June 30, 2007

Free Agent Fantasies

I've had a week to ponder the Toronto Maple Leafs acquisition of goaltender Vesa Toskala and left winger Mark Bell. When I first heard of the trade, I felt "restrained jubilation" a la George Costanza. No more Andrew Raycroft! It was like Christmas morning, but in June.

The fact that John Ferguson Jr. pulled the trigger on the deal proves to me that he is not a complete idiot. It also proves that he's not blind either. He saw the quality of goaltending, or lack there of, that Andrew Raycroft provided his team last season. It was pathetic. The Leafs' most pressing need was in goal, and say what you want about Ferguson, he addressed the need. So I'm going to have to give him some props.

Sure, he may have committed the cardinal sin of trading away a first round draft pick, but Leafs management has not left him with many options. He's a man without a contract after the 2007/2008 season. He knows that if the Leafs fail to make the playoffs once again, it's bye-bye John Ferguson Jr. And he also knows that if Andrew Raycroft is the number one goalie for the Leafs again, it's bye-bye John Ferguson Jr.

The Leafs are a better team today than they were a week ago, when Raycroft was penciled in as the starter. For me, that's the bottom line. Only time will tell whether the Leafs really screwed up on this deal. With the 13th overall pick, the Leafs could have drafted Angelo Esposito or Alexei Cherepanov. They could turn out to be solid NHLers. The draft is a gamble, and Ferguson gambled by dealing away three picks. Bottom line, it had to be done.

In talking to other members of Leafs Nation about the trade, I got the usual responses. A couple of people told me the Leafs messed up, because Esposito and Cherepanov are going to be superstars. I've got to get my hands on one of these crystal balls my friends seem to have. They must be nice. I also got the "why didn't we get Vokoun" responses. Vokoun makes over $5 million a season and does not fit into the Leafs' budget. That's why Toskala makes sense. He's a good goalie and he comes at a bargain price of less than $1.5 million. He makes less than bloody Raycroft. This gives the Leafs the option of still being able to sign a forward during free agency. The trade works, people.

I was a little surprised to find out that Toskola is 30 years old. I always thought he was younger than that. Like Kramer said, I guess I just assumed! However, for a goalie, 30 puts him right in his prime. Toskala will provide better and more consistent goaltending than Andrew Raycroft, of that there is no doubt, my friends. All this talk about Raycroft and Toskala splitting the duties is pure BS. Toskala came at a hefty price, and he will be the number one goalie. Raycroft deserves to sit on the bench, and should be grateful that he will get the opportunity to sit on the bench. He should be traded, but we all know that isn't happening. Who in their right mind would give up anything, other than a stick or two of Juicy Fruit, for Raycroft?

The Leafs missed the playoffs by one point last season. One single, measly point. One point while employing arguably the worst starting goalie in the league. Raycroft let in a league worst 205 goals against, 16 more than the brutal Tim Thomas. His save percentage, a laughable .894, was tied for last among goalies that started more than 50 games. Raycroft's stats speak for themselves, and believe me, they're not making a lot of noise. Toskala gets the Leafs at least six to eight more wins, and voila, the Leafs are in the playoffs.

The dark horse in the trade is Mark Bell. He's a big boy, only 27 years old, and although he's coming off a terrible season, he's been a solid winger since he made the NHL in Chicago. He's a rugged winger who adds size, toughness and scoring to the Leafs lineup. He makes around $2 million, and I think he could really swing this trade in the Leafs' favour. With his passion to body check and fight, it won't take long before Bell is a fan favourite at the Air Canada Centre. I'll take Bell over Jeff O'Neill any day of the week, thank you very much.

In Toronto, everything the Leafs do is over analyzed. Case in point, this blog. Personally, I don't think it's a big deal that the Leafs want to hire a Senior Director of Hockey Operations. It doesn't change the fact that John Ferguson has a job to do.

It's hard to believe Ferguson is entering his fifth year as Maple Leafs General Manager. Where does the time go? I think he deserves some serious respect for the way he is handling himself right now. Like I said, he's got no contract after the upcoming season, so he's skating on thin ice. He knows the team has to make the playoffs or he's out of a job. That's pressure. His bosses at MLSE are looking to hire someone above him, and he pulled the trigger on a trade knowing there would be severe backlash in the city. Ferguson, after all, traded away a number one draft pick (Tukka Rask) to acquire Raycroft. His trading of Toskala proves the Raycroft trade didn't work out. But it takes a man to accept his mistakes.

On top of all of that, John Ferguson Sr. is battling cancer as I write this, and the prognosis is not good. John Ferguson Jr. has been by his father's side all week, I learned from the Toronto Star, and is preparing for the opening of the free agent market from his father's bedside. It's not easy to be John Ferguson Jr. right now. He deserves some support right now.

Speaking of the opening of the free agent market, we're just about 36 hours away! I love this time of year. July 1st is a beautiful day.

Every year around this time, I start to fantasize about who the Leafs could possibly add to their roster. This year, of course, there are a lot of big names who will be waiting by their fax machines come high noon on Sunday.

Ryan Smyth. Daniel Briere. Scott Gomez. Paul Kariya. Chris Drury. Todd Bertuzzi. Sheldon Souray. Jason Blake. Brendan Shanahan. Michael Nylander. Michael Handzus...

Sorry, I drooled all over myself. Had to grab a tissue.

The list is quite formidable. I do this every year. I dream big. My mother always told me to reach for the stars. Right now I'm picturing Scott Gomez in the blue and white. Now I'm picturing Chris Drury, Mr. Clutch himself. How about Ryan Smyth wearing Sergei Berezin's old #94? Oh my.

I actually had a dream a couple of years ago that the Leafs had signed Paul Kariya, when he was an UFA, and he was going to play on the wing with Mats Sundin. I awoke to find that it was in fact a wet dream. It doesn't get much better than that, eh? Not the wet dream, I mean Kariya! Come on. Maybe my dream will come true on Sunday, and Kariya and Sundin will make beautiful music together.

I always get my hopes up, and usually it's all for not. The Leafs don't have a lot of money to spend, and probably will only be able to sign a second-tier free agent. I don't really have a problem with that, but I just like to dream. I'm the kid who goes to sleep on Christmas Eve expecting Santa Claus to bring me an XBox 360, and who wakes up to find a Sega Genesis under the tree. That's how the Maple Leafs roll. They bring in the aging, cheap goal scorer, and try to tell me he's just as good as the young superstar.

The last big splash the Leafs made on the free agent front was Alexander Mogilny. I'd definitely take another signing like Alexander the Great. Definitely. I've got great memories of number 89 in Toronto.

In a perfect world, the Leafs land Scott Gomez as their second line centre, trade Pavel Kubina and his fat contract for a draft pick or three, and then sign Ryan Smyth to play with Mats Sundin. The odds of that happening? About the same as me writing a short blog post.

More realistic, you say? Okay, the Leafs sign Paul Kariya. He'd come cheaper than the big name guys like Smyth and Drury, and he would be a nice fit on Sundin's wing. I don't think the Leafs need to pay Ryan Smyth $6 million a year. The Leafs can score goals. They scored a lot of goals last year. The problem wasn't scoring, it was keeping them out. That problem has been addressed.

The Jeff O'Neill experiment is mercifully over in Toronto and it looks as though Mike Peca will not be returning to Toronto either. Peca and the rest of the world differ on Peca's value. He still likes to think of himself as a second line centre, while the rest of the planet simply knows that isn't the case. I'd like to see him come back, but only at the right price. Ditto for Bates Battaglia. The Leafs just have to bring back Bates.

If the Leafs fail to sign any of the big names, they should make a push for Todd Bertuzzi. Sure, he comes with a lot of baggage, but he could be given an incentive based contract, and he would look mighty good in the blue and white.

What can I say, I'm a dreamer.

What do you think? Who's on your wish list?

TSN is going to air Sunday morning at 11am with their show called "Free Agent Frenzy." They'll be broadcasting live as the free agent signings hit the board. Only in Canada.

I'll be watching though, with a bowl of popcorn and a beer. And I'm looking forward to it.

God bless this hockey crazed country which I so proudly call home.

Make me proud, John Ferguson Jr.

June 07, 2007

California Cup

The Stanley Cup is California bound. For the first time in NHL history, a team on the west coast has won the most beautiful trophy in all of sports, and there was no team more deserving this season than the Anaheim Ducks.

It'll be another summer in the sun for the Stanley Cup. First Tampa Bay, then Raleigh, and now Orange County. Can you blame the Cup? I don't think so. The weather, the beaches, the women; it's Hollywood, baby.

The Ottawa Senators were manhandled by the Ducks in the final, and what most people thought would be a close series turned out to be a laugher. The Senators went out with nary a whimper, and the fans in Ottawa are going to have a tough time dealing with this loss. The Sens came so close, but leave having not come close enough. It'll be a long flight back to Ottawa, that's for sure.

A lot was made of Daniel Alfredsson's idiocy in shooting the puck at Scott Niedermayer at the end of the second period in game four. It was a classless move by Alfredsson and one that tarnished what was otherwise a phenomenal playoff for the Ottawa captain. Alfredsson lit a fire under Niedermayer - who sported the greatest playoff beard ever - and the Ducks, and they simply would not be denied. Alfredsson wears the "C" on his chest and represents not only his team and organization, but also the city of Ottawa, and his foolishness went a long way in costing the Senators a chance to sip from hockey's Holy Grail.

Oh yeah, Alfredsson also felt up the Eastern Conference Trophy. That fool! There's no need to analyze this series any further, because there's your reason for Ottawa's sudden and tragic demise. Ottawa tore through the first three rounds but were a different hockey team in the final. They morphed back into the Senators of old. The ones who played with no confidence and no heart. Alffy touched the Conference Trophy and that's a no-no.

Enough about the losers. The Ducks were a team in every sense of the word. The Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP could have been awarded to a multitude of players. Seven different guys came to my mind, and any one of them would have been deserving - Scott Niedermayer (the eventual winner), J.S. Giguere, Andy McDonald, Chris Pronger, Sammy Pahlsson, or even the unheralded Francois Beauchemin. Even without the services of all-world defenseman Chris Pronger in two huge playoff games due to suspension, the Ducks were able to win them both. That says a lot about their squad.

Anaheim dressed an extremely deep team every night and got contributions from each and every guy in their lineup. Their rock solid defense and goaltending are a tandem that any hockey fan outside of Anaheim is jealous of, especially me, and up front they have the crafty Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne. Selanne clearly found the fountain of youth upon returning to Anaheim, where he has spent some of his greatest years in his sparkling 15 year career.

Speaking of youth, the Ducks also have two guys by the names of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. They are superstars in the making, and already Stanley Cup Champions.

As for Teemu Selanne, there's always one guy every year who you want to see win the Stanley Cup. The guy who's been through the battles and just really wants to win it all, to cap off a great career. There was Ray Bourque, Glen Wesley, Dave Andreychuk, and now, Teemu Selanne. I had tears in my eyes when Joe Sakic let Ray Bourque hoist the Cup a few years ago, and although I wasn't crying like a school girl when Teemu was handed that beautiful hunk of silver tonight, it was still an emotional moment. It's tough to hate on a guy like Teemu, who resurrected his career after the lockout when everybody but Anaheim and Brian Burke wrote him off.

There's just something about the Stanley Cup that is so magical. Watching the winning team raise it up never gets old for me, and it never will. The dream of the Maple Leafs lifting it one day will never die. It's too beautiful a dream.

Magical. It truly is. Maybe it's the fact that it is the most glamorous trophy in pro sports, or the fact that once you win it, your name is engraved on it for eternity. Maybe it's because it is the most difficult trophy to win, taking 16 wins, in a gruelling and extremely physical two months. Maybe it's because as a child, we all dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and hoisting it high above our heads.

Ah the Stanley Cup, she's beautiful, ain't she?

There's no doubt as brothers playing ball hockey on the street, Scott Niedermayer and Rob Niedermayer won countless Stanley Cup's together. Who would have thought they'd get to accomplish the feat together for real as teammates in the NHL? It's a great story. The Niedermayer brothers play hockey the way it's meant to be played. For older brother Scott, it's his fourth Stanley Cup, but maybe the most rewarding one of all. He's a winner, and that's the best compliment you can give a hockey player. For Rob, it's his first Stanley Cup after losing the first two times he made the final. I'm sure there were times when he wondered whether it would happen for him.

As in all Stanley Cup Finals, the losers are gracious in defeat. There's no other sport like hockey, where after you try to kill your opponent during the series, once it's over, you shake hands and say congratulations. It doesn't happen in baseball, basketball or football. Hockey truly is a beautiful game, and I'll always give the losing team in the Stanley Cup Final props, because they have to wait there at the other end of the ice until the winning team is done celebrating their victory, and are ready to shake hands. For the Senator players, it had to have been the longest wait of their lives.

The Stanley Cup. It's as good as it gets. For some, like Ryan Getzlaf, it happens in only their second year in the league. For others, like Teemu Selanne, it happens 15 years into a storied career. Better late than never, without a doubt.

Enjoy Californication, Stanley Cup. Who knows when you'll be back next time.

The Anaheim Ducks, 2007 Stanley Cup champions, and deservedly so.

For the first time in NHL history, the players don't need to be asked where they're going now that they've won the Cup.

Disneyland is just down the block.

June 06, 2007

Defining Moment

There are, over the course of the long baseball season, defining moments for every team.

Rewind to the 2006 Blue Jays season, which saw Toronto finish in second place for the first time since winning the World Series. It was July 19th and the night of the Shea Hillendbrand fiasco. I tuned into the game and learned that Hillendbrand had been designated for assignment, his locker had been cleaned out and he'd been sent home. His career with the Blue Jays was over. Hillendbrand was a solid designated hitter and represented the Jays at the All-Star game in 2005. It was, needless to say, a significant blow to the team, especially with the way it all went down.

The Yankees were in town that night, and the mood around the team was sombre. Word spread about Hillendbrand's antics in the clubhouse and it was clear the Jays needed a win. In a tie ball game in the bottom of the 9th inning, Vernon Wells stepped up to the plate against the greatest closer in baseball history, Mariano Rivera. He promptly deposited Rivera's cut fastball over the wall in left field and gave the Jays a win they desperately needed. As Wells rounded first base with his fist pumped in the air, I knew things were going to be alright.

Tonight was one of the defining moments of the 2007 Toronto Blue Jays season. Toronto staged an incredible 9th inning rally against the woeful Devil Rays and are now one game away from returning to .500.

Let's get one thing clear, if there's a team that can blow an 11-6 lead in the 9th inning, it's the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. What makes the whole situation even more shocking is that Harry Halladay was on the mound for the Jays tonight, and he was lit up by the Rays. Doc only went three and a third innings tonight, giving up 12 hits and eight runs. Not exactly Halladay-esque. But for once, the Jays picked up their ace. The offense bailed out their stud pitcher Halladay, who's stolen his fair share of games for this team over his career.

Even Jamie Campbell and Pat Tabler thought this one was in the bag in the eighth inning. Tabler was calling for Curtis Thigpen to get an at bat in the ninth inning, because Thigpen is starting Wednesday night at first base. Thigpen was called up from Syracuse to fill the roster spot opened up by the injury to Lyle Overbay.

It had been a couple of weeks since a Blue Jay was injured, so I guess they were due. Overbay's the next regular to join the walking wounded and it's just comical the number of injuries the Jays have had to deal with in the first two months of the season. Overbay's left-handed bat will be sorely missed in a lineup full of right-handed sluggers. It's the first time in his seven year career that he's had to go on the DL. Typical. Another one bites the dust.

I've got faith in Matt Stairs though. I thought his signing was insignificant this past off-season but he's proven to be a pretty valuable cat off the bench (no pun intended to the departed Frank Catalanotto). Stairs can play some left field and first base.

Overbay's injury will also keep Sal Fasano with the big club for the next little while. Either he or Jason Phillips is going to have to go to the farm once Zaun comes back in the next two weeks. It would be hard to send Fasano back down as he's already made such a positive impression in only a few weeks. At the same time, Jason Phillips has been a reliable backup catcher who's called great games in the absence of Zaun.

I've got to admit though, I'm a huge Fasano fan. That moustache is just off the hook. He looks like a 70's pornstar. And how about that bunt single he dropped against the White Sox? That was awesome. Nobody saw that coming, and I've got to give him props for pulling that off. Although his batting average (.167) leaves a little to be desired - ok, a LOT to be desired - he's a great teammate and he's got Halladay throwing a new and improved cutter. It's no surprise that a journeyman backup catcher who can't even hit at the Mendoza Line has his own fan club called "Sal's Pals". Where do I sign up? He's obviously doing something right, and it ain't hitting.

Aaron Hill started and finished the rally in the ninth inning tonight. He walked to start the inning, and walked to bring in Stairs with the winning run. Hill continues to amaze me with his patience at the plate. Speaking of Hill, how about his steal of home plate last week? It got lost amid all the controversy surrounding A-Fraud. But that has got to be one of the most exciting Blue Jays plays, and plays in all of sports, I have ever seen. There's just nothing else like a straight steal of home. Great call by the Jays. Hill's dynamite.

Shout out to Vernon Wells who had one of the clutch hits in the rally, a one out double that plated Alex Rios and Jason Phillips and brought the Jays within a run. That's his second clutch hit in a few games, and hopefully it's a sign that he's coming around.

The resiliency of this team is what makes them easy to root for. There's just no quit in 'em. They refuse to lay down and die, no matter the circumstances. Man after man has gone down to injury and Overbay missed his first game tonight, but it doesn't matter, because someone always steps up and does the job. Adam Lind went 4-5 tonight with 5 RBI's, and was instrumental in the ninth inning rally. It's nice to finally see him contributing, and in back to back games to boot.

The bullpen was great once again tonight. They picked up Halladay and only gave up one earned run in over five innings. Josh Towers got the win and struck out four in only two innings. Yeah, seriously, Josh Towers!

A loss to the pathetic D-Rays, with their ace on the mound, and coming off winning three of four against the White Sox, would have been tough to digest. But this team would have none of it. Down 11-6 going into the ninth and seemingly left for dead, they sprung to life and came away with a thrilling victory that underlined the first two months of the season. No matter what the circumstances, and no matter who is on the field, this team will compete until the final out has been made. The Jays are only four games out of the Wild Card, my friends.

Adidas was right. Impossible is Nothing.


June 01, 2007

Doc's Back

Welcome back, Harry.

The Doctor returned to the Jays lineup last night, and cut up the Chicago White Sox with surgeon-like proficiency.

It’s good to have him back. Shout out to the Jays pitching staff though, for holding down the fort while Harry was gone for three weeks. Toronto went 11-7 and the pitching was off the hook. This is coming from the guy who said the Jays have no pitching. What can I say, I’m an idiot. But I’m enjoying being proven wrong. It’s the bats that are hurting the Jays this season.

If every baseball game was as quick as last night’s, I think there would be a lot more baseball fans out there. The game lasted less than two hours. Mark Buehrle pitched a heck of a ball game. Ace Ventura, the Pet Detective, taught me an important life lesson when I was a youngster – “In every case, there must be, a loser. LOOO-HOOO-ZUH-HER!” Buehrle gave up only two hits, but they were of the long-ball variety, and they were the only two hits the Jays would need. Two-nil was the final, with my favourite relievers Casey Janssen and Jeremy Accardo finishing up for Harry Halladay.

It was Halladay’s 100th career victory, in his 200th career start. He’s been a pleasure to watch. He spoils us, he really does. Congratulations Doc, here’s to 100 more.

Doc Halladay’s cutter was so nasty last night that Darin Erstad hurt himself just swinging at it. He rolled his ankle, was in considerable pain, and it wasn’t pretty. That’s the first time I’ve seen a pitcher injure a batter without actually hitting him with the ball. Now that’s the definition of a nasty cutter.

It was a good start to the weekend series with the White Sox, who look nothing like the team that captured the 2005 World Series.

Last night’s victory came on the heels of a series win against the Bronx Bombers – if you can still call them that. Folks round these parts are still talking about the exploits of one Alex Rodriguez, both on and off the field.

One thing is clear - $25 million a year certainly doesn’t buy you class, or sportsmanship, because A-Rod has got neither.

Heading over to Brass Rail, a prominent Toronto strip club, while his wife and young child are at home in New York. Nice. Stay classy, A-Rod.

As for his on-field antics, he picked his spot. He clearly yelled something as he ran past Howie Clark, the Jays third baseman who’s up from Triple-A. Clark claims A-Rod shouted “Mine!” It should have been called interference by the umpires, because anything done by the batting team that causes confusion is interference by the rule book. The umpires let the play stand, and the Jays should have taken things into their own hands at that point.

I love reading and respect the opinions of Dave Perkins and Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, and Jeff Blair of The Globe and Mail. All three said that the Jays should have plunked Jason Giambi, the next batter, and then given A-Fraud a few shots once the benches cleared. I’m always down for a brawl, and it’s silly that the Jays, who were clearly pissed off, didn’t do anything about the situation. The next time the Jays and Yankees face each other is in July, but I’m hopeful the Jays will remember A-Rod’s antics. I know I will. A-Rod has a history of making bush-league plays, and that’s exactly what his play was Wednesday night. Bush-league. There’s no way Rodriguez pulls a stunt like that with Troy Glaus at third base. Like I said, he picked his spot.

You know what, I like saying bush-league.

On a side note, it’s nice to see the Yankees battling it out for last place in the AL East with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Devil Rays payroll is a whopping $27 million, while the Yankees check in at $195 million. Good times.

The Jays are treading water. Reed Johnson and Greg Zaun should be back in a few weeks, and going into tonight the Jays sit five games out of the Wild Card. The playoffs are by no means out of the realm of possibility for this team. All the injuries and all the drama have helped this team build character, and I really enjoy watching this team. They are my Jays, after all.

How great has Rios been this year? He’s blossoming into a star in front of our eyes, just like Tomas Kaberle did with the Leafs, and Chris Bosh did with the Raptors. It’s just fantastic to watch. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I’m like a proud parent, just gushing with pride when talking about Alex Rios.

It’s a shame the Jays best hitter is batting leadoff, though. Rios should be in the three-hole, currently occupied by Vernon Wells. Rios is hitting too many home runs and driving in too many runs to be at the top of the line up right now. I’m afraid he’ll stay there, though, until Reed Johnson comes back.

A.J. Burnett takes the mound tonight, and the Jays should be able to take three out of four from the struggling White Sox. It would be a great step towards getting back to .500.

Here are some random thoughts as we head into the weekend:

- How about that Lebron James fellow. King James, indeed. Game five on the road in Detroit – a tough place to play, to say the least – and the game goes into double overtime. James scored every Cavalier point in the overtime sessions, and got his team the win. Forty-eight points on the night, including 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points. Ridiculous. Lebron is unconscious. He’s always been destined for greatness, but who knew it would come so soon.

The legend of Lebron James was born last night. He is, without question, the best player in the NBA. And he’s only 22 years old. There have been a lot of guys to come out of high school and dominate and play well, but none has taken the franchise on his back the way Lebron has. For my entire existence on this earth, the Cleveland Cavaliers have sucked. I’ve never known them to be anything but a laughingstock. Lebron changed an entire team, an entire organization, and an entire city. In the process, he’s changing the game. The NBA desperately needs something other than a Detroit/San Antonio final, and now the Cleveland Cavaliers are a game away from the final. All thanks to one man. Lebron James was simply born to play basketball.

- Mats Sundin is on the verge of signing a two year, $11 million dollar contract with the Leafs. It will save the Leafs about $2 million in cap space. I never expected Mats to go anywhere, so news that he is staying with the team is no surprise. I was, however, hoping the two year deal would come in at around $9 million. I think $4.5 million per season for Sundin is justified. A contract at that figure would also give the Leafs the money they need to sign free agents and get better. It would also prove Sundin’s desire to win a bloody Stanley Cup with the Leafs. I know Mats wants to win, but I’m starting to believe he doesn’t want to win as badly as I once thought he did. And that hurts…

- I like Sal Fasano’s moustache.

- I hope all the Ottawa Senators fans out there enjoyed the ride, because it’s all over. There’s no way in hell they are going to beat the Ducks four out of the next five games to win the Cup. The Cup is going to Southern California for the first time. As good as the Sens have been this post-season, Anaheim’s been better, and I don’t see them choking on their two-nothing series lead. Choking, it’s what the Senators do best!

- Kobe Bryant apparently wants out of L.A. The Lakers should grant him his wish and trade him to Denver. Wouldn’t that be something?