So…I guess the Penguins could get better?

Imagine a hockey team – it can be an imaginary team like the Vipers or something – led by the best player in the world.  This player can do it all, he can shoot, pass and play the two way game as well as anyone ever has.  Now, put another player (maybe the second or third best in the world) on the same team.  This player can score, hit and has a nose for making the right play.  Add in some high scoring role players and one of the best offensive defenseman in the game; then top it off with a goaltender who wins a lot of 7-4 games. 

Alright now, which of the following teams did I just describe:

A) The 80’s Edmonton Oilers

B) The early 90’s Pittsburgh Penguins

C) The late 90’s Colorado Avalanche

D) The current Pittsburgh Penguins

The answer of course is : All of the above.  Oh, wait – no it is not.

The 2013 Pens just got better and deeper.  Not only did they add the depth and leadership of Brendan Morrow, but just this morning they went out and added a first ballot hall of famer in Jarome Iginla. 

For most teams who added two all-star players you would have to worry about chemistry but in this case the Penguins have simply added Team Canada’s number one line.  As the guys on the excellent Backhand Shelf podcast pointed out, now we can enjoy flashbacks to beating the US National team nearly every single night. 

Keep in mind this is not simply a case of the rich getting richer, this is a case of the rich robbing the poor blind, beating them mercilessly and then burning down their houses for good measure.  The Penguins do not even need to have Iginla on their roster given the success they have already achieved without even adding Morrow into the lineup.  Their first and second power play units are now far and away the strongest in the league and Iginla will probably play on the third line.  On any other team in the league he never drops below second line.  In Boston (where he was supposed to have gone) he would have gotten top billing, and now, he has made the Pens the most dangerous offensive team in the league by far. 

How will the power play mesh?  My guess is about as quickly as a speeding bullet.  Crosby and Iginla already display an almost telepathic awareness of each other on the ice during the Olympics, and it seems almost unfair to give them a lot of time to develop it further when they play together…every single day. 

Imagine a world where the Penguins lost Jordan Staal and then proceeded to get better. 

Iginla rightfully deserves a shot at a Stanley Cup and he refused to go anywhere except the one team where he is basically guaranteed a great run at it.  Best case scenario: Iginla playing against third liners absolute dominates, which allows the Pens to give some rest to Crosby and the others before the playoffs…at which point a rested Pens team goes out and absolutely dominates, well, everybody. 

Come to think of it, that may be the only plausible scenario. 


Could the Washington Nationals really win the World Series?

As longtime readers of this blog know I do not write very often about baseball.  There are a few reasons for this but the main one is pretty straightforward: I simply do not watch enough to accurately assess too much of anything when it comes to America’s pastime.  For the most part I barely manage to keep up with the big stories – such as Pujols going to the Angels or the shocking dismantling of A-Rod’s reputation and skills, the rise of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and of course, the retooling of the Toronto Blue Jays in a suddenly weak division. 

However, as much as I try to ignore baseball, there is certainly a lot going on in the MLB.  With the season openers less than a week away, some of the experts are starting to make their picks and (spoiler alert) there are some ballsy predictions going around. 

Namely the ones from Sports Illustrated’s baseball writers who are overwhelmingly picking the Washington Nationals to win the World Series.  To quote guru Tom Verducci

“Manager Davey Johnson has managed this team before: the 1986 Mets. Like the ’86  Mets, the Nationals are coming off a 98-win season, are loaded with young  pitching, star players and a deep bullpen and expect to win. Washington has no  obvious flaw.”

Take a moment to allow that to sink in: Washington is a perfect team.  They will win because they are the deepest, most talented team and they are primed to be the Champs.  Wow.  A lot has changed since the last time I really  focused on baseball.  Surprisingly, not too many people are choosing the Toronto Blue Jays to win (they will probably fall apart) despite their massive new off season acquisitions.  Instead the experts are picking Washington – a team that built through the draft with two cannot miss prospects in back to back years.  If all breaks their way the Nats could be World Series Champs, boast the NL Cy Young Award winner (Strasburg) and the NL MVP (Harper). 

For some reason this is hard to believe.  Even though Verducci and the other experts feel they are a strong contender, this is still the team that handed a Series to the St. Louis Cardinals when they were one out away from moving on to the NL Championship Series.  They definitely have good pitching but the experience is still somewhat lacking and they need to be able to win the big games when it matters most. 

This season also features a lot of teams that have added a lot of contracts.  The Angels, Blue Jays, and Braves all added big time players but none are guaranteed anywhere near the chemistry or pitching that the Nationals can boast.  Then there is the Tampa Rays who are suddenly always in the playoffs and always in the hunt for the World Series despite ridiculously low payrolls and a shockingly good farm system. 

However…if we do get a Washington and Tampa World Series, what will it mean for baseball?  Is a changing of the guard – which has to happen – completely in the works?  How can everyone ignore the Angels who arguably got better with Josh Hamilton?  There are more questions than answers at this point but right now, the presumptive favorites are the Washington Nationals.  Can they be trusted to make a serious run?

Maybe not, they are, after all the best argument againt them is that they are the Washington “Freaking” Nationals.  Soon though, they may be World Champion, Washington “Freaking” Nationals. 

(Editor’s Note – It was write about baseball or a certain streak that is going on and it is best to pretend the streak is not happening so it can continue unabated.)

The Great One Revisited


As I finished the final pages of Sports Illustrated’s recent collection of stories on Wayne Gretzky, simply titled The Great One, I finally felt I had a complete picture of him as a player for the first time.  The only other books previously available on Gretzky have been his “autobiographies” or “his dad is the only guy interviewed” sort of books, but this was something different entirely: a view of Gretzky from all the different phases of his career. 

What does the full picture of Wayne Gretzky look like? 

He is the greatest hockey player of all time without a doubt.

Consider the following examples of his greatness:

He dominated at every single level – Wherever he went, Junior, WHA, NHL, International, Gretzky was the best player.  Instantly and regardless of who else was on the team.  When he was traded to LA he changed the fortunes of the franchise and essentially brought hockey to the United States (the Hurricanes, Lightning, Ducks and Kings Stanley Cups were all due to the tireless impact of Gretzky).  Even when traded to a place where a star was already entrenched, Gretzky instantly became the Alpha Dog.  Take his brief stint in St. Louis where Brett Hull gave up the “C” to Gretzky, without any complaints.  Gretzky made everyone around him instantly better and thrived when people doubted his abilities.  He made the Kings a dangerous team and dragged an awful team to the Cup Finals.  When he joined the Rangers it was a big deal, and they became a team that could still make noise in the playoffs; even as he was clearly washed up.

He outscored everyone, by a huge margin – There were times when Gretzky would win the scoring title by All-Star Break.  He led the league by 70 plus points a few times.  The second best scorers for years were guys who simply benefited by being on his team.  How many goals did he gift to Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier?  How many fourth liners got 30-35 goals simply because Gretzky was frequented double shifted when he was an Oiler?  I mean the man averaged more than 203 points a year for a five year stretch.  No one else in the history of the game ever scored 200 in a season.  Unreal.  Gretzky also had multiple seasons where he would have won the scoring title even he had never put one goal in the net.  He had the Art Ross Trophy on assists alone.  For his career he averaged more than 2 points a game and only in his final year did he ever score less than 1 per game in a season – and he still led the Rangers in assists / scoring. 

He was almost as competitive as Jordan – This is one of the main things that has been lost to history for a couple of reasons: 1) he is Canadian, 2) he toned it down over time.  In the early days everyone thought he would eventually stumble because there was too much hype surrounding his arrival in the league.  Then he blew every single expectation out of the water by being 60-70% better than anyone else in the league.  When the Montreal Canadians disrespected young Gretzky and informed the press that he would be in Guy Lafleur’s pocket by the time the series was over; he went out and destroyed them.  Not only did he destroy LaFleur but after he won the series he made sure to pat his pocket where everyone in the arena could see.  Gretzky used all the talk about him to fuel him and make him the most devestating offensive force the league has ever seen.  His records are among the most impressive in any sport – he would be the all-time leading scorer ever…if he never scored a goal.  Enough said.

His two way game was never fully respected – Gretzky played 38 minutes a game (which is tantamount to attempted murder in hockey) and often double shifted with the Fourth Line.  He also killed penalties and set the all-time record for short handed goals.  In the NHL today, no scorer ever really plays the PK.  Gretzky did which speaks to his abilities as a defensive player.  He had a ridiculous ability to predict the movement of the puck and an uncanny sense of timing to make big plays.  Over time his forechecking has been lost in the offensive stats but he was one of the most effective in the league. 

In short: Gretzky is the best hockey player ever, and it is great that Sports Illustrated could release a book that shows his true impact on the game, and allows us to celebrate his greatness. 

The Closing Window

Watching my hometown Vancouver Canucks this season has brought an unexpected sadness along with the usual ups and downs of a (shortened!) season – the crushing realization that the title window has closed for this particular group of players. 

Hard to believe, right?  Last year this team won the President’s Trophy and finished with the most wins in the league and the season before that they came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup!  How could their window have closed? 

Two years ago the Canucks, led by Ryan Kesler, the Sedin twins and a non-shattered Roberto Luongo seemed to be a perennial contender for years to come.  Yet, here we are acknowledging their window has closed.  This team does not feel like a threat to win the Cup, they just do not.  Something has been lost with this group of players and the instant that happens it becomes time to blow it up.  Otherwise you enter the brutal “mediocrity” zone in which you make the playoffs as a 7th or 8th seed each season, never have a chance to win a series and end up with a mediocre lottery pick.  No thank you – as tough a pill as it is to swallow, it is better to blow it up completely and suffer through a few years of epically bad teams while building through the draft (think Edmonton, and not Calgary). 

The Title Window is incredibly fickle and it slams shut when least expected.  Some franchises struggle for years to make the right choice, the hard choice and rebuild the proper way; instead, most end up with the typical overpaid free agents or trade pieces who suck up salary and do just enough to hold the team above the playoff line (again, think the Calgary Flames or Boston Celtics).  As tough as it is to stomach your team being bad for a long stretch, this can be infinitely worse because you are bad…just not bad enough to get a legitmate franchise player in the draft (think the Portland Trailblazers).  Teams in each sport have seen their windows slam shut, sometimes completely unexpectedly – some of the classics being the 80’s Houston Rockets, the 90’s Lakers, the Boston Celtics / Red Sox,  the Core 4 New York Yankees, the 80’s Oilers…the list goes on and on.

The Title Window can close for a variety of reasons, occasionally for injury reasons (like the Canucks with Kesler), occasionally for money reasons (the 80’s Oilers who had to trade Wayne Gretzky and ended their dynasty right there) or for other reasons (the disease of more, drugs, outside influence, aging etc). 

The moment the Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Bruins their window had closed and we did not even realize it.  There was some factors at play such as injuries like the ones to Kesler (who truly led the way for us even if we had not yet fully realized the importance of his impact) or Roberto Luongo getting figured out by most teams and run out of a few buildings (he flops, stays down and you can get into his head) but the fact remains that the window was closed.  Then we started to give out some bad contracts, like the one to Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond or Keith Ballard, and we started to pick up a bunch of guys to fill out our roster who could not score to save their lives (looking at you David Booth!) and here we are.  The hard choices need to be made. 

Look at three of the most successful franchises in sports today – NHL Champions Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins and NBA Contender Oklahoma City Thunder.  These three teams built through the draft, brilliantly, and ended up drafting incredibly well and picking up multiple franchise players in a few years (the Hawks have Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook; the Pens skate Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and had Jordan Staal; the Thunder drafted Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant).  For years these teams struggled but they were patient – and more importantly so were the fans.  Now OKC has some of the best fans in the NBA, the Hawks had a 21 game point streak and the Pens have the best player in the NHL and are a favorite to win the Cup. 

The Canucks window has closed and it is time for them to begin thinking about the sort of future they want for the team, their city and their fans.  It is never easy to admit that the window has closed and because it is so infrequent that a team has a chance to win a title we tend to hang on, way too long even as the team becomes farther and farther from a championship. 

So Vancouver (and others clinging desperately to teams past their primes) it is time to blow it up, stockpile picks and move through a few years of mediocrity.  However, know that soon the world will become better, the future brighter and eventually if we are really lucky the window might, one day, open again.

Statues that Could Exist

During my recent trip to LA my brother and I paid homage to the Wayne Gretzky statue which sparked a little bit of a conversation regarding the merits of the Kings having a tribute to Gretz:

Just Ross – “To be fair, he is the greatest player in the history of the game and he played for the Kings for 8 years.”

Me – “Yes, but he never won anything substantial for LA.  Sure he took them to their first Cup Finals and that team was absolutely terrible, but he never won for them. (thinking) Although he did set the all-time scoring record while playing for them…”

Just Ross – “He is the greatest player of all-time.  Argument over.”

However, it got me thinking about some other statues that different franchises could put up to commemorate great moments in their history (keeping in mind that my local team, the Canucks, have a statue of Roger Nielson waving a white towel):

LA Kings – If you are going to put up a Gretzky statue and he almost won you a Cup, then I guess they have to put up one of current (Cup Winning) Captain Dustin Brown.

Baltimore Ravens – A back to back statue of Joe Flacco and Trent Dilfer (a mediocre sandwich any way you cut it).

Detroit Pistons – A tribute to bruising, difficult to watch teams led by the Bad Boy Pistons and then Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups.  They could also celebrate Rasheed Wallace’s astounding 47 techs in one year with a bronze Sheed open mouthed and screaming. 

Orlando Magic – One iconic of Dwight Howard stabbing the franchise in the back.

Philadelphia Flyers – Eric Lindros getting smoked by Scott Stevens.

Toronto Raptors – Vince Carter leading the franchise to the Eastern Conference Finals (aka the only time the franchise has mattered). 

Vancouver Canucks – The Sedins cycling behind a net or Pavel Bure streaking towards the net.  How can I be so frustrated and excited at the same time?

Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron holding his “Witness” pose with fans holding signs pleading “Come Back!” behind him.  Too soon? 

Michigan Wolverines – Chris Webber calling timeout.

LA Lakers – Jerry Buss and David Stern paying off the referees for their 3 straight title runs, hey-oh!

Washington Capitals – Alex Ovechkin flipping the bird to the franchise while smiling about it.

Arizona Diamondbacks – Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson holding up the World Series Trophy…while wearing other uniforms.

Florida Marlins – A bunch of money in front of the World Series Trophy.

Carolina Hurricanes – Eric Staal holding up the Stanley Cup.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Vincent LeCavalier holding up the Stanley Cup.

St. Louis Blues – Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull back to back (one of my favorite hockey cards ever). 

New York Giants – David Tyree making “the catch”; or Eli Manning looking like he has no idea where he is.

And Finally:

Toronto Maple Leafs – A Fan wearing a Leafs Jersey with a bag over his head.

Please write down all the statues I missed in the comments!




Sidney Crosby is Pretty Darn Good

In the aftermath of the Blackhawks incredible streak, the NHL has begun to spin a new narrative – Sidney Crosby and his quest for immortality.  Through 30 games this season Crosby has an astounding 48 points, or good for one point per game if he did not play again this entire season.  It has taken the best player in the league nearly two years be completely healed from his brutal concussion but now that he is back we have to begin to ask ourselves where he is going to rank amongst all time greats.  

Last weekend my dad and I joked that Crosby threaten a hundred points in this shortened season and if he achieved the feat, he had to be considered one of the top ten players to ever suit up.  Although he will not hit (but not outside the realm of possible) 100 points this year if you add his points from last year (37 in 22) to this years totals he has an astounding 85 points in just 52 games or 1.63 ppg.  

Those are Gretzky numbers, ladies and gentleman.  A couple of years ago I argued Crosby deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, now I believe he has gone and assured his spot in the vaunted Pantheon of Hockey Greats.  He is far and away the best player in the league but it is his gretz-like ability to make ordinary teammates so much better that makes him truly special.

He has the Pens humming and a second Cup within his grasp – what more can the best hockey player of the past 15 years do to prove he belongs amongst the legends?

Three Days in LA

This past weekend, my Dad, brother and I flew down to LA in order to see some basketball games.  Many people may consider this a strange way to spend a weekend, but when your home town had its team brutally ripped away by the brutal, ogrish owner – well, you do what you have to in order to see a game.  Thankfully we ended up picking two pretty incredible games to go to.  Here is how it all went down:

Day 1 – Land in LA, wander around various (rich) parts of the city and take in a nice dinner. Coming from Vancouver the most shocking thing is the fact it is genuinely warm (upwards of 30 degrees C) and that shorts are, in fact, required and not a symbol of someone’s fortitude in mid January.  All in all, a pretty good start to the trip. 

Day 2 – Turning on the TV early in the morning, we are shocked to discover that ESPN’s College Gameday is in fact, at UCLA!  The atmosphere (at 8 in the morning) already seems crazy there, I am now incredibly excited.  This could turn out to be one of those epic crowd experiences where literally anything can happen: one of those nights where it completely justifies all your irrational love of sports and all the hours you spend talking and thinking about teams, games and players.  After walking around the UCLA Campus for an hour or so, my brother, Just Ross decides that he should have gone to a US university.  Canadian higher learning institutions simply do not compare to the experience.  He will spend the rest of the trip talking himself into taking an MBA at an American school. 

For the game, our seats are directly above the student section.  There are posters and Bill Walton wigs and generally craziness.  Anything less than an absolutely epic game will be a complete failure.  At the outset of the game we quickly learn they are going to be honoring the 1973 Tournament Title Team at Halftime – yes, Bill Walton is in the house! 

My brother spots Bill Walton, and then four members of the LA Clippers who we are going to see the next day!  Blake Griffin, Chauncey Billups, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan are all in attendance.  We snap a lot of cell phone pictures and manage to capture them paying homage to the legendary Walton (truly some things have to be seen and not described in a subpar Sports Blog, but thanks for sticking with me anyways!). 

The game meanwhile, somehow lives up to expectations – because the crowd wills UCLA to a win.  The atmosphere is absolutely crazy.  Tonight easily ranks among my top stadium experiences ever (up there with Canucks v. Blackhawks in the 2011 Playoffs; Switzerland v. USA in the World Juniors and the opening game of the Vancouver Grizzlies where they pulled out a ridiculous OT win) and there is an undercurrent of “will they storm the court or not?”  With five minutes left, that question is answered once and for all when security and ushers (including one particularly elder fellow) ring the lower bowl in anticipation of a court storming.  If it happens, it will be ugly (they even get rid of the Clips and Walton before the game ends) but by the end of the incredibly close game the roof seems likely to blow off.  A couple of thoughts:

1) Shabazz Mohammed is really good, even on a sprained ankle – He looked a bit thicker than we expected, but he was a beast inside. 

2) We saw one of the hardest dunks ever – A UCLA player absolutely destroyed a Zona player attempting to take a charge.  Huge.  Even had the couple of seconds of standing over him.  Super hard dunk that brought the house down and set the tone for the much lower ranked UCLA. 

A few times in my life I have seen the crowd change the outcome of a game and this was one of those times.  Absolutely incredible inside the Pauley Pavilion.  My second trip and definitely not my last.  Also good to see Jalen, the gameday crew and the bus outside the arena.  Do not see day college games, see the marquee night matchups because the intensity notches up that much higher.

Day 3 – Now we get to head down to the Staples Center for the Clips and Thunder.  We are basically sitting courtside and will be on TV for the next three hours.  Sweet.  At the outset of this game it seemed like our luck was going to run out, and OKC would come in and blow out the Clips.  Little did we know that three hours later we would be on our feet for the final five minutes of the game and getting stared down by a should have been tossed Serge Ibaka. 

The first quarter belonged to Russell Westbrook – the man was absolutely unstoppable.  He could get to the rim, hit his floater in traffic and drop the ball down to the open man.  The worst move coach Scotty Brooks made was taking him out and cooling him off.  Anyways, the other big story of the first half was foul trouble for the Clips (Blake, Odom and DeAndre all got into trouble leading to big minutes for Ronny Turiaf) and the fact I am pretty sure Cliff Paul and not Chris was playing for the team in the first half.  Paul was brutal in the opening 24.  He had 4 points and 4 assists at half.  The team was down and there was no chance they were coming back.  Just Ross and my dad were certain it was going to be OKC running wild.  

Then Matt Barnes and Chris Paul showed up.

The story of the second half was the Clips moving the ball around like it was on fire and throwing it down like OKC was not even there.  Blake and DeAndre threw some huge dunks down and the team started to shoot the lights out.  The score crept closer and closer and closer.  With each passing possession the Clips seemed to become increasingly confident while OKC seemed to be missing James Harden more and more.  At this point I should also make it clear that the refereeing in this game was atrocious.  David Stern should use the calls for a segment he shows all the refs entitled “how to hand a game to one team and absolutely rob the other team.”  The amount of fouls were staggering and even some of the inbound calls were dubious.  And then we came of course, to the nut punch that changed the outcome.

The second half belonged to Chris Paul.  He showed why he is widely considered the best point guard in the game.  He slowed it down to exactly where he wanted the tempo and then dominated.  He got to the rim, hit threes and made every member of the Clips better.  I am glad Cliff decided to stay in the locker room for the second half. 

And now about that nut punch:

Serge Ibaka should have been tossed from this game without question.  When the punch happened no one could really see what went down because of the angle on the floor and how quickly Blake was rolling around in agony.  Here is what happened inside the arena:

1) A scramble around the basket leads to Griffin falling on the floor.  Every man in attendance knows immediately what has happened – you only go down and stay down like that for one reason only. 

2) It is unclear what has happened until they show the video replay.  You can make all kind of Serge-centric arguments that you want but, he smacked Blake Griffin in the nuts.  Clearly.  The crowd turns on him as one, screaming “toss him out!  toss him out!”.  There is an incredibly long sequence where it becomes genuinely possible that we may see someone kick Kendrick Perkins ass.  The refs absolutely have to call this a flagrant two.  Ibaka punched him in the nuts and the ball was nowhere near them and the chop was aimed only one place.

3)  Ibaka walks to the scorers table and stares defiantly into the screaming crowd.  He is looking right at me and my brother.  He puts his hands on his hips and just stares angrily at the crowd soaking in their venom like a Bond villain.  Unreal moment. 

4)  Okay, now the refs will clearly toss him, here we go!  This is the final turning point for the Clips, Ibaka is…NOT OUT.  What?  Are you kidding me?  This is one of the most ridiculous blown calls in the history of the game.  Clips fans are out of their minds.  I have a sinking feeling this may come back to haunt them…

Griffin fouls out on one of the worst calls of the game.  Ticky tacky and not right.  Turns the game after the Clips have taken the lead on back to back Barnes 3 pointers.  In the final seconds Ibaka makes one of the best blocks I have ever seen.  Huge moment from a player that should have been long out of the game.  Give Ibaka credit, he soaked in more hatred than I have ever seen one player not named Patrick Kane take and then performed when it mattered most.  That is exactly what champions do, even if they have a nut punch or two on their resume. 

KD hits two free throws – game over. 

We left having seen exactly what we wanted from the game: dunks, blocks, a Clips rally, a great Westbrook v. Paul game, Durant being clutch, Perkins mean mugging and the reasons that these are two of the best teams in a deep Western Conference.  Aside from the awful refing this was awesome. 

Three days in LA and two incredible games, what more could a former Vancouver Grizzlies fan want?  Except of course a team to call his own.