Monday, June 30, 2008

Across Canada on the Free Agency Wire - Montreal



Well, here we are in our final stop of the cross Canada tour on the Free Agency wire, Montreal. It's only fitting our last stop is here. The 2008-2009 season will be the 100th anniversary of the Canadiens and GM Bob Gainey is aiming to add the franchise's 25th Stanley Cup this year. With cap space available, Montreal is looking to sign an impact player or two for the centennial season.

Last year's surprise first place finish in the Eastern Conference put all teams on notice that the Penguins are not the only team of young guns in the East. Montreal's young players like Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and the Kostitsyn brothers all excelled last year and rallied around veterans Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev. Markov and Komisarek were a dynamic duo and last year's signing, Roman Hamerlik played very well on the power play. Mark Streit will likely be let go and another D man brought in. The usual names appear here; Ron Hainsey, who was a Hab draft pick originally, Rozsival, Orpik and even Wade Redden can expect at least a courtesy call from Gainey.

The big moves will be made up front. The young players are emerging as true NHL players but are still on lower level contracts. This has left Gainey with cap space for this season and a strong desire to win right now as demonstrated at the Draft. Montreal's first round pick went to Calgary in exchange for 5 million dollar man Alex Tanguay. The Montreal management team weren't done yet, trading for the rights to Mats Sundin.

With Sundin making decisions on his own schedule, which he deserves as a veteran player, Montreal won't have him under contract by July first. Do they take the chance and wait for him or do they make their move somewhere else? Gainey thought he had Marian Hossa at the deadline but Pittsburgh slide in at the eleventh hour and got him from Atlanta. At the time, Hossa seemed excited about the prospect of playing in Montreal. Now that he can choose his destination, and Gainey is certainly willing to offer up a contract in the $8 million range, will he be moving to la Belle Province?

Last season, in 72 games, Hossa had 29 goals and 66 points. Unfortunately for the Habs, they are not the only suitors for Hossa's services. A bidding war is sure to develop so Gainey might need to up his offer. Montreal needs a big signing for the skill, but also for the optics. They've lost out on Shanahan, Ryan Smith and Daneil Briere in the last two off seasons and the media and the fans expect an organization like Montreal to be able to draw the best possible Free Agents.

If Hossa goes somewhere else, Brian Rolston is a good second choice. Tampa Bay had traded for his rights from Minnesota but as of this writing, he was still unsigned. The casual fan may not recognize the name but this 35 year old has scored 30 plus goals the last four years and he would be a great addition to any team. Rolston's former teammate, Pavel Demitra is also on the market. In 68 games he had 15 goals and 54 points. On a Montreal power play, those numbers would probably double.

There are two other names that I'll throw out there. Vancouver Captain Markus Naslund would certainly draw some interest in Montreal. If they are willing to go after the Leaf Captain, why not the Canuck Free agent. His 55 points were lower than normal for him but he played on a team that had trouble scoring from top to bottom. He's certainly an impact player. And speaking of impacts, Darcy Tucker's name won't go away in Montreal. This former Hab is rumoured to be on Gainey's list of players to phone. Avery is another name I've heard is on the GM's wish list. Montreal has been small up front for a few seasons and gritty players like Tucker and Avery would help. The kind of players you hate until they are on your team.

This is a very important season in Montreal and they will try to land the big stars this off season. One thing is for sure, the phones going in and out of the Bell Centre will be well used this week.

Across Canada on the Free Agency Wire - Ottawa


In June 2007, the Senators were facing off against the Ducks in the Stanley Cup Final. In June 2008, Ottawa players had already been golfing for a month after a first round exit at the hands of the Penguins. A strong start, a mediocre mid season and a horrible finish left Ottawa crawling into the playoffs. Fans and Management were left to ask what went wrong.

More than just Ray Emery happened here in Ottawa last season. Like many Assistant Coaches before him, John Paddock couldn't make the transition to Head Coach. Players like Shean Donovan, Dean McCammond and rookie Nick Foligno seldom saw ice time. Randy Robitaille, brought in from Russia after training camp, appeared lost all year and completely disinterested by the end of the season. So the question here is not so much about who's being signed, it is who will be let go.

There are some big contracts kicking in on July first. Jason Spezza becomes a 7 million dollar man and Heatley gets a raise to $7.5 million. The core of this team is already under contract for a few years - Fischer, Phillips, Volchenkov and Alfredsson all have reasonable deals. It's the players on the fringe that will be on the move. Wade Redden has not been offered a contract and will not be back on the blue line. Luke Richardson and Mike Commodore have not been offered a deal but don't rule out Commodore coming back if the price is around one million dollars and Richardson was originally signed to be a player/coach on the farm team so that might still happen.

At Forward, trade deadline acquisition Marty Lapointe appeared slow and took too many bad penalties, he's gone. Cory Stillman will get a raise from his $1.75 million last year and may price himself out of Ottawa's reach. GM Brian Murray would like to find the cap space for the veteran forward. He really clicked with Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly and may be the second line that Ottawa has been searching for. Of course everyone knows the Emery situation. Ottawa will be searching for a back up goalie.

There is some money for Free Agent spending and there are some positions that need help. Obviously the goaltending needs to be upgraded. Martin Gerber looked good at times and is going into his contract year. Brian Elliott may be brought up from the farm to be the number two. Ty Conklin is getting some interest here if he's available at one million dollars. Jocelyn Thibault is a cheaper but less reliable option, as is Boston's Alex Auld.

Since arriving here, GM Murray has been trying to land a top six forward. Hey, who isn't in this league? Cory Stillman, as I mentioned was a good fit here but other teams have more money available. Miroslav Satan's name has come up a few times here in trade rumours so perhaps an offer could end up on his agent's desk. The help needs to come in their own zone. It was shaky last season and this fall rookie Brian Lee will be inserted in the lineup full time. If he continues to improve, all is well. If he hits any stumbling blocks it could be trouble. Murray has wanted Campbell out of San Jose but that's very unlikely. Maybe another former Sabre, as Campbell was, is the answer. If he has recovered from heart problems, Teppo Numminen would be a good fit. A veteran presence that can move the puck very well.

It won't be very active here on the first. Look for Ottawa to sign Antoine Vermette and Andrei Mezsaros. Both are RFA's and they might let the D man go if someone made him an offer over $3.5 million. Vermette is a player Brian Murray would love to fit in long term, like the Chris Kelly 4 year deal. Any Free Agent action here will probably come on the second or third of the month, after the bigger names go on the first. So let's go to Montreal where there are desperate to sign an impact player on Canada Day.

Across Canada on the Free Agency Wire - Toronto



Will he or won't he? The great debate continues even though it seems that Mats Sundin is walking away from Toronto. There is still talk of a return to the Leafs but that will have to wait till after July first. For now he's already a Hab and will be for a few more hours. The deal on draft day means Montreal has Sundin's rights, not the Leafs. If Mats were to sign or have talks with Toronto before Free Agency begins it would be illegal under NHL rules. How weird is that?

Players have been flying out of Toronto on a regular basis since the buy out period began. Tucker, Wellwood and Raycroft are all gone, Sundin is gone for now, and Brian McCabe has been asked to waive his no trade clause or just stay home in the Fall. St. Louis made the same move last year with Doug Weight, eventually sending him to Anaheim for Andy MacDonald. Some critics of the Leafs have stated Fletcher is moving out too many players as interim GM and leaving the cupboard bare for the new man. (Now that the Ducks owner is banned by the league for pleading guilty to securities charges, it would appear Burke is destined to head North.) Fletcher is clearing out the contracts now so the future cap hits don't handcuff the next GM.

The Leafs have a few RFA's I believe they should offer contracts. Ben Foster, Ben Ondrus and Matt Stajan can all be signed for around the league minimum and could all split time between the Marlies and Leafs. Look for Robbie Earl, Kris Newberry and Jeremy Williams to get time with the big club too. Players like Mark Bell and Jason Blake need to find their game again or risk being next year's buy outs.

Toronto will have cap room this year and will need to add some players. It remains to be seen if they can sign the top six forward they want. Martin Straka is available but only played in 61 games last year with 41 points. He might look good with Antropov. Radim Vrbata of Phoenix is another option. More points last year at 56, but more importantly he played in 76 games. One name that caught my eye on the UFA list that seems to be over looked and would be a good fit in Toronto is Michael Ryder from Montreal. This Newfoundland native had a horrible year last year, netting only 14 goals, but I can see him become a force again in the NHL with a coach like Ron Wilson mentoring him. Same as Vancouver, Kristian Huselius is a cheaper secondary scorer but do the Leafs need more players that can't find the defensive zone?

Look for the Leafs to sign a dependable D man or two. Kubina, Kaberle, Stralman along with Steffan Kronwall to be joined by a player like Ron Hainsey, Brooks Orpik, Michael Rozsival, or Brad Stuart, who are all hitting the open market. Toronto wants a third or fourth line player as well. Bringing in Jamal Mayers, who has been at least a -19 the last four years isn't the answer. Have another look at re-signing Michael Peca. I also like Glen Metropolit in Boston, he'll throw a hit and has good hockey sense.

Back up goalie is up for grabs now too. Patrick Lalime is out as Chicago's back up, he knows the role and fought hard to get back to the NHL after taking the fall for a Senators melt down in the playoffs. Speaking of Ottawa, Emery...no I won't even go there, just kidding Leaf fans. Curtis Joseph is probably the best bet. Fan reaction would be great and I watched all of the Spengler Cup last year and Cujo still has the moves.

Well NHL fans, it's time to make our way down the 401 through Kingston and Cornwall and head on over to Ottawa.

Across Canada on the Free Agency Wire - Calgary



With apologies to Flames fans, this entry will be shorter than other stops on our cross Canada tour of the NHL. It would seem General Manager Darryl Sutter has finished most of his work a few days before the frenzy begins July the first. To paraphrase the words of GM Sutter from the Calgary Sun, "don't expect much".

Sutter and Coach Keenan have decided to stick to their guns next season. MVP candidate Jarome Iginla will lead a good mix of youth and veterans into the '08-'09 campaign. Gone though is Alex Tanguay and his 5 million dollar contract. Tanguay never quite hit his stride in Calgary and with an emphasis on defensive responsibility, the parting was mutual. How playing for Selke Trophy winners Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau will be better is beyond me, but hey, he's off Calgary's books. Mike Cammalleri was traded for out of LA and will be a strong second line center. Having played for the Kings, not many people know much about him. But trust me, there is a lot of upside to this young center. It's a very good acquisition for the second power play unit too.

As I had mentioned, Mr. Sutter has done his shopping at the Flames Store. Bringing back fan favorite Craig Conroy gives the team that heart and soul guy. Daymond Langkow and Eric Nystrom will also be back next year. Curtis the goalie is coming back, although it's Curtis McElhinney and not Curtis Joseph. It will be interesting to see how Mikka Kiprusoff responds to an off year under his new coach. Mike Keenan and goalies don't always get along so it will be interesting to see who stays and who goes if a power struggle develops.

So what's left to do? GM Sutter has stated that Owen Nolan will be resigned this summer. Management views Nolan as extremely valuable in helping the younger players on the team and so a deal will get done. There is lots of chatter everywhere about Darcy Tucker and the Flames now that the Leafs have bought out his contract. I can certainly see the fit, but if Nolan is back for sure and the team is trying to stay on the younger side, is Tucker necessary? Tucker has a scoring touch to go with his grit, but he's certainly paid the price with his body for every goal he's scored. I'd keep an eye out for the signing of a D man to bolster the back end. Ron Hainsey from the Blue Jackets and Brooks Orpik are names to watch for in Calgary. If they go looking for more power play help, watch for Mark Streit to head West from Montreal. Wade Redden from Ottawa was rumoured to be headed to Edmonton. Now that Visnovsky has arrived, perhaps Redden will want to stay in a red uniform and join the Flames instead.

Well, it's time to make our way across the prairies to Leaf land. Before I move on though, let me just ask Mr. Bettman, why is this cross Canada trip not stopping in Winnipeg?? Why will it stop in Montreal and not continue on to Quebec City?? With the mess in Nashville - fraud and bankruptcy, shouldn't we be stopping in Hamilton or Kitchener too?? Someday you'll figure out simple Economics like the rest of us. Alright then, we're off to Toronto...

Across Canada on the Free Agency Wire - Edmonton


As we roll into Oiler Country, we find a good young team with great management, coaching and a new team owner with deep pockets. Daryl Katz of Rexall fame finally completed the sale after several attempts and the deal was recently approved by the NHL Board of Governors. Katz has made it clear he will spend money in the right places to make his team a Cup contender in the years to come.
The man at the helm as GM until the 2011-2012 season ends is former Oiler star, Kevin Lowe. This six time Stanley Cup winner celebrated five of them in Edmonton. He was also their first ever NHL Draft pick and scored the team's first NHL goal. After last year's offer to Restricted Free Agent Ducks forward, Dustin Penner, the Oil don't really have any Draft picks to spare. Don't expect Lowe to make an offer on another RFA this year.
Last season at the trade deadline, Head Coach Craig MacTavish made an interesting comment. I'm not sure if he coined the phrase but I sure liked it. When asked if the Oilers would be buyers or sellers, the coach said - neither, we are builders. ( not a direct quote). I found that comment very appropriate in Edmonton. They were not going to make the playoffs but why blow up a team solely for that reason? A good young core is on this team with up and comers like Sam Gagner, Penner and Hemsky. Injuries that limited last year's big signing Sheldon Souray to only 26 games, killed their power play and they seemed to stumble out of the gate, never catching up to the top eight teams despite a late season push.
Last season, Hemsky led the team with 71 points. Dustin Penner was the top goal scorer at 23. That won't put you in the playoffs in either Conference. Lowe is looking for more scoring and grit up front. A visit to the Oiler web site shows 53% of fans in agreement. Look for UFA Geoff Sanderson to move on and RFA Joni Pitkanen continues to be in the rumour mill. Yesterday's trade with the Kings, sending RFA Jarret Stoll and D man Matt Greene to LA for Lubomir Visnovsky creates an opening up front and solidifies the PP with Souray and Visnovsky on the Points. The new D man is also under contract for the next five years, that allows the Oil to know where they stand going forward in the Cap world.
In the search for scoring I found a few names that would fit in Edmonton. Unfortunately, while writing this, the Lightning stole some of my Thunder. Ryan Malone's new Tampa contract takes him off every wish list. My next suggestion was Brian Rolston, and again the Lightning are trying to lock up the 35 year old, thirty goal man. A player to keep an eye on, and as of this writing is still available, is former Hurricane and Senator Cory Stillman. This 34 year old has scored at least 20 goals six of the last seven seasons and he would be a great teacher to the young forwards. At $1.75 million last year, he's due for a raise, but after watching Stillman in Ottawa I'd say he's worth it.
The other need according to Lowe is grit up front. This is never as exciting for fans as landing the big scorer but it's the third and fourth line that can win you the Cup. Speaking of trips to the Finals, one name that jumped out at me was Jarrko Ruuttu. This super pest made $1.5 million last year. He never drops his gloves, which angers me. If you start something - finish it. He gets under the skin of his opponents though and the Power Play is very important in today's NHL. Another former Canuck is available, gritty forward Matt Cooke, as well as Arron Asham from New Jersey. Asham might be the better fit age wise and the $700 grand he made last year is affordable.
Edmonton will probably not be at the forefront of Free Agency, continuing to build and develop the young players in their system. Look for Lowe to fill out his roster with a few more trades before the season starts. With a new owner, money will be spent if a big name becomes available. Kevin Lowe has shown in the past though he won't spend frivolously.
Let's head down the Alberta hockey pipeline to Calgary and visit the Flames

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Across Canada on the Free Agency Wire - Vancouver



The Stanley Cup has been awarded, the Draft has come and gone, and the win /loss column has officially been reset to zero. Even though the Draft is the start of the off season, it is still based on the past season's standings. As the Free Agent signing period begins on July the first, all teams have an equal chance of making vast improvements, establishing themselves as early Cup contenders. It may not be realistic, I'm certainly guilty of it, but it's the one day of the year as fans we can all say " this will be the year."

With two days to go until the signings begin, let's take a drive across Canada's NHL landscape and pay a visit to our six Canadian clubs. Since Vancouver was my home for ten years, why don't we drop by GM Place and have a brief look at the Canucks.

The exception is Kirk Maclean in the early nineties, otherwise, Vancouver has been a goalie graveyard. Now that they have Roberto Loungo in place, that position should finally be solidified. Although, they have struggled to find a suitable back up for their number one. They have their man behind the mask but now the question arises; who is going to score on this team?

New GM Mike Gillis made the unusual move of retaining Head Coach Allain Vigneault but firing his entire staff. A slow start will translate into a quick change behind the bench. I expect a slow start.

Injuries decimated the Canuck defence last season. Top man, Ohlund played 53 games, Salo - 63 games, Miller - 57 games. Miller might be moving on as a UFA if he's looking for more than last year's $1.5 million. Restricted Free Agent, Alex Edler, played 71 games and should probably get a multi year extension and a raise. With a reliable D group, things should stay the same on the back end.

Vancouver has $21.6 million in space under the new $56.7 million salary cap. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are going into the final year of their contracts at $3.75 million. They'll double that number in a new deal. Gillis has made it a priority to meet the twins next month to explore an extension. The names on every teams wish list could be the former Penguin teammates, Hossa and Malone. Both have made it clear they'll go to the open market July first. Hossa might be too expensive but Malone would be a perfect fit with the down low control game of the Sedins. Malone will certainly get a raise from last year's salary and the Canucks have the room if a bidding war develops between four or five teams as is expected. Malone is a hot commodity after his trip to the Finals.

The last time the Canucks had a power house line was prior to the Bertuzzi "incident". Morrison played only 39 games last season but I expect him to be back in the Fall. He's a good second line center and could drop down to the third line if Wellwood is offered a contract and regains his form. Naslund said a few years ago he would raise his children in Sweden and probably wouldn't sign another NHL contract. Well that time has come. At $6 million last year, is Naslund over paid for his 55 points? He hasn't been the same since good friend Bertuzzi mugged Steve Moore. Bert by the way, was just bought out by the Ducks making him a Free Agent. I honestly would not be surprised, if the price was right, to see Morrison centering the second line with Naslund and Bertuzzi on the wings. Vanouver fans loved these three and they were one of the NHL's dominant lines in 2003.

It's hard to know how Mike Gillis will spend his money. The former player agent, Naslund's agent by the way, has no track record as a GM. What kind of team is he looking to build? By keeping the coach, he seems to be happy with the team defensively so it's time to open up the offence and that means opening the wallet. Huselius from Calgary could be a cheaper secondary scoring option. Also, look for Restricted Free Agents Antoine Vermette in Ottawa and Nigel Dawes from the Rangers to garner a look from the Canucks. They are young, have grit, scoring potential and could probably be signed for a reasonable $2.5 million a year for three or four years.

Now, let's cross the scenic Rockies, head North, and drop by Oil country...

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Voice drops by Main Street



Big news for Voice of Sport readers in Quebec...

Starting in August, you can read articles written by the Voice exclusively for Main Street, the Laurentians #1 English language newspaper. It is a pleasure to be joining such a talented team of writers. I encourage everyone to visit Main Street at www.laurentianlife.com for your gateway to the Laurentians.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Time for Teachers to retire from Leafs



A reader asked me to comment on an issue he was quite passionate about, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment and specifically the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund majority ownership. Is it time for a single owner?

Anywhere I've been in Canada, people have two extreme reactions to Toronto. I love it or I hate it. I've yet to meet someone who is indifferent to the home of the Leafs. It's not the wrath of Toronto I'm worried about though, it's the teachers. The more I looked into it, this "Fund" is a powerful group. If I go missing... haha.

Getting back to the point, yes, I believe a single owner would help get Leaf Nation back to the land of June parades. January 5, 2008 there was an article in the Toronto Star regarding the interest of Toronto born billionaire Alex Shnaider in purchasing MLSE. A quote from that article, by Rick Westhead, caught my eye and I'd like to begin there.

When asked about the possible sale of MLSE, Teachers Spokesperson Deborah Allen would obviously not comment specifically, but commented when selling assets in general, "we look at things like re-investment risk. If we sell we have the cash that has to be re-invested somewhere else. And that opens us up to risk."

In other words, when we have a cash cow like MLSE, why on earth would we get rid of it? MLSE forecasted a profit of 83 million dollars in 2007 and by 2011, that number rises to 105 million. What other business is so ingrained in the hearts of it's customers. The "Fund" will continue to grow off of your pain Leaf Nation. It's not fair to the fans. The unfortunate thing for Toronto fans is that the hockey club would never be sold separately. In the previously mentioned article, Investment Banker Rob Tillis put the price of 1.5 billion for MLSE as a starting point if the Teachers fund were to sell. Forbes lists Shnaiders net worth at 1.8 billion.

The Teachers fund owns 58% of MLSE. On their web site a fact sheet states they are allowed a majority of Board members but "choose not to". CTV Globe Media owns 15% of MLSE. Now we get to the math. The Teachers own 20% of CTV, so they do have a majority on the Board because they can influence the direction of the second biggest share holder. Add TD Capital, an investment fund to the mix at 14% and what you have is a complicated ownership group that needs to protect it's assets, rake in loads of money and makes bland corporate decisions.

I'm actually starting to enjoy having Cliff Fletcher in Toronto again. At least he's rattling the cages a little. Nothing happens in a hurry in Toronto. Many questioned the timing of the Paul Maurice firing. MLSE's response; that was when our meeting had been planned for. Some things require immediate attention. Can't you call emergency meetings? A single owner can put his, or her personality into their team. Look at what Eugene Melnyk has done for the Senators or George Gillette in Montreal. The Molson Company became neglectful of the Habs after the '93 Cup win, the team was a mess. Gillette realizing the historical value of a franchise like Montreal, has revived the organization and they are on their way to more success.

For years the Leafs have been as much a part of Canada as Maple Syrup. The current ownership group doesn't seem to understand that. When we discuss a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, we are talking about more than a hockey team. We are talking about an important part of Canadian history , culture and identity. Eaton's was practically built on mail order Leaf sweaters. We are also talking about the most important franchise in the NHL. The city that is home to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is in the best interests of the League to have the current group sell their shares to an individual who has hockey in their heart and on their mind.

Right now MLSE's priority is padding the bank account. What will their profits soar to now that they are "rebuilding" and going younger? Here's the chance to spend down to the 40 million dollar cap minimum and add another 16 million to the coffers. How many more years will they ask loyal Leaf fans, who bleed blue and white, to pay top dollar for their rebuilding project? How many more times will they say wait till next season?

MLSE is now kicking the tires, thinking of purchasing a soccer team in the British Premier League. If they think they can treat British soccer fans the way they have continually broken the hearts of Leaf Nation... well, they shouldn't plan any vacations to England.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin 1937 - 2008



There are no other words - THANK YOU GEORGE - wherever you are...

Is this the Blue Jay way?



I'll be moving to Toronto in January and I'm starting to be concerned for my health. Is there something specific I should watch out for? Will my career suddenly become mismanaged? Born and raised near Montreal, I've already lived through the painful loss of the beloved Expos. The recent managerial change in Blue Jays land leaves me with questions and a few worries about Canada's last Major League team.

After the '94 lockout I had lost interest in baseball. Expos players were constantly on sale; then the team was constantly up for sale - moving to Washington and becoming the Nationals at the end of '04, and A-Rod's ten year - $252 million dollar deal just soured me on the sport. For the last couple of years I've begun to kept an eye on the news of the day but I couldn't root for anyone.

This year was supposed to be different. The CBC has always referred to the Jays as "Canada's Team" (which may have contributed in the demise of the Expos), and it was time to root for my future home team. The American League East division is in a state of flux. Boston remains strong but the Yankees are very thin on pitching, the Rays are a young, up and coming group and Baltimore is sputtering along as usual. The opportunity for a wild card playoff position was there for Toronto to claim but under achieving and a power outage among the hitters claimed another manager as John Gibbons was fired on Friday.

Again this year the Jays roster looked good on paper but again they've sputtered out of the gate. In baseball everyone knows it is three strikes and you're out. So, isn't it time for General Manager J.P. Ricciardi - hired in 2001, to move on also? The firing of Gibbons was not a surprise and had been widely speculated upon in the baseball world. The firing of 1st base Coach Ernie Whitt and the fact that President and CEO Paul Godfrey didn't remove Ricciardi at the same time was a shock to me. Whitt is coach of Canada's Olympic baseball team and many felt he was the manager in waiting. He didn't seem to be in Ricciardi's plans however, being demoted from Bench Coach before the start of the season.

Buck Martinez (110 - 115), already manager, fired by J.P. in June of '02. Carlos Tosca (191 - 191) fired August 2004. With an equally mediocre record, John Gibbons (305 - 305), fired June 20th 2008. All are now gone and yet Ricciardi is still employed. Bringing in Cito Gaston, the man who took Toronto to World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 reeks of distraction tactics. Is the season already a bust and to keep the fans interested Jays management wants everyone to remember the good old days? Gaston by the way, hasn't worked as a Major League manager since his firing in 1997.

As in all sports, a manager is only as good as the roster provided him. The Blue Jays have consistently failed to put a home run hitting DH in the lineup. In the American League, the home run is king. To not have a legitimate power hitter is a recipe for disaster. This should be the topic of a separate blog but tainted record or not, wouldn't a few Barry Bonds home runs look good on a Blue Jays scoreboard?

The Jays are headed in to a very precarious future if they are not careful. The fan base is loyal but the usual third place finish is no longer satisfactory as the World Series wins slip further in to the past. This team needs to show forward progress. The Leafs will always be top dog in the Toronto sports world with the Raptors and Toronto FC gaining new fans every year. With the Buffalo Bills starting to come to town, how long until Rogers money goes from supporting a struggling Jays organization and goes towards a new or relocated NFL team? The Blue Jays could find themselves fifth on the sports depth chart in Toronto within a few years, playing in an empty, aging Rogers Center that will need to be replaced.

Much like the Blue Jays opponents have been doing to them, it's time for a clean sweep of management. Stop wasting Roy Halladay's career and get him some run support or find a GM that will.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Beware the wounded Tiger



So I have a confession to make. I did something that I've never done before and perhaps never will again. I watched four consecutive days of golf. I didn't mean for it to happen, somehow it just did. As a sports fan, I've followed golf for a number of years and I know who's who but I could never just sit and watch a tournament.

The weather here in Ottawa was unsettled and stormy, that could be how I ended up on NBC. The San Diego sun shinning brightly on one of the most beautiful courses I have ever seen. The first few fairways that run along the ocean side are breathtaking. There are many small golf courses in the world that I'm sure some golfers would call a waste of real estate but Torrey Pines is certainly not one of them. The par 3 - Third with the Pacific ocean as a back drop is simply amazing.

Going in to the 108th US Open there was one big question on every mind, fans and sports writers. Could Tiger Woods win his third US Open two months after knee surgery? He had yet to walk 18 holes in practise going in to the 7,634 yard Torrey Pines course, how could he play through four days and 72 holes? This course was the longest in US Open history and the general consensus was, if any player can win under these conditions, it would be Tiger Woods.

No one could have; or even would have suggested it would take 91 holes for Tiger to win the 1.35 million dollar prize for his 14th Major win, leaving him only four behind Jack Nicklaus in Major tournament victories. Ranked 158th in the world going in to the Open, second place finisher Rocco Mediate was playing the best golf of his life and clearly having the time of his life as he earned 810 thousand dollars and new fans around the world for matching Tiger stroke for stroke. Mediate now jumps to number 47 on the world rankings.

During the Saturday coverage, I felt it was finally time to change the channel when Tiger went well in to the rough and behind a TV tower on the 13th. But this is Tiger Woods so I decided to watch him play on to the green.Then the magic started. A long drive that skipped past the flag to the edge of the green set up a sixty five foot putt for Eagle. Even though he and Rocco would play another twenty four holes, in my opinion that was the moment the tournament was won.

Tiger had never lost when leading going in to the final day of a tournament and was 10-1 in playoffs. Remarkable numbers when you consider that unlike other sports, Tiger starts with the same score as one hundred and forty nine other golfers and almost every time he is in control by the end of day three. It may be awhile before I tune in to another golf tournament but I certainly have a new respect for the work these men do.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lifelong Greyhound makes stop in Ottawa


With his number four hanging from the rafters in Sault Ste. Marie, Craig Hartsburg has moved back to the NHL coaching ranks. Departing the Greyhounds and taking over the coveted Head Coaching position with the Senators.
Hartsburg was a star defenceman with the Minnesota North Stars and represented Canada in the 1981 and 1987 Canada Cup tournament. After NHL coaching jobs in Chicago and Anaheim, he returned to the Greyhounds during the 2004 NHL work stoppage. Leaving an assistant coaching position with the Flyers at the time. While his win - loss record of 184 - 190 - 69 is not stellar, the three consecutive gold medals at the World Junior Championships has cemented his reputation as a quality coach and not just a former player who is coaching.
Many observers believed that Kitchener Rangers coach Peter DeBoer had the job when he travelled to Barbados to meet Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. As it turns out, Hartsburg also made the trip south. Which, according to Melnyk, was for " a couple of beers and a pizza" and a chance to sell Hartsburg on the beauty of Ottawa. It has been mentioned here in Ottawa that DeBoer, who was coincidentally named Panthers coach today, wanted a four year deal. Melnyk was not prepared to offer that kind of contract to a coach with no NHL experience. It has been rumoured DeBoer may have been using one offer against another but I have not seen that confirmed, nor will we. The NHL community is usually tight lipped about these things.
In today's press conference, Hartsburg appeared composed and focused on the tasks ahead. The Senators have a huge problem at the goaltender position with Emery out and Gerber going in to the final year of his contract that he has not lived up to. There will most likely be at least three new faces on the blue line with only Phillips, Volchenkov and rookie Brian Lee under contract and Meszaros a restricted free agent. Redden and the others won't be back.
Then there are the questions at forward. With Heatley and Spezza's new contracts kicking in July 1st, a lot of money is already tied up. Will this team become the Tampa of the north? Too much money tied up in too few players? Will there be enough money to bring in the top six forward GM Brian Murray has been searching for the last two seasons? Hartsburg plans to bring in a new system and will hold the players more accountable.
"I will push, I will challenge our players every day to be their best. If you do that and the players accept being pushed and challenged, by the end of the year, we will be our best. I know it's a great challenge and I can't wait. I love challenges." - Team 1200 - Hartsburg press conference
Perhaps coach Hartsburg should call Pat Burns. Jason Spezza's defensive play at this Springs World Championship can be directly attributed to Burns' no ice time if you give the puck away at the other teams blue line. Spezza's style is exciting but he needs a system that allows him to pick his creative spots a little better.
The pressure to win in Ottawa is intense. This is a team that has had tremendous regular season accomplishments only to come up short in the post season. The trip to the Cup Final in '07 has turned the pressure up another notch as the team owner and Senator fans want to see the team competing for the Stanley Cup soon, very soon. With a strong Head Coach now in place, all eyes turn to Brian Murray to see what kind of roster he can assemble for Hartsburg.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Fletch Lives!



Much like Chevy Chase's ill conceived sequel to Fletch, Cliff Fletcher' second stint as GM for the Maple Leafs doesn't appear to be over any time soon. Richard Peddie, President and CEO of MLSE is on record as saying Fletcher will be GM through next season. It's not such a bad idea to have a plan in place before the draft and Fletcher is a good hockey man but I have to wonder. is this a vote of confidence for Cliff's rebuilding plan? Is it an organization willing to take your money but waste an entire year waiting for Brian Burke's contract to expire in Anaheim? It could be one last ditch effort to frustrate the Ducks in to letting Burke out of his contract. By saying this story won't go away for another year, Toronto is hoping the Ducks will want to move on from Burke and look towards their own future.

However muddy things look from the outside, the Maple Leafs seem to have a plan in place. The hiring of Ron Wilson sends a message to the veteran players; a management group is in place and changes will be made. Wilson was brought in for his reputation of working well with younger players, which according to Fletcher " The Leafs are clearly headed in that direction." - Wilson Press Conference -

Coach Wilson views the Leafs as a team in transition and he wants to be part of the change. Reunited with former Sharks net minder Vesa Toskala, Wilson stressed a commitment to defense. Singling out Strohlman's play at the World Championship and not mentioning Brian McCabe who many believe is awaiting a trade to Long Island, may have been a sign of what's to come between now and July the first.

In the Q and A portion of Wilson's introductory press conference the inevitable question came from a TSN reporter - you're on the record about the Canadian media being negative, why would you come to Toronto? Perhaps knowing this question was coming, Wilson had his Canadian passport on hand to prove his dual citizenship. Citing Pat Quinn as a long time mentor and Paul Maurice as a close friend, Wilson discussed his love of the Leaf logo and stated he had every reason to be there. It was perhaps a little overdone to have his passport with him. I was willing to believe him without the props. Other coaches though have pledged the same love and not gotten the job done. The league needs a strong Leaf Nation as it moves forward in the years to come.

So how does a guy from Windsor become coach of USA Hockey? Former Penguin coach Bob Johnson. The much admired Johnson offered Wilson a chance to see the world playing hockey. There was no team Canada at the time so Wilson played for the Americans. There was simply a chance to play hockey, it was not a snub at Canada.

A week ago I thought Toronto was in deep, deep trouble. Now, although not perfect, there is at least a sense of direction with Wilson's four year contract. I had a feeling last year when Cliff Fletcher sat down for the first time with the Toronto media freshly tanned that he might be here on an extended visit. Next on the agenda is a meeting with Sundin, so I'm sure by next week it'll all be up in the air again.

The NBA's Referee Scandal...


Late night callers to sports talk radio have often claimed that the NBA commissioners office were manipulating games behind the scenes to get more favourable match-ups and therefore better television ratings in the playoffs. A claim that has been strongly denied by the league. Then along came Tim Donaghy.
Donaghy, as you may recall, was an NBA referee for thirteen seasons who is now awaiting sentencing on felony charges of taking cash payoffs from gamblers and betting on games himself. Donaghy could also be facing state charges in the near future which were not included in his plea agreement with Federal prosecutors.
It is certainly no coincidence that Donaghy's lawyer is speaking up now on behalf of his client. The NBA has a dream final this year as the Lakers face the Celtics and all eyes are on the league. Donaghy feels he has been vilified and is not getting the credit he deserves for being cooperative with the prosecutors.
Through his lawyer, Donaghy now claims to have "named names" in his first interview with prosecutors and the FBI in 2007. Obviously, these people have been investigated and cleared by the FBI, otherwise they too would have been charged. If the disgraced referee feels someone is getting away with a crime and he is an "honest" individual, then I say; name those names. Stand up with your lawyer and your proof and tell us who! If you have the proof, the league would surely help you defend yourself in any future libel suits. You're the hero. You blew the lid off a scandal never before seen. Oh wait, you haven't come forward with any proof. As commissioner Stern said in his press conference, this man is just throwing things against the wall of public opinion and hoping something sticks.
Game six of the Western Conference Finals in 2002 is now being questioned. Well, let's not forget this was a Laker team that had Shaquille O'Neal in his prime and an emerging Kobe Bryant and won three championships in a row. In game six of that series, Shaq had 41 points and 17 rebounds. I don't care who the referee is, when Big Diesel is playing like that, his team is going to win.
The NBA's reputation has certainly been tarnished by this whole situation but the Commissioners office seems to have been very quick to react and were already keeping a close eye on their referees. Perhaps that's why the Donaghy situation has every major sports league concerned. The NBA didn't discover Donaghy's crimes, the FBI stumbled upon it while investigating someone else. Yes, that's what must have all the leagues scared. They had a dirty referee and didn't know it. As fans, we will always be left to wonder if...
One other note... There is a gold mine waiting in Las Vegas if a league is willing to locate a franchise there. Look for the poor cousin, the NHL, to be the guinea pig. The NHL is the one league of the big four - NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB - that needs the money that expansion would bring. If a gambling scandal hits the NHL team, the other leagues can say I told you so. If it works, look for all four leagues to have a team there in ten years.

Emery should be seeing Red Wings not green backs

June 15th is Father's Day. It will also be moving day for some NHL players as that date marks the official start to the league's buy out period. From June 15th to 30th, NHL teams can buy their way out of contractual blunders. A portion of the salary counts against the salary cap but it can be spread out over a few years and it allows a team to move someone out of their dressing room.

Several players will be surprised by their change of address but one player who shouldn't be shocked is Ottawa Senator Ray Emery. The Ottawa goaltender helped his team to the finals, signed a big contract and then assumed he didn't need to rehab his surgically repaired wrist in the shortened off season. After losing his starting job to Martin Gerber, missed flights, missed practices and the occasional fender bender were all front page news here in Ottawa. The front office's seeming inability to reign in Emery may have indirectly led to Coach Paddock's firing.

With the draft in Ottawa this year, expect GM Murray to be working the phones trying to move up from his mid round pick. Look for Ottawa's first rounder and maybe Vermette being moved on draft day to get a top 5 pick and a stud defenceman. Although he is and has been trying for a year, there is no way any team will trade for Emery and the remainder of his 2 year - 6.75 million dollar contract. The waiver wire is not an option (teams would only have to pay half the contract if they claim a player on waivers), because the Senators apparently don't want Ray on the farm team.

So with "Razor's" career up in the air, where will he land? Does a young team want him, hoping he will regain his form? Would he fit in on a young team that may struggle and miss the playoffs a few years in a row? Would he be a better fit on a more veteran team as a back up goaltender on a two way contract? I believe the latter should happen.

With the retirement of an All Star goaltender this week, a not so obvious choice becomes a perfect fit. Could Ray Emery be a Detroit Red Wing at the start of training camps in September? I can't imagine a better fit anywhere in the league right now.

Coming off their 4th cup win in eleven years, Detroit is an organization that demands accountability from everyone. Almost all of the Wings players are under contract for next year but with the departure of Hasek, a spot has opened up at the goalie position. I've heard from a few sources that the Wings are not sold on Jimmy Howard (3rd on the depth chart this year), and they would like to explore other possibilities to back up Chris Osgood in 08-09.

Too much has been made of Emery's escapades in Ottawa and a fresh start is needed. He can still regain his number one form in the right setting and with the right work ethic. If Wings GM Ken Holland can get Emery on a two way contract paying just over a million dollars at the NHL level it would be a chance worth taking. The Detroit veterans would certainly put Ray in his place should he get out of line. Also, keep in mind that Osgood is not getting any younger and is the Rodney Dangerfield of goal tending; no respect. Putting Ray Emery in as back up would give the Wings a season or two to make the transition to Emery as a future number one. Hey, stranger things have happened...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Can somebody lend the CBC $500 bucks?


"The song has a long and storied history in Canadian sports and has become ingrained in the hearts and minds of hockey fans across the country. It is an iconic tune, embraced by Canadians everywhere, and we felt it was imperative to save it."

"It's an honour and a privilege to own such a cherished piece of Canadiana."

Anyone want to play a guessing game with The Voice? Who said the above? Was it Steve Harper, Prime Minister of Canada? Stephan Dion, leader of the official Opposition? Oh, I know. It must have been Hubert T. Lacroix, President of the CBC! Nope... the answer is - wait for it, Rick Brace, President - Revenue, Business Planning and Sports at CTV Incorporated.

For readers outside of Canada, let's do a quick recap. Since 1931, Canadians have tuned in their radios and later their televisions every Saturday evening to Hockey Night In Canada. Since 1968, the Hockey Night theme composed by Dolores Claman has been the sound of hockey in Canada. HNIC is broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A publicly funded company equivalent to the American PBS. With a 1.5 billion dollar budget, the CBC receives 950 million dollars from the Federal government. The CBC's mandate is to reach all Canadians in all parts of the country. In February 2009, television broadcasters will only send out a digital signal, making the CBC unavailable to some Canadians and increasingly irrelevant in this satellite age.

News of the abandonment of Canada's second national anthem came from the copyright holder. Did the CBC in their wisdom, assume that the viewer - taxpayer / bosses would not notice October 1st that Nickelback or some other clone rock band's song was opening the show? A company spokesperson said HNIC was planning on going in another direction anyway and they will now hold a contest to choose a new theme. A contest? Paid for by the taxpayers I assume? I hope they are flooded with DJ remixes of the Hockey Night theme or variations of it.

That leads me to another point... Is the CBC really bumbling enough to shelve such an instantly identifiable song? Hum the start of the song in any cafe around the world and the chances are good someone will join you before you're done. If the plan all along was to retire the theme, then renew the rights for another forty years and lock it away and maybe we'll forget about it.

To allow your direct competition, TSN, to buy the rights to your theme; Canada's theme, goes beyond poor management. It borders on on the insane. TSN can now claim, and they are, on all their various media outlets - "we saved the theme". There is a new six year deal between TSN and the NHL guaranteeing a Wednesday night double header with at least one Canadian team in each game. Now those telecasts will be opening with the sound of hockey. How long until Wednesday night feels like the traditional hockey night in Canada? This is like the Yankees giving, not selling, the naming rights of their new stadium to the Red Sox. RED SOX Stadium - Home of the Yankees, people would go ballistic.

The CBC has already lost the rights to the Canadian Football League, the Grey Cup, the Olympics and now this? Not to mention already losing legends Brian Williams and Chris Cuthbert to CTV. With shows like "Intelligence" and " Secret lives of hockey wives", I want to know why the Prime Minister of Canada went over the heads of the CBC Board of Directors and instead of letting them do the hiring as usual, Harper hired a man with no broadcasting or marketing experience. Mr. Lacroix's area of expertise is in acquisitions (can you believe that?). Since the CBC is a mess, I assume his talents are to be used in the slow dismantling of the network.

This is the beginning of the end for our public broadcaster. That seems to be the directive from the politicians in charge. If it is the end, stop the money drain now. If the CBC is to continue I want to know where my 950 million dollars went if there is not enough money to keep the Hockey Night theme. You threw away forty years of tradition and more importantly, forty years of brand recognition to save $500 a game. It's shameful and as a Canadian it's embarrassing. Bravo to TSN for a brilliant corporate move. Absolutely brilliant!!

CBC head Lacroix and anyone else responsible should be fired, but then you'd cost us more money with a generous CBC severance package. I know; you should have to watch your own programming as punishment.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

For Crease Sakes - not again!



I received an email while I was away from a reader asking me to comment on the Penguins / Red Wings game 5. Specifically the two goalie interference calls on Detroit. I certainly wanted to write about it at the time and even though the finals are over, I don't think it's too late to discuss the issue. The crease area was a hot topic all through the playoffs and might be again going into next season as well if the league doesn't address the matter.

Attention was first drawn to the issue with Sean Avery's antics in front of Marty Brodeur. Surprisingly, veteran forward Brendan Shanahan continued it versus the Penguins. I'm sure everyone has seen the plays. That is clearly goaltender interference and it's also something most players stop doing when they are ten years old. Meanwhile, in the west, some very big bodies were making themselves at home in the crease because under the post lockout rules, the D man can't move a forward out with constant cross checks like they used too. What we're talking about here though falls into a third category; players driving the net with the puck having incidental contact with the goaltenders on the play.

The emailer sent me a link to Mike Babcock's comments on the matter at TSN.ca. I must say I agree with the coach completely. The NHL claims to be desperate for goals, desperate for more exciting plays. Going as far as implementing the controversial shoot out to decide games because according to Mr. Bettman, Americans fans need to have a winner and a double digit score. (That's just my interpretation of his past comments, not a direct quote.)

One of the best games of perhaps the past fifteen years happened this spring. Ottawa defeated Montreal 2-1 in a wide open, end to end, hit filled game. Hockey fans don't necessarily need lots of goals but they do want good hockey action. Look at the fans in Dallas during the playoffs. Standing for the entire game cheering on their usually defensive minded team.

So let's backtrack for a moment. To address this issue I visited NHL.com/rules. While there I watched a video by Colin Campbell and Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom on "rule enforcement for the 07-08 season". Some interesting things were forgotten by the referees this year. Remember hurry up face offs? The puck will be dropped with or without you if your line change isn't fast enough...anyways. Eventually it gets to goaltender interference.

"Deliberate contact with the goalies inside or outside the crease, a penalty will be called if observed by a referee. A goalie must be able to do his job."

Sounds good right? Well the examples they show are of a forward barreling in on the goalie, flipping the puck - not shooting - into the goalies pads or the crest of his sweater from close range, and then proceeding to bowl over the goalie, pushing puck and goaltender over the line and in the net. If the Cleary play was really a penalty in the leagues opinion, I may well be done watching NHL hockey. We all survived the clutch and grab of the 1990's, the water skiing hook on a player all the way through the neutral zone, one hook after another. Now you want to take away the drive to the net? The wide open rushes blowing past a slow D man?

Pierre Mcguire - TSN during That's Hockey after game 5, "...we always tell our kids and players, drive the net, make something happen..."

Well folks, don't do it in Mr. Bettman's league. You might score...By the way Mr. Walkom...What other league makes rule changes part way through a playoff series? Or makes the announcement you will be looking more closely for obstruction or interference part way through a series? How can a referee know when to blow the whistle when his boss is not even sure? Is it a penalty November 1st? Then it's a penalty on May 31st.

Every summer the league, players, general managers and officials sit in on a competition committee to examine the rules that are in place and how they have been enforced. Why are things getting more confused and muddied? Is it like politics? As soon as you strike a committee everyone immediately defends his own interests and a compromise can't be reached? Perhaps we should stop trying to fix the game before we kill it.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Final Thoughts



I happened to be on the road last week and was away from the computer world. I had hoped the Penguins would push the series to seven games so I could get one more Saturday night at home with a great hockey game to watch but it was not meant to be... guess I'm off to the video store to rent Slapshot. Here's a few thoughts on the finals. I'll have more posted in the coming days.

Congratulations to the Detroit Red Wings. An amazing regular season from start to finish and yet they still flew under the radar going into the playoffs. I certainly overlooked them, figuring on another early exit, but this is a Bowman built team. Much was written and talked about the Penguins learning curve and comparisons to the Oilers of the eighties. All of it justified in my opinion. How about the Wings though? This was a team built to win every year and they hadn't since 2002. Don't you think they learned a few things about playoff hockey along the way too?

My prediction going into the series was Wings in six. Pittsburgh would win game three at home and game five for pride. Even though the scores were close and Hossa almost sent game six to overtime, I don't feel it was as close as some observers do. There was never any doubt on the Detroit bench that they were the better team. Going into the series, Chris Osgood had played one less game then Fleury but Osgood had faced 100 fewer shots. By game five the differential was up over 150. The Penguins had to get more shots on net all series long and they never did.

Contrary to what some analysts think, a hot goalie stealing the game doesn't mean you are back in a series. Fleury stole game five but it didn't result in the momentum shift as predicted on TSN etc. Game six was never in doubt really. In the game that went to triple overtime the Pens had only two shots in the third period. Yes, one got by Osgood but I wouldn't call that a confidence builder. I'd call that hanging on for dear life, praying one gets in so that you live to play another day.

Speaking of that triple overtime game, is it me or is the term "classic" about as watered down as the beer at a baseball game? I have to agree with the Kipper from Hockey Central on Sportsnet; game five was not a classic game or one for the ages. In this era of twenty four hour sports analysis, there is a constant need to hype and sell the next game. If we tell you the game you missed was awesome, you'll have to tune in for the next one. It seems that a few years ago there was a shift in thinking. A long hockey game must have been a great hockey game right?

It's certainly exciting when it's sudden death. Everything is on the line...next goal wins! But is anyone watching around the ten minute mark of an OT period? The skating is sluggish, the ice is a mess (especially in the older rinks), the passing is horrendous and the refereeing is very suspect. If it's a penalty in the first period it's a penalty in the fifth. In the NFL, a face mask penalty is a penalty. No debate. They'd call it with 2 seconds left in the Super Bowl in a tie game with the ball on the one yard line if they had to. In hockey we have the league dictating new policies and interpretations half way through a series. That's ridiculous! No wonder the game struggles for viewers south of the border. It's not that they don't understand the game...they don't understand why a major sporting league changes the rules from period to period and game to game.

So we've finally had a European captain lift the Cup. Can we shut up about this now? It is a tremendous accomplishment to lead your team to Lord Stanley's Cup. If I'm putting together a hockey team, I want the best players available. I don't care where you're from, just give me everything you've got every game. It's worked for Scotty Bowman for the last forty years.

Congratulations again Hockey Town on an amazing season and congrats Mr. Lidstrom - the first of many players from around the globe who will someday captain their team to glory.

One last thing...Do you think that folks in the Red Wings front office ask themselves "what would Scotty do?" before they make a final decision? I would. Toronto almost had him last summer. Scotty wanted JF jr out and Pierre Mcguire in as GM - MLSE refused. One team just won their fourth cup in eleven years, one team has no captain, no coach and no general manager. Guess which team is which.