Monday, April 26, 2010

Jeff Gordon Has Every Right To Be 'Pissed' At Selfish Teammate

In the world of NASCAR, no one is a saint. If there is a racer in the Sprint Cup series who wouldn't wreck their own wife, girlfriend, mother, or even grandmother to win a race, they probably aren't going to be a Chase contender.

That's just the way it is.

Jeff Gordon spent years being vilified and hated by NASCAR fans. He once had beer cans thrown at his car after the unspeakable crime of winning a race at Talladega. He was evil in the minds of many race fans for a lot of years, until his teammate took the honor.

Four-time champion Jimmie Johnson is a great driver, and he doesn't appear to be an awful guy behind the scenes. He does the charity work, isn't afraid to get in line to help other drivers' charities (Kyle Busch, from what I hear, is WAY underrated in this regard, by the way), and is a soft-spoken face in a sport full of blowhards.

You'd think he could maintain a decent fan base without being hated, yet between his four titles in a row -- no one wants to root for the guy or team that ALWAYS wins -- and some recent dustups with other drivers, Johnson's pristine reputation has taken a bit of a hit.

April 19, Johnson was leading in the race at Texas, and all of a sudden here came Gordon. Despite his teammate having a much faster car, Johnson saw fit to try to block Gordon, causing unnecessary damage and friction. Gordon later wrecked, while Johnson finished in the top ten (shockingly).

There was talk of friction between the two, buoyed by comments by Gordon on his radio that indicated some issues with Johnson. Something along the lines of how Johnson "thinks he should be treated different than everybody else."

During the week, Johnson and Gordon downplayed any friction. Radio comments are often downplayed as out of emotion and the fire of the race. Once a driver calms down, things are usually different.

After Talladega, where Johnson bumped Gordon while Gordon was trying to get in position to draft off his teammate (or, at least that's what Johnson thought ... Gordon was obviously trying to pass because, again, he had a faster car), Gordon didn't comment on the radio (well, not that I heard). Instead, he waited until he climbed out of the car.



Frankly, Gordon has every right to be "pissed," or whatever he wants to be.

Over his four-year run atop the Sprint Cup Series, Johnson has enjoyed a lot of luck, and he has gotten a lot of help along the way. His teammates help him on the track, share information about the cars (as per Hendrick Motorsports procedure), and more importantly, they protected him throughout his championship runs.

If it weren't for Gordon, Johnson may never have gotten this opportunity with Hendrick, or the chance to work with ace crew chief Chad Knaus.

Gordon isn't asking for any favors on the track that he hasn't already given Johnson. The fact Johnson refuses to give up ground when he has an inferior car shows that he still has some to learn about the give-and-take of the sport, and what it means to be a good teammate.

That's unfortunate, because between Gordon and Mark Martin, Johnson has seen plenty of examples of good teammates in recent years. Too bad he hasn't picked up on too much of what they could have taught him.

Wisconsin's Top Assistant Moves On

After coming within a game of the national championship, Wisconsin has some holes to fill. Not only do they lose Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion, and likely junior defenseman Brendan Smith, but head coach Mike Eaves has to hire two new assistant coaches.

Kevin Patrick left for the USHL after the season, in a move that was announced before the Badgers were done playing. He stayed on and helped as much as he could down the stretch.

Possibly more valuable was the work of longtime Eaves assistant Mark Osiecki. He worked with the Badger defensemen, getting a lot of kudos from the current players, as well as former players like Jamie McBain, who sung Osiecki's praises when I talked to him in March.

Now, Osiecki is moving on to become the new head coach at Ohio State.

"I can't express how excited I am at the opportunity to take over the hockey program at an institution as great as Ohio State," Osiecki said. "The locker room is filled with good players, and I look forward to building on the tradition of the coaches who have come before me."

Osiecki not only was a major part of Wisconsin's defense, but he was the main recruiter on the staff. Losing him could prove to be as big as any possible early departure on the Wisconsin roster.

Meanwhile, Eaves has a very tough job ahead of him, as he tries to replace two valued members of his coaching staff.

If he's lucky, the early departures will be kept to a minimum.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Draft Day Tidbits

Thursday marks the first primetime NFL Draft. They probably picked a good year for this move, because there is plenty of drama, especially outside the top pick.

Or two picks.

We'll have plenty of coverage, including a live chat, on NFL FanHouse, and you're invited to join us for that.

In the meantime, I have decided not to do a mock draft, since there are approximately four million of them available on the internet. Instead, here are a few takes as we wind down the final eight hours until the NFL's annual "Player Selection Meeting" gets underway in New York.

Ndamukong Suh is the best player in the draft.

I have felt this way since November, when I watched Suh consistently destruct opposing offensive lines. There's just no way around it, but there was also no way that the Rams were going to take him first overall.

For starters, the Rams are trying to build a franchise around this pick. You have to have quality defensive tackles, but you can't build franchises around them.

When you drive through the Twin Cities this summer, and you're looking at billboards touting Vikings season tickets, you're not going to see Kevin or Pat Williams on them. You're going to see Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and that Favre guy. That's just how it is.

Not only that, but can the Rams justify giving $50 million guaranteed to a defensive tackle on a quarterback-less team? Probably not.

The team benefiting the most from this is Detroit, since they pick second and need a defensive tackle ... desperately.

No one knows what Washington is going to do.

Michael Lombardi wrote about this on NFP. There is a ton of uncertainty with the Redskins and their new management -- general manager Bruce Allen and coach Mike Shanahan.

Many people in the NFL believe the draft will start with Washington at the No. 4 pick. No one really has a feel for what the ‘Skins will do, and they can head in a number of different directions. But I keep hearing offensive tackle is not one of the positions they’ll pick — no smoke screen. I have a hunch, and it’s only a hunch, that it might be safety Eric Berry.

This is interesting. We're pretty sure Tampa Bay will take Gerald McCoy third, so the top quarterback and two defensive tackles will be gone when Washington selects. There is a chance the Redskins will look for an offensive tackle, no matter what Lombardi says, because it's a move they probably need to make at some point.

But there are enough holes on the Washington roster that Shanahan and Allen could look in a bunch of different directions and be totally justified in their decision.

The Tim Tebow factor reigns supreme.

Mike Florio of the ever-popular Pro Football Talk likes to remind people of this.

It only takes one.

Yes, there are 32 teams in the NFL. But if just one of them values a player as a blue-chipper or a first-rounder, the player can be considered those things.

Tebow is this year's example of a polarizing player who only needs that one team to see value in him.

The hunch is that more than one team thinks of Tebow as a first-round pick, and it's hard to imagine he'll still be on the board when the teams reconvene Friday for the second round. Instead, if (and I mean "if") Tebow lasts until the bottom portion of the first round, you can expect teams to jockey to get in a position to take him.

Of course, you never know when you'll see a curveball thrown. Maybe Tebow is more solidly a first-rounder than we all think he is.

This aspect of the draft alone is going to be very, very interesting.

Jimmy Clausen's leadership skills are rightfully under fire.

If you saw Clausen get picked apart by ESPN's Jon Gruden, you know what I'm talking about.

The breakdown really starts at the 3:40 mark, after Gruden softened Clausen up a bit by talking about touchdown passes, go routes, footwork, and leprechauns.



Florio saw this and made a very salient point.

Undercarriage of bus? Meet Notre Dame receiver.

On camera, Gruden seemed to measure his words carefully but he still made the unmistakable point that in this situation the blame falls to the quarterback. Off camera, we're hoping that Gruden pulled Clausen aside and said, "Look, Jimmy. You're already getting killed by Todd McShay for having leadership and maturity issues. When you publicly blame your receiver for something that ultimately was your responsibility, you give guys like McShay something tangible to point to. You never publicly blame your teammate like that, not right after the game or six months later or six years later. And if he told you that he saw the hand signal but that for whatever reason he chose to ignore it, then you resolve the situation in house. Regardless, you take the responsibility for not giving the guy a clear signal, for not being sure that he got it, or for not having the kind of relationship with your receiver where he'd never dare do anything other than what you tell him to do."


And, no, we don't know whether Gruden said anything like that. But if he's really trying to help the players and not simply himself, he sure as hell should have.

Bottom line: This calls into real question the leadership skills of Clausen.

Very few quarterbacks -- the class of Marino, Elway, Favre, and the like -- can get away with bus-chucking receivers over interceptions.

Jimmy Clausen, soon-to-be NFL rookie, isn't one of those.

Don't think for two seconds that teams are looking past this clip. They're going to question what Clausen's real leadership skills are, and in a draft where Clausen is competing with Tebow and Colt McCoy for first-round attention, he could be the one who falls.

Noted NFL Draft guru Mike Mayock seems, by the way, to agree with this sentiment.

"There are these nagging concerns about what kind of kid is he and the other night people around the league were talking about this," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said this morning on the Dan Patrick Show. "He threw his wide receiver under the bus. And quarterbacking 101 is you take responsibility. Everything is your fault."

Jimmy might need to learn this. Perhaps his Gruden experience will be the starting point.

Eric Berry is a factor in this draft.

Lombardi talked about this on NFL Network Thursday morning. He might even come off the board before the Redskins pick at No. 4. That may involve a team moving up to take him, but as we have talked about, it only takes one.

Berry could go as high as third or fourth, but the reality is that he could also fall to the bottom part of the top ten, depending on what teams want to do. He is a highly-rated player, but he plays a position (safety) that doesn't often produce top-notch players with high draft picks.

Jason Pierre-Paul has "Bust" written all over him.

If you still want to indict Mike Mamula all these years later, you'd be comparing him to Pierre-Paul, a player who missed 26 games in his career at South Florida, but has shown the athletic potential to maybe be a top ten pick.

It's that tough balance teams have to strike. You have mountains of tape on a player, and you get to scout them in person at games, followed by Pro Days, combines, and individual workouts.

In the end, the eye in the sky doesn't lie.



Pierre-Paul is an intriguing prospect, but there are flaws. His production in college was a question mark, and when you watch him, it's easy to lose him on plays, especially when he runs stunts.

I think Paul is almost a definite stand-up player at the next level, leaving him as only a real good option for a 3-4 team.

Even then, there is bust potential because of his uneven production and durability in college.

Then again, I once said LaDainian Tomlinson had "bust written all over him," too, so take this with a bit of a grain of salt.

I have no idea what the Vikings or Packers will do.

Part of that is a product of how deep they're picking in the first round. Almost assuredly, someone will fall to them who we don't think should.

Can the Packers get a shot at a guy like Kyle Wilson, Mike Iupati, Taylor Mays, or one of the top offensive tackles? Will the Vikings get a crack at Clausen or Tebow, or will they stick to their needs and look for a top defensive player?

There's reason to believe that both teams will just take the best player available. The Packers seem to have this as a strategy, while the Vikings are practically picking in the second round and should probably employ that method.

The Favre factor is a non-factor for the Vikings. No matter what he does, they are going to need a quarterback unless they laughably think Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels can be the guy.

As for Green Bay, many are projecting them to take an offensive lineman, but there are multiple scenarios where the best player on the board is likely a defensive back, and I don't see them deviating from the idea of staying true to that board that they spent so long working on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Report: Roethlisberger Suspended 4-6 Games, With Conditions

The controversy surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's alleged bathroom behavior in Georgia a while back has come to a head.

The star will be suspended four to six games by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, according to a report by ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

Roethlisberger's behavior has been the source of much talk in NFL circles in recent weeks. FOX analyst Terry Bradshaw, a decorated and popular former Pittsburgh quarterback, called "Big Ben" out for, well, basically being a hard-headed jackass.

While it was initially unclear if the league would take action, it began to come into focus after a meeting between Roethlisberger and Goodell last week. The commish acknowledged publicly that Roethlisberger -- in his view -- had violated the NFL's personal conduct policy. He came to this finding despite the fact that Roethlisberger wasn't charged in this incident, and nothing has come of allegations of a sexual assault in Nevada, either.

The finding of Goodell -- for better or worse -- was that Roethlisberger's behavior put him in bad situations, and he was responsible for the fact he was in a position to have these accusations placed against him.

This adds more teeth to the NFL's personal conduct policy, something colleague Clay Travis wrote on last week.

Effectively the league would be punishing a player for the violation of an amorphous and arbitrary morals element to the personal conduct policy. And while you or I can agree or disagree on whether the allegations against Roethlisberger -- given that he was never arrested or charged -- are serious enough to merit a suspension, hardly anyone would be able to determine where the league draws the line on what is moral under the personal conduct policy and what isn't.

Clay went on to point out that this policy might not even be legal.

The policy also hasn't been challenged because, from an individual player perspective, taking the punishment without running to court probably makes sense.

Why?


Because the legal system might well take longer to render a verdict in your favor than it will take to simply serve your suspension. If you run to court there's an appearance that you're avoiding taking responsibility for your own actions. So you aren't incentivized to challenge the system and anger the man, Goodell, and the league, the NFL, who controls your ability to reenter gainful employment.


But, trust me, the legality of the personal conduct policy is tenuous at best. Especially because the NFL unilaterally adopted the personal conduct policy without the NFLPA's approval and outside the protective sphere of the collective bargaining agreement.

That makes the NFLPA's failure to attack the personal conduct policy a complete failure of the league's union and a reflection of the fear the player's union feels in allying itself with the weakest, and most easily condemned, members of its union.

Mortensen tweeted that he doesn't expect Roethlisberger to initiate an appeal of his suspension from the player's union. He added that Big Ben didn't invite the union to his hearing with Goodell last week.

If the player doesn't initiate the appeal, the union can do nothing but allow the player to serve his punishment.

It sounds like Roethlisberger is taking this like a man, which he should be (sort of) applauded for. He could have protested and made this a very painful process. Instead, for whatever reason, he is going to try to move on and -- hopefully -- grow up.

For those protesting, remember that there is a lot of uncertainty. We don't know the facts of the case. We don't know what the commissioner found out from Roethlisberger during their meeting. We don't know what all the circumstances of the decision not to charge him with a crime.

The commissioner likely knows more than we do, and he knows more than he will ever lay out publicly.

Reality is that the policy will be questioned, but it's got more punch to it now than it ever did before.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's a Conspiracy!!

Why is it that no fanbase ever can just let a call go against them?

It's one thing to cry about a call you don't like. I should know about this. But we look stupid when we start talking about conspiracies.

Of course, that's where fans go whenever a call goes against them in the playoffs.

Monday night in Los Angeles, such a call went against the Vancouver Canucks.



Watch the video a few times. I did, and here are my conclusions.
  • To be totally fair, this was a very tough call. Hardly a no-brainer.
  • The fact it wasn't a no-brainer does NOT mean the league was wrong to overturn the call on the ice, which was that it was a good goal. It just means it was a harder decision than many others they'll make in these playoffs.
  • You can't argue that the puck was propelled into the net by Sedin's skate. If Daniel doesn't hit the puck with that kind of force, it never gets across the goal line without hitting something or someone else first.
  • Yes, Sedin was stopping. No, he might not have known what he was doing. But it looks like he intentionally hit the puck in a manner that allowed it to be propelled into the goal.
  • You can argue that it should have counted, but you can't fairly argue that the league was absolutely wrong. With that being said, how the hell is it a conspiracy?
After the game, which Vancouver ended up losing 5-3, the Canucks were livid. The Vancouver media -- predictably -- went along for the ride.

Apparently Mike Murphy said all this with a straight face.

Asked by the CBC to comment on the disallowed goal by Daniel Sedin early in the third period, Murphy, the NHL's vice president of hockey operations, had this to say: "He knew what he was doing when he stopped in front of the net. . .I think he knew where the puck was, absolutely."

Murphy said it wasn't a "distinct kicking motion" but a "kicking motion." Oh, there's a difference.

He said Sedin "twisted his toe" and pushed the puck in the direction of Jonathan Quick's five-hole.

Twisted his toe? Is that any relation to Twisted Sister?

That was a horrendous call. The Canucks deserved to lose the game, but that goal should have counted and it would have made for a very interesting finish.

I loved Henrik Sedin's quote after the game.

"I didn't even think they were going to take a look at it," Henrik said. "I thought it was a great goal. Then they went upstairs and it took forever and I was like, 'wow, this is unbelievable.' Sometimes it seems like the guys in Toronto they sit there and make their calls anyway they want. This is the playoffs. They had to over-rule it, too, that's the toughest part. If the refs said no or it's questionable, that's fine. He said it was a good goal. It's awful."

Whenever you read your local paper and think the writers are biased, or complain about the slants you see in blogs that cover your teams, remember this.

Let's re-enter the real world, shall we?

Henrik is expected to be upset. That's why you let him blow off his steam, and you DON'T PRINT HIS INCENDIARY COMMENTS. Idiot.

The league didn't overturn this goal because they wanted to. They overturned it because -- based on the rule in place -- they felt it was the right call. The NHL doesn't care who wins and who loses, and they certainly don't care about a franchise that doesn't make a dent in the local television ratings and hasn't made the playoffs in close to a decade.

If you need to blame someone for Vancouver falling behind 2-1 in this series, how about the goalie who couldn't stop a beach ball Monday night, or the penalty kill that has allowed five goals in the Kings' last six power play chances?

Monday, April 19, 2010

NFL Draft Preview: Anthony Davis

We preview the NFL Draft from the perspective of the Green Bay Packers.

For some time, the potential availability of a guy like Davis at this point in the first round was a pipe dream. The Packers had to think he was out of reach for them, as his athleticism and potential had people drooling.

There are some questions about Davis, however. He struggled at times with his weight, and guys with weight issues in college often develop them at the next level, too. His fundamentals need some work, though he has the athletic ability and talent to play the position, no question.

Will Davis' weight struggles be forgotten amid impressive measurables? Or will they dog him and show a lack of desire to be the best?

Watching the video, there's no question he has the ability to play left tackle in the NFL.



General manager Ted Thompson isn't the kind who likes to take risks on guys who could be character problems. If he thinks Davis won't maintain weight and work hard enough, he will pass on the kid in a second.

On the field, he can go. He's strong, pretty good with his feet, and has the intensity to be effective as a run-blocker. He looks good in pass protection, but you always worry with the mammoth tackles if they can hold up against the speedy rushers you face in the NFL.

Thompson has seen the kid play. He's seen him work out. He's probably talked to him. He has a feel for what Anthony Davis is all about.

Come Thursday, we'll see if he gets a chance to put his knowledge and feelings on Davis to the test.

NFL Draft Preview: Kyle Wilson

We preview the NFL Draft from the perspective of the Green Bay Packers.

For general manager Ted Thompson, it's a laborious process, but obviously one he's passionate about.

As we head down to the final days before the NFL Draft, Thompson and his scouting and evaluation team are going through the process of finalizing the team's draft board and making sure everything is ready to go for Thursday night's first round.

It's never expected that a Thompson-led staff will do much in that first round, as they usually prefer to stay put or move back.

We've spent time over the past week or so looking at draft prospects Green Bay could have their eye on with their first-rounder, No. 23 overall. The general thought is that the Packers will lean defense with this pick, though as I've mentioned a few times, they will stick to their board, meaning they will likely take the best available player, regardless of position.

With that in mind, we bring you another defensive prospect with this post. It's Kyle Wilson, a cornerback from Boise State.



As you can see, Wilson is an all-around player, and possibly a better overall prospect than Florida State's Patrick Robinson. There's a real chance he'll be off the board by the time the Packers come up.

If he's not, Thompson should take a long, hard look at Wilson.

He's a good cover corner, and he has the ability to be a game-breaker as a punt returner, something that the Packers could really use.

If you don't think he's a hitter, watch him destroy TCU quarterback Andy Dalton at the :35 mark of the above video.

His tackling technique in the open field needs work, and he could probably stand to get a little bit stronger.

The talent is there, however, to suggest he'll be a good player for some time in the NFL. The bad news is that it sounds like he's making his way up draft boards, rendering it somewhat unlikely that he'll be around at No. 23, and I don't see Green Bay moving up to get him when they only have eight picks in the draft.

Dan Boyle: Stand Up Guy

By now, you've probably seen the incredible gaffe by San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle in Sunday's overtime loss to Colorado.

Boyle's own-goal (though it appears to have hit the stick of Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly after Boyle tried to whack the puck around the wall) gave Colorado an improbable 1-0 win, despite San Jose outshooting the hosts 51-17 (43-8 after the first period).

In a situation where most of the world's population would find a cozy rock to hide under for about a week, Boyle sat at his locker and faced the media like a man after the game.

The goal, with a brief replay, starts out this video, with audio from CBC's Mark Lee, who was as incredulous as the rest of us were. Then it cuts to Boyle's postgame comments.



I already felt sorry for Boyle. The fact that he sat there and took the bullet like he did afterward only makes me respect him more.

Boyle is a leader on this team, so his ability to bounce back will be important. He should also be able to expect some support from his teammates, especially captain Rob Blake, who surely has seen some goofy-ass bounces in his day. In fact, a puck off Blake's skate in the final minute Wednesday night gave Colorado a 2-1 win in the series opener.

That means San Jose has lost two games -- basically -- on own goals. It has to be demoralizing, but this is not the same Sharks team we saw last year against Anaheim. They've outshot Colorado 129-69 in the series, scored six goals in Friday's Game 2, and are clearly a superior group, as opposed to the team that was horribly outplayed by Anaheim in the first round a year ago.

Now, their resiliency will be tested like never before.

Friday, April 16, 2010

NFL Draft Preview: Taylor Mays

We preview the NFL Draft from the perspective of the Green Bay Packers.

If the saying is "Stay true to your board," how do you ignore a player like Mays? Reality is that Mays has the potential to be a special player in the NFL. Yes, he could flame out, and there is risk that he won't adjust well to the pro game.

But just watch the video.



There are things to work on. He goes for the kill shot too much, leaving himself vulnerable to penalties and occasional letters from the commissioner's office. Those types of hits can also take him out of the play, leaving teammates to cover for him because he's not in the right spot.

However, there is a lot of potential for a special safety. Mays has good hands, great closing speed, and the ability to turn a turnover into a touchdown. His size makes him a tough guy to avoid in the deep middle, both for quarterbacks and for ballcarriers.

With Green Bay's weak depth at safety, and Atari Bigby's propensity for spending Sundays standing on the sideline in street clothes, it's hard to imagine Ted Thompson passing up on a guy like Mays if he's available (that's a big "if," by the way).

Thompson likes to talk about how "good players are good players," and the Packers aren't going to turn down a good player.

If they think Taylor Mays is a good player, don't be surprised to see them take him.

The 'Other' Pro Sports Playoff

While my eyes are usually focused on hockey, the NBA Playoffs are kicking off Saturday.

Unfortunately for the bouncyball association, the drama is not likely to kick in until the second round or later, because the league was so ridiculously top-heavy that it's hard to find more than one or two potential upsets among the first-round series.

That makes it pretty easy to preview them, no?

Anyway, FanHouse does a much better job covering the NBA than I ever could. It's the passion of many of those folks, and they do some great writing.

As for me, I enjoy putting together dumb lists and preditions and then watching them blow up in my face. Or at least that's what happened with the NHL.

Why not one more dumb column with playoff predictions? We'll head back to school and do it in the form of the old-school true-false test.

The Lakers will not repeat. TRUE
They're the favorites, I believe. Kobe Bryant is still playing like a man possessed, and he's got help from Pau Gasol and Ron Artest.

However, it's insanely difficult to repeat. They lost 25 games this season, including 17 to Western Conference teams. There are enough cracks in the armor to suggest they can lose a best-of-seven series without being totally incompetent, something Bryant will likely not allow to happen.

Even though I have serious doubts about the Lakers' ability to roll through the likes of Utah, Denver, Dallas, and maybe Cleveland, they shouldn't have much trouble with Oklahoma City in the first round. The Thunder are a cute story, and Kevin Durant is an absolute beast, but they don't have the kind of supporting cast around him that they need to win a playoff series.

No higher seeds will lose in the first round. FALSE.
It's not as easy as you might think. This is a patently ridiculous statement in a normal year, but this isn't normal.

In the East, Cleveland, Orlando, and Atlanta are mortal locks to move on. Cleveland is a great team up against a pretty average Chicago outfit. Orlando is a horrific matchup for first-time entrant Charlotte, though I'd still be worried if I were a Magic fan, because Larry Brown has outcoached smarter guys than Stan Van Gundy in his career. Atlanta gets a Milwaukee team that is without starting center Andrew Bogut and will have a hard time competing against the athletic Hawks without him.

However, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat have a great chance to upset the aging, unfocused Celtics. If Kevin Garnett's gait and Rasheed Wallace's attitude weren't enough to implode the once-great Celts, word leaked this week that coach Doc Rivers might step down after the season. That end might come quicker than anyone in Boston wants to believe.

Anyway, the Western Conference sees the Lakers get a series with Oklahoma City. The Thunder won't win more than two, if they win that many. I love the "We're not all about Brandon Roy" angle for Portland, but I don't know that it's effective. They'll try to slow the Suns down, and if they can keep the pace slow, they might have a shot. It's still a long shot, though.

Denver might go down to Utah, but the loss of Andrei Kirilenko will be a huge blow for the Jazz. San Antonio has a boatload of playoff experience, but that didn't help them against Dallas last year, when the roles were reversed in terms of seeding (Dallas is the high seed this year). Mavericks win.

So, while the odds aren't great for the low seeds, the No. 4 vs. No. 5 series provide enough intrigue to make me think at least one high seed will fall.

Don't be surprised if this is horribly wrong, though.

Cleveland is a lock out East. FALSE.
I get the mantra. Earn the No. 1 seed, then do everything you can to get ready for the playoffs.

However, the Cavaliers lost their last four games. They started a bit of controversy by resting LeBron James for home games.

Feel how you want about that (I don't agree with Tim on the issue, but the bottom line is that sitting the best player in the world for regular season home games is not a good marketing plan), but the Cavaliers aren't carrying momentum into the playoffs.

Yes, Mike Brown looks stupid if James sprains his ankle going for a rebound in a meaningless game, but you don't sit him for the entire preseason, do you? He has to play to get ready for the regular season.

Similarly, he should play at least 15-20 minutes a night down the stretch to keep fresh and ready for game action when the playoffs come.

While I still believe Cleveland will play in the NBA Finals come June, there will be speedbumps. There will be tests of character. And I believe that James will need some time to get his legs back after taking time off. Orlando already knows they can beat Cleveland when it matters most. Atlanta wants to believe they can get the job done. Why plant any more seeds of doubt by allowing time to develop rust before the most important games of the year?

Good thing the first-round opponent is Chicago.

"Fear The Deer" is brilliant. TRUE
Marketing campaigns in sports are generally lame. The Milwaukee Bucks have found a gem.

"Fear The Deer."

No one knows its real origin, but it's made the rounds on Twitter, and the Bucks are smart to embrace it, wherever it came from.

It's the kind of thing that won't help you win a playoff series against a better team, but it's something the fans can get excited about. Right there you have enough reason for the Bucks to love it, because they were 22nd in the NBA in attendance.

I'm dumb enough to make more predictions. TRUE

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Quarters
Cleveland over Chicago in 5
Miami over Boston in 7
Orlando over Charlotte in 6
Atlanta over Milwaukee in 5
Semifinals
Cleveland over Miami in 5
Orlando over Atlanta in 7
Finals
Cleveland over Orlando in 7

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Quarters
L.A. Lakers over Oklahoma City in 6
Denver over Utah in 7
Dallas over San Antonio in 6
Phoenix over Portland in 6
Semifinals
L.A. Lakers over Denver in 7
Dallas over Phoenix in 6
Finals
Dallas over L.A. Lakers in 7

NBA FINALS
Cleveland over Dallas in 7

NFL Draft Preview: Mike Iupati

We preview the NFL Draft from the perspective of the Green Bay Packers.

You can label a number of positions as ones of need for the Packers. However, general manager Ted Thompson has preached a philosophy over the years of staying true to the team's draft board.

It makes sense, really. Scouts, coaches, and executives have poured over countless hours of tape on players, attended the NFL Combine, attended individual and Pro Day workouts, and conducted interviews with players.

They aren't going to do all of this, painstakingly put a draft board together, and then go off the board because it's decided that they need a defensive tackle.

With that in mind, our look at draft candidates will focus more on players we think could be atop the Packers' board when the No. 23 pick comes around.

One of those players is Idaho offensive lineman, the mammoth Mike Iupati.



As you can see, he's a big boy. After playing guard in college, there's some talk that Iupati could be a fit as a tackle in the NFL.

He is quick off the ball, which would serve him well in Green Bay's blocking scheme. If he turns out to be versatile enough to play tackle (his footwork on the tape I've seen looks a bit spotty, to be honest), he is even more valuable to the Packers.

Left tackle Chad Clifton re-signed on the first day of free agency, but he's not a long-term solution at the position. Neither is right tackle Mark Tauscher, who is also in the fold for 2010. The Packers need to find young tackles who could fill these voids in the near future. While T.J. Lang could take one spot, they still don't have a viable solution for the other.

Iupati might not start right away, but he makes a lot of sense for Green Bay because of his athleticism and versatility.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

NFL Draft Preview: Patrick Robinson

We preview the NFL Draft from the perspective of the Green Bay Packers.

Whether or not the Packers sign Brian Westbrook to pretty much fill out the offense, they are likely to lean defense with their first-round pick next week, No. 23 overall.

With that in mind, one guy who is likely to be on general manager Ted Thompson's radar is Florida State cornerback Patrick Robinson.

Watching this video of Robinson in action, it's hard not to see some similarities between his style of play and that of the Packers' two veteran starting cornerbacks.



Robinson has good size, though he's not as big as Charles Woodson. He is probably a little faster than an at-his-peak Al Harris, and keep in mind Harris is now coming off a torn ACL and will be 35, so he's looking less and less like a viable option as a starting cornerback.

You see virtually all the important things you need to see in that video. He's a productive, smart cornerback who seems to enjoy the physical game. He has good closing speed, good anticipation, and is a good tackler.

Not only that, but there's a swagger and intensity about him that can be hard to teach. Given how the Packers have missed in the draft at the cornerback position (guys like Terrell Buckley, Craig Newsome, and Ahmad Carroll have either disappointed or completely bombed out for a variety of reasons), this would be an important "get" for general manager Ted Thompson.

It helps that Robinson fills a need, but there's a good chance he'll be high on the Packers' board when the No. 23 selection comes up.

Hey, Look What Day It Is

No, it's not 1990.

But we're going to pretend it is. Just for a few minutes.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Well-Established Favorites in East

No one is going to argue that the top four teams in the Eastern Conference have it easy. That's just stupid motivation for the teams in the bottom four.

Of course, that doesn't mean they would be wrong to say it.

Ottawa, Boston, Philadelphia, and Montreal are underwhelming entries in these playoffs. The Senators were impressive at times down the stretch, but the latter three spent large portions of the stretch run acting like teams that didn't want to make the playoffs.

Boston lost 1-0 at home to Florida, and also lost at home to Tampa Bay. Montreal lost at home to Carolina. Philadelphia was swept in a home-and-home series by Atlanta.

With that in mind, it's time for a peek at the eight-team field vying for a spot out of the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

(Note: These rankings are based on what I feel is the probability of each team making a run at the Stanley Cup Finals. They are not to be considered a locked-in look at my first-round picks. Those are coming on FanHouse Wednesday, if I ever get the whole thing figured out.)

8. Montreal Canadiens
While the Canadiens earned their spot by not being quite as bad as the Rangers and Atlanta this season.

Congratulations.

There is some spunk here. Tomas Plekanec leads the way offensively, with help from Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez. However, Cammalleri hasn't scored since Jan. 23, before he suffered a knee injury in Ottawa on Hockey Day in Canada.

Jaroslav Halak got hot in net at the right time, but with little offensive support at times, and with a nightmarish matchup in the first round, it's hard to imagine the Habs -- the eighth seed in the East for a second straight year -- lasting very long.

7. Philadelphia Flyers
A chic pick to win the Cup in the preseason, the Flyers have run into a few problems this year. Expensive defenseman Chris Pronger has started to show his age. The goaltending has been atrocious. They take dumb penalties.

Did I mention they don't have very good goaltending?

The Flyers are in trouble. They have to deal with a hard-working Devils team that scores more than they're given credit for. They have to beat a motivated Martin Brodeur, who's tired of hearing about how he's lost a step, even if he has.

Even if they can get by New Jersey, they're staring down the barrel in the second round, with Washington likely looming.

6. Ottawa Senators
Oddly, the Senators are the only team in the playoff field that is in the negative double digits in goal differential (minus-11). While Brian Elliott is capable of a great performance in goal, he's also been guilty of some real clunkers. With Pittsburgh as a first-round opponent, the Senators know they have to have Elliott on his game from the start.

Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza are among numerous Senators who have danced the playoff dance before, so experience isn't a huge problem. Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov give them a shutdown defensive pairing that will cause problems for Pittsburgh. They'll be forced to develop secondary scoring early on if Phillips and Volchenkov are at all effective.

That said, they have more of that than Ottawa does, and they have more talent and experience than the Sens, too.

5. Buffalo Sabres
This team isn't all about Ryan Miller, but the Sabres have issues nonetheless. They were outplayed more than a few times this season, largely because their effort was sometimes spotty in front of the All-World goalie.

This scares you, and while the Sabres can score goals, the prospect of playing a tough defensive opponent like Boston right out of the chute is somewhat problematic.

Reality is that the Sabres don't have a go-to offensive threat, the guy who makes it all go and can get a big goal when the team needs one most. The closest thing they have is Thomas Vanek, who had 28 this season but was largely disappointing in this regard. The power play needs to improve, too, and it's hard to imagine that happening when it didn't really click all season.

4. New Jersey Devils
It's hard to imagine anyone's last memory of Martin Brodeur as a playoff winner came all the way back in 2003, but the Devils have tasted very little success in the postseason since then.

This year, Brodeur needs to not have to carry the team to a bunch of 3-2 and 2-1 wins, because he's not that type of goalie anymore. Instead, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have to lift the offense to new heights, and the Devils can't be certain what they'll get out of Kovalchuk, who has exactly four playoff games (all losses) to his credit so far.

Brodeur will play well, but not well enough to get the Devils into the conference finals.

3. Boston Bruins
There are two angles with this team. First, you can look at their 82-game season as preparation for this type of hockey. The Bruins never developed into the kind of high-scoring, dangerous offense that finished first in the East last year. They spent much of this season in danger of missing the playoffs thanks to a team that couldn't score goals.

They still haven't resolved that issue, but the emergence of Tukka Rask as the No. 1 goalie solved the problem of the team not preventing enough goals to win anyway.

The second angle is that after playing grinder hockey for 82 games and fighting to make the playoffs, do the Bruins have enough left in the tank to scare Buffalo? Once that happens, can they hang in a best-of-seven with Washington?

2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Call me crazy, but the Penguins didn't frighten me to run the other way over the last month or so. Uneven hockey since the Olympics, but I see this team as being ready to fire it up now that it's playoff time.

After all, they've still got Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, and Brooks Orpik. They still have Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

Adding Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold helped add some energy to the team, and they should be able to take some of the heat off the aforementioned group, one that has played a ton of games the last three years and need to be kept fresh.

1. Washington Capitals
They've been building to this moment, and it's time for the Capitals to cash in.

Yes, goaltending might be shaky with Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov, but there is little else to pick on with the Capitals. They've got the league's best player in Alex Ovechkin, best offensive defenseman (Mike Green), possibly the best defensive defenseman (Jeff Schultz, who is plus-50 entering the playoffs), and guys like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin who keep getting better and better.

They've got grit, toughness, veteran leadership, and good coaching. It's going to take an upset to beat them in a best-of-seven, especially if the goaltending holds together like it did virtually all season.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Non-Sports Post: This is Justice?

We usually talk sports here, but this story caught my attention. Watch the video, and then read the newspaper account below it, and tell me how there is any justice in this "agreement."



This is from the Duluth News Tribune.

Gronski started the night of Oct. 30 drinking at the establishment where she worked as a waitress and then drove to a nearby bar. She said the volume of alcohol she drank that night was what she would drink on a routine weekend night.

She said she didn’t recall getting into her vehicle. She remembered being behind the wheel for a split second and remembered something hitting her windshield. She didn’t remember anything else.

She said she thought she hit a deer.

Balluff had a smile on his face and talked to just about anyone who came his way Monday in the courthouse. But he turned serious when asked to talk about the accident and how his life has changed.

“It is a tragedy in my family because they don’t have a normal life now because I have to have 24-hour supervision,” he said.

His feelings toward Gronski?

“I want her to sit in jail for life even though she won’t get that because she didn’t kill me,” he said.

When told that Gronski has expressed her remorse to her attorney and to others for what she did, Balluff said:

“She was drunk so I don’t care how she feels. If she was drunk and didn’t drive then I wouldn’t care. If I was hit by a non-drunk person then it’s not really their fault, it’s probably mine.”

Balluff’s aunt, Katherine Taylor, a home builder from Loretto, Minn., said a drunk driver destroyed her nephew’s dreams.

“The Alex that we knew before was every parent’s dream teenager,” Taylor said. “The Alex that we have today is impaired for life. He has no memory. He cannot retain current conversations or activities. He will require parental care for the rest of his life and the career that he once dreamed of cannot be.”

It's noble to think that this story will stop people from getting behind the wheel when they've been drinking, but we have no evidence that this will actually happen.

I get that we don't need to treat first-time offenders worse than repeat violators, but can we do more than just whack someone on the wrist for taking the livelihood of someone else away with behavior that was selfish, careless, and incredibly stupid?

Call it "bad judgment" if you want, but it doesn't take away the fact that Alex Baluff's life was practically ruined on this night, and the person who did it isn't going to spend one hour in prison.

That's not justice. That's wrong.

Do me a favor. Think about this story every time you make plans to go out with your friends.

2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: A Hard Left

If you look at the NHL's Western Conference, you'll find a pretty tough field from top to bottom. This isn't about conference superiority, either. Instead, it's just pointing out the facts.

I mean, be honest. Who would you rather have your favorite team face in the first round ... the West No. 8 seed Colorado (43 wins, 95 points, plus-11 in goals), or the East No. 8 seed Montreal (39 wins, 88 points, minus-six in goals)?

It's not a tough call, really.

The West is loaded. Hell, Montreal would have tied Dallas for 12th in the West, and they were good enough to make the playoffs in the East.

Colorado is dangerous, despite the way they limped into the playoffs. Two full days of rest, and a relatively short road trip, and the Avalanche should be fresh and ready to go against traditional choke-artist San Jose.

Let's take a look at the West.

(Note: These rankings are based on what I feel is the probability of each team making a run at the Stanley Cup Finals. They are not to be considered a locked-in look at my first-round picks. Those are coming on FanHouse Wednesday, if I ever get the whole thing figured out.)

8. Colorado Avalanche
This has been a renaissance of sorts for the Avs, who sent Joe Sakic off into retirement with a great Opening Night ceremony, marked the occasion by beating the hell out of the Sharks, and haven't really looked back much. Yes, they fell from their perch atop the Northwest Division, but people -- like a certain idiot I know pretty well -- thought they would drop off the face of the earth, and that never happened.

That said, they're overmatched in these playoffs. They don't have enough scoring to make a long run, and goalie Craig Anderson has been ordinary too often lately. Not only that, but if you're a believer in experience helping a team this time of year, you're probably not much of a believer in the Avalanche.

7. Los Angeles Kings
Terry Murray had done yeoman's work in Los Angeles, guiding a very young team through some lean years and into the playoffs for the first time in a long time.

However, this is an inexperienced team, outside of Rob Scuderi and Ryan Smyth, and the goaltending hasn't been that good down the stretch. Anyone who watched them lose some of the games they lost in the last ten can attest to this.

Jonathan Quick has a bright future, but this is not his time, and Vancouver is not the type of opponent to be screwing around with when you don't have confidence in the netminder.

6. Nashville Predators
You know what you're going to get out of these guys. They give you a good, hard, honest 60-minute effort virtually every night. They usually don't beat themselves, and they have a very good group of defenseman in front of goaltender Pekka Rinne.

However, can they score enough goals to advance through a rugged tournament?

The Predators need to lean on their veteran types, guys like captain Jason Arnott, who has a Cup-winning goal to his credit back when he was a Devil. Steve Sullivan needs to play well, and they need big performances out of longtime Predators David Legwand and Martin Erat.

It's a franchise that has yet to win a playoff series, and it doesn't look like they're going to start this year.

5. San Jose Sharks
I don't care how many points they accumulated in the regular season. It doesn't matter.

Until the Sharks win in the playoffs, they can't be trusted. Not only that, but what is different about this team that makes you think they can be trusted? Rob Blake has done a nice job as the captain, but is he so much better at it than Patrick Marleau was that the same team that urinated away the top seed last year is going to suddenly figure it out now?

Not only that, but after watching the Olympics, one has to be convinced that Evgeni Nabokov is more of a problem than the numbers would maybe indicate. For some reason, he hasn't led a team to a big playoff run, and maybe it falls more on his shoulders than those of others.

It might take him walking away as a free agent before we'll ever know the problem in San Jose.

4. Phoenix Coyotes
Pretty whiteout aside, this team is more than a playoff gimmick.

While the courts decided their fate, and the fans flocked in droves to other places besides Jobing.com Arena, the Coyotes plugged away and plugged away.

Fans started looking at the team a little more. They kept winning, and more and more fans showed up for games.

Now, the Coyotes are in the playoffs. They have speed (Matthew Lombardi), veteran hunger (Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski), and goaltending (Ilya Bryzgalov). They are a confident group that earned that No. 4 seed.

They're not experienced, though. They have a lot of veterans, but not a lot of guys have played in these games. They know what to expect because everyone tells them about it, but can they prepare the way that players who have been through the battles can prepare?

3. Vancouver Canucks
I picked these guys to win the West at the start of the year. While the temptation was there to pick them here, I can't.

The Sedins are fantastic. Alex Burrows -- when he's not making an ass of himself by embellishing -- is a great compliment. Guys like Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond (UMD!), and Christian Ehrhoff have had very good seasons.

Roberto Luongo is Roberto Luongo.

However, there is that Game 6 against Chicago last year. Is that the motivation Luongo needs to maintain focus and have the run of his life these next two months?

Or is it the kryptonite?

He's as capable of a clunker game as any goalie in this field, so the Canucks might want to prepare for another game like that 7-5 loss that doomed them to the golf course last spring.

2. Detroit Red Wings
The two-time West champs started slowly, endured injuries, changed goaltenders to go with a rookie, and still made the playoffs as a No. 5 seed. Not only that, but they managed to scare the living daylights out of everyone in the NHL with their play since the Olympics.

They've won every kind of game since the break, and they've hardened themselves for the playoffs by playing seven straight one-goal games down the stretch. They won five of them and lost just one in regulation, so you know they are ready for what the playoffs bring.

You also know this most experienced group won't be surprised by anything they see, including how white it is in Glendale Wednesday night. They won't be scared, intimidated, or knocked off their focus.

Good luck eliminating this team.

In the end, there appears to only be one team capable of knocking them out, and it's ...

1. Chicago Blackhawks
This time of year, don't get cute. Don't pick upsets for the sake of picking upsets. If you don't see anything there, pick the favorite.

I see something with the Sharks. I see a team that's not tasted playoff success.

Chicago has. They took down Calgary and Vancouver last year before succumbing to Detroit, a team they weren't ready to face.

Despite that fact, they kept virtually every game close. It's a good sign for this year, because one more year of experience, and the addition of Marian Hossa, means Chicago is ready to compete for a Stanley Cup.

Remember, Hossa missed around 30 games this year with his shoulder surgery. He's fresher than guys on Detroit that played all 82 after long runs the previous two seasons. He's also ready to prove he can be the tonic, and not the toxin, for a Cup-winning team.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Report: Packers Interested in Free Agent Brian Westbrook

After an impressive season by the offense, thoughts of Green Bay Packers fans turned to their defense. It was pretty awful, especially in losses to Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Arizona (playoffs, or in other words, "the time the Cardinals actually tried").

It's a defense that needs improvement. The Packers have signed no one.

However, they may be looking at someone to add depth to an already-loaded offense.

Well, if you can't stop them, you better be prepared to outscore them, right?

Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports -- via sources -- that the Packers are interested in free agent running back Brian Westbrook, late of the Philadelphia Eagles.
If healthy, Westbrook could provide coach Mike McCarthy with the effective third-down back he has lacked in recent years. Brandon Jackson was an outstanding blocker on third downs last year, but he was not a factor as a receiver or runner. Starter Ryan Grant has expressed an interest in playing more on third downs, and if he does, he probably would need his backup to handle some of the work on other downs.

McCarthy could also use the two backs together in order to create favorable match-ups. Westbrook played numerous positions in Reid's offense and was a threat to run or catch the ball on third downs. At 5-10, 203 pounds, his combination of size and speed made him difficult to bring down.


Much has been made of the concussions Westbrook suffered last year, the first when his helmet collided with the knee of Washington linebacker London Fletcher. The second forced him to miss the last five regular-season games.


But he was cleared for the playoffs and ankle and knee injuries suffered over the years might be what most interested teams want to examine most.

The bottom line is that the Packers need some help on defense. However, the free agent pool was quite questionable, outside of a couple star players that everyone knew would be severely overpaid.

Since we all know general manager Ted Thompson isn't going to spend wastefully on that kind of talent, it stood to reason he would add defensive help through the draft, and maybe with a trade or two right before or during training camp. That's the procedure in Green Bay, and it's served the Packers well to avoid bad contracts and big-egoed free agents who get their big paycheck and exit stage left.

Westbrook makes a ton of sense for the Packers. He allows them to keep Jackson in the fold. He also gives them someone intimately familiar with the West Coast offense, and someone who would be of immense help to Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

In a lesser role behind Grant and maybe even Jackson, Westbrook doesn't subject himself to so much intense contact. On the other hand, running him out of the slot or sending him on a lot of pass routes could also leave him more vulnerable to big open-field kill shots, and this could be more dangerous -- in some ways -- than running him between the tackles.

Thompson and McCarthy have a busy weekend coming up April 22-24 with the draft, but the addition of a relatively affordable Westbrook would probably solidify the offense in the short term. That allows them to work with Dom Capers and bolster the defense.

Without that, the Packers are going to be lucky to make the playoffs again next season, regardless of how good the offense is.

Hello, Target Field!


Congratulations, Minnesota.

I didn't make it, but I haven't heard one bad word yet, and from the view on television, it looks like you have a beauty.

Can't wait.

Oh, and that's Jason Kubel hitting the first home run (that counts) in the stadium's history. Marco Scutaro of the loser Red Sox had the first hit, and Denard Span scored the first run.

Delmon Young had the first "warning track fly ball dropped because the outfielder couldn't tell where the wall was," so there's that.

Kahn's Words Damn McHale Further

It doesn't take a basketball genius to figure out that Kevin McHale was largely a failure at running the Timberwolves' basketball operation.

The proof is in the pudding. Yes, the Timberwolves had four 50-win seasons under the guidance of McHale and Flip Saunders, but they also flopped miserably towards the end, combining for just 46 wins in McHale's last two years stealing Glen Taylor's money.

New boss David Kahn made it clear from the start. He had to overhaul the roster and basically start over. The claim was he had a 17-month plan (instead of a five-year plan, I guess) to transform the Timberwolves.

It's a long, arduous process, but one Kahn feels he can make happen.

He won zero people over by drafting a player sixth overall -- Ricky Rubio -- who was a virtual lock to not play for the Timberwolves this season.

However, he continues to stick to his plan as he tries to rebuild the roster. With the team on the verge of tying a franchise record for worst record in a season, Kahn spoke candidly with the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the state of the franchise.

In doing so, Kahn opened up about what he feels is the team's biggest need, discussed the future of big man Al Jefferson (pictured right in happier days), and shows again how bad McHale was at this job.

After 15 victories and 64 losses, Kahn and (head coach Kurt) Rambis have concluded they need a player that Rambis compares from recent games to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant or Miami's Dwyane Wade and Kahn calls "our Brandon Roy."

What Kahn probably realizes as he makes this all-too-unfortunately-true statement is that the Wolves had a real shot at their Brandon Roy.

They drafted Brandon Roy.

McHale then turned around and traded him for Randy Foye.

Brilliant.

Kahn does have a point. Bad franchises like Minnesota don't just go out and sign free agents to fix the talent problem. No one wants to play for the Timberwolves, given their location and current state.

You have to build a quality team around a star player acquired in the draft. If the Wolves can get some lottery luck, they'll have Evan Turner fall into their lap this year, which would be outstanding. Otherwise, they may have to get creative.

Whether that's a draft-day deal that he is able to arrange, or a big free-agent he can talk into signing, or a trade he can figure out, Kahn will have to do something.

That's where Kahn will be tested. Can he forge ahead with this 17-month plan without finding a face for the basketball team? Probably not. He also can't afford to enter next season without the guy he at least believes can be the face.

But without a little love from the proverbial ping-pong balls, there doesn't appear to be much of a chance of this happening.

Looking back, it makes a fan even more irate at someone like McHale, who ran this franchise into the ground, never built a quality team around Kevin Garnett -- who was killing himself for this team every time he took the floor -- except for one season with Cassell and Sprewell both behaving and playing well, and made some of the poorest trades imaginable.

Dealing Roy for Foye only added to the problem, one that still exists for Kahn, and one that probably isn't going away anytime soon.

All that means is more of the same for Timberwolves fans.

Hoffman 'Embarrassed' By Blown Saves

A 3-3 homestand is not the best way to open a season, but the Milwaukee Brewers had just that. Included was a series loss over the weekend to a St. Louis team the Brewers have to play better against if they are to have a chance in the National League Central.

There were some good things that happened during the week. We saw a good start from Rickie Weeks, and rookie Alcides Escobar continues to show he belongs at this level. Ryan Braun didn't sock his first home run of the year until Sunday night, but he hit the ball well. Jim Edmonds and Corey Hart both started decently. Dave Bush and Randy Wolf have pitched okay.

Outside of that, not much good is going on. Jeff Suppan is returning to the rotation Wednesday, virtually guaranteeing a loss and a worn-out bullpen every fifth day. Carlos Gomez had four hits on Opening Day, and then turned back into Carlos Gomez. Prince Fielder can't seem to hit the ball, though you probably shouldn't worry about him slugging .318 for much longer.

Despite those concerns, the biggest worry on the team centers around future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman. The 42-year-old pitched like a spry youngster -- albeit one with no velocity -- last year, allowing just two home runs in 54 innings.

In four innings this season, he's allowed three.

Making matters worse, Hoffman has allowed six runs in those four innings, and he has thrown just one "clean" inning (no runs allowed) in his four appearances. The latest bad inning for Hoffman came Sunday, when he allowed back-to-back two-out home runs to Cardinal stars Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday to turn a 7-4 Brewers lead into a 7-7 tie.

Hoffman has a lethal changeup, but it doesn't work if people start figuring out his fastball, which barely hits 85 miles per hour.

Naturally, Pujols and Holliday both homered off fastballs that Hoffman failed to locate.

After the game, Hoffman was understandably upset.

“You throw 85 mph right over the plate and that’s usually what happens,” Hoffman said with a forced smile. “Not to be funny about it because it’s embarrassing.

“Honestly, it was a situation where you’re trying to pitch with a three-run lead. As easy as it might seem that they make home runs happen, they can easily make outs, too.

“You’ve got to locate pitches, regardless of what you’re throw. They’re good hitters. They’re going to make even good pitches look bad.”


So, where does Hoffman go from here?


“I don’t want to give clich├ęs but you’ve got to take things one pitch at a time from now on out and try to simplify and get the ball over,” he said.


“Just trust your routine. It’s been successful for a while up to this point. You’ve got to trust and believe it will get you out of this rut. You don’t want to be the weak link. I have to step it up.”

While none of this is good, it might not be time to push the panic button.

There are negatives, obviously. Hoffman is 42. He relies on pinpoint control and some deception. Basically, he's a pitcher and not a thrower. If his stratgery or his command are off the mark, he's screwed.

Right now, it appears his command isn't where it needs to be, especially on his "fastball."

(In Hoffman's defense, the pitch Nick Stavinoha hit out on Friday night was a good pitch. He hit it while practically on one knee as he forced himself to wait back on it. Nothing Hoffman could -- or should -- want back about that, outside of the result.)

But Hoffman understands pitching. He's accountable, as evidenced by his ability to talk candidly about Sunday's blown save, instead of throwing out a bunch of cliches about putting this behind him and saying something like "It is what it is," which drives fans nuts.

Hoffman knows he hasn't pitched well, and he appears determined to keep working and figure it out.

The 3-3 Brewers start a nine-game road trip Monday at Chicago, serving as the team that will ruin the Cubs' home opener at Wrigley Stadium.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Disaster in Manchester

The 2009-2010 season is winding down in the Barclays Premier League. It's been an entertaining season, thanks to Chelsea being really good, Manchester United continuing to compete at a championship level, and the surprisingly competitive play from Stoke City and Wolverhampton.

Another great storyline has been the work of Tottenham and Manchester City, both of whom are in the running for fourth place and a spot in the UEFA Champions League qualifying for next year. The "big four" usually includes the aforementioned Chelsea and Manchester United, along with Arsenal and Liverpool. Arsenal is holding down third place, but Liverpool sit in sixth, four points back of fourth-place Manchester City.

While there is an entertaining race at the top with Chelsea and Manchester United down the stretch, and a race to avoid relegation involving the likes of Burnley, Hull City, West Ham, and maybe Wigan, the biggest story of the last week is the disaster that fell upon Manchester United.

The Red Devils were at the top of the league, and favored to win the Champions League, when they traveled to Munich for the first leg of a quarterfinal series with Bayern Munich. ManU led 1-0 late in the match, but a deflected free kick tied it, and Bayern Munich got one in the final minutes to win 2-1. Making matters worse, star forward Wayne Rooney was lost to a broken foot, meaning he would miss a big league match a few days later, along with the second leg against Bayern Munich.

Last Saturday, United hosted Chelsea at Old Trafford. Chelsea controlled the first half, but only led 1-0 at the break. United played better in the second half, generating some chances and having more possession. However, they fell behind 2-0 on a controversial goal by Didier Drogba. Why was it controversial? Because Drogba was clearly offside on the play, but the referee's assistant, standing right where he needed to be, inexplicably blew the call.

United got one back, but lost 2-1 and fell out of first in the Premier League.

If that wasn't enough, United blew enough of a 3-0 lead over Bayern Munich to fall out of the Champions League when the teams got together at Old Trafford for the second leg of their series. Munich scored two after falling behind 3-0 to make it a 3-2 match, and since the teams tied on aggregate, Bayern won the tiebreaker by scoring more away goals than United did.

In a matter of seven days, Manchester United fell out of first place in the Barclays Premier League, and was eliminated from the Champions League.

You can't draw up a worse week than that for a traditional European soccer power.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Central Scouting Releases Final Rankings

There has been a stir caused by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau. The top of their final draft rankings has changed, with Tyler Seguin passing Taylor Hall for the No. 1 position among North American skaters.

You can read more about it on FanHouse. Meanwhile, here's a look at how players from Minnesota or with local ties line up among the top-ranked players.

Duluth native Derek Forbort, a defenseman with the U.S. National Team Development Program, comes in ninth. Forbort played through his junior season at Duluth East before moving to Ann Arbor. He's a North Dakota recruit.

Blaine's Nick Bjugstad ranks 13th. Bjugstad won Mr. Hockey this year, and he will play for the Gophers next year.

Minnesota State freshman Tyler Pitlick is 18th. There are rumors Pitlick will move on to major junior, but he's still a Maverick as of this writing.

Warroad star Brock Nelson, a North Dakota recruit, fell from 17th to 25th in the final rankings. He had a very good season for the Warriors, and I thought he played well in the state tournament, where Warroad finished third.

Here are some players who have been recruited to UMD.

Two 2010 UMD recruits fell to the mid-50s in the final rankings. No. 54 Joe Basaraba (Shattuck-St. Mary's) was 39th in the midterm, and No. 56 Justin Faulk (NTDP) was 40th.

2011 Caleb Herbert, a forward from Bloomington Jefferson, is 109th. Hill-Murray defenseman Chris Casto is No. 182.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Source: Fairchild Returning to Gophers

For all but four teams in college hockey, the focus is now on next season.

Included in that focus is the stress over potential early departures.

Undoubtedly, there are cases where schools don't mind players leaving early, and usually the player in question is well aware of it.

Sometimes, the school is completely blindsided by the player's decision. That stinks, because it's likely they didn't plan for that departure. These are usually the ones that sting.

There are other times that the school -- while not happy about it -- expects the player to leave early, and has a chance to plan ahead.

Rarely, you'll get the pleasant surprise of a guy you thought would bolt that decides to stay.

It appears the University of Minnesota may have that in defenseman Cade Fairchild. I have learned from a source that Fairchild is planning on returning to school for his senior season. The former Duluth East Greyhound is a draft pick of the St. Louis Blues. He played two years with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and was on a gold-medal winning Team USA at the 2006 World Under-18 Championship.

Fairchild led all Gopher defensemen with four goals and 21 points in 2009-2010, and he has 15 goals and 69 points over 114 games as a Gopher.

As recently as January, it seemed Fairchild, a good puck-moving defenseman who has improved his physical game at Minnesota, would be a virtual lock to turn pro. He wasn't having a breakout season, but was playing some consistent hockey and getting a ton of minutes. Keeping him in college one more year is a major plus for coach Don Lucia, especially considering that the Gophers were rather thin on the blue line this season and have already lost David Fischer to graduation.

Unlike other sports, there is no deadline for a player to declare himself pro or sign a pro contract. A hockey player can sign at any time, forgoing any remaining college eligibility. While this can never be totally ruled out, it sounds as if the Gophers can build their blue line around a talented and experienced senior next season. That'll be a plus for them as they look to improve on a .500 record and seventh-place WCHA finish.

Monday, April 05, 2010

What the Donovan McNabb Trade Means For Brett Favre

Sunday's trade of quarterback Donovan McNabb from Philadelphia to Washington was a real surprise to many people.

It was surprising that the Eagles were serious about trading McNabb. He's only 33, a franchise icon, and the leader of five Philly teams that made the NFC Championship game. He's really good, in other words, and is likely the best quarterback the team has ever seen.

It was even more of a stunner that they were willing to trade him within the division. The idea that I got out of things that have been said and reported since Sunday's announcement was that McNabb preferred the Redskins to any other team that was looking at making a trade. The Raiders might have, in the end, been willing to offer more for McNabb, but McNabb didn't want to play there.

(Can you blame him?)

So give the Eagles some credit for shopping McNabb to a division team because that's what McNabb wanted. They didn't have to do that, as these aren't like hockey and baseball contracts, where even marginal players like Derek Morris can somehow procure a no-trade clause. But the Eagles, a pretty classy organization, did as right by McNabb as they could.

(Reports were that he wanted to go to Minnesota or Arizona, but neither team was interested.)

This leads us to one of those teams. McNabb's interest in the Vikings was reported over a week ago.

Frankly, I never took it that seriously, because the Vikings would have to have an answer from Brett Favre before they moved forward with McNabb. They weren't going to take on McNabb when he would potentially be an $11 million backup who had a near-$7 million guaranteed to him in early May.

Sunday night, Twin Cities media personality (sorry, couldn't get a better term to describe him by the censors) Patrick Reusse tweeted his feeling on what the McNabb deal meant for Favre's future.

McNabb to 'Skins makes it official: Vikings know Favre's coming back. Just waiting for last offseason session to pass before announcement.

Reusse might be right. It wouldn't surprise anyone if this was true.

However, we have no way of knowing right now. Favre apparently told LaDainian Tomlinson he had "no idea" if he was returning. If this widely-believed conspiracy theory was true, why would Favre do that, when telling the truth could mean the difference between the Vikings adding Tomlinson or missing out?

(They missed out. He signed with the Jets.)

Does McNabb going to Washington mean anything for Favre?

The answer is likely "No," though that won't stop people from trying to draw a connection between the two.

The dots just don't connect naturally.

That said, look for Favre to fly from Mississippi to Minnesota around the same time in August that he did last year, and look for the fan response to be extremely similar.

Brewers Say Talks Ongoing With Prince

Outside of the season starting and all the hoopla that comes along with it, the big story in Milwaukee is something that doesn't happen until after the 2011 season.

First baseman Prince Fielder has two years left on his current contract, but the fact that he can walk after next season already has Brewer fans nervous.

If they had their way, the big man would have been signed to an extension sometime last month. Instead, the Brewers and Fielder are still talking about the potential for a new contract. Given that Fielder is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, it just doesn't seem too terribly likely that Milwaukee will have a lot of success buying Prince out of free agency, unless they can make him a bank-breaking offer.

Any low likelihood of Prince signing won't stop the Brewers from trying. After all, the worst he can say is "No."

Well, the worst thing he could say "(Bleep) you," but that doesn't seem too likely, even from the ultra-intense Prince.

Anyway, the Brewers say talks have kicked off, and they won't be updating us regularly.

Fielder can be a free agent after the 2011 season but the Brewers are trying to tie him up with a long-term extension before he gets to that stage. Melvin and Attanasio met in Los Angeles during spring training with Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, to get the ball rolling.

"One of the things we've said is we're not going to give a moment-to-moment handicap of where things are at, so that it looks like a stock chart," Attanasio said.

"Discussions are ongoing. Most importantly, I think Prince is relaxed. I saw him in the clubhouse this morning. What we don't want is for this to be a distraction to him. One of the reasons we're not going to give day-to-day or weekly reports on this is we don't want it to distract Prince. We don't think it's a distraction now.

"We'll continue the conversations and we'll see where it goes."

Attanasio said he perfectly understood why fans are nervous about Fielder leaving via free agency.

"He's a great player," said Attanasio. "He and Ryan (Braun) have pretty much become the face of our team. He hit 46 home runs and drove in 141 runs last year. I can see why everybody is interested. Doug and I are interested, too. But it's very complex.

"When you talk about $100 million type contracts, it's nine figures. Those are complex transactions. They don't get done with a quick conversation and a handshake. Everything has to line up to make it work. Having said that, there's a mutual intent on both sides to try to make it work. We'll see if we can make it work."

Nothing too huge here, but it's news.

A lot of this hinges on how willing Prince is to commit long-term to the Brewers. Yes, Boras has a reputation for being, well, an ass, but the reality is that he works for Prince, and his job is to do what Prince wants him to do.

If Prince wants to stay with the Brewers, and their offer is in the range he's looking for, he'll sign. If he wants more than the club offers him, there's no question that he will at least test the market after the 2011 season.

If he's still a Brewer by then.

No Sunglasses On Opening Day: Corey Hart Benched For Jim Edmonds

Monday is Opening Day around baseball, which is always a good thing. For a sports fan, this basically guarantees that there will be something watchable on television every day from now through the summer.

Hockey will end in two months, as will the NBA season, and NASCAR only shows up on weekends (when they aren't taking weekends off). Baseball is every day.

The Milwaukee Brewers have high expectations for their offense again this season. They should. It was really good last year, despite the issues they had with consistency. The pitching staff doomed them, frankly, and that probably won't happen again. The thought is that if this team can hit a little bit, they're going to have a chance to be really good.

Every preview you could find that projected the Brewers' Opening Day lineup had Corey Hart in right field. And why not? He was a bit down last year, but everyone figured he would bounce back.

Of course, he responded to all those expectations by hitting a blistering .172 in spring training, showing fans all the attributes of Bad Corey that infuriated them last season. He flailed at bad pitches, was a statue as good ones went by, and was a general non-factor in the offense.

Hart's at-bats seemed to improve as the spring wore on, but it wasn't enough to save his Opening Day start.

Instead, it will be veteran Jim Edmonds starting for the Brewers Monday against Colorado.

Edmonds was 3 for 5 vs. Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez with two doubles and a triple and Hart was 1 for 6. Manager Ken Macha has said for days he hadn't decided who would start in right and it appears Hart's poor spring cost him his chance.
Wow.

Edmonds was a non-roster invitee to spring training, and while I wasn't surprised that he made the club as a reserve outfielder (the bench needed another left-handed hitter), this news floored me.

Good for Edmonds, but what does this say about Hart? Macha might preach that the matchup dictated this move, but those are insanely small sample sizes, and could at best have only been used as a tiebreaker.

The reality is that Hart put himself in this position by having a terrible spring. If he hadn't hit .172 in March, he could be wearing his sunglasses in the daytime on a beautiful afternoon at Miller Park.

It doesn't help that Hart did that after taking his team to an arbitration hearing and winning a higher salary for this season.

Go earn it, kid ... with or without the sunglasses.