On Deck, April 1

We’re jumping to the end for today’s pick. It was everything M’s fans could have hoped for last night. Mike Trout hit a homer, but King Felix was otherwise excellent. And the offence exploded for 10 runs–most coming late in an otherwise close game.

Mariners @ Angels 10:05pm
Ramirez (0-0) v Wilson (0-0)
Treat yoself–stay up late to watch this one. Last night’s game got a little wild as the Halos fell apart late. And the Mariners offence lived up to its billing. They just might score five runs a game all year long.

Dodgers @ Padres 6:40pm
Greinke (0-0) v Kennedy (0-0)
Great news. Zack Greinke’s recovered from the mysterious ankle ailment that prevented him from playing in Australia. Tune in to see if the Dodgers can E their way to another loss.

Best reason to watch the Padres in 2014: You saw him Sunday night, Seth Smith Andrew Cashner

Rockies @ Marlins 7:10pm
Anderson (0-0) v Eovaldi (0-0)
Nate Eovaldi is no Jose Fernandez, but he’s very good. He could pile up a lot of K’s for a third-tier pitcher this season. He’s worth a look.

Best reason to watch the Rockies in 2014: On paper, the Rockies should be a lot better than pre-season predictions have them finishing.

Yankees @ Astros 7:10pm
Sabathia (0-0) v Feldman (0-0)
The Yankees have never lost a regular season game at Houston. And if nothing else, you can tune in to see the strange, strange sight that is Jacoby Ellsbury in pinstripes.

Best reason to watch the Astros in 2014: Chris Carter seems poised for a monster season, Jonathan Villar might swipe 50 bases, and Jarred Cosart is one of the most highly-anticipated prospects around.

Blue Jays @ Rays 7:10pm
Hutchison (0-0) v Cobb (0-0)
Drew Hutchison was just hitting his stride when the 2012 Tommy John epidemic ran through the Jays clubhouse. If his strong spring was any indication, he’s back and we should have a great pitching matchup in this one.

Best reason to watch the Blue Jays in 2014: To stay on top of injury news when the Jays you have on your fantasy team get hurt.

Phillies @ Rangers 8:05pm
Burnett (0-0) v Perez (0-0)
These teams combined of 24 runs yesterday in a wild one. Gotta figure we get 1-0 in 13 innings today.

Braves @ Brewers 8:10pm
Wood (0-0) v Lohse (0-0)
The Braves also have a Tommy John epidemic this season, but it’s hard to pin the blame on injured pitchers after they were shut out for the fifth time in their last seven games against the Brewers.

Best reson to watch the Brewers in 2014: As it’s been for several years now, Ryan Braun.

Giants @ D-backs 9:40pm
Cain (0-0) v Miley (0-1)
After striking out eight in his season debut in Australia, Wade Miley looks to continue that strong effort–and pick up a better result for his troubles. This one looks like a matchup that’ll produce a whole lot of strikeouts.

Best reason to watch the Giants in 2014: They should be a lot better than they were in 2013. And with all due respect to Pittsburgh, they have the nicest home park in the big leagues.

Indians @ Athletics 10:05pm
Kluber (0-0) v Kazmir (0-0)
A Jim Johnson meltdown in the ninth? Nobody saw that coming last night (except every O’s fan on the planet). The Corey Kulber Ascension and Scott Kazmir Redemption shows intersect tonight, and if they can keep the sewage out, fans in Oakland will be in for a treat tonight.

On Deck, March 31

With apologies to Dodgers fans, last night was a lot of fun. In case you missed it, after a couple of teaser games, Major League Baseball returns today with 13 games. And after a much-needed break in 2013, What To Watch also returns with a new name—On Deck. Throughout the week, I’ll offer reasons to add each team to your watch list, in reverse order of last year’s final standings.

Blue Jays @ Rays 4:10pm
Dickey (0-0) v Price (0-0)
The very best advice I could offer for Opening Day is to watch your favourite team. As the Jays are mine, I’ll be tuned in to what could be a tremendous pitchers’ duel between 2012’s Cy Young award winners—both of whom are looking to bounce back after disappointing 2013 seasons.

Cubs @ Pirates 1:05pm
Samardzija (0-0) v Liriano (0-0)
Well, it’s the first game of the day, so that’s the best reason to watch this one. But if you need more, you’ve got beautiful PNC park as a backdrop, reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen due to bat right around the time you’d normally make an afternoon coffee run, and all that against a Cubs team that appears poised for great entertainment value, if not a great record.

Best reason to watch the Cubs in 2014: To see which players you’d like your favourite team to trade for. Even the best young players this season seem far from untouchable as their rebuild continues.

Royals @ Tigers 1:08pm
Shields (0-0) v Verlander (0-0)
Probably the very best pitching match-up of the day, assuming 2009-2013 Justin Verlander isn’t gone forever. If you like strikeouts, this’ll be the game for you.

Nationals @ Mets 1:10pm
Strasburg (0-0) v Gee (0-0)
With an easy-to-feast-on Mets lineup, Stephen Strasburg may give us the first OMG pitching performance of the year.

Phillies @ Rangers 2:05pm
Lee (0-0) v Scheppers (0-0)
The Tanner Scheppers, Starting Pitcher experiment is one that seems like it could go either way, and is a storyline worth watching its impact on the AL West race.

Best reason to watch the Phillies in 2014: They’re still technically a major league baseball team.

Braves @ Brewers 2:10pm
Teheran (0-0) v Gallardo (0-0)
All eyes will be on Khris Davis, who’s hoping to make it two years in a row a superstar by that name hammers home runs for all to enjoy.

Red Sox @ Orioles 3:05pm
Lester (0-0) v Tillman (0-0)
If Jon Lester’s not already in your plans every fifth day, I don’t know what else to tell you.

Twins @ White Sox 4:10pm
Nolasco (0-0) v Sale (0-0)
Thank goodness for Chris Sale.

Best reason to watch the Twins in 2014: Figure out fly ball angles ahead of the Home Run Derby.
Best reason to watch the White Sox in 2014: There’s something about the ChiSox that gives them the sleeper vibe.

Cardinals @ Reds 4:10pm
Wainwright (0-0) v Cueto (0-0)
The Cards and Reds have been the principals in one of baseball’s hottest rivalries the last couple of years, and this one should be a treat right out of the gate. Just for fun, add Waino and Cueto—a pair of Cy Young hopefuls—to the mix.

Rockies @ Marlins 7:05pm
De La Rosa (0-0) v Fernandez (0-0)
It’s just awful that the Marlins get to have nice things like Jose Fernandez, but it’s great for fans. If his 2014 performance is anything like last year’s, he’s on the must-watch list every fifth day.

Best reason to watch the Marlins in 2014: Other than Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton’s a good pick. Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia join Stanton to make up a pretty powerful heart of the order. Could be a lot of fireworks.

Giants @ D-backs 9:40pm
Bumgarner (0-0) v McCarthy (0-0)
If you spent half as much money on Paul Goldschmidt in your fantasy draft as I assume you did, you’re going to want to watch him often.

Indians @ Athletics 10:05pm
Masterson (0-0) v Gray (0-0)
Sonny Gray’s been a highly-touted prospect since the moment he was drafted, and his 13th Major League appearance is today’s Opening Day start against the media-darling Tribe. This one is worth staying up late for.

Mariners @ Angels 10:05pm
Hernandez (0-0) v Weaver (0-0)
Mike Trout, Mike Trout. Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout.

Best reason to watch the Mariners in 2014: The new-look Mariners, featuring Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison, a handful of power-hitting holdovers, and shortened outfield fences, are suddenly worth a look even when King Felix isn’t pitching.

In defense of the five-year policy

It's ruffled a lot of feathers this week, but is it possible the Jays' so-called five-year max policy is a good thing?

It’s ruffled a lot of feathers this week, but is it possible the Jays’ so-called five-year max policy is a good thing?

Hey guys, have you heard? The Blue Jays have a totally bullshit policy of not signing free agents to deals longer than five years? It’s a pretty under-the-radar thing, and it certainly hasn’t been clogging up my damn Twitter feed all damn week, so I figured I should let you know it’s a thing.

But I should probably also let you know I don’t really think the policy is bullshit. I did a little digging at ESPN’s free agent tracker page, which handily has historical info going back to 2006-07 off-season. Let’s see if we can find some long-term (five years or more) deals that hadn’t turned to utter shit before the end of year three.

The 2006-07 off-season was particularly ripe with god-awful long-term deals. Leading the charge was Barry Zito’s big pay day with the San Francisco Giants, worth $126 million over seven years. Zito’s deal is arguably worthwhile. The Giants won two World Series during his time. He was a key part of their 2012 World Series win, but was left off their 2010 postseason roster. That $126 million also led to exactly zero All-Star appearances or major post-season awards.

The other big payday after the 2006 season went to Alfonso Soriano, who signed with the Chicago Cubs for eight years and $136 million. In 2007, the deal looked great. Soriano collected 173 hits in 135 games, was an All-Star, and nearly cracked the top 10 in MVP voting. But by 2008, injuries started taking their toll, and it became more and more clear Soriano was among the worst defenders in the big leagues. In 2009, Soriano’s batting average dropped 39 points from his near-career average .280 in 2008 to .241. In each of 2010, 11, 12 and 13, Soriano batted below his career average and the Cubs finally unloaded him to the desperate Yankees late last season. The Cubs were swept out of the Division Series in 2007 and 08 and haven’t been back since.

Also from 2006: the Houston Astros gave Carlos Lee $100 million over six years. He weighed more than that hundred mil before the end of the deal in 2012, and the slugger failed to hit 30 homers in each of the last five years of the deal. The Astros didn’t make the playoffs during the deal. Kansas City gave Gil Meche 5/$55MM, which was laughable at the time, and just sad when Meche didn’t even play five more years. The Red Sox looked like they had a steal in Daisuke Matsuzaka during his first two years of his 6/$52MM deal. But he pitched just 296 innings over the last four years of the deal and spent most of 2013 in the minors. The New York Yankees also dove into the Japanese market, signing Kei Igawa to a five-year deal worth $20 million. Igawa played one full season in New York. The Angels gave Gary Matthews Jr 5/$50MM that winter, which might be among the worst contracts ever. Matthews hit .252, .242, and .250 in three seasons with the Halos before being traded to the Mets where he’d play just 36 more games before leaving baseball before the end of the contract. The Dodgers gave Juan Pierre 5/$44MM. Even though he put up good numbers in the first three years of the deal, and he helped the Dodgers to back-to-back NLCS berths, he was shipped out to the White Sox before the 2010 season.

If Pierre and Zito were two maybe-worth-it deals, JD Drew and Aramis Ramirez stand out as two deals that mostly worked out. The Red Sox gave JD Drew five years/$70MM. For their money, the Red Sox got one All-Star appearance and two 20+ home run seasons plus a World Series win in 2007. Aramis Ramirez re-signed with the Cubs for 5/$75MM and was actually pretty good, winning a Silver Slugger in 2011, getting an All-Star nod in 2008, and landing in the top 15 of MVP voting in 2007 and 2008. He posted a .292 batting average over the life of the deal, and averaged 30 doubles and 24 homers per season.

The other six five-or-more-years deals were pretty dreadful.

Despite the earlier success enjoyed by many of those players, the 2007 off-season was quiet with just three long-term deals handed out. Torii Hunter’s five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels worked out alright. Hunter was an All-Star twice, won two Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger, and the Halos made the playoffs twice. The 10-year deal the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez is nothing but shades of grey and turmoil. Rodriguez landed in the MVP voting in each of the first three years of the deal and the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, though he came nowhere near reaching career-highs in any stats. Years four thru six were injury-plagued and year seven will be spent serving a season-long suspension for being MLB’s PED Kingpin. The last long-term deal was a five-year, $60 million pact between Aaron Rowand–whom the Internet assured me was a Major League baseball player–and the Giants. Rowand played just four of the five years, and was a part-time player during the Giants’ World Series win in 2010.

The last off-season for which we can see the full result of five-year deals is the 2008 off-season. Like 2007, there were just three long-term deals–and they were all signed by the Yankees. They inked Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett to eight, seven, and five-year deals, respectively. Much like A-Rod, the first three years for Tex and Sabathia were great. They won the World Series in 2009, and both players were legitimate candidates for post-season hardware. Teixeira’s battled injuries in 2012 and 2013 though, and Sabathia also slipped in 2013–posting an ERA over 4.00 for the first time since 2004. AJ Burnett never got his ERA below 4.00 with the Yankees and after three seasons they paid Pittsburgh to take him off their hands.

That’s 16 contracts, and by my count just two of them still looked good after three seasons. So hate on this Jays policy all you want, it’s probably actually a good policy. The worst part of it is the fact it’s become awfully public.

It seems this week to have cost the Jays a chance at signing Masahiro Tanaka, but there’s a 7-in-8 chance we’ll all be pretty glad about that once the 2017 season rolls around.

Top Prospects Game and CSS Update

2014_NHL_DRAFT-LOGO_BIG

Wednesday night I took in the 2014 BMO Top Prospects Game at the Saddledome. It was my first time seeing the game live, and before I offer any thoughts about the players involved, I must urge you to check this game out if it’s ever in a town near you. It was an exceptionally entertaining game, and a nice way to get a read on several top prospects in relation to one another.

Conveniently, NHL Central Scouting released their January rankings Monday, giving us a handy list of players to watch. Unfortunately for us, their newly-minted top pick Sam Bennett wasn’t able to play in the event. Let’s take a look at some of the guys that did.

Leon Draisaitl, ranked second by Central Scouting was on hand. I’ve seen him a couple times when his Prince Albert Raiders have been to town, and we all got a good look at him playing for Germany at the World Juniors. Scouts seem to be in love with Draisaitl’s size and vision. They’re right to be. His vision is elite, and he’s nearly impossible to knock off the puck. But I’m not sure where this number two ranking comes from. His skating seems to be average at best, and after a very good performance in the first period last night, he was pretty invisible in the second and third. After last night, I’m not convinced he’s the second best prospect in the WHL this season, never mind all of North America.

Aaron Ekblad, who you may remember from his role anchoring Canada’s blue line at the WJC, captained Team Orr and didn’t have his best night. Despite that, the third-ranked North American was one of the best players on the ice most of the time. It was interesting to see in person how physically imposing Ekblad is. He often played the role of policeman whenever there was a little scrum or chippiness after a whistle–and sometimes instigated it, almost as if he were trying to prove he has a mean streak.

Coming in fourth in the CSS ranking is Ekblad’s WJC teammate, and opposing captain last night, Sam Reinhart. I wrote earlier in the season that Reinhart was potentially the only NHL-ready forward in the draft. He may have company in that regard, but his play last night and at the WJC made it clear he’s still the best forward I’ve seen, and the best in the WHL. He’s not big, but he’s strong. He has better vision that Draisaitl, controls the puck with shocking ease, and has a nose for the net. He’s also nearly unbeatable in the face-off circle.

Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals is fifth on Central Scouting’s list, and spent most of last night showing off his elite shot and high-end skating ability. He was overshadowed by a few of his Team Cherry teammates, but showed good hockey sense to go along with the shot. He’s a very well-rounded player.

Sixth on Central Scouting’s list is Red Deer defenseman Haydn Fleury. I’ve seen Fleury and his Rebels a few times; I’ve never really seen what others see in him. He’s big and mobile, there’s no doubt about that. But most nights I’ve seen him, he’s not done much with that size and speed, and the knock on his is his defensive zone play. I don’t think he’s the best draft-eligible defenseman in the WHL this season.

Nick Ritchie suited up alongside Reinhart, Dal Colle, and Fleury for Team Cherry and spent most of the night trying to pick fights. He’s seventh on the CSS list but didn’t leave a lasting impression last night.

Niagara’s Brandon Perlini played on a line with Jared McCann most of the game, and wasn’t able to stand out much since McCann was perhaps the best player in the game. Perlini did show some good hockey sense and good speed but had any thunder he may have generated stolen.

Ninth on Central Scouting’s list is Calgary’s Jake Virtanen. Virtanen has elite speed and skating. He’s unreal. He’s always looked much faster than his WHL opponents, but to see him use his speed in this context was something else. The crowd wanted nothing more than to see our “Virtsy” pot one, and he came close a few times–even ringing one off the post that must have dented it. A very strong showing by Virtanen.

Sarnia’s Anthony DeAngelo rounds out the top 10, and it’s easy to see what scouts like about him. I’d describe him as an offense-first player, but worry that might imply he has any sort of defensive game. Team Cherry got stuck in their own zone a few times while DeAngelo was on the ice. He’s a guy that could be worth the defensive risk for the right NHL club.

So that’s a look at the top 10. I’ll have more on these guys and other participants in the future. Let’s wrap up with the top guys, in my opinion, the Dub has to offer this June.

Top 5 WHL forwards
1. Sam Reinhart, Kootenay
2. Jake Virtanen, Calgary
3. Nikita Sherbak, Saskatoon
4. Leon Draisaitl, Prince Albert
5. Conner Bleackley, Red Deer

Top 5 WHL defensemen
1. Julius Honka, Swift Current
2. Brycen Martin, Swift Current
3. Haydn Fleury, Red Deer
4. Ben Thomas, Calgary
5. Dysin Mayo, Edmonton

Hockey Canada’s lesson

By now, if you follow the World Juniors, you’ve seen Brent Sutter’s quote above. You’ve probably read or heard echoed sentiments and counter-arguments. To me, he starts on a high note. His belief that winning and losing are too important at grassroots levels is bang on. In fact, I’d argue it goes even further up the chain from grassroots to major midget to major junior and into the pro leagues.

But it sure rings hollow when Sutter starts to lament a lack of skill in Canadian players. Sutter, in concert with Hockey Canada’s leadership, decided against holding a 40-player camp with a full tryout process. Sutter, along with Hockey Canada, decided the highly-skilled Darnell Nurse was too risky a player to bring. Same for Max Domi. And Hunter Shinkaruk.

Those guys were left home over the holidays in favour of players with safer games, players with “intangibles” and “character.” Nurse, who was thought unable to play a team game sat at home watching Jonathan Drouin go one-on-five nearly every shift.

Despite numerous errors in the way this team was assembled and coached, Canada had an opportunity to play for a medal thanks to the skill this team had.

But there are two potential silver linings to come from this.

One: here’s hoping Hockey Canada will stop turning to Sutter every time they need a win. In this age group, and over the course of seven games, coaching matters. Good coaches stop Drouin’s one-man-gang approach. A good coach keeps the McDavid-Reinhart-Horvat line together. A good coach makes the simple adjustment to offensive zone faceoff alignments to have a defenseman lined up closer to the centre when the centres are winning draws so cleanly the puck ends up back in the Canadian end.

Two: Hockey Canada got a really good view of what happens when you try to build the right team with the right guys in the right roles instead of sending the 25 best players. With any luck, Steve Yzerman and co. took notice and tomorrow’s Olympic team roster announcement will reflect what we should all have learned over the holidays.

Fans first, as always.

A sample schedule, from @NHL_PR

There’s something to be said for the old “dance with the one who brung ya” adage. There’s also something to be said for just throwing yourself into the arms of the highest bidder.

Very late Monday night, news spread that the NHL had gone decidedly in the latter direction. For all of TSN’s unwavering support and uncritical reporting during two lockouts, for all of TSN’s hard work turning the NHL into an honest-to-goodness golden goose, for all the work TSN does promoting World Junior Championship stars as future NHL stars, for more than 60 years of partnership with CBC… the league was unable to turn down the money.

Maybe there’s more to it than the money. Maybe Rogers has some great plans and great ideas. At the moment, though, they’re just splattering “MOAR GAMES!!!” everywhere they can. Since that’s the only promise they’ve made, let’s start there.

Let’s look at the chart above, the one the league peddled all day Tuesday.

That’s 10 games in English and six in French. I sure like the sounds of having 10 options. But where’s Rogers going to come up with 10 broadcast teams worthy of national coverage like that? CBC struggles to find four during the first round of the playoffs, and TSN doesn’t even use four–they relay American coverage for many of their games. Is relaying someone else’s production Rogers’ idea of building their NHL coverage brand? Cause that’s a bad idea.

If Rogers is going to rely on relays, that defeats the NHL’s desire to have one company carrying the load.

It was the league that wanted to put all of its rights in the hands of one media company over multiple platforms, says Pelley. “It was their decision. The NHL was proactive on that.”
Link

Of course, this article indicates Rogers platforms would only have been carrying five (four English, one French) of the games in the chart. Which CBC already does pretty regularly on Saturdays with good afternoon matchups. So let’s not get our hopes up too much about that “MOAR GAMES!!!” thing just yet.

Now that we’ve punched a hole in the only thing they’ve told us so far, some questions:

Why did the NHL want to get all of it’s content into the hands of one media company? MLB gets by just fine using Fox Sports, TBS, and ESPN for national games. The NBA’s deal with TNT and ESPN sure works out well for them. And the NFL was able to expand it’s already impressive media reach to Thursday nights by cooperating with ABC, Fox, ESPN and NBC. Insert sarcasm font: Clearly, the NHL knows something all those other leagues don’t.

What does the Wednesday, Saturday/Sunday provision mean? Will the traditional Tuesday night Habs game disappear? What games can I see on the other four days of the week? Will there be no hockey those days? How does that mean “MOAR GAMES!!!”?

As a fan of some of Sportsnet’s other properties, I’m curious. What will become of the already inconsistent Friday night CHL game? And the Subway Super Series? And the Blue Jays? If there’s a night with five NHL playoff games, what channel will I find the Blue Jays on? Will NHL games bump NBA basketball, NCAA basketball and football, and CIS football from Sportsnet 360?

Are Doug MacLean and Nick Kypreos now the broadcast face of the NHL? And how does Sportsnet plan to show all these games without cannibalizing their own audience? Since Rogers has the NHL rights for every platform, will Centre Ice go away in Canada? With no broadcast competition, how do we know Rogers will strive for excellence for the next 12 years? Any Rogers Wireless customer can tell you they certainly don’t in that field.

Speaking of which, will Rogers cable, internet, or wireless customers get perks that I don’t? I can’t even get Rogers cable where I live, and I rather enjoy using a cell provider who wasn’t sued for falsely claiming to be Canada’s most reliable network. But who’s going to stop them? (I know, I know, the CRTC’s supposed to make sure that stuff won’t happen)

This is a massive project for Rogers. I sure as shit hope they were able to answer some of these questions for the NHL before the league execs dived into the pile of money. Of course, with the league’s track record for caring about fans, it’s hard for me to imagine they ever even asked.

November CSS update

Sam Reinhart will probably be the first name called at next June’s draft

Hey, let’s talk draft some more. After all, we’re a mere seven months away from it.

Craig Button released his updated rankings for TSN earlier this week, Central Scouting released their list Thursday, and ISS should have their November list out any minute now.

Most of the WHL’s top draft prospects this season are in the US and East divisions, neither of which have come to Calgary much yet. Pretty steady diet of Central rivals in town so far. But I’ve had a chance to see some of the Dub’s top guys. Let’s have a look.

I’ve been watching Sam Reinhart for three seasons now, and there’s no reason to think he won’t stay near or at the top of draft boards all season. He really does it all. He scores. He wins faceoffs, he’s much more physical than you’d expect, and he scores. Well, it may be more accurate to say he feeds perfect passes to Jaedon Descheneau, who scores a lot as a result of playing with Reinhart. He’s one of three 2014-eligible players that will play for the WHL in the upcoming SUBWAY Super Series, and he’ll probably be the first line centre in both games while Connor Bleackley and Colby Cave will are slated to see action in only one game each.

The more I see Reinhart, the more convinced I am he’ll be able to make the jump to the NHL next season.

Other CSS “A” players I’ve seen include Calgary’s Jake Virtanen, Prince Albert’s Leon Draisaitl, and Red Deer’s Haydn Fleury. Virtanen is a pleasure to watch. He’s electric. That said, he’s been flying a little under the radar over the last few weeks, after a scoring a hat trick against Lethbridge before any other player on either side had a shot. Virtanen looked like a high pick early this season but looks to me more like a late first rounder now. I’d rank his as the fourth-best WHLer I’ve seen this season. If you’re into shots-based analysis, Jake’s averaging around 6 shots on goal per game by my count.

Draisatl slots in ahead of Virtanen as the third best. He wasn’t particularly flashy when his Raiders visited Calgary a while back, but he was clearly the Raiders’ best player. He created in spaces that looked like black holes. That “German Gretzky” tag he carried when he was younger is a bit much. But there’s no reason to believe he won’t become a very good second-line, or even a slightly below average first-line player in the NHL.

Fleury’s Rebels were downright awful the last time they were here. I think they finished with 13 shots on goal that night, which doesn’t lend itself well to glowing reviews. I’ll be honest, Fleury didn’t stand out to me in any way that night, but I’ll see him again soon.

Swift Current visits Calgary tonight, and sadly I’ll miss the game. No Julius Honka or Brycen Martin for me.

Let’s run down the “B” skaters: I’ve only seen Connor Bleackley this season, and my opinion of him remains unchanged. B is way too low a grade. He’s the second best WHL player available in this draft after Reinhart. He has 22 points in 21 games, which is a little underwhelming (though nobody really thinks of Red Deer as an offensive juggernaut, do they?), but it’s the other things he does. He takes all the key defensive zone draws for his Rebels, and if anyone were tracking such things, I think you’d find he’s starting more shifts in his own end than in the attacking zone.

Quick note on B skater Colby Cave: his Broncos played a great series against Calgary in last year’s playoffs and it seemed every single time something went the Broncos way, Cave was part of it.

Three “C” players to keep an eye on are Lethbridge’s Reid Duke, Edmonton’s Dysin Mayo, and Calgary’s Ben Thomas. Duke and Mayo are chippy forwards that make Darcy Tucker look like an altar boy among pests. Mayo also has some untapped offensive potential. Thomas is a defenseman for Calgary who’s a little undersized and very raw. He’s not great in his own end (yet), but he’s got tremendous offensive instincts and could be the kind of late-blooming puck-moving defensemen teams dream about finding in the late rounds of the draft.

If all goes according to plan, I’ll see Moose Jaw, Everett, Portland and Swift Current, plus return viewings of Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat before the next rankings are released–just in time for World Junior season to really heat up.

Blame the Russian

Nail Yakupov, in happier times.

Maybe you’ve heard, the Edmonton Oilers and Nail Yakupov are going through some growing pains.

It started earlier this season when new head coach Dallas Eakins made Yaku a healthy scratch. It’s been escalating all season, and reached a boiling point Tuesday when it was reported Yakupov’s agent visited the club to discuss his role.

It’s an odd step for an agent to take, and certainly not a step that should be so public.

I’m not sure what the Oilers or Eakins were expecting from Yakupov. I saw him play for Russia at the 2012 WJC, and it was clear to me he should be the first overall pick in the 2012 draft. It was also clear to me, as it should have been to anyone watching, that Yakupov wasn’t a 200-foot player.

Yakupov is at his best on breakouts when he’s able to utilize his tremendous speed. He makes great things happen in tight spaces and can dominate in the offensive zone. Is it really his fault the Oilers have no discernible puck recovery and breakout plans? Is it his fault that even if they did, Jeff Petry’s their best option to execute such a plan?

Moreover, why’s everyone piling on Yakupov? Nobody’s out there saying Edmonton should have selected Gabriel Landeskog instead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Tyler Seguin instead of Taylor Hall.

Why’s Sportscentre telling me Yakupov made a bad dump-in at the end of a 1:18 shift during Wednesday’s game against Dallas, but not mentioning shift lengths for any other players? Hall had eight shifts of 1 minute or more Wednesday night (three as part of power plays) and Yaku had three (one as part of a power play).

Yaku, of course, is also the first player every to make a bad dump-in.

I know things are rough in Edmonton right now, and I get that. It’s hard to stay positive or keep things in perspective. But to suggest the Oilers’ problems are the result of anything other than systemic failures and breakdowns is just wrong.

I guess Rob Ford’s still around, so maybe his presence will keep us off the anti-Russian bullshit for the rest of the week. Good luck, Nail.

Desperate times

The newest savior in Edmonton.

It’s come to this in Alberta’s capital. The Oilers are so desperate to turn things around, so desperate to believe they’re just a goalie away from fixing a flawed team, so desperate to get out of the playoffs, they traded away one of their few serviceable defensemen–to Calgary of all places–to clear up cap space to sign Ilya Bryzgalov.

Each season since their improbable run to the Cup Final in 2006, the Oilers have failed to make the playoffs. They’ve gone through an ownership change, four coaching changes, three consecutive first overall picks. They’ve watched as two of the five teams they finished ahead of in 2006-7 win the Stanley Cup. I can understand where the team’s coming from. It’s been seven long years of being a bad club.

But we’ve seen this movie before. Nikolai Khabibulin was supposed to be the veteran goaltender the Oilers needed. Then Ralph Krueger was supposed to be the fresh face and fresh ideas behind the bench. Then Dallas Eakins. Now they’re turning to Bryzgalov.

None of Khabibulin, Krueger or Eakins have been able to fix the Oilers woeful possession numbers. Bryzgalov isn’t going to fix their penalty-kill, which is sixth-worst in the league (77.6 per cent kill rate) or their five-on-five play which is fourth-worst (as a ratio of goals-for and against). And that’s being generous. They’ve given up more five-on-five goals than any other team in the league.

Giving up all the goals in the world isn’t a problem with the goalie. It’s a systemic problem. Nonetheless, Bryzgalov is being turned to as the savior. And he’ll take the heat when–surprise!–a goalie can’t fix a team’s inability to keep the puck away from their opposition.

It’s not all bad, I suppose. Roman Horak* will do good things for their farm team.

As for the Flames, they get exactly what they need–a warm body to play defense for a bit while Mark Giordano’s on the shelf, and relief from giving Chris Butler 24 minutes a night.

*Worth noting, I quite like Roman Horak. He’s probably not a full-time top-six forward, but he’s a solid third-line option with a little bit of offensive upside.

Habs doing decidedly un-Habby things

Are the Habs limiting PK Subban’s ice time to influence contract talks?

That’s PK Subban at the top of this page. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He crushes guys. He hammers the puck almost as hard as anyone in the league. He spins a lot. He sat out the start of last season waiting for a new contract. Nick Lidstrom, he ain’t. But he has one thing in common with the former Red Wings legend–his name on the Norris Trophy.

Subban’s in his fourth season as a full-time NHLer. As a rookie in 2010-11 he played 22 minutes a night and was 29th in points by defensemen with 38. In 2011-12, Subban’s shooting percentage bottomed out and he scored just seven goals. But he increased his assists and still ended up 27th among defensemen in scoring (36 points) while playing 24 minutes a night. He was also plus player for the first time (if you’re into that kind of thing) on a Habs team that has to rank among the worst in franchise history.

Last season, after the holdout, he dominated the short season and led all defensemen with 38 points, playing 23 minutes a game and helping the Habs out of the basement. For his efforts, he was awarded the Norris Trophy in a season where the awards were a farce. Love him or hate him, he’s among the best players in the league by any measure.

And he’s in the news because it’s been suggested the Canadiens are playing hardball with PK’s “crunch time” minutes, allegedly in an effort to weaken Subban’s arbitration case next summer. Two thoughts on that:

1 – Do they really think that’s going to work?
2 – What kind of bushleague operation are they running over there?

Let’s start with the second thought first. It was bad enough when the Habs let Saku Koivu walk in free agency. Then there was the time they traded away Mike Cammalleri in the middle of a game (and wouldn’t let him keep his jersey). That was under previous regimes though. Marc Bergevin was supposed to be lending some class to the proceedings now. But telling a coach to limit his best player’s ice time in late-and-close situations as some misguided effort to save a few bucks in the summer? Give me a break.

Which, now that I think of it, how much money could they possibly save by doing that? Maybe $250,000 a season? Maybe. If you want to use ice time to hamper a player’s negotiating position, you should, ohIdunno… limit the guy’s ice time.

Of course, this story grew legs when TSN’s Bob McKenzie mentioned it on radio. Even though Bobby Mac tried to downplay it, the masses went nuts. Maybe it’s a thing the Habs are doing. Like I say, I don’t think it saves them very much.

“We can’t rely on Subban in the last three minutes of a close game” doesn’t carry much weight when the response is “but you still use him for 24 of the first 57,” followed up with “and he’s getting more defensive zone starts this season.” (31 per cent this season, against 29.8 last, per Extra Skater)

And that’s before the part where either Subban’s agent or an arbitrator gets to say “and oh yeah, he’s your team’s leading scorer.”