July 26, 2007

The Tour de Farce

Cycling's most prestigious event is becoming more and more of a joke with each passing day. Yesterday, the overall leader was kicked out of the race - by his own team - and another cyclist tested positive for doping. Just another day in the Tour de France.

It's amazing what this once proud race has been reduced to. Everyday some sort of scandal drops and casts a cloud over the race, and for that matter, the entire sport. After the allegations against Lance Armstrong, and the Floyd Landis fiasco last year, the Tour de France is just about out of credibility. Any credibility it has left is quickly leaving the building.

Yesterday, Danish rider Michael Rasmussen was booted out of the race by his own team. He had led the race for nine days and won Stage 17 yesterday, but was dismissed for lying about his whereabouts during training, possibly misleading anti-doping officials.

Boy, those anti-doping officials for the Tour de France must put in some serious hours. They're busting guys left, right and centre. Rasmussen told his team he was training in Mexico while he was actually in Italy. All riders are required to report their whereabouts to anti-doping officials, and Italy and Mexico aren't exactly a wrong turn away from each other.

The Toronto Star also reported that Rasmussen received an official warning from cycling officials after he missed multiple anti-doping tests earlier this year. I don't know about you, but these anti-doping officials are really starting to sound intimidating.

But I digress.

Really, this race is just getting more and more ridiculous by the hour. Who cares anymore? It's clear that so many of the participants are cheating, and anyone involved now has to be questioned. These guys are all guilty until proven innocent.

Another rider, Cristian Moreni, of the French Cofidis team, was arrested by police yesterday after he tested positive for a manufactured testosterone. Another one bites the dust. Hours after Moreni's arrest, the entire Cofidis team withdrew from the race.

All this came only a day after Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov was kicked out of the race after it was learned that he tested positive for a banned blood transfusion. Now I'm not even sure what a banned blood transfusion is, but in the world of cycling, it's a big deal. Vinokourov's Astana team also pulled out of the race and police raided their hotel. Vinokourov was one of the favourite's to win the event.

That's it, right? Nope. In addition to all the doping scandals, two small explosions were set off along the course in Spain yesterday. Luckily, no one was injured by the blasts, which followed a warning from the Basque separatist group ETA.

Now that leader Rasmussen has been shown the door, 24-year-old Alberto Contador is the official race leader. For the sake of the Tour de France, I hope he doesn't get booked.

I think it's time for officials to seriously contemplate cancelling the Tour de France. The clouds cast over the race by doping have brought so much shame and embarrassment to the sport that the race, and the sport, can no longer be taken seriously anymore.

Cycling needs to be cleaned up. Until then, the Tour de France will remain the Tour de Farce.

July 16, 2007

Blue Jays Mid-Season Report Card

We're officially in the dog days of summer, which means the 2007 baseball season is already past the halfway point. It's time to pull no punches, my friends, and say it like it is. It's time to rate this year's Toronto Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays, today, sit in third place in the American League East with a 45-46 record. Simply not good enough. Not for a team that was supposed to contend. I will, however, give the Jays the props that they are due, because injuries have ravaged this year's squad. Although the Jays are not in serious contention for either the AL East division crown or the Wild Card, it's a Christmas miracle they are even hovering near .500.

I'm not using the Blue Jays' injuries as an excuse. Ok I am. A little bit. This season has had its fair share of bad already, but there has also been some good. Each player will be graded by yours truly. Let's get down to business.

Alex Rios: A +
Rios has blossomed into a star before our very eyes. He leads the Blue Jays in batting average (.297), home runs (18), RBI's (55), runs (64) and stolen bases (9). If you're keeping track at home, that's every important offensive category. He was the Blue Jays' lone all-star and makes less than $1 million a season. His salary takes up less than 1% of the Blue Jays payroll. From this day on, he shall be referred to as Alex Rios, the Grand Nacho Muchacho. Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for that nickname, but it sure is a beauty. I love you, Alex Rios.

Scott Downs: A +
Middle relievers don't get as much love as they should. He's been steady as a rock, giving up only nine earned runs in over 35 innings of work, while striking out 39. Downs is a certified rude boy.

Jeremy Accardo: A +
He stepped into B.J. Ryan's role with confidence and hasn't let the team down. Ryan's are not easy shoes to fill. Only 11 earned runs given up in over 35 innings while striking out 39. Where would the Jays be without this quiet, flame-throwing right hander? Acquired for Shea Hillendbrand, his acquisition might be the best trade J.P. Ricciardi has ever made while with Toronto.

Aaron Hill: A
Orlando Hudson who? Sure, Hudson was an all-star this year, but I believe Hill got shafted when he didn't make the team. His 52 RBI's lead all starting second basemen in the American League. He's a great hitter, and provides gold glove defense at second. He's driven home more runs than Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas and Troy Glaus. Ridiculous.

Casey Janssen: A
Janssen was thrust into a middle reliever role this season and he has embraced the challenge. He's willing to do whatever he's asked and all he wants to do is help the team win. He's done just that. Along with Downs and Accardo, he has helped stabilize the bullpen - a bullpen that was supposed to be this team's weakest link. He's also been a horse, pitching 47.2 innings while only giving up 12 earned runs. I said some bad things about Janssen before the season began. I take em all back.

Shaun Marcum: A
He's a pit bull on the mound because he loves to challenge hitters. Since entering the starting rotation Marcum has only lost one game. He's been dynamite and this team would be in even bigger trouble had he not stepped up when Gus Chacin, Doc Halladay and A.J. Burnett went down with injuries. In 88 innings, batters are hitting a putrid .225 against him. Marcum has solidified his spot in the rotation, and I'd take him over Chacin any day of the week.

Matt Stairs: A
I've got to show love to the lone Canadian on this team. Stairs was an after thought coming into this season, a left-handed pinch hitter who would see 200 at bats if he was lucky. Then Reed Johnson went down, and the unassuming Stairs started playing everyday. And he started to hit home runs. Without Matt Stairs, this Jays team would be in a world of hurt. It could be argued that he and Rios are co-mvp's during the first half. Stairs' .545 slugging percentage leads all Jays hitters and he's got more home runs than Wells and Glaus, and he's tied with Thomas. Actually, Thomas is tied with him. I dissed J.P. when he signed Stairs, and I've enjoyed being shown how stupid I really am. Good call, J.P. Matt Stairs - a true Canadian hero.

Troy Glaus: B
If Troy Glaus were a hockey player on the Toronto Maple Leafs, he'd be a legend in this city. This man plays through a lot of pain, and doesn't get enough credit for doing so. He's batting a solid .288 with a team leading .391 on base percentage. You know me, I'm all about the OBP. Glaus gets a B for not being a bitch and playing through pain, because he knows that even at 75%, the Jays desperately need him in the field. Troy, you are appreciated.

Brian Tallet: B
Tallet didn't even make the big club out of spring training. He was designated for assignment, took his demotion to Syracuse like a man, and worked his tail off. He came back up to the big leagues and hasn't looked back. He's pitched 40 innings and has held opponents to a .203 batting average. Attaboy, Brian.

Dustin McGowan: B
Injuries to Chacin, Halladay, Zambrano and Burnett, and the overall ineptitude of Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers, led to McGowan's call-up from Syracuse. He's here to stay and is finally showing the potential the Jays saw in him. His one-hitter against the Colorado Rockies was the best-pitched game by any Blue Jay this year, and his arm causes any fan to salivate. He's got the tools, now he's just got to put it together.

Roy Halladay: B
I've got to show love to my man Halladay. He's got 10 wins, but I know without a doubt that he's pitching injured. I've never seen him get hit the way he has this season. A 4.66 ERA and a .286 opponents batting average are just not Halladay-esque numbers. He gets a B- for pitching through whatever is ailing him. He's a warrior.

John McDonald: B -
I love Johnny Mac. He runs out every ground ball like he's just hit the ball into the gap. It's true what they say - if you work hard, you'll get what you deserve. Johnny Mac took over the everyday shortstop position because he plays hard. His defense is second to none and he's already made 10 jaw-dropping plays at short. He's a regular on TSN's "Honour Roll" and deservedly so. He's a magician with the glove. Love Johnny Mac.

A.J. Burnett: C +
I think a C+ is a generous grade for Burnett, but I'll give it to him because his 5-6 record doesn't justify how he's pitched most of the time he's taken the mound. He really stepped up his game when his boy Harry Halladay went down, but once again, he's on the disabled list. It's his third visit to the DL in only one and a half years here in Toronto. He's got to suck it up and pitch through pain. Take a cue from Halladay for God's sake. I guess $55 million only gets you an oft-injured arm, and no testicular fortitude.

Lyle Overbay: C
Overbay's a better hitter than his .267 average. He spoiled me in his first season with the Blue Jays. But I'm sure he'll be the first to agree that he needs to be better. I'll give him some slack, because he was injured, but he got off to a very slow start this year, and that's why he gets a low grade. But I've got faith in the doubles machine known as Overbay, so I'm confident that he'll be in the B to A- range once the season is over.

Frank Thomas: C
Congratulations to The Big Hurt on home run number 500. Frank, you booked your ticket to the Hall but now please stop trying to hit every single pitch out of the park. Clearly, the quest for number 500 was on Thomas' mind, but this guy has a career batting average of .303. His .250 average this year just ain't cutting it. A lot of people criticized J.P. for signing the aging Thomas and while I like his veteran leadership, his signing might turn out to be The Big Mistake unless he has a fantastic second half.

Vernon Wells: C
$126 million for this!? $126 million for a .252 batting average and a pathetic .314 on base percentage? Oh dear. What the hell has happened to the center fielder formerly known as Vernon Wells? To say he's struggled this year is an understatement. His 57 strikeouts lead the team for heaven's sake. He's got to be feeling the pressure of his huge contract. The move to lead-off has helped him and he's hitting the ball better of late, but we're not paying him that amount of coin to be a lead-off man. Someone pass me the TUMS, because Wells is causing me some serious indigestion.

Jason Frasor: C
He was supposed to be the closer once B.J. Ryan went down, but he couldn't handle it. Disappointing. Frasor was a promising reliever a couple of years ago but has fallen on the depth chart with the emergence of Downs, Janssen and Accardo. The .209 batting average against is nice, but Frasor let me down, and so is deserving of the C.

Gregg Zaun: C
He was another of the injured Blue Jays, so it's taking a while for him to get his timing back. He's a helluva competitor though, and just wants to win. I appreciate the never-say-die attitude he's got. When McGowan lost his no-hitter against Colorado in the 9th inning, Zaun was almost in tears after the game. He really wanted the no-no for his young pitcher. Zaun cares. I know he's struggling, but I just want to give him a hug. Zaun's better than a C grade, he knows it and I know it.

Reed Johnson: C
Johnson gets a low grade because he's barely been in the lineup, and like Zaun, needs time to get his timing back. He's better than his .233 average and it's only a matter of time until that number goes up. With Johnson, it's all about time. The Jays missed his attitude the most on the field. He takes fastballs on his arms for the team - he'll do anything to get on base. He's also a phenomenal fielder, and he proved that by making a diving catch in the 9th inning in his return to the lineup. I love Reed, but it's all about tough love here.

Jesse Litsch: C
Litsch is a young pup up from Double-A ball, so I've got to show him some love because he's won two games for the Jays, with one coming against the high octane Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. He's got a lot of work to do in order to stay with the big club, but he's got a future in this game. His .320 opponents batting average is quite disturbing, but there will always be growing pains with young pitchers. He can keep his head up with the way he's carried himself with the Jays.

Jason Phillips: C -
Phillips is a dependable backup catcher. He filled in admirably for Zaun while he was gone, but Phillips is a backup for a reason. His .213 batting average being one of em.

Adam Lind: C -
Lind filled in for Johnson while he was injured, but needs some more seasoning in the minors. He's got decent power, but swings at EVERYTHING. He struck out 53 times in only 73 games, and that's brutal.

Royce Clayton: D
Thank God the Jays only signed this guy to a one-year deal. Clayton has already played for half the teams in baseball, and it's no wonder why. His work ethic hasn't been good and for a guy who was brought in for his defense, he's made way too many errors (6). That's five more than Johnny Mac. Clayton's a bum.

Josh Towers: D
Towers is officially the Blue Jays organization's bitch. This guy gets bounced around like he's a rag-doll. From the starting rotation, to the bullpen, to the minors, then back to the bullpen and then back into the starting rotation. His contract is mercifully up after this year and there's no way on God's green earth that he is in a Jays uniform next season. What does he care though? He's banking $2.3 million this season. Towers should talk to the guy in charge of player entrance music. Whenever he comes into the came, the loudspeakers at the Rogers Centre should play "Laughing Straight to the Bank" by 50 Cent. Because that's exactly what Towers is doing.

Gustavo Chacin: D
The five inning wonder Chacin can't even give us five innings anymore. After making five starts and posting a frightening 5.60 ERA, Chacin shut it down. He's supposedly throwing off flat ground these days, but I heard the Jays won't let him pitch again this season. He's still got a shot with this team, because the fifth spot in the rotation, currently occupied by the tool known as Towers, will be open next season. But Chacin's got work to do. A lot of work. He's been supplanted in the rotation by both McGowan and Marcum, with Litsch making a push as well.

Tomo Ohka, Victor Zambrano and John Thomson: F
J.P. Ricciardi signed these three guys off the scrap heap last winter, trying to make up Ted Lilly's lost innings. If one of them worked out, it would have been nice and I would have been singing J.P.'s praises. Turns out they all sucked. Big time. It was a calculated risk, it didn't work, and the only reason the Jays are still treading water is because of the contributions of Marcum, McGowan, Janssen, Tallet and Litsch. J.P. got lucky, and I think he'd be the first to admit that as well.

B.J. Ryan: N/A
Ryan went down so early in the season it's impossible to give him a grade. Just get well soon, big guy.

That's it for the players. There's just three more grades left to hand out.

Manager John Gibbons: B
With all the injuries this team has had to deal with, it's a wonder they are near .500. Gibbons has had to work with a patchwork lineup and he's done a decent job. I've always been a supporter of Gibbons, even though he does tend to make some questionable calls from time to time. However, I think he's done a solid job considering the cards that he's been dealt this season. Props out to Gibbons for keeping the clubhouse in order and the attitude positive.

J.P. Ricciardi: C +
Offensively, this team was supposed to be the real deal. Ricciardi boasted about how his team would have the best lineup in the American League. Granted, the lineup he put together in the off-season has played only a handful of games together. Injuries have ravaged this team, and I can't blame J.P. for that, as much as I want to. None of the pitchers he signed worked out, but guys he drafted stepped up, so it's a catch-22. I can rail on him for not getting enough pitching help, but then again it's his farm system that turned out to be the solution. I was hoping for a lot more out of the offense though, hence the C+.

Toronto Blue Jays: B -
As a team, I give the Jays a B -. I love this team, I really do. Alex Rios is quickly becoming my favourite baseball player. I admire the courage of Halladay and Glaus to play through significant injuries. I love Gregg Zaun's attitude. The man was ready to cry because his pitcher's no-hitter was broken up. He genuinely cares. I love Frank Thomas' attitude and his belief in this team. I love the shaving cream pies and the gatorade showers, even when seven regulars are missing from the lineup.

Everything had to go right in order for the Jays to contend this year. I knew that going in. And right from the get go, nothing went right. Johnson went down. Chacin followed. Glaus hit the d/l. Zaun broke his thumb. Overbay broke his hand. Burnett's shoulder acted up. Halladay had appendicitis. Ohka sucked. Zambrano's forearm hurt, although that was a cover up for him just plain sucking. Towers sucked. You get the point.

There's also been a lot of surprises - disappointing ones. How does Hill have more RBI's than Wells, Thomas and Glaus? The big hitters like Wells and Thomas have not produced like they are capable of, hence their low grades.

In order to make the playoffs, a team must win 95 games. That's the benchmark, at least in the tough American League. The Jays have 69 games left in their season. In order to reach 95 wins, they have to go 50 and 19. Ouch.

Reality bites. What can one say, when presented with a statistic like that? It hurts. Like a swift punch to the gut. Playoff baseball looks like it won't be happening once again in Toronto, and it's depressing. But I'm still proud of the Toronto Blue Jays. They're fighters. I know they won't quit. And I'll give them the utmost respect for that. For fighting through all the injuries and all the bullshit.

Props to the 2007 Toronto Blue Jays. Here's to them, and to making the second half interesting.

Blue Jays Baseball - I'm an idiot, because I still BELIEVE...

July 12, 2007

Sheldon Souray Sucks

Sheldon Souray has signed a long term contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Really, he did. Edmonton actually got someone to agree to come to their team. But it doesn't matter, because Sheldon Souray sucks.

Souray was the last of the "big name" free agents left on the NHL's open market. Rumour had it that he was going out west, to Los Angeles or San Jose, but TSN is reporting that Souray has signed on long term with Edmonton, the Siberia of the NHL.
Nobody wants to go there. Well, that's not true. Hockey players don't mind playing there, it's their wives who have the problem. Edmonton is called Deadmonton for a reason. As a recenty study has shown us, women run shit. So free agents and their families are steering clear of Oil Country.

I'm sure the Oilers and their fans are going to be all pumped up about this signing, and although I don't know the terms of the contract - they were not disclosed - I am 110% sure that Souray is now grossly overpaid.

Sheldon Souray is the NHL's version of a pylon. He can't skate very well, isn't a great passer and is absolutely atrocious defensively. He had one good season - last year, which happened to be a contract year. Souray was -28 last year with the Canadiens, one of the worst plus/minus statistics in the entire league. He's a defenseman, but he's not so good with the whole defense thing.

The only thing he can do is shoot the puck. Better than anyone. In the whole league. That's it. Sure, it's nice to have a great shot, but at what cost to the team's defense? He's a power play specialist, and prior to last season had never put up more than 39 points.

Mention the name Sheldon Souray to hockey enthusiasts and it will conjure up memories of Jason Spezza deking the jock strap off Souray one-on-one and then proceeding to score the game winning goal, in overtime no less. This guy has been posterized by a bunch of players.

Sheldon Souray sucks, and is definitely the NHL's newest, most-overrated multi-millionaire.

July 09, 2007

Chicks Dig The Long Ball

When Alex Rios began his career back in 2004, Toronto Blue Jays fans were told that Rios was something special. That he was the prototypical "5-tool player" and that it was just a matter of time before he was an all-star. The key was to be patient. Rios, we were told, had all the tools to become an exceptional outfielder. In his first season in the big leagues, Rios hit a solid .286 with one home run in 426 at bats.

The home runs, we were told, would come.

In 2005, Rios sent 10 balls over the fence, this time in 481 at bats. A respectable number for a 23-year-old learning to hit in the major leagues, but we wanted more.

Patience. It's a virtue. One I have learned that fans in Toronto simply don't have. There was talk, after the 2005 season, that Rios should be traded to solve the Jays pitching problems. J.P. Ricciardi would have none of it, however. Alex Rios, in his eyes, was un-tradeable.

Although it had only been two years since Rios joined the Blue Jays, it seemed as though the fans weren't willing to wait for him to develop. I'll admit it, even I toyed with the prospect of the Jays trading Rios for a solid arm. We had Adam Lind in the minors, after all.

In 2006, Rios broke out. It seemed like he finally put it all together. The power stroke that Jays fans had been salivating for had finally arrived. Rios hit 15 home runs in the first half of the season and was off to his first All-Star game. He wouldn't play, because of a staph infection that caused him to miss two months, but he had arrived, in Toronto at least.

For some strange reason this past winter, it was Rios' name again that came up in trade rumours. It was Rios that was to be dealt in order to get the Blue Jays some much needed pitching. Once again, J.P. Ricciardi would have none of it.

Thank you, J.P. Ricciardi. Thank you for holding on to Alex Rios and believing in him. We were all wrong. You were right. This guy is the real deal. Rios is now an All-Star in back-to-back campaigns, and Adam Lind is back in the minors. Good call.

After a solid first half that saw Rios hit .294 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI, Alex Rios was named to the 2007 All-Star team. Rios was also a late addition to the Home Run Derby, and he didn't disappoint.

It's been said for generations that chicks love the long ball, and there were certainly a ton of them tonight. After a sluggish first round, the home run hitters woke up.

After hitting five home runs in the first round, Rios went buck wild in the second round. He put on a show for the San Francisco fans, and for all those watching at home, as he clubbed 12 home runs in round two, the highest single-round total of the night. A number of them ended up in the deepest parts of the ball park, a testament to Rios' power.

Rios went into the final round with a derby-leading 17 home runs, but he ran out of gas. He was only able to hit two balls out of the park when it mattered most, and Guerrero deposited three home runs to claim the 2007 crown.

There's certainly no shame in losing to Vladimir Guerrero. He is one of the greatest hitters of our generation and a man with immense power. He hit the longest home run of the competition, a ridiculous bomb that went 502 feet out to left field. To hit a batting practice fastball that kind of distance is just absurd. Guerrero's a beast.

Props out to Guerrero for winning the competition, but I've got to show crazy love to my man Alex Rios. Last year, Troy Glaus of the Blue Jays was in the Home Run Derby, and he managed to only send one ball over the fence. It was a bit embarrassing. Rios stepped up to the plate in this year's challenge and looked calm, cool and collected. He's got a beautiful swing and when he puts his 6-5 frame together on a fastball, there isn't a sight much prettier than that.

Playing in Canada, Rios is overshadowed by a lot of other ball players down in big American markets. It's good to see that he's still getting recognized for his talent and exploits with the Blue Jays.

The patience the Jays have shown with Rios has paid off. For a team with a payroll above $90 million, the Jays' lone All-Star makes less than $1 million a season. Talk about a bargain. Rios is due for one hefty raise when his contract is up, and I hope he's patrolling right field for Toronto for a long, long time. The scary part is, he's only getting better.

After tonight, no longer will people say "who?" when they hear the name Alex Rios. Although Vladimir Guerrero was the winner of the 2007 Home Run Derby, tonight was all about Alex Rios for me, and his arrival on to the mainstream in Major League Baseball.

Welcome to superstardom, Alex Rios. Enjoy your stay...

July 04, 2007

Well Done, John Ferguson Jr.

NHL free agency opened at high noon on July 1st - Happy Canada Day, eh - and a frenzy it most certainly was.

The league's general managers threw around money like steroids at Barry Bonds' house.

John Ferguson Jr. hit the phones at 12 pm sharp and came away with former New York Islanders sniper Jason Blake's signature on a five year contract worth $20 million dollars.

Shout outs are in store, to a most unlikely candidate - Mr. John Ferguson Jr., the much-maligned Maple Leafs general manager.

Jason Blake is the newest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs - welcome to Toronto, Jason - and he comes at a very reasonable price tag of $4 million a season. It's hard to believe a $4 million dollar annual salary can be called reasonable, but such are the times we now live in.

Blake was the only free agent on the market who scored 40 goals last season. He's got fantastic speed and skates like the wind. He's also a selfish hockey player - he loves to shoot the puck. He fired a total of 305 shots on goal last season, and finished with impressive statistics. Of his 40 goals, 26 came at even strength (which is sweet music to the ears of any Leafs fan), 14 came on the power play, and he led the Islanders with seven game winning goals. In contrast, only two Maple Leafs finished with more than 200 shots on goal - Bryan McCabe and Mats Sundin. And Darcy Tucker led the Leafs with 15 power play goals and six game winners, while only playing 56 games.

Whenever the Leafs played the Islanders last year, I wanted to reach into my television screen and slap Jason Blake. He's small in stature but has the ability to get under the skin of his opponents. He's feisty - he got into a publicized scuffle with superstar Sidney Crosby last year - and he's the type of hockey player that is easy to hate. All of that makes me even happier that he will now be playing for the good guys, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hating your opponent is the biggest compliment you can give a guy.

While I went into Sunday's free agent frenzy with dreams of Ryan Smyth, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Paul Kariya, I think JFJ really made good in signing Blake. Gomez and Drury never had any intention of coming to Toronto from the get go, and while there have been reports that the Leafs were one of the first teams to offer Ryan Smyth a contract, he's a western boy at heart and his stay in the Eastern Conference turned out to be a short one as he signed long term with the Colorado Avalanche.

I was very surprised to see Paul Kariya get $6 million a year, first of all, and, second of all, see him get that kind of loot from the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis? Are you kidding me, Kariya? It's clear that Paul Kariya will only play in hockey markets that aren't, well, hockey markets. He doesn't like or want the spotlight, and that's the reason why in free agency he has signed with the Nashville Predators and now the St. Louis Blues. Clearly there was no chance he was coming to Toronto either, and the Leafs knew that, so they targeted Jason Blake.

The knock on Blake, and JFJ for signing him, is that he will be 34 once training camp opens, and that he had a career year at the most opportune time - when his contract was up. Valid points, sure, but in the last three years Blake has scored 90 goals, for a solid average of 30 a campaign. No Maple Leaf scored 30 goals last season.

Now I love Alexei Ponikarovsky probably more than anyone in this city, but he's got hands of stone. Ditto for Alex Steen and Matt Stajan. Poni, although he did score a very respectable 21 goals and make me a cool $100 bucks, should have finished with at least 30, if not 35. These guys have about as much finish as an anorexic at Mandarin. It's nice to add a guy who can finish, and Jason Blake is all about it. He loves to score goals.

Blake automatically becomes the second shooter in the dreaded shootout for the Leafs. He's a sniper, and exactly what the Leafs have lacked in the shootout behind Mats Sundin.

I've heard some people say that the contract is too long and that Blake will be 38 by the time it's up. Once again, so be it. He's 33 right now and seems to have a lot of hockey left in him. He was a late bloomer on the NHL scene, is in tremendous shape, and skates like he's 24 years old. His contract, which doesn't include a no-trade or a no-movement clause, makes him easy to trade if need be down the line. This was the right move by JFJ at the right time.

Now, before I continue, there's two things I've got to get off my chest. Firstly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about Pavel Kubina's contract, and how atrocious it is. Sick of it. Get over it. Kubina has let it be known that there were two other teams last summer that offered him the same contract. JFJ didn't blow any other offer out of the water. He didn't give Kubina something that no one else was. He gave him market value at the time. Free agency drives up the cost of players, it's as simple as that. Look at the contracts other defencemen, comparable to Kubina, have signed recently:

Andre Markov - 4 years, $23 million
Scott Hannan - 4 years, $18 million
Roman Hamrlik - 4 years, $22 million
Robyn Regehr - 5 years, $20 million

I'd love it too if Kubina put up 50 points, but he is a number three defenceman on the Leafs and barely gets any power play time because Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle get all the power play minutes. Kubina played hurt last season, and was a plus player, which is the most important statistic in my opinion. No one can argue that the Leafs are a better team when Kubina is in the lineup, because he's able to play a lot of minutes and in turn bring McCabe and Kaberle's minutes down.

Another favourite of Leafs fans is to say that the club continues to shoot itself in the foot by trading away draft picks and that the Leafs don't mould their own talent via the draft. People need to do their research before they give me that garbage.

Kyle Wellwood, Tomas Kaberle, Alex Steen, Matt Stajan, Alex Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Ian White.

Those are eight players who were drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and whom are extremely important pieces of the team today. For people to say that the Leafs have not drafted their own talent is simple false. Tomas Kaberle is a superstar defenceman in the NHL and Kyle Wellwood is a bright, young talent who is poised for stardom. No, the Leafs don't have the best track record of building through the draft, but they aren't as bad as some people believe they are.

After getting Jason Blake's name on a contract, JFJ wasn't done. He re-signed Bates Battaglia to a two-year contract and Battaglia has solidified his roster spot on the Leafs. His career has come full circle. It got off to a solid start but somewhere along the way Battaglia lost the passion he was known for. He lost his job, and even contemplated retirement. He even spent some time in the East Coast Hockey League, before resurfacing with the Toronto Marlies after the lockout. Battaglia ended up playing all 82 games for the Leafs last year, pretty good for a guy who didn't have a spot on the team coming into training camp. He's a dogged forechecker who also has some finish around the net. He finished with a respectable 31 points and is a solid third-line winger. Glad to have you back, Bates.

Word also dropped this afternoon that JFJ has signed his new goalie Vesa Toskala to a contract extension at $8 million over two years. I wasn't too thrilled when I heard the news, because JFJ played the same card with Raycroft last season - he gave him a new contract before he played a game in the blue and white. However, Toskala's contract kicks in after the 2007/2008 season. This season he will earn $1.375 million as Toronto's number one goalie.

See ya later Andrew Raycroft. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Rumour has it that JFJ is aggressively shopping around Raycroft, and that the Detroit Red Wings may be interested. I can't take that rumour seriously, because the Red Wings are smarter than that. Raycroft? After the season that Dom Hasek turned in for them? No way. It's not about what JFJ can get in return for Raycroft right now, it's about who will take his contract off the Leafs' books.

The Leafs are about a million away from the salary cap's ceiling of $50.3 million. I would have loved to see Mike Peca come back, but there's no way that can happen now.

There's definitely been a power shift in the Eastern Conference now that the big name free agents have all found new homes. The New York Rangers will be a dangerous team with new centres Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. The Gomez/Jagr/Shanny line, once Shanny gets his name on a contract with the blue shirts, might be the best line in hockey.

Daniel Briere is off to join the Philadelphia Flyers, who have assembled a roster that is much different from last year's laugher. Their rebuilding process was a quick one and although I'm still not convinced of their defence, they will be a competitive squad.

Poor Buffalo. The Sabres lost their heart and soul in Drury and Briere, and they also lost Danius Zubrus, whom they gave up a first round draft pick to acquire. I hate the Sabres, and the city of Buffalo, so I'm rather enjoying their sudden demise.

Even with a salary cap, it was all the big boys from days gone by that were spending the big bucks on Sunday. The NHL has got to be the most backwards league in the history of pro sports. What the hell was the point of the lockout? The big market teams are making profits and spending to the ceiling of the cap, while the small market teams like the Oilers and Sabres are struggling to attract free agents and remain competitive. It's absurd. And now they want to put a team in Kansas City. Seeing how great an experiment Nashville was, the NHL would rather put a team in Kansas City than let a Canadian business man bring a team back north of the border. Good call.

Lucky for me, the Leafs make billions of dollars. They can't win, but hey, they're working on it. I'm stoked about this Leafs team. JFJ has put together a solid, underrated squad that will make the playoffs. I'm calling it already. This team can score goals, has solid defence, a good goaltender (Hallelujah!) and a good mix of veterans and young players. I'm feeling it.

Here's my projected line-up for opening night. I know, it's still three months away, but seriously, I'm excited.

Line 1: Tucker Sundin Blake
Line 2: Antropov Wellwood Ponikarovsky
Line 3: Bell Devereux Steen
Line 4: Kilger Pohl Battaglia

Defence 1: Kaberle Kubina
Defense 2: McCabe Colaiacovo
Defense 3: Gill White

Goalie 1: Toskala
Goalie 2: Anyone but Raycroft

It looks like Matty Stajan is the odd man out. That's a shame.

I'm not an idiot, I know there's no way Stajan isn't on this team. I just love to hate him.

Don't sleep on these Leafs. It may not be a star-studded team, but it's a damn good one. Only three months til the puck drops.

I asked John Ferguson Jr. to make me proud. He didn't disappoint...