February 22nd is a date sports fans remember as the day the U.S. Olympic hockey team upset the Russians in their quest for the gold medal in Lake Placid. Forty years later, that night was celebrated in another memorable game, this time in the NHL as the Carolina Hurricanes pummeled the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.
As most of the world has heard by now, the star of the night was emergency goaltender David Ayres, who’s a Zamboni driver for the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, as he held his own especially in the third period, and the Hurricanes surged to a 6-3 win. Ayres was honored at the latest Hurricanes home game, which resulted in a 4-1 loss against the Dallas Stars.
The two countries (U.S. and Canada), as well as hockey fans worldwide will not just remember the happy moment for Mr. Ayres, they’ll be wondering how the Maple Leafs, a star studded team which had a coaching change in the first half of the season, lost to a man they’ve shot at and scored on in practice for years.
Saturday night summarized why Toronto cannot win when it matters most.
Sheldon Keefe generated life into the team after Mike Babcock was fired, and the team looked like it would play better not just for the rest of the season, but long-term too. The issues Keefe had to deal with though haven’t gone away, most notably on defense. The Maple Leafs before Jack Campbell coming in for Michael Hutchinson had the worst goaltenders out of the top starting 66 (give or take). Braden Holtby, who’s been looking like a sieve most of the season averaging 3.1 goals against, was ranked four spots better than both of them. We witnessed the reasons for it come into play this past Saturday night.
The issues though go deeper than just Freddie Anderson and <insert name here> being awful in net. The worst parts of Saturday’s loss came from the bench. Sheldon Keefe screamed at his players as they looked on in disinterest. David Ayres had more shots than William Nylander and six others on the roster did at one point, and that doesn’t feel like the worst of it.
Ayres has a current contract with the Leafs, and he practices against them as often as possible. While Carolina and Toronto are different with their defenses, their respective cultures also vary greatly. Consider it this way, Ayres, who didn’t even play with the Canes for a whole game, was treated warmly and with more positivity by an American based team than the members of a historic Original Six team in the heart of Ontario treat each other.
You can say that this was a slip up after the Leafs took it to the Penguins and shut them out in Pittsburgh 4-0 a few days before that, and yes, their road-trip to Florida this week is one they have to focus on since it deals with divisional play. The thing is though, that’s not going to help when the Leafs came within one goal of tying the game and gave up in the third period. While coach Keefe said it didn’t matter who the Canes had in net because of how well they played, the Leafs players didn’t seem to care that much about being out there to begin with.
There’s a reason why the Boston Bruins get over on this team in the playoffs, and the issue then comes to mentalities. It’s crystal clear now that John Tavares leaving the Islanders was better for New York long-term if he’s been a part of this. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and a good number of players are still young, but some of their roster such as Jake Muzzin should know when it’s time to step up, and have yet to.
So why then say this could be their lowest point in hockey history? It would be dramatic if it wasn’t for the fact that while Toronto hasn’t won a championship since the 1960s, much less with the star-studded roster they have. However, the other six teams have dropped the ball too many times to count and continue to show why, in the words of some analysts on the NHL Network, “players usually don’t pick a Canadian team as their first option.” The six other teams aren’t any closer to winning a Championship than Toronto, and a Canadian team hasn’t won the championship in almost thirty years.
The media have not helped the situation. What the U.S. public has to deal with in football about the NFC East and Patrick Mahomes, Canada does with the Atlantic/Pacific divisions and Conor McDavid. Most of the NHL teams in the U.S. have a lot of passion and great analysis, but they aren’t overtly zealous over two or three teams. That’s a major line of difference that has reared it’s head. Carolina knows while it’s fans and community support them, they have to win the Metropolitan division or somehow sneak into the playoffs. The Leafs have to be one of seven teams that has to deal with constant pressure and mud slinging, win or lose, and it has to stop. This psyche could go as far up as the owner, who feels there have to be constant tweaks, changes or re-builds.
When a loss like this comes along, you know there’s a certain ending for a lot of the roster, but for everyone else, there should be questioning on what else led up to this that goes beyond the roster and general decision making.
Spring football has been hit or miss depending on the decade, so it shouldn’t surprise those with mixed feelings on how the XFL will hold up their second go-around. Last year the Alliance of American Football held up well with viewers and attendance. Unfortunately, funding and poor financial planning killed that league.
The XFL had it right by waiting an extra year to get everything ready. Vince McMahon and the league have done a lot of great things. Let’s break down what has captivated fans in the United States for the past three weeks and what else could be in store.
Behind the scenes with official review.
One of the truly revolutionary ideas the XFL has unveiled is putting official review on microphones and cameras to hear and see how plays aren’t just reviewed, but handled up in booths and on the field. While there was initial skepticism on this, that’s gone now. Audiences who’ve tuned into the past three weekends have seen and heard plays discussed on what is deemed irreversible and what stands as a right call. This is huge because of controversies in previous years during not just the NFL regular season but calls in critical playoff games that have been botched by multiple umpires and referees. Instead of on-air analysts discussing or guessing probable outcomes, the XFL shows us what goes on and helps the audience understand. If the NFL starts to be hammered by viewers wanting this kind of transparency on a consistent basis, the league could relent and allow it.
Kickoffs are a hot issue in not just the NFL but the football world. The XFL may have found a solution to that.
Kickoffs in the NFL have the kicker putting the ball into play at the 35 yard line in their own territory, and the rest of the defense is behind him. The fielding team is at the 50 yard line, and the kick can be fielded at least 10-15 yards away from where the ball is placed. Usually, it’s kicked deep into opposing territory, but it cannot go out of bounds on the sidelines, for that would result in a penalty.
XFL: the kicker stands at his 30 yard line and must put the ball into play between the opposing teams endzone and 20 yard line. The coverage teams must stand at both the 35 (kicker’s defense) and 30 (receiving team minus the receiver) yard lines.
The XFL method leads to fewer injuries and penalizes the kicker if the ball is not placed at a certain distance. There’s also a better chance for onside recovery. Best of all it preserves the kickoff for those who insist football isn’t football without it.
Catching live action interviews, reactions and celebrations seems to be the wildest part of the XFL right now, and it seems genuine and laid back. Thankfully, the theatrics of the XFL almost 20 years ago don’t seem to be around, which we really don’t need.
Probably the most important plus outside of the officiating. Fan attendance has been great in cities such as Seattle, Washington D.C., St. Louis and Houston. Over two million people have tuned in to watch the games three straight weeks, showing that the sport is appreciated by a good number of people. The best thing Vince McMahon and the XFL did was choosing specific cities, either giving certain cities like St. Louis a shot at having a football team again, having teams in blockbuster, big money places like Seattle or Houston, or trying to pry interest and fans away from other teams such as the Washington Redskins or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Sounds like these past three weeks have been fantastic. Could there be anything more in store for us?
Definitely. Criticisms of consistent offensive play on teams such as the Tampa Bay Vipers and Seattle Dragons have been valid because those teams haven’t been able to finish. If those teams can not just learn their offenses by the sixth week, but also finish drives with consistent scores, both teams could be threats given they’re solid defensively.
The extra point change should be fun to watch. Surprisingly, a lot of the coaches haven’t tried to go for the three extra points after scoring touchdowns. While it’s ok to be aggressive, getting only one extra point when you’re down by ten doesn’t seem like a good plan. Expect more coaches to gamble the later the season goes on.
With coaches willing to go for it, we’ll see how defenses respond to the aggression, especially if they want to hit harder or shutdown offenses through tight coverage. The XFL has done a great job with letting defense have a chance to hit and play, so if games start to get low-scoring, it’s probably because the defenses have a lot of room to play their full game.
Is it possible that with league parity, this season was cursed before it started? The first half of the NBA season has been chaotic. The conversation about ratings has been hanging over the league’s collective head since the season began. Issues such as load management, international interests and the deaths of David Stern and Kobe Bryant have been bigger than the games televised.
There’s still hope for an exciting second half, especially the month before playoffs begin. A lot of fans will look ahead to the playoffs and how those teams that didn’t make it in will rebound for the upcoming season. Yet there’s a good number who’ve thrown in the towel and just want something without as much drama, intended or unintended.
Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.
There’s no clear winner for Coach of the Year
Just as we broke down in the NFL, at least half the coaches in the NBA are considered candidates for coach of the year. A good number of fans who watch the game know that Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens and Terry Stotts know how to run their teams well and get the best from their rosters, so any of those three have an excellent chance of being awarded that honor this year. There are at least a half dozen coaches who are on their heels or have surpassed these three. Monty Williams, who took a hiatus from head coaching for a few years, is doing an impressive job with the Phoenix Suns in his first year there. Erik Spoelstra may have put together one of his best years with Miami as not only are the Heat in the top five in the East, but as of this publishing have only three losses at home the whole year. Taylor Jenkins took control of a Memphis Grizzlies team that should have a slow re-build, but has found a way to put up a fight in the Western Conference and the Southwest division. Last but not least, coach of last year’s champion Toronto Raptors Nick Nurse has found a way to have the Raptors playing as well as last year, minus Kawhi Leonard.
The Warriors have won the year, even if their record says otherwise
If there was ever a year the Golden State Warriors could take off, this was the one. They were decimated by injuries in 2019, then were gashed in free agency with core players like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala retiring or exiting to other teams. While D’Angelo Russell was cool to watch for half the season, most of us knew he wouldn’t be in the team’s future going forward once Steph Curry and Klay Thompson returned from their injuries. Trading him for a few players and first round draft picks was the smart thing to do.
There are other factors that go the Warriors way, most notably how people haven’t tuned in this year to watch games. The Warriors had a premier super team, now the field is balanced. In the division, the Clippers have had an up and down season, even with load management not being an issue at times (more on that later) while the Lakers, although they’re the best team in the West record-wise, don’t look completely there. The Warriors will have their best players back for next season with a young core that’s played a full season. Unless Daryl Morey shoots his mouth off bashing a foreign market, we should see interest come back to the Warriors and how fun the Pacific division will look in the offseason.
Daryl Morey should have been axed before obtaining Russell Westbrook
Say what you will about the firestorm Morey created over his Hong Kong tweets, the real red flag for him as a GM flew when the Rockets got rid of one of the best point-guards of our era because that point-guard called plays James Harden didn’t like. It’s one thing to unload a guy who doesn’t get along with the team, hey, it happens. To then turn around and bring in a volatile player like Russell Westbrook and basically let coach Mike D’Antoni know that they should start together is just a different level of stupid.
Kevin Durant spoke this past week on why he left Oklahoma City, and if people take their feelings out of it, they would know everything he said about his teammates was accurate. Westbrook is not that guy when it matters most, and the joke with Morey’s teams the past three years (at least) is that they couldn’t get out of their own way to get to the Championship. Not only did the GM make it that much harder for the team, he has set up a powder keg that a national audience could watch explode in the playoffs.
Kobe’s death is a worldwide loss
We’ve heard a lot of things involving Kobe’s death and reflections on his legacy, but the biggest one by far and away is how much international attention has been drawn to the NBA. Mike Wilbon said it best when he told audiences and stations days after he died that we’ve yet to process how massive the loss really is in the international community. Make no mistake that David Stern, who died in January, is the commissioner who made this possible business-wise, but entertainment-wise, Kobe’s name was the one that drew people in. It’s jarring to see how his death has pulled people back into the basketball world to reflect on how the sport has grown and evolved.
Now for what each of the 30 teams can do to improve upon or keep doing right the remainder of this season.
Atlanta: the worst team in probably the worst division in the NBA, the Hawks need depth to give Trae Young help. When Jabari Parker is your third best scorer, that says everything you need to know.
Boston: dumping Kyrie Irving and signing Kemba Walker has been one of their best offseason moves in a while. Granted, this team isn’t Milwaukee, but they look better and have a lot to look forward to.
Brooklyn: They’re in a pretty good position going forward despite looking average this year. Mostly a defensive team, they still qualify as a low-tier playoff team in the Eastern conference, with Kyrie Irving as the main player on offense. Kevin Durant will make this team better when he returns, though it is important for the Nets to add more to their offense this offseason.
Charlotte: There’s clearly nothing on this team to be happy about going forward, so securing a top draft pick for a few seasons and making sure to have a lot of cap space is something they couldn’t screw up. Right?
Chicago: Living in the Chicago market offers glaring insight into how awfully run this organization is. Firing Jim Boylen doesn’t fix anything. As a matter of fact, firing President and GM John Paxson and Gar Forman won’t either. Bulls fans need to pressure ownership to fix everything, but that can only happen if the top feels how uncomfortable everyone is. The Bulls are very close to being the NBA version of the Bill Wirtz Chicago Blackhawks of the 1990s to the mid 2000s. If you can’t or won’t fix it, sell the team.
Cleveland: It was no secret that Cleveland would be horrendous again when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving left. They’re just further ahead in the re-building process than Charlotte. Have to stick this out another year.
Dallas: my how things have changed. A few years ago, people thought Dallas was stale and hanging onto the old ways. Nowadays? Luka Doncic is the real deal, but he has to have playoff experience first. Speaking of guys who need playoff experience, Kristaps Porzingis should appreciate his first playoff year knowing that he shouldn’t have to toil with the Knicks.
Denver: Can this team still end up with the first seed in the West? Of course. This is still a middle of the pack team when you look at the roster and the stats though, and all of that rears its head in the playoffs. Portland was a team with two and a half superstars last postseason and took Denver down to the wire. Suffice to say, the Nuggets should hope they get a favorable playoff matchup for the first round.
Detroit: 7th in the league in three point percentage but dead last rebounding the ball. The Pistons need a big man who can score and rebound. That’s a must, especially in the Central division.
Golden State: There’s absolutely no way Stephen Curry should or will make a return to the Warriors with this unrecognizable roster. He’d just get hurt again. Management should shut him and Draymond Green down after the All-Star break and focus on securing any top tier draft picks, any free agents who can add depth and eat as many losses as they can. You don’t want to say that out-loud if you’re the organization but it’s the best card they have remaining.
Houston: After the Rockets have another crushing yet spectacular end to their season in the playoffs, Tilman Fertitta needs to have an honest conversation with Daryl Morey. Morey clearly has built the Rockets into a better team than when he first came to Southern Texas, but his building has only gone so far. A GM in a good mental place doesn’t add Russell Westbrook to a roster that needs a sharp shooting guard and a center who should make free throws.
Indiana: If only another team in the central wasn’t a steaming pile outside of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Pacers. Much like the Nuggets, they’re behind in critical statistics such as scoring compared to teams like the Bucks, 76ers and Miami Heat. They’re still a team that can compete, but they’re one big man who can rebound and score short of challenging the top teams in the East on a consistent basis.
Los Angeles Clippers: load management will pay off well the longer the season goes for the Clippers. Paul George will disappear but Kawhi’s legs are what could be more worrying. Regarding their game, they’re top ten in a lot of categories, so moving the ball consistently and not firing shots like the Rockets do will be key. We’ll see how they are by April with this.
Los Angeles Lakers: Earlier it was mentioned that while the Lakers seem fantastic, they don’t look completely there. Here are some things people should keep in mind with this team collectively
only three players on this roster are averaging double digits in points this year. Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma.
The Lakers are 28th out of 30 in free throw percentage at 73.5%.
only one member of this team has a FG % of over 50.0%. That would be Anthony Davis.
This isn’t saying they’ll bow out of the playoffs early, but it highlights what they’ll have to fix so they don’t have to depend on one or two players to carry the load throughout the playoffs, and Frank Vogel should be making every player aware of this. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to stop playing Rajon Rondo an average of 21 minutes a night.
Memphis: All of the issues brought up with free throws, scoring, rebounding and good coaching applies to this team. They’d qualify for the last seed in the west if the playoffs were held today, and that’s a miracle considering how bad they were last season. Hopefully they’ll keep adding to this roster so they can be a solid playoff team for the next few years.
Miami: If they start playing on the road like they do at home, look out and enjoy the show.
Milwaukee: They’ve locked up the regular season, so Mike Budenholzer should keep things steady and make sure his best players, especially Giannis, get playoff mentalities in gear.
Minnesota:There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Timberwolves are one of those two teams.
New Orleans: Yours truly likes to be kind and say a team isn’t out of the playoffs until the losses really rack up, and by rack up, it has to be they won’t crack .500 or anywhere close for the rest of the season. The Pelicans aren’t there yet, but they probably won’t go on a run like Milwaukee or Toronto has. When the point comes to where they can’t keep up, they should be smart and deactivate Zion Williamson. Their prize asset shouldn’t have to put his body at risk if there’s no point. If they continue to add quality depth, this division as a whole will be fun to watch again.
New York: like the Chicago Bulls, this team’s issues are at the very top, and while the Knicks are worth $4.2 billion, the league should start finding rich people who covet owning the franchise and force James Dolan out. If they don’t, fans will go from chanting, “Sell the team” to firing water cannons from the stands.
Oklahoma City: So much for tanking this season. Billy Donovan may be another candidate for coach of the year, because this is a team that wants to play in the postseason and they’re proving it. Who would’ve thought that their leading scorer would’ve been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the beginning of the season (not Chris Paul or Dennis Schroder) and would be in the top eight in the west trying to clinch a playoff seed? Those draft picks should help a bunch.
Orlando: Markelle Fultz coming back helps a team that’s dreadful to watch and with dumb luck, is second in their division. The Magic are flirting with a playoff spot right now, so getting the team as healthy as possible is key. It also helps to have players who consistently don’t disappoint when much is expected of them.
Philadelphia: of all the teams on this list, this team is sleep-walking the most through the rest of the regular season. The 6ers have had quality wins over the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks. This team is just itching for the postseason. That is on the coaching staff.
Phoenix: management has to decide what it wants: to win or to re-build. The salary cap space is huge, but what plans to genuinely develop this team does the front office have? Think of it this way; if Monty Williams is fired in a few years, and the roster is close to what it is when he came in, then he was neither the problem nor the solution.
Portland: Terry Stotts has done a great job with this Trailblazers team that has two great players, a few good players and nothing after that. This is why you can’t blow half your salary cap on two guys. There are no suggestions on how this team can improve, BECAUSE THEY CAN’T!!
Sacramento: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. This is the second of those two teams.
San Antonio: Remember when a good number of people said Pop should’ve retired with Tim Duncan? That’s looking more everyday like that should’ve happened. If your coach had a hard time telling who had talent during FIBA practice, that should be a red flag that he both shouldn’t be a coach of your team or that he should hang it up.
Toronto: These guys continue to win and find ways to improve with Nick Nurse as their coach. A lot of us assumed the Raptors would fall out once Kawhi Leonard left, but this team could put up a fight in the playoffs if push comes to shove. They probably won’t be as lucky as last year though. Either way, Toronto could entice key free agents in the future.
Utah: Much like the Lakers, the Jazz have a lot to like, but they aren’t there yet. Like the Lakers, they have some leaks too. They include:
being middle of the pack when scoring. They’ve gotten lucky against teams like Portland at times, but a team like the Blazers that has playoff experience <insert Houston here> will win games like that nine times out of ten.
speaking of Houston, the Jazz are 3-6 against top tier teams in the Western Conference, those being both Los Angeles teams, Denver and yes, Houston.
Washington: the Wizards appear to be the basketball version of the New Jersey Devils. Please fire Scott Brooks, start unloading talent and re-build. Might need to cut loose half the front office too. If it moves, let it go.