NEW – What we’ve learned the last three months #BlueJays #Leafs #Raptors

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a couple of steps back from the hourly hot takes that dominate today’s sports narrative and take a look at the bigger picture.  Looking back, many things this blog site has had to say have held true, while changing circumstances have altered the playing field in other areas.  I thought now might be a good time for a review.

LEAFS

It’s one thing to make a bold prediction just to make it, it’s another to base that prediction on some insightful observation.  Back in December, this blog surmised the Leafs stood a plausible chance of making the playoffs based on unforeseen weakness in the division (thanks to internal chaos in Florida and a historic depth of injuries in Tampa), and a eureka moment against the Penguins in December.  Well, here we are with the young Leafs facing Washington in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to a phenomenal March performance. Pre-season, I had pegged Calder trophy favorite Auston Matthews to be in the low 60’s in points, Nylander 55 and Marner 50…all exceeded my expectations greatly – I certainly didn’t expect 40 goals from Matthews. Oh yeah, and Nazem Kadri scored 30 and Connor Brown 20! The trade deadline addition of Brian Boyle also stabilized a shaky fourth line.   It’s proof that Mike Babcock can do great things with talent that buys into his system.

In the long run, I think it’s best this Leafs team is facing Washington and not a banged up Ottawa squad.  The Leafs could beat Ottawa, but I think it would present a false sense of progress, much like a young talented Colorado team experienced three years ago finishing first in their division.  They haven’t approached anything close to that since, and a teardown now appears in order there.  Washington is a legitimate Cup threat and will show the Leafs what they need to do to take that next step. The Leafs certainly didn’t look out-of-place in the series opener, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they learn that lesson from the Caps (and maybe teach one of their own?)

I don’t feel they can take the next step without improving on defence, and that includes dealing Jake Gardiner for a comparable D man.  Damn the analytics, I believe he’s a zero sum player (that is, his offensive upside is equally offset by his terrible, soft play in his own end).  Morgan Reilly needs to be paired with someone who can allow him to utilize his offensive skills to its fullest, and Nikita Zaitsev needs pairing help as well.  I expect a very different looking Leafs blue line come this fall.

BLUE JAYS

Aside from resigning Jose Bautista after the departure of Edwin Encarnacion in the wake of the addition of Kendrys Morales, the number one offseason concern was the bullpen.  The Jays front office did a decent job restocking the pen, adding veterans Joe Smith and JP Howell.  So far the pen has only had a direct role in two of the Jays eight losses.  But again this year, cold bats in April have put the Jays behind the eight ball. The unknown duration of Josh Donaldson’s calf injury certainly doesn’t help.  Last year, the Jays hit .236 in an opening month where they went 11-14 also in part due to a very leaky bullpen.  That combined with September’s hitting swoon almost certainly cost them a second straight AL East crown.  The past two springs have featured a lot of down time for the veteran players and you have to wonder if the organization needs to look at its spring approach going forward.  That said, let’s put the 1-8 start in perspective.  By going a modestly successful 24-16 over their next 40 games (which with their solid rotation isn’t a stretch), they would be back to .500 before the end of May.  Being at or slightly over .500 in mid-July means the Jays will be in the hunt for the wild card and will certainly be deadline buyers again this year.  So as discouraging as this start has been, there’s lots of time for the Jays to right this ship.

RAPTORS

The addition of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the trade deadline certainly changed the outlook for the Raptors for the better. Would be scary to think where they’d have finished without them. But now, this is a team that can play interior defence and also has a lot of scoring options.  The lengthy injury to Kyle Lowry was unfortunate, as it allowed the Celtics to overtake the Raps for the division crown.  Now as the #3 seed, they face a potential second-round playoff matchup with Cleveland and LeBron should they get past Milwaukee (and they should!).  The Cavs, however, are banged up and have many feeling that they’re vulnerable.  This year might be as good a chance as any for the Raptors to break through to an NBA final.  Going forward, resigning Ibaka would be the best thing this team could do to cement itself as a contender for the next couple of years at least.

Spring 2017 has certainly turned into an incredible time for Toronto sports.  Toronto FC appears poised for another MLS Cup run this year, the Marlies can make another strong playoff push, and the much-need front office housecleaning by the Argos which brought in Jim Popp and Marc Trestman can only improve their chances and renew optimism around that team this year.

 

State of Toronto’s sports union

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2016 to many will go down as a horrible year that had scattered moments of greatness.

To Toronto sports fans, however, 2016 represented perhaps the dawn of a new era.  Save for the Argos, all of the city’s big teams became competitive. Three conference final runs (Jays, Raptors, Marlies), one league final appearance (TFC) where a better fate was deserved, and a draft lottery win (Leafs) that brought hope and optimism.

That said, I think we know where we are with these teams. TFC is head of the class in MLS. The Raptors are the 2nd best team in the East but lack the defensive identity needed, especially down low, to entertain any notion of knocking off Lebron and the Cavs. The Blue Jays starting pitching will keep them competitive in 2017, but they still need to fill many holes and add another big bat if Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t return to make a third straight playoff appearance.  The Leafs will be exciting to watch for years to come, and will upgrade their defence and forward depth – just not likely this season. Don’t expect a playoff berth in April, though their division is weaker than expected, which will make March interesting. The Argos are an irrelevant mess.

Titletown Toronto isn’t.  But it’s a far sight better than where things have been most of the last 20 years.  And fans going into 2017 can actually legitimately think for a change “so you’re saying there’s a chance…”

Still Title-less town…but this is fun #TFC

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Toronto FC’s crushing loss in the MLS Cup final on penalty kicks was tough to swallow for many sports fans.  It’s counter-intuitive that a team that has no shots on goal during play should win anything, let alone a league crown.  But that’s what happened Saturday night at BMo Field.  The bottom line is TFC wasn’t able to put the ball in the net either…when this team succeeds, it’s because Giovinco plays well.  He did not.  Michael Bradley was a non-factor, and had his weak penalty try stopped.  The moves Greg Vanney made to get to win the East final, late substitutions of Cheyrou and Ricketts, didn’t pan out this time, though Ricketts had a glorious chance in extra time that rolled just by the post.  That meant no Giovinco in penalty kicks.  It may not have mattered, but it could have.  I think I knew when former TFC keeper Stefan Frei made that amazing one-handed save on Jozy Altidore in extra-time that this wasn’t going to be TFC’s night.

Regardless, it was damn exciting to watch, and this city has seen one team reach its league finals and two others reach their conference finals in back-to-back years in the past two seasons.  The Toronto sports scene is alive again, and just imagine if these young and upcoming Leafs can find the next level.  Despite last night’s heartbreak, it’s good to be a Toronto sports fan right now.

Wet, wild…and wonderful #TFC

torontoeastchampsExhilarating. Euphoric.  Is there any other way to describe the incredible spectacle that unfolded at BMo Field last night as Toronto FC fought back from an elimination position twice to score a 5-2 extra time win (7-5 on aggregate) over Montreal to become Canada’s first ever entry in the MLS Cup, which will now be hosted in Toronto on December 10?

You didn’t have to like or understand soccer to enjoy the drama provided in the second leg of the East final last night.  And what a roller coaster ride for the 36,000 in attendance on a rain-soaked evening.   Disappointment after Montreal’s Aduro opened the scoring early.  Then the brilliant answers including the near-post header from an inspired Jozy Altidore before halftime to give Toronto a significant 2-1 lead.  Confusion opens the second half, and Montreal score again to take a potential tie-winning tie.  Then the tremendous elevation and header by Hagglund with 20 minutes left to force extra time.

Give TFC coach Greg Vanney credit – he pushed all the right buttons last night.  His substitutions of Benoit Cheyrou for a hobbled Giovinco, and Toussaint Ricketts turned out to be the difference as both scored in extra time on diving and sliding efforts into the 6-yard box to find the back of the net.  It was a magical sporting moment for the city of Toronto, for a city that’s seen a few of them recently thanks to the Blue Jays.

The TFC win overshadowed a lacklustre 3-0 Leafs loss in Calgary, and a 120-105 win by the Raptors over Memphis at the ACC (who are now a solid 12-6 and quite on track in the middle of a six-game homestand), and hardly anyone was paying attention when false reports about Edwin Encarnacion signing in Houston surfaced.  Yes, this  was a night that soccer and TFC, a franchise that bungled the first decade of its existence, truly arrived on Toronto and North America’s sporting radar.

So what to expect in the MLS Cup?  Home field advantage means more to TFC than any other team I would suggest, and the Reds have shown the resilience of a winner throughout these playoffs.  Toronto and Seattle did play to a 1-1 tie in their last encounter at BMo Field in July.  But no one would be more shocked than I if they weren’t hoisting the MLS Cup a week Saturday.

 

How big a deal would a TFC title be?

Toronto FC’s devastation of NYCFC in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-final was one of the most impressive playoff performances by any Toronto sports team in recent memory – yes, Blue Jays included.  tfc2-logoTo beat the highest-scoring team in the league 7-0 on aggregate with a lineup loaded with world class (albeit past-prime) talent like David Villa, Pirlo and Frank Lampard is nothing to sneeze at.  The ball control and possession displayed by the Reds was truly clinical.  Now they face their nemesis Montreal, who knocked TFC out of the playoffs last year.  I have more confidence in TFC winning the MLS title than I did the Blue Jays winning the pennant this year, they look that good.  Regardless, a Canadian team will vie for the MLS Cup on December 10 for the first time in its 21-year history.  The atmosphere for both games could be unlike MLS has ever seen — perhaps up to 60,000 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and the mad house that is BMo Field will be stuffed to the rafters.  Hopefully in a broader context it will have a positive impact on Canadian soccer at the grassroots level that will be seen years from now.  An MLS Cup win would be Toronto’s first significant sporting title since the Argos 2012 Grey Cup win (yes, I still consider Grey Cups significant) and a milestone for the current upswing on Toronto’s sports scene.

SCATTER: Stro for CarGo? #BlueJays #Leafs

Now that the dust has settled from a second consecutive successful yet unsuccessful Blue Jays season, it’s clear there’s work to do by the front office to keep this team competitive in the current window of opportunity, which extends through 2018.

There seems to be consensus about what needs to be done to get this team over the hump.  Re-signing Edwin Encarnacion if possible. A more left-handed lineup.  Upgrades at the corner outfield spots.  Become more athletic.  But it’ll be impossible to do all of these things through free agency.  The trade option will most likely be exercised, but we all know the team is shy on prospects after going all in last season.  It’s likely players would be dealt off the current roster.stro

To me…and I realize I’m not the first to state this…but Marcus Stroman would seem to be the most attractive candidate to any potential Blue Jays trade partners.  While names like Kendrys Morales, Carlos Beltran and yes, Joey Votto have been mentioned, I’d like to throw another one out there that hasn’t been mentioned: Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez.  And it’s a deal that would make sense for both teams.

He’s left-handed.  He plays right field.  His career OPS is .868, and he’s only a year removed from a 40-homer season.  Granted, he’s 31, but for a win now team, that’s fine in my estimation.  Why would Colorado even consider this deal?  Stroman had the best ground ball percentage in the majors this season, and we all know how the ball flies out of Coors Field at altitude.  Stroman is exactly the kind of starter the Rockies need for the future.

cargoThe down side: Gonzalez strikes out a lot, 129 times in 2016.  Also, he is a free agent after 2017, and is owed $20 million this season.  But hey, the Jays made a $17 million qualifying offer to Jose Bautista, so they were obviously prepared to pony up even in the unlikely event he accepted (reports say Bautista will soon formally reject the offer and go to free agency).

Gonzalez is just another name I think the Blue Jays should be considering among many.  Obviously other pieces would have to be included to make what I’m suggesting make sense for both teams.  Regardless, given the job Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins did this year to get the Jays to the post-season (and oh yeah, the team they essentially built in Cleveland that’s a win away from a World championship), fans should have confidence the perceived needs to this club will be addressed adequately in the offseason.

Leafs: To deal for D, or not to deal for D

Moves by the #Leafs last week set off speculation something greater might be afoot. Milan Michalek was waived and Ben Smith claimed from Colorado in cap relief moves that made me and others wonder if a trade was on the horizon to bolster the team’s subpar defence. The #Leafs have been said to have had interest in the Ducks Cam Fowler for sometime, along with the Blues Kevin Shattenkirk and the Jets holdout Jacob Trouba.

I only see 3 current Leafs D men potentially being part of any long term success (Rielly Carrick Zaitsev)…adding a Fowler Shattenkirk or Trouba now will help but not be an instant cure especially with Frederik Andersen struggling in goal. But after the recent collapses and the young core looking closer to being competitive than expected, Leafs brass may be ready to deal prospects to add a backend piece sooner rather than later.

I subscribe to the notion that with better goaltending and maybe another back end piece, this talented group of youngsters could compete sooner than many expected.  It will be interesting to see just how quickly Leafs brass will make a move in this direction.

In closing…

Great to see TFC finally living up to billing and reaching the final 8 in MLS soccer…they have potential to do some damage.  Also good to see the Raptors give the Cavs a run for their money Friday night in a 94-91 loss.  It’s just a reminder for LeBron and Co. that the Raps are still right there nipping at their heels.

SCATTER: #Matthews, #BlueJays, #Argos

IMG_9101Historic Debut

There’s no question Auston Matthews historic 4-goal debut last night in Ottawa excited Leafs fans and exceeded any modest expectations for the 1st round pick.  However, his performance provided cover for a lot of his Leafs teammates in the 5-4 OT loss.

 

While I agreed mostly with Mike Babcock’s post-game assessment of who played well last night, Martin Marincin and Jake Gardiner were softer than soft, JVR and Tyler Bozak were minus 2 and mostly invisible, and it looks like the book on Frederik Andersen is glove side high. Despite outshooting Ottawa and doing well on possession, this team was an utter disaster in its own end…but damn it was fun to watch wasn’t it?  Going forward, they might be better served with Kadri centring JVR and Mitch Marner, who had a breakaway, crossbar and six shots in his impressive debut.  Kadri can provide more puck support along the boards than Bozak.  Also, Polak needs to draw in to put some fear into opposing forwards — no Senator was afraid of losing a one-on-one battle down low last night.  Tighten up the goaltending and play in their own end, and the Leafs will be REALLY fun to watch this year…

ALCS preview

This promises to be a very tight series.  Both teams have good pitching, the Blue Jays with an edge among starters, and Cleveland with more depth in the bullpen.  If it turns into a slugfest, Toronto likely prevails.  I expect to see a few Melvin Upton pinch-hit appearances if Terry Francona continues to use Trevor Miller in the middle inning shutdown role that was so effective against Boston.  With a few days off for both sides, expect to see a low-scoring start to the series.  Whoever can rev up their bats again the quickest will certainly have an advantage.  Cleveland took the season series 4-3, an indication of how evenly matched these teams are.  My prediction: if it’s not Blue Jays in 6, it’ll be Cleveland in 7.

ARGO…oh forget it 

If there’s one league that can’t afford competitive imbalance, it’s the CFL.  The East division is dreadful this year, while four teams in the West are above .500.  The Argos, as dreadful as their 5-10 record indicates, somehow still have a chance to finish top two and make the playoffs.  I believe Ottawa and Hamilton are better teams than their records indicate, and will be those two playoff teams in the East.  But what a disaster this season is becoming for the Argos.  The move to BMo hasn’t improved attendance (mainly because the team is floundering) and they may not even be able to use the playoffs to generate any pre-Grey Cup buzz (the game is at BMo).  I can’t see how there aren’t wholesale organizational changes after this season is done, save for a miraculous turn of fortune.