32 Burning Questions

September 7, 2008

http://www.squibkick.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/09/bam-childress-new-england-nfl-site.jpg

by Mike De Marco… With The NFL’s first Sunday starting today, I take a look at 32 burning questions around the league.  Predicted record in parenthesis.

AFC EAST

NEW ENGLAND (13-3)
Burning Question:  Will the Patriots suffer a drop off after failing to complete their quest for an undefeated season after a shocking loss in the Super Bowl?

Mike’s Take:  To expect the Pats to run through the regular season undefeated again would be downright foolish, but to see them representing the AFC in the Super Bowl again would not be unexpected.  The Patriots will once again be the team to beat in the AFC, as Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and co. look to finish what they could not last season.

NEW YORK JETS (10-6)
Burning Question:  Can Brett Favre adapt to a new offence quickly enough to turn the fortune around for a team that finished last season 4-12?

Mike’s Take:  Considering what this team had at the quarterback spot a season ago, it’s easy to assume there is a major upgrade here; and, although it might take a while for Favre to adapt to his new offense, it’s fair to say he is good for at least four wins, which would give New York a .500 season.  Add in the $125 million the front office tossed around at free agents, and the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets will compete for a wild card berth.

BUFFALO BILLS (6-10)
Burning Question: Who’s it gonna be fellas? Trent Edwards, or J.P Losman?

Mike’s Take:  Edwards is the starter…for now.  But after last season’s inconsistencies among both quarterbacks, I predict the quarterback carousel has not come to a complete stop just yet.  Edwards needs to solidify himself as the starter with solid play right out of the gate to silence the inevitable rumblings that will come with each incompletion.  Having said all that, the Bills need another year of seasoning for all their young talent, and need a ton of luck to make the post season.  I think they actually regress from a year ago.

MIAMI DOLPHINS (3-13)
Burning Question:  Does Bill Parcells have the savvy to turn around the NFL’s worst team?

Mike’s Take:  Even though the “TUNA” is in the front office and not on the sidelines, make no mistake; this is his football team.  After an abysmal 1-15 campaign, Parcells definitely has his work cut out for him, and to think Miami has even the slightest of hopes this year, well you may as well re-invest in the Bre-X stock.  Will they win more then a single game this year?  I have no doubts, but with a new starting QB, coach, and various other aspects, the Fin’s are going to need monster years out of running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, who is trying to revive his once budding (no pun intended) career.  Miami will run the ball a ton, but it won’t be enough to avoid another last place finish in the East.  Parcells will definitely turn this team around, just not overnight.

AFC NORTH
CLEVELAND BROWNS (11-5 Tie-breaker)
Burning Question:  Can newly acquired tackles Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams adapt to playing in a 3-4 scheme after spending their careers playing in a 4-3?

Mike’s Take:  On the surface, you would think that playing on the defensive line is playing on the defensive line, but any scout will tell you that the two schemes are totally different.  A 4-3 usually likes to employ tackles who penetrate the backfield and disrupt plays while a 3-4 likes their tackles to take on blocking offensive line-men, leaving space for the linebackers to make plays.  I’m not sure if either tackle is a “great fit”, but feel that both are a major upgrade over what they had last season.  If both don’t mind playing unselfish football, which for Rogers is a major question mark, I think the Browns run defense will be much improved.  Don’t look at sack or tackle totals to judge their performance, but instead look at what the Browns yield per game on the ground.  That will be the true indicator of Rogers, and Williams’ value.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-5)
Burning Question:  With Head Coach Mike Tomlin installing a new spread formation offense, can the Steelers still be successful?

Mike’s Take:  I think this is a very interesting development.  On one hand you have a Super Bowl winning quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, who we have yet to see at full capacity, and on the other hand, you have years and years of a running system that has been very successful for this franchise.  Bottom line comes down to how much the Steelers still plan on running the football.  Willie Parker returns as the starter, but first round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall will be the new bruiser back.  I think Big Ben has the attributes to put up much bigger numbers than he has in the past and the Steelers must think the same way.  The bigger question might be:  do the Steelers have the weapons to run this offence?  Prediction:  Roethlisberger passes for 4,000, and Santonio Holmes surpasses 1200 receiving yards.

BALTIMORE RAVENS (5-11)
Burning Question:  Who will be the eventual number one quarterback:  Kyle Boller, Troy Smith, or Joe Flacco?

Mike’s Take:  I really think the answer to this is simple.  Flacco is the future for this franchise.  He may not be the starter opening week, but he will be starting by week 10, and you can quote me on that.  You don’t trade up in the first round to select someone who won’t contribute early.  The pre-season will determine who, out of Boller and Smith, will start week one, but in essence, it’s just a prayer the Ravens have of hopefully making the postseason.  I will end all the speculation for them.  THEY HAVE NO CHANCE!  Baltimore boasts zero in terms of offensive capabilities, and are getting very old on the defensive side of the ball.  So my estimation is by week 10, they will be all but out of it and insert their new quarterback of the future.  Flacco has many tools that previous Raven Q.B’s lacked, especially an arm.  Flacco can down right let it fly, and by seasons end the NFL will know too!

CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-12)
Burning Question:  Will the Bengals make it through the season without any issues off the field?

Mike’s Take:  After an abysmal season where all of the Bengals weaknesses were exposed on the field, several were exposed off of it as well.  Several Cincinnati football players were arrested and/or convicted of various offenses, thereby putting an addition burden in the locker room for team leaders such as Carson Palmer.  Coach Marvin Lewis sent a strong message in the off season that this behavior is not acceptable and promptly released players such as promising LB Odell Thurman, who has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL.  WR Chris Henry has also been suspended for the season’s first four games and has also been released by the team.  Even without any of the issues off the field, the Bengals are in for a very long season.  This team has a ton of problems on the field too!

AFC SOUTH

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (13-3)
Burning Question:  Do the Jaguars finally have a complete enough team to overtake the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South?

Mike’s Take:  What we’re going to see with the Jacksonville Jaguars this season will be the most talked about story in the NFL this season.  Yes, Jacksonville has the team to finally overtake the Colts in the South.  They will finally show a passing attack to go along with that freakish running attack they bring with them on Sunday’s.  The acquisition of WR Jerry Porter may have gone unnoticed by many fans across the league, but it is a name you will hear time and time again this season.  Porter has tons and tons of ability, but was stuck in an abyss while he wasted away in Oakland.  First; he was stuck behind legends Jerry Rice and Tim Brown.  Then he was in another quagmire when the Raiders just didn’t have anyone to deliver him the football.  Porter is the type of down field threat this team, and more specifically QB David Garrard, has lacked.  The Jaguars, for the first time since the Mark Brunell days, have a very balanced offence.  Defensively, the addition of coordinator Greg Williams will make an already good defense that much better.  Williams has had defensive success everywhere he has gone.  This is definitely the best chance Jacksonville will have to take over the South, and I am going on record as saying they will.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (12-4)
Burning Question:  Will Peyton Manning be affected by having his bursa sac removed so close to the start of the season?

Mike’s Take:  We are talking about one of the games all time great quarterbacks in Manning, but anytime a player has a long layoff it can be a concern.  Manning should be healthy for the opening game of the season, but how effective will he be without having any game reps in the pre-season?  When you consider that the Colts offense is basically run on timing routes, it can become a factor.  Having said that, Manning has been running this offense for years and it won’t take him long to regain his timing, but the Colts first three opponents are the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, and the Jaguars, who all boast one of the leagues better defenses and could cause a wary Manning many problems.  Look for the Indy high octane offense to be fully running by week four.

HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7)
Burning Question:  Can the Texans finally compete for a playoff berth?

Mike’s Take:  Gary Kubiak has done an admirable job turning around this once morbid franchise by assembling a group that actually competes game in and game out.  Solid signings in free agency and some crafty drafting have helped turn this unit into one of the games most exciting.  Matt Schaub has brought a presence to the quarterback spot that David Carr never could, and with Kubiak bringing in a myriad of ex-Broncos, either players or coaches, and implementing the same zone blocking scheme he executed for Denver’s two Super Bowl championships, the Texans have reason to believe in offense.  On defense 2006 number one pick DE Mario Williams developed in the pass rushing phenom the front office hoped for after leading the team with 14 sacks last season, good for third in the league.  2007 first round selection DT Amobi Okoye anchors the middle of the D-line, providing Houston with a presence on the other side of the ball.  Kubiak and the Texans still have work ahead of them before they are considered a premier team in the NFL, but it wouldn’t be out of the question to see the Texans fight for the final wild card berth this season.

TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10)
Burning Question:  Which Vince Young will we see this year, Young from ’06, or Young from ’07?

Mike’s Take:  To blame Young for all of Tennessee’s problems on offense last year would be down right wrong, but to totally abolish him from any wrong doing would be wrong as well.   Young failed to grow on his fascinating rookie season which earned him offensive rookie of the year honors.  There were no late game comebacks, thrilling runs, or “how did he do that” plays.  Was Young’s rookie year a mirage?  Truth of the matter is, Young was basically playing alone out there at times last season.  I mean, who on the Titans offense really strikes fear into anyone?  Aside from Young of course.  Their running game was at times non-existent, and the Titan receivers led the league in dropped passes last year.  Surely you can’t blame Young for that. All the great quarterbacks had players to play with them, but Young was left naked last season.  Head Coach Jeff Fisher has done little to improve the weapons around Young, so unless Vince can learn to carry this team on his shoulders, look for a season more along the lines of last season.  If I’m Fisher, I am pounding RB LenDale White into opposing defenses all game long.

AFC WEST

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (12-4)
Burning Question:  Is this team really a Super Bowl contender?

Mike’s Take:  After watching the Chargers amass one of the leagues better records over the last three seasons, with zero playoff success it does become a question worth asking.  In last years playoff loss in New England you definitely could argue it would have been a different game had RB LaDanian Tomlinson played more than one series, and had QB Phillip Rivers not played on a torn knee.  However, it is the second consecutive season where the Pats have knocked the Chargers out of the post season, and in order to become a Super Bowl team, you have to win playoff games.  There is not much change for San Diego heading into this season except that Rivers has another year of experience, and LT has another year of wear and tear on his body.  This team will definitely be the class of the AFC West again.  Just too many ways to beat you.  And I expect this team to make some noise in the post season, but with all the very good teams in the AFC it really is tough to say how far they can go.  Are they a contender?  ABSOLUTELY!

DENVER BRONCOS (10-6)
Burning Question:  Will Jay Cutler become an elite quarterback?

Mike’s Take:  When the Broncos had an opportunity to trade up in the ’05 draft to get Cutler, Head Coach Mike Shanahan wasted no time in pulling the trigger.  What Shanahan saw was a raw talent that comes into the league once a generation.  Having played at lowly Vanderbilt in college, Cutler didn’t get the same recognition as draft mates Matt Leinart and Young, but believe this:  Cutler is by far the best of the three.  Entering his third NFL season Cutler is poised to take the Broncos by the reins and solidify his spot as Broncos quarterback.  Not to say Cutler will make everyone forget about ‘ol number 7, but he will become the best Broncos QB since, and possibly ever.  Yes you read right…no need to rub your eyes.  I for one am the greatest John Elway fan ever, but having watched Elway in years one and two, and now watching Cutler in his first two seasons, I can definitely say that Cutler is ahead at this point in their careers.  Number wise it’s not even close, but that is just the Shanahan factor.  That’s why I think Cutler has a shot to obliterate Elway’s records, having Shanahan as coach in a QB friendly system can do that for a player.  The one thing that really stands out for me with Cutler is the fact he played very well for a second year quarterback, despite playing with type-1 diabetes that was undiagnosed until after the season.  Cutler lost 36 pounds in three months, but still played well.  Imagine what this kid can do healthy!  As long as budding star WR Brandon Marshall can put his off field problems to bed, Cutler and Marshall will form one of the games best duo’s.  One more thing I see in Cutler:  The “it” factor.  Elway had it, Dan Marino had it, Joe Montana had it, and Favre still has it.  The little feeling you get when your team needs a play, and you just know your QB is going to make it for them.  Ah yes….the “it” factor.  Sit back and watch Cutler this season.  He alone gives Denver a shot at the post season.

OAKLAND RAIDERS (7-9)
Burning Question:  Can the Oakland Raiders finally climb out of mediocrity?

Mike’s Take:  Fact of the matter is the Raiders are still owned by Al Davis, and when you are owned by Davis, you are run top to bottom by Davis.  Oakland’s problems seem to resonate from the fact that Davis just seems to refuse to change from his old school ways in order to catch up with how football is played today.  Horrible free agent signings have plagued this team for years, and average drafting enhances the problem, but if you squint over the horizon, you just might see a glimmer of hope.  Oakland may have finally found their franchise player in quarterback JaMarcus Russell.  With only two career starts, it’s safe to say this will be another growing year for the team, but some pieces are in place to at least make them competitive.  RB Darren McFadden was drafted in the first round to give Oakland a rushing threat not seen since the days of Marcus Allen, and combined with Russell, may form a formidable duo on offense, and with the signing of CB DeAngelo Hall who will team with Nnamdi Asomugha to form one of the best cornerback tandems in football.  Oakland has pieces, but it just seems that players who are promising seem to die in Oakland.  Is it a Davis thing?

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (3-13)
Burning Question:  Will RB Larry Johnson reclaim his spot as one of the leagues best backs?

Mike’s Take:  Johnson definitely has the ability to again become one of the leagues better backs, but as you know, a good running back needs a good line and a good passing attack.  When Johnson was shredding the league apart for consecutive 1700 yard seasons in ’05, and ’06, Johnson was the beneficiary of a solid offensive line.  Pro Bowl players such as William Roaf and Will Shields anchored a line that blew open gaping holes for Johnson to run through.  Now it’s a very different story in Kansas City.  The passing game is so poor under QB Brodie Croyle, teams will play eight man fronts in order to stop the run, and until Croyle can strike a little fear into opposing teams, they will continue to keep a safety in the box to eliminate Johnson.  Head Coach Herm Edwards has made some strides to once again build a dominating O-Line for the Chiefs (drafted T Branden Albert 1st round ’08), but until Kansas City can bring a balanced attack on Sunday’s, Johnson will continue to struggle to find his old form.  Look for 1200 plus yards, but no where near his peak production.

BT’s 2008/09 NHL Season Preview: The Tampa Bay Lightning

September 7, 2008

by Bryan Thiel…

Preface: Ok, so after needlessly berating and belittling the Atlanta Thrashers, we’re moving on to higher and better things.

Um….well maybe not that much higher or better.

Then again, I guess if you spend enough money, you can win something eventually.

The Yankees tried it for a few years, and are still trying to make it work, the NHL has instituted a cap because of it, and it’s what makes the Minnesota Vikings defense so…well…damn expensive.

Who needs cap room and a balanced depth chart?

I’m not going to lie—I think I learned something during my Atlanta Thrashers preview.

The entire time, I needless talked smack about the Thrashers, and didn’t really paint a pretty picture. Granted, the team itself doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but you’d at least expect someone to stick up for the Thrash right?

Wrong.

Maple Leafs fans used to rip anyone who would predict anything less than a Stanley Cup championship. I learned during my preview of the Northwest division that it’s impossible to keep every fan of every Western team happy.

What did I learn during my preview of the Thrashers? The Atlanta Thrashers have NO fans whatsover. None. Or at least none that will vehemently defend their team.

Will things change in Tampa Bay? Probably. I mean they Lightning were last in the division last year, but it’s not like they’ve been last EVERY year. Right Atlanta?

Roster Additions: Steven Stamkos-F (Draft), Ryan Malone-F (F.A.), Adam Hall-F (F.A.), Gary Roberts-F (F.A.), Mark Recchi-F (F.A.), Matt Carle-D (Trade), Olaf Kolzig-G (F.A.), Vaclav Prospal-F (F.A.), Radim Vrbata-F (F.A.), Brandon Bochenski-F (F.A.),  Andrej Meszaros-D (Trade)

Roster Subtractions:
Tim Taylor-F (Retirement), Andreas Karlsson-F (F.A.), Brian Rolston-F (F.A.), Andre Roy-F (F.A.), Dan Boyle-D (Trade), Brad Lukowich-D (Trade), Filip Kuba-D (Trade),  Alexandre Picard-F (Trade)

How did 2007/08 go? 31-42-9, 71 points, 15th in Conference, Last in Southeast Division

2008/09 Goal:
Don’t finish last.

Let’s breaker’ down…

There’s changing your roster, and then there’s spending so gratuitously that it may have actually hindered your team more than it helped. As we look out over the roster that the Tampa Bay Lightning—one of last season’s bottom feeders—are putting forth this year, there’s a lot of cash thrown about, and a lot of lateral moving talent-wise.

Some teams try to mask mediocrity by throwing up the “Work in Progress” sign, and think that by making moves, they’ll give off the impression that they’re better.

Personally, I think this is the strategy being employed by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Defense? So long was we score 13 goals a game, we’ll be fine!

I guess that’s the attitude that the Lightning had this offseason, even though they weren’t terrible at scoring goals (ninth in the conference).

Granted, they could’ve used a little tinkering up front, but eight or nine new forwards? When there were already seven carry-overs? I guess Oren Koules and Len Barrie need to prove they aren’t afraid to spend cash.

The biggest wad of bills they handed out this offseason though, was to incumbent Vincent Lecavalier. Vinny received an 11-year contract over the summer, which is expected to keep him in South Florida for the remainder of his career, while they Lightning hope that includes a few repeats of the 2004 Stanley Cup success.

Two years ago, giving a term and dollar amount like that to Vincent Lecavalier would have been highly scrutinized. Preceding the lockout, Vincent was a mirthfully underachieving scorer, and streaky at best. While he hadn’t scored fewer than 20 goals since his rookie season of 1998, Vincent had seemed immature at times, and unable to put up the consistent numbers that a play-maker like him should have.

Post-lockout however, Lecavalier has proven to be a late-bloomer—or at least a beneficiary of the new rules. Since 2004/05, Lecavalier has posted his three highest goal totals (35, 52, and 40), and has played at a point-per game average for two seasons. Including 75 points in 80 games in 2005/06, Lecavalier has 275 in 243 games—or a 1.13 point-per game average—as he’s finally come out of his shell.

Joining Lecavalier as a carry-over from the old Lightning regime will be Martin St. Louis, who—given his age (33) and his size (5’9, 185 lbs.)—may be looking at a bit of a decline in his production, after spending five years in the 30-goal and 70-90 point range.

Returning to the Lightning this year will also be Jason Ward (a solid checking-line option), energy-guy Nick Tarnasky, fearless leader Jeff Halpern, the big and gritty Chris Gratton, Ryan Craig, shootout virtuoso Jussi Jokinen, and Evgeny Artyukhin.

So that would make for two top-line players, a border-line second liner (Jokinen), and six third-fourth line players, meaning that the Lightning really only needed a couple of scoring forwards, and maybe a rookie to come in and fill some shoes up front right?

Well…you’re on the right track.

The Lightning got the rookie they needed to plug that hole, as they selected Steve Stamkos with the first overall pick this past entry draft, and promptly signed the hot shot junior to his three-year entry level contract.

So now, the Lightning would be best to look into some second-line muscle to protect Stamkos, and maybe a scorer to sidle up alongside him to help him get his feet wet a little quicker at the NHL level right?

Well, the Lightning decided that it was best not to take any chances, and get Stamkos lots of options.

He can have the gritty, ageless, and workout fiend Gary Roberts on his left wing, while Mark Recchi lines up on the right side, in hopes of forging another quality half-season like he did in Atlanta last year (40 points in 53 games). The great thing about this line, is that Stamkos is less than half of the age of either one these guys, so it’s like the two goats and a kid (Get it? Kid? As in baby goat?) line—like the reverse of what we saw a few years ago in Detroit.

Or Stamkos could line up with Adam Hall and Ryan Malone, and form the “two-thirds of this career mooched of Sidney Crosby’s success in some way” line, as Malone wouldn’t be getting his payday this offseason if he doesn’t play on Crosby’s wing, and Hall because, let’s face it, Crosby couldn’t be on the ice all the time.

Actually, all four of them are former Penguins, so any combination of those four could lead to the “We all came to Tampa from Pittsburgh because we want to meet Hulk Hogan” line.

Then you’ve got Vaclav “Call me Vinny and I only want to play in Philadelphia or Tampa Bay” Prospal who could be good for 50-65 points, and Brandon Bochenski could be good for a couple of quick goals.

But wait, I forgot about Michel Ouellet, who classifies as a carry-over from last year, and a former Penguin.

And Radim Vrbata, Wyatt Smith, and David Koci? You all may be involved in a fight to the death to determine who makes the team.

At this point in time, I’m way too confused to make a prediction on all of this. There’s too much going on.  Barry Melrose (I can’t believe I forgot about the mullet) is going to feel like he’s on ‘Price is Right’ while all of the different combinations of numbers he can go with this season.

I’d make a “Melrose place” joke, and a reference to a possible reunion in light of the new ‘90210’, but I’m not sure if I’m coherent enough any more. I’ve been trying to make sense of Tampa lineup for so long that…well….did you know that their Captaincy and General Manager positions are vacant?

Coherent thought left a long time ago when we’re talking about Tampa Bay.

Norris Trophy anyone?

Speaking of defense….actually no, the Lightning weren’t.

On a squad that should have been more concerned about addressing their ability to keep pucks out of the net over the offseason (They allowed the second-most goals in the NHL last season), the Lightning arguably got worse.

First of all, their stupendous decisions regarding the variety of forwards you just read about, put them into cap trouble, and forced them to trade away Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.

Sure they signed Boyle to a contract extension in November, but this is Tampa Bay…where we’ll do anything to make room to sign more forwards! Including dumping our freshly-signed best defenseman coming off of a freak wrist injury who would help bring stability to a very young blueline, and a guy who isn’t terrible in his own zone and could have benefited from playing two straight years in the same place for the first time post-lockout.

But don’t worry, Matt Carle will be able to replace both of them with his still-evolving defensive game and an offensive game that was surprisingly stunted last year.

Then they traded Filip Kuba for Andrej Meszaros. The acquisition of Meszaros is alright, as it adds more offense, but we’re about to find out how well Meszaros deals with being the man, because there’s almost literally no one around him—the Lightning sent their most experienced defenseman back the other way in this deal, which hurts as much as it helps.

Sidenote: I’ve avoiding doing these during the season previews, but just so everyone knows, YES I am aware we were just talking about Filip Kuba. But still, on a team that’s looking THIS bad in their own end…well you know it’s bad when trading away Kuba can be seen as a negative.

On the bright side, there’s also Paul Ranger who can eat minutes and isn’t terrible offensively, Andrew Hutchinson, a 28 year-old D-man who spent all of last season in the AHL (although he did put up some monster numbers), Shane O’Brien who still has to prove his worth at the NHL level, the big, tough Matt Smaby, the untested Ty Wishart, and Janne Niskala—another AHL stud.

I’m not going to lie: the defenseman I’m most excited to see play this season is Mike Lundin. Last season, Lundin played in 81 games and was able to post 6 assists and a +3 on a porous Tampa team. I don’t really know if it’s a good thing to be looking forward to Mike Lundin though…

At least we spent a little money on a goalie…

Mike Smith, Olaf Kolzig, or Karri Ramo…who would you choose?

Despite a very short-lived trade rumor this summer, Mike Smith is still expected to contend for the number one job in Tampa Bay, and as he was part of the package landed in the Brad  Richards deal, Tampa Bay hopes he can be the real deal.

Smith really went back and forth last year as well. In Dallas, he was a pretty admirable backup to Marty Turco, as he went 12-9 with a 2.46 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Following the trade however, Smith’s save percentage plummeted (.893), his GAA rose (2.79), and he only won three games of the thirteen he played for Tampa.

Here’s the thing though: Smith faced more shots in Tampa then he did in Dallas (which is understandable being that Dallas was a much better team last season). If Smith had played 21 games in both Dallas and Tampa (he played only 13 in Tampa) he would have faced 10 more shots in Tampa than in Dallas (520 to 510), and as we all know, more shots lead to more goals.

Challenging (and mentoring) Smith will be Olaf Kolzig, who after years of tending the twine in Washington, will give the sand beaches a shot before calling it a career. The only problem is, Kolzig won’t be riding off into the sunset.

The past few seasons, Kolzig had been fairly average behind a team experiencing growing pains in Washington. Although his stats have improved the past few seasons, it’s still not ideal. When a 38 year-old goalie drops his goals against average from 3.53, to 3.00, to 2.91 in three years, and has just posted his worst save percentage (.892) in fourteen years, one has to wonder if he can even be effective as a backup in such a offense-first system.

And then to top it all off, Karri Ramo is going to be gunning for playing time too so that he can establish himself in the North American game.

But to top it off? They added Mike Vernon to the mix too. Well, he’s on the management side of things, not contending for a goalie job, and it doesn’t look like he’s coming out of retirement…yet.

I really don’t know what to think anymore.


So what does it all mean?

Alright, so I guess it’s time to try to make sense of it all. With the depth of talent up front, the Lightning could easily have four 70+ point guys in Prospal, Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier. Malone could hit 50 points once again, or 60+ depending if Stamkos is good for that 70 of his own or not.

Vrbata could score 30 goals and rack up 60 points, while Recchi, Roberts, Ouellet and Jokinen could have 40 each at least. It all depends who they play with.

The defense will put up some point and move the puck, but they’re going to be weak in their own end and give up a lot of shots, which won’t bode well for Smith, Ramo, or Kolzig.

Kolzig is getting too old to consistently steal games, while I don’t think Smith or Ramo have the ability yet.

Scoring six or seven goals a game is great, but only if you’re not giving up eight or nine.

4th in Southeast

There you have it, the most…active team in the NHL this offseason is set to begin the season with enough forward to…um…well the phrase ‘Baker’s Dozen plus five’ comes to mind.

There’s depth, and then there’s girth, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are overweight with forwards—a solution to a problem that may turn itself into a whole new problem this season.

After all, there’s only so much ice time to go around.

BT’s 2008/’09 NHL Season Preview: The Atlanta Thrashers

September 7, 2008

by Bryan Thiel… For a long time, the Atlanta Thrashers weren’t really good for anything. I mean, there’s being an expansion team, and then there’s being flat-out terrible for your entire existence. (Ironic note during the writing: I’m listening to Eternity by Big and Rich. So are the Atlanta Thrashers going to be eternally dreadful? I’m scared to find out.)

Sometimes they’d have a couple of bench-clearing brawls, but aside from that, the Thrash were usually good for a laugh…unless, of course, they were playing the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which case the Buds were good laugh for a Thrasher fan.

Following another sub-.500 season (their sixth in eight years), the Thrashers should have sought out some heavy changes, and some dramatic improvements.

Well…at least they got rid of Bobby Holik.

Roster Additions: Ron Hainsey-D (Free Agent), Eric Boulton-F (Free Agent), Jason Williams-F (F.A.), Marty Reasoner-F (F.A.).

Roster Subtractions:
Bobby Holik-F (F.A.), Karel Pilar-D (F.A.), Mark Recchi-F (F.A.), Steve Rucchin-F (Retirement), Jason Krog-F (F.A.), Joel Kwiatkowski-D (F.A.), Steve McCarthy-D (Europe.)

How did 2007/’08 go? 34-40-8, 76 points, 14th in conference, fourth in Southeast division

2008/’09 Goal:
Top 12 in conference, third in division

Let’s break’er down…

As I said before, the Atlanta Thrashers have been bogged down by mediocrity for their entire franchise history. They’ve only finished above third in their division twice, and the lone time that the Thrashers finished first in their division, ensuring them of their first playoff spot in history, they were swept by the New York Rangers.

Because of that, one has to start to wonder how much longer young superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk are going to stick it out before the lure of greener pastures starts to drag them away from the troublesome Thrashers.

Either that or they might throw themselves off of a bridge.

To be honest, I wouldn’t really blame Ilya Kovalchuk for charging a ridiculous price for his services during free agency—so long as Atlanta can’t afford to keep him, he’ll still be respected a bit in my eyes.


Keep on Lehtonen….

The Atlanta Thrashers waited patiently for Kari Lehtonen to finish out his career in Finland, and then waited for him to adjust to the NHL game in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves.

Following his most successful season in 2006/’07, the Thrashers thought the last thing they’d have to do would be wait for Lehtonen once again.

But following a troublesome groin injury, the Thrashers had to start the season without their No. 1 goalie, and they had to rely on the play of Johan Hedberg for 16 games.

Even when Lehtonen came back though, he wasn’t enough to salvage the Thrashers’ already miserable season. Despite a .916 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average on a fairly loose defensive squad (loose is putting that…well…loosely), Lehtonen has started to resemble Roberto Luongo during his Panthers years—a great young goalie, mired with a franchise that annually struggles to stay out of the basement.

Roberto Luongo was better at staying healthy than Lehtonen has proven to be, but it’s not like a team like the Los Angeles Kings would turn down a guy like Lehtonen. In fact…

The Los Angeles Kings trade an old Wayne Gretzky jersey, the Govenator Arnold, and Marc Crawford’s toupee (he forgot it on his way out) for Kari Lehtonen. What? It’s not like Atlanta would do anything with any real players they receive in the deal, so why not pump them up on nostalgia?
Lehtonen could easily return to form this season, stealing upwards of 35 games for the Thrashers, while Hedberg can be a serviceable backup for a few games, but without help from around the roster, the Thrashers are going to be in trouble this season.

Exelby your breath…

I’ll challenge you right now to name three of the defensemen that the Thrashers are expected to play this season.

I’m waiting…..

Stumped? Alright. The three most recognizable names on the defensive depth chart, or at least the ones you’ll want to know, would be Ron Hainsey, Garnet Exelby, and Tobias Enstrom.

Atlanta’s big free-agent acquisition this season was the former Blue Jacket, Hainsey. Following four years of bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL with Montreal (and Columbus for a bit), Hainsey fell into the right situation in Columbus.

The Jackets needed bodies, Hainsey was healthy, and from there on, he posted back-to-back 30-point seasons. The big thing Hainsey can do for the Thrashers, aside from his offensive “potential”, is eat minutes—something the Thrashers will need with a low-budget, unimpressive defensive unit.

Exelby and Enstrom, however, are both homegrown talents and didn’t cost a ridiculous amount of money…yet. Exelby is the Atlanta equivalent to the late-’90s, early 2000s Adam Foote (Although Foote put up more points—note the phrase ATLANTA EQUIVALENT…that’s important), in the fact that he can play the body, and he’ll take charge of clearing out Atlanta’s end of the ice.

For a team that is continually dominated, Exelby’s grit and steady, determined presence will be very valuable to any success the Thrashers’ expect to have.

Tobias Enstrom is probably the most talked about defenseman the Thrashers have that isn’t named Zach Bogosian.

The 23-year-old Swede took the Thrashers, and the league, by storm last year. He was able to post a solid 38 points while appearing in the NHL YoungStars game, offering Thrashers fans some relief that they weren’t going to have to rely on Alexei Zhitnik (don’t expect more than 10-15 points from him this season) for their offense from the back end last season.

Aside from those four (and possibly Bogosian), the other defenseman you may hear a little more about is the towering Boris Valabik, who is tall enough (6’7″) to dominate most forwards in this league, if he can harness his physical gifts.

Oh, and here’s the rest of the Thrashers D:

Ken Klee: The guy couldn’t get publicity in Toronto, and then we got mad at him for being traded for the definition of bust: Aleksander Suglobov. On the bright side, he’s pretty willing to sign autographs…at least for me he was.

Niclas Havelid: You could say he’s starting to come into his own, but he’s 35, the age at which some people come into their own in normal careers. At least he won a gold medal with Sweden in 2006.

Marc Popovic: Could be good, but he needs to start producing at the NHL level. Three points and a -8 in 44 career games? Methinks someone needs to “pop” the cherry. Gross.

Steve McCarthy/Joel Kwiatkowski: Both had offensive potential. One’s too old to use it, and one may not be good enough to reach it, and might be getting too old.

Um….Well at least they’ve got Ilya?

Alright, I have to get something off of my chest: The “subtitles” for these sections suck, and I blame the Thrashers. I mean, “Exelby your breath?” What’s that? And the attempted play on “Keep on keepin’ on” with “Keep on Lehtonen” is terrible. I’ve disappointed even me.

Atlanta, if I fail, this is on your head: sign players with better names.

But aside from this decidedly-biased Thrashers preview, you may be surprised to know there’s something good about being a Thrashers fan.

That good thing? Well, you’ve always got Ilya Kovalchuk. Or at least until he becomes a free agent in 2011.

So what do you need to know about him?

He’s the franchise leader in goals, assists, and points, he’s won a Rocket Richard trophy, and just like Mats Sundin, you can pair him up with anyone on the team and he’ll still produce. Unfortunately, the Thrashers didn’t go out and sign Harold Druken though.

Actually, that probably would have helped the Thrashers out this offseason.

Colby Armstrong (you know, one of the guys they got for Marian Hossa?), despite his 11 points in 18 games for the Thrashers last season, is a third-liner at best at this point in his career.

If he can keep that pace up this season, then he could see some time on the top two lines, but if not, he’s just going to get labeled as “That guy that Sidney Crosby made look alright once.”

Erik Christensen is another one of those players who has the potential to produce but just isn’t showing it. In the AHL: 97 points in 141 games. Not overly impressive, but it is something. In 153 NHL Games: 70 points.

In his young career, Christensen may be running out of time before he’s labeled as a third liner.

Bryan Little is the forward to watch right behind Kovalchuk on this roster, though. If the Thrash can entice Ilya to stick around, the chemistry that these two could develop is crazy, as Little’s deft passing ability and playmaking vision, and Kovalchuk’s shot could combine to be a dangerous combination.

Hell, because Little is so small, he could even help out Colby Armstrong—not only with his passing abilities, but Little’s ironic lack of size could give Colby someone to stand up for. That’s something, isn’t it?

Jason Williams will offer some scoring ability, but he’ll also be expected to help develop a guy like Jim Slater, who just has never put the tools he’s got together. If Williams can return to his 20-goal potential, then “Slates” has an effective weapon to whom he can pass the puck off, but also a player who can draw the opposition’s defenders and get Slater some room.

The other two players to watch out for on the Thrashers this season would be Brett Sterling and Angelo Esposito—two young players who could flourish if they see some quality playing time, especially if Todd White repeats his Todd White-esque 2007/’08.

Aside from that, the Thrashers are bogged down with energy line and reserve forwards. Both are nice in moderation, but  the abundance of them on the roster makes it hard to take this team seriously.

So what does it all mean?

Remember that Roberto Luongo/Florida Panthers comparison I used a little earlier to describe Kari Lehtonen? Well, it goes a little deeper.

The Thrashers are going to be looking like the Luongo-era Florida Panthers for a little while longer—they’ll draft some excellent players (I mean, even Atlanta can’t mess up a top-three pick right? Oops…sorry Patrick Stefan) and will always have the possibility of being a young exciting team, but the players may end up taking longer than expected to develop, leading the Thrashers to become impatient and sign stopgap solutions.

On the bright side, it only took six or seven years for things to finally start looking up in Florida.

Maybe the addition of Atlanta to their division had something to do with it.

Fifth in Southeast

Alright, I promise that the next of these previews won’t be as bitter or as biased as this one—and don’t get me wrong, Atlanta has some ok players—but it was really too easy, I mean, they’re the Steve Urkel of the NHL.

Who Said Playing Spoiler Isn’t Fun?

September 7, 2008

The Blue Jays are relishing the role of spoiler. They completed a sweep of the Minnesota Twins the other night, giving the Twinkies’ playoff aspirations a big “fuck you” in the process.

It was a most entertaining series. On Tuesday, the Jays rallied from behind, erased a 5-1 deficit and won the game 7-5. And you know how they did it? By hitting home runs. Three of them. In the same game. Back-to-back jacks from Alex Rios and Jose Bautista (his was a two-run shot), and a two-run bomb from Lyle Overbay. As the cherry on top of my home run sundae, B.J. Ryan pitched a 1-2-3 9th inning for the save. Unbelievable, I know. When I woke up on Wednesday, I kid you not, it felt like Christmas morning. It just felt great to be alive.

On Wednesday night, A.J. Burnett pitched well enough to win, but the bullpen couldn’t hold the 3-0 lead. In a 3-3 game in the 9th inning, The Beej allowed the Twins to plate their fourth run. Once again, however, the Jays refused to go quietly into the night. And they were led by the young phenom - the savior, the franchise - Travis Snider. Snider tied up the game in the bottom of the 9th with a clutch base hit, his third of the game, off uber closer Joe Nathan, who entered the game with a nasty 1.11 ERA and 36 saves. It was an inspiring plate appearance from the 20-year-old, especially considering he fell behind in the count.

In the 11th inning, John McDonald provided the dramatics, walk-off style, and the Jays were once again victorious.

The Tao of Stieb put it best: “Oh, and don’t forget Johnny McDonald driving in the winning run. That’s always good for the soul.” You’re damn right it is, Tao.

Jesse Litsch was unhittable, going the distance on a four-hitter. Whatever Litsch worked on when he was sent down to the ‘Cuse, it’s working. In 28 and 2/3 innings since his recall, he’s allowed only 3 earned runs. That’s pretty damn impressive. Hopefully my boy Shaun Marcum can parlay his demotion into similar results.

I mentioned Travis Snider’s performance on Wednesday, but he was even better yesterday. He clocked his first career big league home run, to deep centre field no less, and finished 3-for-3 on the night with 2 RsBI and a walk. I know, it’s only been four games, but the kid is batting .467. If he’s not causing your cock to stir a little bit in your pants, you might need one of those blue pills.

Some housekeeping:

Vernon Wells hit home run number 16 last night, in game number 86. He hit 16 home runs in 149 games in 2007. I think it’s safe to say that his shoulder really was fucked up last season, hence the dramatic drop in power. It’s looking more and more likely that he will reach the 20 home run mark this season, and that’s impressive because of all the time he’s missed. It will also help me to sleep better at night, knowing that at least one Blue Jay finished with 20 or more jacks.

Over the long weekend, David Eckstein played his final game for the Toronto Blue Jays, as he was traded to the land of the rising sun. I never got to say goodbye, so I thought I’d take a moment. I don’t think Eck got a fair shake in Toronto once The Gastonian one arrived. Not that I blame Cito, who is, like the rest of us, clearly a Johnny Mac fan. But Eckstein never complained about his diminished playing time or his role on the team. As Mike Wilner was kind enough to point out, Eck put up numbers almost idential to his career stats. He did exactly what he was supposed to do. So there’s no hard feelings. He was a gamer and, by all accounts, one of the classier guys around. Cheers, Eck. Stay scrappy.

More of Navin here

Roger Federer: Driven To Defend

September 7, 2008

by Long John Silver…

‘I feel a bit like a New Yorker today’, quipped Roger Federer when asked how he appreciated the crowd’s support today.

The crowd was actually fair, they thoroughly appreciated the high quality game served by Federer and De-Joker, but it was palpable that deep down they were pulling for the four-time defending champion.

Federer started brilliantly; that, combined with errors from De-Joker, gave Federer the first set in a little less than half an hour. As we discussed in my last post, Federer is faster than Roddick and hence some of those backhand down-the-line screamers from Nole, were sent straight back as forehand crosscourt winners from Federer himself.

Federer also had a field day on his serve. It was, to put it mildly, untouchable. Federer is no Karlovic or Ivanisevic, but he is a clutch server, using it as an invaluable weapon to bail him out of trouble time and again, as we witnessed today.

Nole caught fire in the second and for most part of the third set. He won the second and he to me, is very confounding for what happened at 5-5 with him serving in the third.

Someone did holler from the crowd when he was about to serve, yes, wrong? Yes. Nole stopped serving and started again. But up until that point that crowd was not unanimously inclined towards Federer as I expected them to be, it was a mere incident.

Nole served and lost the point in a rally, and it was almost like he was looking for accountability (someone to blame) for losing that point.  Confounding?

I did love the way he decided, that if he was going down, might as well go down in flames. The way he came into the net and finished points with crisp, chiseled volleys just displayed how much game he had. Pity, I think he just ran out of gas in the end.

It is akin to those awful, devil-may-care drop shots he hits at match points down sometimes, I think that attitude of ‘I am gonna lose’ in a strange way loosens him up, and helps him play better for the remainder of the match.

That was also the game in which Rodge dished out this ‘GAW’ (Genius At Work) shot, come on. It is obscene that he got this one in, even more obscene is the fact that he in fact meant for it go in, and it was no fluke. Watch his racket when he hits it, you can see he actually meant to hit such a shot.

Two things to notice when you watch this clip: the enthralled crowd and its applause, and the BALL-Boy shaking his head in disbelief, when handing the towel to Federer. Ball-boys normally are very nonchalant. Not for this shot they weren’t.

One of my favorite other shots (in fact I like all of them, but certain one get special mentions) that he got out of his arsenal today was what I call the BUNT forehand. He positions himself mid-court, bunts the forehand (he can go cross-court, inside out or down the line with this one) so that it has an insane angle and it bounces inside the opposite service box, and zips off the court. Today he went inside-out with it.

It is incredibly hard to return this. To start with, it’s dying on you by the time it gets to you, added is the zing on it and the spin? Good luck getting that one back, mate.

Once Federer broke down Nole in the third to win it, after the initial break in the fourth set, Federer relaxed to play how he can normally. Unfazed, unruffled, play and perform at the same time. Hitting winners at will and making things look preposterously simple on court. At heart, he is a performer too.

Winning the third set rendered him such comfort and cushion, and once Rodge is in that sort of a mood, you might as well pack your bags and look for flight tickets. T

he fourth set was regular at 6-2, with De-Joker fading away in the end. The customary exchange at the net looked very genuine from Nole at the net. Good on him.

Nole made things tough for himself after what happened with Roddick two nights before. You could see by the end of the fourth set he was physically and mentally exhausted. But we all make mistakes.

I still think De-Joker can dish it out and take it in terms of sense of humor; just this one time, he misread the situation. Wonderful tournament for him and we’ll get over it, if I had a nickel every time I have screwed up…

To sum it up, this was Rodge coming out to play right out of the blocks. By the time Nole found his feet, he was a set down. Simply put, this match that displayed the theme: “I Am Roger Federer…and You Are Not.”

Is it me, or is Federer displaying more emotions in NY this time around, than he has ever done before?

When asked whom he prefers in the final, Rafa or Murray – with that vintage Swiss elegance he responded in the on court interview, “I prefer the trophy … that’s what I prefer.”

PRICELESS!

Guess That Ass

September 7, 2008

Well, besides having the 5th ranked soccer team in the world, I bring you a Smokin’ Hot GTA from Croatia. This babe was born in Zagreb and earns a living being a babe, I mean model! First she was studying to be a lawyer until she turned to modeling, good choice… She won the title of Miss Croatia and also won the Elite Look of the Year modeling competition. While working in Los Angeles, she was cast in Ricky Martin’s hit music video, Livin’ La Vida Loca. After a stint in America, she moved to Italy and became well known there, continuing her modeling and working on television.

http://z.hubpages.com/u/339464_f520.jpghttp://www.as.com/recorte/20071207dasdaibal_4/XLCO/Ies/Nina_Moric.jpghttp://www.gossipnews.it/sport/premio_san_siro_gentleman_2007/images/la_sexy_nina_moric_745e.jpg