The Toronto Maple Leafs sold low on Phil Kessel.
What was a debate when he was dealt to Pittsburgh last July is now indisputable, after he has helped the Penguins to within one win of the Stanley Cup. More than that, he has been one of their best, most consistent players.
After adding two assists in Game 4’s win – which gave Pittsburgh a 3-1 series lead and the chance of a home coronation on Thursday – Kessel has emerged as the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
There’s also a good argument to be made for Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. He has never won it, and he has served as the two-way backbone of this team, logging far more minutes – and more difficult minutes – than any other forward on his team. Defenceman Kris Letang and goaltender Matt Murray deserve honourable mentions, too.
But Kessel is the best story of the bunch – a redemption story – and often the story carries the day. Except this is a case where many had the tale wrong.
Kessel was demonized in Toronto, especially when it all came apart last season. He was deemed unwilling to fit into a team concept and to play a brand of hockey that could win big games. He was seen as an out-of-shape goal suck capable of only one thing: flinging the puck into the net every few games.
It wasn’t a fair characterization, then or now.
To call what Kessel’s done in Pittsburgh a total transformation is a bit extreme, as he had several big years in Toronto. His first five as a Leaf only four players in the NHL scored more than he did.
What he’s shown with the Penguins, however, is that he was capable of being a lot of the things folks in Toronto said he wasn’t.
“I give Phil a lot of credit,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday. “I think his game has evolved into a complete two-way game. We’ve asked him to improve in certain areas of his game away from the puck – in the battle areas – and he’s embraced our message. He’s been very receptive.”
“I think he’s really gained a whole lot of admiration from his coaching staff and his teammates with how his game has evolved here in the second half of the season.”
Sullivan isn’t being hyperbolic here. Kessel has played well defensively. He won’t be winning a Selke, but he was the Penguins top possession player in Game 4 and has become Sullivan’s second-most-used forward, next to Crosby.
Kessel’s line, with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, has the respect of opponents, who consistently match them with their second lines. They’ve outscored opposing lines 15-7 at even strength over 22 playoff games, the best differential on the team.
A lot of things went wrong for Kessel in Toronto, but two of the biggest issues were fixed in his new home. With the Penguins, he is not expected to face other team’s top line every shift while playing with middling linemates. And he isn’t in a system that struggles mightily to maintain time in the offensive zone.
The Leafs style of play – and lack of personnel – always worked against Kessel. That’s why he may have thrived under new Leafs coach Mike Babcock. He could have shifted into this type of role and “evolved” in Toronto, at least until he was dealt. One wonders what a productive Kessel – with 33 points in his past 31 games – might have fetched at the trade deadline?
More, surely, than they got.
But the Leafs pushed hard to make the trade last summer because they wanted a culture change. President Brendan Shanahan didn’t see the buy-in he wanted from Kessel during the team’s brutal freefall, and didn’t want a cloud hanging over the Leafs first ground-up rebuild season in decades.
Where he likely misread the situation was believing Kessel’s miserable year last year revealed something incurable about his competitiveness or character. In a better environment in Pittsburgh, he has thrived – on the biggest stage possible.
That’s set up this fascinating Kessel-or-Crosby debate for MVP, at least if the Penguins close out the series in the next two games. The miscast malcontent who has flipped the narrative to become more of a two-way, team-first player than many believed he could? Or the captain with the already-loaded trophy case, a generational talent who no one would argue with as the choice?
For Kessel to win, it would require some in the media – who cast votes near the end of the deciding game – to change their minds about who he is and what went wrong in Toronto. They’ll also have to believe a second-liner’s contributions can sometimes mean more than a captain’s on the first line.
It’s not an easy call. But the fact Kessel has forced it to be this close proves a lot of people were wrong about him in Toronto.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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