Plight of the JVR

Let’s rewind back to the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are fresh off drafting their top pick Morgan Rielly at 5th overall and Brian Burke was still probing for a way to improve his club but this time up front.

Burke had made it clear his goal was to upgrade the skill level and in describing his latest target as a “thoroughbred’, he knew his man was the young Philadelphia Flyer James van Riemsdyk.

What would it take to pry a player who was the 2nd overall pick just 4 years earlier? “He’s a young guy, he’s a right shot, he’s a big defenseman that plays physical and gritty, and he can move the puck,” Flyers GM Paul Holmgren described. The only player on the Leafs roster that fit this description was Luke Schenn.

A Chris Pronger replacement was what Holmgren wanted, and he was prepared to fork over a big, powerful, goal-scoring forward.

Have mercy on him, how could he know what would transpire over the next 6 years?

In my humble opinion, this is the best trade the Toronto Maple Leafs have made in the past 2 decades.

With 34 goals and counting, JvR is having the best scoring season of his career. And what better timing could he have, as he (barring a miracle Leafs signing) heads into his first summer as a UFA.

For years, he’s taken a beating in front of opposing goaltenders and made space for his smaller line mates. He’s an adept passer, and came into the league as a big power forward who had speed and a wicked wrister. He’s got it all.

He’s also been playing in the shadows a little bit. Success was always merely a by-product of having Phil Kessel on his line. As we can see now, that was terribly unjust. It’s been three seasons without #81 at his side, as look at what he’s done:

2015/2016*: 40 GP – 14G – 15A – 29pts – +3

2016/2017: 82 GP – 29G – 33 A – 62pts – -2 (career best point total)

2017/2018: 75 GP – 34 G – 18 A – 52pts – +2 (career high in goals)

*(Including +/- as he improved from a -33 the previous season)
*season cut short with broken foot, placed on IR

Give this man the respect he deserves!

The good news for him is that he’s probably about to get it in the form of this new deal, much to the dismay of Leafs fans everywhere.

On June 23rd 2012 Holmgren had some very kind words about the young stud he had just dealt, “I think I’ve told you enough about how strongly I feel about James becoming a good player, and I believe he will become a very good player in our League. Unfortunately for us, I think it’s going to be for Toronto now.”

He was right. JvR’s going to have a lot of success in his future still, unfortunately for Toronto I don’t think it’s going to be there.

The Case For Premier League Soccer in Canada

With NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA all at the forefront of our sports collective minds, how could we ever etch out more time for another sport? Even if you had time outside of the ‘Big Four’ North American sports leagues there is the added distraction of more niche sports like tennis, auto racing, lacrosse, MLS Soccer, rugby, Esports, and more. Those, plus real life responsibilities usually fill the schedule for most functioning adults…most.

If only there was a league that offered limited games, and time slots that are uniquely open…

Airing on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the Premier League, a European football or Soccer league based out of England (and Wales) perfectly fits the bill. The season spans from August to May with 38 games being played between the 20 teams in the league. It fits the perfect middle ground between the minimalistic NFL schedule (16 games) and a wildly busy MLB season (162 games).

With the games being played in England, the usual start times for matches is 7:30am, 8:30am, 10:30am and 12:30am on the weekends with the odd weekday game being played at 3:30pm (all times in EST).

The season is extended in length by domestic tournaments, the English Football League Cup (EFL Cup) and the FA Cup, and European tournaments like the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. Season breaks are instituted for early round action of these tournaments as a majority of league teams will have early round games to play.

The Champions League and Europa League, designated for the best teams across all of Europe’s top flight football league, add to the desire to win and excitement in the football season. Should your team fail to qualify for the Champions League, which is the top three in the Premier League guaranteed, with fourth place in the Prem getting a play-in game, or Europa League which is designated for fifth place in the league, EFL Cup winning team, and FA Cup winning team also qualifying, you have rooting options. Either support a foreign team, or find another Premier League team that you don’t entirely hate to back as an English competitor.

Another foreign aspect of football to North American fans is relegation and promotion. There is no reward for tanking a season away, and more than just glory and bragging rights for league champions. To keep the Premier League fresh and constantly competitive there is a linking of the top league through the English Championship (tier below Premier League) and EFL League 1 and League 2 at the bottom.

The 92 team tiered system is completely dynamic, with the champions and top teams of the league below gaining promotion to the upper leagues and the bottom teams in the upper leagues getting relegated to the league below. This keeps the games important until the end of the season, either by the thrill of promotion, the fear of relegation, or the excitement of European tournament play, English football has multiple levels of excitement that revolve around these levels of competitiveness.

An aspect of Premier League football that adds to the watchability of the matches is the fully enveloped life that develops around that team. Each team is geographically rooted into a city, town, or community and many have decades of cultural importance with the people that reside there. These stories are told in a snapshot by the team names and badges; here are a few examples:

West Ham United – “The Hammers”
As shown on their crest, West Ham is a working mans club. Created from the Thames Ironworks, a ship building company in East London, West Ham United don crossed rivoters hammers on their crest within a shield-like shape that is actually a cross section of the hull of HMS Warrior, a ship created by Thames Ironworks in 1860.

Stoke City – “The Potters”
Based out of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire England, Stoke City currently are staring down relegation in the Premier League. The club was founded in 1863, originally nicknames The Ramblers, Stoke City now has their club nickname The Potters on their crest, a nod to the pottery industry that grips the region the club plays in.

Manchester United – “The Red Devils”
Created in 1878 and called Newton Heath LYR Football Club, Manchester United switched to their common name in 1902 and Red Devil nickname in the 1960s. Looking for a more marketable team icon (over their previous logo of a sailing ship) the Red Devils nickname was taken from the English Rugby team and printed on scarves and programmes. Now one of the most recognizable teams in all of sport, Manchester United consistently battles for Premier League dominance and European championships.

One last pitch for more Canadians to start watching the Premier League is the overwhelming sense of community that supporters get adopted into. Like I said, these clubs envelop everything about their supporters lives, and with social media linking people from all over the world, there is a massive group of club supporters waiting to welcome you into supporting their team.

Whether you are looking for trophies and glory by supporting Manchester United, or Chelsea, chasing Premier League stability like West Ham United or Leicester City, or chasing top flight survival like Stoke City or Southampton FC there is a strong community around all levels of Premier League teams.

So why not flip on the tube on a Saturday or Sunday morning? Nurse a hangover with the quiet, yet tense build up of the grass fuelled chess match that is European football. My advice? Find a club and start watching their games. Do some youtube research, and find some twitter groups to boost your connectedness to your team. It is truly the beautiful game, and deserves more North American eyes on it.

 

NFL Sleepers: From laughing Stock To Buying Stock – New York Jets

In a two part blog series I will look at two teams who were formerly laughing stocks, and why we should all be buying stock in them making pushes for the playoffs. First up, the New York Jets

It’s hard to justify any sort of “playoff” team in the AFC East when the New England Patriots are sitting atop the divisional standings, but as far as divisional competition don’t be surprised if the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets! make a push for the ‘next best’ slot.

Their divisional competition could dictate their success next season. Both the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins have noticeably gotten worse. The Bills have lost their starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor in a trade with Cleveland, while bringing in backup QB AJ McCarron as their apparent starter. As well, personal issues have emerged around young receiver Zay Jones who may not be ready to start the season.

The Miami Dolphins are attempting a culture change and have lost two major pieces, one offensive and one defensive. Stud receiver Jarvis Landry, who is a target vacuum, was traded to Cleveland. This will create a massive hole in the offense of Miami who will be without their sure handed slot receiver now, with QB Ryan Tannehill returning from injury. The Dolphins also cut Ndamukong Suh, their controversial pass rusher. While consistently living in the grey areas of football, Suh was a QB’s nightmare, pushing O-linemen back on their heels closing the pocket.

The kings will remain kings in the AFC East with the probable Super Bowl contender New England Patriots atop the division. However, this doesn’t discredit a playoff push coming from the Jets. The Jets will most likely need a minimum of nine wins to be in wildcard contention, a far cry from their five from the previous season – but those four wins could be helped along with divisional play.

The Jets divisional record last season was 2-4-0, losing to the Patriots twice, Miami twice, and sweeping the season series with Buffalo. Miami will be taking a step back, quote me here. Buffalo, unless hitting on gems in the draft, will also be stepping back. The Jets can capitalize on lesser divisional competition to boost their play off hopes, and who knows maybe even put up a fight against the Pats too.

So why will the Jets be better? Well for starters they aren’t starting from nothing. Last season one of the biggest surprises was that “holy shit, the Jets are actually winning games!” This deflated into a 5-11 season, losing four out of their last five games, but still an impressive start for a team perceived to be tanking the season away.

Their biggest attribute is the explosive passing game due to three big pass catching options. Jermaine Kearse, the wide out from Seattle was acquired before the 2017 season in a trade for defensive star Sheldon Richardson. A year out from free agency, the Jets capitalized on his value and brought in the reliable receiver who contributed to their surprising offense and offered sure hands in the slot.

Robby Anderson is the next impressive talent for the Jets. His break away speed, and ability to turn three catches into 100+ yards and multiple touchdowns is insane efficiency. He adds the ‘big play’ variable to the Jets offence and is a key member of their possible uptick in play.

Bilal Powell is the third and final member of this passing game. Believe it or not, this back was more valuable that their QB, as Josh McCown failed to flash brilliance, but instead was reliably predictable. Powell, who rushed well last season, has breakout ability in the passing game with screen pass proficiency, and break away ground speed.

So why am I betting on the Jets take the next step in 2018? They have had a brilliant off season so far! Starting with a deal that has yet to have ramifications, the Jets traded their 6th pick along with two 2018 second round picks, and a 2018 second round pick to the Colts to move up in the draft to #3. The Jet’s are undoubtedly looking for that elite, top prospect QB in the draft and have payed a massive price for that opportunity. Should they get their man, their offseason additions (to follow) will allow for him to wade into the league and not get thrusted into action immediately.

But before QB’s lets look at how the Jet’s have added strength to their offence outside of their signal caller. Firstly, Isaiah Crowell has been added as a starting running back. Starting is a finicky term because of Powell’s importance to the passing game, but Crowell adds veteran stability and will probably relish any opportunity outside of playing for the Browns.

The Jets also added gadget player Tyrelle Pryor in free agency. He adds a ton of value to the passing game, adding another elite receiving option that opposing secondaries will have to factor in to their coverage. Pryor is also useful in his applicability. I described him as a gadget player because, as shown in his Cleveland years, he can act as a rusher in end-arounds, a deep threat as a wide out, or even throw the ball. The Jets will probably fashion a trick play or two around Pryor’s skills which makes him a valuable add, even more so than he already was.

The final piece the Jets have added that makes them better than last year is signing beloved former Minnesota Viking QB Teddy Bridgewater. Drafted to be their franchise QB, Teddy exploded his knee in a non-contact injury in pre-season training to a horrific extent in 2016. His teammates were crying and praying for him, and two years later it has factored into him being moved on from by Minnesota. Bridgewater still has high value, and over Josh McCown could provide a more explosive talent at QB instead of a game manager.

With McCown also signed on with the Jets, the Bridgewater move is even better. Teddy is convinced he is a starter but the lingering effects of his injury could possibly dampen that. The Jets have reliable stability behind him and in doing so they don’t gamble an important year for their team away on a high-risk free agent signing.

The Jets may not be a sexy pick for a playoff team, but Joe Flacco has made a career and won a Superbowl off of being reliably ‘just good’ and offensively unsexy. The Jets have breakout potential and could see an influx of bandwagon support, especially with their cross town rivals the Giants being a mess on the field. The success the Jets can have is reliant upon their free-agents meshing well, their offensive players to take the next step, and their draftees making an impact. Sure, that is a long list of things that need to happen, but what will help is a weakened AFC East division outside of the Pats.

Oh Deary Me, Who is This Lad Named Alfie?

West Ham got a good look at depth players and young prospects in their international break friendly with neighbour Dagenham and Redbridge FC in a fundraiser night for the club…erm I should specify their club. With senior players making most of the big headlines like Michail Antonio scoring a brace and Adrian making some phenomenal saves, some youngsters did turn heads in the match, most notably Alfie Lewis.

Named to the starting squad Lewis, occupied the midfield alongside Mark Noble and really took the lead in that part of the pitch.

West Ham, unsurprisingly, controlled possession for the majority of the opening half, but the identity of their standout performer would certainly have been a shock to the thousands of Hammers fans inside the ground – Alfie Lewis.”

Alfie Lewis was described by the club’s own recount of the match as the “standout performer” most likely because he didn’t instantly pass the ball back to his defenders. But in all honesty, his name was said more than anyone else’s, he commanded play, was always an option in the middle of the field, and held onto the ball even under pressure. It was a low-league friendly, I know, but he was a star on the pitch surrounded by a lot of first team players who failed to look anything special.

So who is the lad?

Currently 18 years old, Alfie Lewis is a versatile midfielder that is based centrally but can play both defensive and attacking mid. He signed his first pro deal in May of 2017, a three year contract that has him at West Ham until 2020. He has played in ten total games this season, three Premier League 2 games where he failed to appear on the score sheet, and seven for West Ham’s under-18 Premier League side where he has one goal and one assist.

Should he get a chance?

Should he and will he are two different things. Should he – absolutely! West Ham are desperate for ball moving midfielders to solidify what looks like a hollow formation most games. He showed he is up for it in his one chance with the big club, so why not?

Will he? Probably not, no. Moyes has stuck with Cheikhou Kouyate in midfield despite awful performances, even when Josh Cullen a recent graduate of West Ham’s academy looked good in his return from loan. Cullen and Rice would likely get picked over him, not to mention Joao Mario who the club seem keen on buying amidst his loan from Inter Milan. Marcus Browne, another academy graduate has also been selected to the bench after performing well for the PL2 team after injury this year.

Alfie most likely won’t make an appearance any time soon for West Ham, but he is a promising prospect and still has time to come into his own. He’s only 18 and will build confidence off of this one performance. He will likely feature more so in the academy games to allow for management to get a better look at him after his showing at Dag & Red this week.

I know, I know, it was a friendly against lesser opposition and I will take the performance with a grain of salt. Something that can’t be overlooked was the Dagenham player’s ability to push and attitude in the game – they wanted to win. They set up strong, countered well, and scored off of a relentless attack coming from a corner.

I’d love to see a midfield featuring Lewis, Rice and Cullen to be honest. They are three young players who would give 110% on the pitch, not yet spoiled by insane Premier League wages, looking to cut their teeth in the league. It’s promising from Alfie – his performance was something West Ham have been missing all season.

 

 

Is $50m still too much?

It seems like only yesterday, Toronto Maple Leafs fans were ecstatic about their new addition, but were a little taken aback at the cost. His name and past brought along with it a sense of credibility and steadiness that were long sought-after in this market; yet the price tag left a little room for “I don’t know if I like this…”

Mike Babcock’s arrival in Toronto in May of 2015 was the glimmer of hope the fan base had been looking for. A proven winner with pedigree and a focus that would be needed to turn this tire-fire of an organization toward the sunlight. But this optimism wasn’t shared by everyone across Leafs Nation.

In a survey conducted by @CBCSports at the time of the hire, fans sat on either side of the ‘is he worth it?’ coin with 51% voting YES and 40% NO. It was an interesting moment of hesitation this time for Leaf fans, trending away from the usual over-hyping of free agent additions and appointments of a savior. Maybe an over correction though, as at least this time the addition in question was a Stanley Cup & 2x Gold Medal winning coach who had seen sustained success in every role he’d been in. It’s hard to blame the public though, I mean, enough was enough right? The timing and choice of hire/signing to waver on seemed strange to me.

In years past it was always management promising progress with sprinkles of signings yet failing to deliver an actual long-term sustainable plan, and fans played along. It wasn’t until the Waffle-gate era that it became clear fans had been pushed too far for too long and were now sitting pretty on the side of absolute skepticism. So when promised the club was going to do everything in their power to “do it right” and take their time to build a contender, nobody was in the waiting mood.

Fast forward 3 seasons and here we stand. 93pts (with 18 still up for grabs) and firmly planted in the playoffs, who’s talking about Mike Babcock’s salary?

Who in May of 2015 when faced with the prospect of ‘years of pain’ nobody thought 3 seasons down the road the Maple Leafs would be a shoe-in for now and years to come. Now, it’s natural for naysayers to cite the drafting of Auston Matthews as THE turning point for the franchise. These are the people who subscribe to the savior theory, and don’t get it anyways.

We could go on about the individual accomplishments of the players under his guidance, but Coach Babcock in my opinion has more than earned his keep. He has turned the Toronto Maple Leafs into a team that all others don’t want to face, and provided his team with a mindset of a winner. When you need a strong foundation you don’t skimp on the materials, you spend what it takes to acquire the pieces that are most important. This is where the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the nail on the head.

 

 

Leo & Cristiano: Why even choose?

As far as I can tell, this is a debate that will rage on probably until another total shift in the sport occurs. When the players go from human physical specimens to actual robots, and managers are replaced by algorithms that forego Antonio Conte-like outbursts for silent telepathy. And what fun is that!? I just don’t think it can get any better than it is right now.

It is an absolute privilege to be living in an era that boasts two of the top players in the history of the sport, in the same league, and facing each other at least twice a year. Even going beyond that, looking all over Europe, every league is filled with unbelievable talent with diverse skills-sets. It’s truly a pleasure to watch. But let’s face it, two players stand head and shoulders above everyone else and have for a long time.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have sparred for FIFA’s Top Men’s Footballer for the past decade. In most of these races it’s come solely down to who’s scored the most goals over the past year. Simple, right? Not so fast. With debates over dribbling ability, passing, vision, speed, strength, number of goals scored with which body part, etc. It goes on forever when fans try and convince others of who’s the best. But doesn’t this tell us something about just how closely matched these two men are?

Messi is touted as the natural, Ronaldo a product of training. Cristiano consistently labelled as ‘the best footballer on planet earth’, while Leo calmly resides (according to his believers) somewhere not on this planet at all. And while it’s hard to argue with Madrista’s who faithfully don the #7, it shouldn’t come to one is hero therefore the other is zero.

For anyone who follows me on Twitter (@hollandgregj ) it’ll be hard to see anything but a Messi fan, but I’d like to just focus on the facts here for comparison purposes:

I love a good healthy argument in sports, I believe it’s the fire behind all fans love of their team. It’s the essence of competition essentially, ‘I’m better than you, and I’ll prove it’. The part that I believe can change, is the fans need to show respect to fans consistent with how players respect each other.

Until then, #ForcaBarca

 

Leafs Defense Can Put Up The Points

It feels like forever since the Leafs have deployed a respectable defensive corps. Old Leafs management went through a never ending carousel of acquired veteran defensemen that have come and gone. Some of the most notables include Mike Komosarek, Francois Beauchemin, John-Michael Liles and Stephane Robidas. These are the types of names that make you shudder. Those days are long gone now. Toronto has put together a defense lead by 24 year old Morgan Rielly, that can actually skate and make plays on both ends of the ice.

The leafs may not have an Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, or Victor Hedman putting up ridiculous points, but that doesn’t stop them from having one of the highest scoring defenses in the entire NHL. A big reason for that is a combination of good depth, and a breakout year from Morgan Rielly. He is currently sitting at 44 points, with Jake Gardiner a hair behind at 43 points. The biggest difference between the two – Rielly is facing much harder quality of competition. A surprisingly significant contribution to the Leafs scoring is the addition of Ron Hainsey with a respectable 22 points of his own. But more importantly, he has taken on the role of top pairing defenseman alongside Rielly, which has done wonders for Rielly’s game. Hainsey is the steady no-panic partner that Rielly has needed to hit the next level. As for Jake Gardiner…I like to compare him to Jekyll and Hyde. He’s always has a good offensive game driven by his elite skating. The problem with him is between the ears. One moment he makes a play that will leave you in amazement, followed by a play that will make you throw your T.V. remote across the living room. A little consistency would go a long ways for Jake, but at 27 years old, and what should be his prime, this is likely the best we will get from him.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Travis Dermott. Oh what a gem the Leafs have found here. Full marks to Hunter for trading back in the 2015 draft and selecting him #34 overall. His pro resume is short, yet impactful. This rookie already has 11 points and a +- of 14 in only 29 games!! Did I mention he has accomplished this playing with Roman Polak(gross) and Connor Carrick? Amazing. I have no doubt that this former Eerie Otter will be a successful top 4 defenseman on the leafs in no time. In fact, I could see him complimenting Morgan Rielly very well as soon as Hainsey’s age catches up with him. What makes Dermott so good, is his quick decision making with the puck, and outlet pass to the forwards. His excellent skating and offensive flare is just a bonus.

What can the Leafs defense improve upon? As it stands, the Leafs rank 12th place in goals against per game, and 25th in shots against per game. There is some opportunity here to tighten up defensively and limit the chances against. Andersen has been Vezina worthy since October and has faced the most shots in the entire NHL. Time to bring those down a tad. As Zaitsev remains sidelined with an illness, it means more Roman Polak unfortunately. I don’t think Polak is an NHL caliber player. He’s too slow and seems to do nothing but ice the puck and take bad penalties. All he is good for is killing penalties, and is he really THAT good at it? Not enough to warrant a roster spot in my opinion. Get well soon Zaitsev – it’s been a tough sophomore year for you but I know the potential is there.

My 2018 defense grades:

Morgan Rielly: A

Number 1 D on a contending team. Faces other teams top players, and leads the way in scoring.

Ron Hainsey: A-

A horse on the PK. Smart with the puck. Nothing fancy here but a steady partner.

Travis Dermott: A-

Loads of potential, already looks like he’s top 4 quality. No weaknesses I can see.

Jake Gardiner: B

Advanced stats say he’s top pairing material. The eye test leaves you wondering.

Nikita Zaitsev: B-

Shortened season so it’s tough to judge here, but he got off to an excellent start. Let’s see if he can bring it back for the playoffs.

Connor Carrick: C+

Decent with the puck offensively, but lacking the size and strength to take his defensive game to the next level.

Andreas Borgman: C+

Rookie year has been split between the Leafs and the Marlies. Showed spurts of NHL talent, and brings a combination of offense and physicality that the leafs lack.

Roman Polak: C-

You know where I stand here.

This week’s burning question: Come playoff time would you move Dermott up the lineup to play with Gardiner despite his lack of experience? Or leave him sheltered on the third line until he has proven more?

Is It Time To Start Paying Attention To ESports?

Remember coming home from school or work in the afternoon, flipping to TSN or Sportsnet and seeing paintball on TV? It was awesome! Maybe it was just the fourteen year-old me that though so, seeing as I loved the sport while simultaneously being petrified of getting hit by paintballs, but it was unique and new wave. That trend has since died out but there appears to be a new one on its way to North America.

Enter Esports.

The concept is pretty well understood: teams or solo players face each other in a video game either in one match or tournament play to see who is the best. It’s the same system as traditional sports in North America, the game is just League of Legends or Hearthstone, instead of football or hockey.

So why isn’t it popular in Canada and the United States yet? To this i’ll provide two answers – It already is popular, and what i’ll designate as “the NASCAR argument.”

It Already Is Popular

With dominant players coming out of South East Asia, and Europe there has certainly been a delay in the mass-market reach of Esports in North America. However, with companies based in the United States like Blizzard Entertainment constantly bringing more games into the fold of Esports, the opportunities for domestic success have grown. For both Hearthstone and Overwatch, Blizzard games that are heavily regarded as Esports games, the player base is in the millions globally. Overwatch surpassed 20 million copies of the game sold in 2017, and Hearthstone (a free to play game) had 30 million players in May of 2015.

With large percentages attributed to players in North America, these Esport friendly games have reached millions of users in North America on a player basis. What helps to get people invested in the games is fully fleshed out back stories of characters and the worlds these games exist in. It’s like HBO’s Hard Knocks, a documentary series that follows NFL training camps, but live and mixed in with game play.

The environment in which the games takes place has players and spectators willing to watch someone else play these games so they can experience high level play in something they have experience in. And the same can be said for traditional sports – we’ve all thrown a football or hit a baseball, but very few can throw a 60-yard pass into double coverage for a touchdown, or crank a fastball out of a stadium. We have physical memories of the actions, and will pay to see someone do it really really well.

The younger generation is dictating the success of these games as view-able programming because of the decline in traditional sports. Console and computer games are readily accessible for children with global player bases able to connect through the internet meaning there is little to no queue for these games. And without fear of concussion or injury outside of eye-strain and carpal tunnel, parents are opening up to these activities over physical sports.

“The NASCAR Argument”

This argument is reserved for the people aged 28+ who never grew up with video games being as mainstream as they are now. Older siblings, parents, some of your peers, whoever this group encompasses had been raised in households that featured sports as watchable entertainment, and video games as child-distracting hobbies.

I call this explanation “the NASCAR Argument’ because I don’t like NASCAR, or any racing really, where the car/horse/motorcycle seem to be doing all the work while a person sits in/on it and takes the glory. Are NASCAR drivers athletes? Well, they can turn left at an incredible speed, and if they don’t crash they’ll be able to complete hundreds of laps in a row, so my answer is No. I understand the reaction time, and coordination skills required – not to mention the ability to hold your bladder for hours on end, but I just don’t see it as a sport. I can appreciate it as an activity that is done at a high skill level but I can drive my Ford Focus to the grocery store, or get that baby humming to 120 mph on the highway and not be athletic at all!

The same goes for Esports. I can play hearthstone literally while sitting on my toilet, so how in the world can this be a sport? Well, I don’t think it is, but it sure is satisfying to see someone win a bunch of times in a row at a game that I struggle to compete in on ‘easy difficulty.’ It’s exactly like NASCAR – people will pay (whether with attention or cash) to see someone do something at an extremely high level of excellency.

TSN programming has constantly been telling me that I am wrong about NASCAR not being a sport by having weekly races feature across their multi-feed television network. The reality is that if we go by what makes a sports broadcasters programming schedule to justify what a sport is, we will just be following what has a viewing market in that region. For example, if competitive knitting etched out a niche market in Toronto you can bet that TSN1, and SPORTSNET ONTARIO would have Sunday Knight-Knit-o-rama on their TV schedule to cater to that market.

 

So, the discussion has to shift beyond “is it even a sport?” to “are people actually watching that?”  and the statistics don’t lie here either. Brace for it NHL fans. After opening on TWITCH.TV for their first week of regular season play, the Overwatch League, a 12 team global league of Overwatch players, which began on January 10th 2018 is averaging 392,000 views on a massive six hour stream, with it’s peak number hitting 442,000 viewers. This is just 18,000 views off of the average NHL’s North American viewership.

Take it with a grain of salt- peak numbers don’t suggest staying power, can’t really be linked to average views, and January viewership of the NHL is expected to be lower with the dog-days of the season fully underway, nevertheless the Overwatch numbers are still impressive for a sports league in its infancy.

So why are so many people oblivious to Esports being a watchable event for entertainment in Canada and the United States? Because the mainstream, television media has yet to pick up on the trend. Sites like TWITCH.TV, which see individual streamers live stream their video game play with their personal audio over top can reach a wider audience through computer and mobile integration.

What fuels the success of this broadcaster is the link between the video gamer demographic and video game streamer demographic. Companies like Blizzard Entertainment capitalized on this already installed and invested viewership by striking a $90 million deal with TWITCH.TV to have exclusive broadcasting rights to show the Overwatch league.

The result of the growing fan base of Esports is that eventually we will see consistent programming for League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone and more video games on our television menus. The real dictating factor in all of this is money. Much like NASCAR, if people will pay to watch it, TV programmers will make it available. Esports’ trajectory is already shooting beyond that of paintball when I was in highschool, because it isn’t trying to fit into the mold of standard television programming. There is unique success to Esports viewing and mainstream media will have to adapt to that, in order to capture the growing market of video game nerds.

I really look forward to two things: Joe Buck calling a League of Legends match, and seeing the first Overwatch team sponsored by Tampax.

West Ham’s Shaky Future Wastes Moyes’ International Break

With their Premier lives hanging in the balance, West Ham United are stuck waiting for the international break to be over rather than taking advantage of their time off ahead of the off season.

Normally the international break would see management and ownership teams spectating lower league play and the actual international friendlies to look over transfer window targets in rare out of league action. For Moyes, he doesn’t know what league he will be managing in, and if he will have a job at all for the following season.

Moyes has stated multiple times that he isn’t revisiting contract talks until the end of the season, as his job is yet to be done. These questions have dyed down in frequency seeing as his table position has gone from ‘mid-table success’ to ‘we need to beat Southampton to stay in the Premier League’ in a matter of weeks. Regardless of position Moyes has also stated he is preparing for next season’s transfers now.

So, maybe he has some vested interest in the international break but it seems unlikely to me. My assumption is he’ll go to Portugal’s game to look at William Carvalho… again, and deny he was there for him. This would be ridiculous too, considering there is no way he would come to a Championship side in England.

So what does Moyes have to do during this break? Hopefully reevaluate his squad, look at changing a formation, and devising individual game tactics to maximize the remaining games left this season to secure Premier League safety.

 

 

Who Exactly Is The Best Player Outside The Premier League Top Six?

Usually an argument reserved for mid-table supporters trying to vie for dominance of the mediocre or, for relegation rivals trying to find solace in a failed season. So with the season winding down and points at an all time high, its the perfect time for the yearly debate: Who is the best player outside of the top six?

There are a few players who have made strong bids this season. The intensity of the table has only magnified the importance of marquee players, as 19th and 10th place are only separated by nine points. So, who’s in the running? I’ve narrowed my list to five.

 

Ryan Bertrand:

The Southampton fullback has had the eyes of the upper echelon Premier League teams upon him, and a possible relegation of the Saints could make a transfer inevitable. With Chelsea owning his playing rights for years, Bertrand was sent out on multiple loans throughout England, before securing a permanent move (following a loan) to Southampton. With three assists this season Bertrand has been chipping in offensively for a side that hasn’t had much to fill the box score with.

Bertrand earned a call up to England’s pre-World Cup squad and will likely serve as Danny Rose’s backup or replacement should he get injured again. With the world’s eyes upon him, it seems that Manchester City’s eyes could be focused on him most intently. Left back options Benjamin Mendy and Danilo have been less than impressive this season for City, so a strong showing from Bertrand would likely see him head north to Manchester.

Wilfred Zaha:

The main man in Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace squad. Zaha is on this list more from peer pressure than me believing he would see regular starting time at any club in the top six. What he does provide is game breaking speed, and seems to have the clutch gene in his game. This season he has managed only three goals and three assists in 21 matches played. But, he seems to score when it matters most (see extra time tying goal vs. West Ham).

His abilities have seen him a popular pick for this prestigious, imaginary designation, but his injury record has hampered any chances for him to maximize his potential. Let’s face it the old adage is true – the best ability is availability, and Zaha has been anything but available this season. He has the skills to impact a top six side but more so as a squad player rather than instant plug-and-play player. He may be the most likely to move to an elite team but is he really the BEST player outside those teams?

Abdoulaye Doucoure:

This ball moving midfielder has garnered a strong amount of attention from elite Premier League teams. The 25 year old French midfielder impressed under Marco Silva at Watford this season and has continued to put forward strong, albeit now individual performances under new boss Javi Garcia. Doucoure has gone cold in recent games, but has still managed seven goals and three assists this season.

Manchester United are linked with him this summer, with Tottenham and Arsenal also looming. With Spurs’ midfield likely full for the foreseeable future, that leaves the Red Devils and Gunners to battle it out for his services should he want to leave. Fellaini’s departure could see a squad space open for him in Manchester, while Arsenal losing Jack Wilshere could open a space in the London squad. His potential is very high and compacted with his age, Doucoure could be the most prized player for top six teams.

Marko Arnautovic: 

The previous pouty passer of Stoke City exchanged his playmaking boots for finisher foot-ware in an offseason move to West Ham United. Originally recruited by the now former manager of the Hammers, Slaven Bilic, Arnautovic was a mess under his management but has been reborn with David Moyes as his boss. Having missed two games for red card suspension, and four for separate illness and injuries, Arnautovic has still managed seven goals and three assists this season.

Originally thought to be a £25 million flop Arnautovic scored his first goal for West Ham against Chelsea in a 1-0 win and hasn’t looked back. His form has been so unrelenting it earned him the prestigious consideration of “Chelsea transfer target” in the January window… after Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch of course. Regardless, if West Ham survive relegation it’ll be on the back of their new main man. Striker, winger, attacking midfielder, he does it all for West Ham and could for the elite, too.

Jamie Vardy:

And the winner is… Jamie Vardy. I mean, is there really any other choice? The main man in the most unlikely championship win in sports history, Vardy’s contributions to Leicester City’s Premier League winning season got him the attention he deserves. Vardy has kept ahold of this attention by continuing his impressive offensive numbers rolling, thirteen goals and six assists last season and fourteen goals (already) this season.

Vardy’s speed is neck-and-neck with his clinical goal scoring abilities for marketable talents. He is a master centre forward for counter attacking football, as well as a true fox in the box when possession stats favour Leicester. Tailor made for Chelsea or Manchester United, Vardy should have been poached coming off of the unlikely win by Leicester City in 2015/16, and again last season. Now at 31 and the face of the franchise it seems unlikely Vardy will depart any time soon. He is the champion of perseverance, coming from leagues distant to the Premier League and has become a star under the big league lights.

 

So there it is, my views on who are the best players outside the top six. Vardy is the crowning jewel, but Zaha a perennial favourite and Arnautovic a newcomer to the conversation. I also only included one defender (Bertrand) and thats on purpose. It’s hard to justify saying defenders on teams that are at least -15 on goal differential are next level players. Gun to my head I’d give my honours to Alfie Mawson of Swansea. He’s hardnosed, tough, and a real bastard to play against. If he had a better squad to play with he could be a game changer. Regardless, my list is as mentioned above!

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!