Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Twins Hope To Be On Target: 2010 American League Central Preview

Not too long ago, the American League Central was a laughingstock. It was in a position where it simply didn't appear that anyone in the division was worthy of a playoff spot, and it housed some of the worst teams in the sport.

They've come a long way since then. Detroit made the World Series in 2006, and though they bowed out meekly to St. Louis, the Tigers served notice that this division wasn't going to be a punch line anymore.

Now, we get to see one of the more competitive races the Central has had. That's saying something, because the last two division championships have been decided by a one-game playoff (White Sox over Twins in 2008, Twins over Tigers in 2009).

If all goes well in the Central this year, three and maybe four teams will be improved and perhaps worthy of at least playoff consideration.

1. Minnesota
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Kansas City
4. Detroit
5. Cleveland

The ballpark. The Twins move into Target Field this season. It opens with a visit from the Red Sox April 12, and the state is excited. But are the Twins suited for a move outside? Statistically, the Metrodome tended to rate as a hitter's park, but not as overwhelmingly as a nickname like "Homerdome" might make you think. With that in mind, Target Field could end up being a bit of a hindrance to the Twins offense, but it will have the same effect on opponents. The newly-signed Joe Mauer leads the offense, which has some serious pop with the returning Justin Morneau, veteran free agent Jim Thome, and holdovers Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Don't forget that shortstop J.J. Hardy -- brought in from the Brewers in the Carlos Gomez deal -- popped 50 home runs over 2007 and 2008 before falling off the map last year. He should be able to recapture some of that with his change of scenery.

The pitchers. No one has a more dynamic starting rotation than the White Sox. Jake Peavy looked good once healthy last year, and he is joined by the more-than-capable John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Mark Buehrle, who threw that perfect game last year, but didn't do much after it. Veteran Freddy Garcia serves as the fifth starter as long as he's healthy. If the Sox hit at all, which is a reasonable doubt about this team, they're dangerous. Can Carlos Quentin bounce back? Will Andruw Jones get it together? How good is Gordon Beckham? Will they get anything near their money's worth out of Alex Rios? There are a lot of questions about the offense, and it's tough to imagine the Sox will figure out all the answers.

The rest. Both Kansas City and Detroit stand to be better teams. The Royals were a darkhorse pick of many a year ago, only to flop badly and threaten 100 losses. They somehow finished the season with a 4.83 team ERA despite a full season out of Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. That won't happen again. What they need are Luke Hochevar and Gil Meche to hold up their end of the rotation, and Alex Gordon and Mike Aviles to get healthy and start hitting. They need more power out of Jose Guillen. They need continued development from Billy Butler. Detroit has a rotation -- led by Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello -- but questions with the offense. Is Austin Jackson ready? If not, the Tigers have a huge hole in the leadoff spot. That's a bad place to have a huge hole. Manny Acta takes over in Cleveland, and he should be able to boost player morale. A healthy Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner would probably boost a moribound offense. The team hopes Matt LaPorta -- the prize of the C.C. Sabathia deal two years ago -- can play every day and make an impact.

Mike Montgomery Signs With Minnesota

Relax, Bulldog hockey fans. This is a different Mike Montgomery.

The former Packer defensive end agreed to a one-year deal with the Vikings for the minimum salary.

He joins an impressive parade of former Packers who have moved on to Minnesota. The Vikings have plucked guys like Ryan Longwell, Darren Sharper, Robert Ferguson, and that Favre guy in recent years, and now Montgomery is part of that group.

He's a good player, but Montgomery got lost a bit last year as the Packers switched to a 3-4 defense under coordinator Dom Capers.

"It just wasn't a good fit for me," Montgomery said, "just in the direction they were going to and just overall what I could do."

It was a situation where he really didn't fit as a defensive end, and he wasn't quite fast enough to play linebacker. The Packers need more dynamic players at that position than what Montgomery could provide. He is big enough (280 pounds) to be a 3-4 end, but didn't seem to pick up the system very well.

He's going to be basically a backup to Ray Edwards for the Vikings, but he should get some chances to play, as Edwards has shown the ability to be a real dynamic force, but you can't have enough depth along the line.

It's hardly a crippling loss for the Packers, because they knew he wasn't much of a fit. They need to add a little more depth both at end and tackle in their 3-4 scheme, and Montgomery's presence wasn't going to change that any.

At some point, one has to hope general manager Ted Thompson will start developing players for other NFL franchises, because developing talent for your main rival to poach when they see fit is not going to make the fanbase very happy.

Brewers Claim Suppan Has A 'Stiff Neck,' Will Throw Simulated Game

The Milwaukee Brewers found a way to tease their fans without playing a game Monday. Manager Ken Macha dropped some hints in cryptic comments about veteran pitcher Jeff Suppan.

In the end, Macha's remarks led some to believe that the Brewers might be on the verge of cutting the very expensive cord on Suppan, who has done virtually nothing in a Milwaukee uniform to justify his $42 million contract.

Unfortunately for those made hopeful by that news, the Brewers don't appear to be ready to make that move, one that would require them to pay Suppan $14 million to go away ($12 million this year and then a $2 million buyout on his 2011 team option).

Reports began to surface on Twitter that Suppan was simply going to throw a simulated game in Arizona Tuesday. Tom Haudricourt has all the skinny.

Apparently Suppan has been dealing with a neck issue most of the spring. I saw him today walking around the training room with a big ice pack strapped to the back of his neck, but this is the first we’ve heard of him being in any kind of discomfort.

The sim game will be about 90 pitches for Suppan, and the Brewers are going to see if he comes out of that healthy. If he does, he’ll still be in the mix for the fifth starter spot – Dave Bush was just named the fourth starter – but if he comes out unhealthy, he could be headed for the disabled list to start the season.

“There’s a chance of that, too,” Macha said.

So as of right now, there is no roster move to report for Suppan, and Macha, knowing he was being somewhat vague and veiled with reporters, said that was as clear as he could be on the situation right now.

It's not a stiff neck. He has whiplash from snapping his head back to watch baseballs fly into the stratosphere. At one point during his pitching meltdown, former Braves pitcher Mark Wohlers was placed on the disabled list, and the stated reason was an "inability to pitch."

The Brewers could always try this. After all, Suppan hasn't been able to pitch consistently at a major-league level since the 2006 playoffs.

So, what is a simulated game? Let's ask the folks at Slate, who sat in on a Mark Prior simulated game when he was injured for the Cubs.

It's an informal scrimmage that allows an injured pitcher to test his arm. Simulated games take place at the stadium, with two or three hitters taking turns in live at-bats against a pair of pitchers. (It may happen that both pitchers are recovering from injuries, but most of the time a healthy teammate or coach is recruited for the exercise.) There are rarely any players out in the field, and there's no umpire behind home plate. Either the bullpen catcher or the pitching coach will call balls and strikes and determine what "happens" when one of the hitters puts the ball in play. If it's a hard line drive, they might say it's a "hit"; a weak grounder would be deemed an "out."

When Prior gave up a hit in one of his simulated starts, he had to pitch to the next hitter as if there were someone on base—from the stretch, perhaps. He'd continue to face the same few batters until three "outs" were recorded. At the end of a simulated half-inning, Prior would head to the dugout and wait until the other pitcher recorded three outs.

Simulated games rarely last for more than three or four innings. Sometimes stats are kept on the simulated runs and hits, but the more important figure is how many pitches were thrown. An injured player who makes a good showing in a simulated game and demonstrates that his arm has recovered might then be sent to the minor leagues for a tuneup start, or he might return to the team right away.

Some pitching coaches and trainers use recorded stadium sounds to make the simulated games more realistic. For a recent simulated start, Cleveland's Kevin Millwood faced fellow Indians in the replica jerseys of an opposing team—the hitters even imitated the batting stances of the players whose names they wore.

So instead of getting whipped around the diamond in a real game, Suppan will just be giving up simulated home runs and gappers.

That has to be considered better than the real thing.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Jeff Suppan Could Be Out

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt has been around the block a few times. This isn't to say the veteran scribe is old or anything, but instead meant to point out that things don't often get by him.

He has a pretty good idea when something is amiss, and he seems to smell a rat at Brewers spring training.

The Brewers signed free-agent pitcher Jeff Suppan in December 2006 after a strong playoff performance with the National League Central rival St. Louis Cardinals. He'd never been a hard thrower or a staff ace, but general manager Doug Melvin paid him like one, giving him $42 million over four years.

What's happened since is nothing short of disastrous for the smallest-market franchise in the sport. Suppan is 29-34 with the Brewers in three years, carrying an ERA of 4.93. He has one complete game in 95 starts. In 546 innings, he has allowed 650 hits, 329 runs, 73 home runs, and has just 284 strikeouts to 209 walks, a terrible K/BB ratio. Opponents are OPSing a hideous .839 against him ... over a three-year aggregate.

For Suppan, it isn't just one rough year hurting his overall digits. He's just a bad pitcher, and the Brewers probably can't wait to get rid of him.

In fact, the Brewers could be so anxious to cut the cord that they're willing to pay $12.5 million to make it happen. That's the amount owed Suppan in the final year of his contract, plus an additional buyout of $2 million on the team option for next year, one that probably wouldn't be picked up at this point unless Suppan wins 20 games this year.

It's a huge expense for a small-market team, but one Haudricourt senses could be on the verge of reality. Here is his latest update on the Brewers' rotation, as manager Ken Macha announced Yovani Gallardo will start Opening Day at the Keg April 5 against Colorado.

Macha said he probably wouldn't name a fifth starter before the end of camp, because he doesn't need one right away. Right-hander Jeff Suppan and lefties Manny Parra and Chris Narveson have been battling for the final spot in the rotation.

Macha said Parra and Narveson will split the Brewers' exhibition game Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels. But, when asked what Suppan would be doing that day, Macha said, "Hopefully, I'll be able to answer that tomorrow. That's my best answer."

That cryptic response made reporters wonder if something is going on with Suppan, if perhaps the Brewers are thinking about not keeping him despite his $12.5 million salary in 2010. An official from another club said he had not seen Suppan's name on the release waiver wire, so that process apparently had not begun.

Maybe it's nothing more than having to wait until Tuesday to hear that Suppan is pitching in a minor league game to get his work in. But usually a pitcher, especially a veteran pitcher, knows what his assignment is the day before he's scheduled to pitch.

Let's just say some red flags went up with Macha's response to that question.

Great pickup by Haudricourt. Keep in mind, this might not mean anything. It might just be Macha playing coy with the media. But it's a strange thing to do with something as largely meaningless as "fifth starter," even on a team like Milwaukee that's expected to at least contend for a spot in the playoffs.

If the Brewers are indeed at least considering dumping Suppan and eating his remaining contract, it could be cause for celebration. No one should celebrate someone losing his job, but Suppan will be handsomely paid to go away, and given how much torture he's caused baseball fans in Wisconsin, they have every right to do a little fist pump if the team cuts the cord.

Twins Name A Committee

When the Minnesota Twins lost closer Joe Nathan for the season to Tommy John surgery, I linked a LaVelle E. Neal III blog post where he speculated the Twins would avoid a "closer by committee" situation.

It was well-reasoned. As LVIII noted, manager Ron Gardenhire tried to use a committee of setup men in 2008, and it was an epic fail. The thinking was he would avoid such a situation for his closer's role in 2010.

Not only that, but "closer by committee" sets a manager up for a lot of second-guessing. If he designates a closer, sticks with that guy, and gets reasonable results, he doesn't have to deal with "Hey idiot, why'd you use that guy in the ninth instead of this other guy?" questions from the media after ninth-inning implosions.

Instead, Gardenhire appears ready to go with the ol' committee.

"Same with our setup roles," Gardenhire said. "We plan on bouncing those guys all around because we think we have four, five guys who are very capable going into those roles ... unless something changes."

Gardenhire said someone could emerge from the group to fill Nathan's role, but it's a lot to ask, considering Nathan's 246 saves are the most in baseball since 2004.

"We're going to try just about anything and see how we get them out," Gardenhire said.

The Twins do have options. Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares, and maybe someday Francisco Liriano (no, I'm not letting that go) could all have a shot at closing at one point or another. Of course, if someone gets hot, expect Gardenhire -- who's far from an idiot -- to ride that horse as long as he can.

While you have to like the gusto of such a plan, it does set the manager up for a long year of stupid second-guessing reporters.

You put yourself in that position, you run the risk of ending up like Hal McRae.

Now put that in your (bleep)in' pipe and smoke it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Yankees Still Rule Roost: 2010 American League East Preview

Baseball season starts in a week. Wish me luck getting through these with the kid off school all week and other things on my plate, but I'm going to try.

The start of baseball is always a fun part of the year. You have the Final Four happening at the same time, and the Frozen Four is coming in the same week. Not only that, but it's the month for the EXCITING release of the NFL schedule, and the NFL Draft is getting closer.

With that, let's try to plow through previews of all the divisions. These will be quick reads, unlike the monsters I wrote back in 2006. So let's rock and roll.

1. N.Y. Yankees
2. Tampa Bay
3. Boston
4. Baltimore
5. Toronto

Best bet: The Yankees are the best team in this division, by any metric. They have some serious pitching, with C.C. Sabathia still leading the rotation. Bottom line is that you can hate them all you want -- and I don't have any love lost for them -- but they're the top dog. The one move that could blow up on them is letting Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon go from the outfield, while they were only able to bring in slightly overrated Curtis Granderson. While it's reasonable to expect Granderson will hit for some power, given Yankee Stadium's love for left-handed hitters, it's also not a ridiculous argument that he will end up not playing every day for the Yanks. In the end, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Javier Vasquez, and Phil Hughes are the big keys for New York. You know what you're getting out of Sabathia, but Vasquez is overrated (great numbers in a National League pitcher's park) and Burnett is up-and-down. Mariano Rivera will add more to his Hall of Fame credentials, as if he needs to. So will Jeter and ARod, but you expected that.

Toughest call: Honestly, picking Tampa over Boston was the hardest decision. Both teams have a good case for second place and the position of favorite in the American League Wild Card race. Tampa has a little more urgency, though, because they have some contracts coming due after the 2010 season, most notably outfielder Carl Crawford. They still are rich with prospects, but the window of opportunity -- for now -- could be on the verge of closing. The talent is there, thanks to Crawford, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena (walk year), and B.J. Upton. Pitching should be strong, too, thanks to James Shields, Matt Garza, and new closer Rafael Soriano. Boston is strong, too, but their offense isn't nearly as good as it looks. An aging David Ortiz could be an albatross in the middle of the order again, and Adrian Beltre was a risky signing for them. Mike Cameron won't play center field, so that could work out for Boston, but Cameron struggled to hit for average in the National League last year. Is he going to magically start doing that now that he's a year older?

The others: Toronto is likely to be brutal. The Roy Halladay trade didn't turn out very well for them, and while they should be able to hit a little, it's going to be nearly impossible for them to replace Halladay with what they have right now. Long-term, there is a future, because they have some talent in the system, but they're a couple years away from being a year or two away, and that's if things go well. Baltimore is a contender in a lesser division. Emerging youngsters on offense -- especially Adam Jones, Luke Scott, Matt Wieters, and Nolan Reimold -- are bolstered by a decent pitching staff. The addition of veteran Kevin Millwood should help them immensely in that area, as he'll anchor the rotation. Mike Gonzalez comes in from Atlanta, and the lefty should serve as the Orioles' closer.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Time For A Change, NCAA

Friday's first day of NCAA Tournament play brought a couple upsets, as the low seeds in the East Regional took the headlines. We also saw St. Cloud State get that horrifying monkey off their backs, picking up their first NCAA win thanks to overzealous officials, embellishment, and a really good power play.

Besides the upsets by RIT and New Hampshire, and the double-overtime win for the Huskies (no disrespect to Wisconsin, but their game is only a headline if they win 14-0 or lose), the big story of Friday's first-round games was the attendance.

More specifically, the story was the lack of attendance.

In Albany, the games were played at Times Union Center, a large facility that seats over 14,000 fans for hockey. The announced attendance for the two-game session was 4,073.

Obviously, top-seeded Denver wasn't going to bring a lot of people. They don't travel well traditionally when it comes to the WCHA Final Five, so why would you expect them to travel well to Albany?

The NCAA Selection Committee moved teams around for attendance purposes, hoping -- obviously -- that stacking two New York schools (Cornell and RIT) in the East Regional with New Hampshire would pick up the slack from Denver's fans not really showing up.

No dice.

RIT brought the Corner Crew, and the rest of the arena was largely empty for both games. It was embarrassing to watch, frankly, and reflects poorly both on the NCAA and the sport.

But it wasn't as embarrassing as seeing the "crowd" at the XCel Energy Center. The home of the Minnesota Wild seats more than 18,000, and the hope was they could draw a decent crowd, even though the host Minnesota Gophers didn't play well enough this season to earn an invitation.


The announced attendance for that two-game session was 7,281. That's not even half of capacity, and it's akin to what is drawn into that building for the small-school state tournament in boys' hockey.

Considering that Wisconsin is one of the WCHA's more vibrant and well-traveling franchises, and St. Cloud State is a freaking hour up the road, this is just stupid. If these two teams can't bring a crowd to St. Paul, no one can.

Proving that the NCAA isn't very smart, they've started awarding regionals to large venues like these. The results have often been disastrous, most notably this year, as well as a few years ago when Denver hosted a regional that the Pioneers didn't qualify for. The games at Pepsi Center attracted crowds similar to what was on hand in St. Paul Friday.

Next year, we're heading towards another embarrassment, as there is a regional at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Why? There are very few teams and fanbases that can drive to St. Louis from their home base, and the biggest -- Wisconsin -- pretty much has to play in the regional at Green Bay if they qualify for the tournament, or the Resch Center will be empty.

It's time for the NCAA to explore a serious change in how these regionals are awarded. The women's basketball tournament is a good example of a sport that can fill seats for major events, but isn't ready for regionals at neutral sites. Efforts to play them at neutral sites have often been met with awful results with no championship atmosphere at the games.

Hockey is the same way.

I had someone ask me when the NCAA will go to two-of-three series for these first round matchups, so we don't have to worry about No. 1 seeds constantly being picked off in the first round. While that will probably never happen, it's more likely that we'll see a push to move these regionals to campus sites of the top seeds.

Yes, elite teams lose games at home sometimes. Yes, you're running the risk of small crowds and bad atmospheres if the home team falls in the first round.

But can it possibly be worse than what we saw in Albany and St. Paul Friday?

Probably not.

It's probably a tremendous advantage for a team like Denver to get to play at home. It's also very expensive, because even if you throw bracket integrity out the window, you're flying three teams there. But you flew North Dakota, Alaska-Fairbanks, Denver, Bemidji State, and Alabama-Huntsville this year, and you won't make as much money on ticket sales because of weak crowds at the venues chosen to host these games.

Drop the 6,000-seat minimum, get rid of the bid system, and give campus sites a shot. There would be some minimums, obviously. You'd need to have 4,000 or so seats, adequate press facilities, locker room space, and the ability to accommodate press conferences somewhere in the building after the games. You might eliminate some older venues with these mandates, but you're also making abundantly clear the fact that atmosphere is vitally important to growing the sport.

After all, casual fans tune in, see huge gobs of empty seats along the glass, and think "If no one else wants to watch this, why should I?".

I know the NCAA doesn't care about hockey, and neither does ESPN, but it would be nice if someone tried at some point.

Friday, March 26, 2010

McNabb Wants to Play For Vikings; Feeling Likely Not Mutual

It's seemed kind of silly to think that the Philadelphia Eagles would carry three pretty high-priced quarterbacks this season. Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, and Michael Vick aren't cheap, and they can't all play, because of that whole "one football per play" rule we have in the sport.

With that in mind, there has been talk of a trade, probably involving the veteran McNabb. That would free Eagles coach Andy Reid to start Kolb and use Vick as a change-of-pace/wildcat/jack of all trades player, and he wouldn't have to have all three quarterbacks active to get that kind of use out of Vick.

So where would Philly trade McNabb? The obvious answer is "Somewhere in the AFC," so they wouldn't have to deal with him more than once every four years, or in the preseason when it doesn't count anyway, or in the Super Bowl.

That doesn't mean McNabb, who doesn't have a no-trade clause but should still wield some power over his destination, wants to go to the AFC.

Remember when the Packers traded Brett Favre? It wasn't just about getting Favre away from the Packers. It was a process that had to be somewhat respectful toward Favre, given his service time and the fact that he was a star player.

McNabb, according to a Philadelphia newspaper, wants to play for the Minnesota Vikings if he gets traded.

After Andy Reid announced Wednesday that the Eagles were "entertaining offers" for all three of their quarterbacks, McNabb reiterated that he wants to remain in Philadelphia. But if the team were to ship its franchise quarterback elsewhere, the Vikings would be his first choice, according to sources close to the situation.


Multiple thoughts on this:
  • Is there a snowball's chance in hell the Eagles would trade him to a team already high among NFC playoff contenders?
  • If so, why would the Vikings want him?
  • Oh, yeah, what if Brett Favre retires? Hmm ... Tarvaris Jackson or Donovan McNabb? Let me think about that for 0.48 seconds.
  • Can the Eagles afford to wait until Favre actually retires or doesn't retire?
  • If Favre retires, the Vikings get McNabb, and then Favre unretires, what happens?
As you can see, there are multiple layers of manufactured drama that can come along with this story. The problem is that they're all manufactured, meaning they're fake. Not real.

Also not happening.

The Vikings aren't going to coerce Favre into a quick decision, either because they already know he's coming back and are trying to play coy with the world, or because they don't want to poke a sleeping bear and risk pissing him off and "forcing him into retirement" like the Packers did*.

(* - If you still blame this on Ted Thompson, you should be beaten with the stick the Packers allegedly poked the sleeping bear with.)

Even if Favre "made up his mind" and "retired," no one would believe him, and the Vikings would look stupid if they tried to "move on" after all the talk about letting Favre take his time.

In the end, Philadelphia is going to have to find a trade partner and talk McNabb into embracing the deal. There is no need for lingering bitterness here, and no reason to drag it out publicly. Find a team, talk to McNabb, and convince him to go there and work hard and be the face of that franchise. He's young enough that he can help a struggling team become successful again. He doesn't have to be dropped onto the roster of a contender because he's on his last legs.

For the Vikings, the thought of Brad Childress practically begging Favre for a quick decision is intriguing, but unrealistic. They've talked too good of a game lately about letting him take his time and doing what they did last year. Given the success of last year, no need to deviate from that plan now.

NCAA Predictions

If there's anything I'm awful at, it's predictions.

Well, some of you would say there are a lot of things I'm awful at, but you'd have to list "predictions" near the top of a list of any length.

That said, we've followed college hockey all season, and it would be really stupid to exit stage left because UMD is out.

So here goes nothing. Predictions are made with no inside knowledge outside of how good the teams are. I've talked to a few people this week, but it's hard to get a real gauge for these games, because as we saw last year, anyfreakingthing can happen in a one-game playoff.

Of the teams in this field, I have seen all of them play either in person or on television at least once, with the exception of RIT, Yale, and Alaska.

East Regional -- Albany, N.Y.
Denver over RIT
Cornell over New Hampshire
Cornell over Denver

I see the Pioneers having a lot of trouble with Cornell's big, suffocating defense. The Big Red like to shut teams down, limiting their speed through the neutral zone and keeping them from racking up a ton of shots. When opponents do get shots through, goalie Ben Scrivens -- the best Hobey Baker candidate from the East -- is just tough to beat.

RIT's upset potential lies in being able to lean on goaltending. Jared DeMichiel has been good this season, but the Tigers are going to struggle to generate much against DU's forecheck.

West Regional -- St. Paul, Minn.
Wisconsin over Vermont
Northern Michigan over St. Cloud State
Wisconsin over Northern Michigan

NMU is a good bet, actually, to win this thing. They have a goalie in Brian Stewart that they trust. They have a top player (Mark Olver) who is also a Hobey finalist. They have secondary scoring from guys like Greger Hanson and Andrew Cherniwchan. Mike Lee struggled in his last start for St. Cloud, and he's been up-and-down some this year. If he gets off to a rough start Friday, the Huskies will fall to 0-9 all-time in the NCAAs, one of the most incredible stats surrounding any team in this tournament.

(SCSU fans hate having it brought up, and rightfully so, but it's just amazing to me. This is a good program that has produced some really good players, both in college and then at the next level. Incomprehensible that they've never won an NCAA game.)

As for Wisconsin, they're the best team in this regional. They can get up and down the rink, and they're as tough defensively as any team in the country. Unless Vermont goale Rob Madore gets hot and stays hot, the Badgers should get in to the regional final.

Northeast Regional -- Worcester, Mass.
Boston College over Alaska
North Dakota over Yale
Boston College over North Dakota

The best potential for a first-round upset by a No. 4 seed this year lies either here or in Fort Wayne. Simply put, the top teams are good and balanced enough that they have to run into a hot goalie to lose a game. If you want to bet on a goalie to get hot, the best choices are either Scott Greenham from the Nanooks or Cameron Talbot of Alabama-Huntsville.

In the end, BC's superior talent gets enough pucks home to hold off Dion Knelson, Andy Taranto, Greenham, and the hard-charging Nanooks.

North Dakota will win, possibly by a large margin if Brad Eidsness plays well in net. Yale just doesn't have the goaltending, and their offense took a huge hit with the loss of Sean Backman.

Midwest Regional -- Fort Wayne, Ind.
Miami over Alabama-Huntsville
Michigan over Bemidji State
Michigan over Miami

The Wolverines are hot with a hot goaltender in Shawn Hunwick. Miami will struggle with UAH, but their superior work ethic and defensive play will allow them to edge past the Chargers, no matter how good Talbot looks in net.

I took Michigan to slide past Bemidji because of their recent records. You could argue that BSU will be better now that they've had two weeks to sit and think about that egg they laid in the College Hockey America tournament, but Michigan used those two weeks to become one of the hottest teams in the country.

Frozen Four -- Detroit, Mich.
Wisconsin over Cornell
Boston College over Michigan
Wisconsin over Boston College

It's a crapshoot of gut feelings to get here, and it's even more of a crapshoot of gut feelings once you arrive at your picks.

Two weeks after the regionals, it's damn near impossible to predict how teams will perform on the big stage. When in doubt, you take the team that has the most talent and the most balance from offense to defense. That's Wisconsin out of this group.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

NFL Coaches Angered By New Rule That Forces Them to Think

One of the common complaints about NFL football has nothing to do with the quality of the athletes taking part. Everyone agrees NFL players are the best in the business, elite athletes who are conditioned to newer heights seemingly every year. They are obviously at the top of their profession.

However, fans who prefer college football typically cite the cookie-cutter nature of NFL games. The similarity of schemes and philosophies comes up often, as does the relative conservatism of most coaches. It takes big-time grapefruits to make the decisions that drive NFL teams, but yet NFL coaches often seem frozen by the moment and incapable of thinking outside a three-by-seven box.

One of the exceptions to this rule seems to be New Orleans coach Sean Payton. He runs a pretty aggressive ship with the Saints, expecting his guys to be on top of every situation. His offense is not at all conservative, even at times when you could argue it is the right call. He gave defensive coordinator Gregg Williams free reign last year, and Williams used it to develop one of the best blitzing defenses in the league.

It's this swashbuckling, risk-taking reputation that makes many wonder exactly why Payton is so mad about the new overtime rules passed by NFL owners Tuesday. The rules, and the potential strategic decisions they could help lead to, seem right up Payton's alley.

But instead of embracing the new rules, Payton seems content to piss and moan about them, as noted by PFT king Mike Florio, who caught Payton's appearance with Peter King on Sirius NFL Radio.

Payton said he's "not a big fan" of the new rule, complaining that he's "gonna have to spend a half an hour explaining it to my wife or any fan."

For those who want to know the rule, here it is, straight from the NFL.

Starting next season, if a team wins the coin toss and then kicks a field goal, the other team gets the ball. If the game becomes tied again after that next series, play will continue under the current sudden-death rules.

Should the team winning the toss immediately score a touchdown, then the game is over.

There are nuances.

A safety would end the game immediately, because the team that got the ball first had a chance to score and failed. On a safety, they'd have to kick the ball away, meaning there is no way they could win the game. Seems kind of dumb if you don't think about it, but when you actually use your brain and think it over, it makes perfect sense.

If a team recovers an onside kick on the opening kickoff of overtime, then advances the ball and kicks a field goal, the game is over. This seems a bit fishier, but the receiving team had a chance to get the ball and failed. The same result (game over) happens if a team takes the opening kickoff of overtime, goes down the field, kicks a field goal, and then successfully executes an onside kick.

You can imagine the possibilities from a strategic standpoint. Of course, most NFL coaches will look at these rules, decide that nothing is worth the risk, and just kick the ball away, hoping for a defensive stop at some point.

However, there is a minority of coaches in the league, including Payton, who have shown the willingness to take risks with their play-calling. For those coaches, this seems to be a great opportunity to think outside the box and develop different strategies for overtime, rather than just "hope and prayer" for the coin toss.

Instead of embracing that opportunity, Payton decided to bitch about the changes. Yes, it sucks that the owners stuck the coaches in a golf tournament and then ran into a room to vote on the rule without anyone knowing about it first. But that's their right. The coaches didn't get a vote, anyway, and since they knew the vote was coming (scheduled for the next day), they should have made their thoughts known to their bosses ahead of time.

If this was done, they have nothing to complain about. Owners made their minds up, voted as they saw fit, and enacted a rule that makes some degree of sense. Next step is doing it for the regular season, something all sides should be in favor of. After all, if you're going to open up a bunch of strategic possibilities, it makes sense to let coaches try ideas out in regular season games, rather than having them use playoff games as the guinea pig on the rule.

These coaches make millions of dollars per season. Some of them make upwards of $7 million, or as much (if not more) than the most important players on their team. No one is begrudging them, as they work absolutely insane hours and drive themselves batty with film study and game-planning. However, the whining after being told they may have to think more during games is a little silly.

We're not re-inventing the wheel here. We're trying to figure out a better way to decide football games, rather than the "Get three first downs and kick a field goal" way of the past.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wilf Wants Favre Back, Doesn't Appear Willing to Beg ... Yet

The Brett Favre Experiment was a resounding success in Minnesota last year. Record jersey sales, record interest, and overall hysteria surrounded the Vikings, as Favre led them to within an interception (oops!) of the Super Bowl.

They did it without Favre participating in a training camp practice or offseason workout, something that amazed many who follow football and figured the entire team would explode if a veteran player got that kind of special treatment.

The schism never developed, and the Vikings know they can do it again. They haven't made an impact in free agency, losing Chester Taylor to the Bears and Artis Hicks to Washington while failing to reel in LaDainian Tomlinson, who signed with the Jets.

But they don't need to make an impact in free agency. Assuming Favre returns, they'll have all their starters back from last year (unless you count part-time starter Hicks). Sidney Rice is still a star in the making. Steve Hutchinson's shoulders are going to be all fixed up. Bryant McKinnie promises to show up and actually try, unlike Pro Bowl Week.

HELLO! They have Adrian Peterson!

Oh, and Jared Allen, Ray Edwards, and the still-not-suspended Williams Wall make a hell of a defensive line.

Anyway, the only question mark now is Favre, unless you've given up on him and just assume he's coming back. Then there's no question at all.

The Vikings are still playing coy if they actually know anything about Favre's status besides the perpetual "maybe" that seems to hover over him like a cloud until he actually plays again. Favre apparently tried to sell Tomlinson on the Vikings while telling him he didn't know what he was going to do. Favre told Jay Leno he didn't know what he was going to do.

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is towing the company line on the situation, which is good, because it's his company and all.

"There were a lot of people who questioned us last year both with the decision of bringing him on board and him coming on so late, but it turned out to be a great decision," Wilf said on the second day of the NFL owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton. "We're looking forward to having him come back this year. We understand it could work either way, but certainly with the team that we have I would expect that he and everyone else is excited to come back to fight for a championship again."

I'd be shocked if Favre eventually didn't come back, as he's finally found a team that will let him pull the strings and do what he wants get his body the necessary offseason rest.

This won't be any kind of a problem unless the team magically stops winning. If that were to happen, you'd start reading a bunch of stories about how guys really aren't pleased that they slogged through those weeks of offseason workouts and hot summer practices in FREAKING MANKATO while this chap sat on his tractor and threw footballs to high school kids (not simultaneously).

Naturally, those "guys" would be "members of the team who wish to remain anonymous," but as soon as the team wins again, they'll all stand around Favre and sing "Pants on the Ground" like everybody is really happy.

That's how it works. Even the Favre-starved (or is it "Favre-stavred"?) media will leave the team alone if they're winning. Favre storylines aren't nearly as juicy, but his name still moves the needle, and that's all they care about. They're glad to stick their nose in the controversy -- and even help create one -- but they're not so stupid as to try to create one when the team is 13-1. It's easier and usually more effective when they're 7-7.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Those Insane Mauer-Fielder Comparisons Likely to Continue

Joe Mauer was set to be a free agent after the 2010 season. The 27-year-old opted to instead sign an eight-year deal with the Minnesota Twins for $184 million.

He's a great hitter, having already won three American League batting titles. Last year, the power people promised we would see finally showed up, as Mauer socked 28 home runs in just over 600 at-bats.

More significantly, Mauer is a great hitter, who will only get better as he continues to harness his power, but he's also a great defensive player who has drawn raves for his ability to handle a pitching staff.

As most baseball fans know, Mauer is a highly valuable player because of his two-way -- so to speak -- ability. There simply aren't a lot of perennial .320 hitters who can hit for power and also play superb defense at that position.

While Twins fans celebrate Mauer's long-term contract, fans across the border are left to wonder how this will impact their soon-to-be free-agent star.

Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder will be a free agent after the 2011 season. He turns 27 that season, and since he has Scott Boras as an agent, it makes sense that the Brewers face an uphill battle if they want to buy Fielder's free agent years.

Fielder's power has never been in question. What's nice to see is that his defense has improved since he became a big-leaguer, and he finally has found a way to get on base when people aren't pitching to him.

His power? Well, yeah. Youngest to 50 home runs in a season. 141 RBI last year to go along with 46 home runs. He would have been the highest-profile player in the NL if not for that damn Pujols guy.

.299/.412/.602 is probably the peak of his offensive abilitites, and that's just fine. He's a Hall of Famer if he can find a way to keep doing that.

Their VORP numbers are almost identical (77.5 for Mauer, 75.6 for Fielder). Their star power in these cities is enormous.

So why is it so idiotic to think that they're worth similar contracts? It's something that you're going to read a lot about, and it's already kind of started.

The Brewers would like to keep Fielder off the free-agent market as well, and have an extra year to do so. Mauer, who was eligible for free agency after the 2010 season, signed an eight-year, $184 million deal Sunday to remain with the Twins.

That deal was very close to the eight-year, $180 million deal Mark Teixeira got from the New York Yankees as a free agent prior to the 2009 season. Teixeira’s agent is Scott Boras, who also represents Fielder.

Asked about Mauer’s deal, Fielder said, “It's great. It's beautiful. I'm very happy for him.

“Any time you see another player (get a big deal), you feel good for him. I just want the best for any player in the game.”

... Whether the Brewers would offer Fielder that kind of money remains to be seen. Melvin said talks were ongoing but declined to categorize them as both sides adhere to the agreement to keep details confidential.

For starters, the Twins signed Mauer out of desperation. Yes, he's good and deserving. But the Twins were desperate to buy his free agent years and pay him through his prime, because they knew they couldn't be taken seriously as a franchise if they didn't get his guy re-signed.

Meanwhile, the Brewers already outsmarted the system, buying star outfielder Ryan Braun out of his arbitration years and the start of his free agent clock. They would really like to re-sign Fielder, but they know they already have a fanbase and they don't have to worry about being the laughingstock of the sport if they let Fielder go.

Much less pressure, and that's great, because the Brewers don't have the backing of the 15th-largest media market in the country like the Twins do.

(Yes, 15th. But keep calling the Twins small market. That's accurate. You know what other baseball franchise is small market? The Dodgers. Just write it a few times, and morons will start believing it.)

Not only that, but what's harder to find? A great defensive catcher who can hit, or a fat first baseman who socks home runs, takes walks, and is around average defensively?

Mauer might not be a better overall player than Fielder, but suggesting Fielder is worth $23 million per year because Mauer got it is laughable. Fielder is worth more than the $120 million over seven years that Matt Holliday got from St. Louis, and he's worth less than what Mauer got.

Of course, what reality dictates and what Boras thinks are often two totally different things. Boras is well-known for getting everything he can possibly get for his clients, and it's unlikely he'll let Fielder settle for what he thinks is a deal even $1 below market value.

The Value of Joe Nathan

One of the enjoyable aspects of the internet and how it's affected the way we cover sports is the advent of statistical analysis.

This isn't about just the things -- OPS, primarily -- that somehow got labeled as Moneyball creations. However, that part of the business of baseball has changed the way many people view the game.

While "value" is still a tough thing for many baseball people to grasp, there are metrics on the topic. Baseball Prospectus has for some time published a stat called "Value Over Replacement-level Player," or VORP. VORP is designed to produce a calculation of how many runs a player produced (or prevented) over a cheap, bargain-basement type player employed at that same position.

I caught some heat with friends for arguing that the Joe Nathan injury wasn't all that disastrous for the Twins. My feeling is that Joe Mauer is a much more important player on this team, and truly someone they can't afford to lose, while Nathan -- while really good -- fills a role that is much more replaceable. The bottom line wasn't any disrespect toward Nathan. I think the world of the guy as a closer, but he's a ninth-inning guy.

Exactly how much of an impact can he have on the Twins' success?

Joe Posnanski has some numbers.
Here are Joe Nathan’s statistics against the other four teams in the American League Central:

Kansas City Royals: 3-0, 0.85 ERA, 35 saves, team hitting .144 against him.

Detroit Tigers: 2-1, 1.55 ERA, 30 saves, team hitting .153 against him.
Chicago White Sox: 3-2, 2.06 ERA, 24 saves, team hitting .151 against him.

Cleveland Indians: 3-1, 2.98 ERA, 26 saves, team hitting .201 against him.


Granted, the AL Central stinks, but those are some serious numbers. Nathan must be a huge value to his team, right?

Well, then there's this, also pointed out by Posnanski.

In 2008, the Phillies were second in the league in runs scored, and fourth in ERA, and closer Brad Lidge was virtually unhittable – he saved 41 games in 41 opportunities. He finished fourth in the MVP balloting.

In 2009, the Phillies were first in the league in runs scored, sixth in ERA, and closer Brad Lidge was a fiasco – he was 0-8, with a catastrophic 7.21 ERA and 11 blown saves.
The Phillies won one more game in 2009 than they did in 2008.

So what's the answer?

My earlier argument for Francisco Liriano going into the bullpen was as much built on Liriano's arm troubles as it was Liriano's inherent value as a starting pitcher. However, as Patrick Reusse notes, the Twins are in potential trouble if Liriano can't start.

The difference between a closer like Joe Nathan and an average closer is 4.5 percent -- Nathan's 91 percent and an average of 86.5 for all pitchers trying to close a victory in the ninth inning.

The difference between the Liriano described by Gardenhire on Sunday and the gutsy (Brian) Duensing is a percentage that's incalculable.

This is an interesting point, if you assume it's either Liriano or Duensing for the fifth starter spot behind Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, and Carl Pavano. You also have to assume that the Twins can plug in anyone to Nathan's role and get a league-average performance.

But where are the Twins more likely to get that league-average performance? Out of a guy who pitches just one inning, or a guy who has to throw five or six consistently to be effective? If Duensing struggles, Liriano is the next-best candidate to start in that fifth spot. A healthy and effective Liriano -- hard to argue the point that he's looked good so far in the spring, for what that's worth -- is much better than Duensing, and he's much more helpful to this team starting than he is closing.

Liriano as a closer should be a last resort to salvage his career. Upon further reflection, it doesn't appear we're at that point yet.

Meanwhile, Nathan's VORP last season was 26.2. That ranked him third in baseball among relief pitchers. Baseball Prospectus -- in their 2010 annual -- projected a dropoff to a VORP of 16.1 this season. That would put him in the neighborhood with guys like Jose Valverde or Huston Street, who aren't bad relief pitchers but also aren't Joe Nathan.

Can the Twins just automatically count on whoever closes -- Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jon Rauch, or whatever they think of -- duplicating even a 16.1 VORP?

On the flip side, of the star players the Twins could lose, isn't this the best-case scenario? The Twins have a good starting rotation, plenty of options in the bullpen, including a lefty (Mijares) and a side-winder (Pat Neshek).

Nathan will be missed, but it could be argued that he was about to slip a bit in his production (BP's projections saw the slides from Dice-K and Josh Hamilton coming last year, so while their projections aren't gospel, they do good work.)

The Twins lived without Morneau last year for the final month, but it doesn't seem like a good long-term plan to have him on the shelf for that length of time again.

Meanwhile, Mauer's VORP last year, while often carrying the offense, was 77.5. His backup is Jose Morales, whose VORP was 3.7.

So, tell me again, who would you rather replace?

Bordson Off to NHL

With UMD's season officially ending Sunday as NCAA brackets were announced that didn't include the Bulldogs, the silly season started.

College hockey is different now. While drafted players are always a risk to leave, the unpredictability of free agency has had a great impact on the sport. Undrafted players are free to go wherever they want, though they are limited in the dollars they can receive on their entry-level deals.

In the case of UMD junior Rob Bordson, that max offer came, and it was time to strike while the proverbial iron was hot.

Bordson signed a two-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks Sunday, and he will join the team later this week. While it's uncertain whether he will play with the big club, he will apparently remain with the Ducks for the rest of the season. That will at least give him a chance to practice with NHL players and get a feel for the intensity of an NHL playoff race (the Ducks are hanging by a thread in the Western Conference).

A WCHA Scholar Athlete this season, Bordson is giving up his last year of college eligibility to turn pro.
"I had a pretty busy day and some tough decisions, but at the end of the day I've always wanted to play professional hockey. It was a tough decision leaving my hometown and college, but it was too good of an offer to pass up," Bordson said Sunday night. "Nothing would have been guaranteed for next year. I think it was time to move on and take that next step in my career.

... "It was definitely very difficult. I love everyone at UMD. They were very professional about it, very supportive. They were very helpful. It was tough leaving them," he said. "Everyone wants to be a professional hockey player. I think it was the time to do it."

People will undoubtedly look at this as some sign of a broken system in the sport. While I've heard rumblings of discontent from college coaches about the way free agents are scouted, it's very difficult to begrudge either Bordson or the Ducks.

For Bordson, this was the best entry-level offer he was ever going to get. Since he'd be 23 next year when he could again sign a contract, his maximum money would actually drop, meaning he'd be getting less money over the course of a two-year deal. Not only that, but this team is willing to pay him a pro-rated salary for the rest of the season with no real guarantee of how much he'll play.

Bordson gets a head-start on his training for next season, and if he gets a chance to get on the ice for a game, he'll only be better from it.

From Anaheim's perspective, it's a pretty cheap way of bringing new young talent into the organization. They can take a look at him as much as they want over the final two weeks of the regular season, and then they have the rights to him next year for training camp for an even longer look.

Even if Bordson ends up in the minors, he has taken a good first step toward what we hope is a successful pro career.

This part of the system certainly sucks, but there isn't a sport where kids are bound to a college for four years, and there shouldn't be one. Scholarships are not a four-year contract to a college, nor are they a four-year contract for the kid. They can be revoked, and they sometimes are.

While I have previously been a firm advocate of a two-year minimum on a college commitment for any player who signs a letter of intent, it would only hurt the sport to go that route. Players like Jordan Schroeder, Nick Leddy, Dylan Olsen, or (in the past) Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, or Erik Johnson could be less inclined to go to college, because there was no lock any of these kids were going to stay in school two years.

I get the idea that having kids who want to be in college hockey is best for the sport, but the sport would suffer if the high-end players were more likely to go major junior or directly to the pros. You need those kids to help bring some notoriety to the game, even if they only stay a year.

In Bordson's case, he stayed three years, had an awesome junior season, and while there were still some flaws in his game, it's hard to tell a kid that he should just turn down a max offer that may never be there for him again in his life.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Twins Sign Joe Mauer Through 2018

The news Sunday about Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan sure wasn't very good. While Nathan has to undergo season-killing elbow surgery, the day of Twins news was not done, and it wasn't all bad.

A big priority for the front office this spring has been to get catcher Joe Mauer locked up on a long-term deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent after the 2010 season, and the possibility of Mauer leaving Minnesota was akin to armageddon for team officials.

After some rumors earlier in the spring proved to be unfounded, the deal was made official Sunday afternoon.

The great Joe Christensen has more.

Mauer, 26, will make $23 million each year from 2011 to 2018. The deal includes a full no-trade clause.

He is under contract for $12.5 million this year in the final year of a four-year, $33 million deal. Mauer, a three-time batting champion and reigning American League Most Valuable Player, could have become a free agent after the season.

The team plans to make the signing official on Monday at a press conference in Fort Myers, starting at 6 p.m.

Obviously, this is wonderful news for the Twins and their fans. Mauer is a cornerstone player, highly popular because 1) he's from the Twin Cities, and 2) he's really freaking good.

I've seen so many guys flame out from crouching too much in their careers, and I'm worried that Mauer won't last behind the plate for the full eight years of this deal. However, even if the team has to eventually move him to first base, third base, the outfield, or designated hitter, he will be worth nearly every penny because he will not stop being a very popular part of the Twins franchise.

On a day that started with awful -- though not totally unexpected -- news on Nathan, it ends with reason for the team's supporters to celebrate. With a new ballpark almost ready to open, Twins fans should be in full celebration mode until Opening Day.

Joe Nathan Going Under Knife

A test of Joe Nathan's bum elbow Sunday didn't go very well.

After a light throwing session in Florida, Nathan told reporters he has decided to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. The procedure will take care of Nathan's torn ulnar collateral ligament, but it requires Nathan sit out the 2010 season, the team's first at new Target Field.

Nathan said he hopes to return for the 2011 season, hopefully by Opening Day.

The typical Tommy John recovery is 12-18 months, so Nathan is obviously hoping to get on the low end of that scale.

"Didn’t go like we hoped," Nathan said. "We knew it was a long shot, but what this did do is clear my head. Definitely was no gray area. Definitely was on the black side, where it didn’t go as well as we like, and we know now we’re going to have to go in and get some surgery done, get this thing fixed up." Nathan said he will have the surgery as soon as possible, though he hasn't decided where or when. The estimated recovery time is 12 months, and Nathan said he's "very confident" he'll be ready for Opening Day next year. "Any time you’re going to be out for the season -- but especially the timing of this, with this ballclub, this new stadium, the excitement -- it’s definitely tough," Nathan said. "But right now I’ve got to take care of myself and get myself ready for next year."

The Twins can now move on to the next phase of this process. While Nathan gets himself taken care of by trained medical professionals, general manager Bill Smith and manager Ron Gardenhire have to find a closer.

It's not likely that the Twins will go without a designated closer, and it's apparently not likely that they'll convert Francisco Liriano to the job, since it appears they're getting him ready to be in the starting rotation.

Even if you think this is dumb (and you have to at least think they're playing with fire by letting a guy with arm problems in his past who likes to throw too many sliders continue on as a starting pitcher), at least the organization is willing to make decisions.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

WCHA Final Five Play-In Game: UMD vs. North Dakota

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- There has always been something a little weird about this single play-in game to me. It's not like it isn't part of the Final Five or anything, but I've always felt like the loser of this game didn't really take part in the tournament.

Not complaining or anything, just observing. It's almost as if the real event starts Friday, and this game is for a chance to play in the "real event."

Either way, it's really important, especially for UMD, who needs a win to avoid sitting at home and rooting for the likes of Sacred Heart and Boston College this weekend.


Fulton - Connolly (Jack) - Connolly (Mike)
Bordson - Oleksuk - Fontaine
Danberg - Akins - Grun
Schmidt - DeLisle - Seidel

Bergman - Lamb
Olsen - Montgomery
Olson - Huttel

Reiter - Hjelle

Gregoire - VandeVelde - Hextall
Trupp - Malone - Kristo
Lamoureux - Zajac - Knight
Cichy - Rowney - Bruneteau

MacWilliam - Blood
LaPoint - Marto
Davidson - Fienhage

Eidsness - Dell

All-WCHA Team Announced

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Here is the information from the WCHA on the 2010 awards.

The five nationally-ranked teams that make up the field for this week’s 2010 Red Baron™ WCHA Final Five championship – the University of Denver, the University of Wisconsin, St. Cloud State University, the University of North Dakota and the University of University of Minnesota Duluth – all had at least two players named to an all-league team while the MacNaughton Cup-champion Pioneers also led with four individual award winners to highlight the annual WCHA Awards Banquet and Ceremony held today (March 18) at RiverCentre in Saint Paul, Minn.

Denver junior goaltender Marc Cheverie was named the WCHA Player of the Year, Michigan Tech senior defenseman Eli Vlaisavljevich is the WCHA Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year, Wisconsin junior blueliner Brendan Smith was the head coaches’ choice as WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, North Dakota forward Danny Kristo was the WCHA Rookie of the Year, Denver forward Rhett Rakhshani was honored as the WCHA Scoring Champion, DU’s Cheverie was recorgnized as the WCHA Goaltending Champion, and Pioneers’ head coach George Gwozdecky was named the WCHA Coach of the Year.

The 2010 Red Baron™ WCHA Final Five gets underway Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center (18,064) with a quarterfinal matchup between the No. 5 seeded and No. 11-ranked Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (22-16-1) and the No. 4 seeded and No. 5-ranked North Dakota Fighting Sioux (22-12-5) at 7:07 pm CT.

On Friday, there will be two semifinals, with No. 3 seed and No. 6-ranked St. Cloud State (22-12-5) taking on No. 2 seed and No. 3-ranked Wisconsin (24-9-4) in the afternoon tilt at 2:07 pm CT followed by Thursday’s winner against No. 1 seeded and top-ranked Denver at 7:07 pm CT.

Then on Saturday, the 2010 Red Baron™ WCHA Final Five will conclude with the third place game at 2:07 pm CT and the Broadmoor Trophy championship contest at 7:07 pm CT. All five Final Five games are being telecast live by Fox Sports North and audiocast live via wcha.com with the winning team receiving the WCHA’s automatic bid into the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Hockey Tournament, which gets underway the following weekend at four regional sites.

WCHA Player of the Year Marc Cheverie, a junior from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, was also named to the All-WCHA First Team and is the WCHA Goaltending Champion. One of the nation’s elite netminders, he led all WCHA goalies with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .934 saves percentage in conference play to lead the Pioneers to the conference regular season title. A four-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, Cheverie enters the postseason leading all goalies in the country with 24 wins (24-4-3) and ranked third nationally in goals-against average (1.94) and first in saves percentage (.937) and winning percentage (.823).

WCHA Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year Eli Vlaisavljevich, a senior defenseman from Shoreview, Minn., has been named a WCHA Scholar-Athlete three times and to the All-WCHA Academic Team three times during his collegiate career at Michigan Tech. He currently carries a 4.0 cumulative grade-point average in Bio Medical Engineering and is a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship. Vlaisavljevich is also among 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award for 2009-10, has been awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship and the Michigan Tech’s Provost Award for Scholarship, and was named to the ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District First Team. He helps in several elementary classrooms, is a mentor with the Michigan Tech Athletics Koaches Kids Program and volunteers with the Copper Country Junior Hockey Association. Vlaisavljevich appeared in 111 career games for the Huskies with 10 points (3g, 7a). The WCHA Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year Award is determined from nominations made by the member institutions and each institution then has one final vote. The criteria is as follows: 1) must be a senior student-athlete, i.e. one who is finishing his competition as an eligible player in the WCHA; 2) consistently displays outstanding sportsmanship on and off the ice; 3) is a good student making satisfactory progress toward a degree; and 4) is a good hockey player who has performed consistently as a regular member of the team.

WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Brendan Smith, a junior from Mimico, Ontario, also earned All-WCHA First Team honors as the backbone of Wisconsin’s team. A three-time WCHA Defensive Player of the Week, Smith led all WCHA defensemen during the regular season in goals (11), assists (18) and points (29). Entering the Final Five, Smith also leads all of those categories nationally as well with 15 goals, 29 assists and 44 scoring points through 36 games. Earlier this season, he tallied two power-play goals in the third period, including the game-winner with 1:22 left in regulation, to lead Wisconsin past Michigan 3-2 in the Camp Randall Hockey Classic played outdoors in front of 55,031 fans.

WCHA Rookie of the Year Danny Kristo, a freshman from Prior Lake, Minn., also earned All-WCHA Rookie Team honors. He led all WCHA rookies with 10 goals and ranked second with 23 points during regular-season conference play for North Dakota. A two-time WCHA Rookie of the Week, Kristo led all UND players with eight power-play goals in the regular season, including six in conference action.

WCHA Scoring Champion Rhett Rakhshani, a senior from Huntington Beach, Calif., led all league players with 35 points (15-20=35) in regular season conference play for league champion Denver and was also named to the All-WCHA First Team. One of three finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, he was a three-time WCHA Offensive Player of the Week, scored points in 28 of his 36 regular season games and had 16 multiple-point games. Heading into the Final Five, Rakhshani had scored 20 goals and set up 29 others for 49 points in 38 games.

WCHA Coach of the Year George Gwozdecky, who led his Denver Pioneers to the WCHA regular season championship and MacNaughton Cup here in 2009-10, is a two-time AHCA (American Hockey Coaches Association) Spencer Penrose Award-winner and now four-time recipient of the league’s coach of the year honor. Gwozdecky led Denver to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2004 and 2005 to become the only person to win an NCAA title as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He has now coached the Pioneers, who enter the Final Five with a nation’s best record of 27-7-4 and are ranked No. 1 in the national polls, to four WCHA regular-season championships. Gwozdecky previously earned the WCHA Coach of the Year award in 1994-95, 2001-02, and 2004-05.

The WCHA Player of the Year, WCHA Rookie of the Year and WCHA Coach of the Year awards are voted on by conference-member coaches, student-athletes, sports information directors and media. There are 80 voters total, with each member institution receiving eight ballots.

The WCHA Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year award is selected by league-member Faculty Athletic Representatives, while the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year is selected by the league’s ten head coaches.

Three different conference-member teams are represented on the All-WCHA First Team for 2009-10. Named to the First Team were (statistics are final league games only): F – Rhett Rakhshani, Sr., Denver (28 gp, 15-20=35); F – Blake Geoffrion, Sr., Wisconsin (25 gp, 19-15=34); F – Jack Connolly, So., Minnesota Duluth (28 gp, 12-21=33); D – Brendan Smith, Jr., Wisconsin (27 gp, 11-18–29); D – Patrick Wiercioch, So., Denver (26 gp, 4-16=20); and G – Marc Cheverie, Jr., Denver (17-4-3, 2.05 GAA, .934 sv%).

Members of the 2009-10 All-WCHA Second Team are: F – Justin Fontaine, Jr., Minnesota Duluth (28 gp, 18-15=33); F – Ryan Lasch, Sr., St. Cloud State (28 gp, 15-17=32); F – Tyler Ruegsegger, Sr., Denver (28 gp, 14-17=31); D – Ryan McDonagh, Jr., Wisconsin (28 gp, 3-9=12); D – Nate Prosser, Sr., Colorado College (28 gp, 4-16–20); and G – Brad Eidsness, So., North Dakota (14-8-2, 2.18 GAA, .914 sv%).

Voted to the 2009-10 All-WCHA Third Team were: F – Michael Davies, Sr., Wisconsin (26 gp, 10-22=32); F – Joe Colborne, So., Denver (26 gp, 16-13=29); F – Garrett Roe, Jr, St. Cloud State (27 gp, 14-18=32); D – Garrett Raboin, Sr., St. Cloud State (25 gp, 3-12=15); D – Chay Genoway, Sr., North Dakota (7 gp, 4-3=7); and G – Dan Dunn, Jr., St. Cloud State (9-2-2, 2.76 GAA, .912 sv%).

And members of the 2009-10 All-WCHA Rookie Team are: F – Danny Kristo, Fr., North Dakota (28 gp, 10-13=23); F – Craig Smith, Fr., Wisconsin (28 gp, 6-19=25); F – Rylan Schwartz, Fr., Colorado College (28 gp, 6-14=20); D – Matt Donovan, Fr., Denver (26 gp, 4-11=15); D – Justin Schultz, Fr., Wisconsin (28 gp, 2-14–16); and G – Joe Howe, Fr., Colorado College (12-12-3, 2.90 GAA, .905 sv%).

Seven players named to the various all-league teams were also earlier honored as WCHA Scholar-Athletes for 2009-10. They were goaltenders Marc Cheverie of Denver and Brad Eidsness of North Dakota, defensemen Patrick Wiercioch of Denver and Garrett Raboin of St. Cloud State, and forwards Rhett Rakhshani, Tyler Ruegsegger and Joe Colborne from Denver. Raboin joined DU’s Rakhshani and MTU’s Vlaisavljevich among the 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award.

WCHA major award winners and members of the various all-league teams who were honored as member of the All-WCHA Academic Team for 2009-10 included CC’s Nate Prosser, DU’s Marc Cheverie, Joe Colborne, Rhett Rakhshani, Tyler Ruegsegger and Patrick Wiercioch, MTU’s Eli Vlaisavljevich, UMD’s Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine, UND’s Brad Eidsness, SCSU’s Ryan Lasch and Garrett Raboin, and UW’s Ryan McDonagh.

Voting for the all-league teams in the WCHA is done by conference-member coaches, players, sports information directors and media. Points for the all-league teams are awarded on a five (1st team vote), three (2nd team), and one (3rd team vote) basis.

WCHA Major Award Winners for 2009-10

WCHA Player of the Year
Marc Cheverie, Jr., G, Denver

WCHA Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year
Eli Vlaisavljevich, Sr., D, Michigan Tech

WCHA Defensive Player of the Year
Brendan Smith, Jr., D, Wisconsin

WCHA Rookie of the Year
Danny Kristo, Fr., F, North Dakota

WCHA Scoring Champion
Rhett Rakhshani, Sr., F, Denver

WCHA Goaltending Champion
Marc Cheverie, Jr., G, Denver

WCHA Coach of the Year
George Gwozdecky, DU

2009-10 All-WCHA First Team
Pos Name Team Ht Wt Yr Hometown Pts
F Rhett Rakhshani Denver 5-10 180 Sr Huntington Beach, CA 358
F Blake Geoffrion Wisconsin 6-2 188 Sr Brentwood, TN 333
F Jack Connolly Minnesota Duluth 5-8 160 So Duluth, MN 256
D Brendan Smith Wisconsin 6-2 190 Jr Mimico, ON 372
D Patrick Wiercioch Denver 6-4 185 So Maple Grove, BC 243
G Marc Cheverie Denver 6-3 180 Jr Cole Harbour, NS 364

All-WCHA Second Team
Pos Name Team Ht Wt Yr Hometown Pts
F Justin Fontaine Minnesota Duluth 5-11 175 Jr Bonnyville, AB 173
F Ryan Lasch St. Cloud State 5-7 175 Sr Lake Forest, CA 140
F Tyler Ruegsegger Denver 6-0 185 Sr Lakewood, CO 138
D Ryan McDonagh Wisconsin 6-1 216 Jr Arden Hills, MN 149
D Nate Prosser Colorado College 6-2 210 Sr Elk River, MN 144
G Brad Eidsness North Dakota 6-0 175 So Chestermere, AB 143

All-WCHA Third Team
Pos Name Team Ht Wt Yr Hometown Pts
F Michael Davies Wisconsin 5-8 175 Sr St. Louis, MO 109
F Joe Colborne Denver 6-5 195 So Calgary, AB 100
F Garrett Roe St. Cloud State 5-9 175 Jr Vienna, VA 78
D Garrett Raboin St. Cloud State 5-11 175 Sr Detroit Lakes, MN 111
D Chay Genoway North Dakota 5-9 175 Sr Morden, MB 83
G Dan Dunn St. Cloud State 6-5 200 Jr Oshawa, ON 88

All-WCHA Rookie Team
Pos Name Team Ht Wt Yr Hometown Votes
F Danny Kristo North Dakota 5-11 180 Fr Eden Prairie, MN 77
F Craig Smith Wisconsin 6-0 195 Fr Madison, WI 52
F Rylan Schwartz Colorado College 5-10 182 Fr Wilcox, SK 50
D Matt Donovan Denver 6-0 190 Fr Edmond, OK 65
D Justin Schultz Wisconsin 6-1 185 Fr West Kelowna, BC 29
G Joe Howe Colorado College 5-11 190 Fr Plymouth, MN 55

Interesting stuff. Congrats to all.

Final Final Five Preps

UMD battles North Dakota tonight at 7 P.M. in the WCHA Final Five at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Live coverage can be found locally on The Fan 1490 and fan1490.com starting at 6:30. The game can be seen on Fox Sports North.

We'll be at the rink tonight, posting the final lineups as usual around 6:00, and we'll also try to post the All-WCHA announcement once it is released sometime after 4:00. It's expected that UMD's Jack Connolly will make the first team, and Justin Fontaine will likely be on the second team.

If UMD wins, they play Friday at 7:00, and we'll be staying in St. Paul to provide more coverage. If the Bulldogs lose, they will have to wait and see the results of other conference tournaments to see if they can squeeze into the at-large field (not likely), and we'll be heading home Friday morning.

NHL Announcer Accuses Player of Faking Reaction to Headshot

Brian Hayward didn't have a Hall of Fame NHL career, but the former goalie was around the block a few times.

Since hanging up the pads. Hayward has worked for various outlets as a television commentator. His most recent gig has been with the Ducks on Fox Sports Prime Ticket/West and their local television rights-holder, KDOC.

While Hayward has held multiple gigs with national outlets, he seems most comfortable working as a "homer," or local broadcaster.

His homerism may have crossed the imaginary line Wednesday night at Honda Center, as the Chicago Blackhawks came to town.

Let's go to the videotape.

"Is Seabrook selling this?"


I know players take dives in the NHL and all around hockey, but this is ridiculous.

Rule No. 1: When a player doesn't get up after taking a brutal shot to the head, don't accuse that player of taking a dive. It's just bad form.

Rule No. 2: When in doubt, see Rule No. 1.

I'm all for homer announcers. The local viewers in southern California are watching the game with a certain color of shades over their eyes, and they don't need the local announcers sticking up for the Blackhawks (or whoever) all night. A little character and some candor is a must when taking on a job like this.

Hayward's willingness to say nice things about the Ducks was tested and proven over the years, as the Ducks gooned their way to a Stanley Cup and have made a habit under Randy Carlyle of playing dirty hockey.

This cheapshot is just the latest example. This time, however, Hayward went too far in defending his team's player.

James Wisniewski deserves a suspension for this hit. It was high, directly to the head, Wisniewski took a run at Chicago's Brent Seabrook, and he nearly left his feet. How that was a two-minute minor is beyond me, because it was a flagrant hit that deserved a five-minute penalty.

Hayward was just doing his job. Blah blah blah. He's speaking to an audience of Duck fans. I get that.

Doesn't give him the right to say something really stupid and embarrassing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Final 'Final Five'

The WCHA Final Five has quite a history. Since the league expanded to ten teams and went to this playoff format in 1993, the tournament has grown into the biggest -- outside of the Frozen Four -- in college hockey.

The format -- five teams, five games over three days -- is unique to the sport. It's necessitated by the league's decision to admit all ten member schools to the postseason tournament, instead of cutting out the bottom two like Hockey East does.

(Argue this all you want, but the league had no inclination to leave teams out of the playoffs, and they aren't going to do it when the new format is announced for next year.)

Forcing the bottom two seeds in a five-team event to play (and win) three games in three days for a shot at the title was asking too much for 15 years, before UMD did the "improbable" last year. The Bulldogs beat Minnesota 2-1, North Dakota 3-0, and Denver 4-0 en route to the most surprising championship in the tournament's history.

While this won't be the last year of the Final Five, it's the last year of the Final Five as we know it.

When the WCHA goes to 12 teams for next season, the five-team Final Five will cease to exist forever.

The WCHA has yet to announce a new playoff format, but there is a press conference set for Saturday -- between the third-place and championship games of the Final Five -- where the league will make it official. When they do, it's expected they will announce a five-game, three-day event known as the WCHA Final Five.

However, there will be six teams in the tournament, and the event will no longer include (thank goodness!) a third-place game.

That -- at least according to league sources over the last two months -- is the plan. There was some push to create a three-week tournament similar to what the CCHA and ECAC have now, but that would cut the St. Paul portion of the event down to two days and either three or four games, depending on the status of the third-place game. The league seems to like the value with the "Final Five" brand, and they want to keep it alive.

So as an era ends, what can fans expect this weekend?

Four teams -- Denver, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, and North Dakota -- have sealed up spots in the NCAA Tournament. This doesn't mean they won't play hard, because this title means a lot to the coaches and players of all four teams.

The fifth seed is UMD. The Bulldogs are 11th in the current Pairwise standings, but can finish anywhere from fifth to 19th, depending on this weekend's results. They are a classic bubble team, and they can count on nothing going their way if they don't win at least twice.

Denver is especially motivated, because while George Gwozdecky was seemingly unending in his praise for UMD's title run last year, he was also clearly bitter that his Pioneers lost the title game to the Bulldogs.

There is no coasting in this tournament. Nothing will be easy. No one is out of the running.

For UMD, everything could be on the line. They're playing a team that already won the season series 3-1, and one that dominated them in a two-game series sweep in February. That was in Grand Forks, however, where North Dakota has owned UMD over the years. This game is in St. Paul, a place where UMD has confidence. The Bulldogs are 7-3 at the XCel Energy Center, including 2-0 against North Dakota. They beat the Sioux 3-0 in the semifinals last year, a game no one gave them a chance in.

Similarly, people are counting them out Thursday, and that isn't wise.

This UMD team can score. As Colorado College found out, they also have pretty good goaltending and aren't afraid to bang the bodies around. These are the bigger keys to Thursday than goal-scoring.

This is a North Dakota team without catalyst Matt Frattin and top young defenseman Joe Gleason. They could be prone to the same kind of hard-nosed, in-your-face attack they usually employ. Of course, the Sioux are deep, so these losses might not mean much in the end. It just looks like it will possibly attack their depth a little bit, leaving them perhaps vulnerable to a desperate team playing for (most likely) their season.

And this isn't Minnesota. UMD knows how to play desperate hockey. They did it all through their five-game WCHA playoff run last year, and the guys on this year's team are fully aware of what that taught them. They're prepared, ready, motivated, and more than good enough to do it again.

While no one had ever won three games in three days at the Final Five before last year, this year represents the last chance for the Bulldogs -- or any team -- to do it under the current format. After this year, it just won't be the same again.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tiger Returns, Golf Again Relevant

Golf got the best news it could possibly ask for Tuesday, as Tiger Woods announced his intentions to return at The Masters next month.

Scoff all you want at his press conference from back in February, but Woods has obviously done a lot of soul-searching, and he must have run this idea by a lot of different people, from counselors to his wife.

Of course, he is his own man, and if he has made up his mind, it doesn't seem likely that anyone is going to change it for him.

No matter what is in the immediate past.

Taking fully into account the chronology of events that got us to this point, Woods decided The Masters was the right time and place to come back to the sport.

"The Masters is where I won my first major, and I view this tournament with great respect. After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I'm ready to start my season at Augusta.

"The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be, even though it's been awhile since I last played.

"I have undergone almost two months of inpatient therapy, and I am continuing my treatment. Although I'm returning to competition, I still have a lot of work to do in my personal life.

"When I finally got into a position to think about competitive golf again, it became apparent to me that the Masters would be the earliest I could play. I called both Joe Lewis and Arnold Palmer and expressed my regrets for not attending the Tavistock Cup and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. I again want to thank them both for their support and their understanding. Those are fantastic tournaments, and I look forward to competing in them again.

"I would also like to thank the Augusta National members and staff for their support. I have deep appreciation for everything that they do to create a wonderful event for the benefit of the game."

It makes sense when you think about it. There isn't a more closely-guarded seat among media gatherings than The Masters. They aren't just going to let TMZ or US Weekly break down the walls and get a pass to go ask Tiger a bunch of stupid questions. Instead, it will be a media group respectful of the wishes of both Tiger and Augusta National, and they will likely not ask him much -- if anything -- about what happened.

The galleries will be well-behaved, and Tiger can just concentrate on playing golf. That should be good for him, and it will be good for golf, because the most popular tournament of the year just wouldn't be the same without the sport's biggest needle-mover.

The Masters can survive without Tiger, because there is such mystery to the surroundings, and the pictures ESPN and CBS deliver are second-to-none. It's the one tournament that is a virtual lock to pull a number on Sunday, regardless of the names at the top of the leaderboard.

However, this is bigger for golf. It's not like other sports, who have multiple athletes with crossover popularity. Golf's mainstream audience centers around Tiger Woods.

You're bound to hear a lot about Tiger's sincerity from that statement just about a month ago, but the bottom line is that no amount of time away from the sport would be enough for most people. He'll be forever punished when he tries to escape his reality for a drink or a movie or a concert. His days of living a wholly private life have abruptly ended, and outside of the obvious adjustments to the way he conducts himself as a husband, this is the biggest change he faces as he starts his life over again.