NBA Preseason Power Rankings: Part Two

December 23, 2011 3:43 pm
Durant Rose

The condensed 2011-12 NBA season is set to begin on Christmas Day. On Wednesday, we previewed the teams slated to finish out of the postseason this year. All teams are separated into tiers, based on their projected performance in 2011-12. Once again, the rankings shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of the team’s exact finish in the standings, but an estimate of their chances of winning the NBA championship.

Here is part two of the NBA Preseason Power Rankings: the playoff teams.

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Playoff Teams (teams that should reach the postseason, with the chance to win a round)

16. Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia is banking on the internal improvement of its young core – in particular, guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner and center Spencer Hawes – to secure another playoff berth. Swingman Andre Iguodala would be best suited to a Luol Deng-type role as the second- or third-option on a contending team, but the Sixers have committed to building around their versatile defensive stopper. They’ll be hard-pressed to make any improvement in the standings without free agent help, which likely won’t arrive until Elton Brand’s albatross contract comes off the books in 2013.

The Magic hope that Hedo Turkoglu's presence will be enough to coax Dwight Howard into staying in Orlando.

15. Orlando Magic

Through a series of baffling decisions designed to placate pending free agent Dwight Howard, Orlando has set itself up for a grim future. Last December, they shipped Vince Carter and gifted center Marcin Gortat to Phoenix for the uninspiring Hedo Turkoglu, reassuming Turkoglu’s 5-year, $53 million contract, which he had signed with the Magic in 2009. This offseason, they re-signed 30-year old shooting guard Jason Richardson, also acquired in the Turkoglu deal, for $25 million over four years. They traded Brandon Bass for Glen Davis, which would have made sense if Bass weren’t better, cheaper and more mature than Davis.

Orlando’s fortunes are centred entirely on Howard. He could choose to stay in Orlando (which he has no reason to do, given the state of the current roster), guaranteeing the Magic a first- or second-round playoff exit for the next several years. He could push for a trade (which he has already done); Orlando’s best option would be to flip Howard to the Nets for Brook Lopez (a talented young center who could match maybe 70% of Howard’s output on offense, and 10% on defense) and a multitude of first-round picks. Or he could bolt next summer in free agency, leaving the Magic with nothing but a slew of aging role players with hefty contracts (which is worse than being left with nothing). Expect a trade to happen soon, though knowing the Magic, they may just let Howard walk.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

Despite missing shooting guard Brandon Roy and center Greg Oden for considerable chunks of time, Portland has averaged 51 wins over the last three seasons. Unfortunately, it looks like Roy’s early retirement and Oden’s prolonged injury troubles will finally catch up to the Blazers in 2011-12. There’s still cause for excitement: LaMarcus Aldridge has emerged as an interior force; Raymond Felton, deemed expendable in Denver, was a savvy pickup via trade; Gerald Wallace is showing no signs of slippage after 10 years in the league; and Jamal Crawford and Nicolas Batum will provide scoring punch off the bench. None will have the impact of a healthy Roy or Oden, of course. With shrewd decision-making and a little luck, the Blazers could have set themselves up as championship contenders for the foreseeable future. Now? They’re just another team fighting to stay relevant in the powerful Western Conference.

13. Atlanta Hawks

Not talented enough to compete for a title now or young enough to envision future championships, Atlanta is the most profoundly mediocre of the NBA’s top clubs. The Hawks are hamstrung by Joe Johnson’s obscene contract (about $21 million on average over the next five years for a one-dimensional shooting guard on the decline), as well as the lavish deals awarded to forwards Josh Smith and Al Horford. Atlanta will never improve in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, and with the fiscally creative Indiana Pacers and the star-studded New York Knicks nipping at their heels, a fourth consecutive second-round appearance is not a safe bet.

12. Indiana Pacers

By following the small-market blueprint of assembling a cap-friendly roster that can roll nine or 10 players deep, the Pacers have quietly constructed a team capable of causing havoc in the NBA playoffs. After pushing Chicago in a series far closer than the five games it took to conclude, Indiana nabbed power forward David West in free agency and traded for guard George Hill. Indiana will roll out an intriguing starting lineup of Darren Collison, Paul George, Danny Granger, West and Roy Hibbert, with Hill and rugged forward Tyler Hansbrough set to anchor a reliable second unit. The condensed season will favour young, deep teams like the Pacers, who present a refreshing alternative to the perpetually disappointing Hawks.

Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs may struggle through the condensed 66-game schedule.

11. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs sprinted out to a 40-7 record in the first three months of the 2010-11 season, coasted to the first seed in the Western Conference and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s difficult to see San Antonio replicating their torrid start under the abbreviated schedule, and even harder to picture the team’s aging core entering the playoffs with both healthy bodies and a high seed.

While some have pegged the loss to Memphis as a result of a particularly unfavourable matchup (the Grizzlies’ low-post duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol simply overwhelmed the Spurs’ undermanned front line), their early elimination looks like the first sign of slippage for the Spurs dynasty. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have logged too many miles, and the supporting cast is unprepared to compensate. They’ll make the playoffs until Duncan retires, but San Antonio’s championship window looks to have come to a close.

10. New York Knicks

Pro: The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Con: Their decision to exercise the amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups has left their backcourt in ruins, with combo guard Toney Douglas, rookie combo guard Iman Shumpert, the injured Baron Davis and the ghost of Mike Bibby their options at point guard. Pro: By waiving Billups, the Knicks were able to sign Tyson Chandler, one of basketball’s best defensive centres and the second-most important player on the champion Dallas Mavericks. Con: Stoudemire and Chandler are both notoriously injury-prone, and the depth beyond the “Big 3” rivals the 2010-11 Miami Heat’s abomination of a bench. Solution? By signing a cheap point guard next offseason (Steve Nash, anyone?), praying that Stoudemire and Chandler’s knees hold up and waiting for the aging Boston Celtics to erode, the Knicks will soon be competing for division and conference titles.

9. Los Angeles Lakers

Included in the top 10 by default because of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. What remains after them? The Lakers had to give away Lamar Odom to their biggest rivals for nothing in the aftermath of the aborted Chris Paul deal, leaving them with no weapons off the bench. Metta World Peace has lost his jump shot and ability to log heavy minutes on defense, along with his former name. Neither Derek Fisher nor Steve Blake is an effective backup at this point, yet one will be forced to start at point guard. Matt Barnes, Troy Murphy, Luke Walton and Jason Kapono will all be expected to make significant contrubutions. Josh McRoberts, of all people, is their fourth-best player.

For all his talent, Gasol is prone to down stretches, and is hardly a bargain at $19 million over three more seasons. Although he’s just 24 and has six years of pro experience, Bynum is still very raw offensively, and will miss the first five games of the season after his forearm shiver on JJ Barea in last year’s playoffs. Things are hardly as grim as the Smush Parker salad days of 2006, but Bryant is no longer able to perform his usual yeoman’s work. Will the Kobe/Laker mystique be enough to succeed in a shortened season with no other guards, no depth and no Phil Jackson at the helm? This is not the same Kobe, and these are not the same Lakers.

8. Boston Celtics

Included in the top 10 by default because of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. What remains after them? After engaging in a heavy, fruitless pursuit of Chris Paul (reportedly at Rondo’s expense) and failing to snag David West in free agency, Boston’s biggest offseason move was swapping Glen Davis for Brandon Bass as the backup power forward (a rearrangement of the deck chairs, if anything). Forward Jeff Green will miss the year with a heart condition, leaving Bass as the only legitimate offensive weapon off the bench. There are no reliable backups for Rondo, Allen or Pierce, and the only options at center are (gulp) Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Wilcox.

If Boston’s vaunted Big Four are any two things, they are proud and they are capable defensively, boasting the league’s stingiest defense in terms of points allowed in 2010-11. The Celtics’ elder statesmen are simply not built for an 82-game season, however, much less a 66-game schedule condensed into four short months. Can Allen and Pierce log heavy defensive minutes against guys like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, with no reprieve from the bench and while shouldering the majority of the burden on offense? Can Garnett handle the burden of back-to-back-to-back games? Can Rondo remain steady after being shopped heavily throughout the offseason? These are not the Celtics of 2008, or even 2010, and they are not a team capable of winning the NBA championship.

FRINGE CONTENDERS (teams with a chance to win 2 or 3 playoff rounds)

Zach Randolph starred for the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2011 playoffs.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis threw a wrench into last year’s playoffs by topping the Spurs in a surprisingly one-sided six-game series. Buoyed by one of the NBA’s most vibrant crowds, the Grizzlies would overcome the loss of swingman Rudy Gay (sidelined with a shoulder injury) and come within a game of the Western Conference Finals. As small-market teams go, Memphis is basically a rich man’s Indiana Pacers, with Mike Conley and OJ Mayo holding the edge over Darren Collison and Paul George in the backcourt and Gay and Danny Granger mirroring each other on the wing. The Grizzlies hold a decided advantage over Indiana (and the rest of the league) in the frontcourt: Zach Randolph has overcome weight and attitude issues to develop into one of the league’s few low-post beasts, while Marc Gasol has emerged from his older brother’s shadow as one of the game’s top centers.

There is cause for concern: backup forward Darrell Arthur will miss the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, leaving Hamed Haddadi, a 7-2 center who averaged 6 minutes a game last year, as the primary backup to Randolph and Gasol. For all their low-post dominance, Memphis is not a particularly good shooting team (Gay led the team last year at 39%), allowing opponents to load up against the Grizzlies’ interior threats. Regardless, Gay’s return from injury has Memphis primed to build upon its Cinderella playoff run, to claim its place among the top Western Conference clubs and to raise hell in the postseason once again.

6. Denver Nuggets

Yes, this may be a bit of a stretch for a team that starts Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, Jordan Hamilton, Kenneth Faried and Chris Andersen– wait, sorry, that’s Denver’s second unit. The Nuggets’ starting lineup will actually feature Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington and Nene Hilario, a solid group even without the menacing cast of reserves behind them. The Nuggets have the personnel and the fresh legs to push the pace on offense, finishing first in both points-per-game and offensive efficiency in 2010-11.

Much like Portland or Indiana, the Nuggets are built to play 66 games in 120 days. While they lack a player with the singular ability of LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Granger or David West, they boast unparalleled depth, allowing them to play 11 players upwards of 22 minutes a game, like they did in 2010-11. (Former Nuggets J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin are all currently playing in China, and one or more could sign with Denver when their seasons end in February or March.) By dealing troubled superstar Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks last February, Denver has afforded itself both on-court and financial flexibility, constructing a likeable roster that will score in bunches and is poised to take the next step in the Western Conference.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

Lob City’s most celebrated offseason addition (and rightfully so) will be Chris Paul, the league’s best pure point guard and the perfect table-setter for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Rather than stop at Paul, the Clippers plucked Chauncey Billups off the waiver wire and poached Caron Butler from the champion Mavericks. They lack a true shooting guard after giving up budding star Eric Gordon, but can plug any two of their five veritable point guards (Paul, Billups, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams and Randy Foye) into both guard spots without missing a beat. The Clippers are flawed (one glaring issue is the lack of a post presence off the bench), but then again, so are a lot of teams. A Paul-Billups-Butler-Griffin-Jordan quintet should be enough to propel them into the top four in the Western Conference, with room for improvement from there.

Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.

4. Dallas Mavericks

The club that will open its championship defense on Christmas Day against the Miami Heat will have a decidedly different look than the lineup that clinched the title last June. Most of the key pieces are back, including the incomparable Dirk Nowitzki, super-subs Jason Terry and Shawn Marion and floor general Jason Kidd. Center Tyson Chandler is gone, as is shooting guard and LeBron James antagonist DeShawn Stevenson. In their places are former Lakers forward Lamar Odom, acquired for a draft pick after the fallout of the vetoed Chris Paul trade, and the well-travelled Vince Carter, signed as a free agent from Phoenix. Point guard Roddy Beaubois and free agent Delonte West are poised to offset the loss of slippery backup JJ Barea to Minnesota.

If we learned anything from the 2010-11 NBA season, other than not to count your chickens before they hatch, it was this: Never count out the Dallas Mavericks. That was then, however, before Chandler signed with the Knicks and left Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi as Dallas’ only two centers. For all the brilliance of Nowitzki and Terry, Chandler keyed the title run on the defensive end, gobbling up rebounds, anchoring the defensive rotations and deterring countless drives to the basket, particularly against LeBron and Wade in the Finals. Even though Beaubois should seamlessly replace Barea, even though Carter is an upgrade over Stevenson, even though they poached Odom for nothing, even though Dirk and Terry and Marion and Kidd are still around… I just can’t see them doing it again without their peerless defensive captain.

(In other words, cue the Dallas comeback.)

CONTENDERS (teams that will contend for the NBA championship)

Nick Collison provides a spark off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2b. Chicago Bulls
2a. Oklahoma City Thunder

There are only three teams that have a realistic chance to win the 2011-12 NBA championship. It’s nearly impossible to separate the first two, given the composition of the rosters and their trajectories to the top of the NBA. The Bulls measure themselves by their sterling defense, instilled by coach Tom Thibodeau and enforced by center Joakim Noah and perimeter stopper extraordinaire Luol Deng.  The Thunder are wonderfully efficient on offense, with Russell Westbrook and James Harden operating out of the backcourt, Serge Ibaka popping jumpers from the elbow and Kendrick Perkins camping out under the basket.

Both teams are bolstered by terrific bench units, protecting leads and allowing the starters to rest during crucial interludes. Taj Gibson and Omer Asik give Chicago an extra boost in the frontcourt, while Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison often play late in games to reinforce the Oklahoma City defense. Thibodeau and Thunder coach Scott Brooks have both been lauded for the work they’ve done in dragging their teams from the lower echelons of the NBA and making them perennial contenders.

This is all without mentioning both teams’ undisputed leaders, the league’s two greatest young stars, each of who has racked up individual accolades and established their team among the NBA’s elite in their first few professional seasons. Derrick Rose is a one-man offensive machine for Chicago, driving the basket with reckless abandon, knocking down open shots and finding teammates for easy baskets. Kevin Durant is similarly effective on offense, drawing endless fouls and displaying unparalleled range from outside. Both franchises should be credited for managing to construct rosters that complement the strengths of their young stars so well.

Despite their youth, both the Bulls and Thunder have limited championship windows. Four Chicago starters (Rose, Deng, Noah and Carlos Boozer) earn eight figures in salary, while Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka are all set for lucrative extensions in the next few years. Chicago’s title hopes will depend on greater offensive output from its complementary players (particularly Boozer), while the Thunder must commit to defense on every possession and find a balance between Westbrook and Durant on offense. Both teams have come very far in a short period of team, and both are prepared to take the final step in 2011-12.

THE FAVOURITE

1. Miami Heat

The Miami Heat are the overwhelming favourites to win the NBA championship. They have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They have veteran stopper Shane Battier and a rejuvenated Mike Miller off the bench. They will have Udonis Haslem from the beginning of the season. Unlike Boston or the Lakers, they will be well equipped to handle the rigors of a condensed season. Once again, their depth is thin, particularly in the frontcourt, and they could find themselves in trouble if any of the Big Three go down for an extended period of time.

Regardless of their deficiencies, Miami is, once again, the most talented basketball team in the world. It remains to be seen whether or not they are the world’s best team, a title currently held by the Dallas Mavericks, a title wrested away last June from the Heat and their superstar leaders. This year, there will be no self-indulgent free agency specials or pre-season pep rallies. There will be no excuses. Miami has the personnel to take home the championship. They are the only team whose season will be deemed worthless if they fail to do so.

Six months from now, the Heat will still be alive in the NBA playoffs, attempting to reclaim the prize that was snatched from them by a lanky German and his devoted band of teammates. Their success won’t depend on their bench, or their coaching staff, or even the secondary superstars on the roster. Miami’s title shot rests on the will of one LeBron James, the man who announced his arrival in South Beach to the world, then disappeared for six days last June. What will he do?

NBA Preseason Power Rankings: Part One

December 21, 2011 9:02 am
basketball2

On October 12th, I lambasted the owners and players of the National Basketball Association for their inability to strike a compromise on a labour deal that would put an end to the prolonged NBA lockout. After making sporadic progress over the next six weeks, the two sides finally managed to reach a tentative agreement on November 26th, which was ratified by the players’ union on December 8th. Although the reputations of NBA commissioner David Stern and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter have been tarnished beyond repair and the first quarter of the season was wiped away because of the ego, incompetence and stubbornness of the owners and players, the NBA is finally set to resume play. An abbreviated season will begin on Christmas Day, with teams slated to play 66 games in a span of 120 days.

Rather than harp on the laughable negotiating tactics employed by the owners and players any longer, we can finally discuss actual professional basketball. Here are OLM’s NBA preseason power rankings, presented in reverse order, with all 30 NBA teams separated into tiers based on their projected performance. The rankings shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of the team’s exact finish in the standings, but an estimate of their chances of winning the NBA championship. (For nearly every team, that would be zero chance.)

Part One of this piece will present teams 30 through 17, while Part Two will present the projected playoff teams.

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Lottery Teams (teams virtually guaranteed to finish at the bottom of the standings)

Jamaal Magloire was an NBA All-Star in 2004. Unfortunately for the Toronto Raptors, it's nearly 2012.

30. Toronto Raptors

Not even defensive maestro Dwane Casey will be able to save the Raptors from themselves this season. Led by a point guard in rapid decline (Jose Calderon) and a 7-footer that can’t rebound or play defense (Andrea Bargnani), Toronto’s rotation boasts several players that wouldn’t see the court on contending teams (Jerryd Bayless, James Johnson, Linus Kleiza and Amir Johnson, to name four). With 2011 first-rounder Jonas Valanciunas stuck in Lithuania until 2012-13, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and power forward Ed Davis are the only promising youngsters on the roster. GM Bryan Colangelo’s offseason activity (most notably, the signings of Rasual Butler, Anthony Carter, Gary Forbes, Aaron Gray and Canadian basketball legend Jamaal Magloire) has Toronto primed to tank this shortened season, select a burgeoning superstar from the 2012 draft class and continue the rebuild from there.

29. Charlotte Bobcats

There is literally nothing redeeming about Charlotte’s current roster. Their best player is Corey Maggette, a 32-year old small forward who’s been a sixth man for the past three years. A 48-year old Michael Jordan would be an upgrade at shooting guard over Gerald Henderson and Matt Carroll. The loss of Kwame Brown has decimated their frontcourt, a sentence that, on its own, should be enough to contract this sorry excuse for a franchise.

28. Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have been reduced to a shadow of their 2004 championship team, though their core is a tad more promising than Charlotte’s. Emerging pivot Greg Monroe should continue to impress in his second pro season, and though Ben Gordon has endured two straight disappointing seasons in Detroit, he’s a proven scorer and still only 28 years old. The Pistons should earn their highest draft pick since 2003, when they used the 2nd overall selection on the immortal Darko Milicic.

27. Cleveland Cavaliers

Year 2 post-LBJ will see the Cavs show slight improvement in the win-percentage column, with top picks Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson expected to log major minutes by the end of the season. The long road back to contention will begin in earnest with the addition of another top prospect in June 2012.

The New Jersey Nets will move to Brooklyn after the 2011-12 season, possibly with Orlando center Dwight Howard in tow.

26. New Jersey Nets

Beyond Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, the roster is frighteningly thin. Their playoff chances in 2011-12 are eerily similar to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s odds in the Russian presidential election, though the rumoured addition of Dwight Howard via trade could change the Nets’ fortunes dramatically.

25. New Orleans Hornets

Had commissioner David Stern not vetoed a three-team trade that would have sent disgruntled Hornets point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers (and Pau Gasol to Houston), New Orleans could have opened the 2011-12 season with a starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola and Emeka Okafor, with Lamar Odom and Carl Landry coming off the bench. Even after trading their franchise player and losing his sidekick (power forward David West) in free agency, the Hornets would have boasted a playoff-calibre lineup while gutting two Western Conference rivals in the process.

Alas, Stern shot the deal down, citing “basketball reasons” and the wishes of the NBA’s other 29 owners. (The league has taken charge of the Hornets until a new owner can be found.) Stern’s massive conflict of interest aside, New Orleans was allowed to flip Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package centred on shooting guard Eric Gordon. Gordon exploded offensively in 2010-11, his third NBA season, but hasn’t been his team’s first option since his time at the University of Indiana. The downgrade from Scola and Odom to Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu is significant, and the Jarrett Jack-Terrico White point guard combination leaves much to be desired. The Hornets are younger, as per Stern’s wishes, but are hardly better positioned to win in the short- or long-term.

(And yes, if they were in the Eastern Conference, New Orleans could easily finish 10th. But they’re not.)

24. Sacramento Kings

While Sacramento guards Jimmer Fredette and Tyreke Evans may initially seem like polar opposites (one is a devout Mormon; the other served as the driver in a drive-by shooting while he was in high school), there are many similarities between the two. Neither is a true point guard, though both play the position. Neither is renowned for their work on the defensive end. Both are high-volume shooters who dominate the ball on offense. With resident malcontent DeMarcus Cousins pining for shots in the post, the Kings will be entertaining, to say the least.

Fringe Playoff Teams (teams that could conceivably challenge for a low playoff spot)

Washington center JaVale McGee is more renowned for his aerial theatrics than any form of on-court success.

23. Washington Wizards

Jan Vesely and John Wall should combine to form the most dynamic alley-oop tandem this side of the Los Angeles Clippers, while JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche will continue to delight fans with their Julius Erving impersonations and relentless pursuit of triple-doubles. The Wizards may sometimes play stupid, uninspired basketball, but at least they have Wall.

22. Phoenix Suns

The Suns return much of last year’s mediocre lineup that finished 40-42, with former Lakers backup guard Shannon Brown and journeyman Sebastian Telfair the only offseason additions of note. The gross incompetence of owner Robert Sarver not only threatened the entire NBA season, but has also squandered Steve Nash’s prime years and successfully derailed the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.

(Note: This low ranking may be partially based on my desire to see Nash dealt to or sign in the offseason with the New York Knicks. Imagine a Nash-Amare Stoudemire-Mike D’Antoni reunion, with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler (the league’s second-best defensive centre) thrown in for good measure. He could compete for his first NBA title in basketball’s biggest market, which doubles as his offseason home, and film the much-anticipated sequel to his Step Brothers collaboration with the recently signed Baron Davis. There’s really no potential downside here. Let the #freenash movement resume.)

21. Golden State Warriors

Despite an offseason of extensive turnover, the status quo will continue to reign in Oakland. The Stephen Curry-Monta Ellis-David Lee nucleus will put up a prolific amount of points while conceding even more on the defensive end. If his track record as an ESPN analyst is any indication, the addition of Mark Jackson as head coach will do little to spur the Warriors from their perennial 12th-place finish.

Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio will suit up for Minnesota in 2011-12.

20. Minnesota Timberwolves

This may be a giant reach for a team that managed to outlast Cleveland and secure 30th place in the NBA last season. There’s really nowhere to go in Minnesota but up, however, and the introduction of Rick Adelman as head coach should ensure that some measure of forward progress will be achieved. Ricky Rubio and JJ Barea will stabilize the point guard position, rookie Derrick Williams will provide explosiveness at multiple positions and Kevin Love will continue to monger rebounds and refine his offensive game. If all goes right, they’ll finish on the outskirts of the playoffs.

19. Utah Jazz

The Jazz possess a potentially devastating frontcourt, with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson slated to start, promising youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter providing support off the bench and Mehmet Okur slated to return from an Achilles injury. Utah’s playoff hopes are contingent upon point guard Devin Harris returning to All-Star form, the Jazz’s continued maturation on defense and GM Kevin O’Connor parlaying one of his bigs (likely Okur and his expiring contract) into immediate help elsewhere in the lineup.

18. Houston Rockets

After being gypped out of acquiring Pau Gasol and losing out on Marc Gasol, Nene and Tyson Chandler in free agency, Houston enters the season without any frontcourt replacements for the departed Yao Ming, Brad Miller and Chuck Hayes. The players the Rockets do have (particularly the ever-underrated Kevin Martin and Luis Scola) should be enough to keep them out of the depths of the Western Conference, but their playoff aspirations will ride on the itchy trigger finger of GM Daryl Morey.

17. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks followed their breakout 2009-10 campaign by crashing back to earth in 2010-11, winning just 35 games as their top four scorers all missed significant time due to injury. Two of those players, swingmen John Salmons and Corey Maggette, are gone, replaced by Stephen Jackson and Mike Dunleavy Jr. The success of the Bucks will depend on the health and effectiveness of the other two, third-year guard Brandon Jennings and emerging centre Andrew Bogut. If they can replicate their output from two years ago, the Bucks will challenge for a 7- or 8-seed.

Ottawa Senators Monthly Report: November

December 1, 2011 9:00 am
Smith

After capping off the month of October with a six-game winning streak, placing them in a tie for sixth place in the NHL, the Ottawa Senators cooled off in November, dropping five straight games before slogging through an arduous six-game road trip. The Sens would emerge in the bottom half of the NHL standings, though they sit just three points out of the league’s top ten as the season passes the quarter-pole – far better than certain analysts prognosticated before the year began.

The defense has gradually began to mesh, with Erik Karlsson asserting himself as one of hockey’s best young defensemen at both ends of the rink. The offensive charge has remained consistent, with the Sens’ 75 goals for placing them sixth in the NHL, above perennial juggernauts Vancouver, Washington and Detroit. While they couldn’t maintain the torrid pace that they held for much of October, Ottawa stood tall in the month of November, proving that they will be no easy out as the race to the postseason begins to gain steam.

Record: 5-5-2. (Currently 12-10-2. 4th in Northeast Division. 8th in Eastern Conference. T-18th in NHL.)

Nick Foligno scored 11 points and pulled spot duty as a CTV weatherman during November.

Leading Scorers: (November) – (Total)

Nick Foligno (12 GP: 5 G, 6 A, 11 PTS) – (24: 7-7-14)
Zack Smith (12 GP: 5 G, 4 A, 9 PTS) – (24: 6-8-14)
Erik Karlsson (12 GP: 0 G, 9 A, 9 PTS) – (24: 1-21-22)
Jason Spezza (12 GP: 3 G, 5 A, 8 PTS) – (24: 9-14-23)
Sergei Gonchar (12 GP: 2 G, 6 A, 8 PTS) – (23: 2-15-17)

Game-by-Game Recap

The memories of Ottawa’s late-October win streak would vanish as soon as the calendar turned. On November 1st, the Sens fell victim to the powerhouse Boston Bruins, whose 5-3 victory spurred the defending champions’ turnaround from an early-season skid. Ottawa would fall in two more divisional contests, losing 2-1 to Montreal on Carey Price’s 33 saves, then dropping a 3-2 decision to Buffalo in a shootout. The streak would carry into the next week, with a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers on November 9th and a 5-1 blowout at the hands of the Sabres on November 11th, a game in which Craig Anderson was yanked after just 2:25.

The Sens’ last win had come on October 30th against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a rematch with their Ontario rivals proved to be the solution to Ottawa’s woes. After a 5-2 victory at the Air Canada Centre, the Senators embarked on a six-day road swing that saw them visit all three of Western Canada’s NHL teams. They would play their two most complete games of the month in Calgary and Edmonton, throttling the Flames’ anemic offense in a 3-1 victory and outgunning the Oilers’ youngsters in a 5-2 win. The Sens would hang tight against Vancouver, last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, eventually falling 2-1 in overtime.

After five days of rest, Ottawa travelled to Pittsburgh, losing 6-3 in a game that was marred by Sidney Crosby’s elbow to the head of Nick Foligno (after Crosby spent his long layoff from a concussion decrying headshots, no less). Ottawa would rebound two nights later against Carolina, winning 4-3, before capping the month with an entertaining 6-4 victory over Winnipeg behind Anderson’s 39 saves.

Erik Karlsson has 21 assists in 24 games, good for first among all NHLers.

Player of the Month

Erik Karlsson continues to play at an assist-per-game pace; his 21 helpers lead the entire league, while his 22 points lead all defensemen. Not only is Karlsson establishing himself as hockey’s best young offensive defensemen, he is refining his game on the defensive end, playing over 25 minutes a night and helping to shut down Phil Kessel, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jeff Skinner in Senators victories. After injuries took down several Ottawa forwards, Nick Foligno burst out offensively in November, leading the club with 11 points and even stepping in as the second-line centre after Stephane Da Costa’s late-month demotion. Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza continue to produce offensively, though not at the same pace as in October.

By any evaluation, however, the Sens’ most important player in the month of November was none other than Zack Smith. After exploding offensively in last year’s Calder Cup playoffs, Smith began to display his offensive touch this month, notching five goals and nine points, including game-winners against Carolina and Winnipeg in Ottawa’s last two wins. A mainstay on the penalty kill, Smith is currently centering Kaspars Daugavins and Erik Condra on one of the league’s most destructive third lines. Along with Foligno, Smith picked up much of the offensive slack when the top two lines were struggling, keying several Sens comebacks and showcasing his potential as a future Chris Kelly-Chris Neil hybrid in Ottawa’s bottom six.

Other Player Trends

Condra and Daugavins continue to impress, particularly on the penalty kill, where they have keyed the Senators’ shorthanded renaissance along with Smith and Jesse Winchester. Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba have both rebounded well after rough 2010-11 seasons, with Gonchar teaming up with Karlsson on the power play and Kuba providing responsible defense. Chris Phillips continues to be solid on the back end, with rookie Jared Cowen showing marked improvement every game.

Colin Greening has slowed considerably after a hot start, while captain Daniel Alfredsson has struggled to establish a rhythm after missing two stretches of games due to injury. Nikita Filatov impressed the Sens brass after a short stint in Binghamton, earning himself another promotion to Ottawa, where he has slowly began to assert himself more on the offensive end. Bobby Butler scored twice in Ottawa’s 3-1 win over Calgary, but has been unable to earn a permanent spot in the team’s top six, with most of his ice time coming on the fourth line.

Goal of the Month

Kaspars Daugavins emerged as a force on Ottawa's third line during November, befitting a man with such esteemed facial hair.

The Senators potted 36 goals in the month of November, equaling their unofficial output from the previous month. (Ottawa won three shootouts in October, giving them 39 total goals for.) A few stood out from the rest of the pack, including Milan Michalek’s individual effort against Buffalo and Erik Condra’s wrister against Pittsburgh. (Michalek’s empty-net goal against Toronto was also considered for the honour, with the caveat that it came off a pinpoint pass from the Maple Leafs’ Clarke MacArthur into his own net.)

Jason Spezza, however, managed to top his teammates with his first marker against Carolina, taking a pass in the neutral zone, slicing through two Hurricane defenders and slipping a forehand past a helpless Cam Ward. The goal came just 55 seconds into the game, and Spezza would later add another to spur the Senators to a 4-3 win.

Game of the Month

Facing off against Edmonton on November 17th, Ottawa overpowered the Oilers’ celebrated band of youngsters, rolling into Rexall Place and emerging with a well-earned 5-2 victory. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle were all held pointless and finished a combined -6, while Nikolai Khabibulin was pulled from the game during the first intermission after allowing three goals on seven shots.

Although the Sens managed just 16 total shots on goal, five different players would score: Colin Greening, Kaspars Daugavins, Milan Michalek, Jesse Winchester and Zenon Konopka. Jason Spezza registered two assists, Erik Karlsson logged over 26 minutes of ice time and Craig Anderson was credited with 22 saves and the win.

Looking Ahead

After playing 12 games in each of the first two months of the season, Ottawa will compete in 15 over the next 31 days. Unlike November, the Sens’ December schedule will be weighted towards home dates, with just six games taking place away from Scotiabank Place. The key stretch will be the four-game homestand from the 14th to the 22nd, with Boston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Florida coming to visit. The Sens will face off against Buffalo three times in December, with multiple matchups against Washington also on the schedule. The December 27th game against Montreal will highlight the holiday season, with Ottawa sporting their heritage jerseys against their division rivals.

All-Star Game Update

The NHL All-Star Game fan balloting is entering its third week, with fans selecting six of the game’s starters through online voting. With the game taking place on January 29th at Scotiabank Place, the first priority of all Senators fans should be to ensure that Daniel Alfredsson earns his rightful place in the starting lineup, by virtue of placing in the top 3 in votes among forwards. With Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek all performing like worthy All-Stars, the utmost importance should be placed on voting our captain to the All-Star Game in what could be his final NHL season.

Toronto forward Phil Kessel currently leads all forwards with 258,446 votes. Alfredsson is second, with 233,868 votes, and Spezza is third, with 209,455 votes. Karlsson leads all defensemen with 256,839 votes, while Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf is second with 213,617 votes.

I implore all of you, as Sens fans, to go to vote.nhl.com and submit a lineup of Alfredsson-Spezza-Michalek and Karlsson-Gonchar, with Craig Anderson as a write-in candidate in goal. Fans can vote up to 30 times online; they can also vote 30 times on their mobile phone at vote.nhl.com, and 30 times by texting their favourite player’s name to 81812 (this is where Alfredsson would get the sole vote). Voting closes on January 4th. With the All-Star Game at home, it’s the least we can do for our captain, our team and ourselves.

Grey Cup Preview: BC vs. Winnipeg

November 24, 2011 8:36 am
Grey Cup

The hierarchy of the Canadian Football League, dominated in recent years by the Montreal Alouettes and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, underwent a significant transformation in 2011. After two consecutive Grey Cup showdowns, neither the Als nor the Riders stood as one of the CFL’s final four teams, with Montreal falling in the division semi-finals and Saskatchewan missing the playoffs entirely. Instead, the 99th Grey Cup will feature a pair of unlikely foes: the East Division champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the West Division champion BC Lions, who will meet in the title game for the first time since 1988.

The 2011 CFL regular season was defined by a nearly unprecedented level parity. The Lions, the Edmonton Eskimos and the Calgary Stampeders all deadlocked at the top of the West Division standings at 11-7, while Winnipeg and Montreal both finished atop the East at 10-8. Having emerged victorious in their respective playoff games, the Bombers and Lions will square off this Sunday at BC Place, both fighting for the second-most esteemed trophy in Canadian professional sports.

Both Winnipeg and BC suffered through extended losing stretches that threatened to derail their playoff aspirations. Seven weeks into the season, the Lions sat at 1-6, having already dropped two games to the Bombers and languishing at the bottom of the CFL standings. BC would thrash Edmonton 36-1 the following week, setting the stage for an improbable eight-game win streak and a West Division championship. The Lions would place a league-high eight players on the CFL All-Star team, headlined by quarterback Travis Lulay and linebacker Solomon Elimimian.

BC quarterback Travis Lulay finished 2nd in the CFL with 4,815 passing yards.

Winnipeg, meanwhile, exploded out of the gate, starting the season 7-1, with their lone defeat coming in a one-point game against Calgary. Just as the Lions began to vault up the standings, the Bombers fell off, losing twice in a row to the lowly Roughriders and dropping seven of their final 10 games. They would manage to secure first place in the East based on their two victories over Montreal, earning a bye to the division final while the Alouettes fell to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Despite their slow start, BC’s sterling defense conceded the fewest points in the CFL, buoyed in part by four games in which they held their opponent to six points or less. Their offense would fall just four total points back of Montreal for the league’s top ranking, with Lulay passing for over 4,800 yards and 32 touchdowns. The interminable Geroy Simon, in his 11th season with the Lions, ranked second in the league in receiving, while Elimimian, the reigning CFL Rookie of the Year, patrolled the field with reckless impunity, racking up 98 tackles on the season.

Winnipeg’s statistical profile is noticeably less impressive, as the Bombers have struggled to regain the swagger that permeated their entire roster through the early weeks of the season. While quarterback Buck Pierce set a career high in passing yards, he also tossed 18 interceptions, establishing himself as little more than a somewhat reliable game manager. Leading rusher Fred Reid will not suit up in the championship game due to injury, leaving second-year player Chris Garrett as the primary back. Defensive end Odell Willis led the CFL in sacks, with 13.

Buck Pierce signed with Winnipeg in 2010 after being released by the Lions.

There is no shortage of storylines surrounding the 99th Grey Cup, with players and coaches on both sidelines seeking to cement their legacy or prove a point to their former team. BC, for their part, is attempting to become just the fourth team in league history to clinch a championship on their home field. Though the Lions played only four of their nine regular season home games at BC Place (with the others coming at Empire Field, which is scheduled for demolition), they were unbeaten at the newly renovated stadium, including a 40-23 win over Edmonton in the West Division final. The Lions are also searching for their first Grey Cup title since 2006, while Winnipeg’s last championship came all the way back in 1990.

Sunday may also mark the final CFL game for Lions head coach Wally Buono, who has won four Grey Cups in his 22-year coaching career (3 of which came between 1992 and 2001 with Calgary). Regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the history of Canadian football, Buono shrugged off the Lions’ dismal start to 2011 to clinch his 13th career division championship. While he has yet to make a decision on his future with the Lions, Buono may very well walk away from football after this year’s Grey Cup – particularly if he can lead his team to victory one last time.

Buono’s counterpart on the opposite sideline will be Paul LaPolice, the Bombers’ second-year head coach. LaPolice served as an offensive assistant for four teams before joining Winnipeg in 2010, enduring a 4-14 campaign in his initial year as head coach. Just like Buono, LaPolice has his team primed for a Grey Cup appearance in his second season (though Buono’s Stampeders fell to Toronto in the championship game in 1991).

Wally Buono is in his 22nd season as a head coach in the CFL.

For Pierce, Sunday’s game represents more than a chance to win his second Grey Cup as a CFL quarterback. After spending five seasons with the Lions (and winning a title as the backup to Dave Dickenson in 2006), Pierce was released by BC in March 2010, having been passed on the depth chart by the up-and-coming Travis Lulay. Plagued by injuries after signing as a free agent with Winnipeg, Pierce played a crucial role in Winnipeg’s 7-1 start in 2011, before gradually fading along with the rest of his teammates. Equally proficient with his feet and his arm, Pierce will try to regain the spark he displayed at the beginning of the season, in the hopes of defeating his former team and hoisting the Grey Cup.

The 99th Grey Cup is likely BC’s to lose, Winnipeg’s two early-season victories against the Lions notwithstanding. Although the Bombers’ defense throttled Hamilton in their 19-3 East Division championship win, the Lions have lost just once since August 13th, when they fell to Winnipeg 30-17. Pierce will have to limit turnovers and Garrett will have to replicate his effort from the Hamilton game, where he gained 190 yards on the ground, for the Bombers to win. If Lulay and Simon can establish a connection and Elimimian and the rest of the defense can put the pressure on Pierce, then the Lions should capture their sixth Grey Cup in franchise history.

Sunday’s game will be preceded by the 47th Vanier Cup, which will take place Saturday at BC Place between the top-ranked Laval Rouge et Or and the OUA champion McMaster Marauders. Laval is attempting to repeat as defending champions and capture their sixth national title in nine years, while McMaster is appearing in their first Vanier Cup since 1967. While the game promises to be a hotly contested affair, it will serve as a little more than a prelude to Sunday’s Grey Cup, where BC and Winnipeg, two teams left for dead at one point or another this season, will attempt to establish themselves as Canada’s best football team.

The Moral Failure of Penn State

November 17, 2011 9:14 am
Paterno

After the initial wave of damage had taken its toll, after the coach had been fired, the president forced to resign, the athletic director indicted and the former defensive coordinator arrested on 40 counts of sexually assaulting young children, there was still a game to be played. This story is no longer about football – it encapsulates football only in that the man who stands accused used his position within the football program to facilitate his horrible crimes, and that the inaction of the men who ran the program allowed the crimes to continue. The scandal, the shame and the sorrow transcended football. It rendered football meaningless.

But the college football schedule dictated that there was a game to be played at Beaver Stadium on November 12th. The Penn State Nittany Lions would take the field at home, ranked 12th in the country and sporting an 8-1 record, facing the 19th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. Penn State had risen to the top of the Big Ten standings on the strength of their suffocating defense, with their only loss on the year coming to the Alabama Crimson Tide, one of the top teams in the nation. The Nebraska game would be crucial for Penn State’s chances of competing in a major bowl game at the end of the season. Before November arrived, there was no reason to believe that the contest would be anything more than a matchup between two very good football teams.

Penn State took the field last Saturday without their legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, who had been fired by the school’s Board of Trustees three days before. Paterno wasn’t let go for any issues pertaining to his job performance – he won 409 games in 46 years as the coach of the Nittany Lions, and even this season, at 84 years old, he had the team cruising towards another bowl appearance. After nearly five decades of faithful service and success, Paterno’s legacy is irrevocably tarnished, not because of a sudden inability to win games, but for an offense that surpasses football and infringes on the boundaries of basic human decency.

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno was fired on November 9th.

The story behind the scandal at Penn State dates back several decades, to Paterno’s early years as head coach. In 1977, longtime Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky founded The Second Mile, a non-profit organization that would be based in State College, Pennsylvania, and provide help for underprivileged and at-risk youth. (Sandusky was also promoted to defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lions that same year.) Sandusky would remain at Penn State until his retirement in 1999, though he continued to use the school’s facilities to operate summer football camps. In 2002, he was presented with an Angels in Adoption award for his work with The Second Mile.

Sandusky’s involvement with the organization and the Penn State football program were thrust into focus on November 5th, when he was arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing young boys, following a three-year investigation by a Pennsylvania grand jury. Characterizing the findings of the grand jury report as disgusting or repugnant would be to sell Sandusky’s actions short; the details in the report are grisly, and readers should be warned of the sickening nature of the accusations levied against the former coach. The report lists eight unidentified victims, each of whom first became acquainted with Sandusky through The Second Mile, and each of who were subjected to varying forms of assault from the sexual predator who ran Penn State’s defense for 22 years.

Sandusky, for his part, professed his innocence in an exceedingly uncomfortable interview with NBC’s Bob Costas on Monday (though it took him a surprising amount of time to deny that he was sexually attracted to young boys). If Sandusky is, in fact, guilty of these unspeakable crimes (as every other source of testimony indicates), he faces a potential life sentence in prison. Much of the focus on the case, however, has fallen not on Sandusky, but on the men who turned a blind eye on the allegations and allowed Sandusky’s actions to continue – most notably, Paterno, former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former school president Graham Spanier.

Former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is accused of sexually assaulting eight young boys.

The most damning revelation in the grand jury report comes from Nittany Lions assistant coach Mike McQueary, who testified in December 2010 that he had witnessed Sandusky engaging in anal intercourse with a boy of approximately ten years old in a shower at the Penn State football complex. (The incident occurred in 2002, when McQueary was a graduate assistant. The victim is identified as Victim 2 in the report.) McQueary informed Paterno of what he had witnessed the next day. Paterno, in turn, reported the incident to Curley, who passed on the information to Spanier. None of the men brought it to the attention of university or local police. Curley eventually made the decision to bar Sandusky from the Penn State locker room, though the former coach would remain free from the law for nine more years.

It is apparent that Paterno, Curley and Spanier were more interested in protecting the brand that is Penn State football than in bringing Sandusky to justice. After the grand jury determined his testimony to be not credible, Curley was charged with perjury; he has been placed on administrative leave. After 16 years as president of the university, the Board of Trustees fired Spanier on November 9th. He remains a potential target of the investigation.

The bulk of the media coverage has fallen, predictably, on the beloved head coach, Paterno, whose statue stands in the concourse outside Beaver Stadium. After his firing was announced last Wednesday, despondent Penn State students rioted on campus in protest, flipping over a news van and imparting the message that football would take precedence over the welfare of Sandusky’s victims. (To their credit, Penn State students would hold a candlelight vigil for victims of child abuse two days later, after the national media rightfully skewered them for the knee-jerk reaction to Paterno’s dismissal.)

Penn State students took to the streets on November 9th to protest the firing of Joe Paterno.

Paterno is not directly culpable for any legal offense, as Pennsylvania is not one of 18 states that require all adults to report suspected child abuse to the police. The Pennsylvania Attorney General has stated that Paterno will not be investigated for his role in the case. Paterno instead failed the moral obligation of stopping Sandusky when he had the chance – armed with the information presented to him by McQueary, Paterno (along with Curley and Spanier) chose to stand idly by as Sandusky continued to prey on young children, threatened with nothing but his banishment from the Penn State locker room.

While the Board of Trustees was right to immediately relieve Paterno and Spanier from their duties, both the school and the football program face a long road to recovery. Tom Bradley, Sandusky’s replacement as defensive coordinator in 2009, has replaced Paterno as head coach in the interim, while a new athletic director will need to be hired. It remains to be seen if the Penn State student body will be remembered for the ill advised riot in the wake of Paterno’s firing or for whatever actions they take in the near future to restore the reputation of their university.

As for Paterno, his legacy has been tarnished beyond repair. He isn’t the first college football coach to undo decades of success with a single miscue – Woody Hayes’ assault on an opposing player springs to mind – but he is at the forefront of the most severe scandal in the history of collegiate sports. The victims of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse will, hopefully, recover as best they can. Sandusky, meanwhile, should spend the rest of his life rotting away in a federal prison, while Paterno will spend the rest of his life wondering what he could have done to prevent a tragedy from unfolding in State College.

Of course, before anything else was to be done, a football game had to be played. Penn State took the field last Saturday without their legendary head coach, who watched from his home a few blocks north of Beaver Stadium. They lost 17-14.

Flu shot or not? Bryce Wylde Talks to OLM

November 10, 2011 9:22 am
Products Bryce Wylde supports

As Bryce Wylde walked into the elegant Ottawa Sheraton lobby, wearing a blue suit with an affixed poppy to his collar, we shook hands. “You feel well?” he asked attentively. Shocked by the formulation, I quickly answered, “yes, yes, I’m fine thanks, you?” He smiled and nodded convincingly as we moved across the lobby to the salon where, four blue leather club chairs seemed to be patiently waiting for us to sit and start to chat.

Widely known as an alternative medicine expert and as the host of Wylde on Health. He also regularly appears on The Doctor Oz show, CTV’s Canada AM, The Marilyn Denis Show and Steven and Chris to name a few.

Growing up, Wylde learned the roots of homeopathy early through his mother’s old home-antidotes. “Garlic remedies, mustard plasters, among others, were all part of my childhood,” said Wylde. “My mother, perhaps a little ahead of her time, was a vegetarian and a strong believer in natural remedies.” As mother is the experience of wisdom, Wylde began to take an interest in alternative medicine after completing his Bachelor of Science in Bio-Psychology from York University. Wylde explains his tipping point, “after working at Queens Street Mental Hospital, my experience was somewhat negative not being able to access patients through cognitive behavioural psychology techniques since they were often on a lot of medication and it felt futile dealing with “drug pictures.” He became a strong supporter of organic products and anything natural from the ground up. Wylde later received a Diploma in Homeopathic Medicine and Health Sciences from the Ontario College of Homeopathic Medicine.

While Wylde is not afraid to plant his feet down when it comes to justifying preventive medicine, he stresses not to exclude other types of health care.  “It’s important to integrate non-conventional medicine and make it complementary to conventional medicine,” said Wylde, while on his Nationwide prevent the flu tour. The ‘No Flu For You’ campaign is a coast to coast tour alerting citizens of alternatives to the seasonal flu shot. “I’m not against the flu shot, I just want people to educate themselves before taking it,” he said. “One problem with the flu shot is the mercury in it and there are no safe-levels of mercury.” Wylde also points to a recent Lancet study showing a 59 per cent efficiency rate for the flu shot. “Healthy people might want to consider something else,” he said.

The back of the No Flu For You T-Shirt

Wylde doesn’t claim to have the magic pill, his goal is to toss the seeds of homeopathy . “There are no miracle solutions guaranteeing you will not be sick, but there are alternative medicine options which will get your body working better,” said Wylde, who continuously tills the ground of alternative medicine. To boost our immune system Wylde points to Vitamin D for us who live north of 32 degrees. “We need to learn more about how to optimize the body and the mind.”

Consumers also want to optimize their wallets and Wylde warns against certain products. “Some cough-drops have more sugar than anything and sugar can aggravate your cough or flu” said Wylde.“Certain ingredients in those products are efficient, such as eucalyptus oil however, you’re better off buying all-natural drops and rub them on your chest,” he said.  “There are many products out there which are useless, buyers beware.” According to Wylde, checking for DIN-HM or NPN number is a good way to ensure you’re buying an efficient product.

In 2009, Canadians spent $338 million on over-the-counter cold and flu products. Profit margins for pharmaceutical companies are excessively high. In 2002, these companies enjoyed a median profit margin of 17 per cent compared with 3.1 per cent for other industries. Last year, four major pharmaceutical companies found themselves on the top 100 companies of Fortune’s ranking of Americans largest companies. Wylde isn’t against pharmaceutical companies, “if you feel there is something wrong, in the words of Jesse Ventura ‘just follow the money’.” The homeopathic does however have a problem with certain methods of advertisement these companies use. “What I find sick are those underlining messages they use, when they tell someone to ask for a specific brand.”

Bryce Wylde Host of Wylde of Health

In Wylde’s top ten list of flu prevention tips which include the neti-pot, hand washing, petroleum jelly, the number one suggestion is the Echinacea plant based Jamieson Flu Shield. In 2005, a report in the New England Journal of Medical Review declared the plant to be ineffective in combating the flu and cold, yet Wylde asserts the report is defunct. “It was the best science at the time and they did not analyze the version of the plant used in the Flu Shield,” which is the Echinacea angustifolia variation. In Italy, Wylde  meet-up with the Italian scientists which handle the Echinacea used in the Flu Shield. They removed the immune suppressant found in the plant, making it different from the one studied in the report. Furthermore, the Flu Shield’s Echinacea has no cross-pollination with other types of Echinacea allowing it to keep its immune boosting and flu fighting characteristics. “There are clinical evidence to support the solutions,” said Wylde.

However, Dr. Earl Brown, Medical Professor at Ottawa University disagrees with the statement. “There remains no evidence Echinacea is helpful to fight the flu or the common cold,” said Brown, a specialist in immunology. “I’m not against natural products, in fact, some of the best medicines stem from natural products, such as penicillin and aspirin,” explains Brown. “This whole discourse sounds more like a sales pitch.” Now, you have the choice either you can get the flu shot, pick-up a Jamieson product or just take a shot of natural Jameson Irish Whiskey to fight the flu.

While we try to combat the flu many attempt to condone homeopathy and Brown’s arguments augment the already present skepticism around alternative medicine. For Wylde, “skepticism is healthy, it pushes people to prove what they support.” Wylde, who supports evidence-based products, does have a problem with close-minded people who ignore new valid-arguments. “I just find it unhealthy,” he said. As we went our different ways Wylde said “feel well!” Shocked by the formulation, I responded, “oh yes, yes, you too!”

Canada loses show jumping superstar

November 9, 2011 3:05 pm
Hickstead3

Canadian and world equestrian enthusiasts were left shocked and saddened this Sunday after the death of show jumper Eric Lamaze’s legendary stallion Hickstead. The champion horse died shortly after he and Lamaze completed a course at the Rolex FEI World Cup in Verona, Italy, in front of an arena packed with horrified onlookers.

Veterinarians tried unsuccessfully to revive Hickstead. While Lamaze has stated his teammate died of an apparent heart attack, the exact cause of death remains unknown until an autopsy has been completed.

Hickstead’s death tragically ended a partnership that helped push Canada to the top of show jumping, a sport usually dominated by Europeans and Americans. The superstar stallion, who has often been referred to as the “Michael Jordan of the Equestrian world”, had a legendary track record. Hickstead’s accomplishments include an Individual Gold and Team Silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, 1st place at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, USA, and winner of the $1 Million CN International at the Spruce Meadows Masters Tournament in Calgary, Alberta. Together Hickstead and Lamaze have fetched over $3 million dollars in prize money. To say that Hickstead was one of Canada’s greatest athletes would be an understatement.

Hickstead and Lamaze won an individual gold and team silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Lamaze, who is currently the number one rider in the world, is deeply saddened by his loss and mourning his long time teammate. The Montreal-born athlete had a special bond with Hickstead which he will likely never duplicate with a new mount. And with less than nine months before the London Games, many are wondering if Lamaze will be able to find one that is Olympic-calibre. Akaash Maharaj, the CEO of Equine Canada has stated, “It’s fair to say there certainly isn’t another Hickstead in the world, and that will be a misfortune for Eric.”

Hickstead is the horse which largely helped to redeem Lamaze as a rider. During team tryouts for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Lamaze tested positive for cocaine use, and was subsequently banned from competing for four years. (Later this suspension would be reduced to seven months). Lamaze earned a spot on Canada’s Equestrian Team again in 2000, but once again, tested positive for banned substances. The athlete spent the next six years rebuilding both his showjumping career and damaged reputation. When Lamaze met Hickstead, who was surprisingly turned down by the American showjumping team, it was a match made in heaven. Lamaze’s riding style, which is often described as fast and aggressive, was a perfect match for the bold, quick Hickstead. Together the team went on to be arguably the most dominant pair in the world of showjumping.

Generations of future equestrian enthusiasts will draw inspiration from Hickstead's career.

Thousands of fans are showing their support for Lamaze and paying tribute to Hickstead on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. In addition, many memorial videos are being uploaded to Youtube, which highlight Hickstead’s raw talent and the incredible bond between Lamaze and his mount. Equine Canada has a tribute page, in which Hickstead fans can both share sentiments and grieve his loss.

On the tribute page, one person eloquently wrote: “Once in a lifetime comes a really great team who absolutely inspires everyone around them – Eric, you and Hickstead were such a team and you thrilled us each and every time we saw you. Hickstead, you will always be loved and sadly missed.” While Hickstead will never truly be forgotten, fans can take pride in the fact that thanks to him and Lamaze, we all flew a little closer to the stars.

Let Your Body Do the Talking with Ayurveda

November 7, 2011 1:46 pm
Ayurvedic & Herbal Products1

For the uninitiated, Ayurvedic massage comes as a surprise. It’s not every day after all that your body – not you or the massage therapist – gets to decide what massage oils will be used. But ensuring that your body receives the right treatment at the right time in the right way is key to Ayurvedic treatments.  And there is no better way to do so than by tuning into your body’s own wisdom.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Ayurveda, Sanskrit for “the complete knowledge for long life” is a millennia old system of traditional medicine from India.  At its centre is the knowledge that everything in the universe is made of five elements (space, air, fire, water and earth) including humans. And that is where matching products to the needs of your body comes in. In Ayurvedic treatments, constitutional imbalances are determined first. Does an individual have too much fire, water or earth? If so, what products might be needed to restore natural balance?

 

Local company Face to Grace, located in Wakefield Quebec offers Ayurvedic treatment and products to soothe out of balance constitutions and in the process tame the most stressed out soul. Products are created with natural oils and elements with the constitutions in mind. There are three main constitutions – Pitta, Vata and Kapha. Pitta is associated with fire, Vata with air and Kapha with earth. Each person has elements of each but some are more predominant than others – and the element can be out of balance.

To calm down frazzled constitutions, Face to Grace produces a variety of hand crafted heavenly scented all natural products. The products are used for different types of Ayurvedic treatments from facials, to foot massages and all body massages. Like the body massages, Ayurvedic facials involve the use of products to cleanse, exfoliate , detoxify and nourish skin depending on need.The type of product and treatment required are determined by an Ayurvedic practitioner trained to tune into the vibrations and needs of each constitution. Face to Grace also offers courses on how to make luscious Ayurvedic products such as making moisturizing creams designed to meet your personal needs. As beauty comes from the inside out in Ayurvedic philosophy, Face to Grace also offers self development courses to promote harmony between the emotions, mind and body.

 

Last month, I was fortunate enough to have an Ayurvedic massage from Face to Grace owner Samyukta Blanchet. After determining I had a Pitta constitution (Ayurvedic code for a Type-A Personality) massage products designed to calm down the fire in my system were selected.  While I stood with my eyes closed Samyukta held various substances such as vanilla and mint essence next my liver area. An inclination toward the substance or a veering away determined if my body needed the product – or not.

The massage then began with Samyukta placing her hands above my body to determine which areas were in need of special attention. The massage was light and unobtrusive unlike a traditional Swedish massage where reaching into and soothing muscles is the aim. After an hour or so, the massage ended resulting in one highly relaxed human being. The secret?  As Samyukta puts it “We need to remind our body, mind and soul of its original health and beauty, we need to use the awareness and intelligence of our body, of nature and of the environment.” In the course of an hour, the Ayurvedic massage did that and more.

To find out more about Face to Grace products, services and courses, please visit the Face to Grace web site at: wwww.facetograce.com or visit the blog of Face to Grace owner Samyukta Blanchet at http://facetograce.blogspot.com.

Ottawa Senators Monthly Report: October

November 1, 2011 2:39 pm
Sens

When some of us dared to suggest the Senators wouldn’t be a playoff team last season, many a set of pearls were clutched in Canada’s capital city. But when the bottom fell out and the Sens didn’t get good goaltending and Sergei Gonchar came out auditioning for The Walking Dead and their lack of depth was fully and completely exposed, even ownership admitted the franchise was closer to a full-on rebuild than a post-season berth. Without a doubt, there are pieces worth keeping – including Calder candidate blue-liners David Rundblad and Jared Cowen – but if you don’t agree this team has more holes than a (insert your most hated rival team’s name here) convention, you’re officially hole-identification challenged.

The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau was one of many accredited hockey scribes to gleefully pile on the Ottawa Senators prior to the 2011-12 NHL season, slotting the Sens dead last in his projected Eastern Conference standings. Despite bottoming out last year with a dreadful 1-13-4 midseason stretch, the Senators managed to recover well enough to finish 5th-last in the league – yet Proteau felt confident enough in the Sens’ inability to play the game of hockey that he pegged them to finish even further down in the dregs of the NHL standings.

With six months of hockey still to be played, there’s a chance that Proteau could be correct in predicting that the Sens will be picking in the draft lottery come June 2012. If the opening month of the season is any indication, however, these pesky Sens will do all they can to stay out of the NHL’s cellar – especially with a six-game win streak to protect and several players challenging for the league lead in various scoring categories. Here is a summary of the month that was in Hockey Country, featuring the ever-resilient Ottawa Senators.

Record: 7-5-0. 2nd in Northeast Division. 4th in Eastern Conference. T-6th in NHL.

Leading Scorers

Jason Spezza (12 GP: 7 G, 8 A, 15 PTS)
Milan Michalek (12 GP: 7 G, 6 A, 13 PTS)
Erik Karlsson (12 GP: 1 G, 12 A, 13 PTS)
Sergei Gonchar (11 GP: 0 G, 9 A, 9 PTS)
Colin Greening (12 GP: 4 G, 4 A, 8 PTS)

Game-by-Game Recap

Proteau and his cohorts in the media looked prescient through the first half of October, as the Sens crawled to a 1-5 record, allowing a league-worst 30 goals and falling behind by at least four goals in four different games. After conceding five straight to the Detroit Red Wings in the season opener, Milan Michalek netted two goals to cut the score to a manageable 5-3 margin. The next night, Ottawa would go down 4-0 to Toronto, before mounting a furious third-period comeback that nearly saw them come away with a point, losing 6-5. The Sens would finally notch a victory in their home opener against Minnesota, spoiling Dany Heatley’s second return to Scotiabank Place in a 4-3 shootout win.

The wheels would fall off in a 7-1 home defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, where Ottawa displayed atrocious defensive zone coverage and the inability to move the puck past their own blue-line. They’d rebound with a solid effort in a 2-1 loss to Washington, before allowing seven more goals to the Philadelphia Flyers. The tide would quickly turn, however, with the Sens registering two home victories over two of the NHL’s bottom-dwellers: a 4-1 win over Winnipeg and a 4-3 triumph over Columbus, punctuated by two goals in the final 36 seconds to crush the hopes of the then-winless Blue Jackets.

The club’s first away victory would soon follow, as the Sens topped Carolina 3-2 in a shootout. Nick Foligno would score with under four seconds left to break a 3-3 deadlock and beat Florida, before the Sens then came back from a three-goal deficit to defeat the Rangers 5-4 in a shootout. They would finish the month on a high note, eking out another one-goal victory with a 3-2 triumph over Toronto, bringing the win streak to six games and elevating the Sens into the upper tier of the National Hockey League.

There are still definite areas that need improvement, with Ottawa’s defense still sitting last in the league with 45 goals against. Craig Anderson has been steady, allowing just one shootout goal in eight attempts, though he’s yet to reach the level he operated at during the latter parts of 2010-11. Nikita Filatov and Bobby Butler have, thus far, failed to establish themselves as surefire top-six forwards, and while Mika Zibanejad showed some promise during his nine-game NHL stint, he was returned to his Swedish club, Djurgarden, with the mandate of developing his offensive game.

Player of the Month

Milan Michalek is playing the finest hockey of his short tenure in Ottawa, crashing the net without fear, controlling the boards and rapidly accumulating points. His line-mate, Colin Greening, has picked up exactly where he left off in the final quarter of last season, parlaying his speed, power, grit and a surprisingly lethal wrist shot into a permanent position on the Sens’ first line. Erik Karlsson has been simply fantastic, recording 25 minutes of ice time on a nightly basis and providing stellar defensive play against the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Erik Staal.  (Not to mention, he leads the league in assists, with 12 in 12 games.) Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Neil have provided a veteran spark, as they continue to do the jobs they’ve done for the past decade. Even Sergei Gonchar has rebounded from a dismal start to help lead an explosive Senators power play unit that currently sits atop the NHL.

And yet, all of these players merit no more than an honourable mention. The key to the Senators’ success through the month of October is none other than their first-line centre, Jason Spezza, who has matched his torrid offensive pace (tied for 2nd in the NHL in scoring) with a renewed commitment to two-way play, logging valuable minutes in all in-game situations. Spezza’s neutral-zone turnovers are still cause for aggravation, but he more than offsets his mistakes with unmatched flourishes of offensive creativity and production. With all due respect to Karlsson and Michalek, Spezza is the most important player on the Senators roster (as evidenced by the team’s catastrophic downfall following his injury in December 2010), and his emergence as a complete player and veteran leader has coincided beautifully with the Sens’ rebuilding efforts. Despite a lackluster effort through the first few games, Spezza’s overall dominance has keyed Ottawa’s current six-game win streak, which is more than enough to earn him player of the month honours for October.

Goal of the Month

Again, there are several worthy options that could make a case for this section of the awards. Stephane Da Costa and Erik Karlsson’s back-and-forth against Toronto, Peter Regin’s sharp-angle wrister against Washington and Karlsson’s snipe in the waning seconds against Philadelphia all offered up highlight-reel material in their own distinct way. For all intents and purposes, though, none can top Colin Greening’s breakaway tally in Ottawa’s 3-2 win over Toronto off of David Rundblad’s unfathomable outlet pass.

Please, watch the clip again. It’s difficult to outdo a 150-foot tape-to-tape, breakaway pass between four defenders, narrowly avoiding an offside and capped off by a smooth wrist shot off the crossbar and in – to tie the game against your team’s hated archrivals, no less. Combine that with the fact that Rundblad was appearing in only his tenth NHL game, and you’ll see why Sens fans are salivating at the prospect of the team’s future defensive corps.

Hit of the Month

No contest here – Chris Neil’s destruction of Minnesota forward Clayton Stoner stands alone atop Ottawa’s October hit parade. Neil’s bombshell changed the course of the game – Ottawa would score five minutes later to cut the Wild’s 2-0 lead in half, before eventually tying the game in the 3rd period and clinching it in a shootout. Neil would add the Sens’ second goal, cementing the performance as one of his best in an Ottawa uniform and sealing the victory in the team’s home opener.

Game of the Month

Oddly enough, the Senators’ best overall performance in October may have come in a losing effort, against Washington on October 15th. Having allowed 21 goals in the season’s first four games, the Ottawa defense rebounded well, shackling the vaunted Capitals offense to 2 goals and nearly defeating the prohibitive pre-season Eastern Conference favourites. Peter Regin scored Ottawa’s lone goal in the loss, while Erik Karlsson played over 27 minutes.

The Sens also played strong games in 3-2 victories over Carolina and Toronto, outworking the favoured opposition to secure a hard-earned two points in both cases. After nearly mounting seismic comebacks against Detroit and Toronto in the season’s first two games, Ottawa managed to complete two absurd third-period comebacks against Columbus and the New York Rangers, while also scoring with under four seconds left to top Florida.

Looking Ahead

Ottawa will play 12 games once again in the month of November, beginning with a trip to Boston to face the defending Cup champs and ending with the Sens’ return to Winnipeg on November 29th. In between, the Sens will embark on a grueling six-game road trip over the course of 15 days, including a trip to Western Canada to face the Flames, Oilers and Canucks. The Sens’ toughest test should come on November 25th, when they’ll travel to Pittsburgh to the NHL-leading Penguins. Four games will be played at Scotiabank Place – November 4th against Montreal; November 5th against Buffalo; November 9th against the Rangers; and November 27th against Carolina.

Nature – the Antidote to Stress

October 26, 2011 2:33 pm
stress

We’ve all had those days – the computer crashes, the car won’t start, there is a traffic jam and as a result you are late for work, the dog ate your homework and the list goes on.

The fast pace of modern life can easily get us all wound up. Not so long ago, humans, like all animals on the planet, moved through time at nature’s pace. We measured time by cycles – the rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the moon, and the passing of the seasons. Today, it feels like humans’ relationship with time has been both disconnected entirely from the earth’s natural cycles, and is dizzyingly fast.

Spending time outdoors has a profound effect on your well-being.

Luckily, there is an antidote to stress, and it’s right outside your door – nature. More and more research shows the profound effects that fresh air, plants, trees, and water have on humans’ well-being. When individuals spend time in the natural environment, this has the ability to elevate one’s mood, feel more internally calm, think more positively, and be in greater unity with the world’s surroundings. Scientist Roger Ulrich found that patients whose hospital window overlooked natural settings recorded shorter recovery times, required less potent pain medication, and evaluated their stay in the hospital as much more positive than patients who overlooked a brick wall. Similarily, researcher Dr. David Lewis found that the scent of grass can actually help drivers avoid road rage – the heart rate and blood pressure of motorists drastically lowered when smelling grass.

Real relaxation is not found on the couch watching television. Instead, we need to change our paradigm and get outdoors.

These two studies are just two examples which link faster recovery from stress, elevated mood, better overall health, and increased self esteem with nature stimuli. Yet we seldom indulge in the natural environment, spending most of our time in our homes, offices, shopping centres, and cars. Still, this does not necessarily mean we have to all pack up camp and move to the boondocks. It does, however, mean that we have to change our paradigm that real relaxation is found on the couch in front of the television, and get outdoors!

There are opportunities all around us to get outside, whether it be eating lunch in a park, walking the dog, going for a jog, birdwatching, or simply stepping outside, taking it all in, and listening to the wind in the leaves. And just because it is getting colder out does not mean you have to go into hibernation mode. There is no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing! Dress appropriately and enjoy the same things you do in the warmer months, or better yet, take on a winter sport such as cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or iceskating. Ottawans (and many Canadians for that matter) are lucky to live in close proximity to many natural spaces, including the beautiful Gatineau Park, just north of the city. Take advantage!

Staying connected to the natural world not only helps alleviate stress, but also benefits us spiritually, mentally, and physically. So take a chance and get outside! You’ll be glad you did.

 

No Brains Association: Dissecting the Lockout

October 12, 2011 12:46 pm
NBA

In the wake of its most enthralling regular season and playoffs in over a decade, the National Basketball Association has cancelled the first two weeks of its 2011-12 season as a result of the league’s ongoing lockout. With the NBA currently mired in negotiations between its 30 owners and the National Basketball Players’ Association, commissioner David Stern announced on Monday that the first two weeks of games will not be played.

With the schism between Stern and NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter seemingly widening by the day, it remains unlikely that any games will be played for the foreseeable future. It’s a depressing reality for fans and players alike, and given the talent level, marquee matchups and burgeoning rivalries currently on display in the NBA, it’s downright illogical.

This can’t be stated clearly enough: 2010-11 was the best regular season and playoffs that the NBA has staged in years. There was the interminable Miami Heat saga, from their July welcome party to their shaky 9-8 start, from their 15-1 record in December to their five-game losing streak in early March, from their Eastern Conference championship to their eventual collapse in the NBA Finals. There was the emergence of two potential juggernauts in the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls and Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls were scheduled to open the 2011-12 season against the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.

There were the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, desperately seeking to fend off old age in pursuit of another NBA title. There were the Memphis Grizzlies, who rode the contributions of Pau Gasol’s younger brother and the star of this delightful YouTube clip to the brink of the Western Conference Finals. Finally, there were the champion Dallas Mavericks: cool under pressure, kings of the comeback, led by their 7-foot German superstar and complemented by an assembly of steady veterans and trash-talking castoffs.

No, the 2010-11 NBA season didn’t lack for drama, excitement or narrative, and with every key participant returning for another shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy, every indication was that this coming season would be more of the same. Thanks to the shocking ineptitude of the league’s owners and the misguided obstinacy of the Players’ Association, however, fans can now look forward to either a condensed season (starting in December or January at the earliest) or fruitless negotiating sessions that could wipe out more than just a single year of basketball.

Unlike the 2004-05 NHL lockout, an extended work stoppage wouldn’t benefit the NBA from an on-court perspective. Rule changes in recent years have opened up the game, emphasizing speed and allowing the league’s perimeter stars to thrive. The intersection of three distinct generations of players has only served to buoy the overall quality of play, with the old guard (think names like Nowitzki, Bryant and Nash), the stars in their prime (think James, Wade and Anthony) and the up-and-comers (think Rose, Durant and Griffin) all battling for individual and team honours.

Of course, these players could soon be losing a full year off of their careers, which is relevant not only to the superstars attempting to solidify their legacies through championships and other accolades, but for every man on a roster who won’t be earning a paycheque until a new CBA is signed. The lockout hinges on the two main points enumerated in NBPA president Derek Fisher’s October 5th letter to players: the “system,” or the NBA’s current salary cap and luxury tax policies; and the “split,” or the breakdown of revenue allocated to the owners and the players.

Los Angeles Lakers point guard Derek Fisher is the president of the NBPA.

At present, the NBA operates under a soft salary cap of approximately $58 million. Unlike the NHL, which employs a hard cap, NBA teams are allowed to exceed the cap under certain circumstances; 10 teams did so in 2010-11, including the Los Angeles Lakers, who spent over $91 million in salary. As a penalty for not adhering to the cap, the teams that also crossed the league’s luxury tax level ($70 million in 2010-11) are forced to pay one dollar for every extra dollar spent. The tax money is then distributed among non-tax paying teams.

In an attempt to establish a competitive balance between teams with disparate financial endowments, the owners have pushed for the installment of a hard cap and a stricter luxury tax, one that would see teams pay at least $1.75 for every dollar spent over the tax level. The players, as Fisher notes, have fought hard to preserve the soft cap structure, which the owners are reportedly open to retaining.

The “system” issues have come to the forefront of negotiations in recent days, with the owners especially concerned about “better match[ing] pay for performance.” When Washington forward Rashard Lewis is making over $22 million a year to average 12 points and 5 rebounds, it’s clear that a certain portion of NBA players are grossly overpaid. It’s difficult to blame the players for this trend, however: the owners were the ones who made such atrocious decisions in the first place, and the ones who are now holding the players hostage in an attempt to fix their “broken business model.”

Another divisive issue is the split of Basketball-Related Income (BRI) between the players and the owners. Currently, the players receive a 57% share of the BRI, which encompasses nearly every revenue stream (such as tickets, parking and broadcast rights, to name three). The owners claim that the league’s 30 teams lost a combined $300 million last year, spurring them to push “for significant economic relief,” as Fisher details. The players have been willing to downgrade to a 53% share (with each BRI point worth about $40 million, this translates to a concession of roughly $160 million), while the owners have been steadfast in their refusal to accept anything more than a 50-50 split.

The 2011 lockout will form a permanent stain on the legacy of NBA commissioner David Stern.

Much has been made of the unwillingness of both sides to negotiate in good faith; the players, in particular, have accused the owners of preparing to sacrifice an entire season to assure themselves a better deal. In reality, neither side has shown much inclination to negotiate at all: most of the details should have been ironed out during the summer, while the NBA was busy streamlining the content of its website and preparing a schedule that may never come to fruition. Instead, the bulk of the negotiations were pushed off until late September, eventually leading to Stern’s cancellation of the first two weeks of games  -with the rest of the season in peril.

Both sides will suffer from the lost revenue from the cancelled slate of games, the players more so than the owners. (Doesn’t it seem a tad hypocritical for the owners to demand concessions from the players to replace their $300 million in losses, then willfully cede the revenue they’d receive for the cancelled games – and possibly for the rest of the season?) As it stands now, neither side appears willing to budge, with the players employing flashy slogans and empty gestures of solidarity to garner public support. (Kudos to Dallas forward Brian Cardinal for acknowledging the absurdity of trying to solve the lockout through Twitter.)

Ultimately, the lockout isn’t about the owners’ moronic fiscal decisions or the bloody stain that will be permanently and rightfully etched on Stern’s basketball tombstone. It’s about the betrayal of the fans that blindly support the game of basketball and the individuals and businesses that depend on it for financial stability. (Kudos again to Cardinal for acknowledging the plight of the NBA’s arena workers. Spoken like a true custodian.)

Sadly, the cries of distressed fans are sure to fall on deaf ears. The players will eventually cave, possessing none of the leverage or monetary steadiness of the billionaires on the other side of the table. The owners will get their deal, basketball will be played again, and everyone – players, owners and fans alike – will have to look back on the lockout  and wonder if it was all worth it.

Ottawa Senators 2011-12 Season Preview

October 4, 2011 8:30 am
Sens

The Ottawa Senators will kick off their 20th anniversary season with a game on Friday, October 7th against the Detroit Red Wings. In preparation for the milestone year, the club has unveiled a new tagline (Hockey Makes Us), as well as a promotional calendar for each of their 41 home games. With hockey season finally here, we present 20 points about this year’s Ottawa Senators.

5 Units

Forwards: With Peter Regin and Jesse Winchester currently injured, the Senators will open the year with 15 forwards on the roster, giving Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa the chance to prove that they can stick in the NHL. Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson are the only locks for the top two lines; Nikita Filatov and Bobby Butler will be given ample opportunity to play in the top 6, while Zibanejad, Da Costa or Regin will occupy the second-line centre spot.

A standout preseason has likely earned Zack Smith the role of third-line centre, with two of Nick Foligno, Chris Neil, Colin Greening and Erik Condra filling the wing spots alongside him. Much of the volatility surrounding Ottawa’s forward ranks won’t be resolved until Winchester and Regin return from injury, forcing the Sens brass to make important decisions about the fate of Zibanejad (who can play 9 NHL games without burning a year off his contract) and Da Costa.

Ottawa drafted Mika Zibanejad 6th overall in the 2011 NHL draft.

Prospective Lines to Start the Year

Michalek – Spezza – Butler
Filatov – Zibanejad – Alfredsson
Foligno – Smith – Neil
Greening – Konopka – Condra
Da Costa

Defensemen: With Matt Carkner currently injured, the Senators will open the year with eight defensemen on the roster, giving Jared Cowen and David Rundblad the chance to prove that they can stick in the NHL. Judging by last year’s AHL playoffs and this year’s preseason, Cowen looks as if he can make an instant impact in the big leagues, while Rundblad may require an adjustment period similar to that of Erik Karlsson circa 2009. With Carkner expected to be sidelined for the next month, Rundblad will presumably split time with Filip Kuba, barring any further injuries.

Karlsson is expected to assume a leadership role on the back-end in just his third NHL season, one that will hopefully see him refine his defensive game and display his electrifying offensive abilities. Veterans Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar both stand to improve on their putrid 2010-11 campaigns, while Brian Lee has rebounded admirably from his 25-game healthy scratch streak to secure his spot on Ottawa’s blue-line.

Prospective Pairings to Start the Year

Phillips – Lee
Kuba – Karlsson
Cowen – Gonchar
Rundblad

Goaltenders: Craig Anderson almost certainly won’t replicate his .939 SV% from the end of last season, but he’s demonstrated the ability to steal games the Sens have no business winning, particularly when he faces 40 or more shots. Capable backup Alex Auld is back for his second stint in Ottawa; he should be able to man the crease for roughly 20 games in 2010-11. (Contrary to popular belief, the starting goaltender won’t be determined by which player has the shinier head.)

With Anderson locked in for four more seasons and Auld under contract for this year, Calder Cup MVP Robin Lehner will be afforded the time to develop as Binghamton’s starting net-minder from the beginning of the year. Expect to see Lehner up in Ottawa every now and then (if Anderson goes down with injury, Bryan Murray has made it clear that Lehner will be called up to start instead of Auld), though the season will be dedicated to preparing the young Swede for his eventual ascent to full-time NHLer.

Paul MacLean will be the 9th head coach in Senators franchise history.

Coaching: Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will serve as the franchise’s ninth head coach; he’ll emphasize a physical, hard-skating brand of hockey designed to wear down the opponent and maximize the potential of a team devoid of significant offensive talent. MacLean will be assisted by Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds, who faced off against one another last season in the OHL championship and in the Memorial Cup.

Management: If Ottawa suffers through another miserable midseason stretch and the veterans underperform like last season, Bryan Murray may be busy once again at the February trade deadline. He’ll be looking to ship Filip Kuba away at any opportunity, while Matt Carkner and Brian Lee’s names may also arise, if only to clear the Sens’ logjam on defense. Up front, Chris Neil could hold some value for a Cup contender, while Milan Michalek and Nick Foligno might be used as pieces to complete a larger deal. Murray and his team executed the first stage of the rebuild to perfection; the next phase is incumbent on the proper development on Ottawa’s celebrated group of prospects.

5 Players on Notice

Peter Regin: Regin expounded on his promising six-game stretch in the 2010 playoffs with one of the unluckiest and least productive seasons in recent Senators history, netting just 3 goals and 17 points before being shelved in February with a shoulder injury. With Stephane Da Costa and Mika Zibanejad breathing down his neck for the role of second-line centre, Regin’s best bet to solidifying his place in Ottawa’s future plans may be to prove he can thrive in an offensive role outside of the top two forward lines.

Milan Michalek: Hampered by injuries in each of his first two seasons in Ottawa, the Senators’ spot in the standings will largely depend on Michalek’s health and offensive output. Signed for three more seasons at over $4 million a year, the former Shark will eventually have to justify his contract and prove he’s a viable top-6 winger as the rebuild rolls forth.

Bobby Butler scored 21 points in 36 games with Ottawa last season.

Bobby Butler: A dismal pre-season has overshadowed Butler’s stellar play down the stretch of last year’s regular season and in the AHL playoffs. If he’s not scoring goals, then he isn’t doing much of anything on the ice, but Butler will be one of several players that will rotate through Ottawa’s top 6, in the hopes that he can reclaim the chemistry he enjoyed with Jason Spezza.

Jesse Winchester: Responsible defensively, adept in the face-off circle and devastatingly efficient along the boards, Winchester may yet fall prey to a numbers game in Ottawa – the number of Sens forwards with higher offensive potential, the number of prospects on the precipice, the number of one-way contracts handed out by Bryan Murray, you name it. The reality is that he’s the equivalent of Matt Carkner up front: the perfect man to plug a hole when the need arises, but the very definition of replaceable.

Brian Lee: Lee played the best hockey of his short professional career down the stretch in 2010-11. Paired with Chris Phillips, the two combined to form an effective shutdown tandem, with Lee displaying a previously unforeseen callousness on the back end. 2011-12 should be the year where the hockey world finally bears witness to Brian Lee, legitimate top-4 NHL defenseman.

5 Key Games

Minnesota at Ottawa, Oct 11: Ottawa’s home opener coincides with the return of the Wild’s most ballyhooed offseason addition, Dany Heatley, to Scotiabank Place.

Ottawa at Boston, Nov 1: The Sens travel to Boston to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in the first of six meetings on the year.

Nashville at Ottawa, Feb 9: Mike Fisher returns to Ottawa to face his former squad for the first time as a member of the Predators.

Daniel Alfredsson sports the Sens' new heritage jersey, designed by local graphic designer Jacob Barrette.

Toronto at Ottawa, Mar 17: The final match-up in the 2011-12 Battle of Ontario will take place in Ottawa on St. Patrick’s Day, with the Sens slated to wear their highly anticipated heritage jerseys.

All-Star Game, Jan 29: Will Daniel Alfredsson stay healthy and captain one of the teams? Will Erik Karlsson earn his second straight All-Star selection? Most importantly, will a new scoreboard be installed at Scotiabank Place in time for the festivities?

5 More Storylines

Jason Spezza’s evolution as a leader. The latter half of 2010-11 saw Spezza emerge as a mainstay on the Senators’ penalty kill, a mentor to several of Ottawa’s AHL call-ups and the team’s undisputed on-ice leader in the absence of Daniel Alfredsson. One of the few veterans remaining after the February fire sale, Spezza has proven that he finally possesses the defensive intensity to match his prodigious offensive talents, and he looks primed to assume the captaincy once Alfredsson chooses to hang up his skates.

The evolution of Ottawa’s prospects. Bryan Murray’s commitment to restocking the Senators’ prospect pool has left the team with a bevy of youngsters looking to make an impact at the junior and professional levels. Mark Stone, Stefan Noesen, Matt Puempel, Shane Prince and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are all poised to explode for their respective CHL teams, while Jakob Silfverberg and Marcus Sorensen are expected to make strides in the Swedish Elite League.

Binghamton’s title defense. Several veterans are gone from the 2010-11 Calder Cup champion squad, most notably Ryan Potulny, Ryan Keller, Cody Bass, Andre Benoit and Geoff Kinrade. In their place are several intriguing newcomers, some of which played a cursory role in Binghamton’s playoff run (Derek Grant, Mark Borowiecki, David Dziurzynski) and some seeing their first action in the organization (most notably Swedish prospect Andre Petersson).

The 2012 draft. Next year’s draft class is considered to be the deepest and most talented pool in years, with several international forwards (Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg) and North American defensemen (Ryan Murray, Matt Dumba, Nick Ebert, Griffin Reinhart) at the top of the board. With the Sens expected to claim another lottery pick, they could hardly go wrong with any selection: a potentially elite forward would instantly strengthen Ottawa’s meager forward ranks, while a well-rounded defenseman would solidify the team’s touted future defensive corps.

A prediction. The 2011-12 Ottawa Senators will compete every night. They will skate for 200 feet, for 60 minutes a game, for 82 games a year. Their goaltender will stop a lot of pucks. Their defense will create a lot of chances, both for and against their team. Their forwards will display flashes of brilliance, if not a large amount of goals. They will give Sens fans something to cheer for. They will finish 12th in the Eastern Conference. And for now, that’s perfectly fine.

OUA Football Midseason Report

September 28, 2011 8:52 am
OUA

The first half of the 2011 Ontario University Athletics football season is in the books, with each of the conference’s 10 member schools having played four games. As we enter October, the race for the Yates Cup is set to heat up very quickly, with the Western Mustangs looking to defend their 2010 OUA title and several other teams still in contention vying to dethrone them. Here’s a look at three of the key storylines that defined the first half of the OUA season.

The Education of Billy McPhee

The Queen’s University football program is one of the most illustrious in the CIS, boasting three Grey Cup championships from the 1920s (before the trophy was awarded solely to CFL teams), 23 Yates Cup victories and four Vanier Cup titles. The Gaels’ most recent national championship came in 2009, with fifth-year quarterback Danny Brannagan leading the team to a 7-1 record and a first-place finish in the OUA.

Alongside the next year’s CFL #1 overall pick, defensive end Shomari Williams, Brannagan would spur the Gaels to a 32-6 dismantling of McMaster in the OUA semifinal, which would be followed by a thrilling 43-39 victory over archrival Western in the Yates Cup final. From there, Queen’s would shock the defending Vanier Cup champion Laval Rouge et Or in the national semifinal by a score of 33-30, before coming from behind to top the Calgary Dinos 33-31. Brannagan would capture MVP honours in his final collegiate game.

Billy McPhee ranks 2nd in the OUA with 1050 passing yards in four games.

With Brannagan, Williams and a host of other impact players gone, the Gaels fell back to earth in 2010, finishing 3-5 and falling to the McMaster Marauders in the OUA quarterfinal. Rookie quarterback Justin Chapdelaine was efficient, completing 64% of his pass attempts and limiting his interceptions, but he had no chance of replicating Brannagan’s prodigious numbers from the year before. With another rebuilding season looming, head coach Pat Sheahan made the decision to convert the athletic Chapdelaine to receiver and start fresh with another untested youngster at quarterback – this time, sophomore Billy McPhee.

Just four weeks into his tenure as Queen’s primary signal-caller, McPhee has shown flashes of brilliance tempered by moments of mediocrity, offering hope that he may one day reenact Brannagan’s considerable achievements while reminding fans that there’s still a long way to go. The first game of the year was nothing short of disastrous, falling at home to CIS preseason #3 McMaster by a score of 26-2, with McPhee completing 13 of 32 passes and tossing two costly interceptions. He fared little better in a 19-6 loss to the Ottawa Gee-Gees, going 20 for 40 for 208 yards, but failing to register a touchdown for the second straight game.

As dismal as the first two contests were, the inverse would be true for the next two. Facing the perennially competitive Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks at home in Week 3, McPhee exploded for 362 yards and four touchdowns, sparking the Gaels to a 49-7 lead (they’d eventually win 58-35). Incredibly, McPhee would crank the offense up another notch in Week 4, throwing for 328 yards and just six incompletions, deferring to emerging running back Ryan Granberg at key points and leading Queen’s to a 63-3 demolition of the York Lions.

With upcoming tilts against the Toronto Varsity Blues and the undermanned Waterloo Warriors, the Gaels should improve on their 2010 record and finish .500 at the very least, and if McPhee can turn up the heat against Queen’s other opponents, the Windsor Lancers and the Western Mustangs, a home playoff game may be in the cards. For now, the Gaels are still in a distinct rebuilding stage, but if the early returns are any indication, the future is promising, for the quarterback and the program alike.

Aaron Colbon is in his first season as the starting quarterback of the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Gee-Gees Yearn for Yates

Although Brad Sinopoli was unable to take his team to the Vanier Cup during his four years at the University of Ottawa, his 2010 statistics eclipsed those of Brannagan during his standout 2009 campaign. Sinopoli debuted as the Gee-Gees starting quarterback in 2009, posting respectable totals en route to a 6-2 season (although Ottawa would lose their first playoff game). In his final collegiate season, Sinopoli won the Hec Creighton Trophy as the most outstanding player in CIS football, passing for 2756 yards and 22 touchdowns.

The Gee-Gees would narrowly escape their semi-final matchup with Laurier, winning 32-31 and setting up a home matchup against Western for the Yates Cup. After falling behind early, Sinopoli led a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback to put the Gee-Gees ahead. Their lead would disappear in heartbreaking fashion, with Mustangs Lirim Hajrullahu nailing a 34-yard field goal with one second left, clinching a 26-25 victory and eliminating Ottawa from the playoffs.

Today, Sinopoli is the fourth-string quarterback of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders; while he’s yet to see any game action, the Stamps look primed for playoff contention at 7-5. His college team has fared similarly well in his absence: Sinopoli’s replacement at quarterback, fourth-year Aaron Colbon, has thrown confidently, while a commitment to team defense under head coach Jean-Philippe Asselin has held Ottawa’s opponents in check. (Aside from a 41-13 shellacking at the hands of Western, the Gee-Gees have allowed just 14 points in their three other contests.)

At 3-1, the Gee-Gees sit in a three-team logjam immediately below Western, wresting for control of second place in the OUA. Late-season games against Windsor and McMaster will be crucial for determining Ottawa’s eventually spot in the standings: wins could lead to a quarterfinal bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while losses could spell a lower seed and a tougher road to the Yates Cup final. A decorated program that has come on very strong in recent years, the Gee-Gees have shown they can thrive without their former quarterback, as they continue to strive for the elusive provincial and national championships.

The Western Mustangs currently sit atop the OUA standings at 4-0.

Dissecting the Standings

The Western Mustangs have appeared in four consecutive Yates Cup finals, a mark that should extend to five seasons if the London club can continue playing the explosive brand of football that has led them to a 4-0 start in 2011. Ranked #2 in the country behind Laval, Western has scored at least 34 points in each of their first four games, including an 86-point outburst against Waterloo in the season opener. With no opponent above .500 scheduled for the rest of the season, the Mustangs should cruise to the OUA’s #1 seed, in search of their first Vanier Cup championship since 1994.

Directly below Western are three teams that could challenge for the Ontario title – Windsor, McMaster and Ottawa, all at 3-1. Two vital end-of-year matchups should help determine the race for the second seed – Windsor will visit Ottawa on October 15th, with the Gee-Gees then travelling to McMaster on the 22nd to conclude the regular season.

Queen’s and Toronto currently round out the OUA playoff picture, in fifth and sixth place, respectively (the 2-2 teams will face off against each other this Friday). Laurier, Guelph and York are still very much in the playoff hunt at 1-3, while Waterloo, returning from a yearlong suspension for steroid use, is languishing behind at 0-4.

The Concept of the Franchise Player

September 21, 2011 1:06 pm
Halladay

Roy Halladay played 12 seasons in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform, earning six trips to the All-Star Game, winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2003 and establishing himself as one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball. Toronto never won more than 88 games or reached baseball’s postseason during Halladay’s tenure, yet the right-hander managed to top the 16-win mark on six occasions, even as his teammates struggled to stay afloat against superior competition. For over a decade, Blue Jay fans could head to the ballpark once every five days knowing that they might witness something spectacular: a no-hitter, double digits in strikeouts, or simply another run-of-the-mill Halladay complete game, of which he pitched 49 during his time in Toronto.

Roy Halladay threw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins on May 29th, 2010.

That all changed, of course, in December 2009, when freshly minted Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for three prospects. Headlining a club one year removed from victory in the World Series, Halladay thrived, leading the National League in wins and innings pitched. On May 29th, 2010, he threw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins; four months later, he no-hit the Cincinnati Reds in his first career playoff game. Halladay has shown no signs of decline in his second year in Philadelphia, closing in on a second consecutive Cy Young and leading the Phillies to their fifth straight division championship.

Halladay’s success since the trade raises an intriguing question: Say he rounds out his career in Philadelphia, winning one or more World Series as a member of the Phillies. When all is said and done, will he be remembered by history as a player that racked up individual accolades for many years on the middling Toronto Blue Jays, or will the first twelve years of his career serve merely as a prelude to his days on the powerhouse Phillies?

The question has little to do with Halladay’s unmitigated dominance as a pitcher; rather, the implications lie more so with the identity of the Blue Jays franchise. Over the past decade, Jays fans had little more to root for throughout a season than for Halladay to make the All-Star team or win a major individual award. Even as Anthopoulos, Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero and Brett Lawrie usher in a new era of Toronto baseball, it’s still disheartening to look back on the last 10 years, see nothing more than a compendium of Halladay complete games and realize they might all be swept to the back of the history books if Doc continues to excel in Philly.

Alex Anthopoulos and Jose Bautista are at the forefront of Toronto's post-Halladay movement.

If that sentiment sounds completely selfish, it’s also not wholly accurate. If Toronto can’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox from April to September, there’s nothing Blue Jay fans would want more than to see Halladay mow them down in October. Still, as Halladay once belonged to a small, rabid pocket of Canadian baseball fans, he now belongs to Philadelphia and the league at large, and the Blue Jays don’t have much to show for it.

The concept of a franchise player, in this case, isn’t only in the traditional sense of the phrase, signifying an otherworldly talent pegged to lead his franchise for a significant period of time. This particular use of “franchise player” implies a player forming a special connection with fans, truly belonging to a franchise, both in the present and the historical future.

It’s a notion that extends to other sports as well. Zdeno Chara first established himself as a top-pairing defenseman in Ottawa, before signing as a free agent in Boston, assuming the Bruins captaincy, winning a Norris Trophy and, five years later, hoisting the Stanley Cup. It’s both satisfying and sour for Sens fans to relive the highlights of Chara cackling maniacally as he lifted the Cup, knowing that we experienced his rise to prominence but weren’t around to reap any of the benefits.

Zdeno Chara rose to prominence in Ottawa, but has enjoyed his greatest successes with the Boston Bruins.

You could, in a way, apply the concept to players of lesser regard; such as Chara’s teammate and longtime Senators fan favourite Chris Kelly. Beloved in our nation’s capital for his tireless defensive play and inexpugnable spirit, Kelly hit the jackpot with the trade that sent him to Boston in February.  He was never considered one of the leading members of the Senators, and his exploits as a career third-line centre won’t be celebrated by history, but watching Kelly’s accomplishments in Ottawa fall by the wayside in the wake of his Cup victory is bittersweet nonetheless.

There’s still hope for Ottawa fans, despite the departures of Chara, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and many others, none of whom will be remembered as career Senators. Wade Redden, Chris Phillips and Daniel Alfredsson will always belong to the franchise in an historical sense; similarly, Mats Sundin will always be a Maple Leaf and Brett Favre will always be a Packer, their ignominious late-career exits notwithstanding. The situation is different for other franchises, however: Kevin Garnett is a Celtic, not a Timberwolf; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Laker, not a Buck; Alex Rodriguez is a Yankee, not a Mariner or Ranger; and Roy Halladay is a Phillie, possibly for good.

Again, this isn’t meant to trash or disregard Halladay’s accomplishments; it’s the natural instinct of sports enthusiasts watching their team sputter to another .500 season. Despite this, every Blue Jays fan is rooting for their former ace to lead his new club to the championship. Consider Philadelphia’s games on July 1st and 2nd at the Rogers Centre, the first of which where Halladay presented the lineup card before the game, the second of which where Halladay pitched a complete game to beat the Blue Jays. Both times, the Toronto faithful rose as one, saluting the greatest player in their post-World Series era, appreciative of his triumphs both for and against them, applauding him as if he was one of their own. In a way, no matter what history decides, he always will be.

Jose Bautista and the MVP Conundrum

September 16, 2011 12:45 pm
Bautista

Major League Baseball typically awards its two Most Valuable Player awards in mid-November, roughly three weeks after the World Series champion has been crowned and seven after the completion of the regular season. Unlike other leading MVP candidates in the American and National Leagues, Jose Bautista’s year won’t continue into October; he’ll play his last game in 2011 on September 28th. It’s for this reason that he stands little to no chance of being named AL MVP, despite posting the best numbers of his career, leading the majors in every relevant offensive statistical category and asserting himself as the best all-around hitter in the game.

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos re-signed Bautista to a five-year, $65 million contract extension this past February. Coming off a monstrous 2010 season in which he hit 54 home runs (up from his career high of 16), the signing was viewed as somewhat of a risk: what if his offensive explosion was no more than an anomaly? Bautista has since erased all doubts, complementing his power surge with a dramatically increased batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and bases on balls. Still, his numbers aren’t the problem; it’s the fact that he plays for Toronto, perennial bridesmaids since 1994, that puts him behind the New York Yankees’ Curtis Granderson, the Boston Red Sox’ Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury and the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander in the minds of many AL MVP voters.

Jose Bautista's MVP candidacy has been hampered by the Blue Jays' middling results.

Much of the aversion to Bautista’s candidacy stems from the arbitrary definition of the word “valuable.” If Bautista was so “valuable,” then why are the Blue Jays still languishing behind New York, Boston and Tampa Bay in the AL East? Not only is this logic flagrantly unjust – one baseball player can’t alter the fortunes of an entire team* – it also gives credence to the train of thought that the award should go to the best player on the best team, an idea not present anywhere in baseball’s MVP criteria.

*Read Joe Posnanski’s article from August 23rd on his AL MVP vote, specifically the 10th and 11th paragraphs, about Albert Pujols’ transcendent 2003 season. Remind you of a certain Toronto outfielder?

Many fans are guilty of basing their opinions on how they’d award the MVP in other sports they follow. It’s my personal opinion that the MVP awards in different sports should be based on separate standards, to reflect the disparities in how they’re played. In basketball, for instance, it makes more sense to value team success when considering an individual MVP. With five players working in cohesion at all times, one man can have a profound effect on the impact of his teammates and the outcome of every game. Of the best individual players in the league, which one meant the most to his team?

Boston's Adrian Gonzalez might take home the MVP, despite ranking below Bautista in every relevant offensive statistical category.

Baseball, conversely, is an individual game masquerading as a team sport. The outcome is determined through a series of one-on-one battles; the traditional concept of teamwork seldom comes into play. Players can’t be held accountable for their teammates’ production; thus, the MVP voting should be slanted towards the best individual player, rather than a haphazard definition of most valuable.

It’s fairly safe to say that Jose Bautista is, at present, baseball’s best individual player. He leads the majors in home runs (42, as of September 15th), on-base percentage (.444), slugging percentage (.628), on-base plus slugging (1.072) and walks (117, 21 of which were intentional). Unlike 2010, when he was mostly just a power hitter, Bautista has evolved into the most well-rounded and dangerous hitter in the game, as well as an adept fielder at both third base and right field (meaning you can’t elevate a lesser hitter above him based on defense, such as Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury).

Until recently, baseball valued batting average (AVG) and runs batted in (RBI) over any other offensive statistic, despite the implicit flaws in both measures (AVG doesn’t account for walks, while RBI is reliant on a player’s teammates actually getting on base). Adrian Gonzalez’s AVG leads the majors at .340, but his OBP (.407) is still significantly lower than Bautista’s (due to the latter’s prodigious walk totals). Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson rank near the top of the majors in RBI, but they’re still only slightly above Bautista despite playing on teams with potential All-Stars at every position on the field. The more relevant stats are OBP (reflective of a hitter’s true value at the plate) and SLG (the ability to hit and hit for power) – and we all know who rules over those categories.

Detroit's Justin Verlander boasts a 23-5 record, which has swept him to the forefront of the MVP voting.

Bautista’s greatest challenger may be Detroit’s Justin Verlander, who will run away with the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. Still, Verlander has appeared in only 32 games all season, meaning he’s been a complete non-factor in nearly four-fifths of his team’s games. He’s the best player on what will soon be a division champion, but there are several valid reasons that no pitcher has won the MVP since Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in 1992, whose victory is widely regarded as one of the most dubious in league history.

Again, you cannot denounce a baseball player’s MVP candidacy because of the impotence of his team. The only legitimate arguments for Gonzalez and Granderson are the Red Sox and Yankees’ place in the standings, and for all their shiny RBI, they can’t profess to have more than a nominal impact on their team’s record. If you don’t believe that Jose Bautista should be the MVP because Toronto is merely a .500 team, then you’re penalizing him for the struggles of the Jays’ bullpen; the inconsistent play of Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion; the inability of Kyle Drabek and Travis Snider to stick in the majors; the injuries to Yunel Escobar and Colby Rasmus; and the continued presence of Mike McCoy in the lineup.

In short, you’re penalizing him for everything but his own play. As Sports Illustrated’s Cliff Corcoran put it in his September 12th Awards Watch column, “it still seems clear that the player who, by any objective standard has been the most valuable player in the majors this season will not be recognized as the most valuable player in his league.”

(And despite these objective standards, Corcoran has Bautista in 3rd place. Go figure.)

Hockey’s Summer of Discontent

September 7, 2011 7:39 am
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Wade Belak was found dead last week in Toronto. He committed suicide. He had a wife and two children and was only 35 years old. His is the latest in a string of deaths of National Hockey League enforcers.  Only a few weeks ago Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets committed suicide as well. In May of this year Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers was found dead in his home after consuming a toxic mix of drugs and alcohol. It was July 2010 when Bob Probert – one of hockey’s most feared fighters – died at the age of 45. Although his death was due to a heart attack, he also had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. His death raised few questions about the potential dangers of a professional life spent fighting other hockey players. Perhaps it should have. But the death of three players in only a few months whose main role was to fight will invariably draw attention to this aspect of the game.

Wade Belak as a Toronto Maple Leaf

Hockey is unique among North America’s professional team sports for having players whose only notable skill is knowing how to fight. Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert and others like them all had the same job. Over an 82 game schedule an enforcer’s role is to go out night after night to intimidate the other team. Not always, but often this entails fighting the opposing team’s enforcer. At some point over the course of the game the two players will be on the ice at the same time. Both know that it isn’t a coincidence. If the players line up against each other at a face off the fight will begin the moment the puck is dropped: better to drop the gloves before any energy has been wasted skating. Occasionally a landed punch is so precise and so hard that the opposing player is knocked unconscious.  More typically a nose might be broken or teeth knocked out. Most fights are relatively short; a long fight might be two minutes long. But by the end of those two minutes the combatants often look exhausted, weary and sometimes bloodied. Afterwards they might exchange pats on the back as a sign of mutual respect. Their shared effort draws ovations from the crowd. More recently team mates have started hitting the boards with their sticks to mark their own appreciation. Both reactions also amount to tacit approvals of this part of the game. Fighting, we are often told, is an integral part of hockey. Fights change a game’s momentum and they keep players honest. Besides those who fight willingly accept their role and rarely get seriously hurt doing so – or so it seemed.

Rick Rypien as a Vancouver Canuck in a fight with a Calgary Flame player.

It’s understandable that people would think the job of an enforcer is a relatively safe occupation. Even among players of exceptional strength, Wade Belak, Derek Boorgaard and Bob Probert were giants. They were tall, broad shouldered, strong and knew, as the saying goes, how to handle themselves. With the exception of Bob Probert in his prime, they played only a few minutes a game. Otherwise they would sit either patiently on the bench or in the penalty box. It is easy to assume that they had grown accustomed to the rigors of fighting and approached the task fearlessly. And even the most active fighters don’t do so every game. But the players themselves are beginning to hint at a much darker story. Wade Belak talked about the physical toll fighting took on his body. He spoke about his anxiety over fighting. If he knew he was to fight a certain player, he would have troubles sleeping the night before the game. He may have realized that fighters are becoming faster and stronger with each passing year. They learn to throw their fists with lightning speed.  Perhaps he feared being on the wrong end of the sort of punch that could knock him unconscious. Or perhaps he sensed that receiving repeated blows to the head was slowly eroding his mental well being.

Indeed, it is a player’s struggles off the ice that are helping to expose the dangers of an enforcer’s on ice roles.  Far away from the rink and far removed from their last game those who passed away were struggling to cope with life. Still we must be careful not to establish a causal connection between a player’s role as fighter and, in the cases of Rick Rypien and now Wade Belak, their suicide. Rick Rypien had long battled depression and the disease has run through his family. Wade Belak’s mother revealed that he also suffered from the disease. For all we know, time spent at the rink with teammates and in front of crowds may have given them a temporary reprieve from their mental struggles. (Could this be why Rick Rypien and Wade Belak committed suicide in the summer?)

Bob Probert as a Detroit Red Wing

Nevertheless the emerging science of brain injuries suggests that repeated head trauma can inflict long-term damage to the brain. The effects of fighting are not as necessarily as overt as those suffered due to a body check induced concussion. After a fight a player may not suffer from dizziness or a pounding headache. The dangers are more subtle, insidious. But this is what renders the damage to the brain a fighter might sustain a bigger challenge to the game’s future. The cumulative effects of a professional life of fighting are harder, if not impossible, to detect until it is too late. A player makes an exceedingly comfortable living while playing and then retires while still in the prime of his life. Only later may symptoms of brain injury be manifest.  And the symptoms are varied. Depression is only one among many possibilities. Retired players might experience memory loss or, like Bob Probert, be prone to angry outbursts. As they get older, they might be more susceptible to dementia. Science will soon shine a much brighter light on what a life spent fighting can potentially do to the brain. What we learn may not be pretty and will likely only fuel the belief that fighting is a part of the game hockey should do without.

Besides the scripted element to fighting makes a mockery of the reasons constantly invoked to justify its ongoing presence in the game. When Wade Belak was a Toronto Maple Leaf and Brian McGrattan an Ottawa Senator, how did a fight between the two change the momentum of the game? How did it serve to keep other players “honest?” Why does the need for fighting suddenly disappear during the playoffs, when the game can be played at a fever pitched pace? We can appreciate the fighter’s courage, but should dispense with the idea that his role serves any useful purpose or is integral to the game. Hockey must evolve before more lives are prematurely lost.

Senate Reform, Part X: The End of the Beginning

September 5, 2011 10:01 am
Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators - Game Four

Now it all makes sense.

You bleed for your team, you follow them through thick and thin, you monitor every free-agent signing, you immerse yourself in Draft Day, you purchase the jerseys and caps, you plan your Sundays around the games… and there’s a little rainbow waiting at the end. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there. It’s there. It has to be there. So you believe.

Of course, there’s one catch: You might never get there. Every fan’s worst fear. All that energy of the years just getting displaced, no release, no satisfaction, nothing. Season after season, no championship… and then you die. I mean, isn’t that what this is all about? Isn’t that the nagging fear? That those little moral victories over the years won’t make up for that big payoff at the end – that one moment when everything comes together, when your teams keeps winning, when you keep getting the breaks and you just can’t lose.

Bill Simmons is one of my favourite sportswriters. He’s from Boston, originally; he wrote the above passage in 2002, nine years before the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years, six before the Celtics won their first championship in 22 years, two before the Red Sox snapped their 86-year title drought and one day after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. Writing for ESPN.com, his words could have applied to any team hoisting their first championship trophy, to any fan experiencing their team’s first championship.

Before being bound to impartiality, every sportswriter was a fan of something; they were either born into fandom or adopted a team as their own based on a number of reasons – a transcendent player, a captivating colour scheme, the birth of a franchise in their backyard. Their proclivity for analysis and criticism was born from a love for the game, following their team day in and day out and living and dying with the outcome.

Simmons is far from impartial, though he manages to toe the line between columnist and cheerleader. Unabashedly biased towards the Boston teams, he’s still thoughtful enough to expound on the highs and lows of any sports franchise. While over the top, the nostalgic adoration he shows for his hometown clubs can be endearing – a West Coast convert unwilling to abandon the teams he left behind.

In a column posted on February 4, 2008, Simmons opened with these exact same three paragraphs – only this time, his Patriots had been upset in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.  He’d been to the mountaintop three times over with the Pats, in 2002, 2004 and 2005, only to see it finally come crashing down. In every sport, for every championship and every heartbreak, there’s always a tomorrow.

This is going to be the final piece in the Senate Reform series, and I hope you’ll excuse the fact that the storyline is centered primarily around me. If you’re a Sens fan, it’s about you, too – just intersperse your memories and experiences where mine are below.

I was born in 1992; December, to be exact, two-and-a-half months after Neil Brady scored the first goal in the history of the modern Ottawa Senators. The first game played after my birth came on New Year’s Eve, a road date with the Detroit Red Wings. Fittingly, the Sens lost, their 34th defeat in 40 games and the 12th game of a winless streak that would last 15.

Over the next four seasons, the losses would mount, resulting in the firing of the team’s first coach, Rick Bowness, who would be followed out the door by his successor, Dave Allison, just two wins and 25 games later. The tide would turn soon after, however, with Jacques Martin leaving the Colorado Avalanche to take over as Ottawa’s head coach. In 1996-97, the Senators would reach the playoffs for the first time, due in no small part to the contributions of young players such as Radek Bonk, Wade Redden, Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson.

Ottawa never missed the playoffs in any of Martin’s eight full seasons behind the bench, with Chris Phillips, Marian Hossa, Mike Fisher, Martin Havlat and several other impact players joining the team in the next few years. From their modest beginning as an expansion franchise, the Sens gradually evolved into a juggernaut. With Bonk, Hossa and Alfredsson leading the charge up front, Redden, Phillips and Zdeno Chara providing strength on defense and Patrick Lalime manning the crease, Ottawa won three division titles and captivated an entire generation of young fans.

The Hossa/Alfredsson/Redden core would peak in the early 2000s, culminating in the Eastern Conference Finals run in 2003. The emergence of players like Fisher, Chris Neil and Jason Spezza and the decision to trade Hossa to Atlanta for Dany Heatley bought the core a few more years, and the team responded by rolling through a weak Eastern Conference and reaching the Cup final in 2007. They would be swiftly dismissed by Anaheim, however, and the wheels would fall off soon after.

Over the next four years, Ottawa’s goaltending carousel continued, the effects of John Muckler’s decimation of the team’s prospect pool were felt and stopgap solutions like Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar failed to pay dividends. Two playoff appearances would follow in the next three years, but the Sens were ousted by Pittsburgh in the first round on both occasions. It wasn’t until the team’s 1-17 run in January 2011 that several key veterans were dealt away and the rebuild was set in motion.

Slowly but surely, the 2006-07 Cup finalist team has been dismantled. Ray Emery missed practice, drove too fast and was exiled to Russia; Redden vanished from the face of the Earth and reemerged as a Connecticut Whale; Anton Volchenkov and Andrej Meszaros became too expensive to retain; Fisher was sent to live with Carrie Underwood in Nashville; Chris Kelly hoisted the Cup as a Boston Bruin; and Heatley made Ottawa fans forget about Alexei Yashin’s NAC donation fiasco. Only four men remain from four years ago: Neil, the ever-faithful pugilist; Spezza, the former boy wonder; Phillips, the steady second-in-command; and Alfredsson, the captain of the sinking ship.

These four have been chose to usher the Ottawa Senators back into contention. They’ll be assisted by a pair of youngsters who have already stepped into veteran roles: reliable winger Nick Foligno and offensive dynamo Erik Karlsson. Soon, the next legion of Senators will feature names like Rundblad, Cowen, Zibanejad, Silfverberg, Da Costa, Butler, Wiercioch and Lehner.

Soon, they’ll be privy to our team’s brief, momentous history. There have been playoff failures: Derek Plante’s goal, Ricard Persson’s lapse in judgment, Ed Belfour’s heroics, Jeff Friesen’s dagger, Joe Nieuwendyk’s floaters, Jason Pominville’s breakaway, the collective will of the Anaheim Ducks. There have been good memories through the years. Without a Cup, the losses are the ones that will be rehashed, continuously, until the city can finally savour its championship.

This piece was posted on a Monday. Early Sunday morning, I said goodbye to my hometown and my hometown team, embarking on the long drive down the 417, moving away for university. I’ve been alive eighteen years – eighteen years of energy being displaced, no release, no satisfaction. That can’t be true, though – we were here for the Cup run of 2007, when the Sens seemingly couldn’t lose, when the Sens Mile stretched from Kanata to Elgin Street and all the way through the East End. It didn’t work out here for Hossa, for Redden, for Yashin, for Lalime, for Chara, for Havlat, for Martin, for Fisher, for Kelly, for Heatley, and tragically, it won’t work out for Alfredsson. We’ve grown up together, the team, the city and I, and while the years following the magical run of 2007 seem to have signalled the beginning of the end, we know that can’t be true, either – not with a new beginning right around the corner.

I’ll be back in eight months. Someday, the Sens will be, too.

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