Tuesday, April 11, 2017

2017 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

I'm never good with these predictions because they always end up being wrong, but here are my 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff predictions (God help me):

Eastern Conference Playoffs:
(M1) Washington over (WC2) Toronto in 5
(M2) Pittsburgh over (M3) Columbus in 6
(WC1) New York over (A1) Montreal in 6
(A3) Boston over (A2) Ottawa in 6

(M1) Washington over (M2) Pittsburgh in 7
(WC1) New York over (A3) Boston in 6

(M1) Washington over (WC1) New York in 6

Western Conference Playoffs:
(C1) Chicago over (WC2) Nashville in 6
(C2) Minnesota over (C3) St. Louis in 6
(P1) Anaheim over (WC1) Calgary in 5
(P3) San Jose over (P2) Edmonton in 7

(C1) Chicago over (C2) Minnesota in 6
(P1) Anaheim over (P3) San Jose in 6

(P1) Anaheim over (C1) Chicago in 7

2017 Stanley Cup Final: (M1) Washington over (P1) Anaheim in 5

Conn Smythe: Alex Ovechkin.

This is the year. I can feel it. Go Caps.

2016-17 NHL Season Predictions in Review

As I tend to do with every sports league I make serious predictions for, at the start of the postseason, I enjoy taking a look back at the predictions I made so long ago, especially looking back at how wrong I was. This year had even more turnover than expected in the NHL, so the wrong predictions I made will look even worse in hindsight. So before I post my playoff predictions (which will be right on top of this post), here's a look at what I got right, and wrong, in the NHL this season:

My Metro Predictions:
1. Washington (WSH)
2. Pittsburgh (PIT)
3. Philadelphia (CBJ)
4. New York Islanders (NYR)
5. New York Rangers (NYI)
6. Carolina (PHI)
7. New Jersey (CAR)
8. Columbus (NJ)

The biggest whiff that I made, and everyone else made, was the rise of the Columbus Blue Jackets. No one had them sniffing the playoffs, let alone finishing with the fourth most points in the NHL. Torts and a cap strapped team that hadn't shown much improvement figured to be a recipe for disaster, and it wasn't. How they do in the postseason remains to be seen, but they made just a few people eat crow. We also slightly overstated the Islanders and Flyers, who both regressed after playoff appearances last year, and slightly underrated the Rangers, who had more scoring than we expected.

My Atlantic Predictions:
1. Tampa Bay (MTL)
2. Florida (OTT)
3. Montreal (BOS)
4. Boston (TOR)
5. Detroit (TB)
6. Buffalo (FLA)
7. Ottawa (DET)
8. Toronto (BUF)

Heh. This division turned out to be topsy-turvy thanks to injury, a few egomaniacal owners and some insane goaltending. Montreal rebounded to make the postseason, and so too did Boston, who I figured would be just on the outside looking in. But both Ontario teams making it is a huge shock. Ottawa may have done it with some smoke and mirrors, but the Leafs are here maybe a year ahead of schedule. They are going to be terrifying in the years ahead, though they'll be sacrificial lambs to Washington this year. Buffalo is still skidding their wheels, and the Wings finally had the bottom fall out.

My Central Predictions:
1. Nashville (CHI)
2. Dallas (MIN)
3. St. Louis (STL)
4. Chicago (NSH)
5. Minnesota (WPG)
6. Colorado (DAL)
7. Winnipeg (COL)

Nashville was still pretty good, but just not quite as good as some folks thought. Chicago, despite their roster turnover, got some amazing performances from young players to prove that they are wizards and thus, won the Central again. They may have to take a few lumps again in the playoffs, but they're still the Blackhawks. St. Louis was still solid despite firing their coach and trading away their best defenseman, and Minnesota got the Boudreau effect to somewhat overperform. Winnipeg made a late charge up the standings, while Dallas and Colorado had the bottom fall out.

1. San Jose (ANA)
2. Los Angeles (EDM)
3. Calgary (SJ)
4. Anaheim (CGY)
5. Edmonton (LA)
6. Arizona (ARZ)
7. Vancouver (VAN)

Anaheim continues to win the Pacific division despite now being coached by Randy Carlyle and somehow avoiding serious regression, which is insane to me and many others. San Jose took a slight step back, but they're still the Sharks, and scary good when healthy. I'd like to take some credit for thinking Calgary would make the playoffs, but when most people overrated LA and underrated Edmonton, that's hard to do.

Awards Predictions, with commentary:
Hart: Alex Ovechkin (Not one of his better seasons, it's probably going to be Connor)
Norris: Erik Karlsson (It's either him or Brent Burns)
Calder: Patrik Laine (In most years, he'd win it. But Auston Matthews had 40 goals in Toronto)
Vezina: Carey Price (He'll be nominated, but a certain Bob in Columbus has this on lock)
Jack Adams: Bill Peters (Torts man, Torts. Or Babcock.)
Rocket Richard: Ovi (Sid had 44)
Art Ross: Connor McDavid (Yep)

Time for some playoff predictions, so if you want 'em, look up.

Friday, March 31, 2017

2017 MLB Season Predictions

Even as it feels as if it has snuck up on us, the 2017 MLB season begins this weekend. After last year's incredible season for both the Indians and the Cubs, it feels like it may well be hard to top all of the drama and demons and stories that permeated every day throughout the season. However, the league is getting younger, more athletic, and the big guns are still in line to be really, really good. While a 108 year title drought is over, there is still plenty to look forward to in 2017. So, let's look forward, shall we?

AL East:

1) Boston
2) Toronto
3) Baltimore
4) New York Yankees
5) Tampa Bay

NL East:

1) New York Mets (this is a homer pick but I don't care)
2) Washington
3) Philadelphia
4) Miami
5) Atlanta

AL Central:

1) Cleveland
2) Detroit
3) Kansas City
4) Chicago White Sox
5) Minnesota

NL Central:

1) Chicago Cubs
2) St. Louis
3) Pittsburgh
4) Milwaukee
5) Cincinnati

AL West:

1) Houston
2) Seattle
3) Texas
4) Anaheim
5) Oakland

NL West:

1) Los Angeles
2) San Francisco
3) Colorado
4) Arizona
5) San Diego

AL Wild Cards: 1) Toronto, 2) Seattle

NL Wild Cards: 1) Washington, 2) San Francisco

AL Playoffs:

ALDS: Cleveland over Toronto in 4
             Boston over Houston in 5

ALCS: Cleveland over Boston in 6

NL Playoffs: 

NLDS: Chicago over San Francisco in 4
             Los Angeles over New York in 5

NLCS: Los Angeles over Chicago in 7

2017 World Series: Dodgers over Indians in 6

Awards Predictions:

AL MVP: Mike Trout
NL MVP: Corey Seager
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
NL Cy Young: Thor! (Another homer pick from yours truly)
AL Rookie: Andrew Benintendi
NL Rookie: Dansby Swanson
AL Manager: Scott Servais
NL Manager: Dave Roberts

Simple, and effective. Last year, I was wrong, but not hysterically wrong (I had the Blue Jays and Giants in the World Series). I'm going a little against the grain this year, because it's not like the Dodgers winning is going way out on a limb, but with that lineup and that bullpen and two dynamite starters, they have a good a chance as any. If they solve the back end of that rotation, and they have the prospects and cash to do so, they can win it this year, though they'll have to grind their way through a brutal National League to do it.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

This is the Anthem and We Hope you Stand Up

Not so quietly and not so subtly, US Soccer injected themselves into a debate that has been subsuming the entire country since Colin Kaepernick's famous anthem protests last summer: what is proper conduct when the Star-Spangled Banner is played? A now infamous policy code, 604-1, mandates US Soccer players to stand respectfully during the anthem when it is played, obviously in response to Megan Rapinoe's kneeling during the anthem last September as she protested the injustices and inequality in this country in a most American way.

I've already spent many column inches speaking about how protesting during the national anthem is more American than robotically standing up and badly mouthing the words to Francis Scott Key's poem, and so have many others. You'll be surprised to hear my opinion hasn't changed in the last six months, and in fact I've not been standing for the anthem when its been played recently in my own personal protest against injustices, inequality and the like. But since I'm relatively unimportant and not famous outside of a few Twitter bots, my protest means little. When someone of Megan Rapinoe's stature protests in the same way I have however, it becomes a story, and therefore a "problem" or "distraction" away from the game.

Whatever you think of the anthem, and what is respectful to do when it is played, most people will end up agreeing on this, even after a long and wasteful argument: you can go do what you please. Such is the glory of free speech in this country that the government can't tell you what to do or not to do during the anthem. US Soccer, despite what people might think, is a private entity with no connection whatsoever to the government in Washington, meaning they can pass whatever codes and bylaws they wish. They aren't trampling over the 1st Amendment because they are a private entity. That does not mean they shouldn't be criticized for passing an arcane and anti-American rule while on the other hand Tim Howard and Abby Wambach aren't at least publicly sanctioned for making anti-American comments about foreign players.

In this country, especially after 9/11, the national anthem became a staple at every single sporting event, from high school to the pros and back. It is indelible. However, that is not the case everywhere. In England, "God Save the Queen" is not played before almost any sporting event, outside of national team games and the FA Cup Final. Hearing the Star-Spangled before a Tuesday night Carolina Hurricanes-Arizona Coyotes game is almost mechanical at this point, and the meaning of hearing the anthem, the images it invokes and the symbolism it draws upon. So when the anthem plays before a US Soccer match, some of that desired affect is lost because everyone rising for the anthem hears it so often; perhaps too often.

More specifically however, what is this policy designed to accomplish? Most players will stand with their hand over their heart during the anthem anyway without prompting from some code in a rulebook they've never seen, so why even bother? Are they really desperate to win support from a segment of the American populous that isn't likely soccer fans anyway? And what will happen if someone violates the policy? Will they be suspended for important matches if they happen to sit or kneel or don't put their hand over their heart? What would the reaction be then?

When standing for the anthem is such a knee-jerk and innate reaction, it takes concerted thought in order to not do that thanks to heavy cultural appropriation that all of us have experienced throughout our lives. Representing our country means representing the best values that we have, and one of those is the freedom of expression. That means if someone feels the country isn't serving the best interests of everyone, or they themselves feel personally under attack by a government that isn't doing its job, then they have the right to speak out.

The Star Spangled Banner is a projective surface; it means what each individual wants it to mean. It can be a symbol of the best of this country, a time to honor those who have served it with distinction and honor, or can be a reminder that this country is not objectively achieving the goals its founders set out to. But whatever you feel about the anthem, and what is appropriate conduct when it is playing, we can all agree at least on this: you have the ability to do what you want during its playing, whatever the reaction is from others.

US Soccer has the right as a private organization to dictate conduct from those who they employ, however that doesn't mean they cannot be criticized for policies that do not serve their best interests. Whatever the policy is supposed to achieve, and whatever consensus the policy apparently built inside the organization has not achieved the desired affect. This policy codifies something that without even thinking about, most of us do without instruction or prodding.

Whether you think this policy is great, anti-American or anything in that spectrum, it comes of as excessive, unnecessary and over-bearing. This is US Soccer legislating for events that happen as rarely as Haley's Comet blasting through the night sky, and for a purpose that doesn't accomplish much of anything other than empty satisfaction and a chorus of criticism from a vocal segment of their core fanbase.

Representing your country should mean more than robotically standing for a poem and the music it is put to. US Soccer knows this, even as 99% of players, coaches and fans will stand for it unimpeded and automatically.

Friday, March 3, 2017

2017 MLS Season Predictions

While this preview post won't necessarily be as all-encompassing as some MLS preview pieces I have written elsewhere (check out my Twitter feed @MattsMusings1 for that), here I will post my predictions for the major awards, regular season standings and who will end up winning the Cup come December. These are probably going to be very wrong (dang Whitecaps), so laugh at me when the time comes, but here are my predictions for the 2017 MLS Season.

Eastern Conference:

1. Toronto FC
3. New York Red Bulls
4. DC United
5. Columbus Crew
6. Montreal Impact
7. Atlanta United
8. Philadelphia Union
9. Chicago Fire
10. New England Revolution
11. Orlando City

So yes, the expansion darlings who spent all that money and brought in all that starpower won't be making it to the playoffs in year one in my mind, though they're certainly going to contend for it. The best teams in the East are the same as they always have been, and look for the Crew to rebound from their disastrous 2016 campaign. Chicago is also much better, but they aren't quite there yet either. And Orlando still has more building to do if they want to finally make the postseason.

Western Conference:

1. FC Dallas
2. Seattle Sounders
3. Portland Timbers
4. LA Galaxy
5. Sporting Kansas City
6. Real Salt Lake
7. Vancouver Whitecaps
8. Colorado Rapids
9. San Jose Earthquakes
10. Houston Dynamo
11. Minnesota United

The other expansion team won't be as likely to fare well, and most people expect that from Minnesota United based on the way they've built their roster. No one is likely to complain about this immediately, but it still feels likely. Portland will be rebounding big time because of their ability to score, but their inability to keep other teams from scoring will prevent them from being higher up the table. Colorado will end up falling back down to earth, while SKC and RSL will just hold up enough to make the playoffs.


MVP: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
Golden Boot: Ola Kamara (Columbus)
Rookie: Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland)
Defender: Jelle Van Damme (LA Galaxy)
Manager: Ben Olsen (DC United); Benny Ball reigns supreme!

And as for who wins the Cup, anyone can win it, as evidenced by Seattle being awful until August then getting hot. But for me, it seems that it's going to be the year for FC Dallas, as when they're healthy, they're in another stratosphere compared to the rest of the league. Seattle and TFC are the two teams closest to them, followed by a whole host of others.

Happy season, everyone!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Magnificent 5 Say Goodbye

While I do love writing, especially here, my first love in the sports media world has always been broadcasting. And for broadcasters like me, this has been a fairly incredible year in terms of big names retiring. From Vin Scully announcing his retirement from the Dodgers booth after basically being there forever earlier last spring, to Dick Enberg, Verne Lundquist, Chris Berman and yesterday Brent Musberger, it has been an incredible time to celebrate the careers of five men who essentially created the industry as it's known today.

Even non-sports fans can tell you who Vin Scully and Chris Berman are, and probably the rest too because they have transcended sports in ways that other great broadcasters just haven't. That alone makes the loss of these giants from the broadcast booth particularly difficult, and made a bit tougher by losing so many of them at once. And while Berman, Lundquist and Musberger aren't leaving the sports world entirely, their presence is greatly reduced and they won't be doing what they used to do on a weekly basis.

It's somewhat pointless to go into all of their resume's because they are so well known, but instead I can talk about what they've meant to me. First Vin, who is absolutely eternal. The man can tell stories like no other, and weaved them into the general story of the games he called without much effort. That takes skill. In sports broadcasting, telling stories during downtime is hard to weave in when there is other action going on that needs to be described, and Vin did it perfectly. And he still knew how to call a moment really well and let the pictures tell the story when he had to. That's the tip of the iceberg for him, but in the times I've gotten to listen to him call Dodger games (which sadly wasn't enough), it was an experience you didn't get from almost anywhere else.

I'll always remember Dick Enberg for this: at the 2009 NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia, UCLA was playing VCU in the nightcap of a four game day. Enberg was calling these games for CBS, and during a TV timeout, a cheerleader was walking across the floor on her hands. Enberg rose up over the broadcaster's table and cheered her on. While that's apropos of little in terms of his broadcasting skills, that's a story I'll always remember when it comes to him. His career with NBC was nothing short of brilliant, and he continued it at CBS where he did just about everything from tennis to football and college basketball and beyond. And to wind down his career, he called San Diego Padres games for seven years, and did it as well as anyone has. While he won't be known for that, it shows you his versatility and ability to do it all, and be really good at most everything.

Chris Berman? No one could read highlights like he could. NFL Primetime is eternal, and while his shtick may have gotten old fast when the Primetime we all know and love went away, no one can take away his impact on broadcasting and the NFL itself. It stands to reason that Howard Cosell's halftime highlights started the boll rolling, and Boomer put them over the top, and maybe even the league over the top. The NFL isn't where it is now without him.

Verne Lundquist will be forever linked with SEC football, but I'll always remember him for this:

 Couldn't help myself. But those NCAA Tournament pairings with Bill Raftery were also classic, as well as big moments calling the Masters. He too was as versatile as it gets, but he'll be forever known as the voice of the SEC when the conference took over college football, but he's more than that, as a small 62-7 Jaguars playoff win showed.

And what can you say about Brent Musberger that hasn't already been said. He basically created the live sports studio show with the NFL Today and hosted it as if the format was down pat for years. He called the NBA, college basketball among other items for CBS and was essentially the Bob Costas of his time. And after his very public split with the Tiffany Network, he moved to ABC and still was almost exactly the same tour de force he was at CBS. My memories of him will be forever linked to College Football, especially those Saturday's on ABC where he called the biggest games of the weekend and five straight national title games from 2010-2014 with ESPN, but like everyone else here, he's more than that. And no one could slip in a subtle gambling reference like he could.

All five of them have left their posts that they have been in for what seems like the whole of time, and it's a shame to see them go. But their impact not just on future broadcasters but the entire world of sports can't be understated. Losing one of their voices is tough, but all five practically at once is a tough blow. But with their legacies well established and forming a bedrock of the present an future of the sports industry on TV, all of us are going to continue to live their legacies onward and upward.

These were just my memories and impressions of these five amazing men, and no doubt you'll all have more to share than just these. But to these five: enjoy retirement or your new roles, and know that the world you've left behind is better than when you found it and its in plenty capable hands (outside of me, perhaps).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Day the World Cup Died?

Hyperbole is often unnecessary garnish to get people to turn their heads, I get that. Even with this situation, the hyperbole is probably not needed. But some situations call for a little extra garnish, and when the inevitable yet still head-scratching news that FIFA is expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 in 2026, maybe the garnish became necessary.

The World Cup has constantly expanded, and despite what many will think, the tournament has only been at 32 teams since 1998. Only seven World Cups will be played with that amount of teams, even though 32 seems like the perfect number. But when the almighty dollar speaks, and politics scratches a certain itch, change is certainly inevitable. Many fans around the globe are wondering this: is the World Cup that we've all come to know and love now dead?

More teams, especially those that have never been able to reach the World Cup, have now a better chance than ever to reach the final tournament, even if their stay there will be pretty short. Largely, those teams are going to come from Africa and Asia, which is a political base that helped Gianni Infantino win election as FIFA President. It's not bad that new teams finally make the tournament, since from those two federations specifically, nine of the 10 qualifying teams were the same in 2010 and 2014. Smaller nations in the Caribbean too could finally return to the tournament since their path in CONCACAF has been blocked by the US, Mexico and Costa Rica in recent cycles.

What about the format? There will be 16 three team groups, and the top two in each will advance to a 32 team knockout stage. That means the amount of games each team can play doesn't change, although in theory, some of them now mean more and mean more earlier, even though the format is really wonky. And since far more than half of the teams that qualify for the tournament make the knockout stage, teams playing mediocre, heading for 0-0 soccer do get rewarded for that. FIFA's own research says the quality of play at the tournament will be diluted, and that's fairly obvious considering worse teams are now entering the fray. And with this process, qualifying for the tournament around the world becomes even more diluted than it is now, especially for teams like the US and Mexico, who barely play enough high stakes games to begin with.

Hopefully, the extra money FIFA is going to make off this expansion actually goes to expand and grow the game around the world, particularly the women's game. And when this money does get distributed to each of the many federations around the world, the average person can know where the cash is going instead of watching greedy executives use it for their own gain instead of the sport's gain. There are other issues too, such as asking even more of the nations who are hosting the tournament (sans the US, China, etc.) and the like, but what the average fan cares about is the quality of play, and the immediate knee-jerk thought is that expansion = dilution.

If FIFA can pull this off, and there's every reason to believe that they can't, then this will be a success. With every expansion of the World Cup (and the Euros), the same concerns come up, and eventually the watching world comes around and becomes settled with the new number. There's no reason to think that won't happen here if FIFA can allocate the extra 16 qualifying slots right and settle on the other details.

There are plenty of reasons to hate this new World Cup expansion, and they're all legitimate. But until we see it in action, and we have nine years of speculation and hand-wringing before we do, every argument is theoretical.

So the World Cup isn't dead as a spectacle... yet, at least. Trusting FIFA to get something right is hard to do, but with so much at stake beyond just money, the world has to hope that they do get this latest expansion right.