Okay, someone talk the Jays diehards off the ledge.  They’re probably not surprised to hear all the Roy Halladay trade rumors flying around but that can’t make it any easier.  This is a franchise after all that has sent packing or let walk away the likes of Roberto Alomar, John Olerud, Shawn Green, David Cone, Carlos Delgado, Roger Clemens, Chris Carpenter and Jimmy Key.  Some of them left looking for money, some of them left looking for World Series rings.  But all of them did leave and the Jays were poorer for it.

Now it’s 2009.  The Jays have shown some spunk early this season, despite crippling injuries to almost every key pitcher on the staff.  Not to mention the corpse-like performance of Vernon Wells and the continued disappointment that is Alex Rios.  Even still, the Jays are within a handful of games of a playoff berth.  One of the biggest reasons for this is the fact that they boast baseball’s best pitcher as the ace of their staff:  Roy Halladay.

Halladay is not your typical ace here in the new millennium.  He’s not the kind of hard-throwing, sexy strikeout pitcher that are highly sought-after.  He’s better.  What “Doc” can give you that very few pitchers can in 2009 is 9 full innings without having to worry about his arm falling off.  There’s a reason that this guy wins so many of his starts and completes so many of his games.  Efficiency.  It’s the same trait that helped lead Greg Maddux to greatness, in fact.  Halladay simply does an outstanding job of throwing the right pitches at the right times to the right hitters.  It’s not luck, he simply knows his profession and has perfected what he does to the point where he rarely gets hung with a loss.  Even at the age of 32 and beyond, he can be booked in for 220 innings per year and 15-plus wins even in the uber-tough AL East.

So what’s all the trade talk surrounding him?  More smoke than fire, from everything I have heard, seen and read over the several days.  Jays GM J.P. Riccardi was simply responding to a question and remarked that the team would listen if someone called about Halladay.  In fact he had to come out and reiterate that he said nothing more than that, after the usual suspects (major sports networks, sports talk radio, the ‘net) began to scream from the rooftops about which teams Halladay might end up on.  Ease up on the throttle fellas.  Nothing has happened yet, and more likely than not nothing will.  Riccardi said so himself in a follow up interview stating that it was a “75 percent chance” that “Doc” stays right where he is in Toronto.

And believe you me, that would be just fine with the big hurler.  Halladay is a quiet guy.  He’s a competitive guy who wants to win, but he also wants to win in Toronto.  He likes the city, as does his family.  He feels extremely loyal to them, especially after they stuck with him through the command issues he had early in his career.  He has built many good relationships inside the organization.  All this trade talk isn’t coming from him and that’s probably the biggest reason that you won’t see a deal get done.  “Doc” has stated on many occasions that he wants to stay in Toronto and win a World Series with the Blue Jays.  He’s taken a discount once already to stay in Toronto.  Will he find the same kind of fit with the city and community and organization somewhere else, as he does in Toronto?  Perhaps, but who can say?  I would be surprised to see him roll the dice to find out, with only a short-term improvement on his World Series chances as a benefit.

Next season (for which Halladay is still under contract) Toronto will have Shawn Marcum and Dustin McGowan back from injury.  Adding that duo to a rotation including Big Roy and potential Rookie of the Year Ricky Romero would give the Jays probably the best rotation in the AL East.  They would possess an abundance of pitching depth that would possibly allow them to deal from that strength, not to mention a likely return by Travis Snider to a Jays offense that has produced pretty well this season even with Wells dragging things down.  It’s not unfeasible that the Jays will be in the thick of things again in 2010, and not just due to some good luck.  This is a team built around a strong pitching staff and a top-flight defense.  That’s not a bad combination when trying to win baseball games.  Does Roy Halladay really want to roll the dice and see what can happen in another city with another team?  My instincts and all the information I have tell me no.

The other part of the equation is whether the Jays can get the kind of talent they want in return for Halladay.  Bear in mind this is the same team that turned down Tim Lincecum for Alex Rios a couple of years back.  It will take a colossal offer in order to pry the big Texan out of the Jays rotation and I can’t think there’s many teams with the talent or the stomach to do so.  Most of the teams that could use Halladay (Philly, Texas, New York (M), LA (D), St. Louis) either don’t have the young players necessary to make a deal or simply don’t want to part with that kind of cheap, young talent.  Not to mention those teams would then have to sign him to a new contract extension.  Given that Riccardi has said he won’t allow teams to negotiate that ahead of time, a deal seems even less likely for the handful of teams that could afford him.  Most of the trade rumors so far have been laughably bad, even beyond the usual ludicrous Yankees rumors.  There’s about as much chance of Doc Halladay going to the Yankees as there is of Doc Gooden pitching for the Yanks this fall.

Well the magic day for the NHL offseason is July 1st.  It’s the start of free agency and usually the day where teams reshape their images, or attempt to shore up weaknesses to retain their position on top.  While not all the rumored and discussed moves came to fruition, many players did change teams and many teams defined their 2009-2010 (and beyond) plans with their first day moves.

Biggest Winners

Vancouver and the Sedins

The announcement that the Sedins had reached an agreement on new contracts with the Canucks shortly before the start of free agency yesterday was a win for both sides.  The Sedins get to continue to play with each other in a city and on a team where they have grown and thrived, for an organization that knows their strengths and weaknesses.  The Canucks get a pretty solid bargain on a pair of 80-point scorers, with each of them earning just over 6 million per season.  That’s much less than the rumored 7-7.5 million they were rumored to be after, and probably could have gotten close to on the open market.

Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs

Burke promised he would make a splash in free agency and he’s already done that.  He traded solid but overpaid blueliner Pavel Kubina to Atlanta for Garnet Exelby, saving the Leafs a couple of million dollars to use elsewhere.  They spent that money saved on the first day, signing Mike Komisarek to a five year deal worth 22.5 million and tough guy Colton Orr to a four-year deal at one million per.  The Leafs can now boast seven NHL caliber defensemen, something they’ve not had for quite some time.   At least until the much anticipated trade of Tomas Kaberle goes through.  If it happens, the Leafs will then have to answer questions about their powerplay.  Like who quarterbacks it.  The Leafs are hardly done though.  They still have around 12 million dollars to spend, and are in desperate need of a top six forward or two.  Not to mention a goalie to pair with young Justin Pogge.

Well They’re Doing Something

The Sutter-led Calgary Flames

The Flames have made their focus pretty clear early on.  They let Mike Cammalleri and his undeniable talent walk away to sign with Montreal, while spending their money instead on defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.  While I absolutely love the Bouwmeester addition, I question the Flames spending around 22 million on their defense.  That’s just on the top six.  The problem the Flames seem poised to encounter is the same one they encountered before adding Cammelleri and Olli Jokinen last season.  An inability to score goals.  They have exactly three guys who are legitimate top-six NHL forwards.  Beyong Iginla, Jokinen and Langkow it looks like a mess to me.  Maybe guys like David Moss, Rene Borque and Curtis Glencross can continue to be 40-point guys.  But when you’re counting on those guys to produce points and score key goals rather than treating it as a bonus I think you’re asking for trouble.  The Flames have a bit of money to spend and would be advised to spend in on someone who can light the lamp or it’s going to be a long season in Calgary.

Bob Gainey and Les Habitants

The Montreal Canadiens have me intrigued, I’ll give them that.  They went into the offseason with 10 free agents and thusfar the only one showing any signs of staying is Alexei Kovalev.  The Habs got started early dealing Chris Higgins and several prospects to New York in exchanges for Scott Gomez.  They then went out and signed two-time 30-goal man Mike Cammalleri, along with former Gomez linemate Brian Gionta.  They also added Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek to fill out a pretty solid blueline.  While neither of those guys is going to set the world ablaze, both are solid NHL defenseman who can give you minutes.  The Habs have Markov and Hamrlik to do the heavy lifting anyway.   These Habs are definitely different than the team we saw crash and burn a season ago.  They’ve still got around 12 million to spend, so they’re by no means done.  I would expect them to continue to pursue Kovalev and probably another top-six forward.

The New Look Rangers

Same as the old Rangers?  We’ll see.  The Rags are one team with a ton of cap room remaining, even after their monster deal with Marian Gaborik and the inevitable re-signing of RFA Chris Higgins.  Will Zherdev come back?  They could certainly use his skill.  They also lack a true playmaker to play with Gaborik, but he’s always gotten by without an elite center anyways.  I actually like both their big moves (Gomez/Higgins, Gaborik signing) as they did a nice job cleaning up a past mistake and picked up maybe the most talented player in free agency.  All the questions about Gaborik are about his health.  He’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL and if healthy will make a run at 45 goals in New York.  For the trivia hounds he’s also the last NHL’er to score 5 goals in a single game.  Now New York must surround him and Chris Drury with more talent.  Their pipe dream about someone taking Wade Redden’s contract needs to stop.  Unless Chris Wallace takes over an NHL team, it ain’t happening.  They could probably move Rozsival but I’m not sure why they would want to.  He is at least a capable player in his own zone and their blueline is mighty thin.  I’d expect to see the Rangers go after another top-six forward.  Maybe even two.  Former Habs Saku Koivu and/or Alex Tanguay would give them a good playmaker for their goal-scorers.  They could also use a solid veteran blueliner.  Perhaps the return of Sergei Zubov?

Other Scattered Musings…

I really like the upgrade that the Edmonton Oilers made in net.  Nothing against Dwayne Roloson.  He’s been a capable NHL goaltender and has been outstanding at times.  But I feel that Khabibulin is a clear upgrade.  He’s capable of a heavy workload, and has proven himself in the playoffs on more than one occasion.  Getting him for less than 4 million seems like a bargain.

Chicago replacing Havlat with Hossa is an upgrade, but not a huge one in my opinion.  They paid a heavy premium and while Hossa might score more goals their overall production is similar on a per-game basis.  Hossa doesn’t have the same injury history as Havlat obviously, but in terms of ability I feel they are very close.  I’d be less worried about the deal for Chicago if they weren’t going to have to worry about keeping guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the next couple of seasons.    Havlat was apparently pretty upset about the way things went with Chicago.  He had stated he was going to stay in Chi-town before they gave his money to Hossa.

I like Minnesota’s signing of Havlat to replace Gaborik.  Havlat should be a popular player in Minnesota.  He’s got plenty of skill and more than enough heart.  If he can stay on the ice he should succeed there with the new-look Wild.

It’s been an eventful sporting weekend thanks to the NBA and NHL drafts, and there were some interesting tidbits in the gaming world as well.

Halo:  Reach Could Use Natal Technology?
According to an interview in The Seattle Times Bungie Studios own Harold Ryan noted that the upcoming Bungie project could be compatible with Project Natal.  While Ryan speculated that it certainly could happen, he never said that it would or that any plans to do so were in the works.  He merely made the comment while praising the Natal technology.  FPS fans should try to talk themselves off the ledge.  The idea that Bungie would release a shooter with any kind of motion control seems like folly given their loyal online community.

Xbox 360 Pro Could Vanish?

The rumor mill atTeamxbox.com is hard at work, speculating that the “Pro” SKU could disappear this summer and be replaced by a lower-priced Elite. This seems to me like a win-win for gamers and MS. Gamers get the Elite and it’s 120-GB drive (along with what seems to be sturdier hardware in general) for the same price while Microsoft lowers their number of different SKUs by 1, which should help their manufacturing costs.

Minnesota Drafts Rubio #5, Flynn #6

This is probably more fanfare than even the biggest Jonny Flynn fans would expect surrounding his selection, thanks to the fact that the Timberwolves selected Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio one pick before the Syracuse floor general.  This is puzzling because neither are big enough to guard two-guards in the NBA, nor are either of them the kind of outside shooting threat that can stretch a defense.  And we’re supposed to think they can play together successfully?  Sorry David Kahn.  Not buying it.  I’m not drinking the Rubio Kool-Aid the way most are, and if they can get a couple of nice pieces for him I’d deal him in a heartbeat.  I would expect him to end up elsewhere before he plays an NBA game.  Whenever that may be.

Islanders Make The Smart Pick

Kudos to the New York Islanders, who might just have saved their franchise by picking John Tavares with the #1 pick in the NHL Draft.  A franchise on the rocks in recent years, the Isles at least saved themselves from the scorn of their remaining faithful.  The pick was wildly applauded and rightly so.  That’s not a slight on Victor Hedman or Matt Duchene either.  Both have the potential to be phenomenal players.  I simply believe that Tavares is a cut above the same way that Crosby and Ovechkin have been in recent years.  Remember, Evgeni Malkin went #2 the year Ovechkin went #1.  A draft isn’t limited to one superstar.

It’s been a busy last 24 hours or so in the NBA trade market. Teams are not waiting for the draft itself to get deals done, in hopes of achieving whatever their goals for 2009-2010 might be with an early start. Contenders like San Antonio and Cleveland are attempting to add missing pieces while bottom-feeders like Milwaukee and rebuilding teams like Phoenix attempt to dump parts that no longer fit their vision.

Spurs, Bucks and Pistons Swap

Richard Jefferson to San Antonio.  Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Amir Johnson to Milwaukee.  Fabricio Oberto to Detroit.

An interesting three-way deal.  The Spurs come out the best obviously, picking up a 29 year-old Jefferson who can score 20 a night and play good all-around basketball.  He can shoot the three with ease, and will be more than capable at swinging the ball or getting it inside to Duncan.  He also does a good job getting to the line, and is a passable rebounder and defender.  He’s probably exactly what the Spurs need given the fact that they can’t depend on the health of Manu Ginobili. They also dump some aging and little-used talent, which doesn’t hurt for a team that has appeared short on athleticism at times.

Detroit gets a capable big body which they definitely need.  The Pistons only have one other roster player taller than 6’9, and that’s Kwame Brown.  With Rasheed Wallace off the books and probably gone, they have plenty of money to spend on replacement bigs.  Oberto isn’t a world-beater but he’s a servicable interior player.  They lose a nice role player in Johnson but the Pistons had pretty much decided to cut bait with him at this point.

As for Milwaukee… uhm… yeah.  Last year they traded Yi “The Chairman” Jianlian a year after picking him 6th overall to get Richard Jefferson.  Not a bad move for a team in need of scoring on the wing.  Especially considering The Chairman kind of sucks.  A year later, they traded Richard Jefferson for Amir Johnson and two expiring contracts.  Why?  Apparently they need cap space to keep restricted free agents Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva.  Building around Ramon Sessions and Charlie V?  I think we might have pinpointed why the Bucks have struggled to find traction in the standings in recent years.

Minnesota, Washington Deal

Randy Foye and Mike Miller to the Wizards.  Etan Thomas, Darius Songalia, Oleksiy Pecherov and the 5th overall pick to the Timberwolves.

Seems like a no-brainer for Washington.  They get Foye who’s at least shown he can play in the league, which is more than you can say for anyone in the draft.  The only guy I personally would want to hold on to that pick to take is Stephen Curry, but rumor has it now that he’ll be gone before the 5 spot.  The Wiz also get three-point shooter Mike Miller, giving them a pair of new outside threats and making them one of the leagues more potent offensive clubs.  Are they going to have enough shots for Arenas, Butler, Jamison and Foye?  Probably, but it will be interesting to watch them mesh.  The Wiz at least have themselves another starting-quality NBA guard to pair with Agent Zero, something they’ve lacked in recent years.

Minnesota meanwhile trades away the reminder of their terrible Brandon Roy-Randy Foye trade a few years back, and gives themselves the 5th and 6th picks in the draft to go with their two other later first rounders.  The T’wolves actually have a lot of cap room and dead salary (Thomas, Brian Cardinal, Mark Madsen) that they could use to actually acquire some good talent.  Will they do that?  Who knows what the new Minnesota regime will do.  If they really want to shed their image as a franchise that’s screwed up for 15 years, they could display some competence.  We’ll see.

Phoenix, Cleveland Deal

Phoenix gets Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a conditional draft pick (2nd round) and cash.  Cleveland gets Shaquille O’Neal.

A smart move for both teams, but not as big as the press coverage makes it seem.  Phoenix saves some money and looks even stupider for their Marion-Shaq deal two years ago.  They just were not a good fit for Shaq, despite the best effort on all sides this past season.  They need to give their young bigs (Lopez, Dudley) some burn anyways. If Wallace retires they save even more money, and that’s apparently all Robert Sarver cares about.

Cleveland improves here no question, but not in leaps and bounds.  They have three legitimate bigs, which is something that most teams in the league can’t say.  Of course two of those bigs are slow, old and have injury histories.  But I digress.  Shaq can still score in the paint in bunches, and clog the lane.  He’s a definite upgrade over Wallace, and they got him for basically nothing.  As long as he’s just the start of their offseason moves, it’s a nice step.  But he is not a solution alone.

Mid-Day Update…

New Jersey, Orlando Swap

Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to Orlando.  Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie to New Jersey.

Jersey continues to tear down their old nucleus, getting a nice young talent in Lee and a pair of expiring contracts.  The Nets save around 16 million in cap space for that magical 2010 summer, and picked up a player who emerged throughout the playoffs as a guy who can make big plays.  They’re going to be pretty bad next season, but at least they’ll be young.

Orlando continues to demonstrate their commitment to winning.  Adding Carter to an already impressive lineup makes them the favorite to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions.  The question they will have to answer is about their depth.  They just gave up three rotation players to get one, and must still re-sign Hedo Turkoglu to prevent this from being a lateral move.  Anderson should be able to give them some post minutes, provided he can shoot better than 39 percent.

This could be an opportunity for Carter to answer a lot of questions about his motivations over the years.  One thing he has never shied away from is taking the big shots and the Magic definitely need more players willing and able to score when the chips are on the line.

Hot Trade Hopper

A ton of names and trades still percolating out there.  Guys like Vince Carter, Amare Stoudamire, Corey Magette, Rajon Rondo… so on and so forth.  We’ll see what becomes of it as the draft unfolds and beyond.  It’s interesting that a lot of the trades seem to revolve around teams fixing salary issues caused by past dumb trades.  A lot of clubs are going to learn that two dumb trades doesn’t equal a good one.

Every friday I will muse on stuff that for whatever reason, never became it’s own full-fledged post.  Here I will collect my random thoughts about gaming and sports and also comment about other stuff out there if I feel so inclined.   Starting… now.

Fight Night Round 4 Demo Impressions

Now, I haven’t really played a boxing game in a long time.  Fight Night 2004 is the last one I played for more than five minutes, so I’m hardly an expert on the genre.  That said, I found Fight Night Round 4 to be really enjoyable.  They’ve done a nice job honing the control scheme over the years, and it gives you a really natural feel when you’re in the ring.  The demo allows you to play three rounds as either Ricky Hatton or Manny Pacquiao which gives you just enough of a taste to want more.  Thankfully you can quickly select the “Rematch” option and keep boxing, rather than being kicked out to the menu every time. 

The gameplay itself feels silky smooth, and offers a mix of arcade and realism.  You’re not going to consistently land haymakers on your opponent but if you stun them you can wallop them with a signature punch using B.  That adds a certain theatrical element to things, as does the act of recovering from a knock down.  I would liken it to shooting free throws in the older NBA Live games with the sliders… only much more difficult.  At least on first glance.  I struggled to answer the count on more than one occasion, coming oh-so-close only to tweak the stick the wrong way and rubber-leg my way back to the mat.

EA has brought a substantial roster of boxers to the table, snatching greats such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and George Foreman out of their prime and rendering pixel-perfect recreations.  They also seem to have addressed complaints about a lack of depth with the Legacy Mode, allowing you to create and train up your own fighter.    This is a title I’m excited about and will probably pick up after it comes out at the end of June.

Activision Parting Ways With Sony?

To me this sounds crazy, but Activision CEO Bobby Kotick came out and made several comments that indicate the publisher may do just that.  He expressed concern about the development costs and time investments with the PS3 as opposed to the 360 and Wii as well as Sony’s refusal to do a price-cut and high royalties fees topping $500 million in 2008.

Losing Activision titles including favorites such as the Call of Duty and Guitar Hero series would be a serious blow to the PS3 which already has issues with it’s rate of software attachment.  They simply can’t afford to lose those kind of broad-appeal titles.

My gut tells me this is posturing from Activision due to their displeasure with Sony’s strategies.  Most likely they have expressed their concerns privately and had them fall on deaf ears.  As a result, you get public criticism.  I would be extremely surprised if this actually happened.

Think Before You Speak?

Microsoft might want to invest in muzzles.  Especially if high-level MS figures are going to keep coming out and talking about a “new console” coming out in 2010.  Twice this week word broke that MS was developing a new console for 2010, based around a “natural interface” which was believed to be the Project:  Natal device that was revealed at E3 recently.

Both times Microsoft had to come out and state that they were in fact not working on a new console and they believe that the 360 isn’t even at the halfway point of it’s life cycle.  Natal will be “an important part of this platform”, but not it’s own seperate hardware as was suggested by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer earlier this week.  This is good news for gamers who were ready to start firebombing the MS front offices.  Surely a company this large can figure out that while they have made huge progress in the console wars this generation, their lead is fragile at best.

You get the feeling that people who don’t actually grasp the difference between a new bundle and a new console entirely are speaking out of turn here, although Microsoft is expanding internal memory from 256 MB to 510 MB on the newer Arcade units.

With the decidedly uncompetitive NBA Finals in the books and the Los Angeles Lakers on top of the basketball world, we’re left to examine how the basketball world will react to the final results of the 2008-2009 season.  Some of the most pivotal reactions will come from those involved in the final series.  Questions must be answered.

1.  Did Kobe finally exorcise those demons that have haunted him since L.A. became “his” team?

We may not truly know until a year from now, but the early returns are promising.  He has appeared much more relaxed and content following the Lakers victory than any time I can remember including their previous Championships.  His acknowledgement of the constant doubts of him winning “without Shaq” was a big step for him in my opinion.  Giving a voice to that always-discussed subject that he acknowledged as “annoying” and illustrating that he is now beyond it can only help him grow. 

After months and years of jokes about being the best second fiddle in NBA history, Bryant has captured a fourth NBA Championship as the undisputed best player on his team.  Not only that but he was the best player in the playoffs.  He willed the Lakers to several victories when in past years the team (including Kobe himself) would have been more likely to fold up, implode or quit on each other.

Much as we saw the remaking of Kevin Garnett’s image from Playoff Bust to Fearless Leader, expect that Kobe Bryant will ascend to the pantheon placing him with the greatest of the greats.  His accomplishments can no longer be marred by suggesting he couldn’t lead a team to victory.  He’s done that now.

2.  Will the Lakers be back next year (and beyond)?

Barring a major exodus via free agency (unlikely) or the rise of a new West power (possible), yes.  The Lakers have to be the favorite in the Western Conference heading into the offseason.  They’re a deep and talented team and most of their talent is young.   Kobe and Derek Fisher are the only guys on the entire roster who are over 30.  That’s pretty astonishing.  Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown are 23.  Andrew Bynum is 21.  Jordan Farmar is 22.  Lamar Odom is 29 and Pau Gasol is 28.  Even their depth guys like Luke Walton (28) and Sasha Vujacic (25) have plenty of miles left on their bodies.  That’s a big thing in a league where all it takes is one guy to break down to end your season.  Just ask Boston.  Or Houston.  Or New Orleans. 

The Lakers have a young core built around Kobe Bryant, and provided they can satisfy everyone this summer I would expect them to stay together through the next two or three seasons.  They will have some dancing to do in the free agent period though.  Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Trevor Ariza are free agents. All are key cogs in this Laker machine.  Without any of them the Lakers would not have the depth and athleticism and skill they displayed nightly this season.  Of course the Buss family has not had a problem paying the luxury tax in the past.  Especially if the results are of Championship caliber.  I would expect them to save some money dumping Adam Morrison, unless the Zen Master feels he can coax something out of the former NCAA star.

This is where that big extension for Bynum hurts.  Bynum was a bit player in this title run, but will see his salary climb from 2.77 million to 12.5 million.  That raise eats up almost all of Odom’s entire salary for this season.  The Lakers should have no trouble retaining the versatile wingman however.  He’s admitted that he wants to stay in Los Angeles and can’t see himself playing elsewhere.  That makes it kind of hard to drum up interest away from the beaches.  Ariza and Brown will be the true tests.  Are the Lakers willing to pay for guys who are role players?  They have in the past (Walton and Vujacic are examples) and that burned them in recent years.  This time though it appears to be the smart move.  Athletic wing guys who can play defense are a must in the NBA.

3.  Where Does Orlando Go From Here?

Good question, that.  The Magic could go in a few different directions.  Luckily for Magic fans their ownership has already stated that they will in fact pay the luxury tax to keep Hedo Turkoglu.  That’s a key for them because in crunch time the Turk was clearly their most important player.  They will have to pay the tax, as they were already over the threshold before Turkoglu opted out of the last year of his old contract.

They’ve got Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard combining to earn over 33 million next season.  They’ve got Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus for 11 million on top of that.  Throw in key role players like Courtney Lee and JJ Reddick and that six guys that we know will be back and around 48 million payed to them.  Turk will earn at least 10 million and probably closer to 12 for his trouble.  In a better economic climate he could probably get more, but such is life.  That would put Orlando in the 58-60 million range with 7 guys under contract.

Now, those aren’t the only Magic players under contract for next season.  Orlando also has Tony Battie (6.2 million), Rafer Alston (5.25 million) and Anthony Johnson (2.1 million) on the books through next season.  However, I would say it’s a good bet that Orlando will look to move at least one of those guys as an expiring contract.  The Lakers made it pretty clear in the Finals that Orlando has trouble scoring consistently inside.  They will also have to address the role of Alston if he doesn’t get moved, as Rafer has never been particularly quiet about coming off the bench.  He feels he’s a starter and will let anyone know it, as evidenced by his speaking out during the playoffs.  Who’s going to want Alston is another question entirely, but his expiring contract and solid NBA player status will make him desirable to some.  Battie and his 6.2 million dollar contract (along with solid interior defensive reputation) could see him moved.  Despite Orlando’s lack of size inside he didn’t play much in any series through the playoffs.

Can Orlando upgrade their rotation with those kind of chips to deal?  Maybe.  Dollars are tight in the league so they could probably add a good weapon to their bench this way.  That would definitely help them going into next season.  They could use a physical presence like a Drew Gooden or a Chris Wilcox inside, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them chase a guy like Mehmet Okur if he exercises his opt-out clause.

4.  Can Dwight Howard Raise His Game?

No matter what the Magic do this summer, Dwight Howard will be the biggest factor in what Orlando accomplishes in 2009-2010.  We’ve all heard about how he’s been working with Patrick Ewing.  Well… Patrick Ewing probably isn’t the greatest guy to teach him how to use his dominant athletic ability.  While “Superman” had some dominant performances in the playoffs he was clearly befuddled by the Lakers defense.  His lack of a post game was exposed to a new degree.  You can’t question his ability to own the glass or block shots, but he didn’t make more than 5 field goals in any Finals game.  For a guy who struggles a lot at the charity stripe that is an issue.

Howard acknowledged after the loss that he has work to do this summer.  The question will be whether the work he does is on the right things.  Yes, shooting free throws is important, but Howard has already said that he doesn’t have trouble making them in practice or in shoot-arounds.  The real focus for Howard this summer needs to be developing his footwork and his instincts in the post.  He has the size, speed and power to be a dominant low-post scorer.  He just doesn’t know how to get from point A to point B consistently yet.  If he’s in need of some tips in this area he’d be better served calling up Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.  Both of those guys were athletically superior big men who can probably help Howard out honing his athletic gifts into an unstoppable force.

The fact remains that this guy could be the most unstoppable force in the league, if harnessed properly.  The Magic came up three wins short of an NBA Championship, with Howard operating at about 33% offensive capacity in my opinion.  If he gets it figured out even a little bit, look out NBA.

We just spent the last few weeks listening to comparisons between the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 1984 Edmonton Oilers.  Those comparisons will be referenced even more now that the Penguins have pulled off the upset and defeated the Red Wings, probably the NHL’s most successful franchise in the last 15 years.  But beyond the surface comparisons of similar Stanley Cup Finals results and Gretzky/Messier to Crosby/Malkin, how valid is this comparison for the newly crowned Stanley Cup Champions?  And was it correct for the Red Wings to be casually cast in the role of the New York Islanders?

Changing of the Guard?

Clearly one major consideration is that we’re in a different era.  We’ve actually passed through several different eras since those Oilers hoisted their first cup.  We had the run and gun era that extended through the 80’s into the early ’90s.  As the ’90s progressed we moved into the expansion era which was also the trap era, a time that almost killed the whole league and helped lead to the lockout.  Now we’re in the post-lockout era, seeing the best hockey we’ve seen in 15 years.  We’re also in the cap era and that is a major consideration that people seem to overlook.

Back in the ’80s the Oilers only broke up because Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington made some bad business moves outside of hockey and essentially sold Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings.  Here in 2009 the Penguins already find themselves hard up against the NHL’s salary cap structure, and that’s with several key young players and veterans needing contract extensions in the near future.  If the Penguins have to say goodbye to an elite player it won’t be due to ownership but rather due to the new structure of the league itself.  Nine members of the Pens Cup-winning roster will find themselves in free agency this summer and that will be where the true test of the Penguins as an organization happens.  If they truly want to be the Oilers of the new NHL they will have to find a way to surround Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Gonchar with the supporting cast they’ll need in order to keep winning.  That’s easier said than done as Malkin’s salary alone jumps from under a million through the rookie salary structure to his extension figure which is 9 million dollars.

Then you’ve got the likes of Rob Scuderi, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Hal Gill… guys who played a lot of big minutes for the Penguins in the playoffs.  Are they franchise players?  No, but given the contributions they all made to the Penguins Stanley Cup win you could definitely argue that they’re critical.  Imagine if those Oilers had to replace Charlie Huddy, Randy Gregg, Dave Hunter and Ken Linseman from that ’84 team.  Now imagine they have to do it with minimal salary cap space, because that’s the dilemma the Penguins are facing.   That’s without even factoring in the inevitable extensions that will be signed by Cup hero Maxime Talbot and Kris Letang, Gonchar’s heir apparent on the blueline.

Even if the Penguins manage to replenish their depth this offseason defending their Stanley Cup victory won’t be easy.  But before they can fight the next battle on the ice they must win a series of them off it.  They’ve got exactly five wingers under contract for next season, and that includes seldom-used Eric Godard and converted center Tyler Kennedy.  They need to see development from prospects like Alex Goligoski and Eric Tangredi, who would allow them to add fresh legs to their roster at a minimal price.  They will also have to hope that the lure of playing for the defending Stanley Cup Champions will convince some role players to settle in Pittsburgh for a smaller amount of green.

This Isn’t Your Father’s Veteran Team

These Red Wings are not the New York Islanders, for a number of reasons.  For one thing these Wings are significantly older than those Islanders were.  Yep, that’s right.  The Islanders are often-times painted as a veteran team that was on it’s last legs as a group, but that wasn’t really the case.  Mike Bossy was 26.  Trottier was 27.  Denis Potvin 29.  They had youngsters like John Tonelli (26), Greg Gilbert (21) and Brent Sutter (21) up front with Tomas Jonsson (23) on the blueline.  They also had some 18 year old kid named Pat Lafontaine who put on quite a display of skill once he joined the team during that ’84 year.  What really killed the Islanders was the decline of franchise goaltender Billy Smith, and their inability to replicate the depth and chemistry brought to those early 80’s teams by the likes of Butch Goring and Bob Nystrom.  Not to mention Mike Bossy’s injury problems that caused him to retire at just 30 years old.

So no, these Wings are not those Isles.  The Wings have never been built around one goalie, nor do they have a superstar with a debilitating injury.  What they do have is excellent organizational depth, and they’re going to need that going forward.  Why?  Only a handful of key personnel on the Wings are younger than 28.  Given the Wings proven ability to find and develop talent this is less of a concern than it would be for most teams but it’s still a concern in this salary cap era.  The Wings only have three free agents they’d really want to retain, with Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson being UFA while Jiri Hudler holds RFA status.  Samuelsson and Hudler will likely return, unless someone throws an insane number at Hudler in hopes Detroit won’t match.  If that happens it’s unlikely the Wings would be in a position to keep him.  Hossa is also a question mark.  He signed a one-year deal to win a Cup in Detroit, something that clearly didn’t work out as he hoped.  Now he has to ask himself if he wants to roll those dice again, or seek a longer term.  There will still be teams out there willing to shell out money to Hossa, though probably not as many as a year ago given his playoff performance.

By and large the Wings will enter next year with the same roster as this season, and that has to be somewhat troubling for Detroit fans.  They’ve got an aging netminder in Osgood, who while he was excellent most of the playoffs was just not quite good enough in the finals.  No doubt they’d like to get something from youngster Jimmy Howard, but to do that they’d have to give him more than a couple of games a year with the parent club.  Maybe 2009-10 will be that year.  The real concern for the Wings is that they looked so tired against the Penguins.  Even in their early series victories you got the sense they lacked an extra gear to shift into.  Was that a fatigue issue that can be addressed, or is it just something they’ll have to overcome?  The Western Conference won’t get any easier next season, to be sure.

They also have to wonder what they’ll continue to get from their older veterans including Osgood, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski and Kirk Maltby.  Rafalski is one of the leagues smoothest skaters but even he looked pretty ragged at times against Pittsburgh.  How much longer can the greatest defenseman of this generation (Lidstrom) continue to perform at such a high level?  He’s 38 now with 1330 games plus another 235 playoff contests on his odometer.  If they want to get back to the finals in an effort for that 5th title in 13 seasons, they’re going to have to address a lot of questions about age and how that factors into their depth for 2009-10.

Into The Offseason…

With the Stanley Cup awarded we officially start the NHL offseason.  This is the quietest time of year for the league, with the NHL Draft and the start of free agency (July 1st) a couple of weeks away.  You’ll see some clubs quietly signing players to extensions or new contracts, while the trade hype and the draft hype build up over the next 10 days.  Then we’ll finally see what happens to super-prospect John Tavares and who the players in free agency will be.