Reverse The Curse Part II: The Longest Drought

At the end of the 2011 season, Theo Epstein began the next phase of his baseball life with the Chicago Cubs.

Tom Ricketts, whose family has owned the Cubs since January 2009, wanted someone who could build a team that can contend on a consistent basis, and quite possibly accomplishes the goal of ending their World Series drought.

So, with that thought, he sought for the man who broke the Bambino Curse. On October 12, 2011, Epstein was named the President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs.

The Loveable Losers of the Windy City were coming off a 71-win season as their last postseason appearance was in 2008- when they last won the National League Central Division. Epstein told reporters he was “ready for the next big challenge” as he was destined to break the “Curse of the Billy Goat“.

The curse goes back to 1945. During Game Four of the World Series, Billy Goat tavern owner William Sianis had a goat named Murphy, who he brought to the game. Due to his odor, fans were bothered by that and Sianis was asked to leave Wrigley Field- the most iconic baseball field of them all.

Angered by the result, the bar owner allegedly said that the Cubs were never going to win anymore. The Cubs would go on to lose the World Series to the Detroit Tigers. After the incident, the Cubs never made it to the World Series for the next 71 years.

Like the Boston Red Sox, the Cubs had some chances at breaking the curse and ultimately never came close after the Steve Bartman incident in 2003.

Yes, this was another challenge for the youngest general manager in the history of Major League Baseball. Epstein was now overlooking a team who hasn’t had much success as the team’s last pennant came 66 years prior, and 103 years without winning a World Series.

Epstein made a promise to build a foundation of sustained success rooted in player development.

When Epstein left for Chicago, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, who worked under Epstein in Boston, were hired as the general manager and the director of scouting. Hoyer had previous experience when he was the general manager for the San Diego Padres while McLeod was an assistant general manager with the Red Sox.

One of Epstein’s first moves with the Cubs was hiring a new manager and he turned to former player Dale Sveum. Sveum was also a part of the Red Sox coaching staff back in 2004-2005. He eventually became the manager for the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2008 season.

On January 6, 2012, Epstein took his next step of action. He acquired first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Zach Cates from none other than the Padres. The Cubs sent pitcher Andrew Cashner, and outfielder Kyung-Min Na to the Padres.

Interestingly enough, the All-Star first baseman was drafted in 2007 by Epstein and now-Cubs GM Jed Hoyer in Boston. He was then acquired by San Diego when Hoyer was the general manager.

Despite making bold moves in his first offseason with the Cubs, the team would go on to lose 101 games in the 2012 season. They finished dead last in the Central Division and that was their worst record since 1966.

The painful losing season pushed Epstein to build the Cubs behind the scenes even more. On July 31, 2012, the Cubs sent pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers in exchange for pitching prospect Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva. The deal was an early illustration of Epstein’s tough ability to part with a solid contributor who still held trade value but nevertheless was on slowly coming out of his prime.

Epstein continued his promise to the fans in the offseason but he only made one significant move. On December 5, 2012, the Chicago Cubs signed relief pitcher Hector Rondon from the Rule 5 Draft.

In the 2013 season, the Cubs lost 96-games even though they continued to rebuild under Epstein’s sabermetrics philosophy.

The player acquisitions would become a significant stepping stone for the Cubs rebuilding phase. The 101-loss season in 2012 became a benefit for the team was the Cubs selected third baseman Kris Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft.

Almost a month after drafting Bryant, the Cubs would make one of the most lopsided trades in baseball. On July 2, 2013, the Cubs acquired pitcher Jake Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop from the Baltimore Orioles for low-key free agent signing Scott Feldman, Steve Clevenger, and cash considerations. Arrieta had underachieved with Baltimore for years, but in Chicago, he turned into a combination of an All-star pitcher and a CY Young Award winner.

Arrieta would go on to win the 2015 Cy Young Award, and for Strop, well, he has become one of the League’s better setup men.

Later that same month, he removed one more of the team’s veteran core. The Cubs parted with Alfonso Soriano and traded him to the New York Yankees in exchange for minor league pitcher Corey Black.

The 2013 season resulted in the Cubs having a record of 66-96. On September 30, 2013, Dale Sveum was fired as the manager after two years of being under Epstein. Sveum accumulated a 127-197 during his time. The Cubs would name Rick Renteria as the new manager where they signed him to a three-year contract on November 7, 2013.

The 2014 season marked the 100th season of play at Wrigley Field, though the Cubs did not start playing there until 1916. That season also saw a decrease in losses as the Cubs only lost 89 games.

Though another poor season led to another high draft pick. The Cubs drafted Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft.

The team continued to make moves at the deadline. They traded pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland A’s for minor league prospect Billy McKinney, major league pitcher Dan Straily, and top-five prospect Addison Russell.

After the 2014 season, Renteria was released by the Cubs after one season. On November 3, 2014, the Cubs announced the signing of Joe Maddon to a five-year contract as the manager of the team.

The Cubs decided not to retain assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley. Bill Mueller, the hitting coach, resigned over the decision. On October 9, 2014, John Mallee, formerly the Houston Astros hitting coach, was hired as his replacement. Eric Hinske was the assistant hitting coach and Doug Dascenzo was signed to replace him as first base/outfield coach.

Those were some of the significant changes made with the coaching. The Cubs brought back Jason Hammel on a two-year deal worth $18-million. The team improved the rotation by adding another veteran arm, former Red Sox Jon Lester. Lester signed a six-year, $155 million deal.

On December 23, 2014, the Cubs signed veteran catcher David Ross to a two-year contract worth $5 million. They weren’t done there as they traded for outfielder Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros. The Cubs gave up Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily in the deal.

The 2015 season turned out to be a successful one. The Cubs would go on to finish with the third-best record in the 2015 season. They finished with a 97-65 record as they finished one game back of the Pittsburgh Pirates and two games back of the St. Louis Cardinals. That was good enough for to play in the National League Wild Card Game where they defeated the Pirates.

The Cubs moved on to the Division Series against the Cardinals. The Cubs swept their long-time rivals in four games and advanced to National League Championship Series for the first time since 2003.

Unfortunately, they were swept by a youthful New York Mets team. With playoff experience at hand, the team knew that they had what it takes to win a World Series. An accomplishment no one saw coming until next season.

For their efforts, Joe Maddon would win the National League Manager of the Year Award. Kris Bryant made his debut on April 17 and he would go on to win the National League Rookie of the Year. Javier Baez would also make his debut, but not until September 1.

They started off by signing veteran pitcher John Lackey from the St. Louis Cardinals. Then they signed Jason Heyward who was also a Cardinal before signing. The Cubs signed second baseman Ben Zobrist, who had won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 season. Starlin Castro would be traded to the New York Yankees in exchange for pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named later (Brendan Ryan– who was later released after the trade).

There were a lot of expectations for the Cubs coming into the 2016 season. They were considered one of the favourite’s to win the World Series and they used that as motivation throughout the season.

Opening Day got off to a horrific start after Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and his LCL in his left knee after colliding with Dexter Fowler. Schwarber would miss the remainder of the season until he came back for the World Series. The injury did not seem to affect the club at all.

The Cubs had their best 30-game start since 1907, going 24–6 (went 22–4 in 1907). They would finish with the best record in Major League Baseball with 103-wins. The most wins for the franchise since 1910. On top of all of that, they won the National League Central title for the first time since 2008.

The Cubs defeated the San Francisco Giants in the National League Divison Series and returned to the National League Championship Series where they would defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. The Cubs were headed off to the World Series for the first time since 1945.

The Cubs were against the Cleveland Indians. The two teams entered the Series as the two franchises with the longest World Series title drought. A combined total of 176 years. It was Cleveland’s sixth appearance in the World Series and the club’s first since 1997. Though their last Series win goes back to 1948.

Dexter Fowler, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, and Carl Edwards Jr. became the first African-American baseball players on a Cubs roster in a World Series. Additionally, Fowler was the first African-American to appear and to bat for the Cubs in a World Series game. As well both Fowler and Russell were the first African-Americans to start for the Cubs in a World Series game.

It was Cleveland manager Terry Francona’s third appearance in the World Series. He previously won the World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007.

This was Maddon’s second appearance in the World Series as a manager. He managed the Tampa Bay Rays when they beat the Red Sox to win their first A.L. Pennant in 2008. They would lose to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games. However, Maddon was the bench for the Anaheim Angels in 2003- the same year the Angels won the World Series.

The 112th Fall Classic was similar to a heavyweight boxing match. Cleveland had a 3-1 lead over the Cubs before winning the next two games to force a Game 7.

Game 7 of the series would go down as a classic, with some calling it the greatest game in World Series history. Dexter Fowler led off for the Cubs with a home run off of

Dexter Fowler led-off for the Cubs with a home run off of Corey Kluber. Fowler became the first player to ever hit a lead-off home run in Game 7 of a World Series.

Things got more dramatic in the eighth inning. Maddon used flamethrower Aroldis Chapman despite pitching in the previous two games. Cleveland’s Brandon Guyer would hit a double off Chapman, setting it up for Rajai Davis who hit a monstrous home run over the left field wall to tie the game up 6-6.

With the game tied after nine innings, heavy rain rapidly approached the area, and the game went into a 17-minute rain delay. The delay would come in favour for the Cubs.

After an intentional walk to Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist stepped up to the plate. Zobrist delivered a huge RBI double into the left field corner, scoring pinch-runner Albert Almora, and breaking the tie. After another intentional walk to Addison Russell, Miguel Montero singled into left, scoring Rizzo and making the score 8–6.

Reliever Carl Edwards Jr. was called upon to finish up the game in the bottom of the 10th. After retiring the first two hitters, he walked Brandon Guyer. Rajai Davis, following up on his eighth-inning heroics, lined a single into center, making it a one-run game.

Maddon would then call upon Mike Montgomery, who has never been in a save situation before up until then. Montgomery would retire Michael Martinez with a groundout to Rizzo at first.

For the first time in 108-years, the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series.

Zobrist won the World Series MVP. The sense of relief in the Windy City led to a big night of celebrations throughout the city. The Cubs became the sixth team to come back from a three-games-to-one deficit in a best-of-seven World Series. They join the 1925 and 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, 1958 New York Yankees, 1960 Detroit Tigers and the 1985 Kansas City Royals.

Epstein pulled off another feat no one thought could have happened. Not only did he break the Curse of the Bambino, but the Curse of the Billy Goat was also broken thanks to his remarkable management. Epstein is a definite shoe-in for Cooperstown one day.

With a World Series goal accomplished with two teams who suffered for a long time, Theo Epstein will now set his sights on building an empire for this season and beyond.

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Reverse The Curse Part I: The End of The Bambino

This is a two-part series called Reverse the Curse. An inside look at Theo Epstein and the teams he built to win the World Series. Epstein became known for breaking the “Curse of the Bambino” and the “Curse of the Billy Goat”.

Part one will cover his early beginnings up to his tenure with the Boston Red Sox. Part two, which will be released later this week, will cover his current position with the Chicago Cubs. 

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Theo Nathaniel Epstein stepped into the Major League Baseball (MLB) spotlight when he was named the youngest general manager in the history of MLB in 2002. Now 43-years old, Epstein has 15-years of MLB experience as the chief architect behind ending two of the longest championship droughts sports has ever seen.

Epstein won world championships that could not have been won in the combined 194 years before he took his turn. His teams have won three World Series titles and made appearances in the playoffs five other times. This is the story of his early beginnings leading up to his tenure with the Boston Red Sox.

Theo Epstein attended Yale University with a degree in American Studies in 1995. He lived at Jonathan Edwards College, a residential college associated with Yale. It was during his time at Yale where his interest in sports started to show.

He served as the sports editor for Yale Daily News. Once school was coming to a finish, Epstein began contacting several major league baseball teams showing interest in working with them. Epstein would start out as an intern for the Baltimore Orioles until he was promoted to the public relations assistant with the Orioles.

Epstein would move with Orioles owner Larry Lucchino to the San Diego Padres. Lucchino became the owner and Epstein served as a director of player development for the Padres. It was his time with the Padres that led Epstein to earn his Juris Doctor degree at the University of San Diego School of Law- under Lucchino’s encouragement.

By doing so, Epstein was invited to take part in high-level negotiations and discussions by then-GM Kevin Towers since few in the Padres’ small operations division had a legal background to understand contract language. Epstein’s experience led him to become the Director of Baseball Operations for the Padres.

Epstein would once again follow Lucchino- this time, to the Boston Red Sox. Lucchino served as the president and chief executive officer (CEO) while Epstein was named assistant general manager.  Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane came really close to becoming the new Red Sox general manager in 2002. However, he declined to come over and Epstein would become the next general manager for the Red Sox after Mike Port. The significance about this was that Epstein became the youngest general manager in major league history.

Starting out with the Red Sox wasn’t easy at first. Numerous talk shows wanted to interview Epstein due to him being the youngest general manager. He declined due to it being “too much of a gimmick” at the time. Needless to say, that was a bold move on his part.

Since the “Impossible Dream” in 1967, the Red Sox have been either competitive or, failing.

It all started with the Curse of the Bambino– where Babe Ruth was infamously sold to the New York Yankees. Before that point, the Red Sox had been one of the most successful professional baseball franchises. They won the first World Series while earning five World Series titles overall. After the sale, they went without a title for many decades, even though the Red Sox won four American League championships from 1946 to 1986.

There were attempts at breaking the curse but they had some really bad breaks in some World Series appearances. A Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946- which was the Red Sox first Wolrd Series appearance since 1918. Following that was the infamous Bill Buckner incident in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The New York Mets would win the game and the World Series in Game 7.

When Epstein took over in 2003, the Red Sox last losing season came in 1997 under previous general manager Dan Duquette. Duquette’s team was a small market club thanks to the previous owner Tom Yawkey. Duquette is credited for having Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez in the fold but failed to provide a strong supporting cast.

When Epstein moved up in the ranks of baseball, he became more interested in sabermetrics. The statistics analogy and new ownership quickly did away with the previous policies as Epstein used the money to improve the pitching rotation. His first missteps include the signings of infielder

His first missteps include the signings of infielder Todd Walker and Ramiro Mendoza. He made up for those mistakes by signing free agent David “Big Pap” Ortiz. The future Hall of Famer was released by the Minnesota Twins as they did not like his approach at the plate and previous injuries that derailed his chances of being a regular for the Twins.

In Epstein’s first season with the Red Sox, they finished with a record of 95-67. Good enough for the second place in the American League East division behind the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Red Sox would fall short after a game seven loss to their bitter rivals in the American League Championship Series.

Epstein knew that he had the right team to contend, but there were some missing pieces to the puzzle of making it to the World Series. The 2003 offseason began with Epstein dismissing manager Grady Little after his contract was not renewed. Epstein gave a chance to Terry Francona. Francona previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies, accumulated a 285-363 record in four seasons with the Phillies.

Epstein traded Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Jorge de la Rosa to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Curt Schilling. Epstein would continue to the shake up the team when he made a big trade. Nomar Garciaparra, the Red Sox shortstop and fan favourite, was traded to the Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox received Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos and Doug Mientkiewicz from the Minnesota Twins.

The Red Sox also acquired outfielder Dave Roberts from the Los Angeles Dodgers– who would go on to manage the Dodgers and win the 2016 NL Manager of the Year.

The Red Sox appeared to make a big push for the playoffs once again. After defeating the Anaheim Angels in the American League Division Series, they found themselves in a rematch of the 2003 Amercian League Championship Series, against their nemesis once again.

The series started off very disastrous for the Red Sox as they found themselves in a 3-0 deficit, one loss away from losing another Championship series. But, of course, comes the turning point in any series. This was the most interesting of them all.

The Yankees led Game 4 by one run in the ninth inning, but a steal of second base by Red Sox Dave Roberts and a single by Bill Mueller off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera tied the game. A home run hit by Ortiz in the 12th inning would send it to game five. Ortiz played the role of hero once again as he hit another home run in the 14th inning to give the Red Sox a second straight win.

Game 6 was very well known for Curt Schilling pitching with a bloody sock. Schilling pitched with a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle, which was sutured in place in an unprecedented procedure by Red Sox team doctors. His strong pitching helped the Red Sox tie the series, and send it to Game 7.

With the series all tied 3-3, Game 7 featured the Red Sox paying back New York for their Game 3 blowout with a dominating performance on the road, anchored by pitcher Derek Lowe and bolstered by two Johnny Damon home runs, as one of them was a grand slam. David Ortiz was named the Most Valuable Player of the series.

Boston became the first team in baseball to come back from a 3-0 deficit. They went to the World Series for the first time since 1986. The Red Sox would go on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mark Belhorn helped the Red Sox win Game 1 with a home run, while Curt Schilling led the team to a Game two victory by pitching six innings and allowing just one run. The Red Sox won the first two games despite committing four errors in each game. The Red Sox easily won Game 3, thanks to seven shutout innings by Pedro Martinez. A home run by Johnny Damon in the first inning helped to win Game four for the Red Sox to secure the series. The Cardinals did not lead in any of the games in the series. Manny Ramirez was named the series’ Most Valuable Player.

Epstein became known as the man who ended the Curse of the Bambino. 84-years of misery for Red Sox fans finally came to an end.

On October 31, 2005, Epstein resigned, rejecting a three-year, $1.5-million-per-year contract for personal reasons. Because it was Halloween the night he resigned from the Red Sox, Epstein left Fenway Park wearing a gorilla suit in an attempt to avoid reporters. A witness reported spotting a person wearing a gorilla suit driving a Volvo similar to Epstein’s that night. Epstein remained in contact with the team’s front office and on January 12, 2006, he and Red Sox management announced his return. Six days later, the team announced that he would resume the title of general manager and add the title of executive vice president.

Under Epstein’s guidance, Boston went 839-619 in the regular season and 34-23 in the playoffs. The Red Sox and Epstein would go on to win another World Series title win 2007.

He acquired many stars throughout the draft including Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury. He also acquired ones who fell short of expectations not to mention Edgar Renteria, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

In 2011, Epstein’s final season with the Red Sox was considered one of the biggest meltdowns in sports history. The Red Sox became the first team in the history of MLB to have a nine-game lead in September and failed to make the playoffs. They went 7-20 in the final month of the regular season.

Red Sox front office and manager Terry Francona decided to part ways as they did not exercise the additional year options in his contract.

Epstein however, was looking elsewhere to build off his work. He entered talks with the Chicago Cubs as he interviewed for the vacant general manager position. Epstein would eventually agree to a five-year contract worth $18.5 million.

This time around, he had more chores at hand. Overlooking a team who haven’t won a World Series title since 1908 as fans of the Cubs looked to Epstein to break another curse- the Curse of the Billy Goat.

The Joshua Tree

U2 is taking their 1987 masterpiece, The Joshua Tree, on tour across North America and Europe.

The tour starts on May 12 at BC Place in Vancouver, and ends on August 1 at the King Baudoin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. In honour of the album’s 30th anniversary, here’s a look back at the album that gave U2 their breakthrough.

The Joshua Tree was inspired by the band’s obsession with America, which became more familiar to them thanks to the sold out stadium tours and their growing interest in Irish roots music. In early 1986, Bono, the Edge (David Howell Evans), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. would begin sessions for the album in their hometown of Dublin, Ireland. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who produced U2’s previous album The Unforgettable Fire, returned to produce once more. U2 recorded throughout the year while Lanois and Eno would take turns working with the band for a couple of weeks at a time.

U2 spent about three months on the album overall as they halted sessions to headline Amnesty International’s: Conspiracy of Hope Tour in the U.S.

The band wrote as they recorded most of the songs. Certain songs were sad, and heartbroken, although there were some songs that were uplifting, hopeful and promising. Bono wanted to explore more of rock and roll’s American roots while the Edge wanted to continue the passion from their first album, Boy,  and the experimental-ism of The Unforgettable Fire.

17 songs were approximately recorded as some of the material didn’t end up on the album. “The Sweetest Thing”, “Spanish Eyes”, and “Deep In The Heart” were not included as they didn’t fit the roots’ feel of The Joshua Tree (some of the tracks would be released on their deluxe album).  The tremendous appeal of the album was its message of spiritual and creative yearning with songs such as “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With Or Without You”, and the opening track “Where The Streets Have No Name”.

“Where The Streets Have No Name” was the one track that was extremely difficult to record. It got to the point where Brian Eno became disillusioned with the recording that he tried to destroy the tape. However, it was the guitar intro to the song that became a trademark sound for the Edge as fans grew to love his style of playing.

There was something different about this album compared to the previous four albums. It’s got three of their best political songs. “Red Hill Mining Town” is about a coal-fired rocker hanging onto hope during the British miners strike in 1984. “Bullet in the Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” discuss the El Salvadoran death squads supported by America under President Ronald Reagan. Outside of the use of the piano and harmonica on “Running to Stand Still” and “Tripping Through Your Wires”, there isn’t a lot of direct nods to roots music with the exception of “In God’s Country”. Overall, U2 drew inspiration from the very idea that is America. The freedom, open spaces, and promises that always don’t come true.

U2 was building buzz since the release of their debut album, Boy, then War in 1983. This time around, The Joshua Tree album skyrocketed its way to No.1 on the Billboard chart, which was their first, and the album topped the charts in over 20 countries. It was one of many accolades U2 would earn. The Joshua Tree entered the U.S. album charts at No.7 and it reached No.1 three weeks later.  It was U2’s first album to reach No. 1 in the U.S. In 1999, The Joshua Tree was awarded the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) highest certification, Diamond, with 10 million units sold.

For a band that continues to play with their original members, U2 would go on to stage what would become their biggest tour since their formation. The Joshua Tree tour lasted from April-December of 1987 with 109 shows in over three lags. The first and third lags were in North America, while the second lag was in Europe.

The band’s legacy goes much deeper than just the numbers. U2 would go on to earn their first two Grammy Awards in 1988. U2 took home Album of the Year as they beat out nominees such as: Michael Jackson, Prince, and Whitney Houston. U2 also won the Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. The album and sleeve cover also placed No. 1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s annual Music Awards chosen by readers. Critics at Rolling Stone made it the No. 2 album of the year, and No. 27 on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Joshua Tree is one of the world’s best-selling albums of with over 25 million copies sold. It’s only fitting to see U2 embark on another world tour, honouring The Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary and success that came afterwards. In fact, the Edge has claimed that due to the current events that happened in the past year (Brexit, Donald Trump becomes President) it gave U2 a reason to play their album for the diehard fans.

Three decades later, U2’s vision of America has become relevant once again.

Walk This Way

Last week, Major League Baseball approved of a dugout signal instead of the traditional four-pitch walk when a team wants to grant an opposing batter a free pass to first base. Essentially, the manager will signal his decision to the umpire as the batter will walk to first.

Really?

There’s not a lot to say in defending the intentional walk rule. It’s basically a boring play that’s rarely used. It won’t make that big of a difference since there was only 932 intentional walks last season, and that’s basically saving about 45 seconds of game time. However, it feels as if baseball is trying to address the issue of changing a play like this will have some impact to the game itself (it really won’t) but more changes could be coming.

Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director, Tony Clark, saw no real need for any substantive rule changes. MLB Commissioner, Robert Manfred, has been pushing to “improve pace and action“. After discussions with the union about potential rule changes, Manfred was extremely disappointed that the union was uncooperative during the discussion as they have resisted many of MLB’s potential rule changes.

Nevertheless, under baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement, management can alter playing rules only with an agreement from the union or unless it gives a one-year notice. Angry and frustrated that the players union will not accept any rule changes, Manfred intends to give the players association the required one-year notice that will allow management to unilaterally make changes for the 2018 season. Manfred will send a letter of notification to Clark this week in hopes of reaching an agreement.

Clark certainly took exception to Manfred’s comments and said rule changes already are expected to be implemented this season. There are plans for a two-minute limit this year for instant replay reviews.

Among the proposed changes, the League would like to introduce a 20 second pitch clock to reduce time between pitches, limiting the number of times a catcher can conference with a pitcher, and perhaps tweaking the strike zone as well.

There are mixed feelings about the strike zone. MLB has long studied whether or not to restore the lower edge of the strike zone. As stated in the rule book, the strike zone should be “hollow beneath the kneecap” of the batter midpoint between the top of the shoulder and the top of the pants. The new proposal would  raise the bottom zone to the top of the batters knees, about two inches higher. Interestingly enough, umpires have been increasingly calling strikes below the knees on so many pitches that redefining the zone would help hitters and hurt pitchers. It could produce more balls in play, more base runners and more action.

A 20 second pitch clock would be ideal to pace up the game. It’s been used in Triple-A and Double-A baseball for the past two seasons. This alone, would drastically change the pace of baseball.

The urgency is there to make changes. But it’s a one-sided urgency to change the rules. If anything, any MLB  rule changes, especially the ones non-baseball fans would think of as minor or irrelevant, will set off many baseball fans. From 1932-1968 there were no significant changes to baseball. It wasn’t until 1969-1973 where changes were made: lowering the mound, adding the save, batting helmets became mandatory, plus the designated hitter was introduced in the American League.

Since the American League has been playing with a designated hitter for 45 years, people continue to argue about it to this day.

Though the speed of play needs adjustments, it’s important for the League to understand that the game’s roots need to be preserved. Meaning if the pace of the game is going to be improved, the rules cannot have a lopsided effect on the offense or defence. Maybe, in time, change will be accepted by everyone. Perhaps if these rule changes are implemented over time, allowing them to first be tested in the minor leagues, they’ll be easier to digest for players and fans.

With some players welcoming the new intentional walk rule, players continue to resist Manfred’s intentions. Particularly, Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin made a sarcastic remark to the new intentional walk rule, and Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant commented that MLB could be going down a slippery slope with the rule changes.

More changes appear to be coming as MLB  has assigned Rawlings to produce a stickier ball with natural tack on the leather for the 2018 season.

Manfred will have a bigger fight on his hands in 2018. He’s facing challenges as he is trying to do what he think has to be done for baseball’s future generations: quicken pace of play.

While the current future looks bright for maintaining baseball’s traditional rules, it’s no secret that Manfred will continue to do what he can to speed up the pace of play. Neither side is certain how things will play out in regards to the new proposals, but they are expected to explore various ideas to pace the game. Manfred is simply trying to get what he wants.

Go home baseball, you’re drunk.

The Evolution

Brent Burns is having a juggernaut of a season.

He’s ranked third in NHL scoring with 64 points as Burns sits behind Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid for the League’s top scoring race.

The 31-year old Barrie, Ont., native could become only the second defenceman to ever win the Art Ross Trophy-  which is awarded to the League’s top scorer. The only defenceman to win the Art Ross was none other than Bobby Orr. Orr won the award when he was with Boston Bruins during the 1974-75 season.

Burns point totals are unheard of for an NHL defenceman and that’s due to a large part of his abilities. During his first NHL training camp in 2003, he was converted to defence by Minnesota Wild defensive-minded coach Jacques Lemaire. He switched from forward to defense on occasion until the Sharks announced he would stay on defence in August 2014.

With 27 goals this season, Burns is set to post only the 18th ever season of 30 goals scored by a defenceman and only the second since 1993. Mike Green was the last one to do it when he scored 31 goals for the Washington Capitals in 2008-09.

Burns is on pace for a career-best 51 assists for 88 points. He’s starting to look more like a potential favourite for the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the League’s best defenceman. Some say that he’s worthy of consideration for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the League MVP as well.

Over the last ten seasons, the Norris Trophy has been awarded four times to the leading scorer among defenceman. Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty won it last year against Burns and Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson. However,  Doughty just made it in the top-ten in scoring among defenceman.  Karlsson was the best offensive defenceman as he tied for fourth in scoring with 82 points in 82 games.

Doughty’s plus/minus rating was significantly different than Karlsson’s and Burns. Doughty had a plus-24, whereas Burns was a minus-five and Karlsson was a minus-2. It’s kind of why Karlsson and Burns didn’t win the Norris last year. It underlines the most difficult award to win, but to get it right.

Is it time for the NHL to possibly consider recognizing that there are two types of defenceman in the League? Perhaps, although a common misunderstanding when looking at any offensive defenceman is that they take a sacrifice with offense over defence.

Here’s the thing. Chris Pronger was the last defenceman to win the Hart Trophy back in 2000, and the first since Bobby Orr back in 1972. No defenceman has been nominated for the Hart since Pronger last won it. Given the potentially historic season he is having, it might be hard to overlook Burns this time around.

Some would argue that defenceman like Shea Weber are reasons why his defensive, and physical style of play are worthy to win the Norris. Weber doesn’t necessarily put up big numbers, but he’s a strong force on the blue line, who, like Burns, has yet to win the Norris. Don’t be surprised if both defenceman get nominated for the award at the end of the season.

People may not like the way Burns and Karlsson play compared to the way Doughty and Weber play, but sometimes it’s easier to focus on points than actual finer points of the game itself.

Altogether, Brent Burns has done enough to be considered for individual hardware for this years NHL Awards. His skill and value mean so much to the Sharks organization that on Nov. 23 they signed him to an eight-year, $64 million contract which runs through the 2024-25 season. He leads the League with shots on goal, while logging an average of 25 minutes of TOI. He’s  also an offensive force on the power play with the Sharks. Most notably, Burns does play on the penalty kill whenever the Sharks are up or down by a goal.

Talent and skill only get you so far in sports. Brent Burns might come off a bit careless with his Chewbacca-like beard, it might be because he puts so much focus into what he does on the ice.

Rookie Showdown

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets square off at the Air Canada Centre tonight, the final regular-season meeting between both teams.

Tonight’s game will be the last head-to-head match up between rookie sensations Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Both were chosen No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the 2016 NHL Draft. As the two rookies prepare to battle it out for the second time in their young careers, it’s clear that this is a showdown for rookie of the year.

Last time the two met, the Jets came back for a 5-4 overtime victory on Oct. 19. The Maple Leafs had a 4-0 lead in the second period when Laine led the comeback with his first NHL hat trick. Laine would score the overtime winner following a breakaway miss from Matthews.

Laine has had two more hat tricks this season since that game in Winnipeg four months ago. The Finnish forward is the first rookie with three hat tricks in a season since Teemu Selanne (five) and Eric Lindros (three) in 1992-93.

Matthews and Laine are among the favourites to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. They are not the only rookies in contention for the trophy as Mitch Marner, Zach Werenski and Matt Murray have made strong cases to be in the running as well.

This is great. It’s the best thing since Crosby vs. Ovechkin, and it’s no surprise that fans are witnessing some similarities. Foreign player vs. North American player, winger vs. centre, and two potential leaders for their respective teams in the future.

So, who has the edge for the Calder Memorial Trophy right now?

The two 19-year olds have been playing their best hockey recently. Laine has five goals and three assists in the last five games, where as Matthews has five points in his last five games. Note his goal from Sunday night against Carolina was sensational and it will be a highlight reel for a while.

The two are also atop of the rookie scoring race. Laine leads the way with 54 points as he is edging Matthews who has 52 points. Laine is ahead of Matthews along with his teammates Mitch Marner (46), and William Nylander (42). Laine and Matthews are tied for first for goal scoring among rookies with 28 as tonight is a good chance that one of them will be ahead, if not, still tied for most goals scored.

Laine leads all rookie forwards with 15:26 TOI at even strength. Matthews is right behind him at 15:13. Despite playing fewer games, Laine has the edge in even-strength points with 40 over Matthews. That being said, Matthews does lead all rookies with 24 even-strength goals where as Laine has 20.

Taking a look at the advanced stats, Matthews has the edge in Corsi percentages. His shot attempt differentials when players are on the ice is 53.2 percent to Laine’s 48.9 percent. Matthews also has the edge for offensive zone starts with 63.3 percent to Laine’s 55.4 percent. He’s also generating a huge amount of shots with 206, almost 60 more than Laine.

Although they are neck-and-neck in terms of traditional statistics like goals and assists, the underlying numbers suggest Matthews might be having the greater impact to his team. Matthews overall game and chemistry with the Maple Leafs other young players has helped him have a greater impact for Toronto than Laine has had with Winnipeg.

Part of what has made Matthews and Laine so successful this season is the way they approach the game. They don’t seem like rivals, except they are. It’s why they’re linked and why the NHL will benefit from them for years to come. Matthews and Laine should quietly push each other and play off one another, keeping their rivalry in place for the future.

I do feel that Matthews has a very strong case that he’s the League’s best rookie. He has had the bigger moments. You cannot forget his four-goal performance in his first NHL game four months ago, or the highlight reel goals and the Centennial Classic. He’s the Jonathan Toews type player the Leafs have desperately needed for so long. Even if he doesn’t lead all rookies in either major category, he’s a front runner for the Calder.

It’s been a special season for both rookies. If you think this year has been impressive, just wait until they get even more comfortable.

Sid & Ovie

Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin first met at the gold medal game at the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championship in Grand Folks, North Dakota. It resulted in a one-sided victory for Crosby and Team Canada. When they first entered the NHL later that same year, they became the faces of the league as they revived a fan base after the lockout cancelled season.

In 12 seasons of playing against each other, Ovechkin was the first one out of the two to reach 1,000 career points. He did it in career game number 880 on January 11th, 2017 when he scored against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ovechkin became the 24th fastest player to reach 1,000 points as he now joins fellow Russians Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny and Alexi Kovalev in the 1,000-point club.

Ovechkin is not the only player to reach 1,000 career points this season. Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin became the 85th player to reach 1,000 career points on January 19th against the Florida Panthers. Ironically, he scored on his former teammate Roberto Luongo as Henrik is the fourth Swede to reach the milestone. On the other hand, Ovechkin’s nemesis, Sidney Crosby, just became the 86th player to reach 1,000 career points.

Crosby is now the 13th fastest player in history to reach the milestone. He reached the milestone tonight with an assist on a  Chris Kunitz goal against the Winnipeg Jets. In 757 career games, Sid the Kid is now the third-fastest of all-time to reach 1,000 points behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

The Crosby and Ovechkin debate has been going on for so long, it’s fitting to witness the two of them reach the same milestone in the same season.

When it comes to goals, Ovechkin holds a much bigger lead between the two. He has 551 to Crosby’s 368. Last season, the Capitals captain became the fifth-fastest player to score 500 goals. His consistency is due to his durability as he has only missed more than four games in a season only once, and never more than 10 games.

At the end of their rookie campaigns, it was Ovechkin who went on to win the Calder Trophy. Following that, he went on to win the Art Ross as the League’s top point scorer (2008), six Rocket Richard trophies as the League’s goal-scoring champion (2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) and three Hart Trophies as the League MVP (2008, 2009, 2013).

Crosby has won the Art Ross twice (2007,2014) , the Ted Lindsay Award three times (2007, 2013, 2014), the Hart Trophy twice (2007, 2014), the Rocket Richard (2010) and Conn Smythe Trophy (2016).

Crosby leads the NHL with 296 multi-point games, 117 three-point games, and 30 four-point games.

With two Stanley Cups to his name, Crosby’s accolades are much stronger. Crosby exploded for 120 points as a 19-year old sophomore during the 2006-2007 season. He is the youngest MVP in history, and the youngest scoring champion in major pro sports history.

While Crosby and Ovechkin kept on dominating in their early years, injuries are another difference between the two. Ovechkin has never been badly injured, yet, Crosby had concussion problems. In some of Crosby’s darkest moments between 2011 and 2012, he questioned whether or not he would ever play again. In consecutive games, during the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals and January 5th against the Tampa Bay Lighting, Crosby suffered hits to his head from David Steckel and Victor Hedman. After experiencing concussion symptoms, Crosby did not return for the rest of the season while he missed the first 20 games of the 2011-2012 season.

On the international level, Crosby defeated Ovechkin at the 2010 Olympic Games as Canada knocked Russia out of the tournament in the quarter-finals which resulted in another one-sided victory for Crosby and Canada. Crosby would go on to score the “Golden Goal” in overtime to win the gold medal on home ice against the United States. His goal is one of the most iconic moments in sports history.

Even though Ovechkin has celebrated the World Championships three times, the Washington Capitals have yet to advance to the Conference Finals with Ovechkin.

Last season was especially difficult for Ovechkin. His Capitals were dominant through the regular season and finished first overall to win the Presidents’ Trophy. After defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, Ovechkin and Crosby clashed in the post-season for the second time in their careers and for the second time, the Penguins triumphed over the Captials.

About a month later, after Ovechkin and the Russians settled for bronze at home in Moscow at the 2016 World Hockey Championship, Crosby and the Penguins celebrated a Stanley Cup victory with Crosby winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

If they retired today, they’re most certainly heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Their resumes clearly speak for themselves in so many different ways. Generational players are very rare in the NHL yet alone seeing two of them playing against each other on a regular basis (excluding that one time when they were teammates as this years All-Star game). That’s what is so magnificent about this rivalry. It’ll be cherished for a long time.

In honour of celebrating the League’s centennial year, the NHL have named its top 100 players. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby joined the Blackhawks‘ championship-winning trio, and Jaromir Jagr as the active players in the top 100.

There will be a time when the debate of Crosby and Ovechkin will soon be finished. Fittingly, as they reach their thirties, fans now have a glimpse of the what future could hold for some new rivalries in the NHL with the likes of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine.

The Outlook

Just weeks away from Opening Day, the Toronto Blue Jays feel that they have what it takes to make a run at the postseason for a third consecutive year.

It’s manager John Gibbons‘ fifth season with team, with two straight trips to the postseason under his belt. After a dramatic win against the Baltimore Orioles in the Wild Card Game, a sweep to their rivals the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, they fell short once again in the American League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians.

Moves from the front office were cautious, yet important since they kept the window open for contending. This is good since they did not have to make any sacrifices to its minor league depth however, they did lose some key assets this winter.

It was a wild and crazy off-season for the Blue Jays. Management tacked a self-destructive take-it-or-leave-it offer for Edwin Encarnacion. Both sides seemed destined to get a deal done. Unfortunately, Encarnacion settled for less money with the Cleveland Indians as he signed a three-year, $60 million deal with an option of a fourth year. Blue Jays fans watched Encarnacion take less money after the team offered him a 4-year, $80-million deal.

Many fans did not expect Jose Bautista to return. Jose Bautista sat in limbo for months before the Jays snatched him back up on a favourable one-year deal. Bautista will make $18.5 million, that’s $1 million more than his rejected qualifying offer. The deal also includes a mutual option for 2018, and vesting options for 2019. The 36-year old will be healthy, and motivated in hopes of having a bounce back season after an injury plagued 2016 season. The surprise reunion could work out for both sides.

The starting rotation remains talented. Among one of the best, and more solidified rotations in the American League, it’s Toronto’s top asset heading into the 2017 season. There is no clear number one starter, but it is set with Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Francisco Liriano.

Sanchez and Stroman have plenty to prove this year. Sanchez had a remarkable campaign as he finished with 15 wins and the lowest earned run average (ERA) in the American League with a solid 3.00. Stroman had an up and down season that saw his ERA inflate to 4.37. Estrada has one of the best change ups in the League and he’s looking to bounce back after having a nagging back injury that lingered for most of the second half. Lefty J.A. Happ is looking to build off a very successful 20-win season, and Liriano is looking improve his consistency when he first came to Toronto after he was traded.

The bullpen was terrible in the first half, but picked up some consistency in the second half of the season. The Blue Jays improved their pen by signing southpaw J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith to one-year deals. Howell is the obvious replacement for Brett Cecil after he signed a four-year, $30.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals where as Smith is the replacement for Joaquin Benoit who also left for the Phillies. Howell and Smith will most likely handle the middle innings along with Joe Biagini. After that, veteran setup man Jason Grilli will come in before closer Roberto Osuna takes the mound in the late innings.

It’s clear that this roster is still built as a “must win now” team. The lineup may not have Encarnacion, but it still has 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitizki, Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales.

Kendrys Morales is the switch-hitting designated hitter who is being counted on as a middle-of-the-lineup order presence, and the obvious replacement for Encarnacion.  Most Blue Jay fans seem to forget that Morales was a key contributor with the Kansas City Royals in their back-to-back World Series appearances. With a ring to his name, Morales will look to bring his experience, and depth to the lineup in hopes of making another postseason run.

With the lead-off hitter in question, it’s no doubt that second baseman Devon Travis will likely serve as the lead-off man on Opening Day. When healthy, Travis sparks the play at the top of the lineup. However, he missed 61 games last season so he has a lot to make up for this season. He will have to find a way to stay healthy and be consistent at the plate.

Catcher Russel Martin was another Blue Jay who had an up and down year.Back up Josh Thole wasn’t too much to rely on as he was only used when R.A. Dickey pitched. Dionner Navarro came in to fill the void as the backup near the end of the season and it didn’t turn out so well. So, the Blue Jays signed a legitimate backup catcher, who has a very long last name.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia will provide more offense then Josh Thole. He’s a respectable a hitter who has much needed flexibility if Martin needs rest.

Justin Smoak and Steven Pearce will be interesting to watch as to who will play first base. Smoak, a switch-hitter, and Pearce, a versatile right-handed hitter, could end up in a platoon at first base after a signed a two-year, $12.5 million contract. Both hitters will be given a chance to win the starting job throughout Spring Training.

Left-field is up for grabs after Michael Saunders signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. There was zero offense from Saunders in the second half of the season and guys like Ezequiel Carerra, Melvin Upton, and Dalton Pompey could fill in the hole. All three have speed,  agility along with the small-ball skill that the Blue Jays lacked last season. Kevin Pillar will need to keep doing his thing defensively in centre-field. Who knows, maybe we’ll see Pillars numbers jump if he can cut down on the strikeouts and try for more walks this year.

Last but not least, Josh Donladson. The Bringer of Rain is arguably one of the best third basemen in the game. He’ll continue to be a strong force in the lineup offensively and on the field defensively.

The AL East will be a tough battle. The Boston Red Sox have some of the top young offensive players, and with the addition to Chris Sale, their rotation can be matched to the Blue Jays. Also add the tough Baltimore Orioles, the pesky Tampa Bay Rays, and the New York Yankees who have promising young players. This division will be more challenging than it was a year ago.

Expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays have increased over the last few seasons. Before the 2015-16 seasons, the postseason was a foreign concept to Canadians, but now, not so much. Toronto, nor its fans, will no longer settle for second. For this season to be successful, they have to make the postseason again. However this time, they have to at least play in the World Series.

 

 

Pyeongchang 2018

A standoff between the National Hockey League and the International Olympic Committee continues with no end in sight. There is exactly one year before the opening ceremonies begin for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The NHL has downplayed its interest in participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics during the All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. However, International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel is optimistic that the players will be at the Olympics.

Last week in New York, Fasel met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, National Hockey League Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr, and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. Bach, who made his first appearance with the four gentleman and hasn’t been apart of the previous meetings. The fact that Bach was present at this meeting could be a significant development in this on going debate.

The Olympics have become apart of the NHL labor situation. The League recently asked if the union would eliminate its opt-out option in 2019 and extend the labor pact three years through the 2024-2025 season in exchange for participating in the 2018 Olympics. However, the union refused.

The I.O.C. has indicated that it did not want to cover the cost of travel and insurance to get hockey’s best to the Olympics. The committee spent roughly $14 million on those expenses for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Despite the committee doing so since 1998, the owners were not pleased with this. Fasel recently said that he would get the $10 million for the costs where as Bettman remains unconvinced of this.

The biggest thing of all of is the owners’ reluctance to interrupt the NHL season for three weeks. Although they have done so for recent Olympics, the 14-hour time difference and the small market revenue in South Korea are concerns as well.

Discussions are expected to continue in the coming weeks. The I.O.C. is concerned that if it continues to cover the costs for the NHL players, other professional sports such as; basketball, golf, and tennis will start demanding similar compensation for their athletes in the Olympics.

Players want to participate in a sixth straight Olympics.Since NHL players started playing in the 1998 Nagano Games, the competition has drawn widespread acclaim for its skill level and intensity. Many NHL owners were already unhappy at sending away star players to risk an injury. For John Tavares, it was a bittersweet Olympics for him in 2014. Tavares tore his MCL and meniscus in his left knee where would remain out of the tournament, and it ended his season altogether. Islanders GM Garth Snow sounded off on the I.O.C and IIHF after he found out about the injury.

For a generation of players that grew up watching their idols play in the Olympics, reaching the Olympics has become a dream to rival the Stanley Cup. The NHL should send its players despite the issues at hand.If the issues aren’t resolved and the players don’t go to the 2018 Olympics, they may choose to go to the 2022 Olympics instead, which would likely be held in Beijing, a much better market for the NHL.

Fasel and Bach both want the NHL players to participate in the Olympics, there has been discussions of a “Plan B”. If the players don’t go, they would use lesser talent with the same rules, schedule and format. The idea of an Under-23 event has been rejected at the moment. There have been rumblings from some players that if an agreement isn’t reached, they will defy the League and play for their respected countries regardless.

It’s easy to forget that Bettman was a key reason why the players went to the Games in 1998. Ultimately, these decisions generally seem to come down to money. The question of who will pay the insurance and travel costs for NHL players is an issue once again. The three parties will have to come up with an agreement with one warning, time is running out.

The Kids Are Alright

When Mike Babcock was hired as the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach on May 21, 2015, he warned the fan base and media with the infamous “there’s pain coming” quote in regards to the team’s rebuilding plan.

Almost two years later, Toronto is almost pain-free. The Leafs are in the best shape they’ve been in more than a decade. They currently own a 17-12-8 record that has the Leafs three points back of a wild-card spot and two points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. A surprise position considering the fact that the Leafs have only made the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons.

The turn around is all thanks to team president, Brendan Shanahan, and general manager Lou Lamoriello. These gentlemen and Babcock have known nothing but success and how to win in their respective careers.

The most impressive piece to the rebuilding puzzle is that it’s being led by an incredible youth core.

Remember Auston Matthews first NHL game? The first game of his young career where scored four goals? You knew this kid has a ton of promise as he’s the type of player the Leafs have desperately needed for so many years. The first overall pick from last summer’s draft has 20 goals for 34-points in 37 games.

Matthews is on pace for 40 goals this season, which would eclipse Wendel Clark’s Leaf rookie record of 34 goals back in the 1985-86 season. The rookie phenom is producing off a 65-point pace, which would come close to Peter Ihnacak’s record off 66-points in a rookie season, despite Ihnacak being 25-years old at the time.

Thankfully, Matthews is not alone in the youth movement. There’s 19-year old Mitch Marner whose perseverance has him second in team scoring with 29-points. William Nylander, who has been up and down the lineup all season, has 26-points which means these three rookies are in the top five for scoring on the Leafs (JVR and Bozak are also in there).

Furthermore, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman deserve recognition for their continuous efforts on the penalty kill along with their speed and skill that come with it. Hyman and Brown are having good seasons for the first time since Hyman last played at Michigan where he was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award (given to the top NCCA men’s ice hockey player) while Brown captained the Erie Otters in his final junior season.

Contributions from their top veterans like James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Nazem Kadri have helped this young team establish themselves. Toronto’s rookies have had the most impact for the team. The kids have a combined 130+ points for rookie scoring and second on that list are the Winnipeg Jets, who have a little over 50-points in combined rookie scoring. Compared to last season’s numbers, the top-point players were P.A. Parenteau, Kadri, Bozak, and JVR (up until his foot injury took him out for the season). Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are expected to surpass those players’ numbers from last season.

The biggest downside to their season is the number of leads they’ve blown in the third period. Frustrating, yes, but the Leafs have the held the lead after 40 minutes 20 times in 37 games. That puts them in a tie with the  Columbus Blue Jackets for the league lead.

One concern is that they’ve won 13 games in regulation and sit 13-1-6 after last night’s overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. But on the bright side to the dismal defense, the Leafs allowed a power-play goal for the first time in 23 penalty kills last night.

It’s not the rookie’s fault but the veteran core isn’t quite good enough since they’ve played on crappy teams in the past. They aren’t good defensively but this team isn’t quite good enough to beat some of the elite teams in the NHL. The defense has allowed too many shots and domination against opponents in their own zone. The defense has the experience to play in any situation, but cheap giveaways and poor communication have cost this team to close out games in regulation. There’s still time for this defense to improve and it has to come along with the offense if the Leafs are going to improve themselves.

The defense has allowed too many shots and domination against opponents in their own zone. Although the blue line has the experience to play in any situation, but cheap giveaways and poor communication have cost this team to close out games in regulation. There’s still time for this defense to improve and it has to come along with the offense if the Leafs are going to improve themselves.

Toronto maybe in the playoff hunt at the moment but this management team should stick to the slow-but-sure rebuild plan as the rookies who are currently in the lineup should continue to develop at the proper pace.