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Many changes needed for Leafs

- April 16th, 2014

It’s mid-April and the question we’re asking about the Leafs is the usual one: What time are they teeing off today?

After snapping the streak last season, it was back to normal. Maybe they should campaign to play just 48 games every year. Or to put Detroit and Columbus back in the Western Conference.

We all watched this season go terribly wrong after the Olympic break. There was that eight-game losing streak in which the team didn’t even pick up a consolation point for going to OT.

There were players looking over their heads, making dumb decisions – especially in their own end.

And when a team that has little to nothing in the way of secondary scoring sees their top line and top star go through one of his epic cold streaks, well, you’re just not going to win games.

It’s the second straight season we saw this team meltdown, only this time it was over the course of a month as opposed to 10 minutes last year in Game 7. If last year was a swift decapitation, this year was a slow, torturous bleed.

So how can this star-crossed team avoid the same fate next season? Well, I’d start by lowering expectations.

Before the collapse, the Leafs were third in the conference and hoping to lock up home-ice advantage in the first round. That had everyone optimistic for a playoff run, even though the team was always flawed and showed some cracks on a nightly basis.

The defence was always suspect, getting bailed out by strong goalkeeping from Jonathan Bernier and occasionally James Reimer.

But when Bernier went down, Reimer wasn’t able to hold his end of the bargain.

On defence, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are both fine young offensive defencemen, but both have to grow into more physical players with better awareness in their own end.

Captain Dion Phaneuf had some howlers of giveaways, costing the Leafs on more than one occasion. It was questionable if he deserved his big contract extension when he was playing well, now it seems like a salary cap albatross.

And as for Cody Franson, after his breakout performance against Boston in last year’s playoffs, we thought he’d step into a role as a top-two defenceman. Instead, he regressed horribly, leading the team with a minus-20.

As for the forwards, after Phil Kessel’s slumping ways, it is readily apparent that you need a consistent second and third line to help ease the scoring burden. Guys like Nazem Kadri and Nik Kulemin clearly aren’t the answer here while also providing little in the way defensive help too.

The first big change that has already happened is the appointment of Brendan Shanahan as team president. Personally, I’m not sure if this will have much of an immediate impact at all – and even a long-term one is dicey. This is a guy that has no history of building teams or even organizations. The only reason that it’s big news is because this is Toronto we’re talking about and Shanny’s a Mimico boy, through and through. But just remember the last South Etobicoke guy that the team signed: David Clarkson.

Starting with the roster makeover, if anybody wants to take on Clarkson’s enormous salary, let them – for whatever it wants to give.

The next issue is Reimer. This guy has been torn down too many times to be rebuilt in Toronto. He should be shopped for any draft pick the Leafs can get, if only just jettison this toxic asset.

Talking about toxic assets, Colton Orr should never play in the NHL again. What good is a goon who doesn’t fight? He didn’t have a single point this season in 54 games and didn’t get in a fight after late November. So, what good is having him on the roster, let alone playing?

The Leafs will have roughly $21 million in cap space this coming summer, but as they learned last year, that doesn’t guarantee good pieces coming in. Also, because the cap is being raised, every team will have at least some space too, which will see a lot of buyers in the market.

The biggest notable observation down the stretch was that the team looked dead, as if it couldn’t care less about the predicament that it had put itself in. That falls on the leadership of the team, specifically the captain and especially the coach. Randy Carlyle has to go.

He has clearly lost the team if he can’t get them up for what were essentially elimination games in late March and early April.

Not helping the case to keep Carlyle is the fact that the Preds have fired long-time, highly respected coach Barry Trotz. With that kind of name on the market, it would be wise for Toronto to quickly cut ties with Carlyle and go after the former Preds bench boss hard.

Of course, all of these decisions are in the hands of Shanny now. Whether he’ll be a strong voice in the front office or just a puppet for Tim Leiweke remains to be seen. And if I were a member of Leafs Nation, I’d really hope that it is the former. The NHL is a league where you can’t just buy success.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

The title is Liverpool’s to lose

- April 15th, 2014

It might be time to start planning the parade route leading to Anfield. With a thrilling 3-2 victory over title rival Manchester City, Liverpool now sits atop the Premier League table with a two-point lead over Chelsea and a seven-point lead over City –which has two games in hand.

All the Reds have to do is win out, or get at least a draw with Chelsea and win their other games and the title will be theirs.

It will be Liverpool’s first title in 24 years and first in the Premier League era. Their SAS attack will join the original duo – Blackburn’s Shearer and Sutton – as champions.

This is a side that believes in itself, is playing with confidence and is getting the type of lucky bounces that champions often do.

That is what their game with City really came down to. If not for Vincent Kompany’s awful clearance right to Philippe Coutinho – who finished a brilliant half-volley – this game could have ended 2-2, or even 3-2 in City’s favour, as it was the stronger side in the second half.

Kompany had a hand in all three Liverpool goals really. Supposedly one of the best defenders in the EPL, maybe even the world, he was clearly out of form and bother by a training injury.

Speaking of player form, it should be noted that Luis Suarez seems to lack it against the EPL’s top teams.

Whether it be the better defenders or not being able to get up for the big games, Suarez has just two goals against the top five teams in the league and both came against Everton. So, if you’re counting at home, that’s zero goals against City, Arsenal and Chelsea and 29 goals against the rest of the league. Not exactly a big-game hunter.

The win was a fitting tribute to the 96 Reds fans that lost their lives in the Hillsborough tragedy 25 years ago. I’m sure that seeing those empty seats reserved for the deceased was all Liverpool needed to see to go out and play hard for that win.

AROUND THE EPL

It seems appropriately Chelsea that it could only muster a single goal against a relegation side down to 10 men. The Blues do get the three points quite often, but it never really seems easy … I’ve seen at least one report that Chelsea is set to buy Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa this summer to bolster their sagging forward corps. That play out interestingly during their semifinal matchup … It has become clear that Demba Ba is the best striker that Chelsea has. He may not score the prettiest goals, but at least he is scoring, unlike Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres at the moment … Of course it took penalties against Wigan for Arsenal to make the F.A. Cup final. The fact that the Gunner were trailing in the game didn’t even shock me. But this seems like an Arsenal team destined to finally win some silverware at the F.A. Cup final, but fail to claim its usual Champions League spot … It’s quite fun that the two teams in the final – Arsenal and Hull City – play each next week in league play. I can’t see either side giving away too much in the way of strategy. It also could benefit Hull to let the Gunners win. If Arsenal finishes fourth, Hull would secure Europa League spot no matter the result of the Cup final … Fulham’s win against Norwich makes the relegation battle even more interesting. The closer things are at the bottom, the more exciting the final few matches with relelgation battlers can be.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Gunners keep shooting themselves in the foot

- April 8th, 2014

With all due respect to Liverpool and its ability to stay on top of the table, the story of the week was Arsenal choking yet again.

While we can’t take anything away from Everton – which has been excellent lately and are earning their lofty place in the table – shouldn’t we expect more from Arsenal?

The team that topped the table for the majority of season looked lost in a must-win game. There was no sense of urgency, no tactical awareness and no adjustments to counter the Toffees.

Roberto Martinez’s decision to start Romelu Lukaku out on the right caused problems most of the day for the Gunners, who are defensively deficient in that area.

It’s just a typical collapse for Arsenal, one that probably won’t result in much more than unfulfilled rumours of Arsene Wenger’s demise.

At least with their FA semifinal against Wigan on the horizon, the Gunners can come one step closer to finally claiming some long-awaited silverware. Of course, it may come at the expense of a fourth-place finish – Arsenal’s calling card for years.

How ironic would it be if in the year it finally wins a cup, Arsenal fails to make the Champions League?

Of course, Everton’s fixture list is trickier down the stretch with games against both Manchester sides remaining.

One thing’s for certain: This race for fourth is just another of the compelling storylines coming down the stretch.

CONTROVERSY AT UPTON PARK

For once, the table-toppers were able to hold their lead – albeit in a game filled with controversy.

The Reds looked flat for the first half against West Ham, a low-table team that makes a habit of frustrating opponents at home.

But the Hammers weren’t the only ones to cause frustration on the day. Referee Anthony Taylor had his hand in all three goals on the day, when only one should have been given.

First, he gave a penalty on a play that saw West Ham keeper Adrian get the ball, then brush the leg of Jon Flanagan, who made the most of it.

If there’s one way to tell if an offensive player thought it was a penalty or not, it’s his reaction after the foul – and Flanagan didn’t appeal for the penalty at all. In fact, he continued trying to play the ball.

A dubious call for sure, but it was the type of penalty that you could file under “I’ve seen it be given.”

On West Ham’s goal, it looked pretty clear that former Red Andy Carroll clobbered goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in the head, causing the ball off the cross to drop to the feet of Guy Demel, who swiftly deposited it in the net.

The second half was much different, with Liverpool turning it on after a smart substitution by Brendan Rodgers, who is earning a reputation as one of Europe’s best.

But the real test is right ahead and could easily be a fixture that goes a long way to deciding the title race. Yes, next Sunday Manchester City visits Anfield – with Sergio Aguero reportedly ready to return from injury.

No that’s a game of the year if I’ve ever seen one.

ABOUT THE GUYS IN BLUE

The other top two contenders did their jobs against inferior opposition.

Chelsea beat Stoke 3-0 in a game that saw the Blues start some of its B team. Granted, some of those B team guys, like Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard, Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle would be unquestioned starters on a team like Stoke, but it was obvious that Jose Mourinho was looking for a new spark.

And at least Chelsea could claim for 24 hours on the weekend that it was back on top of the EPL, which I’m sure Mourinho had no interest in doing considering his capitulation last week.

The Sky Blues of Manchester defeated Southampton 4-1, a scoreline that flatters them for that game.

The Saints gave City a run for their money, even out-possessing the title challengers.

But the news of this game was that potential England forward Jay Rodriguez suffered a serious injury, ending his season and hopes for Brazil.

It was a tough blow too, considering he has 15 goals this season to lead the team.

AROUND THE PREMIER LEAGUE

It was no Wayne Rooney, no problem for Manchester United against Newcastle. Without him or Robin van Persie, the Red Devils offence had little trouble slicing through the Magpies’ back line. Why can’t David Moyes do this sort of thing more consistently? … Juan Mata had his best game yet with United, scoring twice – including a brilliant free kick – and playing a stunning back heel leading to Adnan Januzaj’s goal. Perhaps there’s hope yet for the former Chelsea man … If Spurs showed the kind of fight it did every week that it did to pot five against Sunderland after going down one, they’d be fighting for a Champion’s League spot instead of holding on to the second Europa League place. It will be interesting to see what direction Tottenham goes in this summer … The relegation race is very slowly sorting itself out, with Sunderland, Cardiff and Fulham left holding the bags. Of course, a win in any given week would help their causes greatly, it’s getting harder to see these sides pick up points. Even the Black Cats, with two games in hand, aren’t in good position. Remember, those games in hand are against top sides Man City and Everton.

THE LAST WORD

After news Norwich sacked manager Chris Hughton, the general sentiment was, “Damn, he was such a nice guy.” My question is if he kept his job precisely because he was such a nice guy.

Norwich’s record has been awful recently, slumping down to 17th in the table, five points out of the relegation zone. The Canaries have scored the second least goals in the league with 26 while not being particularly stout in the back.

So while this sacking may not be too shocking, what comes out of it might be. A quick glance at the list of current Premier League managers shows a shocking trend: Just seven managers have been with their teams for more than a year.

Breaking it down further, only three managers have led their teams more than two years.

That is an incredible rate of turnover. And when you figure that there have been calls for Wenger, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce to be sacked this season – the three longest-tenured gaffers – you understand why that rate is so high.

Wenger, the elder statesman of the league has been in charge of Arsenal for 17 years, 189 days. To put in perspective how remarkable that is, his 6,394 day reign with the Gunners is just 533 days less than the rest of the EPL managers combined.

Wenger must be one heck of a nice guy.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

No joke, Liverpool’s on top

- April 1st, 2014

It may be April Fool’s Day, but you’re not reading the Premier League table wrong. That is Liverpool on top.

Yes, after the Reds big win over Tottenham and Chelsea’s stumble at Crystal Palace – more on that later – Liverpool is now two points up on the Blues for first place.

After last season’s poor performance with a few calls for Brendan Rodgers to be canned, a summer of speculation over whether or not Luis Suarez would be sold and even a few speed bumps earlier this campaign, you never really thought that Liverpool would be here at this point in the season.

This is a team that is largely the same as it was during last year’s seventh-place finish, but now have that extra year of bonding and growing together, which has clearly worked wonders.

With a goal on Saturday, Suarez is now on 29 for the season, which is two behind the record. Just imagine if he hadn’t been suspended for the first five games of the season. There have been just five games this season in which he hasn’t recorded a goal or assists.

His strike partner Daniel Sturridge is at 20 goals and he also missed eight games.

And Raheem Sterling, another year older at 19 now, is looking like a lock for the English national team in Brazil.

The trick now for the Reds is to avoid the wobbles that come when you’re on top. Just look at what has happened to Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea when they were basking in the glory.

And to think that Reds could win out is just silly. That would put them on a 14-game winning streak to close the season, a run that has never been accomplished in EPL play before.

And there are two big fixtures on the horizon: vs. Manchester City and vs. Chelsea.

Each will be called a title eliminator and each will go a long way towards settling this race.

But for now, in summation: Liverpool. Leading the EPL. In April. It’s Happening.

ABOUT THOSE EASY GAMES …

There were a couple of really great things to come out of Chelsea’s stunning upset loss at Crystal Palace on Saturday.

First, the fact that it was a John Terry own goal that caused this chaos – couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Second, Jose Mourinho was going over the top talking about it all and the consequences.

We all love to hate on Terry, the cheating, wife-stealing, rebellion-leading, alleged racist. So much so it’s hard to think that he deserves some of this accidental bad fortune from a karma standpoint. Really, though he could have done better to deflect the cross that went in, it wasn’t exactly an easy play to make.

As for the Special One, he upped his game on the mic this week.

After the loss he declared Chelsea’s title hopes over while just two points back of Liverpool. We haven’t seen this type of downplaying since Roberto Mancini claimed week in, week out, that his Man City side couldn’t top United, which it did.

Mourinho also claimed that his team just didn’t get up for games against lesser teams, like Palace this weekend and Aston Villa two weeks ago. If anything that’s just another example of tactically deflecting the heat off his players onto himself.

But the fact is that Chelsea is running out of time. Another performance like that feeble one at Selhurst Park and these little horses will be too far off the pace.

MARQUEE LETDOWN

For as big of a matchup that Manchester City-Arsenal was, a 1-1 draw seems like a bit of a disappointment.

City took it the host Gunners, but it didn’t really feel like it was ever going to get out of hand.

And when last week’s goat Mathieu Flamini scored the equalizer, it seemed rather fitting.

The Sky Blues still have their two games in hand, which gain even more importance every time the team can’t claim all three points.

AROUND THE PREMIER LEAGUE

If we did a best XI of the week, Julian Speroni would definitely be the keeper this week. He was outstanding in stopping the chances that Chelsea was able to get against the stout Palace defence … The big reason why Tottenham isn’t contending this season: It’s poor record against the top four clubs. Aggregate scores against the top are as follows: Liverpool 9-0, Manchester City, 11-1, Chelsea 5-1 (with a 1-1 draw) and Arsenal 2-0. That’s right; Spurs goal differential against the top four clubs is an incredibly woeful 27-2 … In case you haven’t noticed, Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez has an outstanding 15 goals this season, good for a tie for fourth in the league. Is an England World Cup callup in the offing? … The scene of the week came at the end of the back-and-forth Cardiff-West Brom match. Just when you thought it was all over and the Baggies had taken three points with Thievy Bifouma’s goal in the fourth minute of injury time, Cardiff somehow came back and scored the equalizer in the fifth minute of added time, just before the final whistle. Who says the relegation battle can’t be fun, right?

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

MLB 2014 season preview

- March 28th, 2014

This will without a doubt be a season of transition for Major League Baseball.

For that reason, we’re going to see some good, some bad and some weird things. Here’s what to look out for in the coming 162-game grind known as the MLB regular season.

-The MLB regular season has already started, but spring training is still going on. Weird, right? Yes, those two games in Australia between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened the season last week – they weren’t just exhibitions. But that didn’t mean Spring Training was over. In fact, both of the teams that played in Australia kept on playing pre-season tilts. Kind of takes away from the whole season-opening series, right?

-Thanks to the Winter Olympics extending the NHL season and baseball trying to get the regular season to end earlier, we’re going to have two weeks of overlap between the NHL and MLB regular seasons. So, if you’re a Leafs fan, feel free to flip the channel to the Jays if you get too depressed.

-For the first time in 15 years, the New York Yankees won’t have the league’s top payroll. This year, it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers at $235 million to the Yanks $204 million.

-It’s not like the Yankees weren’t trying to splash the cash either. The Bronx Bombers looked like their early 2000′s vintage, shelling out big deals to players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka.

-The average baseball salary is up to nearly $4 million this season. To put that in perspective, in 1995 – Derek Jeter’s first MLB season – the league average was $1.07 million. Oh, how far this league has come.

-Speaking of Jeter, he’ll be on a 162-game victory lap. This is the farewell season for one of the most popular players to ever hit the field. Expect a lot of tributes, a lot of pre-game ceremonies and – shockingly – some cheers even from the Fenway Faithful. In an interesting twist, Jeter’s final regular-season game will be in front of them in Boston.

-In an interesting loophole, suspended-for-the-season Alex Rodriguez will still earn some money. Of his $25 million salary, A-Rod will earn $2.8 million. Why? Because the season is actually 183 days long and A-Rod is only banned for the team’s 162 games. That leaves 21 days when he’s technically working.

-Did you know that there are currently no active pitchers with 200 career wins? Bartolo Colon and Mark Buehrle are close, but they likely won’t reach the milestone until at least mid-season. Remember the days when guys would be going for 300 wins? I guess longevity goes out the window with everyone blowing out their arms so quickly.

-Can Miguel Cabrera capture a third straight MVP and another near Triple Crown? I think it’ll be really hard without Prince Fielder hitting behind in the Tigers lineup.

-How many no-hitters will we see this season? After seven in 2012, there were just six in 2013. But, it may be an even-odd year thing. In 2010, there were six while in 2011 had three also. Don’t forget that last year we saw three no-nos broken up in the ninth inning either.

As for some predictions…

AL East: Boston Red Sox.

AL Central: Detroit Tigers.

AL West: Los Angeles Angels.

AL wild cards: Texas Rangers, New York Yankees.

NL East: Washington Nationals.

NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers.

NL wild cards: Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants.

AL MVP: Mike Trout, LAA

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, WAS

AL Cy Young: Matt Moore, TB

NL Cy Young: Madison Bumgarner, SF

Surprises: Kansas City, San Diego, Albert Pujols somewhat comes back,

Disappointments: Robinson Cano, Chris Davis, Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, Max Scherzer.

Biggest name traded: David Price, TB.

The Blue Jays will finish: 82-80, fourth in the AL East.

ALCS: Tigers over Rangers.

NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals.

World Series: Dodgers over Tigers.