be with another club. Ottawa is determined to prove to Karlsson who is in his prime that they are committed to winning. They want to bring him back and make him into a career Senator, but in all likelihood they will need successful campaigns to do so. Flopping in and out of the playoffs, not spending to the cap and having poor attendance does not promote a winning culture. Eugene Melnyk has opened up his wallet to bring in new players and, attendance has begun to rise. Now, it is time to see what this team is made of. Are they legit? Could they actually win their division? Can they go toe-to-toe with the likes of Pittsburgh and Washington? If any of the above are ever going to go the Senators way, it will be through The System. The System is the best chance of ensuring Erik Karlsson remaining as an Ottawa Senator for his career, and The System is why for the first time since 2007, I believe in the Ottawa Senators to win any night. Go Sens Go, trust The System.

 

NHL News

The Penalty Box

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  • The Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in tough spot. With 17 games remaining the Leafs are one point out of the playoffs, have not beaten a team in a playoff position in nearly a month, and are now in the thick of a tight race with the New York Islanders. The long season has taken a toll on the young Leafs, particularly Morgan Rielly, who, since February 1st, is a -18 in 17 games. Rielly has a bright future, but he is struggling to hold up as a top pair defenseman over the length of an entire season early in his career. His partner Nikita Zaitsev has been doing his best to cover up Rielly’s mistakes. But, the two will need to be able to lean on each other, if they would like to recover from this slump and get the Leafs to the playoffs.
  • Joshua Ho-Sang made his NHL debut this past week and no one seemed to care about his talent and potential. All anyone has talked about concerning Ho-Sang was his jersey number. Ho-Sang, who plays for the New York Islanders, wears No. 66, the number of Mario Lemieux. Many people believe Ho-Sang should not be wearing the number, as it is a sign of disrespect. I think this argument is ridiculous: 66 is not retired league-wide, he is not on the Penguins, and what does it really change? Ho-Sang gave his opinion on the matter stating that “if anything it is the ultimate respect”. Clearly, he is not wearing 66 to make a statement. How about we drop it, and judge the guy by the way he plays?

Stars of the Week

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  • How about Jack Eichel? The forgotten one is tearing it up in Buffalo, since February 1st nobody has more points than Eichel (24). Over this 18 game stretch the young star has made highlight reels almost every night, including an excellent showing against the Philadelphia Flyers last night. The Sabres may be outside of the playoff picture, but Sabres’ fans have a reason to smile as their young star is having a season to remember with 45 points in 46 games.
  • Erik Karlsson is not going to win a Norris this season, but he has found that extra gear since the All-Star break. Since returning from the All-Star break the Senators’ captain has 19 points in 17 games. With shorter shifts and less ice-time this year Karlsson has found a way to keep his top gear speed active almost continuously. If you have not watched a Senators’ game recently, I seriously suggest tuning in just to watch Karlsson play. The Swede is truly a treat to watch.

 

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

2016-2017 Toronto Raptors Media Day

  • The Toronto Raptors got a much needed extended break after their 101-94 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, and will return to action this Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Raptors will need to take advantage of their lighter schedule in March if they hope to challenge for first place in the Atlantic Division, as they trail the Boston Celtics by two and a half games. With that being said, the teams they will be playing for the most part are scrapping for playoff spots, so they cannot take their foot off the gas. But, there is no denying that it is much preferred to not be playing elite talent for the most part.
  • The most frustrating part of the Raptors is their inability to activate Jonas Valanciunas. With Kyle Lowry out of the lineup, and DeMar DeRozan needing someone else to help carry the load why not give JV more touches? It is baffling, as to why Head Coach Dwane Casey refuses to give Valanciunas the ball. For example, despite shooting 4-4 in the opening quarter and being on pace for a first half double-double, the Raptors took JV out of the game and limited him to 21 minutes for the game. Why not feed a hot hand?! People cannot say this is a one off thing either, because this consistently happens! For example, if it were not for Valanciunas’ first round performance last year, there is no way the Raptors would have beaten the Pacers. When will Casey swallow his pride and admit JV is ready to take that next step? It has to happen sooner rather than later, if the Raptors plan to challenge the NBA’s best.

 

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Spurs (49-13)
  • Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA. No discussion, he can check anyone and he can pour the points in when asked to. Leonard is having a career year, and the Spurs who were supposedly “too old” or “not good enough”, look real dangerous. Gregg Popovich has brought his prized possession along slow and steady, but Leonard is finally ready to explode. With Pau Gasol back and healthy, watch out for this Spurs team, because right now I believe they may be the toughest team to beat in the league, with Leonard leading the charge.
  1. Warriors (52-11)
  • The Warriors had been consecutively No. 1 in Josh Saslove’s Sports Talk’s power rankings for over two months, but that streak has finally come to an end. The Warriors lost back-back regular season games for the first time in nearly two years this past week, and without Kevin Durant they do not look unbeatable. Since the All-Star break Steph Curry has shot 32.9% from beyond the arc, which for Curry is terrible. Klay Thompson has not been playing well since the All-Star break either shooting 36.9% from the field and under 30% from three point range. If the Warriors cannot recover, they better pray Kevin Durant rushes back, because this team is not what they were cracked up to be right now.
  1. Cavaliers (42-20)
  • Cleveland has been okay lately. They are coming off back-back losses to the red-hot Miami Heat, albeit one of the losses was without LeBron James, but no time to panic. The Cavs are still fine at the top of the Eastern Conference and James is still in cruise mode. When Kevin Love is back on the floor it will be a lot easier to tell if the Cavaliers can challenge the Spurs or Warriors. If Love plays like the microwave he was for the Cavs offense early in the season, then they will be in good shape.
  1. Rockets (44-20)
  • Houston handled the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers this past week, and were just two points short of taking down the San Antonio Spurs. All in all, it was a damn good week for Clutch City. After taking his foot off the gas for a few games, James Harden is back to his MVP-like ways, as in his last three games he is averaging 32.7 points, 10.7 assists and has shot an absurd 57.1% from the three point line. Do not expect Harden to slow down, and with some luck and a few unsung heroes this Rockets team may be able to steal a series over the Warriors or Spurs.
  1. Celtics (40-24)
  • Boston beat the Cavaliers a week ago, but in the same week they also lost to the Suns, so it had its ups and downs. On Wednesday night the Celtics have a huge opportunity in front of them, going into Golden State for a date with the Warriors. Isaiah Thomas has spoken highly of himself, claiming to be “the best player in the world” back in January. He will have a chance to back this statement up going against last year’s MVP Steph Curry. While I am sure Thomas enjoys referring to himself as such, a win is likely more important to him on Wednesday night, and that win would certainly help the Celtics in their pursuit of the Cavs.

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Wednesday: Jazz vs Rockets 8:00pm ET, Penguins vs Jets 8:00pm ET, Celtics vs Warriors 10:30pm ET
  • Thursday: Wild vs Lightning 7:30pm ET, Flyers vs Maple Leafs 7:30pm ET, Spurs vs Thunder 8:00pm ET, Clippers vs Grizzlies 8:00pm ET, Ducks vs Blackhawks 8:30pm ET, Capitals vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
  • Friday: Ducks vs Blues 8:00pm ET, Raptors vs Hawks 8:00pm ET, Rockets vs Bulls 8:00pm ET, Penguins vs Oilers 9:00pm ET
  • Saturday: Predators vs Sharks 4:00pm ET, Blackhawks vs Predators 8:00pm ET, Warriors vs Spurs 8:30pm ET, Capitals vs Kings 10:30pm ET
  • Sunday: Wild vs Blackhawks 12:30pm ET, Bulls vs Celtics 3:30pm ET, Canadiens vs Oilers 7:00pm ET, Cavaliers vs Rockets 9:00pm ET, Capitals vs Ducks 9:30pm ET
  • Monday: Hawks vs Spurs 8:00pm ET, Penguins vs Flames 9:00pm ET, Blues vs Kings 10:00pm ET
  • Tuesday: Wild vs Capitals 7:00pm ET, Lightning vs Senators 7:30pm ET, Blackhawks vs Montreal 7:30pm ET

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.