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Maple Leafs Make Final Roster Cuts, Send Laich to Marlies



TORONTO – The pain meter might be reduced for Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs this year, but some discomfort was inevitable when trying to squish 26 players through the door of a dressing room allowed to hold just 23.

General manager Lou Lamoriello made it fit by Tuesday’s 5 p.m. NHL deadline, after claiming forward Seth Griffith on waivers earlier in the day from Boston. Lamoriello sent veteran Brooks Laich to the Marlies after he cleared waivers the day before and released Brandon Prust from his PTO contract. Josh Leivo was also removed from the active roster and placed on IR with a lower-body injury.

The Leafs made it to 13 forwards, eight defencemen and two goalies for their season opening trip to Ottawa Wednesday night, but the popular Laich and Prust stayed back. Laich had centred the fourth line at practice Tuesday with Matt Martin and Connor Brown, but that job likely goes to Peter Holland, with mystery man Griffith as the 13th forward.

“I don’t know much about him to be honest,” said head coach Babcock said of the 5-foot-9 Griffith. “(Assistant GM) Mark Hunter and his group obviously felt he was a guy who might be able to help us. Hunts has a history with him (Griffith played for the London Knights) and I’m assuming that went into the deal.”

Griffith, a fifth-round pick in 2012, had 77 points last year for Providence in the AHL and the Bruins were trying to sneak him and his two-way contract through waivers. Griffith played 34 games for the Bruins, recording 12 points. Leivo was not on the ice Tuesday morning, Babcock first explaining his absence as a minor medical issue that was not expected to sideline him more than a day.

Now it’s on to Babcock’s second season behind the bench of the 30th-place Leafs, one that could be a fourth straight time out of the playoffs for 11 of the past 12 years. But they should also benefit from a degree of continuity that was impossible to sustain in Babcock’s first go-round.

“Our group is not going to change initially as much here at the start,” Babcock predicted. “There might be some changes, but I’ll know way more about our roster in five games or 10 games than I do now.”

Wednesday’s tilt against the Senators will be the first NHL game for newcomers Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, plus their Leafs debut for goalie Frederik Andersen and left winger Martin. Matthews and two young arrivals from last year, William Nylander and Zach Hyman, form one new forward line, while Marner will be with veteran centre Tyler Bozak and winger James van Riemsdyk.

Beginning with the unexpected disappearance of hobbled defenceman Stephane Robidas and a waiver claim on Frank Corrado on the eve of last year’s regular season, the Leafs wound up going through more than 40 players, with almost half those promoted at some stage from the Marlies. More injuries, trades and a desire to see kids under NHL conditions played a role in the upheaval. This time the Leafs know what’s expected of them on a Babcock-coached team and there should be far fewer newbies to indoctrinate by Game 82.

“We have a group here that has kind of been drafted together, played together and some guys who’ve been here a long time,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who was added to a group of four alternate captains Tuesday evening. “We’re looking to having a good year together, trying to make this work, trying to keep this group together.”

Centre Nazem Kadri and other returning Leafs noted training camp workouts and exhibition games required far less instruction after the Babcock whirlwind came to town.

“I just feel there is a little more structure, a little less confusion and everyone knows what to expect,” Kadri said. “There was more of a feeling-out process last year with guys coming up and down and having a new staff. Now we’re moving towards that end goal.”

Winger Leo Komarov detected a change as well.

“You look at our practices. Last year, when it started it was so fast, nobody really knew where to go. Now, we know the drills. It feels good to have Babs as a coach, because we trust him and we know exactly how he wants us to play. We know there will be mistakes, we just hope the young guys will understand that right away. It’s moving slowly forward. But one season will never be the same as the next, so we’ll see.”

No one could or would say the word ‘playoffs,’ except Andersen, who knew nothing else in his first three springs as an NHLer in Anaheim.

“I want to be in the playoffs,” the big Dane said. “That’s my goal, to get back there. There is always a belief. I think we want to go into every game thinking we can win and won’t settle for less.

“At the end of the day, you have to do well in the division and the conference. There are a lot of good teams on the East Coast. It won’t be easy. From past experience I know it takes a lot of work. Last year (the Ducks) had a tough start and realized you just don’t get there automatically, no matter how good your team is. We have to get that winning culture (in Toronto), it’s a good feeling to have when you don’t settle for less.”


Morgan Rielly has taken the first step to what many see as him one day wearing the ‘C’ as captain of the Leafs.

The club announced Tuesday evening the 22-year-old defenceman would be one of four alternates, with Matt Hunwick, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov. Rielly was one of the early favourites to eventually replace Dion Phaneuf when the latter was traded to Ottawa in February, though no one expected anyone to get the job full time until the Leafs youth movement under head coach Mike Babcock was on more solid footing.

Others think Auston Matthews will grow into the role as many first overall picks have through the years, including the last Leaf to go No. 1, Wendel Clark. Connor McDavid, Edmonton’s first pick in 2015 was named Oilers captain last week. Club president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and Babcock were to have met during camp to discuss how the absent captaincy in the franchise’s 100th season would be handled.

Rielly is starting his fourth year in Toronto and not only led the club in ice time last season (23:13 per game) but continues to handle life in the public maelstrom quite smoothly, from media interviews to public appearances. Three of the four alternates will be designated by the coach before each game to speak directly to officials.

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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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