Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Brewing Something Good

After a sad weekend here in Ottawa, it's time to jump back into the sports world; so here we go...
The non-waiver trade deadline is fast approaching in Major League Baseball and the buyers and sellers are starting to sort themselves out. As the races in several divisions tighten up, the dog days of summer roll in, and teams are looking for the one player that may put them over the top. Let's take a quick trip through the American and National League divisions.
In the A.L. East, the series to watch this week may be the Tampa Bay Rays in Toronto. I wondered here a few weeks ago, how Tampa would react to the Red Sox and Yankees in their rear-view mirror? Well, despite the best road record in the American League, the Ray's lead is down to 1 game over Boston and they are 3 ahead of the Yankees. With Manny Ramirez possibly wanting out of Boston, and David Ortiz just returning from a wrist injury, the Sox may face a power outage. I expect the red hot Yankees to jump past the Sox and Rays by August 5th; especially if they get Jarrod Washburn and former Expos Jose Vidro out of Seattle as is rumoured. After a dismal start, the Jays are now 7.5 games back and their season could be rejuvenated with a series win against the Rays. If Toronto should slip further back in the standings, I believe A.J. Burnett will be moved sometime in August, despite General Manager J.P. Riccardi's comments that he won't be shipped out.
Looking at the A.L. Central, the Chicago White Sox continue to show their 2005 World Series form, holding on to a 1.5 game lead over Minnesota. The Detroit Tigers, the team expected to run away with the division, sits 6.5 games back. With a lot of high priced talent, and carrying a 53-52 record, the Tigers have to decide if the Wild Card or Division title is a realistic option. However, the Sox, Twins, and Tigers are all 5-5 in their last ten games, and there are plenty of games to be played within the division, so the Tigers can't be counted out yet. The race for first will get tougher if the Sox land All-Star shortstop Miquel Tejada from the Houston Astros.
Speaking of being counted out, let's give the A.L. West title to the Los Angeles Angels. They have the best record in baseball and are 8-2 in their last ten, continuing to stomp their division rivals. Oakland and Texas are 11.5 and 12 games back; and only a few years removed from their best season, Seattle is the worst team in the American league and are 25 games behind the Halos. With a 6 run, sixth inning last night versus Boston, Los Angeles demonstrated their win/loss record is no accident.
Let's stay in the West, and have a look at the division no team wants to win; the National League West. The Arizona Diamondbacks have a slim lead over Joe Torre's L.A. Dodgers going into their series this weekend at Dodger Stadium. A split in that series could open the door for the Colorado Rockies, who sit 6.5 games back. According to the Boston Globe, the only team still showing interest in Manny Ramirez are the Diamondbacks. But with both teams in a pennant race, it seems unlikely Boston would take prospects in a trade, and Arizona would want to hold on to their roster players. Perhaps the Red Sox would bring in Barry Bonds to replace Manny's home runs in the line-up, then a prospect or two from Arizona wouldn't be such a bad idea.
The N.L.East looks like a three way race to the finish. After last year's late season melt down, and a slow start this year, a hot streak has the Mets .5 games ahead of Philadelphia and 1 game ahead of Florida. The young Marlins always seem to be in the hunt, but New York and Philly will pull away as August rolls on. There is lots of power on the Phillies with Ryan Howard leading the N.L. in home runs with 30, and RBI's with 94. The Mets have Jose Reyes leading the N.L. in hits with 133, and a rotation that includes ace pitcher, Johan Santana. New York still needs another arm though, they can't count on Pedro Martinez to stay healthy anymore. Only 7.5 games back, but throwing in the towel, are the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta is reportedly shopping future Free Agent, Mark Teixeira, and it appears the Angels are the front runners. If they land the Braves first baseman, they become heavy favorites to win the World Series.
The division I have been keeping an eye on all season long has been the N.L. Central. Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis could all be in first if they played in different divisions. There's no doubt that the Wild Card will be coming out of the Central this fall.
Only 4 games separate these three teams,but St. Louis needs to make a big move to improve their pitching, they rank 27th overall and they risk falling further back. Milwaukee looks like the big winners on the trade front, trading early for C.C. Sabathia, who has gone 4-0 since coming over from Cleveland. It's the power of the Brew Crew that should have the Cubs and the Cards scared. The Brewers have 140 team home runs, compared to Chicago's 121 and St. Louis' 114. Will the Cubs fold under the weight of the one hundred year curse? They look solid, ranked third in Pitching, but they'll need to avoid the injury bug to build upon their lead.
As summer really heats up; so do the pennant races.
Have a great sports day everyone.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Three Guys on the Radio - Thanks Buzz

It was a sad day at the Team 1200 here in Ottawa, for the last time the morning show was hosted by Buzz, Steve and Stuntman Stu. The show celebrated the life of Tim "Buzz" Kilpatrick, a local radio personality who passed away on Friday. The station has received over 1300 e-mails at this point and countless phone calls... I wanted my readers throughout North America to know how much Buzz has influenced my life. He was a truly wonderful man, and he is missed so, so much already.Today, I'm not writing as "The Voice", just as a sports fan that has lost a good radio friend. The following is for Buzz...

First let me say that my thoughts and prayers are with Buzz's family, the Team 1200 family, Steve, Stu and producer Kenny. Thank you guys for giving us the opportunity to share our stories today. While my words won't ease anyone's pain, perhaps the story of how Buzz touched my life will bring comfort someday in the future.

I am a free-lance writer here in Ottawa and I entered the world of sports journalism and broadcasting because of TGOR and Buzz. From 1994 until 2004, Vancouver was home and I worked as a musician. In 2002, while my band was recording our third CD, I began suffering from a chronic illness. My wife and I moved back to Ottawa to be closer to family. I could not work, leave the house, or even listen to music. Depression quickly set in... One lucky day in 2005, I discovered the Team 1200, Buzz, Steve, and Stuntman Stu.

Every morning, no matter how bad I was feeling, there you were with Buzz. His laugh and his jokes always made me feel better. His passion for life, his friends, and sports brought me out of my shell; and re-awakened those same feelings in me. My very first e-mail to TGOR was read by Buzz, I'm glad I had an old tape recorder going. I'd bet he didn't know he was sending me me on a new and unexpected career path. If not for Buzz, I'm not sure where I'd be... I now write for several newspapers and I write this blog. I received some big news on Friday, I couldn't wait to e-mail TGOR on Monday.. but now here we are...

Sometimes in our profession we wonder is anyone reading this? Or listening? Well Buzz, we were all listening, to every word... Steve, Stu and Kenny, thank you for what you bring into our lives, and Thank You Buzz for what you brought into my life - I owe you one.

Have a great sports day everyone.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Buzz Kilpatrick - One of the best

The Team 1200 here in Ottawa has lost a legend in Tim "Buzz" Kilpatrick. He brought laughs to us all, and his passion for the Maple Leafs was unmatched. My first ever e-mail to a sports station was read on air by Buzz, and I'm glad I had an old tape deck recording that day... So, we honour him here with the Leafs logo. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and co-workers at the Team 1200.
Tim "Buzz" Kilpatrick 1967 - 2008, you touched many people and you will be terribly missed by us all...
A full tribute to Buzz will be posted here Monday morning...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mr. Bungle - More Nashville News

The soap opera that is playing out among the NHL's Nashville Predators ownership group continues to unfold. In Canada, this situation is viewed as a hockey story; a struggling team in a struggling market. Meanwhile, in the US, this has become a business story, as hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have lost millions in the fraudulent dealings of Predators minority owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio.

Any Voice readers looking for further developments should be reading Brad Schrade's articles at http://www.thetennessean.com/ , a Nashville newspaper. Mr Schrade has done a tremendous job researching this situation, and has revealed such startling facts, it is hard to believe TSN and the other Canadian sports networks have next to nothing at their sites pertaining to these latest developments.

The fall-out of Del Biaggio's actions continue to spread throughout the league; his bankruptcy papers list former Predators and current Minnesota Wild owner, Craig Leopold, as a creditor owed $10 million, AEG Facilities Inc, a company that manages Sports Arenas and whose parent company owns the already financially strapped LA Kings, is seeking $7 million previously loaned to Del Biaggio. The FBI delivered subpoenas to the Metro Sports Authority, which acts as a Landlord on behalf of the city of Nashville. Federal Authorities are seeking any documents related to the finances and financial conditions of Del Biaggio and the Predators.

The biggest news revealed in The Tennessean article by Mr. Schrade was the discovery of a computerized presentation dated January 2008. According to the article, the presentation featured charts and slides with such titles as "Portability Value" and was marked "Strictly Confidential". Del Biaggio was telling potential investors Nashville was not a viable market and would never work long term, an investment in the team would speed up the process of moving the team to Kansas City. If the Predators somehow became a success in Nashville, Del Biaggio planned to remain as a minority owner. However, if the team failed and lost $20 million by 2009-2010, a secret agreement brokered by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman would allow Del Biaggio and his new investors to assume majority control from David Freeman and move the team from Nashville. For Bettman to personally match-up a local group led by Freeman, with an outside investor holding a secret agreement to move the team is a real slap in the face to the city of Nashville, regardless of your opinion on Southern hockey teams.

Also from The Tennessean; Canadian Entrepreneur Doug Bergeron was approached to invest in the Predators last September. Said Bergeron, " Boots bragged to me that he was able to convince Bettman's office to overlook the need for his audited financial statements because it was too much work."

Too much work?? As reported here earlier in The Voice, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk referred to the Audit process as "intrusive, very, very intrusive". In my opinion, it is more likely Mr. Bettman couldn't afford the time to investigate "Boots" Del Biaggio. Bettman seems determined to keep re-located teams out of Canada, personally blocking the sale of the Predators to Canadian business genius Jim Balsillie. The Commissioner has often stated his bosses are the team owners, and until they state otherwise, he must be on the right track. Well, in a league desperate for revenue, there is no US television deal in place that actually pays money to the NHL. Bettman's secret deal not only jeopardizes the Predators; he devalued the other franchises by stopping the sale to Balsillie. The value of the Predators franchise was listed at $110 million, the RIM owner offered well over $200 million, which would have increased the value of the 29 other teams.

In 1967, when the league expanded from the Original Six to twelve teams, the expansion fee was $2 million. When teams like Ottawa and San Jose entered the league, the fee was $50 million. The general consensus among hockey insiders is that the NHL plans to expand to 32 teams in the next 5 - 7 years with teams in Las Vegas and Kansas City at a price tag of $150 - $200 million each for prospective owners. Say what you will about K.C., it has the highest TV ratings for hockey in the US for cities without a franchise. An NHL team in K.C. would actually be a good fit, and Bettman's secret deal in Nashville would have taken away a "sure thing" for expansion success there.

An internal NHL report reveals that coming out of the lock-out, (which many insiders and fans now question the need for as the Salary Cap hits $56 million), an estimated $733 million of the leagues $2.2 billion in revenue was generated in Canada. The six Canadian teams now account for 31% of the $1.1 billion in ticket revenue. Some insiders have that number as high as 40%. So, let's check Mr. Bettman's economics here; 6 teams generate 40%, 24 American teams generate the other 60% and yet re-location to Canada is not an option according to Bettman.

The strength of the Canadian dollar alone has increased the spending power and value of the six Northern teams. Since the lock-out, Canadian franchises are worth 25% more now just on the strength of the dollar, add to that the insatiable appetite for hockey in Canada and you have to wonder, how long will team owners support franchises in Phoenix (they lost a reported $30 million last year alone), Atlanta, Florida and Columbus? It is time for Bettman's bosses to get their heads out of the sand.

One other item I have wondered about for a few years and I'm yet to find an answer... During the lock-out, one of the teams alleged to have two different sets of accounting books was the Philadelphia Flyers and owner Ed Snider. One book showed an operating loss for the Flyers, while the real books actually showed a profit. The NHLPA was quite adamant that this was happening all over the league. Snider could lease his Arena to his hockey team for a large amount and then claim a loss, etc. So, as mentioned, the NHL's TV deal in the US on NBC pays them nothing. The league left an ESPN deal that paid, to get on Versus - the cable channel no one can get, which is on Comcast, which is partly owned by Snider. So my question to readers, please e-mail me an opinion - How does an NHL team owner accused by the NHLPA of shady accounting, sign a television deal with the NHL that puts absolutely nothing in the NHL coffers and yet puts ad revenue in Snider's bank account?

Have a great sports day everyone...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In the House that Ruth Built - MLB All-Stars

July and August are a busy time of the year for most musicians, so last night when I saw that the MLB All-Star game television coverage was scheduled to begin at 8 pm Eastern, I figured I'd tune in around 10:30 to catch the later innings and hopefully, an exciting finish. If you consider Michael Young's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 15th inning exciting, you went to bed a happy baseball fan. For others, like myself, it was a merciful ending after watching the B stars leave runner after runner in scoring position for seven innings.

The American League is now 11-0-1 in the last 12 All-Star games, and with the win, they secure home field advantage in the World Series. After the infamous 6-6 tie in Milwaukee's 2002 All-Star game, Commissioner Bud Selig claimed there would never be another tie, but last night was dangerously close to the same ending as 2002. What would have been more embarrassing; another tie game or a position player pitching the 16th inning? AL Manager Terry Francona and NL Manager Clint Hurdle had eventual MVP, J.D. Drew, and the Mets David Wright preparing to pitch the 16th inning if the game went that long. How would a team feel losing game 7 of the World Series on the road, knowing they could have been at home if not for a bad pitch by a 3rd baseman in the All-Star game? Although, in the "House that Ruth Built", it would have been interesting to see the winning pitcher also have a two-run home run.

I'll give full credit where it is due; the MLB All-Star game is perhaps the closest thing to a real game among the big 4 sports. The NBA, NHL and NFL All-Star games are nothing like the real thing, defence is a four letter word during their mid-season showcases. But, if as Bud Selig says, "this time it counts", and the MLB All-Star game decides who has home field advantage for the World Series, it's time to change the way teams are selected and the way the game is managed.

In the days before 24 hour sports channels and Inter-League play, the rule that each team be represented in the All-Star game was appropriate. As a boy growing up near Montreal, it was always a thrill to see Expos stars like Gary Carter and Andre Dawson taking their place among the best of the National League in the mid-summer classic. The only time those of us living in a National League city saw the American League stars was in the World Series and the All-Star game. Now, with every team available at the click of a button on a remote control or computer, should a deserving player be left off the squad so one player from the Florida Marlins or Baltimore Orioles can represent their team? Fan balloting needs to play a lesser role in choosing the teams as well, a committee of General Managers should select the squad with fans choosing only 3 or 4 players for each team. Statistics should choose the starting line-up, not the Internet.

The Managers for each League also need to manage to win from the start, instead of trying to insert every player into the line-up. All the big names and big stars are gone by the third or fourth inning. What we are left with is a situation like last night; Dan Uggla of the Marlins, after hitting into a double play with the bases loaded to end the 12th, went on to commit 3 errors and strike out 3 times in 4 at-bats. Had there been another player available on the NL bench, you can be sure manager Clint Hurdle would have made a switch. It was uncomfortable watching the young 2nd baseman struggle, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but on the field. Hats off, and my vote for NL MVP went to Miguel Tejada of the Astros. Besides several defensive gems at short, he continually went over to Uggla after each error to calm him down and say, "don't worry about it".

So after 15 innings, the longest All-Star game, the fourth and last All-Star game to be held at historic Yankee Stadium finally ended on a sacrifice fly... The Ghosts of Yankee Legends had seen enough and it was time to call it a night.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

CFL News - New Beast in the East?

In 2005, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were in the midst of a 5-13 season, I decided to switch my fan support from the Lions to the Ti-Cats. Having moved from Vancouver, Lions news was nearly impossible to get, and cheering for Montreal was too obvious a choice. With only four teams in the Eastern Division, I decided to root for the underdog, and was I ever rewarded. The horrors of 2005 were followed by a 4-14 record in 2006, and a 3-15 record in 2007. You have to admire consistency, even if it's consistently bad performances.

Two weeks into the new CFL season and Hamilton already has a 32-13 victory over Toronto, only their 2nd win in 19 tries against the Argos, and a loss to Montreal in the season opener. This morning I received an e-mail from Ed, wondering if Jesse Lumsden and the Ti-Cats are for real. So as we go into week 3, let's take a look at news from the CFL's Eastern Division.

Let's start with the news of the day; Dave Naylor of TSN reported the Argonauts have placed QB Michael Bishop on recall waivers, possibly to gauge interest for a trade or release the QB outright. Coach Rich Stubler and other Football staff wanted Bishop in as starter, the owners and Pinball Clemons wanted last season's Outstanding Player Kerry Joseph to be the man. Both have struggled to get going this season, but Joseph has really sputtered out of the starting gate. He is yet to throw a TD, has only 269 passing yards, with 2 fumbles and 24 yards rushing.

Compare those numbers to unbeaten Anthony Calvillo in Montreal who has 665 passing yards, 6 TD's and an amazing 72.8 completion percentage. Montreal leads almost every offensive category, while Toronto leads the league in punts. The Argos can't get a first down when they need it, and to add to their woes, they have the second fewest rushing attempts in the East at 66 compared to Hamilton's 231. On the D side, they have allowed the most plays from scrimmage. Their opponents are getting first downs. It's very early, but the Argo season is going in the wrong direction.

When you look at the rushing and passing statistics, they mirror the standings in the East. With Calvillo's strong return after leaving the team last season to be with his ailing wife, and the 196 rushing yards by Avon Cobourne, it's no surprise the Allouettes are 2-0. At the bottom end, with an 0-2 record, Winnipeg's RB Charles Roberts has 87 rushing yards and QB Kevin Glenn has 1 TD and 3 interceptions. They'll get the Bluebombers organized and out of the basement, but only as high as third in the division. Only in the CFL could Winnipeg be an Eastern team...

At 1-1, Hamilton is on pace for more wins this season then 2006 and 2007 combined. I can't see a division title for the Ti-Cats this season, but with continued improvements, they should be the favorites in 2009. Bringing in Casey Printers last September was a smart football move. The 2004 Outstanding Player in the CFL had been wasting away on the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs practise roster before being signed by Hamilton. Printers went to K.C. as a free agent, and even though his numbers were not terrible, K.C. draft pick Brodie Croyle won the back up job. An NFL General Manager struggling to keep his job will not give up on his draft picks in favour of a CFL free agent. It doesn't say much for your drafting skills, and it doesn't sit well with NFL fans. It appears the Ti-Cats brought in the right man, Printers has rushed for 65 yards and 2 TD's while completing 70.5 % of his passes. Anyone who watched Timmy Chang run for his life last year is pleased with Printers progression.

As for Ed's question; is Jesse Lumsden for real? Well Ed, I'll answer it this way, he could be... I say could be for only one reason. If he stays in the CFL, he may finish his career as one of the best Running Backs in the history of the league. However, there is always the lure of the NFL and a huge contract as a back up / clipboard holder. Personally, I hope he stays in Hamilton, the CFL needs homegrown stars. Lumsden has already had a stint in Seattle with the Seahawks and in Washington, would he leave again or has he seen enough of the NFL?

The CFL is not known for it's large, run stopping linebackers, so at 6'2 and 226 pounds, Lumsden already has 225 rushing yards this season. Lumsden won the 2004 Hec Creighton Award as the Outstanding Canadian University Player, and is the third all time rusher in the CIS with 4,138 yards and is first in career TD's with 47. A second generation CFL player, he has football in his blood. As I mentioned earlier, if Lumsden stays in the CFL, he could challenge Mike Pringle and George Reed's various rushing records.

The problem the rest of the league will have when facing the Ti-Cats is that you know they will run, they are averaging 231 yards per game, but who will carry the ball? Printers the QB has 65 rushing yards and 2 TD's; Lumsden has 225 rushing yards and 2 TD's; and his back up, Tre Smith, has 148 yards with 1 TD. That's a three pronged attack most teams will struggle against. Thanks for the e-mail Ed, have a great sports day everyone.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Go West Young Man - NHL odds and ends

There have been a few NHL odds and ends on my mind the past few weeks, so I thought I'd clear some cerebral space...

The Stanley Cup could be staying in the Western Conference for a few more years. After Anaheim dismantled Ottawa in 2007, and Detroit flew through the Penguins in 2008, it's hard to imagine this year's Free Agent signings changing that trend. Once again the big names have left the Eastern Conference and headed West. Some chose to stay there after arriving via the trade route - Brian Campbell turned down the Sharks and landed in Chicago, and others chose to go West in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.

Of course we all know about Marian Hossa heading to Detroit for a Cup run, but what impact will Sean Avery have in Dallas? Can Huet be a number one man in Chicago and return them to the playoffs? Rising star Steve Bernier, ended his short stint in Buffalo to sign in Vancouver with the Canucks. The only names headed East are aging stars like Markus Naslund and Brian Rolston. In 2007, all the big Free agent signings were headed West too; Ryan Smith, Sheldon Sourray and Brian Rafalski to name a few.

Last month, while talking with my hockey insider, we were discussing the Western Conference. How long can these teams keep loading up on stars from the East? I foolishly believed that this off-season, the East would be the big winners. Where would the Western teams find the money for players like Hossa? With the rising Salary Cap, the West found a way. Last pre-season, Brian Burke commented in an interview on the fire power in the West, making an interesting observation. There are only so many points available in an 82 game schedule. If one team improves ten points in the standings, another team has to fall ten points. With only eight playoff spots in each Conference, some good teams will find themselves on the outside looking in.

It's going to be a brawl this year in the Western Conference. Edmonton, Chicago, Phoenix and Vancouver will all be fighting to get back to the playoffs. This could help the Eastern Champs when the Finals eventually roll around, they may be a little less bruised in June. However, I believe that the Western teams will be so battle tested by season's end, whoever represents the West in the Finals could be unstoppable.

Another thought - Has anyone told the Tampa Bay Lightning that besides scoring goals, they also need to keep the puck out of their own net? Every day, the Lightning are adding another name, Recchi, Bochenski and Artyukhin, and very little has arrived to help the defense. New arrival Matt Carle was a -8 last season, Kuba -8, Ranger was a -13, and their best option in goal is 38 year old Olaf Kolzig. He's only had a save percentage over .900 once in the last three seasons. Last year he finished on the bench in Washington behind Huet with a .892 save percentage. An NHL goalie should be well above .900, and now Kolzig's going to carry the weight in Tampa Bay? I've also noticed that all the announcements from the Lightning seem to be coming from the new owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, and not General Manager Jay Feaster. How long will the GM stay in place when he's not calling the shots?

Here in Ottawa, I've been pleased to see the signings Brian Murray has made. After signing two former Canucks, I was beginning to wondering if Naslund and Bertuzzi would sign here too, when GM Murray broke the streak and signed former Oilers Captian, Jason Smith. The defense looked a little weak as it was, and signing a veteran like Smith is a great move. Hopefully, he'll be a solid D partner for Andres Meszaros, if the RFA Meszaros, can be re-signed by Ottawa. Only three players have blocked more than 600 shots in the NHL since 2005-2006, and now Ottawa has two of them in Smith and Volchenkov.

One last note... The Toronto Maple Leafs and anyone else with their eyes on the first overall pick, and John Tavares, at next year's Draft, should watch out for the LA Kings. The Kings were at the bottom of the standings last year, and they'll be in the hunt for last place again. Coach Crawford is gone, not that it's a bad thing, but they also said goodbye to veteran Rob Blake and rising talents, Mike Cammelleri and Lubomir Visnovsky. Expect them to go with their Rookie net minder Jonathan Bernier for a good part of the year. They may be trying to follow the Penguins example and let their young goalie have a few years of growing pains as they build around him with number one picks. The Pittsburgh market had Mario Lemieux as a face for the franchise, someone to bridge the gap in the years it took to become a winner. The Kings are a team that has been lacking an identity since they lost Gretzky in the nineties. Will the LA fans still remember they have a hockey team when they finally do get better? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Have a great sports day everyone...

Monday, July 7, 2008

Can Sweet Lou's Cubs fight of Milwaukee's Brew Crew?

As the hockey news slows to a trickle, and fans sift through the Free Agent signings, Major League Baseball is one week away from their All Star break. July 31st is the first of two trade deadlines in baseball, so teams and fans are watching the standings to see what players may become available. Teams can trade during the month of August, but players must clear waivers. So if any big names are to be traded, expect it this month.
When the Expos were still in Montreal, I couldn't wait for April to arrive. The long winter had ended and Dave Van Horne's voice was on my AM dial, telling me what to expect that season from super stars like Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Terry Francona and the rest of our boys. Now that the Expos are cellar dwellers in Washington, and the Blue Jays usually have a lock on third place in their division behind Boston and New York, I can't enjoy baseball until July. As the weather heats up, the races for first in each division will too. With only the Los Angeles Angels looking comfortable in the American League West, it should be a long, hot race to the playoffs.
Will this be the year the Chicago Cubs break their 100 year World Series drought? Manager Lou Piniella has his team on top in the NL Central, but their 20-26 road record needs to improve. The Chicago White Sox are leading the AL Central, so perhaps the World Series will be decided in Chicago. Will the Cubs road record matter if they're only travelling across town?
The Milwaukee Brewers sent a message to the Cubs and Cardinals today, picking up Cleveland's Ace, C.C. Sabathia in a trade. The Brew Crew now has a rotation with Sabathia and their own Ace, Ben Sheets. Both are Free Agents at the end of the season, it may be now or never for Milwaukee as they try to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982. A name that will be on the move from the NL Central is Ken Griffey jr. in Cincinnati. Expect him to land in the American League as a DH. Tampa Bay might want to add a veteran bat, and the White Sox will have to fend off Minnesota and Detroit.
Speaking of Tampa, the Rays are the surprise leaders in the AL East, ahead of big spenders New York and Boston. The Rays have been quietly accumulating top draft picks as they struggled through the growing pains of an expansion franchise. Now that they are in first instead of last, how will they react when they see the Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the rear view mirror at the end of July? You can bet that if they can still find a trading partner, the Red Sox and the Yankees won't stand still this month.
The American League has beaten up the National League during Inter-League games and that may cost the teams in the NL East and West. Only the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves have winning records against the AL. That could be a deciding factor as each division is filled with under performing teams. If New York and Atlanta can get hot down the stretch, they should challenge the Phillies for the division lead. In the NL West, it's a question of who's the best of the worst? All five teams have losing records, but Joe Torre's Dodgers seem to be on the right track, going 7-3 in their last ten games.
Then there is Canada's lone team, the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays waived the white flag when they brought back Cito Gaston. The team looked a little better for six to ten games, but they've been getting knocked around by the Angels and are back to their old ways. For years the Jays had a guaranteed third place finish behind New York and Boston waiting for them at the end of the season. With Tampa Bay's emergence, and Baltimore showing signs of life, the Jays are now in danger of being the new cellar dwellers.
If Toronto upper management don't have a plan to clear out the front office during the off-season, GM J.P. Ricciardi needs to spend this month working the phones trying to unload some big contracts. A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan have been a bust and need to move on. Does a team that is 14 games out of first need a 10 million dollar closer? How long until Roy Halladay says enough is enough and wants out? Would the Cardinals or Mets have an interest in Vernon Wells as they play catch-up in their divisions?
This month should be a busy one in baseball as General Managers evaluate their rosters and start making significant moves. The last All Star game to be played in Yankee Stadium happens July 15th. With seven members of the Boston Red Sox on the American League team, the Yankee clubhouse may prove to be just as interesting as the game. Have a great sports day everyone...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Let's settle this on Family Feud

An e-mail request came in today, asking for a comment on the Brian Burke / Kevin Lowe situation. Is Lowe responsible for the rising salaries among Restricted Free Agents? In a word; No. But let me say that I share a hometown with Kevin Lowe, and he brought each of his Stanley Cups home for us to enjoy. I also lived in Vancouver during Brian Burke's days as GM of the Canucks and I became a fan of the myth and the man. I think they should settle this by playing Family Feud, and the winnings can go to a charity of their choice.
Lowe's offers to Dustin Penner and Tomas Vanek last summer certainly woke up the league to the implications of the Cap world. Other teams assets were no longer off limits. Was Burke angry at Lowe for making the offer, or mad at himself for being caught without Cap space for a rising young star? Andy MacDonald is a member of the Blues because Scott Niedermayer and Temmu Selanne returned mid season after Burke had spent his money on Todd Bertuzzi. Burke is not publicly complaining about St. Louis GM Larry Pleau taking advantage. So why Lowe?
A 2006 quote from Bobby Clarke, " We had the money to do it, so we did it". Clarke was referring to his one year - $1.9 million offer to Canucks RFA Ryan Kesler. The third line center had made $600,000 the season before, not a huge increase by NHL standards, but the Canucks were mad as hell they had to match the offer. Lowe's seven year, $50 million offer to Buffalo's Vanek was outrageous, but all the Sabres had to do was turn it down, take the draft picks and watch Edmonton flounder under the weight of such a huge contract.
Personally, I've become a fan of Brian Murray's style here in Ottawa. He certainly has holes to fill in his line up but he hasn't opened the vault to get it done. Murray places a franchise value on his players. Where does this player fit on the depth chart? Is he a character guy? Offers to other D men in the league have made Senator RFA - Andres Meszaros a $3 - 4 million dollar man. There are teams with more Cap space, so an offer is sure to come. GM Murray will probably take the draft picks as compensation if the offer exceeds the franchise value he's placed on Meszaros. He can't earn more than Chris Phillips or Volchenkov.
To hold Kevin Lowe responsible for the rise in salaries, misses what I believe is the larger issue; the Salary Cap minimum. After the lock out, the Cap was set at a $39 million maximum and a $21.5 million minimum. Going into this season we have a $56.7 million ceiling and a $40 million floor. Under the current structure, teams that couldn't make a profit with a $30 million payroll, now have to spend $40 million. In the first Cap year, Minnesota spent $25 m , Nashville - $29 m, Florida - $27 m, and Columbus $34 million. Nashville's past owner Craig Leopold claims to have lost $70 million with the Preds. How is the new spending environment better in Minnesota? Going into the current season, Leopold will be spending $46 million on the Wild, Nashville - $43m, Florida - $44 m, and Columbus is at $41 million.
Brian Burke is not completely wrong. Teams will now need to find ways to lock up young stars early, like Kostitsyn in Montreal or Perry in Anaheim. Yes, you may have to over pay, but the fault doesn't fall on Lowe. Florida has signed unknown Rostislav Olesz for 6 years at $3.5 million. Toronto has given $4 million to Jeff Finger because the market dictated that price. (according to Cliff Fletcher...). Mike Commodore, valued in Ottawa at $1.5 million, gets 5 years at $3.5 million from Columbus. A prime example of a team desperately trying to spend up to the minimum. Atlanta currently has $24 million in Cap space and they have holes to fill. Andres Meszaros can expect one of his offers to come from the Thrashers. Are Kevin Lowe's offers any different from Vancouver's 2 year/$20 million offer to Mats Sundin? Mats is not the best player in the NHL, but the need and the money is there, so why not make him the highest paid player in the league?
The Blue Jackets have $34 million committed for next year (2009 - 2010), and only $17 million for the following season. Unless a major superstar decides to move to Columbus, the Jackets and teams like them will be over spending to reach the minimum for years to come. Wasn't Brian Burke still working for the NHL when the league expanded to some of these cities?

Ferris Bettman's Day Off?

A belated Happy Independence Day to our American readers... As I was thinking of the American holiday, I wondered, does NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman take the day off? If he did, perhaps he listened to some REM while lounging at home. One song in particular may have struck a chord with the commish, "It's a bad day, please don't take my picture".

Gary Bettman's leadership has often been questioned by fans and media. As the salary cap rises from it's original $43 million just a few seasons ago, to its current $56.7 million, some owners should start wondering what direction the NHL is headed. There are a number of mini disasters waiting to happen if the Commissioner is not careful.

I'm not prepared to go into a recap of Bettman's reign as NHL boss, that's a topic for a book not a blog. I do want to mention that Mr. Bettman has done many good things for hockey. There would be no Buffalo Sabres and more importantly to local readers, no Ottawa Senators if not for Gary Bettman protecting these franchises from bankruptcy and finding strong local owners. At one point not so many years ago, the Senators players were asked mid season if they could play one particular week and be paid at a later date. It didn't come to that; but the players would have kept playing I should mention. With the good however, sometimes comes the bad...

Let's start with the latest news to come across the wires yesterday, Jaromir Jagr's NHL career is done. Being 35 or older in today's NHL is a dangerous thing. Any contracts signed at or after that age will count against a team's salary cap even if the player retires. Jagr was searching for a three year deal that would eventually lead him back to the Czech Republic to open a new arena playing for his father. He couldn't find that deal in today's NHL. The new Russian League has scored a small victory signing a legend like Jagr. The NHL will be in real trouble when the Russian League signs a young star like Malkin in five years. Could Avangard Omsk offer a $35 million deal to John Tavares next year? Tavares could skip the NHL Rookie salary cap by playing for big money along side Jagr. Wade Dubielewicz, the former Islanders back up goalie, realized Dipietro has 14 years left on his contract so he's off to Russia too. Others will have to follow.

Bettman's world also has at least five potential fires to put out among the owners. Let's start in Tampa Bay. This situation doesn't fall into the "problem" category yet, but it could become a headache. The Lightning were certainly big spenders in Free Agency, but who's money was it? The new eight person group is being financed in part by the seller, Palace Sports and Entertainment. The sale involves the Lightning, the Arena and 5.5 acres of land in downtown Tampa that is to be developed together. If the real estate values continue to fall, the buyer and seller could both lose money here. Mr. Bettman and the NHLPA may also want to look into the handling of the Dan Boyle trade. After signing a six year deal in February with the new group, he suddenly didn't fit their plans. Boyle made a commitment to Tampa, he's rewarded with the threat of being sent to the minors if he doesn't waive his no trade clause. It's not a rule violation but it's a shame...

Speaking of rule violations, the league now has owners facing suspension by the league for various infractions. What impact is there on a team when the owner can't be involved with the day to day operations of the club? Probably not much. Regardless, the Anaheim Ducks owner has pled guilty to SEC charges and is now banned from the NHL. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has been investigated as well. He has stated he will defend himself against any charges. On the silly side, Bettman - whose office is in New York, has threatened Rangers ownership with banishment if they continue to fight with the league in court over control of the team's web site and on-line activities. I'll just shake my head on that one.

Then there is the Nashville mess. Trust me, it's a genuine mess. Bettman seems intent on keeping a team in Nashville despite the fact that hockey is not working in that market. He personally blocked the sale and a move to Hamilton, Ontario. The revenues generated in Canada are through the roof since the lock out. Teams in the "black" pay luxury tax to keep teams in the "red" afloat. How long will the six Canadian teams and their fans pay for Mr. Bettman's Southern experiment? No team can receive payments for more than three years. This is Nashville's third year and as yet, they have little or no corporate support. To block the move to Hamilton, Bettman hand picked "Boots" Del Biaggio to team with a local group of investors to "save" the Preds. The fact "Boots" and "Lucky" Luc Robitaille are the rights holders to NHL hockey in Kansas City raised a few eyebrows. At least it should have. Nashville seller, Craig Leopold, then purchased the Minnesota Wild after dumping the Preds. Before he left though, he lent money to Del Biaggio to finance buying his old club. Confused? Me too.

Mr. "Boots" is now accused in three separate lawsuits of providing forged documents to financial institutions to land multi-million dollar loans that he has not repaid. He used other peoples accounts to secure $33 million in loans, partly to buy the Predators. Now that Del Biaggio has filed for bankruptcy, Wild owner Leopold now joins the long line of creditors that will never see a dime of their money. In a separate suit, Del Biaggio and his K.C. partner Robitaille, are in default on a $2 million dollar loan. Last year, both resigned from the Board of Directors of petroleum company ONCO, after running afoul of regulators in Ontario. The company went public in November at $5 a share and closed in May at 15.5 cents a share. Add these shareholders to Del Biaggio's victims. On Fan 590's Prime Time Sports a few weeks ago, Senators owner Melnyk described the NHL's investigations of prospective owners as "intrusive, very intrusive". How did Gary Bettman, the lawyer, miss the financial house of cards that Del Biaggio was showing him?

If Commissioner Gary Bettman didn't take the day off, and does have some kind of master plan, perhaps he should let the rest of us in on it...