Culture Change + 1: The 2017-18 Toronto Raptors

Culture Change +1: The 2017-18 Toronto Raptors

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The Toronto Raptors’ off-season appeared to have been a disappointment in September. Re-signing Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry were good moves; however, these are aging veterans getting huge contracts. With the These moves stopped them from signing any big name free agents, which looked to hold the Raptors in a state of limbo. However, the disappointment has changed into optimism.

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The Raptors have undergone a culture change internally, which has led to this change in weather. The architect of the Raptors’ recent success, Masai Ujiri, saw the potential of young guards Fred Van Vleet and Delon Wright. Accordingly, he traded Cory Joseph for cap space to sign C.J. Miles in mid-July, who gave the Raptors some much needed scoring and a greater ability to stretch the floor. Comfortable beyond the arc, Miles has given the Raptors’ offense a new weapon. The Miles move also signaled a change in the Raptors game-plan and their offense.

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After the moves by Ujiri, Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey has retooled the Raptors and created a new system for the offense; turning it into one which emphasizes ball movement and encourages their players to shoot for three. Furthermore Casey’s offense has seen the Raptors play more of an up-tempo style, resulting in an increase in pace, from 94.7 in the previous season to 98.3. In doing so, Casey has dug into his depth and bench, which has resulted in an uptick of usage for young players. On paper, the Raptors offensive rating has only improved slightly from last season’s rating (112.3 to 113.5). However, when looking at their assist and three point statistics it becomes apparent where the Raptors have improved. Last season the Raptors ranked dead-last in assists per-game, their offense was static and often relied on isolation. Much of their prior offense did not engage all five players, and made it easier to defend. Team basketball is especially important come the playoffs, in past years the Raptors have been exposed in the playoffs, due to their previous isolation-heavy offense.

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This year, the Raptors rank 21st in assists per game, going from 18.5 assists per game to 22.8. The improvement in assists comes largely from their spacing and ball movement. They also have no fear to shoot from three; while last season they shot 24.3 3-pointers per game, this year they have skyrocketed to 32.1. While their 3-point percentage is down from 36.3% to 35.1%, their effective field-goal percentage is up from 51.7% to 53.8%, good enough for 6th in the NBA. This has been Casey’s greatest year in Toronto because of his ability to create an effective team-oriented offense, especially with his use of the second unit and young talent.

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Van Vleet and Wright have seen an uptick in minutes and production, and have been a key players in the Raptors Van Vleet’s net rating of 9.9 is 12th best in the NBA, yet is not even the best on the team. Rookie OG Anunoby has the 2nd best net rating in the league (14.4), and the 3rd best offensive rating (115.5). While these numbers are a bit skewed from Anunoby’s small sample size (21.3 minutes per game), the rookie has exceeded all expectations thus far. A perfect fit for the Raptors tough defensive style, he is the perfect two-way starter. Anunoby’s movement and effort on defense may even be more impressive, as he has the ability to lockdown the NBA’s best as a rookie. The rugged Raptors have continued to defend well, but to get players to embrace their new offensive culture, the Raptors needed their best player to buy in.

Toronto Raptors beat Indiana Pacers in game five 102-99 in their first round NBA playoff series

DeMar DeRozan is a different animal this year, and has been the leader for this Raptors offense. DeRozan’s scoring has dropped from 27.3 points per game to 25.3, but his efficiency, three pointers, and playmaking have all improved. DeRozan is averaging a career-high 5.0 assists per game, and has an effective field goal percentage of 51.8%, also a career-high. An obstacle for the Raptors superstar has been his inability to shoot from three, however, with hard work and an increased volume, DeRozan’s 3-point shooting has improved. He is shooting 3.1 three-pointers a game, which is an increase of 1.4 attempts compared to last season. Additionally, he is knocking down a higher percentage of threes. DeRozan is sporting a career-best 37% 3-point shooting percentage, a huge improvement compared to his 26.6% last season. As DeRozan continues to improve and gain confidence from the 3-point line, the Raptors will become even more potent offensively.

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The Raptors are a good basketball team, but they are not great. But, with one move, they can make the jump from good to great. In particular, the Raptors’ frontcourt could be better. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are not a scary combination; but, the addition of Marc Gasol would see the Raptors become contenders. The Memphis Grizzlies have had a disaster of a season thus far, and are unlikely to make the NBA playoffs. With the season awash, the Grizzlies have discussed moving Gasol. While nothing is imminent, the Raptors have an opportunity to get an NBA all-star. Gasol is potent from three, a former defensive player of the year, an elite rebounder, and an above-average passer. He is a great fit for the Raptors, as he provides rough and tough defense while spreading the floor and moving the ball offensively. This culture change is still in its infancy. It would be solidified and accelerated by acquiring Gasol.

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To add, you must subtract. It seems straightforward for the Raptors to subtract from the position they are adding at, which would mean trading Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian, while highly regarded by the Raptors, has never risen to the heights the team had hoped for. His role has been in question for some time, and the new playing style the Raptors have adopted makes JV stand out as a sore spot. Now JV alone would not be enough but, with a first-round selection and a couple of secondary picks, this deal could get done. A comparable deal would be the DeMarcus Cousins deal between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings from a year ago. Gasol’s price would be lower though, as he is an older player and is not as valued as Cousins.

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The Raptors have a rare opportunity and need to get this deal done. Players like Gasol are rarely available, let alone on a contract that is not expiring. Gasol’s contract matches the team’s ideal timeline, as DeRozan is in his prime and Lowry and Ibaka will likely only have 2-3 quality years left as starters. Grabbing Gasol is a calculated risk, which would most likely not require parting with valuable assets, outside of JV. The culture change has started well, but it is not fully complete. It needs one more piece: Marc Gasol.

 

 

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Unjustified Disrespect: Eugene Melnyk’s Last Stand

Unjustified Disrespect: Eugene Melnyk’s Last Stand

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In 2003, the Ottawa Senators had filed for bankruptcy, but were saved by Eugene Melnyk, a Toronto-born businessman who was eager to win a Stanley Cup. For nearly a decade he helped foster and create a culture of winning and consistency in Ottawa.

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On July 5th, 2013, he made his most infamous decision. Melnyk decided to not pay Daniel Alfredsson’s his requested salary, and the Ottawa Senators lost their greatest player in franchise history. Once heralded as the saviour of the franchise, Melnyk cast away the greatest Senator of all-time for a mere 1 million dollars. This show of disrespect for Alfredsson’s contributions not only wronged the Swede, but it wronged a fan-base who embraced Alfredsson as family.

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Melnyk’s downfall has accelerated over the past few weeks. There had been speculation regarding his desire to sell the team and his ability In the midst of this the NHL 100 Classic, a celebration of the Senators and Ottawa was looming. A win over the New York Rangers this past Wednesday had perked up the fan-base, who grew excited for the outdoor game and its festivities. Then, on the biggest weekend in team history, Melnyk decided to challenge and disrespect the city.

During the Senators’ alumni game on Parliament Hill, Melnyk used the media attention to make a statement.

“I think the market here has to prove itself, or you have to make changes. We’ve cut everything to the bone in the organization. We are probably one of the thinnest management groups in the league. The next thing you have to look at is players.” – Eugene Melnyk

Per Frank Seravalli: (https://twitter.com/frank_seravalli/status/941837557842690048)

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Before 30,000+ paying customers braved frigid temperatures at TD Place, Melnyk felt the need to question the market of the National Capital Region. Recall that Melnyk was fighting for his life in 2015, and used his celebrity status to skip the line and recruit potential volunteer donors. Over 500 people volunteered to donate their liver so Melnyk could receive his transplant. An experience which would have humbled most seems to be forgotten by Eugene. Not only this, but Melnyk used last year’s playoff struggles at the box office as ammunition against his fan-base.

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Melnyk, a long-time horse owner and inductee into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame claimed that the Rideau Carleton Horse Racetrack “is a little, tiny C track that wouldn’t even make it in the Idaho State Fair.” Melnyk made this comment because the City of Ottawa had declined his proposal and intent to build a casino close to the Canadian Tire Centre. These statements were not only damaging to the horse-racing community, but it was not received well by many regular attendees to the Rideau Carleton Raceway. Melnyk has built quite the reputation in Ottawa. Eugene Melnyk has disrespected the Senator fans on numerous occasions, and fans are bellowing their frustrations.

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#MelnykOut took Canada by storm this past weekend. The hashtag can largely be accredited to Abdi Omer, who first tweeted the phrase on December 14th, but peaked in usage on the 16th. The fan-base is clearly not pleased with their controversial owner who attempted to steal the spotlight on the Senators’ most important weekend in franchise history. Melnyk’s actions and comments have even expanded beyond Canada’s borders and reached the U.S. On Friday evening, Keith Olbermann aired his opinion on Melnyk and the Senators’ unique situation. Olbermann said, “This is not a bright man, even for an owner”. Olbermann highlighted an absolutely ridiculous situation, and brought worldwide attention to it.

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Melnyk’s comments were not mentioned to the Senators’ players until today, when Erik Karlsson was questioned as to his thoughts on Mr. Melnyk’s comments. Karlsson was quoted as saying “It’s none of our business.” Karlsson went onto make it clear that the team’s focus was on playing hockey. Gary Bettman and the NHL took a different line at the situation. “We believe in all of the places that we have franchises now.” Bettman would go on to say the NHL is not looking to threaten markets, and he believes that LeBreton Flats is “vital” to the Senators’ future success, and believes it will also benefit Ottawa as a city. Bettman firmly backed Melnyk’s ability to get a deal done, but I would be incredibly surprised, if he was the sole owner of the Senators as they move to LeBreton Flats.

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Recently, talks of selling the team have heated up, and the Desmarais family has emerged as a possible buyer for the Senators. The Desmarais family was with the Devcore, Canderel and DLS group, who were the competing bid against that of Melnyk’s for the LeBreton Flats development. This same group has previously tried to buy the Senators from Melnyk. The events from this weekend will remain in infamy for some time, and you can be sure that things will not got better for Melnyk if he continues to be the owner of the Senators. Therefore, I am willing to make a bet. By this time next year, Melnyk will not be the sole owner of the Ottawa Senators. I do see a possibility of him remaining a minority owner, but there is no way he could recover from this and remain the sole owner. He has betrayed Ottawa and the National Capital Region once again, and for many this was the last straw. This past spring, Melnyk blamed “previous management” for the Senators attendance woes, and Don Brennan, a post-media journalist, responded by saying “It must be Eugene Melnyk”. Many months later the narrative stays true. What is the problem Mr. Melnyk? Simply put, it is you.

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Your continuous penny-pinching roster moves have plagued the Senators and stained management’s reputation. The Alfredsson decision still has ramifications today, as Alfie recently stepped away from his hockey operations position with the Senators. Melnyk is even entertaining the thought of repeating negotiation history with Karlsson’s contract coming due. According to reports, Melnyk was quite “unhappy” after Karlsson made it clear he would not be taking a hometown discount. The Sens fan-base would likely launch into anarchy if Melnyk let Karlsson walk, as he did with Alfredsson. Furthermore, the constant belittling of Ottawa and its citizens is insulting. It is nearly impossible to sell a product to people, whom he continuously disrespects. Melnyk has expressed his frustrations and the fans have responded vigorously. It is time for new ownership in Ottawa.

 

 

My wonderful readers, thank you so much for your support. Apologies for the lay-off school and work gave me a busy November and December, but I am back and hoping to better than ever. I hope you enjoyed this piece and those which are to come. Thank you to Geoff Marlowe for the editing as always, and I hope that your eyes will grace Josh Saslove’ Sports Talk again in the near future. Happy holidays everyone!

Only in New York: A Unicorn Plays Basketball

Only in New York: A Unicorn Plays Basketball

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On June 25th 2015, the New York Knicks rolled the dice, by drafting the future face of their franchise, Kristaps Porzingis. It was immediately met with criticism. The draft was in Brooklyn, which led to an invasion of unimpressed Knick fans. Fans originally hated the pick. How did Porzingis react? “I have to do everything that’s in my hands to turn those booing fans into clapping hands.”

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The 7-footer is the prophecy, which the Knicks have been waiting for. Porzingis has become a star for the Knicks and is one of the best players in the NBA. In a pop culture sense, the most recent time Knick fans have been this happy was when Jeremy Lin took the Big Apple by storm, and started the multi month-long tear that was Linsanity. Porzingis is no short distance horse, though, he is a full-blown unicorn. As of November 12th, through 11 games, Porzingis has averaged 30.4 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, and has the 2nd highest player efficiency rating in the NBA at 30.62. He is responsible for 3.4 wins added to the Knicks record this year; the Knicks only have 7. The NBA season is just over a month old, and Porzingis has already taken the NBA and social media by storm: The Latvian superstar has obtained a following, and created attention for the Knicks that has not been present in years. The same fans who booed him on draft night, are now over the moon to have him.

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Porzingis’ contributions come from his ability to stretch the floor by shooting threes, his defensive skills, where he excels in the paint and at protecting the rim.  He is able to use his height as he rises above defenders, the big also grabs a large amount of offensive rebounds. When you factor in that Porzingis is only a mere 22-years old it is incredibly fair to say that the Latvian is just getting started.

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Porzingis’ success has been facilitated by successful off-season activity by the Knicks. The team let Derrick Rose walk, traded Carmelo Anthony, and had Phil Jackson fired as Knicks General Manger, all of whom were holding Porzingis back. Rose and Anthony were taking the ball and scoring opportunities away from Porzingis, and Jackson frustrated Porzingis by mentioning him in trade talks, and questioning his value on numerous occasions.

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Without these subtractions, Porzingis’ production would not have yielded such an  increase. Rose and Anthony’s style of basketball inadvertently affected Porzingis, as he struggled to find ball time. Porzingis has the 3rd highest usage rate in the NBA this season at 36.1%; however, the past 2 seasons, he had never made it above 25%. Playing similar minutes to last year, Porzingis has seen his field goal attempts rise from 14.9 to 21.5, and his free throw attempts from 3.8 to 7.3. Porzingis is the unequivocal star of the Knicks. Some say this was Phil Jackson’s plan all along, frustrate the 7-footer so bad that it would light an unquenchable fire underneath him. Thus, turning him into the NBA’s next prodigy. Whether this is true or not, one thing is certain. Porzingis is living proof that unicorns are not just a fantasy.

 

Author Notes: Just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has supported me over this past year, since I brought the Sports Talk back in its current format. It has been an absolute pleasure to write, post and receive feedback on these articles. I put out 28 posts in the first full year, and I am hoping to blast through that number and hit at least 40 this year. Huge thanks to Geoff Marlowe, for helping me along the way whether it be editing or spitballing ideas with me. And once more, thank you to you, the reader for taking your time to read my work. I sincerely appreciate, here’s to another great year of reading!

Duchene To The Sens: What Does It Mean?

Duchene To The Sens: What Does It Mean?

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Matt Duchene’s name was in trade rumours for nearly 2 years, and for the majority of that time his name was connected to Ottawa. After multiple failed attempts, Pierre Dorion’s persistence paid off, and on Sunday evening, the Senators finally got Matt Duchene. With the trade finally made, it comes time to break it down and analyze what all of this means.

The official deal:

Sens Receive: Matt Duchene from COL

Predators Receive: Kyle Turris from OTT, sign him to a 6-year $36M deal

Avs Receive: Shane Bowers, Andrew Hammond, 2018 1st round pick & 2019 3rd round pick from OTT, and receive Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev and 2018 2nd round pick

In Duchene, the Sens gain an Olympic gold medallist who has hit 70 points in a season and is only 26 years old. Furthermore, he has a year remaining on his contract after this season, which buys the Senators time to sort out their salary cap situation. Duchene also brings more speed, and will arguably produce even more with the talent provided in Ottawa, like Mike Hoffman. Guy Boucher has talked a lot about “playing fast” and how Ottawa is best when doing so. Playing fast in Boucher’s mind is breaking out quickly, transitioning quickly and doing everything with speed. Duchene exemplifies this with his quick feet and stick. Here, Duchene goes the length of the ice in 7 seconds or less. He starts off with a quick breakout, transitions into an offensive opportunity, and finishes with a goal. This explosive speed is exactly what the Senators needed to add to their Top 6.

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To acquire Duchene, the Senators had to part with a Top 6 forward, losing Kyle Turris.  Contract talks between Turris and the Senators had broken down recently, though. The Sens were put in a position where they had to sign Turris in a short timeframe, or he would walk away during free agency. Yes, they gave up Turris, but his replacement is arguably the better player. As well, Turris immediately signed a 6-year $36M deal in Nashville, which means he will make $6M per year until he is 35. With this, the Sens likely dodged a bullet there. While $6M seems reasonable for Nashville, it would not have been on the table for Ottawa. If Turris accepted that contract with Ottawa, he would make approximately $2.8M after taxes; in Nashville, $3.6M. That is a huge, underlying factor, which likely made Nashville much more attractive at $6M a year. Dealing Andrew Hammond gives some cap relief, as his time was clearly up with Condon firmly secured as the back-up. Shane Bowers may have been a first-round pick, but the Senators prospect pool is incredibly deep at the moment, and they did not have to give up Logan Brown, Colin White or Thomas Chabot. The picks are fine to go, because the Sens are pushing right now and do not need to stock up on young talent. They want to win; this trade solidifies that notion.

With the Senators indicating that they want to win, let us look at what their current lineup, when healthy, looks like:

Forwards:

Bobby Ryan – Derrick Brassard – Mark Stone

Mike Hoffman – Matt Duchene – Ryan Dzingel

Tom Pyatt – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Chris DiDomenico

Zack Smith – Nate Thompson – Alexandre Burrows

Additional Talent: Colin White & Filip Chlapik

Defensemen:

Johnny Oduya – Erik Karlsson

Dion Phaneuf – Cody Ceci

Freddy Claesson – Chris Wideman

Additional Talent: Thomas Chabot, Ben Harpur and Christian Jaros

Goalies:

Craig Anderson

Mike Condon

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If Thomas Chabot can make his way onto the Senators roster and replace Johnny Oduya, the Senators’ Top-6 defensemen would be battle-tested and ready to go. As for the forwards, moving Zack Smith could make the team better now and secure your future. Colin White will be coming off of IR soon, and is good enough to play in the NHL right now. His development could take a huge step forward this year. Smith has been somewhat underwhelming, and has a hefty cap hit of $3.25M, with 3 years left after the 17-18 season. If the Senators were to move him, they would not only free up a spot in the lineup for White, but would free-up cap space for July 1st, 2018. This is when Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Erik Karlsson all become available to sign extensions.

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The Senators’ salaries currently total $71.291M, with the cap at $75M. If Smith is moved, and White takes his spot $2.325M of cap space is freed up. Assuming Clarke MacArthur is eventually either placed on long-termed injured reserve or has his contract traded, this would free up an additional $4.65M, leaving the Senators with a $64.316M cap hit. If Karlsson is signed for $10.5M, Stone for $6.5M, and Duchene for $6.5M, this would put the Senators at a cap hit of $64.044M going into the 2019-20 season, where the cap would likely be over $75M. Even if Karlsson, Stone and Duchene, each wanted an extra million, there arguably could be space for that. Going into 19-20 they would have the following twelve players signed:

FWDs: Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, JG Pageau, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman, Logan Brown

D: Dion Phaneuf, Mark Borowiecki, Erik Karlsson, Thomas Chabot

G: Craig Anderson, Mike Condon

10 current prospects who could be ready by 2019-20: Christian Jaros (D) (Age: 21), Filip Chlapik (F) (Age: 20), Drake Batherson (F) (Age: 19), Alex Formenton (F) (Age: 18), Max Lajoie (D) (Age: 20), Ben Harpur (D) (Age: 22), Christian Wolanin (D) (Age: 22), Marcus Hogberg (G) (Age: 22), Francis Perron (F) (Age: 21), Nick Paul (F) (Age: 22).

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And these moves would leave money for their young talent exiting their entry-level contracts (Colin White, Freddy Claesson and Cody Ceci). Furthermore, some of the young talent like Christian Jaros, Filip Chlapik, and Drake Batherson could very well be on the Sens roster by then, and could still be one Entry-Level Contracts, keeping costs down. If that is the case, they would have no problem being competitive and under the cap. The numbers don’t lie, and the math spells that these moves can secure the Senators’ future and keep them at an extremely competitive level.

 

Matt Duchene’s move to the Senators is a calculated risk, but a worthwhile one, especially considering his apparent want to play in Ottawa. This move is a step forward for the Senators, but it should not be the only one. They should consider empowering their young talent by moving older parts. Guy Boucher talked about “playing fast”, and these young players are incredibly quick and will only learn how to play Boucher’s style with more time on the ice. The Ottawa Senators are extremely close to replicating their Eastern-Conference Final run, and putting together a roster that can compete for years to come. It is a good time to be an Ottawa Senators fan.

Patience Is A Virtue: The Houston Astros Your 2017 World Champions

Patience Is A Virtue: The Houston Astros Your 2017 World Champions

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On Wednesday, the Houston Astros won their first World Series. The road to the World Series was a challenging one for the team: the Astros only other prior World Series appearence in 2005 saw them get swept, and prior to 2017, they had only made the playoffs 10 times in 54 seasons. The Astros lost 324 of their 486 games from 2011-2013. Fans attempted to remain optimistic as the Astros stockpiled prospects. Then, in 2014, Sports Illustrated published what will go down as one of the most legendary baseball articles in history.

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The June 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated included an article claiming that the Astros would be the 2017 World Series champions. The raised doubt throughout the baseball world, as many of the Astros prospects had yet to play in the MLB. The Astro on the cover was George Springer, one of the first pieces of the Astros’ project. Springer was taken 11th overall by the Astros in the 2011 MLB Draft, a selection seen as questionable. The risk panned out, as Springer was named World Series MVP.

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Jeff Luhnow was tasked with the Astros rebuild. Luhnow had won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, and had drafted and scouted many of their core pieces. Luhnow demanded patience upon arriving in Houston, and preached a vision for a brighter future, trading away veterans and stockpiling draft picks. The Astros showed a glimpse of the future in 2015 with an ALCS playoff run. Following this, Luhnow moved to acquire veterans, including Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Justin Verlander.

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“You won’t regret this decision if you decide to join the Houston Astros.” Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s ace,  made this sales pitch to Justin Verlander shortly before the trade deadline this season. Verlander had been a Detroit Tiger for his entire career, but the two were going in opposite directions: while the Tigers wanted to get younger, Verlander wanted to win. After rejecting other trade attempts, the 34-year old gave in and went to Houston. Verlander dominated in Houston, posting a 1.06 earned run average and five wins in five starts. The playoffs were no different, as Verlander led his team to the World Series by fending off the Boston Red Sox and capturing the ALCS MVP.

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Not all of these Astros were highly touted prospects or superstars, though. Jose Altuve tried out for the Astros in 2007 at the team’s Venezuelan facility. He was told he was “too short” and was cut. Altuve’s father pushed him to not take no for an answer, and Altuve returned and was eventually signed for $15,000. From age 17 to 21, Altuve played for the Astros affiliates in 7 different minor leagues before he finally got the call. Even after making the MLB, Altuve would return to Venezuela to play for the Astros’ winter league team. Altuve has gone from being “too short” to being a World Series champion, and is the odds-on favourite to be the American League MVP.

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At the end of the day, all the accolades and hype that came prior to this, they mean absolutely nothing to these gentlemen. As all of these men are now World Champions and have had this chapter told. For some, this is just the beginning of their illustrious careers, but for one it is likely the end of the road. Carlos Beltran, one of the most consistent players of his generation is now 40 years old, and well past his prime. This was rumoured to be his last chance at a World Series, and bi-god he got it done. Beltran became emotional at the end of his interview, dedicating the win to his birthplace, Puerto Rico. Beltran also spoke of what it means to him, and how when you reach the “Big Leagues”, you want nothing more than to experience this moment.

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Beltran’s case, sums up everything of what this World Series win means to Houston. After the devastating weather, which ravaged their fine city, many of its residents rallied around this team. Rebuilding their city may seem difficult, and it will take time, but they can look to the Astros for hope. An organization who was once a laughingstock is now on top, because they remained patient and worked hard. The Astros finally realized that moment, and the city felt it with them. Your 2017 World Series Champions, The Houston Astros.

Embrace The Hate: The Western Conference Arms Race

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The Golden State Warriors are the NBA’s most polarizing team: if you are not with them, you are certainly against them. This reality is apparent to those on the Warriors as well; Klay Thompson stated it best in claiming that “All the greatest teams are hated. So we embrace it.”  Thompson and his teammates are aware they are not well-liked, and they are even more aware of the ripple effects of the “super-team”, as Western Conference team owners have adjusted to the new reality and have opened their wallets to attract the NBA’s best talent.

The Western Conference was plus-42 in games against the Eastern Conference last year, and this number should be eclipsed this year. Players in the Eastern Conference have jumped ship to the West, including Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap. There are 12 teams in the Western Conference fielding playoff-calibre rosters, and 2 out of the other 3 teams (everyone other than the Suns) could feasibly compete for the last 2 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. When was the last time a conference in the Big 4 was that deep?

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In 2010, Kevin Durant made a large statement. The Finals MVP called out the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers’ Big 3s; yet, 6 years later, Durant would follow the same path of those he criticized. Do not think players around the league did not notice. Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City set off a chain reaction, and, while it made the Warriors nearly unbeatable for an entire season, it inspired others to create their own super teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Houston Rockets, and the Minnesota Timberwolves all beefed up in big ways this off-season, creating even more competition.

Speaking of competition, there are 5 teams in the West who are sure bets to make the playoffs: the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder and Timberwolves. After that? It is wide-open. The race for the remaining 3 playoff spots may deliver some of the best basketball that the NBA has seen in years. This race will likely come down to the final weeks of the season, and will see the likes of Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis fighting for a playoff spot. There will likely be 2 or 3 teams who miss the playoffs despite having a strong roster, and, because of geographical reasons, will be forced to watch, instead of participate in, the playoffs. The idea of abolishing conference seeding, and going by league-wide seeding, has never made more sense than now. Of the 16 best teams in the NBA, only 5 play in the Eastern Conference.

Here is my list:

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Top 16 NBA Teams:

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers
  3. Houston Rockets
  4. San Antonio Spurs
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder
  6. Boston Celtics
  7. Minnesota Timberwolves
  8. Toronto Raptors
  9. Washington Wizards
  10. Los Angeles Clippers
  11. Utah Jazz
  12. Portland Trailblazers
  13. Milwaukee Bucks
  14. Denver Nuggets
  15. Memphis Grizzlies
  16. Sacramento Kings

The only other Eastern Conference team worthy of the list could be the Miami Heat. The Western Conference’s chase of the Warriors has inspired competitiveness and a desire to win, players in the West will carry a chip on their shoulder each and every game. Do not be surprised if the Warriors have some hiccups during the regular season, and their road to the Finals may not be as simple as one would expect.

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These super-teams have been formed with a simple purpose: to beat the Warriors. While LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be awaiting whoever beats the Warriors, the goal remains the same, and the greatest climb will be beating Golden State. And do not be confused, not all these players are in their prime. There is a strong youth movement in the Western Conference. Look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example. Jimmy Butler is the veteran of their Big 3 at 28, with Andrew Wiggins only 22 and Towns merely 21. The T-Wolves are not even close to their full potential. The Portland Trailblazers’ average age is 24.9 years old, and they are still considered by many to be a playoff team. The talent stretches to all ages out West.

Last year’s NBA Rising Star Challenge featured Team USA vs. Team International, and 14 of the 22 participants were from Western Conference teams. Furthermore, 4 of last year’s East All-Stars are now playing their basketball out West. While this sucks for the Eastern Conference, it is gold for the NBA. Many east-coast viewers will be staying up late to watch the big boys play late at night, as the West Coast is truly best. What does this all mean?

  1. You should watch Western Conference basketball
  2. 11 Western Conference teams will have 40 or more wins
  3. The NBA should abolish conference seeding
  4. The Warriors are not going 16-1 in the playoffs
  5. The NBA will be the most entertaining it has been in quite some time

 

Welcome back basketball, it is going to be a great year, and thank you Golden State for inadvertently saving a horribly imbalanced product.

 

Thank you all so much for reading! It truly means the world to me, and now having much more time at my disposal I can promise this will once again become a weekly activity! So please every week feel free to read and give me feedback, this is how I can always continue to improve! I enjoy so much writing and I enjoy it even more when I get feedback and know people are reading my works. So thank you again for reading, it is my absolute pleasure to share my work with you.

Thanks also to my editor Geoff, who commits time to making sure my work is at its best quality. If you have any recommendations or would like to continue the conversation hit me up on Facebook or on Twitter or Instagram @sassysaslove!

Buckle Up: One Bold Prediction for each NHL Team

Buckle Up: One Bold Prediction for each NHL Team

PSA: Every spice rating in here is done by my wonderful editor Geoff. It is done to add some flavour to the article, and give another’s opinion!

 

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks Top Line Gets Eavened Up

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Patrick Eaves was red hot last year. The short-tenured Duck recorded 32 goals in 79 games last year between Dallas and Anaheim and should continue this production on the Ducks’ top line. Eaves managed 11 goals in just 20 games with the Ducks last season, and will continue to benefit from Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry’s presence and skills. Eaves’ ability to clean up play around the net will help him sustain this production. Moreover, Eaves’ accomplishments in Anaheim came with Perry having a down year as well. Should Perry return to form this year, Anaheim’s top line could reach unseen heights. Eaves’ 32 goals were no fluke, and he will hit at least 30 this season.

Prediction: Eaves stays red-hot and scores 30+ goals

Spice: AYY PAPI

 

Arizona Coyotes: Max Domi Finds a New Gear

Through 2 NHL seasons Max Domi has averaged 0.64 points per game. This year he will shatter that mark and hit 65 points. Arizona has improved their forward group this year, adding Derek Stepan, Clayton Keller, and Dylan Strome to their opening night roster. This gives Domi more talent to work with and takes away attention from opposing top lines. Furthermore, he will find more free space, and will excel under the Coyotes’ new head coach, Rick Tocchet. When in space, Domi is lethal, as he is almost always in motion even when off the puck, making himself available for a goal scoring opportunity. Tocchet will encourage Domi to move freely and with more speed this season than his predecessor, Dave Tippett.

Prediction: Domi hits 65 points with skill surrounding him

Spice: DIOS MIO

 

Boston Bruins: Big Bear Goes Home Wounded

The Boston Bruins are incredibly top heavy. They only had 7 players register 30 or more points last season, and were carried by a lethal top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. After that, and outside of David Krejci and Ryan Spooner, their forward group is lacking. If any of their top line goes down or struggles, it could prove fatal. Furthermore, Zedno Chara’s ability to be a top pairing defenseman is no longer a certainty. Having been exposed in the playoffs, Chara’s minutes will likely be reduced this year, meaning one of Boston’s young defensemen will need to step up. With Torey Krug already dealing with injury issues, the wheels could fall off sooner rather than later if another big gun goes down for Boston.

Prediction: Setback year for Boston, who will miss the playoffs

Spice: the spiciest of Antarctic peppers

 

 

Buffalo Sabres: Eichel Earns Elite Status

Jack Eichel’s talent has never been in question. However, the American stud has flown under the radar in Buffalo, and was held back by injury issues last season. During his 2016-17 campaign, Eichel recorded 57 points in 61 games despite his injuries. This season, he will be a point per game producer. He will eclipse 80 points and become the leader of the Sabres. Eichel’s quick acceleration and elite accuracy will create chances not only for himself, but his teammates. Further proof of Eichel’s skill and ability to control the play is shown through Buffalo’s league-leading powerplay, which excelled at 24.5% last season. The 20 year old will be a menace for opposing teams and coaches, and will become recognized as one of the most dynamic players in the Eastern Conference.

Prediction: Eichel puts up 80+ points, gains much more credibility

Spice: colder than a February Thursday in Flin Flon

 

Calgary Flames: Magic Mike Arrives in Cowtown

Mike Smith is now a Calgary Flame, and finally has a well-designed team in front of him. Having been the victim of constant redeveloping teams in Arizona, Smith now joins a young Flames team that has experienced success. Despite having a revolving door in goal last season Calgary was 14th in GA, and will improve on this mark with Smith in net. Furthermore, the additions of Michael Stone and Travis Hamonic will help solidify their blue line and provide added protection for Smith. With a capable team up front, do not be surprised to see Smith and the Flames make a run in the playoffs. It was not too long ago that Smith and the Coyotes landed themselves in the Western Conference Finals. Smith may be older now, but his lateral movement and quick glove hand are still more than capable.

Prediction: Mike Smith takes the Flames on a playoff run

Spice: PEPE, IS THAT YOU???

 

Carolina Hurricanes: Skinner’s Theory Comes to Fruition

Jeff Skinner is shockingly only 25 years old and coming off of his best NHL season. The former Calder winner recorded 37 goals and 63 points last season to lead the Canes in scoring. This year, he will improve even more. Last year, Skinner spent 50% of his time on the ice with Lee Stempniak. This year, Skinner should get time with skilled players like Justin Williams, Teuvo Teravainen, and Victor Rask. Regardless of who he plays with, though, Skinner will create opportunities for his teammates by drawing defenders to him. Skinner could easily crack 70 points this season, and he will continue to lead the Hurricanes offensively. He might also bring the Hurricanes their first playoff appearance since 2008-09.

Prediction: Skinner notches 70+ points

Spice: TOO SKINNY

 

Chicago Blackhawks: The Hidden Rink in Slovakia Exists

Following their early playoff exit last season, many analysts pegged the Blackhawks to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08. However, reports of the Blackhawks’ death have been greatly exaggerated. The Blackhawks still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and have brought in young talent this year to solidify their forward lines. The defense will not be as solid as usual, but Joel Quenneville mix and match accordingly to ensure the Blackhawks’ success. Marian Hossa should continue to thrive as well. The Blackhawks are still waiting on the NHL’s decision on Hossa’s LTIR status, after it was reported this off-season that Hossa was allergic to material in his equipment. When the Blackhawks surprise even themselves this year and find a resolution to their cap woes, Hossa will return to the lineup and bring his wealth of experience and skill in time for the playoffs.

Prediction: Hossa will return mid-season and Blackhawks will find their way into the playoffs

Spice: Marian Hossa’s career is over. This is not a rating, it is a PSA

 

Colorado Avalanche: A Diamond In The Rough

The Colorado Avalanche will be tanking for picks, but they will have one bright spot this year. Sven Andrighetto could not find much ice-time in Montreal, however, when he arrived in the Mile High City last year he instantly impressed. Andrighetto put up 16 points in 19 games. While the sample size is small, with less pressure on him and a fresh start look for Andrighetto to produce this year at a Top-six pace for the Avs. Andrighetto has a quick release and can finish a good amount of chances, in his aforementioned 19 games Andrighetto shot at a 13.5% clip, which is quite above average. Look for the Swiss youngster to be a surprise for the Avalanche and put up 50 points this year.

Prediction: 20+ goals and 50 points for the young lad from Switzerland

Spice: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_burn_centres_in_Canada

 

Columbus Blue Jackets: Panarin Gets His Own Spinoff

After two seasons alongside Patrick Kane in Chicago, Artemi Panarin now joins the Columbus Blue Jackets, aiming to establish himself as one of the league’s elite. Panarin, now in the prime of his career, has recorded 151 points in 162 games, and now joins an up-and-coming Columbus team searching for a superstar forward. Panarin will be the fix. The Russian is one of the smoothest stickhandlers in the NHL, has an incredibly quick release, and has elite level vision to create opportunities for his teammates. It will be interesting to see Panarin getting more touches and puck possession, as he will truly dictate the pace for the Jackets’ offense. He is currently lined up with Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson, and their line could be one of the scariest in the NHL by season’s end.

Prediction: Panarin will be over a point per game this season

Spice: I bet you still think Roman Reigns is an underdog

 

Dallas Stars: Free Agency Winners or Regular Season Disappointment

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The Dallas Stars once again went out and made a bevy of off-season moves. However, this does not mean they are a contender, and it does not mean this team is making the playoffs. While Marc Methot was a huge upgrade on the blueline, they still lost Jordie Benn, and, outside of their centres, they still lack depth at forward. Benn-Seguin-Radulov will be fabulous to watch, and there is a reason to be excited, but the Stars are not going anywhere if those three do not carry this team. Not to mention, the Stars will be relying heavily on Ben Bishop, a player that has been dealing with injury issues for the past four seasons. Bishop had his worst year as a starter last year, yet the Stars rewarded him with a large contract. Pessimism could be getting the best of me, but I do not see how the Stars make significant progress with their current roster.

Prediction: This roster will score, but they will not make the playoffs

Spice: The Stars may look cold, but this prediction is HOTTTTTT

 

Detroit Red Wings: Short-Term Loss for Long Legged Gain

The Detroit Red Wings will be a bad team this year. Still, Anthony Mantha is going to begin reaching his potential. Mantha had a respectable rookie season in 2016-17, scoring 17 goals and 36 points. With a year of experience under his belt, and a more youthful line combination with Dylan Larkin and Martin Frk, Mantha’s skill and size will shine. The 220 pounder has extremely tidy mitts and a release that will fool goalies. There will be no sophomore slump for the big man, as he will likely lead the way for the Wings in goal scoring.

Prediction: Mantha scores at least 30 goals, and gives Wings fans hope for the future

Spice: MY GOD….

Edmonton Oilers: McDavid Officially Becomes “The Best”

Many people will say until Connor McDavid wins a Stanley Cup he is inferior to Sidney Crosby. These same people will have an incredibly tough time arguing McDavid is not more talented, the 20-year old is fresh off of recording 100 points and now gets Ryan Strome to work with. Many people forget Strome scored 50 points, three seasons ago, and I will argue that he will shatter that mark this year. Strome will be the beneficiary of McDavid’s career year, as the young captain will put up the biggest point total since Evgeni Malkin recorded 113 points during the 2008-09 season. McDavid is arguably the best skater in the league, and he continuously uses

Prediction: McDavid hits 115 points, and will be considered the greatest player on the planet

Spice: I bet you thought Hillary would sweep the Electoral College

 

Florida Panthers: Russian Fever Makes The Panthers Playoff Bound

The Florida Panthers are going to make the playoffs. The antidote to their scoring woes will come with the off-season addition of Evgeny Dadonov. This underrated roster move gives Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexsander Barkov a skilled teammate on the right wing. The 28-year old recorded 66 points in 53 games for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL last year, and, much like Artemi Panarin a few years ago, Dadonov will adjust to the NHL-style quickly. Dadonov sees the game with a high degree of creativity. He uses his speed to create separation between defenders, and makes his money breaking down the wings or setting up shop at the hash marks/faceoff circle. Dadonov’s speed and creativity will revamp Florida’s offense and help fix the Panthers’ mediocre powerplay.

Prediction: Dadonov scores 70 points and helps guide Florida back to post-season hockey

Spice: BY GOD, THAT MAN HAS A FAMILY

 

Los Angeles Kings: Lombardi’s Mess Remains Janitor-Less

The Los Angeles Kings will miss the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since 2009. Dean Lombardi may have assembled two Stanley Cup winning rosters, but he now leaves the Kings with a mediocre roster. Firing Darryl Sutter will set the Kings back more than it will move them forward, and the once systematic Kings will break down much more this year. The Kings have lost their strengths. Their depth forwards and defensemen look bad, and the playoffs will be a huge ask from this group. If they want any success, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick will need to have their best seasons ever. With Kopitar trending downwards, and Drew Doughty sounding unsure about his future in L.A., the Kings could be competing for draft picks instead of Cups.

Prediction: The Kings miss the playoffs

SPICE: NO MAS, SENOR. NO MAS

 

Minnesota Wild: El Nino Is Unleashed On the NHL

Coming off his best professional season, Nino Niederreiter is about to turn into an elite power forward. The 25-year old tallied 25 goals, 100+ hits, and 57 points last year, and he is poised to score 30 or more this season. From in tight, Niederreiter is one of the best finishers in the league. He continuously scores from below the hash marks by using his long stick, large body frame, and quick release. The Swiss superstar is due for an uptick in ice time as he will be lined up alongside Charlie Coyle and Eric Staal. With more talent around Niederreiter and Minnesota’s new found depth, line matching will be difficult for opponents and Niederreiter will capitalize.

Prediction: Neiderreiter notches 30+ and plateaus at 70 points

Spice: GO GOPHERS

 

Montreal Canadiens: The Price is Too High

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Jonathan Drouin does not solve the problems the Canadiens have. Drouin will have a great season, and his line mates will do well. However, there is no way the Habs can score at a playoff rate with their roster. They offloaded three of their top five defensemen, and have a weaker defensive unit now. They also lost Radulov, which will hurt their goal scoring. Their off-season moves were fine, and the Drouin trade was excellent. He will bring speed, creativity, and explosiveness to their top line, and will help Max Pacioretty produce. However, the rest were questionable. Karl Alzner had one of the worst Corsi ratings on the Washington Capitals last year at 47.3%. Their bottom six is underwhelming, and will not get much better unless Charles Hudon has a fabulous rookie season. The reality here is that Carey Price will have to carry this team, even more so than in past seasons. The Habs may be able to squeak into the playoffs, but this team took a step or two backwards this off-season.

Prediction: Habs miss the playoffs and fall flat

Spice: Riot-worthy

Nashville Predators: Smashville Bashes in the Central Division

The Predators have an incredibly deep defensive core, and Pekka Rinne showed he can still be an elite goaltender in the NHL. The losses of James Neal and Mike Fisher hurt, but Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg have room for improvement. The additions of Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino add more grit to this forward group, and will make Nashville an even tougher and more physical team to play against. Believe it or not, their defense may even be better this year if PK Subban returns to his Montreal form. Subban was great defensively last year, but lacked the same offensive bite he had previously displayed. This season, Subban will become the quarterback of the Predators’ powerplay. Subban at the top of the faceoff circle is an extremely deadly asset who will consistently put the puck on net.

Prediction: Preds Win the Central Division & Subban hits 25+ powerplay points

Spice: YAWN

 

New Jersey Devils: #13 is #1 In His Class

Nico Hischier played four pre-season games, scoring in all four and tallying seven points. Hischier also went 19 for 40 in the faceoff circle, which, for a rookie, is exceptional. It typically takes young centres a few years to get near 50%. It may only have been pre-season, but Hishcier’s abilities are shown through those four games. He has incredible acceleration and can be a puck hound in the neutral zone, in turn creating offensive chances for himself and teammates. Look for the #1 overall draft pick to be the top rookie of the 2017-18 season, and for him to eventually gain much more ice-time with Taylor Hall. Hischier will help break the trap narrative of the old Devils by providing a new youthful energy, which comes with much more freedom.

Prediction: Hischier wins the Calder with 60+ points

Spice: SOMEONE’S BEEN EATING THEIR VITAMINS, BROTHER

 

New York Islanders: Johnny T’s New Dance Partner

John Tavares has been searching for a dynamic linemate to play alongside him. Anders Lee’s numbers are a great representation of how good Tavares is, as he has helped Lee’s game drastically. This year sees Tavares get probably his most attractive line mate in quite some time. Jordan Eberle joining the Islanders is huge for Tavares, who is reunited with his former World Junior pal and now has a skillful winger with him on the ice. It could help him regain the point per game form he showed in 2014-15. Tavares leans heavily on his strength to create offense for himself and teammates as he draws multiple defenders at a time. An incredibly strong puck handler with terrific vision, Tavares is a human highlight reel most nights.

Prediction: Tavares eclipses 85 points and keeps the Isles in the Wild Card race

Spice: THIS IS BORING *clap clap clap-clap-clap*

 

New York Rangers: The King Falls

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Henrik Lundqvist’s decline began to show last season, as he struggled at times to provide consistent goaltending to a Rangers team that had finally started scoring. Lundqvist had his worst season ever statistically, and his workload may be even heavier this year without Antti Raanta to back him up. The Rangers lost Raanta in the off-season and now have Ondrej Pavelec, who last season could not even secure a back-up job in Winnipeg. The Rangers offense was Top 5 in the league last year in scoring, but will likely see a drop off with the loss of Derek Stepan. Their former #1 centre was also one of their few players with a Corsi of 50% or higher. Stepan’s role will now be shared by Mika Zibanejad and 18 year-old rookie Filip Chytil. Zibanejad is best in transition, where he, unlike most centres, hangs higher and uses his speed to be sprung on breakaways. Should defenses match lines against him, Zibanejad could have a tougher time achieving this. All in all, if this team wants to go anywhere Lundqvist will need to be much better than last year.

Prediction: Lundqvist struggles, Rangers squeak into post-season get bounced 1st round

Spice: MCMAHON-SIZED GRAPEFRUITS

 

Ottawa Senators: The Overachievers Continue to Surprise

The Ottawa Senators were Eastern Conference Finalists last year; yet, entering this year they are being picked to miss the playoffs. Furthermore, instead of talking about the team’s on-ice success, the discussion surrounds their arena, ticket sales, and ownership. This is all happening whilst Ottawa continues to ice one of their best teams in the past 10 years. Erik Karlsson is the best defenseman in the world. The team’s regular season could actually be even smoother this year if they get more offense out of playoff performer Bobby Ryan. After the worst regular season of his career, Ryan was the Senators’ best forward in the playoffs last season. Ryan’s playoff success came from his effort levels, which were showed in 1 on 1 puck battles that he consistently won in the playoffs. Winning these battles led to opportunities for himself and teammates. Look for an uptick in offense from Ryan to stabilize the Sens top-6, as they will find themselves once again in the playoffs.

Prediction: Sens make the playoffs and Ryan puts up 55+ points

Spice: LOLTARPS

 

Philadelphia Flyers: The Team Follows Their Captain

The Philadelphia Flyers should find themselves in a battle for a wild card spot this season. This young team has an exciting offense led by Claude Giroux. Giroux had his worst season since 2009-10 in 2016-17, but should recover this year. Expect to see a much different Giroux this year. Over 50% of Giroux’s minutes last year were with Michael Raffl as a winger. This year, he is much more likely to spend time with Jakub Voracek. His other winger will be the key, though, and if he gets more ice-time with Wayne Simmonds his numbers will skyrocket. Of Giroux’s 58 points last year, over 70% included either Voracek or Simmonds. His success hinges on playing with the best players around him, and he will likely benefit from increased ice time with them this year. If Philly can get Giroux going, their powerplay will roll as well, as the team’s powerplay possesses control and poise, which creates many net-front chances that could make their powerplay Top 5 in the league.

Prediction: Giroux hits 70+ points, Flyers PP is Top 5, stay competitive in wild card race

Spice: I EXPECTED A PHILLY LINE BRAWL, NOT A TALLAHASSEE TEA PARTY

 

Pittsburgh Penguins: Three peat?

The Pittsburgh Penguins have an incredibly rare opportunity this season: they could become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s. The core of this group remains the same, and they did not lose much else this off-season. Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen leaving their bottom-six hurt, though, and  Jim Rutherford and company will likely address this issue near the trade deadline by adding a centre to solidify their bottom-six. Expect Jake Guentzel to reintroduce himself, and have a terrific regular-season playing alongside Sidney Crosby. Guentzel netted 13 goals in 25 games last year during the Pens’ Stanley Cup run, many coming from Crosby’s vision and quick stick. Furthermore, Matt Murray continues to prove he is one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL, and will finally be the #1 goalie. This Pens team is stacked from top to bottom, and if they are healthy they are certainly the team to beat.

Prediction: Guentzel goes to town netting 35+ goals and the Penguins win the Cup once more

Spice: “Are you saying ‘boo’, or ‘Boo-urns’?”  “BOOOOOOO”

 

San Jose Sharks: In Need of a Reboot

The San Jose Sharks got bounced in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers last year in a disappointing finish. The Sharks were fresh off of a Stanley Cup Final trip in 2016, yet came nowhere near the final last season. This was largely due to a lack of scoring: in 2015-16, the Sharks averaged 2.89 GPG (Goals Per Game); last season, 2.67 GPG. While they had an excellent defensive unit and structure, their lack of goal scoring hurt them. Much of this scoring needs to come from the Joes. Pavelski and Thornton are the offensive leaders of the team. This year, Kevin Lebanc is their line mate. While he may not be the most prolific name, Labanc enters his second NHL season in a great spot with the opportunity to benefit from two of the best in the game. Thornton has turned ordinary players into extraordinary ones before, most notably Jonathan Cheechoo. Pavelski’s goal scoring ability will ease the toll on Labanc, who will be able to find his captain at the top faceoff circle or in front of the net to clean up goals.

Prediction: Both Joes hit 70 points, Labanc gets to 50, Sharks are much more competitive

Spice: I THOUGHT I COULD LABANC ON THESE PREDICTIONS BEING SPICY, DAMMIT

 

St. Louis Blues: The Blues at a Dive Bar

The St. Louis Blues have been bit by the injury bug and the NHL season has barely started. Jay Bouwmeester, Patrik Berglund, and Alex Steen are all expected to miss time at the start of the season, some even for months. On top of that, Robby Fabbri is done for the year after reinjuring his left knee. That is 290 manned games lost, along with 51 goals. Furthermore, the Blues lost Kevin Shattenkirk, David Perron, and Jori Lehtera, which will significantly hurt them throughout the lineup. Brayden Schenn was a great addition, and St. Louis will give the 26 year-old a true opportunity to take another step forward. Schenn’s physical play helps him create turnovers and generate energy for his team, which translates to scoring chances and momentum swings. The Blues could make the playoffs, but they will need a lot of things to go right and to be lucky. In an extremely hectic and competitive Central division, they will struggle to keep their heads above water. The Blues seem to be a little too blackened for a long and prosperous season.

Prediction: Blues miss out on the playoffs in crowded Central division

Spice: IF THIS WERE A PITBULL SONG, IT’D BE “FIREBALL”

 

Tampa Bay Lightning: An Unlikely Hero

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Peter Budaj has been on a journey. After seemingly hitting rock-bottom in St. John’s, Budaj was given the opportunity to join the LA Kings’ AHL affiliate the Ontario Reign. Budaj dominated in 2015-16 and was promoted to the Kings’ roster for the 2016-17 season when Jonathan Quick got injured. Despite the Kings struggles last year, Budaj played very well, posting a 2.12 GAA (Goals Against Average) and .917 save percentage. Budaj moves well and when he is on, he can carry a team through a game. After being dealt to the Lightning at the trade deadline, Budaj was rewarded with the back-up job and a contract in Tampa Bay. This year, he will go one step further and steal the starting job away from Andrei Vasilevskiy.  A far-fetched theory, yes, but Budaj has earned a serious look with his track record, and Vasilevskiy could be on a shorter leash than expected with a Tampa team that is in “win now mode”. Look for Peter Budaj to give Vasy a serious run for the #1 goalie job, and maybe even have its full control by December.

Prediction: Vasilevskiy struggles, Budaj takes starting job and runs with it.

Spice: BAH GAWD, THAT’S….THAT’S GOTTA BE KANE!!!

 

Toronto Maple Leafs: Leafs Are #ActuallyGood

As a Senators fan, it absolutely pains me to say this, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have a bright future, and the hockey world will get a good look at that future this year. Aided by one of the most exciting offenses in the NHL, the Leafs will be a contender in the Atlantic division. So much so that they are actually my pick to win the division. Despite their average defensive corps, the Leafs will be able to simply beat their opponents in a track meet on the majority of nights. Led by Auston Matthews, the Leafs’ offense plays fast and has countless weapons with an incredibly deep lineup. The addition of Patrick Marleau brings more scoring touch and veteran presence. However, I do not see this drastically impacting the Leafs playoff hopes. While the Leafs will score at will during the regular season, come playoffs when the games are grinded out further their young lineup will struggle to remain as strong and physical as their opponents. The regular season will give a great glimpse to the future, but this Leafs team are a couple years away from being true contenders.

Prediction: The Maple Leafs win the division, but come up short in the playoffs

Spice: WHAT IS THIS, WRESTLEMANIA 33? WHAT AN ULTIMATE THRILLRIDE

 

Vancouver Canucks: Delusional & Distraught

Being a Vancouver Canucks fan must be difficult. This team has not been good enough to compete in years, yet refuses to commit to a rebuild. Keeping Henrik and Daniel Sedin around as mentors for younger players is great, and providing them with Loui Eriksson is fine. But, going out in the off-season and bringing in Tomas Vanek, Sam Gagner, and Alex Burmistrov is pretty baffling. The Canucks will not make the playoffs this year, but they also blew their chances of likely getting a top 5 draft choice with these moves. Vanek and Gagner aren’t prospects, or even young anymore, so bringing them in when you are not competing is counter-intuitive. Gagner has killer hands and really re-developed his scoring touch last year. Yet, while he brings excitement, this is a rebuild, not a time to bring in veterans. Vancouver’s average age is 27.254 years old, far too old for a rebuilding team, and their ineptitude in managerial decisions will cost them as this rebuild will go on for far too long.

Prediction: Canucks try to compete fail, but do not secure a top 5 draft pick

Spice: THIS IS HOGAN TNA LEVELS OF BORING, GIVE ME SOME SPICE

 

Vegas Golden Knights: Flower Power Takes Vegas by Storm

Marc-Andre Fleury’s goodbye to Pittsburgh included a Stanley Cup, though hedid not play a single minute in the Final. However, they likely would not have gotten there without the former first overall pick, who steadied the ship when Matt Murray went down. A lovable and recognizable name, The Flower will become the face of this franchise. Attaching a player to a brand is how you build your fan-base, and many people around the league will tune into Vegas Golden Knights games to support Fleury. Will this team be good this year? Absolutely not. But, Marc-Andre Fleury will steal games for them time and time again. Fleury has gotten his swagger and confidence back, which has seen his skill rise through the roof again. After some tumultuous times in Pittsburgh, where he lost his starting job to a younger goalie, Fleury will find stability in Vegas, and will be their face of the franchise so long as he is a Golden Knight.

Prediction: Fleury finds his game and becomes the face of Vegas hockey

Spice: THE NUMBERS DON’T LIE, AND THEY SPELL DISASTER FOR THIS PREDICTION

 

Washington Capitals: The GR8 One

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Alex Ovechkin’s had his worst season as a pro last year. He did not look like the same player that has scored 60+ goals: he was out of shape, bruised, and battered. This year, he returned to Washington earlier than ever before, eager to begin training camp, and showed off his new physique. Ovi is ready to explode. One of the greatest goal scorers of all-time, Ovechkin is 32, but not ready to slow down. Full of pride and furious over the NHL’s decision not to go to the Olympics, expect a focused Ovechkin to take his anger out on opponent’s goaltenders and defenses. With a world-class release, a booming shot, and unmatched goal scoring prowess, Ovechkin will have no trouble filling the net. Alex will hit 50 goals this year and will have his best season as a leader. It has never happened, and every year the hockey world believes the dream is dead, but if anyone is going to beat Pittsburgh, look for it to be Washington. Washington’s case may be repetitive, but even a broken clock is right once a day.

Prediction: Ovechkin reaches 50 goals once again, Capitals give Pittsburgh a run for their money

Spice: THAT’S A LIE. THAT’S A GOD DAMNED LIE

 

Winnipeg Jets: Used Good Do Not Pay Dividends

Steve Mason was chased out of Philadelphia this past off-season. Once a Calder winner, Mason’s abilities as a starter have been in question for the past few years. Oddly enough, he was given the starting job in Winnipeg, and the longer he spends as the #1 in Winnipeg, the further the Jets will bury themselves in the standings. Connor Hellebuyck was given a fair chance last year, and had a decent showing. Hellebuyck is accredited with having NHL skill and reflexes, but his inconsistencies have been his shortcoming thus far. This past summer, he began working with Adam Francilia. Francilia, a sports performance coach, has helped the likes of Andrew Ladd, Devan Dubnyk, James Reimer, and many more. They focused on posture and setup this off-season, as well as creating a better diet for Hellebuyck. In spite of all this, along with being younger than Mason and having nearly equal numbers, Hellebuyck was pushed to the back-up role in a peculiar move. Winnipeg is trying to win too quickly by pushing Mason into the starting role. It did not work in Philly the past two years, and he will continue to be a hazard in Winnipeg.

Prediction: Mason flounders, Jets continue to spin tires until they let Hellebuyck develop into their starter. No playoffs this year.

Spice: Winnipeg has an NHL team?

 

 

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