Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Welcome Back, Winnipeg

What's been speculated forfreakingever will be made official Tuesday.

Like it or not, the National Hockey League is returning to Winnipeg.

The announcement that True North Sports and Entertainment has purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will relocate them to Winnipeg is expected in the late morning hours.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is rumored to be on his way to Winnipeg to attend.

I wrote recently that this is not a 100 percent happy day, because there were indeed some dedicated fans in Georgia who are heartbroken that there weren't enough fans and wasn't enough competency with ownership to make the Thrashers work.

Those fans bought jerseys, hoodies, keychains, pennants, hats, signs, and other memorabilia, just like you and I do for our favorite teams. Those fans aren't going to all just jump on another team's bandwagon. Some will try to follow the team to their new city. Some will abandon the sport. Others will find another team to root for, but not all of them will.

That said, this is a generally good day for the NHL. Hockey is Canada's national sport, and they've shown they can support more than the six franchises they currently sport in the league.

Welcome back to the NHL, Winnipeg. May your whiteouts be plentiful and enthusiastic, and may your support for this second-chance team never wane.

The announcement will be aired on NHL Network in both Canada and the United States, and it will also be streamed live on NHL.com.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Can Boston Avoid Further Heartbreak?

The Boston Bruins have danced the "Game 7 on home ice" dance a few times in their recent history. While the results haven't all been bad, they also haven't all been good.

Before they were able to slide past Montreal in overtime in this year's first round, the Bruins had seen their last two seasons end with awful Game 7 losses at home.

Two years ago -- to Carolina in the second round -- was bad enough. Boston was the No. 1 seed, and the Bruins coasted by Montreal in the first round before running into a hot Hurricanes team in the second. The series went seven, and Game 7 went deep into overtime, before Scott Walker, of all people, won it for Carolina.

Walker had been in trouble during the series for a sucker-punch on Aaron Ward of the Bruins. This was his first career playoff goal.

Last year, though, could have been the worst feeling imaginable for Boston fans. The Bruins led Philadelphia 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, but couldn't close the deal, as the Flyers rallied to force Game 7 in Boston. The Bruins then took a 3-0 lead in Game 7, but couldn't close the deal.

Can Boston pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat Friday night, or will Tampa Bay find a way to win consecutive games for the first time in the series?

I don't predict Game 7s. I enjoy them. I always give the edge to the home team, and history leans that way, too. However, Boston has to be careful, because it's not like they have had an easy time with home Game 7s of the past.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

St. Paul Mayor Offers to Trade Vikings Back to Minneapolis for Timberwolves, Lynx

Chris Coleman is the mayor of St. Paul, the largest city in Ramsey County.

Keep that in mind when reading the latest developments in the Vikings stadium saga.

Coleman was conspicuous by his silence as the Vikings announced their deal with the county to build a new stadium in Arden Hills, a suburb of the Twin Cities. The deal calls for a sales tax in Ramsey County to help fund the facility's costs.

The majority of people who are keeping tabs on this drama took his silence as some sort of odd opposition to the plan.

Wednesday, Coleman confirmed those suspicions. Not only did he make clear he didn't like the plan the Vikings are pushing, but he offered a rather ... um, interesting? ... plan of his own.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman floated a jumbo-sized plan Wednesday that would address Minnesota's stadium dilemma with a new statewide tax of 2 cents per alcoholic drink while keeping the Vikings in Minneapolis and moving pro basketball to St. Paul.

Coleman said his plan would raise $48 million a year for sports facilities. He said a Vikings plan to move to Ramsey County doesn't make sense; his plan would not move the team but send the Timberwolves and the Lynx to St. Paul to share the Xcel Energy Center with the Wild. Target Center in downtown Minneapolis would become a practice facility.

Coleman also would use the per-drink tax at bars and restaurants to build a St. Paul Saints ballpark in Lowertown and upgrade recreation facilities throughout the state.

In essence, Coleman just offered to trade the Vikings to Minneapolis for the NBA's Timberwolves and WNBA's Lynx.

Of course, this isn't really what Coleman is trying to do.

Coleman said he was trying to end competition between the Xcel and Target Center for tax subsidies and concerts. "My primary concern is there not be additional taxpayer investment [in Target Center] because it just exacerbates the competition," he said.

And Minneapolis not jumping at this idea shouldn't be taken as a sign they don't want the Vikings back. There's more meaning to it than that.

Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson said that as much as the city wants the Vikings to stay, she called it "ridiculous'' to give up Target Center. "It provides us with events many, many times a year, many more than the Vikings playing at the Metrodome,'' she said. "We're a big enough metro to support two" arenas.

Despite the fact that this plan seems absolutely bizonkers, it might actually have some traction.

The mayor was smart on a couple fronts. First, he made this a statewide tax, appealing to those in Duluth and Hinckley and Virginia and Two Harbors and International Falls and St. Cloud and Mankato and other places in this great state that love the Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves, and Lynx, and want them to play in top-notch facilities.

It also throws a bone to those who don't care what kind of facilities the state's pro teams play in, by adding the provision that uses some of this money to build and upgrade recreation facilities in the state to help kids find places to play. There's a sales tax increase in St. Paul thrown in to help with bond payments and libraries.

The Wild played the nice guy, issuing a statement welcoming the idea of sharing the XCel Energy Center.

This proposal from Mayor Coleman, for the Xcel Energy Center to host the Timberwolves and Lynx, is a new idea in this discussion. It is certainly possible from a facility standpoint.  Multiple tenants in one building is common and is the case in most major markets around the country including Dallas, Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where the Staples Center hosts three major league sports teams. While we haven’t discussed this idea with the Timberwolves, we would be happy to do so if the Wolves were interested in discussing this proposal.

Over the past few years, the Wild has developed plans for building improvements to keep the Xcel Energy Center a state of the art facility, including a multi-level expansion on the building’s north side. We have also supported the City of St. Paul’s work to build an Amateur Sports Center of Excellence on 7th Street across from the arena, which could also be used as a practice facility for the Wild.  Those existing plans could easily be modified to accommodate the needs of the Timberwolves and Lynx, including additional locker rooms, lower bowl modifications and additional retail and office space should the Wolves and Lynx decide to move to St. Paul.

In the end, Coleman is arguing that the Twin Cities aren't big enough for both Target Center and the XCel Energy Center. He's also saying that there isn't anywhere in St. Paul to host a Vikings stadium, and he believes the Arden Hills location benefits other locations outside Ramsey County more than it would the county or the city of St. Paul.

The Vikings want no part of Coleman's plan, but in the end, the Legislature gets to have a say in this, too. We'll see in the coming days how politicians react to this proposal, and how the citizens react. Those are probably more significant moving forward than how the Vikings feel.

You have to understand the team's perspective. They have a sweetheart deal with Ramsey County, and they don't want to cede any of the perks or control they're being given in order to back one of these other proposals.

It sounds selfish, but it's part of negotiating. When you get something you want, you don't offer to give it up.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Potential NHL Realignment Signals Dumb Ideas

There are multiple reasons for people to get all happy about the potential return of the NHL to Winnipeg.

Besides the obvious, we also have an opportunity for writers and bloggers and broadcasters and fans to speculate about the potential division realignments that we could see as a result.

(Unless the NHL decides to make like the NFL and go with Winnipeg/Manitoba in the Southeast Division for a few years. Remember the NFC West that included Atlanta, and the Phoenix Cardinals in the NFC East?)

There are a lot of realignment posts out there on the internet for you to see. Some of them are sensical, and others seem to miss the point of drawing up divisions.

Via Puck Daddy, we have an example.

The Count computed the optimal NHL alignment, based on which scenario would provide the shortest average intradivisional road trips, mileage-wise. Naturally, Winnipeg wound up in the Northwest Division with Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver. Nashville would be the best geographic fit for the East, even though, unlike Columbus or Detroit, it's in the Central time zone. Dallas should join Detroit in the Central, and Boston and Pittsburgh should also switch divisions.

Glance at this, and it seems okay.

Then read the last sentence, specifically the final seven words.

"Boston and Pittsburgh should also switch divisions."

That would put Pittsburgh in the Northeast with Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. I'm sure none of them would object to having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their division, at least from a standpoint of attendance and overall interest.

However, you just took Boston out of Montreal's division. And you took Pittsburgh out of Philadelphia's division.

That might be the worst idea ever, akin to drawing up an NFL realignment that separates Chicago, Green Bay, and Minnesota. Or Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Or Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, and the Giants. Or Atlanta and New Orleans. Or Denver and Oakland.

Why would anyone want to do this?

Elliotte Friedman has some good points.

Three factors will be taken into account: travel; how many time zones will be involved in any new conferences/divisions; and how rivalries will be impacted. That last factor may be the most important. For example, when Washington was moved out of the old Patrick, the organization felt it was heavily damaged for years by losing head-to-heads with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

(That's yet another reason Detroit faces such a fight to move East on its own. There is a resistance to lessening the Red Wings/Blackhawks rivalry.)

I do believe the NHL would like to try and make things easier for the likes of Detroit and Columbus (the only Eastern Time teams in the West), of Dallas (which is isolated with no one in its time zone) and of Minnesota (which doesn't want to end up the lone American-based team with Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg). That's why it would be narrow-minded to look at this solely as an East/West situation.

Yes, there will be a suggestion to split the league into three 10-team conferences going across North America. But, there will be other proposals, too. How about a realignment among North/South lines? Don't be surprised if some U.S./Western Canadian teams push for an All-Canada Division.

The bottom line: Everything is up for debate, including the playoff structure.

(His CBC columns, by the way, are a MUST read for hockey fans.)

Wait, the playoff structure?

Yes, the playoff structure.

Here's the first question that perked my ears up (and I apologize if this isn't exactly the correct wording of the question - I didn't think to take screenshots):

"Currently, the playoffs involve divisional champions in each conference given a 1, 2, or 3 seed. If seeding were changed to be determined solely by points, would you still have the same interest?"

That's nothing, however, compared to the OTHER question that followed it:

"Currently, the playoff format has teams seeded in the Eastern and Western conferences, 1-8, facing each other, before the Stanley Cup Final pits the winner of the East vs. the winner of the West. If the playoffs instead seeded the top teams from each conference 1-16 by points, regardless of conference, would you still have interest?"

Honestly, anyone could see this coming. It's a talking point anytime a team seeded No. 4 in a conference has more points than a division winner.

But as I've said before, it's not a good idea to change it, unless the league in question is prepared to balance out the schedule to make it so everyone is playing the same number of games against all potential opponents. I don't see any leagues -- including the NBA, which went to this system not too many years ago when David Stern got tired of everyone whining -- working to strike what I feel is a necessary balance.

Don't look for it anytime soon, either.

The most sensible realignment plan I've seen is as follows:

Nashville moves to the Southeast, Winnipeg/Manitoba to the Northwest. Minnesota leaves the Northwest and takes Nashville's spot in the Central. No other changes.

Obviously, things could really be thrown for a loop if Phoenix leaves.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Good and Bad of the Atlanta Thrashers Sale ... Assuming It Ever Happens

If you haven't been following the NHL's off-ice headlines recently, you might not know about the saga of the Atlanta Thrashers, who are soon to become the Winnipeg/Manitoba Somethings.

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday night that the deal was done, but the NHL quickly refuted. The quick trigger of the Globe prompted celebrations in the streets of Winnipeg, as citizens began to sense the reality of the NHL's return after 15 years.

The last scene we have of NHL hockey in Winnipeg is this:

Now, True North might be on the verge of bringing the league back.

This is obviously an exciting time for multiple groups of people, including the citizens of Winnipeg that feel they didn't deserve the fate they were dealt in 1996, Canadians who think the NHL has been trying to over-Americanize the sport, nostalgic hockey fans who appreciate the smaller markets and the atmosphere Canadian teams can bring, and people who think Atlanta never should have had a team to begin with.

It's thrilling in a way to hear about Canada -- a nation that is wonderful in its enthusiasm and support of hockey -- getting a seventh NHL team, and it's cool to think about Winnipeg getting a team back. It gives hope to other cities that feel they unjustly lost their teams.

On the other hand, there is a second side to this story, and it's not as happy or thrilling.

The Thrashers are leaving Atlanta, and while they had a lot of empty seats at their games over the years (a big reason why this is going to happen), they also had a lot of loyal fans who followed the team from Day 1 and will be left without anyone to cheer for.

I feel especially bad for people like those behind the Bird Watchers Anonymous blog. They're dedicated fans who care about this team and this franchise, and they don't deserve to lose their team because no one is stepping up and making an effort to make it work. It's not that it can't work. It's that no one is trying.

Bad ownership in these Sun Belt markets is a kiss of death. It leads to a lack of corporate support -- the lifeblood of sports franchises -- along with a lack of attendance, which just makes it all worse. Good local ownership can make things work in any market that has the fan and corporate bases, but we have yet to see NHL franchises like Florida, Atlanta, and Phoenix blessed with good ownership.

It's a sad day for the affected fans in Atlanta and around the country, and that shouldn't be forgotten. For the most part, none of them are responsible for this mess, either.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interleague Play Whining Continues

Interleague play begins in Major League Baseball Friday, and you know what that means ...

Bigger crowds.

AL pitchers having to (gasp!) hit.


When interleague play started in the 1990s, it created all sorts of intriguing matchups we hadn't seen before. The regional rivalries -- namely Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, Angels/Dodgers, and Rangers/Astros -- got varying amounts of interest, but they sure were fun to watch for the most part. The crowds made them fun.

Of course, crowds weren't going to show up when the Pirates played the Tigers, but it was made up for when Detroit fans got to see a team like the Cardinals, or when Pittsburgh fans got a chance to watch the Yankees.

This year, one of the highlights of the interleague schedule is this weekend's series between the Cubs and Red Sox at Fenway Park, marking Chicago's first visit to Fenway since 1918. That's pretty cool, right?

Well, it's not cool enough for chain-smoking Tigers manager and apparent curmudgeon Jim Leyland.

The appeal of interleague play, Leyland said, “has worn off for me. It was a brilliant idea to start with, but it has run its course.” He knows that higher-ups, such as his good friend Commissioner Bud Selig, won’t want to hear it, but Leyland spoke his mind all the same. “I’ll probably get chewed out for (saying) it,” he said, “but I think a lot of people feel the same way … I’m on the (Commissioner’s) committee, and I’ll probably get a phone call,” said Leyland, “but I don’t really care. That’s totally ridiculous.”

When I think of things that are ridiculous, I'm usually going to come up with stuff that isn't very good.

How is interleague play bad? San Francisco scribe -- and apparently a fellow curmudgeon -- Bruce Jenkins offers up an explanation.

Check out these discrepancies:

The Giants' series at Detroit represents their only interleague road trip (Oakland doesn't count). San Diego goes to Boston, Minnesota and Seattle.

The Giants play only four American League teams. Arizona plays six, with road trips to Detroit, Kansas City and Oakland.

While the Giants face Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit from the A.L. Central, the Colorado Rockies have four series against that division and a trip to Yankee Stadium.

The Giants play 15 interleague games. Arizona plays 18, as does Oakland.

Tell me this stuff won't be a bone of contention if a team gets knocked out of the postseason by a game or two.

Really? So who's going to have a case? Whose schedule is easier?

Last I checked, each team in the majors played 162 games -- 81 home and 81 away. Each team will usually have a couple roadtrips that approach or surpass double digits in the number of games scheduled, and each team usually has a homestand or two of similar length. Each team plays a ton of division games, and each team plays everyone else in their league (American or National) both home and away.

If the Giants miss the playoffs by a game or two, will they complain that they had to play two series against a pretty good Oakland team while Colorado was playing Minnesota and Detroit? Or will Colorado whine about playing at Yankee Stadium if they miss the playoffs?

There's an easy solution.

Win more games.

If you don't like the interleague schedule, it doesn't matter. Just win.

(Full disclosure: Jenkins' next note in this piece calls out Ned Yost for being a hot-headed moron after he left a pitcher out to allow 14 runs in just over two innings of work this week. He deserves credit for that, even if I've been saying that since like 2007. Yost is a terrible manager who has no business working with so many young players like he is in Kansas City.)

Anyway, I'm beyond tired of hearing about the unequal schedules you get out of interleague play. No one's schedule is the same, not even within divisions. If the Brewers beat out the Cardinals for a playoff spot, do you think Tony LaRussa is going to go on a diatribe about the fact the Brewers got more home games against the Mets than his team did?

(Actually, LaRussa might do something like this, but you get the point.)

It's ridiculous.

Really, this is nothing more than selective whining by people who don't like interleague play. They thought the fad was gone, but attendance figures and television ratings continue to prove them wrong. They think the fans hate the thing, but the fans don't. They think the players hate it, but they're not vocal about it if they do.

So now they're going to hammer on unequal scheduling, without realizing that no schedules are equal in baseball, with or without interleague play.

Having dinosaurs like Leyland out there using bad arguments to support their hatred of a good thing in baseball doesn't make anyone look good.

Delmon Young: Necessary Evil

As the Minnesota Twins have dealt with the death of a franchise icon and strung together a couple of wins on the road out west, there has been quite the interesting undertone to the road trip.

On Monday, after a 5-2 loss in Seattle, reports began surfacing of a screaming match in the team's clubhouse. There were apparently no members of the media present ... either that, or none of them are talking about what they saw.

Tuesday, manager Ron Gardenhire revealed that the commotion was the result of a veteran player upset with one or more younger players. As you may know, the Twins aren't exactly old, so you can probably narrow that down to a guy like Michael Cuddyer or Justin Morneau. Gardenhire wants his vets to take more of a vocal role in the clubhouse, largely because it means he doesn't have to deal with all the little petty BS that is bound to come up over a 162-game season.

The names of the players involved did not end up getting revealed, though KFAN's Paul Allen may have gotten us closer to some answers. In the first hour of his radio show Thursday, Allen mentioned that it was his understanding -- via sources -- that Delmon Young was one of the players taking a verbal beatdown of sorts.

Young struck out ten times over four games after returning to the lineup, and he was glued to the bench for two straight games until the tenth inning of Wednesday's win in Oakland, when he pinch-hit and rapped a base hit to start the winning rally. Making matters worse, his effort in left field was questioned multiple times since his return.

At just .203/.247/.243 this year, Young is a shell so far of the player who drove in 112 runs and posted a career-high OPS of .826 last year. He'll never be the kind to draw a lot of walks (28 in 613 plate appearances last year), but he makes good contact, is a home-run threat, and also hit 46 doubles last year.

The problem with Young is twofold. For starters, he is a butcher defensively. He makes Jason Kubel look like gold-glove material, and that's just not good enough when he isn't hitting the ball. The other problem is that he appears aloof and uncaring at times. That's not to say he doesn't care -- how the hell would I know? -- but instead is simply a note that he looks that way. When a guy who looks like he doesn't care gets his ass chewed in the clubhouse, it adds to the perception, fair or not.

The other problem with Young is that the Twins simply can't move him right now. Even if he's hitting, his value is much greater on this team than it is on virtually any other. He's a right-handed stick who can hit the ball far. The Twins have virtually none of those, because their best power guys -- Morneau, Jim Thome, and Kubel -- are left-handed, and so is their best hitter (Joe Mauer, when healthy ... whenever that is).

Cuddyer is the Twins' only other power threat from the right side, and he simply isn't a consistent enough threat.

Young can't be moved unless the Twins have been hiding a right-handed power hitter somewhere.

And if they've been doing that, they've got other problems besides Young's alleged aloofness ... or his defensive blunders.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

David Kahn Takes Self, Timberwolves to New Low

Much fun is made of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball boss David Kahn ... if for no other reason than his name.

Of course, then Kahn has to make decisions -- draft Ricky Rubio, trade Ty Lawson, trade Al Jefferson for peanuts, give Kurt Rambis a four-year contract, give money to Darko, etc. -- that show his pure incompetence.

After a 32-132 record over two years, the Wolves had the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery Tuesday. It brought the team a 25 percent shot at the No. 1 pick. Of course, Minnesota has made 13 previous lottery appearances with no good fortune to show for it, so why would anyone expect anything different this time?

Apparently, Kahn did.

And when he didn't get it, he played the conspiracy card. And I don't even care if he was joking.

"This league has a habit, and I am just going to say habit, of producing some pretty incredible story lines," Kahn said.
"Last year it was Abe Pollin's widow and this year it was a 14-year-old boy and the only thing we have in common is we have both been bar mitzvahed. We were done. I told (Jazz GM) Kevin (O'Connor): 'We're toast.' This is not happening for us and I was right.""


It's bad enough he said that in public. If I were David Stern, I'd get on the phone with this idiot right away. He already embarrassed his organization and the league when he announced that Michael Beasley smoked too much when he was with the Heat. It might have been (basically) public knowledge that Beasley had issues off the court during his rookie season, but it's still not something an executive should bring up in front of the media.

What's worse is that the 14-year-old boy he was talking about Tuesday is Nick Gilbert, the son of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Nick Gilbert has a disease called neurofibromatosis, a nervous disorder that causes benign and malignant tumors to grow randomly in all parts of the body.

And Kahn decides to clown the fact he was representing the Cavs at the lottery?

Stay classy, David Kahn.

And to think, Glen Taylor is going to let this guy fire Rambis and hire another coach. If you thought Jack McCloskey set this organization back a few years, wait until see the end count on the damage Kahn has done and will do before someone finally pulls the plug.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Scott Sandelin Signs Five Year Extension

(Photo from College Hockey News, and one of my Frozen Four favorites)

I'm sure a large segment of the UMD fan population would rather have seen this done a couple weeks ago, but UMD men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin is finally locked up for a long time.

More than a month after delivering UMD a national championship in men's hockey for the first time, Sandelin inked a five-year contract extension with the school.

The deal will raise Sandelin's salary to make it more competitive with the rest of Division I, though it doesn't make him the highest-paid coach out there.

Here is the official release from UMD on the deal, announced Tuesday afternoon.

Scott Sandelin, who shepherded the University of Minnesota Duluth to its first NCAA national men's hockey championship last month, has signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him behind the Bulldog bench through the 2016-17 season, it was announced today by UMD Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bob Nielson.

The agreement calls for the 46-year old Sandelin to receive an annual base salary of $235,000.

“We are very pleased with the leadership Scott has provided to our men’s hockey program and are encouraged about what lies ahead for the Bulldogs, ” said Nielson. “He’s continually demonstrated the ability to bring in top quality student-athletes -- young men who excel both on the ice and in the classroom. This extension represents a commitment to both him and to UMD hockey.

Since assuming UMD's head coaching role in 1999-2000, Sandelin has compiled a 192-200-52 record, including a 70-40-15 mark (for a .620 winning percentage) during the last three seasons. In addition, his Bulldogs have made three NCAA playoff appearances -- 2004 (when they advanced to the Frozen Four semifinals), 2009 (quarterfinals) and 2011 (when they beat the University of Michigan 3-2 in overtime in the title game) while qualifying for six of the past nine Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five tournaments. Sandelin, the 2003-04 Spencer Penrose Award recipient (American Hockey Coaches Association NCAA I Coach of the Year) and runner-up for that honor this past winter, has strung together three consecutive seasons of 22 victories or more -- a first for the Bulldogs since the mid-1980s. In all, the Hibbing, Minn., native has helped produce one Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner (Junior Lessard in 2003-04), five NCAA I All-Americans, and 14 All-WCHA selections and has seen 11 of his players go on to do time in the National Hockey League.

The 2011-12 Bulldogs will return some 16 lettermen -- including three of the top five scorers and their entire goaltending cast -- from last year’s club, which went 26-10-6 overall and 15-8-5 in the WCHA.

“I’m excited about the future of this hockey program and building on what we've done. It's a great time to be here,” said Sandelin, who will serve as an assistant coach for the U.S. at next winter's International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship. "I am extremely appreciative to the UMD administration for continuing to have faith in me and offering me this extension."

The biggest factors in this easy decision by UMD to lock Sandelin up: That 70-40-15 mark over the last three years, two NCAA trips in three years, and that little matter of a national championship.

Having 11 players move on to the NHL doesn't hurt, and UMD's academic success in recent years should be noted here, too.

The Bulldogs open defense of their national championship -- a phrase I look forward to using a few dozen more times this summer -- Oct. 7 at Amsoil Arena against Frozen Four semifinal opponent Notre Dame.

Minnesota-Crookston Optimistic About One Sport, At Least

There's no question that the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference has a few weaker programs involved in it.

When you look at the football layout of the league, there are programs like UMD, Augustana, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, and Winona State. These five are pretty consistently competitive in Division II, having shown the ability to hold their own -- or win -- in key non-conference games against top programs, as well as in the Division II playoffs.

Unfortunately, the NSIC isn't full of these types of programs for football. There are also programs like Minnesota State-Moorhead, Northern State, and Minnesota-Crookston, which struggle mightily to compete at a high level. Or a mediocre level.

For Minnesota-Crookston, it's not just football that struggles. Men's basketball went 3-19 in the NSIC. The women were a more respectable 10-12. Volleyball finished 0-28. Softball went 8-30 (2-22 in the NSIC). Soccer went 2-13-3 (2-11-1 in the NSIC).

Oh, and there's baseball.

The Eagles' baseball team finished 0-39.

Man, you thought the Twins sucked.

Crookston's baseball team featured nine true freshmen among just 15 players. Coach Chris Vito spoke to Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and he flashed a wonderfully positive attitude, considering what he and his players just went through.

"For starters, we had a pretty special group of kids. They were pretty tight-knit," he said when asked how the team was able to keep plugging away as the losses mounted. "The biggest thing we did is try to stay focused on what we're trying to accomplish.

... "To a 'T,' when I talked to the kids after the year, the recurring theme was, 'Now I know what to expect next year,'" Vito said.

Crookston's team batting average was .190. Opponents hit .402. UMC was outscored 495-79 on the season, an average score of 12.7-2.

Give Vito credit. He touts his young players' progress, knowing he has reinforcements -- a roster of at least 25 for next year -- on the way, and his upbeat attitude is certainly a positive.

For UMC, success in athletics comes in small doses, but hopefully the school can make more of a commitment to being competitive in the NSIC across the board. It might not come easily in football, but the ability of a program like Mary -- which has struggled in football since joining the NSIC -- to compete in other sports shows it can be done.

Monday, May 16, 2011

2011 NHL Draft: Who's No. 1?

The 2011 NHL Draft is 40 days away, June 24 at the XCel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Last year, we saw some (to an extent, manufactured) debate over who would be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. At no point did I have much doubt that Hall should be the top player. He ended up going No. 1 overall, as he should have, and Boston got a nice consolation prize in Tyler Seguin, who has been almost criminally underutilized during these playoffs.

This year, we're not going to have a clear-cut No. 1 like we did last year. It's not that easy. Depending on what direction the Edmonton Oilers decide to go, there are a few good candidates and no easy answers.

For now, it appears No. 1-ranked center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the consensus top player among scouts. From the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, Nugent-Hopkins seems to me to be a good choice for Edmonton, despite their glaring need for help on defense. The reason? For starters, it's best to take the best player in the draft when you're picking No. 1. Don't be the team that selects a specific position because you think you need to pick a player from that position No. 1, and don't be the team that picks a player only for his ability to help your crappy franchise sell tickets (Hi, Cam Newton!).

While I tend to lean toward Nugent-Hopkins as the No. 1 player, there is an argument for mid-season No. 1 Gabriel Landeskog, as well as fellow Swede Adam Larsson, a defenseman. Landeskog played this year for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and Larsson stayed home to play in the Swedish Elite League.

Saint John (QMJHL) center Jonathan Huberdeau is an emerging prospect who could get some play for a high pick, though I don't think he'll pass Nugent-Hopkins as the top center on the board. Huberdeau does have a bit of an edge, as he is helping lead the Sea Dogs into the prestigious Memorial Cup tournament, which starts Friday in Missisauga, near Toronto. It gives him a chance to shine in front of scouts in the most well-known junior hockey tournament on Earth.

As we get closer to the draft, I'll be posting info on all these players, and you'll see my top players ranked on the site. I'm still working on a lot of that stuff, so be looking for it in the coming days and weeks. I'll be at the NHL Draft in St. Paul to provide coverage. The host Wild pick tenth, and it's another important addition to the team's young stable as they try to rebuild the system's depth.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Derek Boogaard Found Dead

Awful news to relay, as former Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard was found dead Friday in his Minneapolis apartment by members of his family. Boogaard was only 28 years old.

I've been following sports for most of my 30-something years on this planet, and I've covered them since I was old enough to cover sports. You become desensitized in a way to a lot of things, but death is not one of them.

When an active athlete is taken from the world, you react. You're probably floored at the thought of someone this young who is obviously in decent physical condition passing away.

But sometimes, it hits harder than others. This is one of those times.

Boogaard was a special figure in Minnesota sports during his time with the Wild. Not only was he a fan favorite because of his antics on the ice, but he was one of the team's most visible and liked figures off it. His community service was second to none, and tons of youngsters grew up looking up to Boogaard in ways much more meaningful than the physical sense.

A statement from the New York Rangers ...

The New York Rangers are very saddened to announce the passing of Derek Boogaard.

“Derek was an extremely kind and caring individual,” said New York Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather.  “He was a very thoughtful person, who will be dearly missed by all those who knew him.  We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends and teammates during this difficult time.”

Boogaard began his NHL career with Minnesota and appeared in 255 career games with the Wild from 2005-06 – 2009-10.  He joined the New York Rangers on July 1, 2010, appearing in 22 games in the 2010-11 season.

Throughout his career, Boogaard sought to make a difference in the communities he played in, taking part in numerous charitable endeavors.  Boogaard was a supporter of the Defending the Blue Line Foundation, a non-profit charitable foundation whose mission is to ensure that children of military members are afforded every opportunity to participate in the great sport of hockey.

While with the Rangers, he created “Boogaard’s Booguardians,” hosting military members and their families at all New York Ranger home games.  In addition, he made multiple appearances with partner organizations of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, the non-profit charity that works closely with all areas of Madison Square Garden, including the New York Knicks, Rangers, Liberty, MSG Media, MSG Entertainment and Fuse “to make dreams come true for kids facing obstacles”.

The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native was originally Minnesota’s seventh round choice, 202nd overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. 

And also from the Wild ...

The Minnesota Wild organization sends our deepest sympathies to the family of Derek Boogaard.

Derek was a fan favorite during his five seasons with the Wild and will be greatly missed here in Minnesota and throughout the NHL.

I don't have any words, outside of the requisite sympathies to Boogaard's family, friends, teammates, former teammates, and the gaggle of others who got to know and appreciate him over the years.

Instead of trying to muster up words I just don't have right now, here are some favorite on-ice moments over the years. We'll cap it with his infamous goal against the Capitals last season, which was made infinitely more entertaining by the fact Joe Beninati was calling it for Versus. And who can ever forget David Koci trying to run like a scalded dog while Boogaard was beating the hell out of him?

Technical Difficulties

Blogger was broken, so we apologize for the technical issues and the loss of posts. They should be back sometime before 2034.

Also, I have joined the staff of Hockey Wilderness. My first post there can be found ... here.

If you're the fishing kind, have a fun and safe weekend. Keep a straight line and don't horse 'em. Good luck out there.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Frustration Mounts Over Struggling Twins

As I wrote last week, it's not like the Twins are doing one thing wrong in their hideous start to the season. They can't score, can't pitch, and don't play very good defense.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

The Twins again sport baseball's worst record -- 12-23 -- after a loss to Detroit Wednesday. This five-game skid comes after a three-game winning streak that came after a six-game losing streak.

Two weeks before Memorial Day, the Twins already find themselves 11 games out of first place in the AL Central, and while you can argue Cleveland will come back to Earth at some point, the last-place Twins are hardly the team that will make them do that.

Joe Mauer isn't healthy. Justin Morneau isn't hitting like he is healthy. On Wednesday, Michael Cuddyer drove in a runner that wasn't himself for the second time this season.

If you want to know why this team is struggling so much, just look at these three guys. It's not to put all the blame on them, because it's not Mauer's fault he's hurt, and it's not Morneau's fault he got sick and lost a ton of weight he can't gain back. And it's not Cuddyer's fault that we've all probably overrated him a bit over the years.

But these are the Twins' three best and most consistent hitters. None of them are producing at a level they should be. Factor in that Delmon Young and Jim Thome are also on the shelf, and you have more than half of the team's best available non-pitchers who are either injured or so severely underperforming that you know it can't continue.

At least it doesn't seem that way.

Turning the pitching around is another story. Carl Pavano has never been consistently good, so a dropoff from a solid 2010 is not a surprise from him. Francisco Liriano is fighting every pitch in his arsenal, it seems, and all that does is make him question himself. Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing are back-of-the-rotation guys on a good staff, and Scott Baker is the latest incarnation of Brad Radke to adorn the Twins' rotation. Nothing special, but a guy who typically throws strikes and doesn't get shelled.

Getting Joe Nathan right is a priority, too, but it starts and ends with the offense. The Twins have allowed 187 runs so far. While that's not acceptable, the offense has been much, much worse. Minnesota has all of 113 runs in 35 games, horrific when you consider the alleged talent on hand. Their minus-74 run differential is by far the worst in the majors, 31 runs more than second-worst Houston.

Think about that. The Twins are losing games by almost one run per game than the next-worst team in baseball.

You don't there because of one guy.

Getting Mauer back will help. Getting Tsuyoshi Nishioka back will help.

Getting everyone back playing at their expected level would help more. That means Cuddyer might want to get on a pace for more than 25 RBI this season.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Vikings May Finally Have Stadium Deal

It's been a long time since the Metrodome was a viable pro sports facility. Some would argue, perhaps, that it never really was meant to last.

And its days hosting major sports appear to finally be numbered, as the Minnesota Vikings announced a deal Tuesday with Ramsey County that will get them the new stadium they've been practically begging for since Red McCombs was spewing his "Purple Pride" nonsense over a decade ago.

The deal calls for a nearly $1 billion stadium to be constructed in the suburb of Arden Hills, which is approximately 175 9.8 miles from the Metrodome site. While it's not downtown Minneapolis, it's not exactly a bad thing that the Vikings have chosen this site.

It's a huge plot of land, a former munitions plant that now serves as one of the biggest chunks of undeveloped property in the metro area.

For the Vikings, it's a chance to grow a few roots in the state, and it gives them the room to allow fans to tailgate by the stadium, and finally build a Hall of Fame fitting of a great franchise. After 50 years, it's time for this organization to embrace and celebrate its great history. No, they don't have any championships, but they still have their share of great stories, great games, and great players from the past who deserve the recognition they've never really gotten.

It could be a smaller facility, too, since you wouldn't need any special place to store and display Vince Lombardi Trophies.

(Alllllways ... )

Of course, there's a catch on this fabulous news.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the money needed for road improvements in Arden Hills poses a problem. Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the stadium plan's chief House author, said he would not move a stadium bill until road issues were resolved. To do otherwise, he said, was "asking for trouble."

Legislators have only 12 days left before they must adjourn the session, and many were voicing concerns on Tuesday that stadium negotiations have become so complex they might miss the deadline.

As reports swirled through the State Capitol early Tuesday that the Vikings and Ramsey County had reached an agreement, Dayton launched what would be a whirlwind day of stadium politics by splashing the Arden Hills project with his own dose of reality.

In a surprise morning news conference, he said the state's share was fixed at $300 million, whatever the cost of the new roads needed. State transportation officials estimated that a stadium without surrounding development would require $175 million in roadwork, while a fully developed site would need up to $240 million.

"I'll support either project up to $300 million," Dayton said of the competing Arden Hills and Minneapolis plans.

Hours before the Arden Hills deal was announced, Ted Mondale, the governor's chief stadium negotiator, issued a long-awaited cost comparison of the two sites that showed the Arden Hills stadium would cost up to $1.28 billion, compared to $895 million at the Metrodome. According to the analysis, the Arden Hills site would require $275 million to $340 million in highway, parking and other improvements. The Metrodome site would need $30 million for new parking spaces and skyway connections.

That quickly brought charges that there was back-room maneuvering taking place to try to steer the project back to Minneapolis. Rep. Michael Beard, the Republican chair of the House transportation panel, said he was concerned about growing "bias" in favor of Minneapolis.

Just don't it get you down, Vikings fans. It'll get paid for, and it'll get done.

Hell, Packer fans should be pleased, too. Your main rival won't be a flight risk anymore, and you can return to taunting Viking fans about championships and quarterbacks and left tackles, instead of using lame L.A.-themed bashes that are truly below the belt.

Monday, May 09, 2011

UMD, St. Scholastica Softball Qualify for NCAA Tournaments

The spring sports seasons for local college and high school programs have started to wind down, which means it's tournament time.

While you'd think the Northland wouldn't be known for producing competitive baseball and softball programs (given the challenges provided by our oft-crappy climate), area schools have done quite well in recent years, especially in softball.

This spring has been no exception. St. Scholastica won their 15th straight UMAC baseball title and the right to host the league postseason championship, and UMD went on a late run to nab a spot in the NSIC Tournament. Both of those events take place this weekend.

Meanwhile, college softball has moved into national tournament play. Two of the three Twin Ports college teams qualified for national tournaments.

In Division II, UMD was selected to the 64-team field as an at-large entry. The Bulldogs are part of a four-team regional that will be played in Sioux Falls and hosted by NSIC rival Augustana. UMD (31-15) will play Colorado School of Mines in their opening game Thursday afternoon. Augustana won the NSIC regular-season and playoff titles, and they will play Regis (Colorado) in the other opening-round game. The double-elimination tournament runs through the weekend, with the winner moving on to a best-of-three Super Regional series the following weekend.

The NCAA Division II World Series starts May 26 in Salem, Va.

For the first time this year, the UMAC postseason title included an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament, and St. Scholastica won that crown at home over the weekend, beating Northwestern 6-4. The Saints (28-13) were placed in an eight-team regional in Eau Claire that starts Thursday and runs through either Sunday or Monday. CSS will play Luther (Iowa) in the opening round. That tournament is also double-elimination, with the winner moving into the NCAA Division III World Series that starts May 20, also in Salem.

UMD has experienced an extremely successful year in sports, with two national championships (football, men's hockey), as well as seeing the volleyball and women's hockey teams make the NCAA Tournament. It's great to see the softball program following that blueprint. Coach Jen Banford has led UMD to the NCAAs in three of her six years at the helm, marking three of the school's five NCAA appearances in history.

This is CSS' second trip to the NCAAs, having made it as an at-large entry in 2006.

Jeremy Roenick (Rightfully) Calls Out Patrick Marleau

After Sunday's ridiculous comeback by Detroit in San Jose, there's much talk about the Sharks becoming the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after leading 3-0.

It's deserved, too, because the Sharks have taken on every part of the "Choking Dogs" image they were slapped with after numerous early playoff exits over the years.

With Patrick Marleau being summarily destroyed by Pavel Datsyuk on the play that led to the game-winning goal, former Shark Jeremy Roenick -- never one to shy away from an opinion -- jumped at the chance to show he's not afraid to criticize one-time teammates during his studio gig at Versus.

After the game, Roenick laid into Marleau's play in this series, especially in the just-completed Game 5.

I'm not here to question Roenick's qualifications, because it's not my place. The nature of his comments, though, have generated much controversy.

Roenick played with Marleau. He was on the same line at times. If anyone has any right going on national television and questioning Marleau's effort, it's a former teammate. That said, those currently involved with the Sharks are taking exception to the commentary, most notably Sharks television voice Randy Hahn.

"For Roenick to call Marleau's performance gutless (twice) and question his heart on national TV is over the line," Hahn tweeted. "It was unprofessional."

Hahn also accused Roenick of trying to advance his broadcast career.

I respect Hahn a great deal. He's one of my favorite broadcast voices in the NHL.

I also think he's dead-wrong.

Roenick had every right to say what he said. After watching the replay of Pavel Datsyuk abusing Marleau to set up the winning goal, how could any analyst worth his salt not go after Marleau? That was a dreadful, pathetic effort that confirms every negative word that has ever been said about him. While Joe Thornton has learned how to raise his game to a different level in the playoffs, Marleau continues to flatline.

Puck Daddy has more comments from the Sharks' television crew. This includes a link to this piece by CSN California's Scott Reiss, a former ESPN personality and a damn good sportscaster himself. Reiss criticizes Roenick's comments while also confirming them in a way.

I’ve covered the Sharks for three seasons now, and in that time they’ve played six playoff series.  In five of those series, Marleau has been a head-scratcher.  One of the league’s most consistent regular-season goal scorers, he not only fails on that end, he fails miserably on the other end.  Defensively speaking, he’s given them next to nothing.  And with all the talk about how Joe Thornton has resurrected his playoff reputation by busting his butt in the defensive zone, his linemate has simply not followed suit.

But none of this justifies Roenick’s reckless remarks in the wake of Game 5.  Calling Marleau “gutless” is wrong on two levels.  First, factually -- lack of a willingness to compete does not equate to lack of courage, rather lack of effort. There is a difference.  Second, philosophically -- it’s a personal shot levied against a former teammate on national television, which is over the line and flat-out unnecessary.

JR is a good hockey analyst.  I’ve worked with enough analysts over the years to know that the best ones are willing to take a stand, and call out players when they underperform.  But as Drew Remenda so aptly put it on our postgame show, “Insult the play, not the player.”  Did Marleau play poorly?  Absolutely.  Is this a disturbing trend?  Obviously.  Does that justify “gutless?”  Not so much, no.

I'm in no place to call Patrick Marleau "gutless" in a national forum. I don't know the guy one lick, and while I watch a fair amount of Sharks hockey because of my aforementioned respect for their broadcasters (Hahn, Remenda, and Reiss are as good a local crew as you'll find anywhere in the NHL, including Canada), it's not enough to make me qualified to make such a biting comment.

I will say this, however. I disagree with those criticizing the words Roenick used to make a point virtually everyone seems to agree with.

As a former teammate, Roenick knows full-well what Marleau is capable of. Anyone who has watched more than five Sharks regular season games over the years probably has a good idea what Marleau is capable of. He is a wonderfully-talented player who is frustratingly spotty with his defensive effort.

In the playoffs, you can never be "spotty" with your defensive effort. While his teammates were busting their butts to get back defensively -- as noted by Daryl Reaugh of Versus during the game, when he talked about their "layers" of defensive coverage -- Marleau slogs back into his own zone, backchecks lazily, and can't win puck battles. He's the exact opposite of the player Thornton has become since replacing Marleau as captain.

Like everyone associated with San Jose should be, Roenick is clearly frustrated by all of this. He thinks Marleau should play harder, and meaner, and be more of a factor in the defensive zone. Given his veteran status, playoff experience, and overall ability, Roenick is right.

Debate his choice of words all you want, but the playoffs are all about heart, guts, determination, and those second and third efforts to make plays, whether it's getting a puck to the net, going to the net to create traffic, digging for rebounds, puck battles, or even something simple like chipping a puck out of your zone so your team can get a change.

Marleau needs to be better in all of those phases, and anyone who argues otherwise simply isn't watching closely enough.

Lakers Dynasty Dies Quick and Painful Death

As I said on Twitter (twitter.com/bruceciskie) Sunday, there isn't much about the NBA more enjoyable than watching the Los Angeles Lakers get eliminated.

Of course, when it goes down like it did Sunday, one is left to wonder exactly how much fun it really was.

After all, when a team doesn't display much passion, pride, or general desire to extend their season beyond the first elimination game, it renders the idea of getting to throw salt in the proverbial wound as rather useless.

And let's not make any mistake. On Sunday, the Lakers showed absolutely no fire. No drive. No want. They were ready to be done.

Contrast that with the end of the Philadelphia Flyers' season on Friday night in Boston, in a game where the Flyers fought and clawed and stuck with things until late in the third, when things finally fell apart for a team that had already shown they really didn't have anything for Boston this time around. It wasn't about heart or desire to compete. The Flyers had plenty. They just didn't have anything left in the tank, and they lost to a clearly better and more effective team.

If that's not enough evidence, look at the Detroit Red Wings, who are still alive after falling behind three games to none against San Jose. Not only are the Wings still alive, but smart money at this point is probably on them winning their series.

The Lakers will not be revived as quickly. Their flawed team was mercilessly exposed by Dallas, and a listless effort did nothing to cover up the known flaws, including a general lack of athleticism and the need for an elite point guard who can run the offense and play some defense.

Was it the most emphatic elimination of a two-time (or more) champion in recent memory? The last time the Lakers won multiple titles in a row, they lost in six games to San Antonio in 2003 (after a three-peat). Discounting the Chicago Bulls, who were blown up after their 1998 title (sixth in eight years and third straight), the 1997 Houston Rockets were the last two-time defending champion to be swept out of the playoffs the following year. The 2006 Miami Heat were swept out of the 2007 playoffs by Chicago.

In other sports, the fall-off can be more dramatic. It's not uncommon for defending Stanley Cup champions to miss the playoffs the following year, as Carolina did after their 2006 title. Of course, Detroit took their title defense in 2009 all the way to Game 7 of the Finals, and Chicago wasn't eliminated by Vancouver until Game 7 this year, even though half of last year's Blackhawk roster was playing elsewhere this year.

Discounting Carolina missing the playoffs in 2007, the last defending champion to be swept out of the NHL playoffs was Detroit in 2003 (Anaheim). You have to go back to 1976 to find a multi-time defending champion (Philadelphia) who was swept out of the playoffs the following year, and Philly played Montreal that year ... for the Stanley Cup.

What's my point?

This was quite a fall from grace for Los Angeles. That they did it without class or without a fight should be no shock, because while they didn't go streetball on the Celtics in the 2008 finals, they did get blown out of Game 6 in Boston.

It was a sad way for Phil Jackson to go out -- assuming this really was his last game. Jackson is one of the all-time greats in his profession, no matter what you think of the players he got to coach during his career. Other coaches have screwed up better situations than those Jackson was presented with over the years.

We'll see if the Lakers players learned anything over the years of playing for Jackson. Based on their behavior Sunday, it's fair to say they may not have.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Thoughts on Bruce Boudreau and Short Second-Round Series

As we get closer to the NHL conference finals, here are a few thoughts on the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Bruce Boudreau should be in danger, but that doesn't mean he definitely will be fired. As I wrote Thursday, Boudreau looked overmatched in this series, and it's not like Tampa Bay is this uber-talented team that simply cannot be beaten. He just didn't have any answers, despite having superior talent on the ice.

I heard chatter in December that Boudreau was in danger, right around the time of his famous expletive-laden rant that aired on 24/7. The talk was that former Capital Dale Hunter -- now with the London Knights of the OHL -- would eventually become the head coach. Boudreau's team found a way to evade the possible change by getting hot and riding their Winter Classic win to a second-half surge in the East.

But when it came playoff time, many of the same issues cropped up for the Capitals, who were susceptible to opponents willing to out-work the Caps on both ends of the ice. They had one in the first round with the Rangers, but New York wasn't good enough to make the Capitals pay for their lapses.

The Lightning were.

James O'Brien of Pro Hockey Talk does -- in my estimation -- a good job of laying out the case for keeping Boudreau another year. This isn't like the epic Pensblog rant, where the authors are simply hoping to keep Boudreau around for comedic reasons.

While I think James lays out a good case, I'm not swayed enough to change my mind. I still think the Capitals would be wise to consider a coaching change, and perhaps go with a more veteran guy. This is, in part, because I think Boudreau's general inexperience in the NHL has hurt him and the team. Some guys just aren't cut out for anything bigger than the AHL, just like some guys just aren't cut out to coach in the pros, but they can be elite at the college or junior level.

The Capitals are still young, with a ton of rookies seeing big minutes this season. If they don't plan on getting older -- and there aren't a lot of UFAs they can bring in who have the right mix of ability and experience -- it would be shrewd to bring in a winning coach who has the experience to bring the young players along and progress in the postseason tournament.

Boudreau's teams are 2-4 in playoff series, despite having home-ice advantage in all six series. They were swept once, and they've lost an incomprehensible three Game 7s at home. They rallied from 3-1 down to win one series, and won the other in five (both against the Rangers).

Unless a significant change is coming to the team's makeup, I don't see any way they can continue with Boudreau. Yes, they're young and inexperienced. But Boudreau has already proven he can't lead a young and inexperienced team in the playoffs. No need to make him do that again. Either give him an older group, or let someone else take the reins. Either that, or you run the serious and real risk of blowing yet another year of Alex Ovechkin's prime. The way he plays the game, you can't be guaranteed he'll play at a high level deep into his 30s.

After all, if we've learned anything in sports, it's that the supposed window of opportunity for championships is never as wide-open as you may think it is.

Why the rush? After four Game 7s in the first round -- and two other series went six games -- the second round could be complete as soon as Saturday, when Nashville tries to stay alive at Vancouver.

How does this happen?

There are a couple theories I think are effective here. For starters, the long first-round series may not have shown much separation in talent, but what they did was set us up for that separation to show up in the second round. Philadelphia was limping into the playoffs, not playing well, and they were banged up with poor goaltending. Buffalo wasn't good enough to take full advantage of that, but Boston -- who shook off an awful start to their first-round series -- certainly was and is. The Flyers are likely out of gas after such a tough opening series, and they just don't have much left when you consider everything they've been fighting through all season long, but especially the last month to six weeks.

While Nashville showed they were better than Anaheim, they appear to have hit a wall, in large part because they're just not a wonderfully deep team. Vancouver, meanwhile, beat down a hated rival, one that they had little confidence playing against. The relief that they clearly felt after the Game 7 overtime win has allowed them to settle back into their game during the second round. That first-round series might have been grueling, but the Canucks got immeasurable amounts of momentum and confidence out of finally being able to win it.

The other theory that could work is that it's not like we're seeing a lot of separation in talent or level of play, outside of the Boston-Philly series. Every game but one in the Nashville-Vancouver series has been decided by a goal, and the one that wasn't was sealed with a late empty-netter. All three San Jose-Detroit games have been one-goal games, with two going overtime. Tampa Bay won twice by a goal and got an empty-netter to seal Game 1. Only Game 4 was a "comfortable" win for the Lightning. It's not that the games are non-competitive, but the better teams are finding ways to win them, and therefore the series have been non-competitive.

Either way, the playoffs are still the best theater in sports, and we're likely not done with overtimes, Game 7s, or general drama.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Boston, Tampa Bay, San Jose Continue to Impress; NHL Increasingly Frightened

The Stanley Cup Playoffs never go as planned. Everyone says this, and then everyone picks top seeds to advance, only to watch in horror as the top seeds get bounced because that's what happens virtually every year.

This year, Vancouver and Washington were heavy favorites, because they were the top seeds.

Vancouver promptly blew a 3-0 series lead and needed an overtime goal to win Game 7 against Chicago. They're in a dogfight with Nashville now.

As rough as that sounds, they're in better shape on this day than the Capitals, who can plan tee times and draft meetings now.

The Tampa Bay Lightning finished off a stunning four-game sweep of the Capitals with a 5-3 win Wednesday night in Tampa. The Lightning played four great games and certainly deserved what they got, and so did the Capitals, a team that has by now should have sole possession of the "playoff disappointment" label that San Jose used to own.

For Washington, this series loss puts them at 2-4 in playoff series under coach Bruce Boudreau, and they have had home-ice advantage in every single one of those series.

Some will blame Alex Ovechkin for this loss, but while he may not have been incredible, he sure was the Capitals' best player. He was stuck, however, trying to do it all virtually alone. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin were passengers when their team needed them most, an unacceptable trait for two players with their abilities, experience, and salaries. The goaltending was subpar, but not totally to blame, because Washington lost way too many battles in front of Michael Neuvirth. Their play in their own zone, from the defensive gaps to the battle level, was never good enough to beat a good team, which is why they beat the Rangers but could do nothing with Tampa Bay, a well-coached and well-prepared team that has good leadership on and off the ice.

The Capitals can claim barely any of those things, starting with Boudreau, who looked overmatched throughout the series. Talk in December -- with the team in the midst of a long slump -- was that Boudreau was in trouble. That almost has to be the case now, with the team having completed a fourth straight playoff disappointment.

For Tampa Bay, the layoff could be a killer, but Boston is facing a similar layoff before the likely Eastern Conference finals matchup, so it shouldn't be a huge problem. The Lightning are impressive so far, but possibly not quite as much so as the Bruins, who are steamrolling a Philadelphia team that many have tabbed all season as a Cup favorite.

No, Philadelphia isn't the same team without Chris Pronger, and as I said before this series started, it's not like Buffalo really had the ability to keep up with the Flyers. But the Flyers are still an impressive group, and the fact that Boston has so decisively won the first three games makes me think that they just can't lose this series the way they lost to Philly a year ago.

The Bruins are doing virtually everything right, from goalie Tim Thomas to talented forwards like David Krejci and Nathan Horton to captain Zdeno Chara to uber-rookie Brad Marchand, who has been very good so far. They've outscored Philly 15-6 in the first three games, and two of the wins have come by four goals each. They so quickly rallied from an early 2-0 hole in Game 2 that it's easy to forget they ever trailed the game 2-0.

Why is this happening? Well, it doesn't help that Pronger is not healthy, and he didn't look particularly good when he tried to play. It doesn't help that Jeff Carter isn't healthy. But the big killer -- as I said after the Buffalo series -- is Philadelphia's near complete lack of NHL-caliber goaltending. When given a chance to shore up the position over the summer, general manager Paul Holmgren spent the rest of his cap space on skaters.

While strong defense and a puck-possession attack can limit shots, good teams -- all you see in the playoffs -- can take advantage of a great skating team that has suspect goaltending. Philadelphia has that, and they won't go anywhere until they start employing NHL goalies instead of AHL goalies.

As Jose Theodore sat around and waited for a team to pick him up, the Flyers decided Brian Boucher, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Michael Leighton would combine to be good enough.


Theodore had a great season for the Wild, and the Flyers are pulling goalies like it's part of the game plan every night.

(In fact, the Flyers have yanked their starting goalie for performance reasons in four of their last six playoff games. Boucher briefly left Game 2 against Boston due to injury.)

As for Boston, if they can solve their power play woes, they have a very good chance of ending their long Stanley Cup drought. It's about the only thing that can trip them up at this point with how well they're playing.

In the West, San Jose now has a 3-0 lead over Detroit, and are on the verge of a second straight trip to the conference final. They're getting great contributions from longtime playoff punch line Joe Thornton, along with former captain Patrick Marleau and emerging star Devin Setoguchi, who had a hat trick in Game 3.

The Sharks are no longer a joke. They're a threat. Antti Niemi has shaken off a poor performance in the Los Angeles series and played quite well for the Sharks in this series. They're strong defensively, good on the wall, and tough in front of their net.

From the NHL's standpoint, is this a nightmare scenario? As Steve Lepore notes, it's bad enough that NBC might not air another playoff game until the Finals. The conference semis have been non-competitive in terms of the overall series, even though a lot of the games within the non-competitive series were close. NBC might not have a game this weekend, they definitely won't next weekend because of golf, and the conference finals might not last into the weekend before Memorial Day at this rate.

Not only that, but look at who could be in the conference finals. Nashville isn't drawing anything for national ratings, and Vancouver is in Canada. Either of those teams are a dead spot for NBC at this point. San Jose doesn't pull huge numbers, either, but at least they're a more familiar team that could play their way into earning more attention from the casual fans NBC needs to pull in to get good numbers.

In the East, Boston would be just fine, but Tampa Bay is another potential nightmare for NBC when it comes to ratings.

A Tampa Bay vs. Vancouver or Nashville Cup Final could be a disaster, and San Jose in that spot wouldn't be much better.

After some significant steps forward in terms of television numbers lately, the NHL should prepare themselves for a step back before the playoffs are done.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Francisco Liriano's No-Hitter Could Be Sign of Change

Just hours before the first pitch, I filed a piece talking about how the Twins had to find a way to get this wayward ship turned in the right direction quickly.

The notion that they have to play .630 ball over the rest of the season to match last year's win total wasn't daunting, because they don't necessarily have to finish with that kind of record to make the playoffs.

However, you can't keep scuffling along the way the Twins were and expect things to just start getting better.

Hopefully, Francisco Liriano started the ball rolling in the right direction Tuesday night.

Liriano threw one of the more improbable no-hitters in baseball history Tuesday in Chicago, as the Twins beat the White Sox 1-0. It's improbable for a slew of reasons:
  • Only 66 of his 123 pitches went for strikes, a strikingly low number.
  • He walked six batters and only struck out two, meaning his defense turned 22 balls in play into outs (three double plays).
  • Liriano entered this start 1-4 with a 9.13 ERA, the second-worst ERA to start a game by a pitcher who would go on to throw a no-hitter since the earned run became an official statistic in 1913.
  • He was only pitching with a one-run lead for most of the game, though there have been five 1-0 no-hitters in the last 20 years, so maybe that's not as big a deal as I think.
There is no doubt that things going on "between the ears" mean a lot for pitchers, perhaps more for pitchers than any other position in the game. For Liriano, this could be a huge development.

No, he wasn't throwing absolute filth Tuesday night. He was scattershot with his pitches, and he had trouble locating virtually everything. There will be -- unquestionably -- some fans (especially fans of the White Sox) who call this some version of an "accidental" no-hitter. It was the pairing of a guy who had decent stuff with a team capable of hitting the ball right at people.

But it's confidence for Liriano, and he needed that more than anything.

It's also a shot in the arm for a team that has seen nothing go right for 27 games. Between injuries and underperforming players, Minnesota has seen little that was worth celebrating this season. Now, they have that. They have the first no-hitter of the baseball season.

And no matter how much White Sox fans hate it, they can't ever take this one away from Liriano.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Twins Struggles are All-Around

Sometimes, when a team gets off to a slow start, you can pin the problems on one or two areas.

(This can be true in any sport. A basketball team could have solvable problems rebounding or shooting that cause a losing streak. Football teams might not block well or get enough pressure out of the front seven because of problems with execution or communication. A hockey team might just get in a lull where they don't give the necessary second and third efforts to make important plays. It's not always permanent.)

For the Minnesota Twins, their 9-18 start is equal parts hideous and alarming.

It's hideous because virtually no one is playing to what their perceived capabilities are.

It's alarming because virtually no one is playing to what their perceived capabilities are, and there's no tangible end in sight.

Between injuries and completely ineffective players, the Twins don't have enough bodies to answer all their questions.

In the Star Tribune, LaVelle E. Neal III did a great job laying out many of the issues Tuesday.

Among them:
  • Alexi Casilla is hitting .190 and stinks defensively.
  • Danny Valencia is hitting .211, stinks defensively, and seems to struggle with baserunning when he bothers to avoid making an out.
  • Justin Morneau just hit his first home run of the season and is carrying a .225 average into Tuesday's game at Chicago.
  • Joe Mauer is still out.
  • Mauer wasn't hitting when he was in.
  • Drew Butera is hitting .106 in Mauer's place at catcher, making Mauer's .235 average look like freaking Ted Williams. Butera is an ace defensively, but has a lower average than that of all National League pitchers combined, Neal notes.
  • As a team, the Twins have 12 home runs. Alfonso Soriano has 11 by himself.
  • Michael Cuddyer is hitting .226 with four RBI, putting him on pace for approximately 25 this season.
  • The Twins have scored 85 runs. St. Louis' Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, and Colby Rasmus have combined for 88 by themselves.
  • Minnesota's team ERA of 5.06 is the worst in baseball, and nearly double that of first-place Oakland (2.66).
  • The "pitch to contact" mantra isn't working well. The Twins have just 152 strikeouts, easily the worst in baseball.
I probably missed a few here, but that's part of the point. The Twins aren't doing much right, and there aren't enough hours in the day to take care of the necessary problems via instruction or some sort of video session or whatever.

They're on their own for this one.

Getting Mauer back could be beneficial, and it won't hurt when Tsuyoshi Nishioka is healthy. In the end, though, a whole lot of guys have to start hitting, and the Twins can ill afford to see Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, and Nick Blackburn stink the joint up nearly as much as they have been as of late.

When Scott Baker is your ace, and he has one win, you have problems.

Then again, when you look at the laundry list of issues above, it's hard to argue the Twins don't have problems.

Now, they just need to find solutions before it's too late.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden is Dead, and WE DID IT!

You don't root for or cheer death very often, but this is one of those rare exceptions for most people.

Terrorist mastermind and long-time most-wanted fugitive Osama bin Laden was killed by United States forces Sunday (U.S. time) in a raid in Pakistan.

Instead of spitting out all the details myself, because you've probably seen them already, here are some smart people presenting the information they've gathered.

First, here is Jake Tapper on ABC.

Now, another report I found interesting on this Monday morning. This one comes from NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski.

It's a fascinating day in American history, no doubt about it.