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NHL Draft Set to Mark a Summer of Change For Canada’s Hockey Teams



There is only one day when they celebrate failure in the NHL, and this year it happens to fall on June 24, when the 30 member clubs gather in Buffalo for the annual entry draft.

It is a time when the losers can start the process of becoming winners again, provided they make the right call(s) at the draft table.

This will be a record-setting year for Canadian teams, largely because all seven missed the Stanley Cup playoffs. The net effect will be a real bounty of talent heading to clubs north of the border. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets, with the first and second overall selections respectively, will get their hands on two potential franchise players, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, one a complete two-way player in the Anze Kopitar mode, the other a pure sniper who models his game after Alex Ovechkin.

After landing Connor McDavid last year, the Edmonton Oilers are sitting at No. 4 this year, with the chance to draft a future linemate for McDavid, if they go with Matthew Tkachuk as expected. The Vancouver Canucks are next at fifth and in position to draft the top-ranked Canadian-born player, Pierre-Luc Dubois. The last time the Calgary Flames were choosing sixth (in 2013), they hit a home run with Sean Monahan, an emerging organizational cornerstone. And not that far back, at No. 9 and 12 respectively, are the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators, where there’s a lot of available talent in what scouts believe is a relatively deep draft.

Here is a team-by-team look at the needs, wants and aspirations of Canadian teams heading into the draft:

1. Toronto Maple Leafs

Game plan begins with taking Auston Matthews first overall. After that it gets more complicated. The Leafs will still hold 10 more picks thanks to president Brendan Shanahan’s pursuit of futures all season. But even after acquiring goaltender Frederik Andersen earlier this week, Toronto has major immediate needs – adding another top-four defenceman is near the top of that list. Toronto has some bloated contracts affecting its cap for 2016-17, and could attempt to shed players such as Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul or Jonathan Bernier – combined salary $13.6-million – in a bid to add Steven Stamkos or another high-end player.

2. Winnipeg Jets

After they select Patrik Laine second over all, the Jets have another first-round pick at 22, thanks to the deal that sent Andrew Ladd to Chicago at the trade deadline. This is general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s sixth year presiding over the Jets, and his biggest off-season challenge may be signing former first-round choices Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba to contract extensions as restricted free agents. In goal, Michael Hutchinson re-upped this week; there are questions about the future of veteran goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

4. Edmonton Oilers

General manager Peter Chiarelli is ready to adjust the chemistry of his team and bolster a defence corps that is among the weakest in the league. The Oilers have useful trade chips, from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall to Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov. The hope is to turn one of them into a Cam Fowler, Tyson Barrie, Justin Faulk or Kevin Shattenkirk – a solid defenceman who can have an offensive impact too. When forward Milan Lucic hits the open market next week, Chiarelli is expected to be at the front of the line, bidding for his services.

5. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have managed to free up enough salary-cap space to bid for one or potentially two quality unrestricted free agents, with Loui Eriksson topping the list and homeboy Lucic not far behind. Vancouver was 29th in the NHL in goal-scoring, so that’s an area that needs shoring up. The ability to draft a high-end forward at No. 5 was the impetus to deal rookie centre Jared McCann, who just turned 20 four weeks ago, to Florida recently for a potential top-four defenceman in Erik Gudbranson.

6. Calgary Flames

Jonas Hiller is returning to Switzerland, Karri Ramo is rehabbing a serious knee injury and Joni Ortio is an unsigned restricted free agent, which leaves the Flames with a gaping need for a proven starting NHL netminder and maybe a quality backup as well. It’s not clear how much they’re willing to pay for goaltenders – high-end options include Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury, while lower-priced possibilities include Brian Elliott and Jimmy Howard. Calgary traded its No. 1 pick last year to land Dougie Hamilton in an impact draft-day deal, – and their top pick is in play again this year. If the Flames can trade up a couple of spots to land an NHL-ready winger such as Jesse Puljujarvi, they will. If not, they are prepared to move down up to six places, if the price is right.

9. Montreal Canadiens

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin is under pressure to turn things around after a disastrous 2015-16. The Habs aren’t blaming their playoff miss entirely to Carey Price’s injury, realizing there are other significant roster issues. They struggled offensively, relying too heavily on Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. But Bergevin has about $9-million in cap space to play with, and that makes him a player for a top-end free agent such as Steven Stamkos or Kyle Okposo. Montreal could also have interest in trading up from ninth to nab Pierre-Luc Dubois, who tore up the Quebec junior league with 99 points this past season.

12. Ottawa Senators

New GM Pierre Dorion’s summer challenge will be getting winger Mike Hoffman signed to a reasonable contract after his remarkable rise the last two seasons (his 56 goals in that time puts him in the top 20 in the league) and re-signing defenceman Cody Ceci. The Sens will have plenty of cap space, but their internal budget remains a factor – their cap isn’t the NHL’s cap. Letting Patrick Wiercioch walk will help free up salary space for at least a bargain buy. With a lot of the roster returning, Dorion appears to be banking on existing players improving under new coach Guy Boucher, and some better injury luck. Ottawa may be one of the quieter teams in the NHL over the next two weeks.
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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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