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.

 

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Playoffs? Why not? #Leafs #BlueJays

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If this young Maple Leafs team does the improbable and makes the NHL playoffs this year, look back to December 10th.  That was the 2-1 overtime win at home over Pittsburgh. It was their best and complete effort of the season as they matched the defending Stanley Cup champs stride for stride. But it was like a light switch turned on for this team,  like they figured out what Mike Babcock means when he talks about “playing the right way.”  Now the Leafs sit 3 points back of Boston with games in hand in the division and 4 back with 3 games in hand on Philly in the wild card.  And they have 17 games left against their mediocre division, only one of those against Montreal and only one west coast trip left. I stated I didnt expect this team to challenge for a playoff spot until next year. The fact we can even discuss the possibility realistically halfway through the season is truly a pleasant surprise.  There’s no question the Leafs need upgrades on defence, but if management pursues this at the trade deadline, they need to make a true hockey trade versus dealing picks and/or prospects for a rental.  Stick to the Shanaplan.  Here’s hoping for meaningful hockey in March.

Blue Jays or Crickets?

A lot of fans are understandably frustrated at the lack of action by the Jays front office and departure of Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland for less money than Toronto offered.  They still need a corner outfielder, bullpen help and a back up catcher.  To me the priority must be to beat Boston head to head. With lefties Sale and Price, the best remaining free agent bats head to head are Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista. They need to sign one of them. That said, I believe the front office has earned the benefit of the doubt after last season and it is too early to panic in this late developing market.

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…”

Go West, young #Leafs

The performance of young teams can often confound fans, and this year’s Maple Leafs really are no different.  After being outworked and outhustled in their loss at home to Carolina last week, the upstart Buds turned around and held Alex Ovechkin and the powerhouse Capitals in check in a 4-2 win at the ACC Saturday night.

Mitch Marner (16), tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead, celebrates with Tyler Bozak

Mitch Marner (16), tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead, celebrates with Tyler Bozak

Frustrating as it is to see this team play in its own end most nights, getting to watch Auston Matthews, William Nylander (who sat out Saturday with a mysterious injury) and Mitch Marner more than makes up for it.  Matthews (9-8-17) snapped his 13-game goal-less drought last week, and now sits a point behind Marner (7-11-18) and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine in rookie scoring.

Now, the Leafs head for Western Canada, with a rematch against Connor McDavid and the Oilers up first Tuesday night at the new Rogers Place.  The Leafs beat the Oilers 3-2 at the ACC on November 1, thanks to the strong two-way play of Nazem Kadri, who held McDavid in check while potting a pair of goals himself.  Somehow, though, I think the rematch will be a different story, especially with the Oilers having last change.  We’ll see.

Then it’s on to Calgary the very next night to face a hot goalie in Chad Johnson (no, not the former NFL receiver).  Johnson has been solid in supplanting (at least temporarily) Brian Elliott, going 5-2 and allowing just 12 goals in his last 7 starts.

Oh yes, and then it’s the return grudge match against Vancouver on Saturday.  You know, the one where Erik Gudbranson said Matt Martin would be “dead” after a series of third-period fracases in a 6-3 Toronto win November 5, highlighted by Nazem Kadri’s crushing hit on Daniel Sedin.  Retribution games are frought with a lot of unexpected possibilities, and you know the league will be watching closely for any questionable behaviour.  Still, you know you’re going to watch, simply for the possibility something will happen.  The Leafs need to keep their wits about them and focus on winning the game.

Toronto gets a three-day break after the west coast trip before returning to the ACC to host Minnesota a week Wednesday.

Lay off the kid #Leafs #BlueJays

There’s been a lot of talk and consternation among Toronto media types recently about Auston Matthews’ current goal drought.  I was rather astonished the other day listening to one of the noon-hour hockey talk shows to hear someone who should know better being critical of Matthews.  I can’t believe I’m quoting Donald Trump…but STOP IT.

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Anyone who’s actually watched Matthews and William Nylander play over the first 17 games of the Leafs season can see they’re dangerous every time they’re on the ice, and often play in the other team’s end.  Has he failed to convert a number of good chances recently, including a wide open net last night in the first period against Florida?  Yes.  But he’s far from the first goal scorer to go through a period of bad luck…seems to me Phil Kessel was quite streaky this way in his time in Toronto.  He’s wearing a Stanley Cup ring in Pittsburgh if you hadn’t heard.

Let’s get some perspective here: He’s 19, and most kids his age are still playing junior.  He has 12 points in 17 games, hardly a cause for concern.  Don’t compare him to Patrik Laine, who has 12 goals, because Winnipeg is a much better team, and he’s playing with some solid veterans.

If there’s one thing I think Matthews could benefit from, it’s some video work on positioning in the offensive zone.  I’ve seen more than one occasion where had he been in a different spot, we may not be talking about this at all.  The Leafs are above .500 and have scored 18 goals in their last 3 home games.  Mitch Marner is a difference maker.  Freddy Andersen has found his stride.  The defence is going to be maddening all season.  Just chill and enjoy the Leafs.

#BlueJays Update

I’m not happy to hear the Blue Jays are kicking tires on Sean Rodriguez, be it as a utility player.  He’s “excitable” much like Jose Bautista, and if you wish to move on from that temperament, bringing Rodriguez in certainly would be counter-intuitive.   With Reddick going to Houston, I imagine the Jays focus now falls on the likes of Dexter Fowler, and trade possibilities like Jay Bruce, CarGo (which I suggested previously here), Charlie Blackmon, and Adam Eaton (mentioned by Fox’s Jon Morosi this week).  I believe you need power and production from one of your corner outfield spots to contend, and it would seem Atkins and Shapiro seem to favour Bruce based on the fact they almost traded for him last spring, and have reportedly again engaged the Mets in talks.

One final thought…the fact Edwin Encarnacion seems to be waiting to sign after the new CBA is reached, where teams may have more room to spend with a new luxury tax threshold, does not bode well for his return to Toronto.  If the Blue Jays are truly working with an increased payroll number, as has been suggested, they may still be a player.  But the Yankees and Red Sox may simply be holding back right now ready to blow him away with an above-market offer once the new CBA is in place.

The #Leafs are…alright

We’re only a dozen games into the NHL season, but yes, if the playoffs started today, the Maple Leafs would be there.  After last night’s “excited” 6-3 win over Vancouver, the young Buds are 5-4-3 – a mark I’m quite sure any Leaf fan would have been happy with at the start of the season.

And this a team you’d expect will get better over the course of the season. It’s amazing how Frederik Andersen has gone from looking like Hardy Astrom to Dominik Hasek in the span of a week…he made some all world saves Thursday in Buffalo. Perhaps Mike Babcock knew best after all in letting his #1 netminder ride out his rough start.

I still believe this is an evaluative year for this team…and I think the Leafs brass are prepared to let the current roster ride, and so are most fans. More solid performances from Andersen will give them a chance.kadri

No doubt there will be some form of supplemental discipline in the forms of fines or suspensions from last night’s game which unfortunately could disrupt a lineup that seems to have found its rhythm.  I still believe the shoulder was the initial point of contact on Nazem Kadri’s hit on Daniel Sedin, as you can see, his elbow is at his side.

Regardless, I still expect Kadri to get at least a game, given he did receive a five-minute charging major on the play.   The rematch in Vancouver December 3 now has gong-show potential in what was otherwise a benign tale of two franchises heading in opposite directions.

The Leafs defensive play is still suspect – it was an absolute disaster last night when JVR and Bozak were on the ice with Gardiner and Polak at the same time.  Despite that, overall defence seemed to improve when Matt Hunwick went on the injured list — addition by subtraction perhaps.  I still don’t expect the Leafs to make a move to significantly bolster the blue line this season…but circumstances can change so never say never.  Even with a leaky back end, Matthews, Nylander and Marner are dangerous every time they’re on the ice and, with solid goaltending as we’ve seen, they give this team a legitimate chance to compete every night.  Fun to watch.

Respect for the #Raptors

Sat down and watched my first Raptors game of the season Friday night, and was impressed with what I saw.  DeMar DeRozan seems to be using the SI snub as motivation to elevate his game to where it needs to be if this team wants to challenge Cleveland.  Terrence Ross needs to have more nights like he did against Miami as consistency has always been his issue.  And did any team have a better draft than the Raptors?  Pascal Siakum and Jakob Poeltl have stepped right into this lineup to make positive contributions.  Poeltl needs to bulk up – he lost a couple loose balls to Whiteside and Winslow he should have won – but again, these are two guys who will only get better as the year goes along.  They’ll make them a good regular season team, but their inexperience is likely to show come playoff time.  It’s very possible you see one of them dealt for a veteran in an area of need before the deadline.  So long as DeRozan is playing at this level, the Raptors are clearly the #2 team in the Eastern Conference.

 

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.