Sunday, January 31, 2016

In Spite of itself, the NHL Won This Weekend

All Star Games in all sports are exercises in appeasing sponsors, kids and TV executives. No matter what anyone tries to do to spice up these games, people aren't watching because the league's stars are playing each other; only in the past did that matter because you didn't get to see every player and every team on any given night. The Pro Bowl is being played as a I type this, and aside from Allen Robinson being there, I couldn't tell you a single thing about the game. They don't matter.

And somehow this NHL All Star Game mattered in spite of the NHL's attempts to stick their head in the sand and hope the "problem" went away. John Scott went to Nashville, and the class nerd became the Homecoming King. Not only that, but he found a way to publicly shame the big bad bully in town and became a hero in the process.

While all All Star Games are meaningless the NHL's offering seems to have meant the least for the longest time. Wales vs. Campbell meant plenty when you couldn't see Wayne or Mario every night, but then it became East vs. West, North America vs. World, Team A vs. Team B and now a 3 on 3 tournament. Every attempt to jazz up the format has provided a tiny spark but nothing more. All Star weekends are supposed to provide entertainment and they do everything but. Take the NHL's Friday Night Show this year to replace the forgotten Fantasy Draft... did anyone watch it? At least the NBA has the Dunk Contest and MLB has the Home Run Derby- two events the NHL can't match.

But when the real show began, John Scott stole it. From laughing at Patrick Kane getting booed (the why doesn't even matter here), to the look on his face when he scored not once but twice against the Central Division, and every moment in between. For all of the talk of players wanting to skip out on the event and be anywhere but Nashville (I love you Jaromir Jagr but you're not innocent), Scott fully embraced his time to be celebrated and enjoyed a weekend that is meant to be a light alternative to the daily grind of an 82 game regular season. He tried a spin-o-rama in the shootout and nearly scored!

Not only are even "goons" insanely talented athletes, but they are some of the most personable, funny and interesting fellas you could ever want to meet. Paul Bissonnette isn't known because he liked a scrap, he's known because he's a goofball on twitter. John Scott scored a goal last season and immortalized it in a shirt. If more of the NHL's big stars had goofy personalities like Scott's, would the average hockey fan complain about the press the game gets in States? He also got into a "fight" with Patrick Kane, destroyed noted agitator Jeremy Roenick in a mid-game interview and won the MVP despite the NHL's attempts to avoid that.

Some are going to stretch to give the NHL credit for how the weekend turned out. I'm not one of them. The embracing and reception of Scott from the players but more so Nashville and the hockey fans at large came about because the league bungled the situation about as badly as it gets, as Scott illustrated. "The People's Champion" is a wrestling term, and normally Scott gets about as much love as your average wrestling villain, but he turned the tables and like a classic Monday Night Raw, made the big bad man in a suit the villain (maybe then it's no wonder why the hockey and wrestling fanbases cross over so much).

The campaign to vote in a fighter did not pick Zac Rinaldo, an eminently loathable hockey player, or even Shawn Thornton, who has a personality but is still despised by a fair few hockey fans out there. It zeroed in on the lovable, goofy John Scott. He has some incredibly disgusting incidents on his resume, and those can't be erased, but for as much as he may be loathed for those hits, he is now beloved for this weekend in equal measure. We seem to forget in the rush to hate him that he is a man with two daughters and an engineering degree, which can be said about many more of us than "National Hockey League player".

Maybe the 3 on 3 tournament added a little spice to an otherwise bland weekend, but the true zest was provided by Scott, and there will be no re-capturing that ever again. Nine Days couldn't replicate "Story of a Girl" no matter how hard they tried, and nor will the NHL ever have an All Star Weekend like this one in Nashville. The city, the circumstances and the people will never coalesce this way again. The NHL fumbled and bumbled around like a classic naive movie villain and careened ass backwards into some of the best PR they've gotten in years.

The league is going to limit voting even further so players like John Scott are not voted into the All Star Game ever again, which is a shame because this game is ostensibly for the fans. Thankfully, they fought back this weekend and while the NHL eventually relented, they are going to get their way next year, and every year following too.

 Replicating this weekend is impossible, but no doubt the NHL will try to. Even though this is likely John Scott's last NHL involvement ever, he goes out on the best note possible, literally and metaphorically. And for once, an All Star Game was enjoyable, fun to watch and even memorable. PK Jagr and Brent Burns as Chewbacca were great.

But John Scott, All Star MVP, was even better.

Now, who plays him in the inevitable Disney movie about his life...

Friday, January 15, 2016

John Scott's All-Star Weekend has been Stuffed

       John Scott was voted into the 2016 NHL All-Star Game by the fans. Yes, the campaign to vote him in started with prodding from a couple of successful podcasts as well as the internet muscle known as Reddit, but he was voted as a Captain just as Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane were. And now, after his trade to the Montreal Canadiens and supposed banishment to St. John's, Newfoundland, he won't be going at all. The timing, and the circumstances behind this whole vote and now this trade seems incredibly shady, and the NHL does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. At all.

       Whatever you think of John Scott as a hockey player, or as an All-Star, he was voted in by the fans. Immediately after he was announced as a Captain, speculation mounted almost immediately as to what the NHL might do to get themselves out of a messy situation. After Scott decided against bowing out after the NHL "kindly" asked him to, this trade now takes care of that. And based on this tweet from Bob McKenzie, draw conclusions at your own risk:

      Scott was already sent to the AHL, but recently called back up, and had every intention of going to Nashville. It would have been a great weekend for his family (provided the media didn't make him look like the village idiot), and he would have had a chance to make a little extra coin, which is never a bad thing. And now the league is denying him an earned opportunity because of perceived embarrassment to the shield? Doesn't it look worse that there was a trade that quietly shuttled him out of his division and to the NHL coincidentally to put this problem away? At least during "Vote for Rory", ballot stuffing is a legitimate (if equally shady) excuse. Dropping this trade on a Friday afternoon doesn't help matters either.

     Many fans, include this scribe, would have enjoyed watching John Scott at the All-Star Game, and not for comedic value. Yes, watching John Scott skate against Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin would have looked ridiculous, but Scott is a man who immortalized one of his rare goals, by putting it on a shirt. He seems to be a man that can take a joke. It's now quite obvious that the NHL can't. The All-Star game isn't sacred, nor is it entirely necessary, and John Scott in the game drew far more intrigue than the format switch to 3 on 3 ever will. With the Winter Classic and the Outdoor Games slowly becoming the league's showcase events, the All-Star Game is a chance to let loose and have a little fun. The fantasy draft last year with Nick Foligno and Jonathan Toews was some of the most fun ever at an NHL All-Star game, and this is the league that denied Johnny Gaudreau a chance to light his stick on fire during the Breakaway Challenge.

     It seems the NHL is actively trying to kill its own buzz, which in an age when buzz drives everything, including TV ratings and web clicks, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whatever the view on the geek being named Homecoming King is, usually the King doesn't have his crown prematurely taken away because of an "image crisis". NHL: No hockey fan is embarrassed or ashamed of "John Scott- NHL All Star": it's you.

    And in order to prevent a situation like this from happening again, as if this was some great electoral fraud, they will take even more power away from the fans who this weekend is really for by further limiting their influence. It's as if a league that needs attention more than any other in an era of fragmentation actively wants to alienate the core fanbase and take away the intrigue from a game that's losing it rapidly.

   If the NHLPA can file a grievance for this situation, they should. And fans should air their grievances by not watching the game at all. Vote with your remotes, vote with your feet. Tell the NHL what you think about a situation that they made worse entirely because of a problem that never existed to begin with.

   Rumor has it that the All-Star Game is making way soon to a "Ryder Cup" style event. It can't come soon enough.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

2015-16 NFL Playoff Predictions

As evidenced in an earlier post, my preseason NFL predictions were pretty bad. But that is why there are erasers on the end of pencils; we all make mistakes, in my case I make plenty of them. Now is the time for redemption however, because here are my NFL playoff predictions:

AFC Wild Card: Kansas City over Houston, Pittsburgh over Cincinnati

The Chiefs defense is criminally underrated, and when the chips are down, I'd take Alex Smith over Brian Hoyer (yuck), because of that. The Texans have a great defense too, but they have more weapons to shut down than the Chiefs do, although that weapon is the best on the field. And in the Steelers-Bengals rubber match, expect Big Ben to throw it a lot without a running back to hand the ball off to. A.J McCarron has been decent enough for the Bengals to beat two bad teams in San Francisco and Baltimore, but won't be enough to beat the Steelers. The Cincy playoff hex will continue.

AFC Divisional Round: New England over Kansas City, Pittsburgh over Denver

The Chiefs are going to give the Pats everything they can handle with the defense they can throw at Brady and his weak offensive line, but in the postseason the Pats usually find ways to win, and they will do that again this time. Peyton Manning will start for the Broncos, but the battle will be won with Denver's defense going up against the Steelers offense. The Steelers won the first battle back in December, and it's hard to imagine the second not going Pittsburgh's way either.

AFC Championship Game: New England over Pittsburgh

Once the Pats get some of their weapons back and get healthy enough, they will have enough to overcome the Steelers and their offense. The Pittsburgh defense will have to step up at some point if they are to make a 2005/06 style run to the Super Bowl, and they just don't have it. The Pats are back in the Big Game.

NFC Wild Card Round: Seahawks over Vikings, Washington over Packers

The cold is a factor, and not having a discernible running back is also a problem, but the Seahawks boatraced the the Vikings in Week 13, and even though Minnesota has the defense to keep them in the game, and Adrian Peterson, playoff games come down to QB play, and there just isn't that much confidence in Teddy Bridgewater making that one play to put the Vikings over the top. Momentum is usually thrown out the window coming into the postseason, but with the Packers you have to take it into account. If it wasn't for a Hail Mary in Week 13 against the Lions, they may well not even be here. Washington has won four in a row, has confidence, and was 6-2 at FedEx Field this season. They pull off the "upset".

NFC Divisional Round: Panthers over Seahawks, Cardinals over Washington

The Seattle/Carolina game might well be the best game of the entire postseason, because you know the Seahawks don't fear the Panthers and Carolina finally got the Seattle monkey off their back after a myriad of losses against them. A similar Seattle team was tripped up in the Divisional Round on the road against an NFC South opponent back in 2012/13, and this Carolina team will be rested, if not a little weary of what the Seahawks can do, and for good reason. With Carolina at home, Cam Newton will take over and win this game. Arizona may have been blown out by Seattle in the final game, but they also blew out Green Bay the week before. Great offense, opportunistic defense and a great coach means they should take it easily over Washington.

NFC Championship Game: Cardinals over Panthers

Last year, John Skelton started this game in the postseason. Carson Palmer will likely start this one. The defensive matchup here is going to be fantastic, and how Carolina and Josh Norman attempt to shut down the Cardinals offense will be a battle of wills. Something tells me though that this might be Arizona's year...

Super Bowl 50: Cardinals over Patriots

Tom Brady, in his hometown, with a chance to pass his idol Joe Montana in Super Bowl's won... the narratives would be amazing if fulfilled. But that's why Arizona is here. To spoil all of them.

So sorry to the Cardinals in advance for ruining your season. At least you have three chances to lose unlike the four for eight other teams.

2015 NFL Season Predictions in Review

In what may have been the most topsy-turvy NFL season in recent memory, it stands to reason that most predictions done in the preseason are probably going to be wrong. Mine are no exception. So, in the interest of self-awareness and eating a big slice of humble pie, let's take a look at how wrong I was back in early September:

Division Winners I Picked: DAL, GB, ATL, SEA, NE, PIT, IND, DEN

Actual Division Winners: WSH, MIN, CAR, ARZ, NE, CIN, HOU, DEN

Two out of eight ain't bad, right? Right? I did have Arizona in the playoffs at least, but otherwise things didn't go well for me outside of the obvious division winners in New England and Denver. Not getting a single NFC division winner right is well...

NFC Playoff Teams I Picked: SEA, DAL, GB, ATL, DET, ARZ

NFC Actual Playoff Teams:  CAR, ARZ, MIN, WSH, GB, SEA

Three out of six is a better hit-rate, but I didn't get any in their correct position. I had Minnesota on the fringe of the playoffs because I just didn't think they had enough yet, but they did, and coupled with Green Bay's slide, they won the NFC North. I also didn't think Carolina had enough to repeat, especially after the loss of Kelvin Benjamin. I'm not making that mistake again.

AFC Playoff Teams I Picked: IND, NE, DEN, PIT, BAL, KC

AFC Actual Playoff Teams: DEN, NE, CIN, HOU, KC, PIT

Four out of six is much more like it. I thought Baltimore was a slightly more complete team than Pittsburgh, and I also didn't think there was any way that three AFC North teams would make the playoffs again, and I was right, but no one could have ever seen the injuries that the Ravens succumbed to. I feel a little sense of satisfaction in getting the Chiefs right, though after week six I wasn't feeling all that confident with them.

Preseason Super Bowl prediction: Packers/Colts. Likelihood? Zero. On both accounts.

Awards Predictions (Preseason first, then what will happen):

MVP: Andrew Luck. (His kidneys might be the most valuable player in the NFL. Gonna be Cam Newton).
OPOY: Ben Roethlisberger (Possible, though not likely because of his injuries).
DPOY: J.J Watt (Slam dunk).
OROY: Amari Cooper (Had his flashes, but there are better candidates out there).
DROY: Vic Beasley (Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, this was smart, Matt).
Coach: Mike Zimmer (Likely, but wouldn't guarantee it).

How many preseason record predictions did I nail exactly? Buffalo (8-8), New Orleans (7-9), San Francisco (5-11).

Favorite Preseason Prediction that ended up being right: Eagles missing the playoffs. Told you.

I ended up winning an NFL picking competition somewhere else, so it's nice to know the brains went somewhere during this season. Stay tuned to see if my playoff predictions are any better.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Outrage about Outrage

In the world of hockey and the National Hockey League, there is quite a bit to be excited about. The league is healthier than ever, expanding at a great clip and some great teams are playing great hockey. The crop of young players coming into the league is also better than ever which is even more evident watching the World Junior tournament from Finland.

But, as always, there's something to be angry about. John Scott voted into the NHL All-Star game as a captain is an outrage for a variety of different reasons, so says so many with opinions to shout. There's a new Cinderella team to latch on to and get excited about, and to make it even better, it's the Florida Panthers, a moribund, staid, waste of a franchise that for so long was bereft of money and anything remotely valuable to the league they played in. But, in the spirit of the advanced analytics and #fancystats, they must be bad because most of the recent Cinderella teams have actually been bad. Why all the outrage? Can't hockey fans just enjoy the sport they love and cherish so much?

This season hasn't been all positive. The Patrick Kane mess is still one that has left a sour taste in the mouths of many hockey fans, and for good reason because the situation still lingers over his head and the league's head. There was good reason to be outraged about the way the league dealt with that situation, and one hopes they deal with Evander Kane's situation better. But a goon in the All-Star game as a joke? A listless franchise that was only used as the butt of attendance jokes is now good again and so many people feel the need to tear it down because they are a slightly worse possession team than the Isles, Devils or Capitals? No wonder this sport can't catch on in the US; no one wants to see something funny or heart-warming turned sour in no time flat.

John Scott is not a good hockey player. He really doesn't serve any purpose in the modern NHL where fighting has almost completely vanished and the role of the enforcer has shrunk to the size of a dust-mite. He is also a man who, when he scored for the Sharks last season against Washington, immortalized that Haley's comet moment with a shirt. He is a funny, affable character that unfortunately doesn't really add much to his team with his play on the ice. So, some media members and hockey fans decided to start a campaign, as a joke, to put John Scott into the new three on three All-Star Game format not only because he's the most likable of the pluggers available, but to show how broken the voting process is for this exhibition that most players would rather avoid. And it worked. But, as is the culture, there has to be outrage over this because this is "an insult to the glamour and pageantry of the All-Star Game" or, "so many good players are being denied a chance to go because John Scott is going". There was a campaign to send Zac Rinaldo, a similarly useless but eminently more loathable hockey player, to Nashville but that campaign crashed and burned.

Is it silly that someone like John Scott is going to the All-Star Game and not a burgeoning star from Arizona like Max Domi or Anthony Duclair? Yes. But the idea of the campaign was rooted in the whole notion that the campaign was itself, silly. The All-Star Game is still a joke, and most everyone knows that. Yes, parents will have to explain to their kids why Scott is there, but Scott is going to make the most of his moment in the sun and so should we. There's a time for debate about the merit of All-Star Games in general, and that discussion is coming, but there's no need to have it now. When the geek gets elected Prom King, sure people laugh, but the geek is likely having the time of his life and more than likely knows he's the butt of a joke and embraces it. Why can't hockey fans do that with John Scott, or even Jaromir Jagr?

In most sports, Cinderella stories are the most heart-warming and wonderful examples of why so many of us have dedicated our lives to watching more talented human beings pull of feats of athleticism that most of us could only dream of and pay hand-over-fist to do it. They're more like us, and so we connect with those stories more than any other. But in the NHL, particularly with the crowd that is affable to advanced stats, the immediate thought when there's a hot team or a new kid on the block, the immediate thought is to find out why the run will die. It happened with the Leafs, the Avalanche, the Flames and now it's happening with the Florida Panthers. Advanced stats did correctly predict the fall of all of those teams to an extent, particularly with Toronto, but it is a wonder why those teams successes immediately get dirt thrown on them. Is there merit to the criticism? Often yes. But do the criticisms need to be militant? No.

The Florida Panthers are a bottom third team in the NHL in terms of possession throughout the season, although recently they've been in the top 10. Their PDO (shooting % + save %) is very high. That is a recipe for regression, and there is little doubt that the Panthers will have a dip in form at some point, because every team does. But as soon as new teams rise, there is a segment of people who are bullish and abrasive in their criticism's. Are they right? Their observations have merit. But the way those observations are presented adds to an air of negativity and tension that doesn't bring in new people to the sport. And in what other sport are Cinderella stories dispatched with little discussion like they are in hockey with some in the analytics crowd?

Yes, this column/rambling is outrage about outrage, something that often draws outrage. But it's worth mentioning why in hockey there is a culture among some fans that spawns a first reaction of anger above any other emotion. Everyone has their own view on how to grow the game, and here's a simple one:

Instead of anger, callousness and pettiness, try embracing the silly, sublime and ridiculous instead. That is what makes sports great, and hockey certainly has its fair share.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Auld Lang Syne: The Playoff Was Forgot(ten)

So much internet mileage has been spent lambasting the College Football Playoff Committee for its inane and asinine decision to put the playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve. The ratings are in, and they're as expected... awful. 9.9 for the Cotton Bowl and 9.7 for the Orange Bowl, in comparison to 15.5 for the Rose and 15.3 for the Sugar last year on New Year's Day. 73 NFL windows outrated the two playoff games, compared to a small fraction of that last year. For all of the future talk about "it takes time to establish a new tradition", which is code for, "God help us if we sacrifice some money to move the Rose and Sugar bowls out of their timeslots despite their matchups being bunk two out of every three years", will one overnight sweep force change?

As someone who isn't a huge party guy, or fan of the holiday in general, I didn't mind the time switch since I'd still be watching the games. But it's clear that many don't share my view, and that view is in the extreme minority. Sure, the two games this year had similar results to last year, a massive blowout and a game that was only decided in the fourth quarter, but the games didn't seem to have the weight they did last year. It became apparent that when every Disney property imaginable, from General Hospital to Marvel Comics and Disney Jr. were trying to get people to watch the playoff games, the result seemed inevitable. And for once, the cable behemoth isn't to blame. They desperately wanted the games on January 2nd, but if it came to taking money out of old white men's wallet's, God forbid anyone shows common sense or flexibility.

January 2 is just sitting there, with four bowl games of which none matter, with no external competition and people likely staying home after two days of raging, and is on a Saturday, the traditional day when college football owns the universe. Everyone's pocket books would still be overflowing with cash, but maybe not enough for Bill Hancock and his posse. The classic stories of hubris and arrogance might have been lost in the flowing booze and partying across the country, and apparently it was also lost on the executives in Pasadena and New Orleans. The New Year's Six nightcap is Oklahoma State and Ole Miss... one of those teams was blown out at home by two Big XII powerhouses and the other's win over Alabama a distant memory. Even the sin of starting a bowl game in Arizona at 11 AM local time seems lost in comparison.

Starting a new tradition on days embedded with them is difficult, but ask the NHL and NBC how it's done. NBC needed sports programming on New Year's Day after they lost TV coverage to the Gator Bowl, so they turned to the NHL with the suggestion of a game at an NFL stadium. The Winter Classic was born, and while it's not a ratings bonanza like the Playoff games last year were, it has carved out its own niche on January 1 and is now as much a part of the day as bowl games are. Breaking long-term habits is one that's nigh on impossible, especially if that tradition involves copious amounts of alcohol, but men in the position of these men should know better, and yet hubris still got the best of them.

Next year, New Year's Eve is on a Saturday. The ratings will likely be better than they were on a Thursday night, but still nowhere near as good as they were on New Year's Day, or could be on January 2, a hum-drum Monday with all of the traditional New Year's Day regalia because the NFL is a titan that cannot be slayed. ESPN, in an attempt to shine a turd, is trumpeting how great the online coverage of the two playoff games went, but they're doing that because they know the flip-side of the equation is terrible TV ratings. Whether it's because the Rose Bowl is inflexible and won't move off of it's beloved TV slot (it did when it was the national title game in 2002 and 2006, but only after the earth and planets were moved), or because of a steady flow of cash, hopefully these numbers knock some sense into the decision makers.

They were warned, and they didn't listen.