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Western Conference up for Grabs as Multiple Threats Emerge



It’s pretty well impossible to go back-to-back in the west.

The Detroit Red Wings (2009) were the last team to repeat as champions of the NHL’s top conference, the only such squad to do so since the 2004-05 lockout. There’s just too many threats in the west to get by, from the Drew Doughty-led Los Angeles Kings to P.K. Subban and the Nashville Predators to the always intimidating Chicago Blackhawks.

Here’s a look at the Western Conference from the contenders up top to the hopefuls looking to rise higher.


Anaheim Ducks

Last season: 103 points, first in Pacific, lost in conference quarter-final

Key off-season move(s): Hired Randy Carlyle, traded G Frederik Andersen, signed F Antoine Vermette, traded for G Jonathan Bernier

Outlook: The Ducks are betting that Carlyle, their Stanley Cup-winning coach in 2007, can solve their seemingly random Game 7 woes. Carlyle last helmed one of the NHL’s worst teams in Toronto, but he’s got more than enough talent here to compete for another Cup crown. Anaheim’s defence is elite (though Hampus Lindholm remains unsigned) and there’s an aging, if still effective forward contingent. Carlyle’s effect will be curious, but a bigger question is whether 23-year-old goaltender John Gibson ready to emerge as a full-time No. 1 starter.

St. Louis Blues

Last season: 107 points, second in Central, lost in conference final

Key off-season move(s): Re-signed G Jake Allen, lost captain David Backes to free agency, traded G Brian Elliott, named D Alex Pietrangelo captain

Outlook: The Blues fell just short of their first Stanley Cup final since 1970, but they should be right back in the mix this year. St. Louis is loaded with veterans in their prime and youngsters just scratching the surface, including 24-year-old scoring machine Vladimir Tarasenko. The Ken Hitchcock-coached outfit has few weaknesses, though like the Ducks, the Blues are handing the reins to a relatively unproven goaltender with 26-year-old Allen.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 103 points, third in Central, lost in conference quarter-final

Key off-season move(s): Signed D Brian Campbell, traded F Teuvo Teravainen and F Andrew Shaw

Outlook: Robbed of key talent over the years due to the salary cap, there are real signs of slippage in Chicago. The Blackhawks finished outside the top-seven in puck possession for the first time since 2008, 15th over all last year. The presence of Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews means this group will be competitive again, but having to continually purge their roster (Teravainen and Shaw this past summer) to fit under the cap means the Blackhawks will lack the same great depth of past Cup teams.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 102 points, second in Pacific, lost in conference quarter-final

Key off-season move(s): Signed D Tom Gilbert, F Teddy Purcell and G Jeff Zatkoff, re-signed F Trevor Lewis and D Brayden McNabb, named F Anze Kopitar captain

Outlook: The Kings were bounced in the first round last year, but there’s every reason to think another Cup run is in order. With Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Kopitar still in their prime, Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli rising and solid depth all around up front (though not so much on defence), the Kings are well-positioned. They were the No. 1 puck possession team in hockey last year, and not by coincidence, a top defensive squad.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 96 points, fourth in Central, lost in conference semi-final

Key off-season move(s): Traded D Shea Weber for D P.K. Subban, re-signed F Filip Forsberg and F Calle Jarnkrok, named F Mike Fisher captain

Outlook: Nashville looks like a real threat to contend for the Cup following a summer that saw Subban join their already-stacked defence. The Predators are deep all the way around, a high-quality unit that allowed the fewest shots against a game last season (27.3). Their two best forwards, Ryan Johansen and Forsberg, are still young and only getting better. Their biggest question comes in goal, though a Pekka Rinne revival might just mean a deep run next spring.

Dallas Stars

Last season: 109 points, first in Central, lost in conference semi-final

Key off-season move(s): Re-signed F Jamie Benn, signed D Dan Hamhuis and F Jiri Hudler

Outlook: Dallas blew the doors off the league last season, scoring 17 more goals than the next closest team. The Stars should be similarly potent again this year with arguably the NHL’s top offensive duo in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

But Dallas still has great uncertainty in goal with Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen set to tussle for the top job once more. Instability from the two helped to ruin an otherwise fine 2015-16 campaign and could do the same again this season.

San Jose Sharks

Last season: 98 points, third in Pacific, lost in Stanley Cup final

Key off-season move(s): Signed F Mikkel Boedker and D David Schlemko, lost G James Reimer to free agency

Outlook: The Sharks were a perennial playoff disappointment before last season’s surge. And while it’s hard to see them getting past the minefield of Western Conference contenders again, it’s not impossible. Joe Thornton continues to wreak havoc at age 37, Joe Pavelski remains an elite scorer and two-way centre, Brent Burns is a game-changer and Martin Jones looks like the real deal between the pipes. Continued growth from Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and even Boedker should keep this group in the conversation out west.


Minnesota Wild

Last season: 87 points, fifth in Central, lost in conference quarter-final

Key off-season move(s): Hired Bruce Boudreau, signed F Eric Staal, lost F Thomas Vanek to free agency

Outlook: With one of the deepest defence groups in hockey and a stable goalie duo, the Wild will be a tough competitor again, all the more so with Boudreau now leading the bench. Boudreau’s teams are known for keeping the puck, but can this group score enough to be a real threat? Only three Wild players, led by Zach Parise, mustered 20 goals last season. Staal, Vanek’s off-season replacement, had only 13 goals and 39 points, his lowest marks since he was an 18-year-old rookie.

Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 82 points, sixth in Central, missed playoffs

Key off-season move(s): Hired Jared Bednar, signed F Joe Colborne, re-signed F Nathan MacKinnon and D Tyson Barrie

Outlook: Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation might end up spurring an upward trend for the Avalanche. Roy-coached teams were outshot badly most nights despite a wealth of skilled young talent. Unlocking the likes of MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and captain Gabriel Landeskog might make for a scarier Western foe, even more so if goaltender Semyon Varlamov rounds back into form with a lesser nightly workload.

Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 78 points, last in Central, missed playoffs

Key off-season move(s): Re-signed F Mark Scheifele, drafted F Patrik Laine, re-signed F Mathieu Perreault, named F Blake Wheeler captain

Outlook: There’s just too much talent here for the Jets to flail again. Not only is Laine joining promising young players such as Scheifele, Marko Dano, and Nikolaj Ehlers, but so too in all likelihood is Kyle Connor, the NCAA’s leading scorer last season. Jacob Trouba’s potential departure (he requested a trade) weakens the defence and there are questions about who will emerge in goal, but this Jets squad, with all that young skill, seems sure to rise.


Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 70 points, last in Pacific, missed playoffs

Key off-season move(s): Signed F Milan Lucic and G Jonas Gustavsson, traded F Taylor Hall for D Adam Larsson, named F Connor McDavid captain, drafted F Jesse Puljujarvi

Outlook: The Oilers can’t be certain that a decade-long playoff drought will end, but they can feel good about the future. McDavid is just getting started and surrounded by plenty of talent, including 20-year-old Leon Draisaitl and Puljujarvi, the 18-year-old who went fourth over all at last year’s draft. Goalie questions seem to have been answered with Cam Talbot and the defence has improved from years past. There’s enough here for a major step forward.

Calgary Flames

Last season: 77 points, fifth in Pacific, missed playoffs

Key off-season move(s): Traded for G Brian Elliott, re-signed F Sean Monahan, signed G Chad Johnson and F Troy Brouwer, drafted F Matthew Tkachuk, hired Glen Gulutzan

Outlook: The Flames solved many apparent needs this summer, primarily in goal with the acquisition of Elliott. If he can stabilize a crease that wobbled between four goaltenders last season, Calgary should push back into the playoff picture. Their best players up front, Monahan, Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau, are all quite young and just getting better and a defence led by Mark Giordano is reasonably well-rounded. Hope is rightfully in the air in this Alberta city.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 78 points, fourth in Pacific, missed playoffs

Key off-season move(s): Hired GM John Chayka, traded for/signed D Alex Goligoski, re-signed F Shane Doan, signed F Jamie McGinn, F Radim Vrbata and D Luke Schenn

Outlook: The Coyotes eventually ran out of gas last year, but there’s reason to think this group might make things interesting a good while longer this season. With Dylan Strome, the third overall pick in 2015, poised to join skilled young forwards such as Max Domi and Anthony Duclair and the roster otherwise upgraded with veterans, contention for the final playoff out spot West isn’t out of the question.

Vancouver Canucks

Last season: 75 points, sixth in Pacific, missed playoffs

Key off-season move(s): Signed F Loui Eriksson, traded F Jared McCann for D Erik Gudbranson, drafted D Olli Juolevi, re-signed G Jacob Markstrom

Outlook: The Canucks continue to occupy an uncomfortable middle between past and future, not quite ready to rebuild but also nowhere near playoff contention. Vancouver opted to sign a 31-year-old Eriksson to pair with the aging, but still effective Sedin twins, also sacrificing a young prospect (McCann) for more immediate help on defence (Gudbranson). This team had the worst goal differential in hockey last (minus-52) and it doesn’t appear as though things will improve much this season.

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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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