Thursday, April 27, 2006

2006 NFL Draft - Mock Draft Version ONLY

There have been years where I started doing these things in March and ended up doing five or six different mock drafts. So, I did used to be stupid. Now, I'm less stupid. I know better.

This my mock draft. It is the first. It is the only. It is my "final answer". It has no chance of being right.

Drop some comments or send me an e-mail if you'd like to discuss any of the picks, the needs of the individual teams involved. I'll be watching with you on Saturday as the draft begins, because I'm just as riveted by names rolling across the bottom of the TV screen as you could possibly imagine someone being.

1. Houston - Reggie Bush, RB, USC. Duh. Don't buy the hype. Bush is the most talented player in this draft, and he has the potential to be a true difference-maker in the league if he can show the ability to handle the punishment of being a #1 running back.

2. New Orleans - Mario Williams, DE, North Carolina State. I don't buy the idea that the Saints will take a QB. They spent too much money on Drew Brees to have him in and out for one season. The Saints are probably the top candidate for a trade-down, but they need to find the right offer or they will stay put and bolster their defense with Williams, an outstanding playmaker with tremendous upside.

3. Tennessee - Matt Leinart, QB, USC. Much like the talk of the Saints drafting a QB, I'm having trouble buying the idea that the Titans will draft Vince Young. Leinart is a better fit for the Titans' need, being that he can probably start immediately if Tennessee doesn't work things out with Steve McNair. Yes, Young could learn a lot from McNair, but who will he learn from if McNair departs, as is probably going to happen? Is Billy Volek going to do the teaching?

4. New York Jets - D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia. First off, I'm not going to tell any "D'Brickashaw" jokes. He'd kill me. And I think it's a great name for a lineman. Ferguson will anchor the Jets' offensive line for a decade or more, or at least that's what the Jets will hope.

5. Green Bay - A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State. Hawk starts immediately on this defense, and with the signings of Ryan Pickett, Marquand Manuel, and Charles Woodson, the Packers defense will be vastly improved.

6. San Francisco - Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland. Finally, the 49ers get a tight end who can stretch the field. Davis will help young QB Alex Smith a great deal as Smith continues to develop.

7. Oakland - Vince Young, QB, Texas. It's not a great need for the Raiders, but Young is too talented to pass up here, and the Raiders know they have a situation where Young can develop and prepare for a year before he takes over.

8. Buffalo - Winston Justice, OT, USC. He may be a bit of a reach here because of character concerns, but the Bills need a tackle, and Justice is a great talent who should start immediately.

9. Detroit - Michael Huff, DB, Texas. Instead of drafting another wide receiver, Matt Millen does something smart, giving new head coach Rod Marinelli the kind of physical difference-maker he wants on defense. Huff might be a better fit at safety, but he can also play corner because of his exceptional speed and instincts.

10. Arizona - Ernie Sims, LB, Florida State. Pairing Sims with Karlos Dansby would give Denny Green a dangerous group of linebackers, and the Cardinals know they have the offense put together well enough for the time being.

11. St. Louis - Jay Cutler, QB, Vanderbilt. The Rams might not need a quarterback right now, but with the issues Marc Bulger has had staying healthy, they'd be wise to draft Cutler here. He'd be a perfect fit for Scott Linehan's offense.

12. Cleveland - Broderick Bunkley, DT, Florida State. The Browns need to beef up the middle of their defense, and Bunkley is a nice prospect who, despite concerns about his work ethic and character, has been a riser on most draft boards as of late.

13. Baltimore - Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon. Inexplicably, Ngata has been downgraded by some teams as of late. He's a much more NFL-ready prospect than Bunkley, and he's a great get here for the Ravens, who would love to get a big body for the DT position so Ray Lewis can be quiet and focus on the upcoming season.

14. Philadelphia - Chad Greenway, LB, Iowa. The Eagles have some needs on both lines, but there aren't any players available with this pick that fit those needs. Instead, the Eagles will fill another hole on defense by getting Greenway, an athletic linebacker who can hit with the best of them.

15. Denver - Chad Jackson, WR, Florida. This is heavenly for Denver. The Broncos don't have faith in Ashley Lelie, and they want to get a future #1 receiver out of this draft. Jackson is one of only a handful of quality prospects at the position.

16. Miami - Kamerion Wimbley, LB/DE, Florida State. The Dolphins could pick just about anyone here. They've done a good job in free agency, and Wimbley would be a dream pick for the Fish if he were available here. The Dolphins have enough talent on defense to allow Wimbley to develop.

17. Minnesota - Johnathan Joseph, CB, South Carolina. This is another team that has done a pretty good job in free agency, but the Vikings have holes. Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot are the only proven cornerbacks on the roster, and Smoot is coming off a rough first season in Minnesota where he lost his starting job to Brian Williams. Joseph has the upside to eventually become a starter, and he can play immediately as the Vikings' nickel corner.

18. Dallas - Donte Whitner, S, Ohio State. I think Dallas will draft a defensive player, and Whitner would give the Cowboys a potentially great player paired with Roy Williams. They could also get a rush linebacker to play opposite DeMarcus Ware in the 3-4 defense that coach Bill Parcells has done a magnificent job building in the past year.

19. San Diego - Santonio Holmes, WR, Ohio State. While the Chargers still have the pre-eminent pass-catching tight end in the game in Antonio Gates, they are still lacking a big-play threat on the outside. Holmes isn't an ideal prospect, but he has the upside that suggests he could be a very good pro. With Phil Rivers now at QB, I expect the Chargers to try to get him some more help.

20. Kansas City - Antonio Cromartie, CB, Florida State. For a guy who missed all of 2005 with a knee injury, Cromartie is a quick riser on the board. He has ideal height, quickness, and ball skills, and he's apparently shown scouts he is going to be ready to play as a rookie after his lost season last year.

21. New England - D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Maryland. I have Jackson rated as a second-rounder, and many boards I've looked at appear similar. But the Patriots need a linebacker, and they are good at going outside the box to find their starters. Jackson was extremely productive in college, and he's a smart player who should be a great fit in the Patriots' system.

22. San Francisco - Manny Lawson, DE, North Carolina State. With a second first-round pick, the 49ers have a chance to bolster their pass rush. Lawson could play as a rush outside linebacker in Mike Nolan's 3-4.

23. Tampa Bay - Jimmy Williams, CB, Virginia Tech. There are character and effort concerns with Williams, but he has top ten talent and can't fall forever. He has great talent, and it's not likely that he'll get away with poor effort while playing for Jon Gruden.

24. Cincinnati - Tye Hill, CB, Clemson. The Bengals would like to get someone to help the middle of their defensive front seven, which still needs some work. But the Bengals also need an upgrade at the cornerback position. Hill has fallen a bit because of the upside of Cromartie and the question marks surrounding Williams, but Hill is a solid first-rounder.

25. N.Y. Giants - Bobby Carpenter, LB, Ohio State. Carpenter, the son of a former Giant, is the best LB on the board here, and even with the presence of LaVar Arrington, the Giants know they have to get better. They could decide to go with an offensive player to help Eli Manning out, but there aren't any great fits available here.

26. Chicago - Jason Allen, S, Tennessee. The Bears signed Ricky Manning to help out at corner, and Manning's character issues aside, they don't need another body at that position. They do, however, need help at safety, and Allen can play safety as well as corner in the NFL.

27. Carolina - Mercedes Lewis, TE, UCLA. Lewis would be a great fit in the Panthers' offense. He takes a lot of pressure off of Steve Smith to produce in the passing game, and he gives QB Jake Delhomme a big target in the unlikely event that someone can actually cover Smith.

28. Jacksonville - Thomas Howard, LB, UTEP. The Jaguars could aim for a tight end or a defensive lineman here, but Howard is the pick.

29. N.Y. Jets - DeAngelo Williams, RB, Memphis. A replacement for Curtis Martin should come out of this draft, and Williams is certainly a solid prospect. In a different year (read: a year where teams actually need running backs), Williams goes in the top 15.

30. Indianapolis - Laurence Maroney, RB, Minnesota. The Colts would be delighted to see Maroney "fall" this far after they lost Edgerrin James in free agency.

31. Seattle - Ashton Youboty, CB, Ohio State. The defending NFC champions don't have many gaping holes, but they do need to upgrade their depth at defensive back. Youboty could contribute immediately for most NFL defenses.

32. Pittsburgh - Sinorice Moss, WR, Miami (FL). Moss could step into an Antwaan Randle-El role in the Steelers' offense, and wide receiver is the closest thing the Steelers have to a pressing need right now.

Randomization: 04/27/06

So that's why Favre came back. The Packers did decide to sign actual NFL players after all. Welcome, Charles Woodson, who is likely to become the first Heisman Trophy winner since Paul Hornung to be a regular starter for the Packers. Oh, and there's this nugget from the already-linked article in Thursday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The Packers have Favre to thank in part for Woodson choosing Green Bay.
But it's not the only reason. According to (agent Kevin) Poston, Woodson picked the Packers because head coach Mike McCarthy agreed to let him play on offense as well as play cornerback.
Um. OK. I was queasy about a seven-year deal for a cornerback who has been injury-prone and has lost some of his quicks. Now, I'm really queasy.

Woodson is a great athlete, and maybe the chance to play on both sides of the ball will improve his focus and drive, and make him a better player as a result. But the injury risk that comes with this seven year, $53 million (!) deal really makes me nervous.

King Whizzinator...gone. Maybe Zygi Wilf was serious about turning around the Vikings' image after all. As soon as the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that running back Onterrio Smith was not going to be reinstated by the NFL in June at the end of his one-year substance abuse suspension, the Vikings let him go. Smith played two years for the Vikings after a troubled college career, and Wilf and his mob have apparently decided that Smith isn't worth the trouble the organization has gone through in an effort to keep him around. There's still work to be done to fix the image of the Vikings organization, especially if starters Bryant McKinnie and Fred Smoot are convicted in connection with the Love Boat "scandal" when they go on trial in May.

What the hell are these things? Credit to poster "Moose97" on's message board, which I frequent. "Moose97" found the new uniform design of the Minnesota Vikings and posted a picture of it:

Listen. I hate the color purple. If I had my way, the color would be banned and anything purple would be burned in the world's largest bonfire.

But I liked the Vikings' old look. It may have been plainish, but it was a classy look, and there was some tradition attached to it. This appears to be a more "modern" looking uniform, and that's not a good thing.

I'm not here to mindlessly advocate that the Buccaneers, Patriots, and other teams shouldn't have changed their looks from the 1980s. But if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And the Vikings' look was not broken.

So why, again, did they fix it?

I don't want to say it. Don't make me say it. I'm serious. I have no desire to take the NBA MVP voters to task for being racist. But this doesn't look good. John Stockton owns the point guard position for the better part of a decade. No MVPs. Jason Kidd revitalizes an entire organization with his play at the point guard position. No MVPs. Steve Nash comes along, grows out his hair, takes a stand against the war, stops playing defense, and apparently is now set to win his second straight MVP award. The Suns' point guard had another solid season, and at least he was clearly the MVP of his own team (unlike last year, when one could have argued for Amare Stoudemire). But for the people who vote on this award - people who I would assume are duly qualified to cast such votes - ignored a minimum of two superior candidates, and you could argue that two other superior candidates also got ignored. LeBron James carried a team that isn't as good as the team around Nash, and unlike Nash, James isn't a natural point guard, and he is a much better defender than Nash. Kobe Bryant is the Los Angeles Lakers. And you could argue that Dirk Nowitski is more MVP-worthy than Nash, considering the season he just had in Dallas.

(Side note: Nowitski has come an amazingly long way since his meltdown last year against Phoenix, when he was too busy yelling at his teammates to actually help the Mavericks win.)

I still don't think this is about race, because Stockton would have won at least one of these things if it was. But there is something "cute" about the gangly-haired little Canadian dude. His game, so unassuming on the surface because Nash lacks the superstar "look", makes you want to vote for him.

And I don't think it matters to the voters too much that Nash is white.

It just looks like it does...and that's a bad thing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Randomization: 04/26/06

Sorry, Brett, but you don't get your own column today. ESPN is reporting that Favre has finally decided on what he will do in 2006, and his decision is to play. Favre reportedly informed the Packers of his decision yesterday, and we now await some sort of formal announcement from either Favre or the team, which could probably come at any time. The Packers, who could make the case that they didn't deserve to be 4-12 a year ago*, certainly benefit from having Favre back.

(*As discussed here on Monday, eight of the Packers' 12 losses in 2005 came by a combined total of 31 points. This came despite a turnover-plagued offense and a defense that was practically incapable of forcing turnovers or making any big plays. It's not exactly a stretch that fielding a status-quo roster in 2006 will produce better results without any other improvements.)

Green Bay still has some work to do before the draft, as final preparations continue. But having the Favre puzzle solved helps the team on a number of levels, especially considering the media attention this story drew. The Packers moved Favre's roster bonus deadline back to July 27 a couple weeks ago. They did it because they were sick of the story being brought up every time the artificial deadline approached, and they wanted the press to back off of Favre a little bit. All along, Favre's relationship with the front office was always good, and their communication remained intact. He kept in touch with general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy, and while he never expressed any public support for the team's offseason moves, he made it clear that he wanted to come back to a contender in 2006. So despite the fact that the team hasn't done much of anything in free agency, Favre must have some reason to believe that this team is going to be vastly improved in 2006.

(Maybe he read this blog on Monday and realized how many close games this team lost while they were suffering debilitating injury after debilitating injury. Eight losses by a combined 31 points, which means a few touchdowns or a few big plays from the defense could have been the difference between 4-12 and 10-6. Even the sure-legged Ryan Longwell cost this team a game last year by missing an extra point (!).)

I went on record last week as saying that the Packers would be a playoff contender, at the very least, if Favre returned. I meant it, and I stand by it. This team will be improved, and Favre will be the ringleader of the improvement.

(EDITED TO ADD: Shortly after this entry was posted, the Packers officially announced Favre's intent to play in 2006. In a short press release, Thompson said, "The Green Bay Packers are very pleased that Brett has come to this decision, and look forward to a successful 2006 season."

Bruce's reaction: Yay!)

Can the Oil pull it off? I picked Detroit to win this series decisively, but that's not looking like such a smart move. The Wings have had trouble throughout the first three games of this series scoring goals, though they did show some explosiveness last night with two goals in :18 to tie the game in the third period. But Edmonton again held off the Wings' charge, and Jarret Stoll won the game for the Oilers in the second overtime to give Edmonton a 2-1 series lead. Game Four is Thursday night in Edmonton, and it's a golden opportunity for the Oil to take command of a series that they were supposed to get blown out of.

I'm not going to get too hard on Detroit here, but the Wings need to pick up their defensive play. They gave up three even-strength goals last night, and all three of them came off of broken plays where the Wings failed to clear the puck out of their own zone, or where they just flat-out got beat to loose pucks in their zone.

The first Edmonton goal, early in the first, came when Detroit netminder Manny Legace gave up a rebound off a shot from the bottom of the right faceoff circle. Legace kicked said rebound behind the net, but Brad Winchester beat his man to the loose puck, brought it around the back, and fed Jaroslav Spacek in the left circle for a one-timer goal. The second goal came on a play where a one-timer from the left point was deflected over to the right wing. Again, Winchester got there first, and he shoveled the puck down the wall and around the corner. Ryan Smyth took the puck behind the net and scored on a backhanded wrap-around shot.

Edmonton's third goal came on the power play, and it was a great setup for a shot by Chris Pronger in the high slot, which was tipped home by Raffi Torres. The Wings didn't defend that power play particularly well, but it was a very nice play by Edmonton to get the goal.

In the second overtime, Stoll's goal started as a pretty innocent-looking play. Stoll took the initial shot from between the top of the faceoff circles. The puck was played behind the net, where Shawn Horcoff, again, got there first. He couldn't play it back out front, but it got to Sergei Samsonov, whose wraparound attempt was thwarted by Legace. But in doing so, Legace turned himself around and threw the puck right up the slot, where Stoll one-timed it home before Legace could get into position, sending the crowd of nearly 17,000 into a frenzy.

(You can watch the highlights, and check out the best goal horn in hockey, here. What a great crowd. By far, that was the best atmosphere we've seen for a playoff game so far, and the best part is that the crowds are only going to get louder as the playoffs roll on.)

As long as Detroit is going to rely on their passing ability to score goals, they are going to have problems. They need someone to take charge, and they need to find a way to get more traffic in front of Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson, who has clearly outplayed Legace so far. Edmonton has the upper hand, but it won't last long if the Wings start playing more like the team that was the best in the NHL all season.

Why was Ron Artest suspended? Just curious. After all, his "forearm" or "elbow" was so blatant and vicious that Manu Ginobli, the NBA's answer to Peter Forsberg, barely sold it, and the officials at the game didn't see fit to charge Artest with a flagrant foul.

The Spurs are the top seed, the defending NBA champion, and they beat Sacramento by 34 points in the first game of their series. Did they really need another advantage?

Coming up...More on the NFL Draft, with a mock draft coming tomorrow and Friday. I'll also chime in on other issues as stories warrant.

Randomization: NFL Draft Edition Vol. 1

OMG Reggie Bush CHEATED!! Well, maybe not. But ESPN sure wants you to think so. So does Skip Braynless, who has gone so far as to decide on a proper punishment for Bush - just in case he's convicted of a crime that we're not even certain happened in the first place.

But if Bush is implictaed in wrongdoing, there is one punishment that wouldn't be toothless. It certainly would hurt much more than leveling some meaningless sanctions at the school he's leaving in his rearview mirror like he left so many would-be tacklers in the dust.

The idea hit me Sunday night. I pushed it on Monday morning's "Cold Pizza." And I was very happy to read Joe Schad's Monday afternoon report on that members of the Heisman Trophy Trust are "doing some soul-searching" about it.

Yes, director Rob Whalen told Schad that the trustees have discussed "revoking" Bush's Heisman Trophy.

Pathetic. Another "journalist" trying to make the news happen himself. Braynless has one job here. Give me an opinion on what has happened. Tell me whether you think Bush could possibly have had no clue what was going on. Tell me whether you think USC's coaches could have been involved in this, and what it could mean for USC's program.

But you, Sports Journalist, don't get to decide on Bush's punishment - especially when Bush may have done absolutely nothing wrong. I know we're all obsessed with convicting people on TV shows and in newspaper columns (see: "Duke Lacrosse"), but this is getting ridiculous.

More pathetic than Braynless is the behavior of Braynless' employer, ESPN. SportsCenter spent the first five minutes on Monday mindlessly speculating about Bush's draft status, as if the Houston Texans actually care that some seedy marketing dude may have arranged for a sweet house for Bush's family. I could see some actual worry if Bush had actually signed with this particular representative, but that didn't happen. Then ESPN went on to put Joe Schad on TV (which usually a mistake by itself) so Schad, like Braynless earlier in the day, could talk about the Heisman Trophy being taken away.

Maybe I'm just naive, but why would they take the Heisman away from Bush when they didn't take it away from a double-murderer (allegedly)? But maybe I'm wrong.

Don't buy the hype. Bush will be the top pick. As much as I would prefer the Texans draft someone who can actually prevent David Carr from getting killed when he drops back on third-and-eight, they're not taking D'Brickashaw Ferguson. And if they aren't going to fill their greatest need, they should take the best player on the board. The best player on the board is Bush, unless he hauls off and decks a reporter during his tour around New York City on Friday. Any discussion from the Texans about Mario Williams or anyone else is a smokescreen. The only way they won't take Bush is if they trade the pick, and I don't know how seriously the Texans will consider a trade, because I don't know that any team that has the desire to move up has the desire to pay the price for a trade or pay the price for the player they want.

Every team in the top ten of this draft wants Bush signed before the draft. In most years, teams and agents prefer to wait for the top pick to sign before they do any serious contract work of their own. That top pick sets the market for the rest of the draft, and everyone is helped a little bit when he signs before the draft. There will still be holdouts, but teams and agents at least have a basic framework to deal with. This is especially true in 2006, because the cap went up significantly, to over $100 million per team, and there will be some agents who believe that top pick guarantees should rise accordingly. I already think rookies are paid a ridiculous amount of money, so I don't believe that they need any more. But my opinion doesn't matter. The only ones that do are the Houston Texans and the agent for whoever they choose with the top pick. They will set the market in a big year for rookie draft picks.

Don't be surprised to see some big trades. I would expect that the Packers, now that they know they'll have Brett Favre around, might be willing to deal disgruntled WR Javon Walker before or during the draft. The kicker for the Packers is that it's hard to figure out the market for an ego-driven wideout who is coming off a devastating knee injury. However, this might be the time to pull the trigger. You know Favre is coming back, and while he looked terrible last year because of all the injuries around him, you also know that Favre doesn't necessarily need an elite wideout to make the offense click. This draft is short on playmaking wide receivers, so any team looking for a wideout might be willing to swing a deal for Walker. I know Ted Thompson doesn't want to make players think they can force trades when the spirit moves them, but the Packers need to deal Walker so he doesn't cause any problems. Also possibly on the block is Denver WR Ashley Lelie, whose inconsistency is driving coach Mike Shanahan nuts.

All this said, there probably won't be any big trades. Usually, when we media types start talking about big trades in the draft (i.e. "OMG wildest year ever this year; just wait and see!"), nothing happens.

This year's first-round swingers. The "swing" picks are the picks that can change the course of the first round. Every year, there are a couple teams in the top 15 that are hard to get a feel for. Who will they select? What position are they targeting? The way I see it right now, here are the key spots in the first round of the draft:

3. Tennessee --> Will the Titans take Leinart or Young, or will they try to upgrade the offensive line with Ferguson? If the Titans don't take Leinart, it could set up a frenzy later in the top ten, as someone tries to position themselves for Leinart, who could fall out of the top five on Saturday if no one makes a trade to get him.

10. Arizona --> The Cardinals have a few holes, and they might not be able to get the player they really want (Maryland TE Vernon Davis) at the tenth position. The Cardinals may target a quarterback, perhaps Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler. Denny needs help at linebacker. Would he reach for Ernie Sims? (After all, Denny's certainly reached before.) Winston Justice? Jimmy Williams? No one knows for sure, and it could certainly change the course of the draft for the next ten picks.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

2006 NFL Draft: What do the Vikings need?

Picture it: 2000.

The Vikings start 7-0 and cruise to the NFC Central title and #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. There was a bit too much cruising, though, as the Vikes blew a golden opportunity to secure the top seed.

Nonetheless, first-year starting QB Daunte Culpepper accounted for nearly 4,000 passing yards and 40 total TDs, and star WR Randy Moss approached 1,500 receiving yards and scored 15 TDs. Even though the Vikings lost a 41-0 heartbreaker to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game that year, the future looked bright for the Vikings. They had budding young superstars at the skill positions, and when Robert Smith retired after the season, they appeared to be simply a #1 running back and a little bit better play on defense away from being an unstoppable force.

At this point (January 2001), the odds are in favor of the Vikings making a Super Bowl within a couple years, and certainly not of the organization practically turning itself upside down within 40 months.

But the defense never rounded into any kind of form, and the Vikings suffered some key injuries on offense while also never finding a reliable top running back. Dennis Green was fired didn't return as the Vikings' coach after a disastrous 2001 season, and Mike Tice took over. With a cheap owner demanding that Tice hire assistant coaches on the cheap, and said cheap owner refusing to spend any serious money on free agents, the team really had issues. Tice had trouble getting his young players to turn the corner, but they got close. The 2003 Vikings started 6-0 before crumbling and missing the playoffs after Arizona Cardinal Nate Poole's acrobatic catch in the end zone on the final play of the final game. The 2004 team started 5-1 before finishing 8-8 and backing into the playoffs.

Then the organization tired of Moss' antics and dealt him to Oakland in March 2005. The first-round pick the Vikings got for Moss was used on South Carolina WR Troy Williamson in the 2005 draft, but Williamson wasn't able to even approach Moss' impact as a rookie. With new owner Zygi Wilf opening the checkbook, the Vikings spent more freely than ever before on free agents, with mixed results. The Vikings got off to a horrible start, with Culpepper turning the ball over left and right, and seemingly regressing after posting MVP-caliber numbers in 2004. The Vikings' bye week was marred by a story detailing bad behavior on a Lake Minnetonka boat cruise that was chartered by members of the team. Culpepper, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, and cornerback Fred Smoot were among those implicated. Culpepper blew out his knee in a loss to Carolina, and the Vikings finished the season 7-2 with Brad Johnson as the starter. It wasn't enough for the team to make the playoffs, and Tice was fired after the Vikings' final game.

Wilf hired Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress as the new head coach shortly after Tice was fired, and Childress immediately had a falling-out with Culpepper, who refused to rehab his surgically-repaired knee in Minnesota, and then demanded more money be put into his contract for 2006, despite a statistically wretched 2005 season that followed Culpepper forcing the team to guarantee him $8 million during training camp (Culpepper even went so far as to stage a one-day walkout from camp to get the money he wanted). With Culpepper practically begging to be traded from Minnesota for some strange reason, the Vikings ultimately decided to deal their disgruntled franchise QB to Miami for a second-round pick.

So here are the Vikings. No franchise QB. No franchise WR. No franchise RB. Holes on defense. New coaching staff.

Let's look at the team as the Vikings finish off preparation for the 2006 NFL Draft.

1st round (17) - 17th overall
2nd round (16) - 48th overall
2nd round (19) - 51st overall
3rd round (19) - 83rd overall
4th round (18) - 115th overall
5th round (17) - 149th overall
6th round (16) - 185th overall

LB --> There are a couple options for the Vikings now that Sam Cowart has signed on with Houston. Cowart was a capable player in the middle, and his presence will be missed if the Vikings can't find a replacement. E.J. Henderson could move back inside, where he played during his college career at Maryland. The Vikings could then draft a player to play Henderson's strong-side position, and this is a pretty good draft for outside linebackers. The Vikings also need to solidify their situation at weak-side linebacker, where Dontarrious Thomas has not come close to developing as the team hoped. So the team is in a position where they can draft the best linebacker on the board and configure the lineup from there to benefit everyone's strengths. Expect the Vikings to look at Florida State's Ernie Sims and perhaps Alabama's DeMeco Ryans in the first round, or they could look at an insider player such as Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson or Virginia's Kai Parham later in the first day.

QB --> This isn't rocket surgery, people. The Vikings traded Culpepper last month for 35 cents on the dollar (assuming he comes back healthy off this devastating knee injury), and they didn't sign any free agent quarterbacks (sorry, Mike McMahon doesn't legally qualify as a "quarterback"). The teams knows that they need to come out of this draft with a quality prospect who could step in if Johnson can't hold up for 16 games, unless they want McMahon and his career completion percentage of 44.5 (gaudy 15-21 TD-INT ratio) to take over. While it's not a certainty that the Vikings would take a QB in the first round (even if Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler becomes available), they should plan on taking a QB during the first day of the draft. Outside of Cutler in the first round, the Vikings could look at Alabama's Brodie Croyle, Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst, or perhaps Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green.

CB --> Even though the Vikings have spent big recently on free-agent acquisitions Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield, they know they have to upgrade the depth at this position. Nickel back Brian Williams started the second half of last season after Smoot struggled and then was injured, but Williams went to Jacksonville as a free agent. With the need for depth, I expect the Vikings to potentially draft two corners in this draft, as the pool of developmental prospects is quite deep. Prospects like Miami's Devin Hester, Richard Marshall of Fresno State, Will Blackmon of Boston College, and Kansas' Charles Gordon could be available late in the first day or early in the second.

WR --> The Vikings have talent at this position, and they have some depth. However, they don't have anyone who is a solid #1 receiver at this point. Koren Robinson has the most upside, but there are questions about his consistency and his character. Travis Taylor has hands of stone, Marcus Robinson is no longer a spring chicken, and Troy Williamson showed only flashes of ability in his rookie year, and that was only after he spent some time in former coach Tice's doghouse for reported poor practice habits. There aren't any blue-chip receivers in this draft, but the Vikings may look for a developmental prospect with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

I think the Vikings will be aggressive at the quarterback position and look for Cutler, who is likely to fall to the Vikings' pick at #17, barring a team below the Vikings trading up to get Cutler. The depth at linebacker is better than the depth at quarterback, so the Vikings can get a linebacker later in the draft. The chance to get a legitimate blue-chip quarterback in the middle of the first round isn't going to come around every year.

Here's my read on the Vikings' first-round selection, listed in order of likelihood:

1. Cutler
2. LB Ernie Sims (Florida State)
3. Trade up - perhaps for Cutler or Iowa LB Chad Greenway
4. Trade down and stock up on picks for later in the draft
5. CB Tye Hill (Clemson) or Antonio Cromartie (Florida State)

Tomorrow, we'll keep looking at the draft with some news and notes, including the very latest on the OMG REGGIE BUSH CHEATED "controversy".

Monday, April 24, 2006

2006 NFL Draft: What do the Packers need?

Most of this week's posts will be draft-intensive...just so you're warned.

You can get scouting reports all over the internet. Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sportsline, FOX Sports, and ESPN Insider will all have scouting reports on various players, and there are draft guide magazines everywhere that you can buy books and magazines. So I'm not going to waste time rating players. I will have a mock draft later in the week, but I'm going to start the week by focusing on the primary needs of the two teams I cover, the Packers and the Vikings. We'll start with the Packers, who went 4-12 last year and probably have a few more holes than the Vikings do (insert obligatory "Swiss cheese" joke).

(Please note: Because this draft is not about Brett Favre, and Brett Favre's status is probably not going to be a huge factor - if it isn't a complete non-factor - in the Pack's draft strategy, Brett Favre will receive no further mention in this piece. Belated thanks go out to the folks at ESPN for airing a two-minute piece on SportsCenter Sunday that said absolutely nothing about Favre's status with the Packers, which is the only mentionable part of this story. ESPN instead focused on the fact that Favre is still a topic of conversation on sports radio in Green Bay, and they managed to do so without giving any kind of idea what the majority of fans are thinking about the issue. OMG BREAKING NEWS: EITHER BRETT FAVRE IS COMING BACK OR HE ISN'T.)

The Packers had a bad season last year, and as a result, they pick fifth in this year's draft. That's a good thing, since general manager Ted Thompson didn't bother to spend the truckload of cap room the Packers entered the offseason with. He wants to build the core of this team in the draft, and use free agency to supplement the roster instead of using free agency to build the core of the team. Only time will tell if this strategy will really work, but much of the "Why didn't we sign anyone?" talk is tempered by the fact that this team was so tantalizingly close in so many games a year ago (eight of the 12 losses came by a combined 31 points).

1st round (5) - 5th overall
2nd round (4) - 36th overall
3rd round (3) - 67th overall
4th round (7) - 104th overall
5th round (6) - 139th overall
5th round (33) - 165th overall
7th round (45) - 253rd overall

OLB -->The Packers have some nice players at the linebacker position. Nick Barnett is still developing, and he has some work to do, but Barnett is one of the few players that Mike Sherman drafted who should work out quite nicely for the Packers. However, Barnett is not an overly physical player, and he also doesn't strike as a leader on defense. With Na'il Diggs and Paris Lenon both gone, and Robert Thomas joining Barnett as the only returning player at linebacker, the Packers know they have a need here. They signed Ben Taylor away from Cleveland, but he's hardly a star. A player like A.J. Hawk from Ohio State would be a great pick for Green Bay in the first round. Hawk is a physical player who can make plays all over the field, and his teammates feed off his energy level and intensity. If the Packers look elsewhere with their first-round selection, they could fill this void later in the draft with a player like Bobby Carpenter (also from tOSU) or Thomas Howard (UTEP). Either way, Thompson knows he probably needs to leave this draft with a starting OLB.

OG --> Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle left, and I went on some rant about how offensive guards were being ridiculously overpaid (something I still believe is true, especially given the stupid contract that the Vikings gave Steve Hutchinson). Then, contrary to my rant, the interior of the Packers' offensive line fell apart in 2005, leading to much of the sucktitude that was 4-12. Then Thompson let the Texans overpay for center Mike Flanagan in free agency, so the entire interior of the Packers' line needs to be rebuilt. While there aren't any solid first-round prospects at guard, Georgia's Max Jean-Gilles is a potential second-rounder, and Oklahoma's Davin Joseph could be a fit in Green Bay, too. A good second-day selection could be a guy like Minnesota's Mark Setterstrom. Look for Thompson to get at least one starting-caliber guard out of this draft.

WR --> The Packers have a problem. Their best receiver, Javon Walker, would like to be traded, and he says he'll retire rather than play in Green Bay again. Donald Driver is a nice complimentary piece, but he's not an elite receiver. Robert Ferguson drops too many passes and has missed out on a number of opportunities to increase his role with the team. Rod Gardner has never been able to seize chances to be a top receiver. The Packers need someone who has the ability to be a #1 receiver, and while this draft doesn't yield any blue-chip prospects, they'd be wise to try to grab a developmental prospect like Greg Lee of Pittsburgh or Martin Nance of Miami (Ohio) - the type of player who will be on the board late in the first day of the draft and could develop into an elite receiver within a couple of years.

DB --> Al Harris and Nick Collins are solid starters. The Packers thought enough of safety Marquand Manuel to sign him to a five-year deal, so conventional wisdom suggests that he'll start. However, the Packers need a solid second CB to take the pressure off of Harris, and Ahmad Carroll doesn't appear to be the answer at that position. If a player like South Carolina's Johnathan Joseph falls into the second round, the Packers could take a look at him. There are also rumors that Green Bay is interested in Texas CB/S Michael Huff and could trade down a few spots to get him late in the top ten.

C --> With Flanagan gone, it appears the Packers will try to replace him with a younger player. Scott Wells filled in at guard in 2005, and likely will start at center in 2006. With the pool at center pretty talented this year, the Packers will probably try to get a prospect in the second day who can help provide some depth along the interior of the offensive line. A player like Ryan Cook out of New Mexico could be a good pick-up early in the second day.

DE --> The Packers spent a lot of money to re-sign Aaron Kampman, and they have a lot invested in Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, but they don't have much behind either player. The Packers need a big, physical end who can push KGB for playing time on rushing downs, as it will help keep him fresh for pass-rushing situations where KGB is still a tough player to block. A late-round prospect such as Devan Long of Oregon or Darrell Adams of Virginia could be a perfect fit.

DT --> While the starting lineup appears set for 2006 (Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins/Corey Williams), the depth is in flux. Donnell Washington has promise, and Colin Cole has shown some flashes. Thompson should still keep his eyes open for a run-stuffer in this draft. Tennessee's Jesse Mahelona and Texas A&M's Johnny Jolly are both run-stopping prospects who could be on the board early in the second day.

Hawk. He fits the Packers' OLB needs, and he is also a potential leader on a defense that severely lacked any leadership and was incredibly soft the past two years. If the first four picks shake down the right way, Green Bay could make a trade down a few spots, pick up an extra pick on the first day, and still get a strong defensive back prospect like Huff - or maybe Hawk would slip far enough to let the Pack sucker an extra pick out of a team like Oakland and still get him.

Here's my read on the Packers' first-round selection, listed in order of likelihood:

1. Hawk
2. Trade down
3. Trade up for Mario Williams (DE, NC State)
4. Huff
5. QBs Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler

Tomorrow, we'll cover the Vikings' needs entering the draft this weekend.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Randomization 04/21/06 - Apparently it's the "Video Game Edition"

How do we go about getting a Viking on the cover again? Apparently, the announcement of the "cover boy" for Madden video games is now a big deal. On the same day I picked up Madden 06, they announced that Seattle RB Shaun Alexander will be gracing the cover for Madden 07.

(I've always been behind the times somewhat, and I've decided that it would be cool to have all the EA "06" games. I have NASCAR, FIFA, NHL, NCAA Football, and NCAA Baseball. I saw Madden yesterday at Sam's Club, and decided to pull the trigger. Haven't played it yet as of this writing, but I can't imagine that a Madden game would be anything less than great.)

With the jinx in full force last year (Donovan McNabb), and recent cover players Marshall Faulk, Daunte Culpepper, and Michael Vick all having sob stories to tell, it's wondrous to me that EA can get anyone on the cover. EA should try one year to see if the jinx can work the other way. Take a completely miserable excuse for a football player (Joey Harrington comes to mind) and put him on the cover - just to see what happens to his career. After all, a guy like Harrington can't get any worse, can he?

Since I brought it up...random video game notes. NCAA Baseball is awesome. One of the best things to happen to my video gaming experience is EA losing the rights to produce MLB-licensed games. Because of that, EA made the decision to make a college baseball game. It's got some holes (the "create a team" feature sucks, and there aren't nearly enough ballparks, nor is there enough detail in the "create a ballpark" feature), but EA did a good job. There's already some talk about an MVP 07: NCAA Baseball game, so I'm guessing sales are at least decent. If you haven't picked it up, and you like playing video game baseball, I highly recommend it.

I like FIFA 06, but I think it stinks that EA made a separate World Cup game. I guess I'll have to get that before the World Cup starts in June (Father's Day gift...hmm...). FIFA is fun because if you set the game speed high enough, you can get a full game in and it only takes about 15 minutes (I usually play a six-minute half). I took on the challenge of trying to build Norwich into an English club soccer power. You're pretty limited in the money you can spend in Manager mode, so it makes it pretty tough to get the players you want.

NCAA Football 06 is one of the best games I've ever played. Superb detail, fun features, and exciting gameplay. It took three seasons, but I just won a national championship with Army. It was fun, because it was exceptionally challenging. It would have been even more challenging if I hadn't created the perfect QB to run the spread-option offense. The defense still isn't that good most of the time, but it's fun to see how many more blue-chip recruits want to play for your once-moribound program when you start winning a little bit. I was losing recruits to crappy MAC schools in my first year, and recruiting after the national championship season was much easier.

NHL 06 is the best hockey game EA has produced in, literally, years. Like FIFA, the gameplay is fast enough that a full game can be played within 15-20 minutes. And the game is challenging enough (at least for me) in dynasty mode. About halfway through my first season, the Wild are fighting like dogs for a top-four spot in the West. Usually, the challenge for me is to make the game challenging without making it impossibly hard. That's not a problem for me in this edition. The difficulty is such that I've had some blowout wins and some blowout losses. And I like that goal horns in the different arenas are much more authentic than I remember them in previous years.

Even though I've had NASCAR 06 for some time, I haven't played it much. The career mode is interesting, as you have to work your way up the ladder, instead of starting as a Cup series driver. The gameplay is fun (hard to screw up car racing), and it's pretty realistic, with the exception that other drivers, in my view, are much more aggressive in this game than they are in the actual races. There is too much bumping going on in the game, to the point where you will never win much of anything unless you turn the damage settings down.

To confirm, I am actually going on 29 years old. I am married, and I do have a four-year-old son. And I am an avid video-game player. Ain't life great?

Weekend notes...The NFL Draft is a week away. Still no sign that anyone but Reggie Bush will be selected by anyone but Houston with the first pick. I expect the Saints to try very hard to trade down, and I think the Packers will end up with tOSU linebacker A.J. Hawk.

The NBA Playoffs start tomorrow. I'm not going to preview them with the same enthusiasm as I did the NHL, but I'm looking forward to seeing Detroit beat up on everyone in the East, and I'm looking forward to seeing LeBron James in the playoffs. The Clippers will be a nice story, and expect Kobe Bryant to make things very interesting in the Lakers/Phoenix series.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hey, they're giving out the Stanley Cup again!! Western Conference Playoff Preview

Sadly, we have to talk about things like officiating. In every sport, it's the zebra in the room...pun intended.

This year, the officiating in the NHL has undergone a bit of an adjustment. The league has been adamant about opening the game back up after years of empty promises about obstruction crackdowns. New officiating head Steven Walkom got things off on the right foot early, making it clear that the obstruction, hooking, holding, etc. (heretofore referred to as "crap") was going to be called and that no letup on that crackdown would be tolerated.

Walkom also did something that officials hardly ever do in hockey or any other sport. He made it clear that he didn't care if his men had to call 15 penalties on one team and three on the other. He didn't want calls to "even up", and he wanted teams called for penalties they committed. It was rare because of the candor - Walkom was basically admitting that officials had spent years trying to even up the power play distribution in games, and he wanted it to stop (are you reading this, Greg Shepherd?).

That said, here comes the test. Now, we get to see how serious these officials are about cleaning up the crap in the game. Will they call 20 hooking penalties in a playoff game if they have to? Or will they let it all go as they used to? Obviously, the company line is that the crackdown will continue. We will have to wait and see starting Friday.

We've already previewed the East. Now, let's see who will make it out of the West.

8. Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13, 95 points)

The Oilers were beaten decisively in the Battle of Alberta, losing the season series to Calgary 5-3, and losing out to the Flames in the Northwest Division by eight points. The Oilers should be thanked, however, for sending The Canadian Scourge to the golf course early this year. I hear that Todd Bertuzzi got enough practice hacking during the season that he actually broke par yesterday. Congratulations, Todd.

Why the Oilers will go far: Edmonton has plenty of speed, and they can hit people, too. Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff both topped 70 points, and Sergei Samsonov was a nice addition at the trade deadline. Ryan Smyth developed into a top goal-scorer, and Jarrett Stoll had a nice season. Chris Pronger got a lot of money from the Oilers for this time of year. He scored 56 points this year and was a great presence on the power play (42 points). The Oilers gave up a first-round draft pick to bring in veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and while the results were somewhat mixed early, Rolie played well down the stretch. With Edmonton's depth and athleticism, they have to hope they can wear down the older Red Wings in the first round.

Why the Oilers will go away: This isn't so much about the Oil. Edmonton can score, and they can defend. While Roloson got a little better, he was only 8-7 with a 2.42 GAA in Edmonton, and that's not going to strike fear in the Red Wings. Edmonton's solid on special teams (8th on the power play, 12th on the penalty kill), but they need to play a more disciplined style against Detroit. The Wings are just too good on the power play for the Oilers to be constantly killing off penalties. Edmonton is a solid eighth seed, but they don't match up well with the Wings in a first-round series because they don't have the defense and goaltending to sufficiently slow the Wings down.

Bottom line: Most people know what I think of the Red Wings. And most people know what I think of Edmonton. So this hurts. I don't see Edmonton being terribly competitive in this series, unless Roloson invokes memories of his play during Minnesota's 2003 playoff run while Detroit experiences a goaltending meltdown. Detroit is too strong for Edmonton, and they'll finish off the Oil in five games.

7. Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 points)

Even with some veterans who struggled early, and season-long problems in goal, the Avalanche are back in the playoffs. They are, however, a pretty heavy underdog in their opening-round series against Dallas. The Avalanche could be a tough out if they get goaltending, because you know their forwards can score, and they won't back down from a hard-hitting game.

That said, "if they get goaltending" is a pretty big IF for Colorado right now.

Why the Avalanche will go far: Jose Theodore may have fallen off a bit this year, but he's done this before, and he's been able to rebound and produce in the playoffs. If he doesn't, the Avs also have Peter Budaj, and who would have thought Budaj could do what he did in the Olympics? Joe Sakic can still score with the best of them, and Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk are a nice supporting cast. Andrew Brunette, a veteran free agent who was let go by Minnesota, produced nearly 70 points. Rob Blake and John-Michael Liles both put up some nice offensive numbers, and Blake rebounded from a rough start to play well defensively after the Olympics.

Why the Avalanche will go away: Theodore and Budaj are inconsistent. The Avalanche aren't particularly strong up front outside of Sakic, Tanguay, and Hejduk. As long as young star Marek Svatos is out, the Avs will suffer up front. Also missing in round one will be Steve Konowalchuk, who could add some experience to the lineup if he were healthy. The defensive corps is very shaky, and that doesn't bode well for the Avs if the goaltending can't come through.

Bottom line: Dallas has a balanced, hard-working team, and they have an elite goaltender in Marty Turco. The Stars present matchup nightmares, especially in goal, for the Avalanche, who haven't yet come close to replacing Patrick Roy. If Theodore can step up, the Avs might be able to hang around for seven games, and they might spring the upset. But the more realistic scenario has Colorado bowing out to Dallas in five games.

6. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (43-27-12, 98 points)

If only the season had started after the Olympics. If that were the case, the Ducks could easily find themselves in the top four of the West. And that way, they'd be able to have home-ice advantage. One of the best moves the Ducks made looked strange at the time. They traded Sergei Fedorov to Columbus, and they did it after Fedorov had played just five games. While the Ducks didn't get much in return, they did open the door for some of their younger players to take over.

And did they ever take over.

Why the Ducks will go far: While free-agent acquisition Teemu Selanne was good for 40 goals and 90 points, the story was the youth in Anaheim. Joffrey Lupul scored 28 goals. Andy McDonald was good for 34 goals and 85 points. Former Ferris State hack Chris Kunitz picked up 41 points. And while the youngsters were learning, steady veteran defenseman Scott Niedermayer proved himself worth every penny the Ducks paid him to sign. He picked up 50 assists and 63 points, and Niedermayer scored 36 points on the power play this season for Anaheim. The Ducks went 11-4-1 in March, and started 4-1 in April, so they really made their playoff charge after the Olympic break.

Why the Ducks will go away: It's not a deal-breaker, but the Ducks did lose three of their last four. While Jean-Sebastien Giguere has played better since the break, the Ducks' netminder doesn't match up well with the Flames in the first round, and Giguere will have a hard time matching what Miikka Kiprusoff can do in goal. Niedermayer is great, but the rest of Anaheim's defense is leaky and not playoff-hardened. Niedermayer will have to log some serious minutes, which he can do, but it won't be easy for him to hold up this ship against the hard, intense forecheck of Calgary.

Bottom line: The Anaheim story is a nice one. They rallied and stormed into the playoffs after a lackluster first 45 games. But they don't match up well with the Flames, and Calgary will end Anaheim's season in six games.

5. Nashville Predators (49-25-8, 106 points)

When this franchise started up, everyone - even the locals - seemed to be skeptical. And those folks got even more skeptical when the Predators struggled early in their history. Before the lockout that cancelled the 2004-2005 season, we started to sense some life in Nashville. The Preds made the playoffs, and they were very competitive before losing a six-game series to Detroit. After the lockout, the Predators almost immediately showed their willingness to compete, as they signed free-agent star Paul Kariya. That move came after they traded for former Blackhawk Steve Sullivan during their run to the playoffs in 2003-2004 and retained Sullivan in free agency.

Now, the Predators have veteran leadership in Sullivan and Kariya, and they have complimented them with some solid young talent. Unfortunately for Nashville, their playoff chances were dealt a huge blow last week, when it was learned that starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun would miss the postseason with blood clot issues. Now, the fourth-seeded Predators have gone from being a favorite to being an underdog, home ice notwithstanding.

Why the Predators will go far: Sullivan and Kariya are an impressive one-two punch. 62 goals and 153 points combined, with 80 of those points coming on the power play. Martin Erat and Scott Hartnell are nice complimentary players, and the Predators have some good defensemen with guys like Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky. The team has faith in backup goalie Chris Mason, whose role certainly became more significant with the announcement about Vokoun.

Why the Predators will go away: Sullivan and Zidlicky are banged up, and neither may be 100 percent for the playoffs. The Vokoun situation is a bad one for Nashville. The Predators rode Vokoun all season for a reason. They may say they have faith in Mason, and they may really have faith in Mason, but the Predators know this is a problem. They're not as deep, and they're not playing as well as first-round opponent San Jose, whose hard-checking forwards could present a matchup issue for Nashville's top line.

Bottom line: Nashville would be a great story if they could make a run, but that is unlikely. Sullivan and Zidlicky are question marks, and no one knows what Mason is going to do. San Jose won't put Nashville away easily, but the Sharks will eliminate the Predators in six games.

4. San Jose Sharks (44-27-11, 99 points)

When San Jose started making their run towards the playoffs, they were fighting with the likes of Minnesota, Edmonton, and Colorado for positioning. While the Wild fell off the map, the Sharks got hot and blew past everyone at the bottom of the West playoff race. San Jose ended up fifth thanks to a 16-4-2 run since the trade deadline. Included in that is an eight-game winning streak that was only broken up by a loss to Los Angeles in a meaningless game at the end of the regular season.

Why the Sharks will go far: They're hot, and their top players are hitting on all cylinders. Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo combined for 76 goals and 185 points, as Thornton went from Boston outcast to San Jose superstar. Cheechoo doubled his previous single-season high with 56 goals this season. Patrick Marleau also topped 80 points, and Nils Eckman scored 20+ goals while also posting a +20 on the season. The Sharks have a great combination of goaltenders with Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskela. Toskela is the likely starter, as he played very well late in the season when Nabokov struggled a bit.

Why the Sharks will go away: They're a one-line team. While Thornton and Cheechoo are playing at another level right now, San Jose is extremely susceptible to a team that can slow down that top line. There's no way to say that the second or third lines are good enough to beat a team that shuts down that top line. The Sharks aren't terrible defensively, but they're not outstanding, either. It's a group that lacks a lot of experience, but they have some good, physical players on the blue line.

Bottom line: San Jose is good enough to get by Nashville, who has been decimated by injuries and the loss of their starting goaltender due to a blood problem. The Sharks will meet their match in the second round, though, as Detroit will knock them out in six games.

3. Dallas Stars (53-23-6, 112 points)

Like Colorado (Dallas' first-round opponent), the Stars weren't expected to be here. The older and hideously expensive Stars were going to lose a few top players because of the salary cap, and the Stars weren't going to have the young bodies ready to take charge and keep the team on top.


Dallas won 53 games, ran away with the Pacific Division, and were the best team in the West not named "Detroit" this season. Now, they have to be considered a major threat in the West playoffs, because while they have adjusted well to the new-age NHL, the Stars still play quality defense and they have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Marty Turco.

Why the Stars will go far: The Stars have plenty of reasons to be confident. Jere Lehtinen, best known as a defensive forward, has 33 goals (!). Mike Modano has 77 points and is +23. Sergei Zubov is the top-scoring defenseman with 71 points. Youngsters Jussi Jokinen and Phillippe Boucher have held their own, though one has to wonder how well Jokinen will perform in the playoffs, where there won't be any shootouts. The Stars have a stud in goal in Turco, who may have slipped a bit (.898 save percentage suggests it's possible), but is still equal parts fundamentally sound and scintillating.

Why the Stars will go away: The Stars' penalty kill was pretty good, but the power play wasn't. It ranked 20th in the NHL this season. They still rely on their defense and Turco to win games, as they just don't score a ton of goals. They are vulnerable to hard-charging, athletic teams who have deep lines and tough skill players. Dallas simply isn't as potentially explosive offensively as other West contenders Detroit and Calgary, and both teams play as well defensively as Dallas does.

Bottom line: The Stars are good enough to move past Colorado in the first round, and they could make it look easy. However, the conference semifinals bring a likely matchup with Calgary, and the Flames will oust the Stars in one of the best series of the playoffs.

2. Detroit Red Wings (58-16-8, 124 points)

To a lesser extent than Dallas and Colorado, there were serious questions being asked about the ability of the Red Wings to compete with the top teams in the NHL. The answer? Emphatic.

There isn't much that Detroit doesn't do well, and many people seem to think that the best hope for everyone else is that the Wings get worn down on their way to the Finals.

Why the Wings will go far: Let's see. Top power play. Third-best penalty kill. Top road record in the NHL. Can score in bunches. Can defend against anyone. What doesn't Detroit do well? Captain Steve Yzerman had an 11-game point streak down the stretch. The Wings have gotten at least one point in 20 straight games between March 9 and April 17. Detroit's only regulation loss since March 7 came in the season finale against Nashville, a meaningless game. Seven Detroit players (including ageless defenseman Chris Chelios) are +20 or better (!). Four Detroit players (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Brendan Shanahan, Niklas Lidstrom) are at 80 or more points. Eight Detroit players scored 20 or more goals. Oh, and Manny Legace posted a save percentage of .915 while winning 37 games. They're not bad.

Why the Wings will go away: Excuse any typos. I'm busy reaching for the straws over there. OK. I got my mitts on a few of these. The Wings still aren't getting any younger. After Calgary wore them down two years ago, the possibility still exists that Detroit could be worn down by younger, more physical teams with quality goaltending. Unfortunately for the Wings, there are at least two other teams in the West (Calgary, Dallas) that fit that mold, and one other team (San Jose) that thinks they fit that mold. Finally, goaltending will be a question mark for this team until Manny Legace gets to touch the Cup.

Bottom line: For Detroit, it's all about staying the course and taking advantage of opportunities. The Wings probably can't afford to allow early-round series to be extended, as it's not a cakewalk for this team to move on to the Finals. Detroit skates past Edmonton, has a harder time with San Jose, and then the Wings fall in a seven-game West final series to...

1. Calgary Flames (46-25-11, 103 points)

After the improbable run of 2004, coach/GM Darryl Sutter decided not to stand pat post-lockout. The Flames brought in Tony Amonte, Daymond Langkow, and Roman Hamrlik. Sutter also traded for Kristian Huselius during the season. Results? The Flames won the tight Northwest Division race, and Calgary appears primed for another long playoff run.

The red-clad, rabid fans of Calgary have fastened their seat belts. Here we go.

Why the Flames will go far: They have it all. Jarome Iginla scored 35 goals and was the offensive catalyst. Langkow fit in perfectly, posting almost 60 points. Amonte was a non-factor for much of the season, but he managed to contribute a 40-point season and he played well down the stretch. Besides star goaltender Kiprusoff, who tied for the league lead in wins and posted a .923 save percentage, the Flames are very good on defense. Rookie Dion Phaneuf doesn't play like a rookie, and Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, Andrew Ference, and Hamrlik have all been strong on the blue line. With how strong the Flames' penalty kill is, you're probably better off just declining penalties. There might not be a harder-working team in the league.

Why the Flames will go away: The Flames aren't deep offensively. If a team can shut down Iginla (a pretty big "if"), then they're probably going to shut down the Flames. They don't have a lot of speed outside of Iginla, though their grit usually makes up for it. Can this team handle expectations? They didn't have any in 2004, and now they're considered one of the favorites in the NHL. If the weight becomes too much, the Flames may be prone for an upset.

Bottom line: The top three here is very good. But the Flames' defense, goaltending, and work ethic are superior, and the Flames will oust Anaheim, Dallas, and Detroit on their way to play the Buffalo Sabres in the Stanley Cup Finals.


Detroit vs Edmonton
Game 1: Friday at Detroit, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 2: Sunday at Detroit, 1pm ET (NBC, CBC)
Game 3: Tuesday at Edmonton, 10pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 4: April 27 at Edmonton, 9:30pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 5: April 29 at Detroit, 3pm ET (NBC, CBC)
Game 6: May 1 at Edmonton, TBA (OLN, CBC)
Game 7: May 3 at Detroit, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)

Dallas vs Colorado
Game 1: Saturday at Dallas, 3pm ET (NBC)
Game 2: Monday at Dallas, 9pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 3: Wednesday at Colorado, 9:30pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 4: April 28 at Colorado, 10pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at Dallas, 2pm ET (NBC)
Game 6: May 2 at Colorado, TBA (OLN, TSN)
Game 7: May 4 at Dallas, TBA (OLN, TSN)

Calgary vs Anaheim
Game 1: Friday at Calgary, 10pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 2: Sunday at Calgary, 9pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 3: Tuesday at Anaheim, 10pm ET (CBC)
Game 4: April 27 at Anaheim, 10pm ET (CBC)
Game 5: April 29 at Calgary, 10pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 6: May 1 at Anaheim, TBA (OLN, CBC)
Game 7: May 3 at Calgary, TBA (OLN, CBC)

Nashville vs San Jose
Game 1: Friday at Nashville, 8pm ET (TSN)
Game 2: Sunday at Nashville, 1pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 3: Tuesday at San Jose, 10:30pm ET (TSN)
Game 4: April 27 at San Jose, 10:30pm ET (TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at Nashville, 8:30pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 6: May 2 at San Jose, 10:30pm (TBA)
Game 7: May 4 at Nashville, TBA (TBA)

Hey, they're giving out the Stanley Cup again!! Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

The NHL season ended last night, and while the Western Conference (which we'll get to at a different time) is littered with the usual suspects and little new blood, the Eastern Conference got turned all sorts of inside-out this year.

The season was entertaining. Scoring was up. Tempo was up. It turned back into, for the most part, a young man's game, with two rookies topping 100 points (one of them, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, became the youngest ever to score 100 points). Attendance was up, even in former NHL outposts like South Florida, Carolina, and Atlanta, where fans seemed to truly enjoy the up-tempo nature of the "new NHL". 18 of the NHL's 30 teams drew average crowds better than 90 percent of their arena capacity. 10 of those teams averaged either a sellout or an overflow crowd every night. Leaguewide attendance could end up being a record. We could find out that information from the NHL sometime today.

The shootout, which I was against at first, has been an absolute success. The players embraced it, with players on the Atlanta Thrashers even wearing their helmets backwards (like a rally cap in baseball) during their team's shootouts. Fans loved it. Do you think any arena around the league emptied before a shootout? And while I still don't like the idea of playoff spots being decided by something so gimmicky, we'd all better get used to it. There's no chance, at this point, that the shootout is going away. It went too well for the league to ditch it now.

Let's count down the eight playoff contenders in the East. The postseason starts Friday. When I post the West preview, we'll talk about one of the biggest playoff storylines this spring: officiating.

8. Montreal Canadiens (42-31-9, 93 points)

The Canadiens got everyone's attention by winning ten of twelve games on their way to the playoffs. However, Montreal had to back into the postseason after losing their last two home games, including blowing a 3-0 lead in their final game and losing to New Jersey. The Habs have quality goaltending, but can they play enough defense to spring an opening-round upset?

Why the Canadiens will go far: For Montreal, one of the major keys has been the power play. In the playoffs, every special-teams opportunity is important, and it's nice to have the fifth-ranked power play in the NHL on your side. Alexei Kovalev is absolutely explosive, and Michael Ryder had himself a nice 30-goal season. The Canadiens have strong goaltending, with Cristobal Huet leading the way with his .930 save percentage. The team hopes that, if Huet falters, David Aebischer will benefit from a change of scenery and play well for them after struggling in Colorado.

Why the Canadiens will go away: Blowing a 3-0 lead on home ice can never be acceptable, and in the case of the Montreal-Jersey game Tuesday night, it exposed the major weakness of the Canadiens: Defense. The Habs just don't play consistently well in their own zone, and they give up a lot of shots and scoring chances as a result. Huet and Aebischer are prone to slumps, and the offense doesn't have enough support for Kovalev. Saku Koivu has been slumping for some time, and the Habs aren't particularly deep up front.

Bottom line: The Canadiens are game, but they are overrun by Carolina's skill and depth in the first round. Montreal loses in six games.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning (43-33-6, 92 points)

The defending Cup champions are the eighth seed in this year's tournament. Tampa had some issues in goal this year, and the play up front was often inconsistent. With the run this team had in 2004, no one questions their ability to put it all back together in the playoffs this year. But it seems like too much to ask for this team to upend a team that they failed to beat in four tries during the regular season.

Why the Lightning will go far: I'm not a fan of using "experience" as an argument, but it's hard to argue against the idea that the Lightning will benefit at least a little bit from their status as the defending champion. And they still have much of that cast intact. Defensemen Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, and Darryl Sydor can play. And we all know the Lightning can score with the best of them, led by Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Ruslan Fedotenko.

Why the Lightning will go away: Goaltending. Sean Burke and John Grahame both showed flashes of solid play this season, but neither was nearly consistent enough to earn the job on a regular basis. The defense also had issues this season, allowing too many quality scoring chances in front of what was largely shaky goaltending. The Lightning were off-and-on all season, and now they have to hope that they can "flip the switch" in time for the second season. It's a lot to ask of anyone, even a reigning Stanley Cup champion.

Bottom line: The Lightning play better in their own zone, but a lack of timely scoring and spotty goaltending conspire to doom them in a five-game run against top-seeded Ottawa.

6. New York Rangers (44-26-12, 100 points)

It was simple for the Rangers with five games left. All they needed was one win. One.

They got none.

The Rangers ended up doing the impossible. They blew an insurmountable lead and lost the division title to New Jersey. In the process, the Rangers, on the last night of the season, fell from the third seed to the sixth seed.

Why the Rangers will go far: Henrik Lundqvist is one of the top goaltenders in the league. He sat out a few games down the stretch to rest a hip problem, but he's allegedly okay now. While the NHL may have changed a little bit, one thing hasn't changed. Goaltending will be huge in the playoffs. The Rangers have the goaltending to carry them on a long run, and they have some depth. Guys like Petr Prucha, Petr Sykora, and Jason Ward are solid third- and fourth-line players, and Sykora doesn't lack in experience. With a top-line scorer like Jaromir Jagr on the first line, the Rangers can certainly score goals. Jagr may have had his best season this year. The Rangers are good on special teams.

Why the Rangers will go away: They didn't play well down the stretch, and the Rangers are matched up with an opponent (New Jersey) who is on an 11-game winning streak, including a four-goal rally to win their season finale and clinch the Atlantic Division. The Rangers need to solidify their defensive play, as was evidenced by Ottawa's five-goal performance at the Garden on Tuesday night. The Rangers showed a ton of promise throughout the season, and now they need to cash in on it, and do it as the underdog.

Bottom line: The Rangers have a favorable matchup in New Jersey, a team they're familiar with and a team that doesn't have New York's depth. But the Devils have Martin Brodeur, and he will frustrate the Rangers out of the playoffs in seven games.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (45-26-11, 101 points)

Good news: Keith Primeau, the captain, has been practicing with the team after missing pretty much the whole season with concussion issues.

Bad news: Primeau is probably not going to play, though nothing in the playoffs can be ruled out. Coaches will hide everything they can hide, and there's no chance that Ken Hitchcock will say anything definitive about Primeau's status until he is absolutely certain that he can't use the information against someone.

If Primeau can play, look out. But I'm not counting on it.

Why the Flyers will go far: With how great Robert Esche was during Philly's 2004 Eastern Conference playoff run, it's not a stretch to suggest that he could do it again. If Peter Forsberg is healthy, he undoubtedly makes Philadelphia a better team. Guys like Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble, and Joni Pitkanen feed off of Forsberg, and the power play is better when Forsberg is around, too. Hitchcock is a savvy, experienced coach who has won the Stanley Cup, and there is no question that he can do it again.

Why the Flyers will go away: Esche has been inconsistent and banged-up this season, and he is looking over his shoulder at Antero Niittymaki, who led Finland to the Olympic silver medal in February. It sounds like Esche will start Game One in Buffalo on Saturday, but how long will he stay in net? Will the Flyers rotate goalies? Will Esche play himself out of the job? Can Forsberg stay in the lineup? If Forsberg is out, the Flyers probably will be, too. They'd better stay out of the box, too, as these Flyers rank a startling 27th in the NHL on the penalty kill.

Bottom line: While Philadelphia will keep things interesting, they don't have the defense or the consistent goaltending necessary to slow down Buffalo in the first round. Philadelphia will lose to the Sabres in six games.

4. New Jersey Devils (46-27-9, 101 points)

The Devils are an interesting case. They're the hottest team in the league, having won their last eleven (!) games. They have loads of playoff experience, and they have one of the best goaltenders of the last 20 years in Brodeur. The Devils looked shaky throughout much of the season, but they really picked it up down the stretch.

Why the Devils will go far: It starts with Brodeur. Not only can he be downright spectacular, but he's one of the most consistent goaltenders in the game. He knows what he has to do to help his team win, and this year, that's a little more than it used to be, because the Devils aren't as good defensively as they used to be. I remember watching Brian Gionta play at Boston College, and I never remember thinking that there would be a time where Gionta would get anywhere near 50 goals in a single NHL season. He set a franchise record this year with 48. Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias can score. Elias had 16 in just 38 games, a pace that would have seen him score 35 in a full season. Brian Rafalski leads the defensive corps, and while his offensive numbers suffered this year, his defense is still as good as it gets.

Why the Devils will go away: They're not particularly good defensively, and even with Brodeur playing as well as Brodeur plays, they give up more goals than we're used to seeing them give up. They're also not very deep, with Gionta and Gomez the only 30-goal scorers. In the "new NHL", it seems like Jersey will eventually have to find a lot more production out of their second and third lines.

Bottom line: Jersey has enough scoring and goaltending to get by the slumping Rangers, but it won't be easy. The Devils then would have to play Carolina, a team with too much speed and skill for New Jersey to handle effectively. Carolina eliminates the Devils in a seven-game conference semifinal series.

3. Ottawa Senators (52-21-9, 113 points)

The Senators signed Dominik Hasek in hopes that he was the missing piece to a Cup Finals run. Unfortunately for Ottawa, all Hasek has been lately is a missing piece. He hasn't played since February 11, leaving the goaltending duties to rookie Ray Emery.

That means that this year's Senators look a lot like previous Senator teams. Lots of skill. Lots of scoring. Okay defense. Shaky goaltending.

At least Ottawa fans should be used to this by now.

Why the Senators will go far: Outside of Hasek, they're healthy now. The Senators have talented defenseman Zdeno Chara back, with Chris Phillips possibly back in time for the playoff opener. Wade Redden is also a very good defenseman. Overall, the Sens are as talented and as deep defensively as they've ever been. Martin Havlat is back up front, and the top line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson is as good a line as you'll find in the NHL. If Hasek can go, the Senators suddenly become dangerously close to a complete team.

Why the Senators will go away: Hasek might play. Key word: "might". The Senators just don't know, and as long as he's a question mark, he's a distraction. Ottawa likes Emery, but he's not as good as Hasek, and he lacks the big-game experience. But Hasek's groin has been a problem for years, and the Senators have themselves to blame if Emery fails in the playoffs, because they should have had a better backup plan in place. If Havlat doesn't produce, it puts a lot of pressure on that top line to carry the Ottawa attack.

Bottom line: Ottawa can make a run, even without Hasek. But it would be a lot better for them if there was a decision made, one way or the other. Either way, the health of Chara, Phillips, and Havlat is huge for Ottawa. And they need to avoid the stigma of previous playoff troubles. Ottawa gets by Tampa Bay in a surprisingly easy five-game series, but Ottawa can't skate past Buffalo, as the Sabres use their superior goaltending to knock out the Senators in six games.

2. Carolina Hurricanes (52-22-8, 112 points)

The Hurricanes were the story of the league this season, shocking everyone by finishing in the top half of the East, and narrowly missing out on the top seed. The Hurricanes have good speed and skill up front, and their goaltending has been much better than what was expected when the season started, as Martin Gerber stepped up and had a fine season. Attendance shot up in Raleigh, as fans found out what a real hockey team looks like, and they liked it.

Why the Hurricanes will go far: Carolina has plenty of scoring. Eric Staal had a great season. Rod Brind'Amour found the fountain of youth. Cory Stillman continued to be a solid, steady veteran presence. Their defensemen are more the stay-at-home types, but they can jump into the play when needed. Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley, and Aaron Ward have been around the block, and Mike Commodore had a good season. Gerber got hot in the Olympics and carried Switzerland on a fun ride.

Why the Hurricanes will go away: Like the Rangers, the 'Canes didn't have the strongest finish. They weren't a real strong road team this year, either, playing much better in front of the home fans. The Hurricanes lost four of their last five, including two of their last three games at the RBC Center. The Hurricanes are skilled, but not particularly deep, and they're not the grittiest team in the conference. They'll have trouble against hot goaltenders because their offense is such a sparkplug for the entire team.

Bottom line: Every year, someone with a high seed gets bumped. In some years, more than one team gets bumped. This year, I don't think it's going to happen. I don't trust Tampa Bay or Montreal enough to pick them to pull off the upsets. Carolina wins over Montreal, but they need six games to get it done. That's followed up by an epic seven-game series win over a game New Jersey outfit that just doesn't have enough depth to hold up. Carolina loses the East finals in seven games to...

1. Buffalo Sabres (52-24-6, 110 points)

Talk about teams that benefitted from the "new" NHL. Buffalo has certainly done that. While the Sabres don't strike fear into you when you look at the statistics, because they don't have that 100-point guy or 50-goal guy. Instead, the Sabres have a staggering eleven players who reached double-digits in goals. Six of the eleven finished with 20 or more goals. It's that balance, along with the goaltending of Ryan Miller (a Hobey Baker winner at Michigan State), that makes Buffalo such a tough out.

Why the Sabres will go far: Balance. Buffalo's top scorer is Maxim Afinogenov (73 points). He tied for 42nd in the league in scoring. Chris Drury hit the 30-goal mark. Daniel Briere and Ales Kotalik both hit 25 goals, as did rookie Thomas Vanek. J.P. Dumont also hit the 20-goal mark. Miller rebounded from an early injury to post outstanding numbers. On defense, the Sabres aren't outstanding, but they get in the way. Jay McKee led the league this year in shots blocked, which shows his willingness to pay the price, and his teammates share that work ethic. No team in the league can boast Buffalo's balance, and Miller gives the Sabres upside in goal that they haven't had in some time. (None of this is meant to forget about Martin Biron, who can also play. He won 21 games for the Sabres this season.)

Why the Sabres will go away: While Drury and Afinogenov are good, they're not good enough to carry this team. Who steps up and scores in the clutch? Can the Sabres play good-enough defense in front of Miller and/or Biron? They have some issues there, though they will benefit from a healthy Dmitri Kalinin. I don't know how Drury is -11 for the season, as he has really developed his defensive game.

Bottom line: This might not be the sexy pick in the East, but it's my pick. The Sabres are as good as anyone in the league, thanks to their balance and work ethic. They have enough depth to run the Flyers out in the first round, and they have enough skill and goaltending to deal with Ottawa and Carolina on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Who will the Sabres face off against for the right to lift the Cup? You'll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out.


Ottawa vs Tampa Bay
Game 1: Friday at Ottawa, 7pm ET (CBC)
Game 2: Sunday at Ottawa, 6pm ET (OLN)
Game 3: Tuesday at Tampa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 4: April 27 at Tampa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 5: April 29 at Ottawa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 6: May 1 at Tampa, 7pm ET (OLN, CBC)
Game 7: May 3 at Ottawa, 7pm ET (CBC)

Carolina vs Montreal
Game 1: Saturday at Carolina, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 2: Monday at Carolina, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 3: Wednesday at Montreal, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 4: April 28 at Montreal, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 5: April 30 at Carolina, 7:30pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 6: May 2 at Montreal, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)
Game 7: May 4 at Carolina, 7pm ET (CBC, RDS)

New Jersey vs New York Rangers
Game 1: Saturday at New Jersey, 3pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 2: Monday at New Jersey, 7pm ET (OLN)
Game 3: Wednesday at New York, 7pm ET (OLN)
Game 4: April 29 at New York, 3pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at New Jersey, 6pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 6: May 2 at New York, 7pm ET (OLN)
Game 7: May 4 at New Jersey, TBA (OLN)

Buffalo vs Philadelphia
Game 1: Saturday at Buffalo, 7pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 2: Monday at Buffalo, 7pm ET (TSN)
Game 3: Wednesday at Philadelphia, 7pm ET (TSN)
Game 4: April 28 at Philadelphia, 7pm ET (OLN, TSN)
Game 5: April 30 at Buffalo, 2pm ET (NBC, TSN)
Game 6: May 2 at Philadelphia, 7pm ET (TSN)
Game 7: May 4 at Buffalo, 7pm ET (TSN)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Please tell me this isn't real


I mean, we all know this guy is nuts, but this can't be real.

Can it?

Tom Cruise yesterday revealed his latest bizarre eat his new baby's placenta.
Cruise vowed he would tuck in straight after girlfriend Katie Holmes gives birth, saying he thought it would be "very nutritious".
The Mission Impossible star, 43, said: "I'm gonna eat the placenta. I thought that would be good. Very nutritious. I'm gonna eat the cord and the placenta right there."

Someone help us.

If this is some sort of publicity stunt for Cruise's huge blockbuster movie, it's a sick one. And I can't imagine how it would work.

Maybe Cruise thinks he's auditioning for Movie Star Fear Factor.

And if you're Katie Holmes, are you scared yet? I mean, you know this guy's gone off the deep end. And he's about to pull you off the same deep end to join him. Oh, yeah, and there's this...


How much more does Cruise need to say before someone cracks a joke about Holmes being better off carrying Michael Jackson's baby? Or have we already passed this point?

Randomization, 04/18/06

<--This man wants to know...Did you pay your taxes? Seriously, you don't want this guy coming after you searching for your taxes. And he will find you. He always does.

Duke players arrested. I don't know how hard it will be to prove a case that is apparently so lacking in physical evidence, but it seems like the prosecution has their work cut out for them. On the surface, this looks like it may turn into the Kobe Bryant case, which was a public relations disaster for, in the end, everyone involved who wasn't named "Kobe Bryant". The players, sophomores Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, have been booked on charges of rape, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Both players maintain their innocence, and defense attorneys still point to the fact that 46 DNA tests of players came back with no matches on the accuser. The prosecution points to court records that say a medical examination of the accuser found injuries consistent with rape, and the fact that the accuser has reportedly identified her attackers with "100 percent certainty" (two of them) and "90 percent certainty" (the other one).

If this goes to trial, it won't be pretty. The defense is adamant that the players didn't do anything wrong - remember, hiring a stripper to "perform" at a college party might be stupid and immature, but it isn't illegal. There are allegations of rape, kidnapping, assault, racial slurs, and fabrication, just to name a few. Names will drag through the mud, and reputations will be harmed - no matter what the truth really is.

On the bright side, if you didn't think this case was getting enough media attention, MSNBC has now camped both Dan Abrams and Rita Cosby in Durham, North Carolina. I'm sure neither of them will go anywhere until this case is solved, because that's just how committed they are to seeking the truth. Well, that's at least what the MSNBC promos want you to believe.

Ned Yost or Ron Gardenhire. Which manager is dumber? Let's start with Yost.

In back-to-back games, he has allowed relief pitchers to get pounded with the game on the line. On Sunday, he inexplicably left Jorge De La Rosa, who should never be allowed within two miles of a close game, in when he couldn't throw strikes and keep them down in the zone. Last night, he allowed Matt Wise to completely blow a three-run lead that the Brewers had taken ten minutes earlier. I'm all for using Wise in the seventh inning last night, but Yost needs to have a quicker hook, especially in close games where the offense has, you know, just given you a three-run lead. Wise never has issues with his location, and maybe Yost just assumed that Wise would work himself out of it. But this isn't the time for assumptions. It's the time for wins. This team is too young for its manager to make mistakes handling the pitchers the way Yost has the last two games. I'm probably overreacting, which is my nature. But I don't like formula managing, and I think managers sometimes have too much faith in their short relief guys on a game-to-game basis. I am not arguing that Wise should lose his job as the Brewers' primary setup man. He's earned that spot. But that doesn't mean I should have to watch him completely implode on a day where he clearly doesn't have his good stuff.

Now, on to Gardenhire. Undoubtedly, Gardenhire has had issues in the past. But he may have reached a new low this weekend. It'll be interesting to see what the lineup is tonight when the Twins host the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California Angels Angels. If Rondell White is still batting cleanup, we'll know for certain that Gardy is having issues. 4 for 47? That's pitcher-esque.

White's OPS? .206.

(Editor's note: OPS=on base+slugging. The league average is usually going to be around .750. So .206 is really bad.)

Why White continued to bat cleanup through the weekend is beyond me. He looked awful in basically every single one of his at-bats against the Yankees, and it got so bad that the Yankees were walking Joe Mauer intentionally to get to the cleanup hitter. Not even the 2003 Detroit Tigers could boast such a horrible cleanup hitter.

Yes, it's early. Yes, the sample size is small. Yes, Rondell White has been a good hitter throughout his career. But a .206 OPS needs to be moved down the order until he works himself out. The Twins have some good young hitters, namely Mauer and Justin Morneau (who seems to have remembered how to hit again after forgetting for much of last season). Veteran free agent acquisition Tony Batista has looked pretty good so far, too. If the pitching comes around like we all think it will, White could be an albatross in the middle of that lineup unless he turns it around.

How good is Sid the Kid? Well, I think he's answered any questions about his game pretty emphatically. Last night, Penguin forward Sidney Crosby had three assists in a win over the Islanders. With those three assists, Crosby became the youngest player in NHL history to score 100 points in a season. Washington's Alexander Ovechkin may be the Calder Trophy winner, but Crosby has been great. The Penguins are a horrific excuse for a hockey team right now, but Crosby still found a way to score 100 points. While the Capitals aren't much better, I'd argue that Ovechkin has a little more to work with than Crosby does. Neither young star will be in the playoffs that start on Friday night, but they are clearly cornerstone players in the "new NHL", and one can only hope that, no matter what you think of the Caps and Pens, these stars eventually get the supporting casts they need to get to the playoffs.

As for the playoffs...More on the NHL later this week, as I'll take a look at the eight-team fields in each conference. The NBA playoffs also start this weekend, so I suppose I'll say a few words about that, too.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Has Mike Jaros ever been to the DECC?

Full credit to Howie Hanson, whose daily e-blog is available for subscription via e-mail. You can read the e-blog and learn more about subscribing here.

Howie's blog today has a comment from Minnesota Representative Mike Jaros (DFL - Duluth) on the proposed DECC expansion, which will try to regain life in conference committee this week after both the Senate and House snubbed the project in their separate bonding bills.

"I hope Mary Murphy will be on the House/Senate bonding conference committee like last time. As you know, this project has been around for around five or six years. First, the DECC was going to remodel and expand the present facility. Two years ago the request was around $40 million and this year it is $67 million. It would be nice to reduce the amount some way. Perhaps the parking ramp could be eliminated. Half would come from the state and the other half would be paid by DECC, UMD and the hospitality sales tax that Duluthians voted for. It looks like it will be a tough sell again this year, so I was thinking that it would be nice if we could get one third from Mr. (Jeno) Paulucci, who is a big supporter, one third from the state and the rest from local sources. We could name it the DECC Paulucci/UMD Arena. Joel Labovitz is contributing a few million for the SBE/UMD."
I'll address the italicized text first.

Are you serious, Mr. Jaros? You want to eliminate the new parking ramp for an area that's already tapped out when the current DECC sells out an event? Do you realize what will happen when the new arena takes away even more parking spaces? Have you ever been to a sold-out event at the DECC?

I know this. If the arena goes through without a parking ramp being added, I'll be even more grateful for my current position, a position that requires me to arrive at the DECC in the area of two hours before faceoff.

Now, let me address his idea to have Jeno Paulucci contribute some cash to the project.

On its merits, Jaros' idea makes sense. Business owners in Canal Park certainly reap some benefits from having the DECC in the area, and they would reap benefits from having a new arena there as well. Jeno's not the only one who has made some money off of UMD hockey fans (along with convention and trade show attendees and concertgoers). It would be great to have all these folks contribute to this arena, an arena that will only help their bottom lines.

However, where the hell was this idea when the planning was underway? Why, Mr. Jaros, did you wait until the closing stages of bonding bill discussion to talk publicly about this idea?

(Furthermore, don't you think it's plausible that the idea has already been brought up by someone? After all, these business owners are under no obligation to pay for the new rink, even though it would probably be a pretty smart investment to make toward the future of the Canal Park area.)

I'm just wondering. Maybe these questions have easy answers. Maybe they don't.

But I know this: Mike Jaros is one of the representatives who has done virtually nothing to fight for this project, despite the hard work being done by Mayor Bergson (and I'm not really a Bergson fan), and despite the hard work of many city leaders, who have spent a lot of time in St. Paul lobbying for this project. Apparently, the fact that many civic leaders labeled the DECC as a 'top legislative priority' wasn't enough to get the attention of our elected representatives.

The converse of this argument is that the fight is not yet over, and there is still time to salvage this project. If that is to happen, it is not going to be without the help of said local representatives. So while I'm not giving up yet, it's looking more and more everday like Duluth's longtime marriage to the DFL may be on the rocks.