Toronto Raptors 2018-19 Season Preview

 Source: Jonathan Hayward / CP

Source: Jonathan Hayward / CP

In what was arguably the busiest and most franchise-altering offseason for the Toronto Raptors, this squad enters the 2018-19 season with even higher expectations than ever before. It’s Finals or Bust for this squad, but can this team outlast the likes of the Celtics and 76ers? We will cover that and a lot more in our season preview, with some personal analysis and some regular season and postseason predictions, but first let us walk you through the additions and subtractions on this team.

2018 Offseason Transactions: Coaching Staff

Subtractions: Dwane Casey (HC), Rex Kalamian, Jerry Stackhouse
Additions: Nick Nurse (HC), Adrian Griffin, Sergio Scariolo, Nate Bjorkgren, Phil Handy

 Source: TSN

Source: TSN

The coaching staff saw a massive overhaul, with the first major surprise of the offseason coming in the form of Dwane Casey’s dismissal following the embarrassing sweep to LeBron James and the Cavs. The Raptors fired the soon-to-be Coach of the Year in what Masai had labelled “the hardest decision” of his life. Most anticipated a brand new outside voice would be brought in, one that would impliment new systems and a new culture and ways of thinking. Ultimately, the Raptors brass decided to stick with what was familiar, hiring the current Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse to take over the reigns. Nurse was the mastermind behind the revamped offense that the Raptors displayed the previous season, and the Raptors believe that with Nurse at the helm, the offense can run at an even more effective rate.

It seemed as though Raptors nation was divided about the move on social media. Some seemed to understand the logic, while others cried foul over replacing the Coach of the Year with his assistant. With the hiring of Nurse, it was assumed that most, if not all the remaining coaching staff would depart, and that’s exactly what happened. Rex Kalamian went to the Clippers as an assistant under Doc Rivers, and Jerry Stackhouse departed from the Raptors 905 to take a gig with the Memphis Grizzlies as their assistant coach (don’t be surprised to see him get some NBA head coaching whispers soon, especially if Memphis gets off to a slow start).

The Raptors definitely took some losses in the coaching department, but hopefully Nurse and his team of newly hired assistants can gel together quickly and make the players feel comfortable on both ends of the floor.

2018 Offseason Transactions: Players

Subtractions: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueria
Additions: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Greg Monroe

 Source: Getty

Source: Getty

For those that thought that Masai would be content with just a coaching overhaul, they were mistaken. In a move that trumped the firing of Coach Casey as the most shocking move of the Raptors offseason, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 1st round pick for disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard and 3-and-D specialist Danny Green.

I’m not gonna get into the trade too much, because I already did that when the trade was announced, which you can read here. Instead, I’ll provide the Coles notes. The Raptors traded away the most loyal player this franchise has ever seen in DeRozan (who was open about his intentions of retiring a Raptor) and arguably top 15-20 player in the league. We also traded away a young promising big in Poeltl, who has one of the softest hands in the league for a big man. As much as it hurts to trade away a player like DeRozan, it’s not everyday you can trade for a top five player in the NBA, and when that opportunity comes knocking, you have to capitalize on it. Great work by the Raptors to come out of nowhere and seize the opportunity.

While some media were quick to jump on the hype train and report that Kawhi had ZERO desire to play in Toronto, we know now that it was definitely all a lie. Kawhi had quite the introductory press conference, and seems to be embracing the opportunity to play for Toronto and the Raptors organization. It appears as if he has taken a leadership role on this team, as told to us by Josh Lewenberg via Danny Green.

Saying all of this, the Raptors still haven’t played a regular season game yet, and they can either gel incredibly well together and once again lead the East in wins, or they could slowly crumble and be forced to make some tough decisions come trade deadline day.

What Should Raptors Fans Expect?

 Source: Sports Illustrated

Source: Sports Illustrated

Whatever anybody’s expectations of the Raptors may be this season, there is no denying that they are in the top tier of teams in the East, that being the Raptors, Celtics and 76ers. I’ve seen people rank the Raptors as the best of the three, just below the Celtics as a 1B type team, or below both the Celtics and 76ers as the third best team in the East.

My take on it is simple. I don’t believe the 76ers will overtake either the Raptors or the Celtics in the standings, and we should expect them to finish 3rd in the East. Let’s not forget that the 76ers went on a 16 game winning streak to end the year, which propelled them into the 3rd spot in the East to overtake Cleveland. Before that streak, the 76ers had a record of 36-30, which is nothing to be impressed by. The Celtics and Raptors were consistently 1 and 2 in the East rankings all season long, which is why I have them over the 76ers.

 Source: Sporting News

Source: Sporting News

When evaluating the Celtics, you can see a team that is loaded with talent. They have Kyrie Irving, arguably the league’s best point guard, leading the charge down the floor. Jayson Tatum is one of the league’s most polarizing young stars. Jaylen Brown is poised to take another step. Playoff heros Terry Rozier and Al Horford return for another year. They are deep and skilled, but still face a lot of questions. Can Gordon Hayward perform at the caliber that we are used to seeing him play at? He sustained a nasty broken leg injury that required plates and screws, which may hinder his mobility and strength moving forward. Can Irving stay healthy for a full season? Kyrie has never played more than 75 games in a season, and his last three years he has played 53, 72 and 60 games. Can Horford maintain his current level, or is he due for a decline?

 Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

On the flipside you have the Raptors, who are also an incredibly skilled and deep team, but still have questions associated with them as well. The roster is upgraded with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. When healthy, Leonard is a perennial MVP candidate. He’s the league’s best defender and can score from almost everywhere on the floor, while possessing the ability to find the open man and create plays. Danny Green has the ability to give you 3 point shooting while giving you a solid defensive effort on the other end. The Raptors have arguably the best player in the East and the best bench depth in the NBA, but there are still concerns coming out of training camp. Will Kawhi gel with the coaching staff and players? Will Kyle Lowry be able to put the emotions of losing DeMar aside and embrace playing with Leonard? Will the bench mob be able to repeat and even improve on their stellar 2017-18 campaign? Will young stars OG, Pascal and VanVleet be able to take that next step?

Having said all of this, I believe the Raptors will finish first in the East with a record of 61-21, with the Celtics not far behind in a close second at 60-22. I have no issue with people believing that the Celtics will finish above the Raptors, because both are really good teams. Just don’t give me that garbage that the 76ers will finish above either the Raptors or Celtics. Not happening.

Want to know how the 2018-19 NBA Regular Season and Playoffs will go down? Well let me tell you with my predictions. I will definitely go back to this at the end of this season to boast my correct predictions while expose my not-so-great predictions.

2018-19 NBA Regular Season Standings Predictions:

East

 Source: Raptors Republic

Source: Raptors Republic

1) Toronto Raptors (61-21)
2) Boston Celtics (60-22)
3) Philadelphia 76ers (55-27)
4) Milwaukee Bucks (51-31)
5) Indiana Pacers (48-34)
6) Washington Wizards (45-37)
7) Miami Heat (44-38)
8) Detroit Pistons (42-40)

9) Charlotte Hornets (38-44)
10) Cleveland Cavaliers (36-46)
11) New York Knicks (32-50)
12) Atlanta Hawks (29-53)
13) Orlando Magic (27-55)
14) Brooklyn Nets (27-55)
15) Chicago Bulls (24-58)

West

 Source: HoopsHype

Source: HoopsHype

1) Golden State Warriors (66-16)
2) Houston Rockets (62-20)
3) Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33)
4) Los Angeles Lakers (48-34)
5) Utah Jazz (46-36)
6) Denver Nuggets (46-36)
7) New Orleans Pelicans (44-38)
8) San Antonio Spurs (43-39)

9) Minnesota Timberwolves (42-40)
10) Portland Trail Blazers (41-41)
11) Los Angeles Clippers (36-46)
12) Dallas Mavericks (32-50)
13) Phoenix Suns (24-58)
14) Sacramento Kings (22-60)
15) Memphis Grizzlies (20-62)

2018-19 NBA Playoff Predictions:

East

(1) Raptors vs. (8) Pistons: Raptors in 4
(2) Celtics vs. (7) Heat: Celtics in 5
(3) 76ers vs. (6) Wizards: 76ers in 6
(4) Bucks vs. (5) Pacers: Bucks in 6

(1) Raptors vs. (4) Bucks: Raptors in 7
(2) Celtics vs. (3) 76ers: Celtics in 7

(1) Raptors vs. (2) Celtics: Raptors in 7

West

(1) Warriors vs. (8) Spurs: Warriors in 4
(2) Rockets vs. (7) Pelicans: Rockets in 5
(3) Thunder vs. (6) Nuggets: Nuggets in 7
(4) Lakers vs. (5) Jazz: Lakers in 6

(1) Warriors vs. (4) Lakers: Warriors in 6
(2) Rockets vs. (6) Nuggets: Rockets in 5

(1) Warriors vs. (2) Rockets: Warriors in 7

NBA Final

(1) Raptors vs. (1) Warriors: Warriors in 6

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Sorry Raptors Fans…

Blue Jays Trade Deadline 2018 Gradebook

 Source: ABC

Source: ABC

Well it's no secret that the 2018 version of the Toronto Blue Jays has been nothing short of disappointing. With a record of 51-59 heading into Sunday's action against the Mariners, the Jays dipped into the "sellers" market for the first time in a few years. In this article, I'm going to hand out a grade for every Blue Jays trade made thus far, plus give my predictions for potential August trade candidates and provide an overall thought on the Jays and the 2018 deadline.

Without further ado, let's get started.

Trade Gradebook

Roberto Osuna

 Source: NBC News

Source: NBC News

Trade:

To Houston: Roberto Osuna

To Toronto: Ken Giles, Hector Perez, David Paulino

In one of the more stunning and most controversial trades across the MLB during this deadline, young Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was shipped off to Houston for Ken Giles and a couple of solid pitching prospects.

I am honestly shocked that this trade happened. I'm not shocked that the Blue Jays were willing to trade him, I am shocked at the fact that there was another team willing to trade for him, in particular the Houston Astros. The Astros recently have had to deal with their own domestic violence issues with one of their minor league players, which can be read about here. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow claims that the organization has a "zero tolerance policy" on domestic violence issues, but because the issue occured prior to the Astros acquiring him, this issue does not fall under the same scrutiny.

I purposefully waited a few days post non-waiver deadline to publish this article for the sole fact of gauging fan and media reaction on this trade. The Astros have been crucified for making this trade and having poor reasoning as to why they made the deal. Jeff Luhnow and the Astros deserve all the criticism coming their way, especially for an organization that just dealt with this issue recently internally. They clearly prioritize winning over ethics, and all it takes is one team in this league to make a deal. The Blue Jays jumped all over the opportunity, and got a great return for a "problem pitcher". Kudos to Shapiro and Atkins for valuing ethics over assets.

I've seen some Blue Jays fans upset that the front office traded away a player like Osuna, with years of control remaining and stellar numbers on his resume. If you're going to be mad as a fan, that's okay. Just don't direct your anger at the front office, direct it to Osuna. He put himself and his club in this position, and there's nobody else to blame but Roberto himself. Do you think the Jays would trade a 23 year old with a 2.87 lifetime ERA if he wasn't a problem? Of course they wouldn't. Instead, they turned their problem into a struggling yet young former closer, and two top tier pitching prosects that have good potential, with Perez becoming the 11th ranked Jays prospect and Paulino becoming the 20th ranked prospect. Great for them to give away their massive problem to another organization, and great for them to receive a package of any value back for him.

Grade: A+

J.A. Happ

 Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Trade:

To New York: J.A. Happ

To Toronto: Brandon Drury, Billy McKinney

Jays fans and media alike were going into this trade deadline saying that J.A. Happ was our most valuable piece that was likely to be traded before July 31st. While he did struggle over his last couple of starts as a Blue Jay, he did put together a solid campaign that saw him make his first ever All-Star appearance. The original ask of a top-3 prospect from the Blue Jays was never realistic, but I stated on the last South of the 6ix podcast that I believed J.A. Happ could fetch a top 5-7 prospect, top 20-30 prospect and a long shot, hoping that one of the prospects coming back was a pitcher. My reasoning for the return was simple: J.A. is a proven veteran lefty who can provide you with solid innings in the playoffs as your 3rd or 4th starter, and having that lefty option in the playoffs is massive.

When the trade was announced and the details were confirmed, I was a little disappointed in the return. I have never been sold on Brandon Drury's game, but he has just entered into the league so hopefully for the sake of the Blue Jays, he can return to similar form that he had in Arizona. I don't see him as a piece for the future. I believe the Jays are hoping he can rebuild some value here in Toronto with regular playing time so we can trade him away for something of use. McKinney has been in a few blockbuster trades as a key prospect, but has never really panned out. He did crack the Yankees roster at the beginning of the year, but that all came crashing down (literally) when he crashed into the outfield wall at the Rogers Centre during the opening series against the Blue Jays. You can never have enough depth however, and he is a fringe MLB-ready prospect at this point (19th on Blue Jays prospect list). I felt like Shapiro and Atkins could have gotten a better return, especially from trading to an in-division rival such as the Yankees, which should have commanded a higher premium.

Grade: C-

Seung-hwan Oh

 Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Trade:

To Colorado: Seung-hwan Oh

To Toronto: Forrest Wall, Chad Spanberger

For the bullpen trades, I won't go too in-depth with them, just because there's not as much substance or storyline to them. Saying that, the ROI from Oh was enormous for the Blue Jays. They signed him to a $1.75 million contract late this offseason (pennies in baseball terms) and they have now been able to convert that asset into two prospects, with Wall sliding into the 26th spot on the Blue Jays top-30 list. This is just another example of a smart "low-risk, high-reward" move that most casual fans hate at the beginning of the year, and then love when they see good results or a good trade package in return. Moves like these are what help to build a more deep farm system and a sustainable winning team.

Grade: A-

John Axford

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

Trade:

To Los Angeles: John Axford

To Toronto: Corey Copping

One of the hottest commodities in baseball lately is solid bullpen arms. Looking to capitalize on that trend, the Jays shipped out reliver John Axford to the Dodgers for minor league reliever Corey Copping

This trade seemed to have caught Axford off guard, as he had done some "asking around" and thought that he would be staying put with the Blue Jays. You can read more about that story here. I understand the need to trade expiring contracts for younger assets, so this deal on paper makes complete sense. Not to mention that Copping is putting up impressive numbers across AA and AAA this season (2.52 ERA, K/9 at 9.9). If they were to have kept a veteran reliver behind, I would have liked to have seen it be Axford because of his love for the city and experiences with the game. I believe it could have benefitted some of the new bullpen arms and September call-ups, but I digress.

Grade: B+

Aaron Loup

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

Trade:

To Philadelphia: Aaron Loup

To Toronto: Jacob Waguespack

The longest tenured Blue Jay is no longer. For those that follow me on Twitter (@TO_SportsViews in case you're wondering, or just follow me here), you know that I have been openly against Aaron Loup pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club. He is only a shell of his former 2012-2014 self, and has been ineffective for quite sometime now. He is brought in to face lefties, and quite frankly sucks against them. Danny Barnes is a better lefty specialist and he's a right hander.

The Jays received minor leaguer Jacob Waguespack back in the deal. His numbers aren't anything to boast about (4.75 ERA, 1.46 WHIP between AA and AAA in 2018), but I honestly would have been okay receiving a bag of balls back in return for Loup. In Loup's first and only appearance so far for the Phillies, he hit the only batter he faced. Chalk this one up as a win for the Blue Jays.

Grade: A-

Bonus Trivia Question: Who is now the longest tenured Blue Jay currently on the roster? I'll provide the answer at the bottom of the article.

Steve Pearce

 Source: John Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Source: John Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Trade:

To Boston: Steve Pearce

To Toronto: Santiago Espinal

Ahh, the trade often forgotten about in the shuffle and commotion of trade deadline. This was the first major move the Blue Jays made this season, and it was an in-division trade. Once Steve Pearce returned to the Jays healthy, there was really no room for him, and it was time to ship him while the value was high instead of letting his rust away on the bench.

Pearce was batting .291 with an OPS of .868, 4 HR's and 16 RBI's in 79 AB's for the Blue Jays. Respectable numbers for a small sample size. Boston has seen exponential returns on investment here, as Pearce is batting .357 with an OPS of 1.162, 5 HR's and 14 RBI's in 56 AB's for the Red Sox. I always liked Pearce. He is a truly "clutch" player... *cough* two walk-off grand slams in one week *cough*. He even hit 4 HR's in 2 games for the Red Sox. I'm happy he is succeeding there and being put in positions to not fail.

The return for the Blue Jays on this deal is not something to be overlooked either. In A and AA baseball this year, Espinal is batting .299 with an OPS of .817 along with 9 HR's and 50 RBI's. Anyway to add valuable youth to the organization at this stage is imperative, and Shapiro and Atkins were able to do just that with this deal.

Grade: B+

Potential August Trade Candidates

Editor's Note: When listing "potential suitors" I have put them in the order in which I believe is the best fit for said player, based on player cost and acquiring team need.

Josh Donaldson

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

One of the most intriguing names entering into the 2018 season was Josh Donaldson. He was the key, and arguably biggest difference maker, for the Jays having either a competitive season or a bad season. If the team were to be sellers at the deadline, it was expected that JD would be the most valuable asset that can be moved and the rebuild could be accelerated a little bit.

Fast forward to August 2018, and here we are talking about an incredibly devalued asset. Playing only roughly a third of the season (36 games played out of 110 total games), Donaldson has looked old and worn on the defensive end with his shoulder issues, has appeared to be a liability on the basepaths with his calf injuries, and has shown no offensive flashes of his former MVP self from three years ago, batting just .234 with 5 HR's, 16 RBI's and an OPS of .757. Remember the dream trade packages we were all mock creating last season? You can take those and throw them in the trash.

Despite all of these poor numbers, there are still teams that showed interest in Donaldson before the July 31st deadline. According to Yahoo! Sports Canada, Atkins tolf Gregor Chisolm of MLB.com that there were "lots of discussions" on Donaldson. He continued by saying "The challenge is, with any player that is not playing, is understanding that risk and that timeline, with not the same access to information that we have." You can read the entire article here.

A return for Donaldson is still tough to gauge at this point, mainly because if he were to be traded in August, it would be closer to the end of the month as teams would need to see him healthy and playing for longer than a week at a time. They need to see that he still has the ability to play at an elite level and be a difference maker. If he can prove that in a short window, then I'm sure some competing team will take a shot at him. I don't necessarily think that JD will be traded this month, as I believe it will be tough to build up value in a short period of time, but as I stated earlier there was interest in him before the July 31st deadline, so anything can happen.

Expected Trade: Josh Donaldson and cash for a top 20-30 prospect

Potential Suitors: Braves, Cardinals, Pirates, Diamondbacks

Marco Estrada

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

This move might come later on in August just because of the recent strained glute injury that put him on the 10-day DL as well as the $13 million contract that he has for this year. Prior to the injury, Marco was putting up impressive numbers, so it was a shame that he had to get hurt. This circles back to my point of selling high on starters. You never know when they can get hurt and missed starts closer to the deadline are amplified. Saying this, I'm sure a team that is looking to bolster their pitching depth and add a reliable, proven playoff starter into their 3rd or 4th spot will pony up for Marco. In his last start in Seattle, Estrada was looking like ACEstrada once again, going 7 innings and giving up 1 earned run. I'm sure this caught the attention of plenty of competing GM's across the league looking to add starting depth. Houston just lost Lance McCullers to the 10-day DL, so maybe they now enter the market for starting pitching depth? I wouldn't expect either the Red Sox or Yankees to be interested in him, as he hasn't done well in their ballparks as of late, especially Yankee Stadium. The return will not be as much as Happ's was, but if healthy, Marco could be considered a "trade deadline steal" come October.

Expected Trade: Marco Estrada for a top 25-30 prospect, single A prospect

Potential Suitors: Mariners, Athletics, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Astros, Nationals

Curtis Granderson

 Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

I don't know if there's a more likeable duo in sports than Granderson and Solarte (more on Solarte later). Granderson is a true professional. At the age of 37, he still finds ways to bring value to a ball club. This article written by Jon Paul Morosi at the beginning of the year perfectly summarizes why Granderson is still MLB's top teammate. He's a teacher, he's a mentor, he's a counsellor for not just the youth, but for the vets too.

Saying all of this, it's not like he only contributes off the field. On the field, Granderson is batting .234 with 10 HR's and 31 RBI's and can still contribute on the defenisve end as well. He also doesn't ground into many double plays (only three this year). So it's no wonder that a team like the Phillies is calling Shapiro and Atkins about Granderson. Granderson would be a perfect fit for the Phillies, a young up-and-coming team that could use a vet like Granderson to help mentor them for the later part of the season and help them through the playoffs. I don't expect too much of a return for Granderson, probably something just below what Pearce got for the Blue Jays.

Expected Trade: Curtis Granderson for a top 30-40 prospect

Potential Suitors: Phillies, Braves, Dodgers, Mariners

Yangervis Solarte

 Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Before I dive into this, I just want to say how fond I've grown towards Solarte. This is a person who could have let his past troubles affect him, but he challenged the adversity head on and kept on persevering. If you don't know what I am talking about, this Jays Journal article does a great job in summarizing Solarte's story. This is a player who has an infectious smile, some pretty cool dance moves, and is the "spirit animal" for all the other Blue Jays players in the clubhouse. In a short period of time, he has become the heart and soul of the Jays, and embodies what it means to be a blue bird. Oh, and he's a pretty good baseball player too.

He's currently hitting .233 with 17 HR's and 53 RBI's in 106 games played this season. Not only can he contribute with the bat, but he can essentially play any position on the field that you want him to. He's a true "super utility" player, and I believe that championship teams need a player like this on their roster in order to win a World Series (ie. Ben Zobrist and Marwin Gonzalez). With the newest Blue Jays infield addition in Brandon Drury, this leaves five men for three spots. I expect one of these men to be dealt before at some point, especially with Tulo recently stating his intentions of returning to the field, which leaves Solarte being the likeliest out of the bunch.

Expected Trade: Yangervis Solarte for a top 25-30 prospect and "long shot" single-A prospect

Potential Suitors: Diamondbacks, Phillies, Braves

Overall 2018 Trade Deadline Thoughts

I have to say that as a fan that was expecting these "seller" moves to happen, I am impressed with the most part about the return for the players we traded away. I was expecting more for Happ, as I think he will be dominant for the Yankees in the regular season and playoffs, but otherwise the Jays did a great job of acquiring some MLB-ready pieces to not field a completely awful team, and a lot of prospects that provide value, some more than others. I'm sure that we will be able to look back on this deadline in a few years and see how some of these moves helped to put the Blue Jays back into World Series contention.

Overall Grade: A-

Bonus Trivia Question Answer!

For those who didn't cheat, the answer to the bonus trivia question is...

 Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Superman himself, Kevin Pillar!

Raptors Make Biggest Trade in Franchise History

 Source: Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

Source: Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

They say that nice guys finish last. It seems that Masai Ujiri has decided to embrace that adage this offseason.

Just two months after firing the NBA Coach of the Year and fan favourite Dwane Casey, Ujiri and Co. were not satisfied with bringing back the same core of players that have fallen short in the playoffs the past two seasons. By "core", I'm talking about the all-star back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. If this team wanted to reach an NBA Final for the first time in franchise history, one or both of these men would have to be moved.

Unless you have insomnia, are parent to a newborn, or work incredibly weird hours, chances are that on July 18th, 2018 (dubbed "the most boring day in sports") you woke up to the news that the Raptors and Spurs agreed in principle on a trade sending Kawhi Leonard to Toronto and DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. At first, I was unsure about the deal, only because the remaining details had not been released yet. How much extra was Toronto about to give up? Would I have seen OG or Siakam's last games in a Raptors uniform? How many picks would be given back? Would we have to eat that brutal Patty Mills contract? Once all my questions were answered, it was clear who won this trade.

demar-derozan-insta-story.png

In case you are unaware of the full trade, here it is.

Raptors Receive: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, $5 million USD

Spurs Receive: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, 2019 Protected 1st Round Pick (1-20)

When rumours first began to swirl regarding a potential "Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors" deal, pundits on social media were stating that it would take DeMar, OG, and MULTIPLE unprotected 1st round picks, PLUS picking up Patty Mills' contract. I thought it was ludacris to expect this type of haul for a "rental player" especially one that hasn't seen the floor in a year. The Spurs were about to be pigeon-holed, and I was public in stating that the Raptors would draw a line in the same, and find a way to keep OG for sure, and hopefully Siakam. When news broke that they were able to keep both, PLUS only give up one heavily protected 1st round pick in 2019, PLUS obtain another good player in Danny Green, PLUS get back $5 million dollars to help with tax relief...I couldn't have been happier.

 Source: SI

Source: SI

We all knew the cost of acquiring a top end talent would be either DeMar or Kyle going the other way in a deal. Until it becomes a reality, you don't realize how much it will sting to see one of them gone, and the death of the incredible "bromance" that they shared on the court. I can't recall any two Toronto athletes having the same chemistry and relationship that DeMar and Kyle shared together. It's something that I will miss for sure. The always entertaining post-game interviews, the segments that they would do together, the laughter that they shared.

It's going to be interesting to see how Lowry reacts to this. Masai has stated in a press conference on Friday afternoon that he hadn't spoken with Lowry yet and that "I'm sure it will be really hard on him." Someone pointed out to me that Lowry had been through this before with the Rudy Gay trade. Rudy was (and still is) one of Lowry's best friends, and he is the godfather to Kyle's son. To have seen him traded away would have been gut-wrenching for Lowry, but he learned to develop a new relationship with DeMar. Hopefully he can take that same approach this time around, because the Raptors need him now more than ever.

It's Okay To Be Sad And Excited At The Same Time

I have this notion that Raptors fans feel like they have to pick a side. They are either sad that DeMar is gone and criticize Masai Ujiri for trading away the most loyal player the Raptors have ever had, or they are exciting and feel no empathy for DeMar and his family. Why do we have to live in a world of absolutes? This trade and the circumstances surrounding it is one that the NBA hasn't seen in a very long time, so there's no "right way" to feel. Saying this, I'll provide you with my perspective on the situation, and hopefully it can provide you the reader with a different lens to view it through.

DeMar was the heart and soul of this Raptors team the moment Chris Bosh walked out that door. His iconic "Don't worry, I got us..." tweet lives on in Raptors lore. He lived up to his tweet. He embraced the city. He was proud to rep not just the 6ix, but an entire nation. He helped make the Raptors relevant again. Kids were playing basketball in the streets, wearing their DeRozan Raptors jersey with pride. He never took a free agent meeting with any other team other than Toronto. He had a desire to retire a Raptor. It's emotional and difficult to see a player like that be traded for a player that may not want to return in a year. For all you have done for the Raptors, Toronto and the country of Canada, we thank you DeMar.

On the other hand, it is rare that a top-5 player in the NBA is available in trade talks. When that happens, you need to do whatever it takes to try and secure a player of that calibre. To obtain a player such as Kawhi, the trade package will have to sting. Losing DeMar was the stinger, but it was necessary. This deal on paper is a massive win for the Raptors. They give up arguably their best player, but receive an even better player in the deal. Not to mention they got Danny Green as well, who is a reliable 3-and-D player who will be a welcome addition into the starting lineup. One aspect of this trade that is not really being talked about is the impact that this trade will have on OG Anunoby. OG's ceiling is Kawhi Leonard, as the two play a very similar type of play-style. OG can learn a lot from Kawhi, even if it's for just a year. This will work wonders for the growth and development of OG as a player, and provides him with a greater chance of reaching his ceiling than ever before. 

I am sad, but I am excited. It's okay to feel both, there's nothing wrong with that. Raptors fans got the change they were looking for. Let's just put our trust in Masai that he knows what he is doing. Speaking of Masai...

This Is Truly Masai's Team Now...

masai-ujiri.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x724.jpg

Over the course of his tenure as Raptors GM and Team President, Masai has made some moves to take this team from a bottom feeder to perennial contender. His first massive move was trading away Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks, which then turned into Jakob Poeltl, which then helped to turn into Kawhi Leonard. He traded away Rudy Gay, and the return package helped Toronto get to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They have made the playoffs for 4 straight years. They made it to an Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. Saying all of this, the last two years feel like the Raptors have fallen short, and Masai decided to finally change the nucleus of this team...one that was formed by former GM Bryan Colangelo.

Masai fired a coach that he inherited. He made his first coaching hire ever as an NBA GM. He then traded away one of the "dynamic duo" in DeRozan. Lowry and DeRozan were a part of the Raptors prior to Masai's arrival. In essence, Masai's moves focused on adding around the core three of Lowry, DeRozan and Coach Casey. Now, with a rookie head coach in Nick Nurse, and the addition of Kawhi Leonard, Masai has now truly made his mark on this team. He has pushed all in with pocket Kings. Hopefully for Raptors fans everywhere, someone else doesn't have pocket Aces.

Why This Series Versus The Cavs Feels Different

 Source: WagerTalk

Source: WagerTalk

It's no secret to anybody watching the game that LeBron James is the greatest player in the league. He single handidly willed his team past the Indiana Pacers after an intense Game 7. For the first time, the Raptors are the ones waiting for the Cavs, on their home court. For the first time, there's a sense of hope that the Raptors can finally dethrone the King. For the first time, the Raptors will show the world that they are the Kings of the North.

There are a lot of factors that make this series different than the previous two installments. Allow me to show you how.

Coaching and Play Style

 Source: Adam Hunger / Reuters

Source: Adam Hunger / Reuters

When the Raptors were swept by the Cavs in last year's Eastern Conference Semi Finals, I wrote an article detailing what the Raptors should do going forward. You can read the full article here. In this article, the first topic I addressed was Dwane Casey. I had stated that due to Casey's love for iso ball and some questionable roster decisions (*cough* DeMarre Carroll *cough*) I believed it was time to move on from him, even though I really admired him as a coach and a man.

It was announced later that Casey would be returning as a coach, and what impressed me the most was the way Casey not only owned his mistakes of the overuse of iso ball, but vowed to adapt and become a team that could thrive offensively in this league. That was one of the best moments in Toronto coaching history, and I was fully back on board the Casey bandwagon...and he didn't disappoint.

The Raptors finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. They were shooting three's at a historic clip. The ball movement has been incredible, not only with the starting unit, but with the bench too (more to come on that). This team is well coached, playing a style of basketball that thrives in the modern day NBA. The Raptors set a franchise record 59 wins this season, and Casey has serious momentum for NBA Coach of the Year. It's been an impressive turnaround for a coach that was on the hot seat coming into this season.

#BenchMob

 Source: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star

Source: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star

The Raptors bench is hands down the best bench in the NBA. The Raptors consistently have 10-12 guys that they can throw at you every single night that all make impacts on the floor. Lead by "Mr. Fourth Quarter" Fred VanVleet, the #BenchMob provides an injection of high intensity, physicality, floor spacing and deep shooting threats. Having this consistent option has allowed Coach Casey to limit DeRozan and Lowry's minutes, and it's showing its positive impact these playoffs. 

The main defensive assignment on LeBron will belong to Raptors rookie OG Anunoby, who did a fantastic job guarding John Wall by the way. When OG is on the bench, the Raptors can throw so many different bodies at LeBron, because they have that depth and luxury. There's no other team in the NBA that can throw as many bodies at LeBron as the Raptors can. LeBron will get his points, but if you can limit him slightly with various different defensive bodies, it will only help the Raptors in defeating the Cavs.

The recent addition of Fred VanVleet back to the bench in the Raps vs Wizards series made an immediate impact. While Delon Wright did an incredible job quaterbacking that second unit, having Steddy Freddy back in the fold provided the stability it lacked throughout the first five games. He helps space the floor, adds an additional deep threat, and can make plays that nobody thought was possible. If not for Lou Williams, VanVleet is a lock for Six Man of the Year.

I can go on and on about this bench. Wright has the length and the range to make him a deadly guard. Siakam provides the intensity and defensive toughness, while possessing the ability to knock down a jumper or corner three when needed. Poeltl provides mobility and super soft hands around the glass. Finally, Miles always possesses that deep threat that brings defenders out toward the perimeter on him, creating even more space on the floor. It's a perfect dynamic, and one that Coach Casey trusts (and rightfully so).

LeBron's Supporting Cast

 Source: CBS Sports

Source: CBS Sports

Again, it's no secret that LeBron is the best player in the league right now. He's averaging 34.4 points on 55.3% shooting in just over 41 minutes played per game. He's leading his team in points, rebounds and assists per game. These numbers are God-like for someone who is 33 years old, and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Even though the King has had quite the playoffs thus far, his supporting cast have been almost invisible. The absense of Kyrie Irving from this squad really exposed a lot of issues, and isolated a need for a true secondary scorer, since Kevin Love has not been able to fill that role at all. Here's a stat that truly astonished me...during the Cavs vs Pacers playoff series, there was not a single Cavs player other than LeBron James to reach 20 points in a single game during the seven game series. That's the first time in LeBron's career that this has happened. LeBron leads his team with 34.4 points per game, as stated earlier. Kevin Love is a "close" second with 11.4 points per game. Outside of those two, there isn't one Cavs player averaging double digits in points per game. 

This Cavs team is one of the worst I've seen with LeBron on it. They are one of the worst teams in the NBA defensively. The time is now for the much better Raptors team to expose this weak Cavs team.

I’m burnt right now. I’m not thinking about Toronto right now until tomorrow.
— LeBron James

LeBron claims he's burnt, but I don't buy it. This is a guy who spends $1 million a year on his body. He's basically the human version of the Six Million Dollar Man (minus five million...). It doesn't seem like Dwane Casey and the Raptors are buying it either, echoing the same sentiments that I am. We will see come Game 1 how tired he really is.

Prediction

The Raptors spent all offseason preparing to face LeBron in the playoffs once again. They got the culture reset they were looking for. This is a different team, and one that is more than capable of beating a weakened Cavs squad. I predict that the Toronto Raptors will beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. Notice how in all the points I touched on, I didn't even talk about Lowry and DeRozan, and their improvements as players and buying into the system? That's how good this squad has been, and will continue to be, after they get past the Cavs.

Don't believe me? That's fine, but let me show you some other expert opinions on the Raptors, and hopefully you will change your mind. We. The. North.

Raptors Face Battles On And Off The Court Against Wizards

 Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

The Raptors, lead by all star backcourt DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, carry a 3-2 series lead into Washington as they take on the Wizards tonight at 7pm EST. Closing out this series in six games will be no easy task however. The home team has won every single game in this series, and the Raptors haven't seemed themselves in the Capital One Arena this series. Just ask Kelly Oubre Jr. what he thinks about it, in particular the play of Delon Wright.

The next game is a different story. We’re back at home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home. You can kind of chalk it up as the same story.
— Kelly Oubre Jr.

Delon seemed to chuckle at it and offer his take.

Yeah I saw it. That’s just his opinion. I didn’t play as good as I did at home there but he made it sound like I was just a total bust. We’ll see [in] Game 6
— Delon Wright

One would logically assume that the banter would end there and the two would dual it out on the court, but Oubre Jr. had to get the last word in. Here is what he responded with today.

Let me take a moment to address this. Kelly Oubre Jr., you should stick to doing what you do best...riding the pine. You're not in any position to talk smack like this. You're an inconsistent bench player on the eighth seed in the East. We will see what happens when Delon comes out and murders you on the court.

4th Quarter Blues?

 Source: SLAM Online

Source: SLAM Online

DeRozan and Lowry are the key cogs to this team. Even with their newly revamped offense, those two need to be at the top of their games if they want to have continued success in the playoffs. In Game 5, the backcourt duo combined for just 4 points in the 4th quarter. Thankfully, Delon Wright stepped up with some key plays and 11 points in the quarter to propel the Raptors to victory. DeRozan and Lowry played well for most of Game 5, but they need to show up in the 4th quarter to pull away from opponents and close the door like they have done all season long. This is just one knock on an otherwise impressive playoff showing for the duo, considering recent history. I expect them to keep shattering expectations and carry the Raptors for a deep playoff run.

Other Notes

It appears as though the Raptors will have a key bench piece back in Fred VanVleet. News broke moments ago that FVV would be cleared to play for today's game.

This is a massive addition to a Raptors squad that has really missed their second unit floor general. Wright has put up impressive numbers in Fred's absence, but Fred's ability to space the floor and play fourth quarter minutes was a noticable absence in games one through five. VanVleet leads the Raptors in total 4th quarter minutes played this season, and is 20th in the NBA in this category. Hopefully the VanVleet that returns tonight is more of a version of what we are used to seeing as supposed to the Game 2 VanVleet that we saw in this series for a whopping two minutes.

While the Raptors gain a key player back into their rotation, the Wizards lose one. Otto Porter Jr. has been ruled out for the remainder of the series with what appears to be a left leg injury.

That's a big loss for this Wizards team. They now need to find a way to supplement his averages of 32 minutes played, 48.8% shooting and 41.7% rate from distance. My guess is the red hot Mike Smith will fill in for most of this role, as he is shooting an astronomical 67.6% from the field, 63.6% from 3 point land and averaging just under 12 points in 22 minutes per game. If he is able to fill in and continue to put up those numbers for the Wizards, the Raptors will be in trouble.

Game 6 is coming up soon! Let's see if the Raptors will be playing Game 1 of the second round or Game 7 of the first round on Sunday.

Leafs Lose Another Game 7 To The Bruins...Now What?

Leafs Game 7 Thumbnail.jpg

If you would have told me before the start of Game 7 that the Leafs would score four goals in the game, I would have told you to that the Leafs would be back on TV Saturday night to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alas, another collapse and blown third period lead leaves Leafs fans in the same spot they were in after the 2013 season. Saying that, the two offseasons can't feel any more different.

Another Game 7 Letdown

It was another crushing blow to a Leafs fan base that has experienced it share of defeats over the years. Leafs Twitter exploded on queue, offering their fair share of blame, myself included (as you can see below).

As you can see, I was pretty emotional, hence why this article is coming out the day after Game 7, and not right away. 

Gardiner was the most obvious scape goat from fans last night and tonight, and rightfully so. He had arguably his worst game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. He was an abysmal -5 with only 2 hits, no blocks in just over 24 minutes of ice time. Everybody understands that the Leafs need to shore up their defence core (more to come on that) but to me, Gardiner is, and has been all year, a liability. He just got exposed being on the biggest stage in his NHL career.

I will give him kudos for facing the Toronto media and owning that. I empathize on how empty of a feeling that would be, knowing that most of the blame will be put on you in one of the most crazy NHL markets. Saying that, it hasn't changed my assessment on him. The Leafs need to move on from him and this project if they want to clog the holes on defence, especially the right side.

 Source: Charles Krupa / AP

Source: Charles Krupa / AP

While blame should fall on Gardiner, it was a team collapse. The offence evaporated near the end of the second period and for most of the third, and "Steddy Freddy" was anything but steddy in this game. Allowing 6 goals while posting an .829 save percentage will not get the job done, no matter what game it is. The Leafs don't get to game 7 without Freddy, but they needed him to get the job done, FredEx just couldn't deliver. Andersen had been stellar for the Leafs all season, and I believe that with a better defensive core around him, this game 7 collapse wouldn't have happened. Sure, he let in some soft goals, but he also did make some A+ saves too.

At the end of the day, Marleau can't be your best forward in a due or die situation. Matthews and Nylander were ghosts all series, but I attribute that more to age and playoff experience over anything else. Marner was outstanding, and will be a future pillar to build around.

Now What? The Offseason Agenda

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

Well there's really only one massive concern, and everybody knows what it is. This defence has more holes than Swiss Cheese, and in a playoff series where the opponents really focus in on one another with detail, it was clear that the Bruins knew how to attack the Leafs and their defensemen.

I am very pro-Hainsey, but in the right role. He should not be playing first line minutes with Morgan Rielly, but that's what happens when you lack quality right shot defensemen. The Leafs need to address this, by acquiring an elite RHD via free agency or trade. Players such as John Carlson (FA), Drew Doughty (Trade) or Erik Karlsson (Trade) are just a few names that can really embrace that top D pairing on the right side along Rielly. Trades may require a young forward (Nylander maybe...?) but those trade packages are for another day.

It's time to move off of Gardiner and trade him. Move Dermott up to the 2nd defence pairing with Zaitsev. Find a top six D to fill in the left side alongside Hainsey, and cut Polak. Otherwise, there really doesn't need to be any other drastic change. I'm not in the "bring John Tavares back home" camp, because I would rather use that money for an elite defender in a salary cap world.

Someone on Twitter asked me who I thought had played their final game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. My list includes Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, JVR, Domenic Moore, Roman Polak and Jake Gardiner. I've seen many variations of this type of list, so let me know your list in the comments below, or tweet your list to me @TO_SportsViews.

I believe in this front office. They have made the right decisions thus far. I trust that they will get this team to where they need to be next year. There's one thing that's certain...this offseason will be the most interesting in recent memory.

Why The Maple Leafs Can Win A Stanley Cup In 2018

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

First it was the Toronto Wolfpack.

Then it was the Toronto Argonauts.

Most recently, it was Toronto FC.

Will the Maple Leafs complete the year of Toronto sports domination? If they make the right moves and decisions, and have a little bit of lady luck on their side, there's no reason to suggest that the Leafs can't finally lift Lord Stanley in 2018.

 Source: TSN

Source: TSN

The Core

This team finally has a core to build around for the foreseeable future. You have the deadly trio of Matthews, Marner and Nylander that are playing well beyond their years. It's incredible to think that these guys are all only on their rookie contracts, which makes the next year to two even more important to capitalize on this. Matthews is currently leading the team in points (26 pts through 26 games), Marner is leading the Leafs in assists with 17, and Nylander is only one behind Marner with 16.

If you take a look at the back end, it's not as dire as most fans may think. Morgan Rielly is playing like a stud, and embracing the number one role in Toronto quite well. For all the criticism Jake Gardiner gets, he's really responded well to head coach Mike Babcock's style of play, and has limited the risk factor when on the ice. Zaitsev turned that -22 that all the haters were complaining about into a solid +11 at the quarter mark of the season.

Let's not forget about the Maple Leafs MVP this season, Freddy Anderson.  This guy has single handily won the Leafs games this year that they had no business winning. Anderson has faced the most shots in the league by any goaltender, and boasts a record of 17-8-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .922 save percentage (6th highest save percentage in the league). This after having a horrendous October which saw the GAA around 3.50 and the save percentage under .900. He has firmly placed himself in the early Veznia conversation.

Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map
— Mike Babcock, 2015

Complementary Pieces and Depth

It's probably a good thing if we are calling James van Riemsdyk a complementary piece. He leads the Leafs in goals (14) and also leads the squad in powerplay points (8). A free agent at the end of the season, he has been vital to one of the leagues most potent offenses. Nazem Kadri has been incredibly vital to this Leafs squad as well. Second in goals (13) and points (23), Kadri has proven that he belongs in this league, and has cemented himself as a true top six forward. I would be remised if I didn't talk about Patrick Marleau. The "dad" of the team has put up stellar numbers, shown versatility by playing centre and wing throughout the year, as well as displayed speed that matches the youth movement in this league. Other players like Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Matt Martin embraced their roles and have exceeded expectations that others have set upon them so far this year.

Looking at the defensive side, the Ron Hainsey signing appears to be the frontrunner as "biggest free agent steal" of 2017. Not only are Hainsey and Zaitsev the "go-to" shutdown PK unit, but Hainsey is on pace for 34 points this season, a mark he's only reached twice in his career, and hasn't reach since his 2008-09 season with the Atlanta Thrashers, when he got 39 points. Andreas Borgman has been a pain for skaters to deal with. Not only can this guy lay out the body, but he's got a cannon of a shot. He's been a great addition to the third pairing.

In between the pipes, Curtis McElhinney has been a solid backup for the Leafs. In five starts, he's gone 3-2-0 with a 2.44 GAA and a .925 save percentage. Can't ask much more from a backup, especially after his last performance against the Oilers, which was a 41 save shutout. With Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard dominating for the Marlies, the depth in goaltending is something the Leafs haven't had in a very long time.

 Source: Jared Silber/Getty

Source: Jared Silber/Getty

Additions That The Leafs Should Consider

Adding an Elite Defenseman

I think you know where I'm heading with this based off the picture above. Nobody is as elite in the league on the blue line as Erik Karlsson is. Considering the Sens dumpster fire that's currently ablaze, the Leafs should definitely be all over this (as long as the Leafs aren't on his 10 team no-trade list).

Karlsson has an average cap hit of $6.5 million for this season and the next. If the Leafs really want to take advantage of rookie contracts and an underpaid defenseman, this is a golden opportunity. I don't think Karlsson's pending free agency should be a factor in this, especially when the Leafs have a window of opportunity to win now and in the foreseeable future. If Karlsson fits into those plans down the road, that would be great. He would also be a great mentor to Leafs 1st round prospect Timothy Liljegren, who's game has been compared to Karlsson's.

Adding a Depth Forward

You can never have too much depth. An injury or trade frees up some spaces, so the depth in forwards is always an asset. I'm not a Bozak fan, and I believe that the Leafs will look to ship him away. With so much versatility in Leafs forwards and their ability to shift from wing to center, there's no real positional need as much as a depth need.

The Leafs should be looking for a bottom six, veteran depth forward that can bolster a third or fourth line. A playoff vet like Justin Williams or a sniper like Radim Vrbata might be fits if their respective teams decide to sell.

I didn’t come here to (just) make the playoffs
— Mike Babcock, 2015

When Babcock was introduced as the Leafs newest head coach, he preached patience, and building a contender the right way. Developing youth, building a safe and thriving culture, and attracting good players to want to play for the Maple Leafs. He also preached years of pain and suffering. It appears as though those years are over, and it's being recognized more and more as the year progresses. Before the 2017-18 season began, the Leafs were +1400 betting odds to win the Stanley Cup (which I jumped all over on). Now, they are +800 betting odds to win the Stanley Cup according to Bodog, which puts them second behind the Tampa Bay Lighting in terms of favourites to win Lord Stanley. The recent run the Leafs are on sure helps as well, comprising a record of 12-3-1 over their last 16 games, and they are on pace for 108 points this season.

The league, and its bettors, are on notice, and this just might be the year that the Toronto Maple Leafs can finally plan the parade route.

RIP Roy Halladay, My Childhood Idol

 Source: MLB

Source: MLB

I couldn't believe my eyes. I went on Twitter like I do dozens of times each day, but this time, there was one topic dominating social media.

"Roy Halladay's plane involved in a crash. One body discovered. More details to follow."

Obviously, my first instinct was to mourn the loss of whomever was in that plane. Either way, someone had lost their life on the afternoon of November 7th, 2017. Selfishly, I didn't want it to be him. "Please, not my childhood idol. Not Doc."

At 4:15pm, it was announced that the body discovered was indeed Roy Halladay. He was just 40 years of age.

I took a break from writing. I needed to focus my energy and attention elsewhere, and writing was impeding my day to day life. The Jays were doing me no favours, and the Raptors and Leafs have just begun their respective seasons. Nothing had motivated me to return to writing...until now. 

This is the first time I have ever had to write a piece like this. I'm relatively young in the eyes of the sporting world, and I have never seen one of my sports idols pass away. Until now.

There's a lot that's been said about Halladay over the past few days by people with far more information about the type of person and player that he was. I'm here to give you the perspective of a young boy, who loved the game with a passion and admired the man they call "Doc".

He was a great pitcher, and a wonderful human being.
— John Gibbons

Growing up as a child who just missed the Blue Jays World Series run by a year, I didn't get to witness much quality baseball until 2015. The main reason why I was a Blue Jays fan can be accredited to one man...Roy Halladay. Every fifth day, you knew that the Jays were the best team in baseball with him on the mound. They could have the worst offensive day, but as long as you scored him a couple of runs in the game, it was essentially game over. The opposing pitchers knew they had no room for error, because Halladay would baffle offenses across the league.

It was obvious to anyone that watched the game that Halladay was incredibly gifted, but it was just more than raw talent and ability. You would hear stories of Halladay completing workouts in the morning before anybody else was at the complex. How he devoted every waking moment to improving a near perfect craft, as he felt like he could always be better. He handled adversity better than others, after being demoted to single A Dunedin, then coming back to be a Cy Young pitcher. You could see how he carried himself with confidence, not cockiness.

As a young boy watching on, I witnessed first hand how hard work, determination and humbleness can bring upon success. If you put the hard work in, good things will follow. If you embrace life's challenges and tackle them head on instead of running away from them, good things will follow. It wasn't a coincidence that Roy Halladay was one of the best pitchers to ever play the game of baseball.

His work habits were unbelievable. He was as dedicated as they come to the game and to his family. He was a great guy in a lot of ways.
— Cito Gaston
 Source: Kevin Frayer/The Canadian

Source: Kevin Frayer/The Canadian

Roy inspired me to learn the art of pitching. I wanted to be just like him on the field. I wanted to have everybody fear me on the mound, but respect me off it. As the years went on, and I became a little older and a little wiser, I realized that I wanted to be just like him off the field too. I knew that I wanted to be someone that everybody loved, not just because I am good at my job, but because of how I treated everybody I met along the way.

Halladay was arguably the most influential athlete in Toronto during his tenure with the Blue Jays. The city loved him, and he loved the city back. He gave everything he had to the city of Toronto and the Blue Jays organization. In an era that saw Toronto-based superstar athletes such as Vince Carter and Chris Bosh get shunned and jeered on their way out of Toronto, the city embraced Halladay's return to Toronto in a Phillies uniform. In that particular time, it was incredible to see.

I'll never forget watching the 2010 MLB Playoffs. The Phillies were the team I was cheering for. The reason was clear. It was Roy Halladay's first postseason start of his career. He had been waiting a lifetime for this moment...and he pitched one of the most memorable postseason outings in MLB history.

I remember jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs when they recorded that final out. I knew that I would probably never see something like that ever again in my life. See for me, it didn't matter what uniform he was wearing. He was my idol.

I learned a lot from Halladay growing up. I learned about the game baseball, I learned about the art of pitching, and most importantly, I learned how to be an respectful and humble person. I want to thank you Doc for everything you taught not only me, but so many other individuals, young and old, across North America.

I want to extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the Halladay family, his wife Brandy and his two sons Braden and Ryan. Toronto will always be here for you.

The Blue Jays Twitter account has been posting some special messages and images in reflection of Roy Halladay. I have shared a few of my favourites below:

RIP Doc.

Raptors 2017 Offseason Gradebook

 Source: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Source: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Masai said it best himself following a sweep by the hands of the Cavs. "We need a culture reset." Well, did he hit the self proclaimed "reset" button?

Somewhat.

Here's my gradebook on the Toronto Raptors 2017 Offseason (so far) and what we can expect from Ujiri and Webster in the future. All categories are listed in sequential order.

We are going to hold everybody accountable because we need to. We need to figure it out.
— Masai Ujiri

Coach

 Source: Raptors Republic

Source: Raptors Republic

Masai's first pressing offseason decision came in the form of his head coach Dwane Casey. Just one year into a three-year contract extension, speculation about Casey came after Masai's comments regarding the coach and the play style of the team.

"Because we’ve done what we’ve done so many times and it hasn’t worked. It’s easy to defend in my opinion when you play one-on-one. It’s predictable, we feel we have to go in another direction. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it will be the new thing in the league that wins." Masai also added "I think there are times that I think coach did a great job and I think there are times that we struggled."

It wasn't exactly a 'vote of confidence' for the winningest coach in Raptors history, but Masai didn't give anything away regarding his thoughts on the coach's future. Remember that even though Masai gave Casey an extension last season, this still isn't the coach he hired, but rather inherited from the previous regime. Both Masai and Casey acknowledged that changes needed to be made in playing style, and that the hero ISO ball that every Raptors fan hates needs to be eliminated.

A few weeks later, Casey confirmed to media outlets that he would in fact be returning as the head coach of the Raptors squad. This move puzzled many who follow the Dinos considering Masai's remarks. 

I really like Casey. Not only is he a character guy, but he's done incredible things for the Toronto Raptors, and the team may not be in the position its in today if it were not for him. Saying this, the ISO-ball style clearly isn't working, and it will be interesting to see if Casey can adapt. When times get tough, can the team stick to the new style of play, or will the coach and his squad revert back to the old ISO ways? Only time will tell.

GRADE: C

Draft

 Source: Sports Illustrated

Source: Sports Illustrated

They say that across any sport, most deals begin to take shape on draft night. With all the GM's focused on one particular aspect, many use that time to "hotline bling" opposing GM's and try to work something out. There's always deals that get done, as NBA players and current draft picks alike are often shipped across various teams, some more surprising than others (looking at you Timberwolves).

Insert the Toronto Raptors. There were reports circulating on Twitter at the beginning of the night that Masai was actively shopping Itty Bitty Baller Jonas Valanciunas along with the 23rd overall pick as a way to shed some salary off the cap. This became a very intriguing prospect to most, as getting rid of JV would be a nice way to create some room in the salary cap.

Midway through the draft the rumour was still being floated about Masai actively shopping this duo together. As the draft board inched closer and closer to the 23rd overall pick, this rumour began to die off as one intriguing name remained on the board; OG Anunoby. The tantalizing prospect out of Indiana was a projected lottery pick on every mock draft until he sustained a season ending knee injury on January 20th.

While many expected Anunoby to drop out of the lottery as a result of the injury, experts did not predict him to drop too much lower than that. As the numbers kept increasing, the "true OG" was still in his seat, and the Raptors began to realize that this might actually be a possibility. Once it was the Raptors turn to make a pick and OG was still available, it was impossible not to make that selection.

What many experts deem to be "the steal of the draft", the Raptors literally had this young phenom fall right into their laps. While Anunoby still has to work on his offensive game (averaged 11.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game), he is credited as the one of the best defenders in the draft, if not the best. He hasn't played a game since his season ending knee surgery in January. OG is working towards a return in November-December.

When people ask me for NBA comparables, I give them a floor and ceiling of the type of player I believe that Anunoby can become. His floor is a PJ Tucker, and his ceiling is a Kawhi Leonard. I'm not saying he's going to be the next Kawhi, but do expect him to be the best defender on the floor who can lock down the opposition's star player and give you consistent offence.

GRADE: A

Free Agency/Trades

 Source: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Source: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Once the calendar turned over to July, the Raptors roster really began to take shape. Once the signings of Ibaka and Lowry were made official, it was clear the road they would travel on.

Here's a list of who the Raptors have added/retained and who they have traded away/let walk in free agency.

Added:
Kyle Lowry
Serge Ibaka
Justin Hamilton (waived)
C.J. Miles

Subtracted:
PJ Tucker
Patrick Patterson
DeMarre Carroll
2018 First Round Pick (lottery protected)
2018 Second Round Pick
Cory Joseph

I have been on the fence all offseason about the direction the Raptors should take this team. I'm pretty sure I was more indecisive than my girlfriend trying to choose what to eat for dinner. However, once I saw the details of the Ibaka and Lowry signings, I was all abord the compete train.

It’s our job to try and get Kyle to come back and do it the best way that we possibly can. We want him back, he has been a huge part of the success here.
— Masai Ujiri

Masai handed out three-year contracts to both Ibaka and Lowry, which matches up with the expiry of DeRozan's contract. Masai is giving this core three years to compete. In an incredibly weak Eastern Conference that has seen superstars Jimmy Butler and Paul George head out to the incredibly stacked West, it only makes sense for the Raptors to at least remain competitive and allow their talented youth to develop and grow with the team. Bringing back these two players was essential, as they both boast impressive three-point numbers for their respective positions, aligning with the culture reset that Masai referred to.

Anybody with a brain would know that Masai and Co. would have constructed a methodical plan of action to carry out once they re-secured their own free agents. With the core signings completed, this pushed the Raptors into tax territory, giving them virtually no room to add any complimentary pieces unless a trade was completed.

So Masai went to work.

Step 1 of the master plan? Get rid of the one bad free agent contract on the books. The true JUNK yard dog DeMarre Carroll was shipped off to hell (aka Brooklyn) along with a future 2018 lottery protected 1st and 2nd round pick in exchange for a heaping pile of dog shit in Justin Hamilton. The trade was purely a cap relief scenario, and it cost the Raps a couple of draft picks. With the promising young talent this roster has already, I'm okay with the price of this necessary move.

Step 2 almost mirrored step 1. Nearly 12 hours after trading away DeMarre Carroll, the Raptors traded away backup point guard and fellow Canadian Cory Joseph to the Pacers in order to make room in the cap to sign C.J. Miles. "I get a ring and I bring it home like I'm Cory Joe." Drake embodied the feelings of Raptors fans everywhere when Cory Joe signed in Toronto as a free agent a few years ago, and we will forever be grateful to him. However, with young promising talent like Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet knocking at the door, it just made sense to move CoJo and his salary. This allowed the Raps to go out and sign DeMarre's replacement in C.J. Miles. Coming off a three-point field goal percentage of 42% last season, Miles is the perfect addition to a team in desperate need of that asset. He also provides solid defence and is one of the most underrated two-way forwards in the game.

The one aspect of Free Agency that sucks is that you can lose your players for nothing. Due to the Raptors tight cap crunch, they lost free agents PJ Tucker to the Houston Rockets and Patrick Patterson to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The one that really stings for me is the loss of Tucker. I was hoping that Masai would do whatever it took to keep the team's best defender and leader, but was ultimately swayed by the idea of playing alongside fellow friend Chris Paul and MVP nominee James Harden. His loss of presence will be felt on the court, and hopefully players like Miles and Norman Powell can help eliminate the pain.

Overall it was a fairly productive free agency period for Masai. I don't believe he's done yet, however I believe he would be content with starting the year with the current roster he has constructed. Kudos on keeping our star free agents and moving the players that needed to be moved. The grade would have had the letter A in it if not for the loss of PJ Tucker, which will hurt the Raptors more than most expect.

GRADE: B+

Remaining Offseason Predictions and Overall Grade

 Source: Raptors Republic

Source: Raptors Republic

Like I said before, I don't believe that Masai is done just yet. There's a step 3 in his master plan, but it just hasn't been revealed to us. So what could that step 3 be, you might ask?

Great question.

Let's circle back to draft night. Remember when the Raps were trying hard to shop JV? Where there's smoke, there's fire, and that means that the Raps were looking to shed his salary. I believe that they still are, and if the right trade partner and offer comes along, I believe the Raps will take it. This could allow for a solid trade deadline acquisition without creeping into the tax, and allowing for more room next offseason to make one big splash.

Masai is a god. He will play some mind trick on a poor soul and force them to agree to whatever trade he wants. Let's all bow down to him.

The Raptors have done a good job (so far) this offseason. They have positioned themselves well to compete now, as well as not be locked in to any ridiculous contracts three years from now. They are only one injury away from actually having a chance to win the East, and that's all fans can ask for.

Overall Grade: B+

Maple Leafs Sign Patrick Marleau, Signals More Moves To Come

 Source: Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIRE

Source: Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIRE

The Toronto Maple Leafs may have waited a day after Free Agency began to make a big splash, but fans would say it was worth it. After the Leafs inked veterans Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore on day one, they signed veteran forward Patrick Marleau to a 3 year contract worth an AAV of $6.25 million the following day. One of the most coveted free agents on the market, the move to bring in veterans signals that the rebuild is officially over, and the Leafs are in "win-now" mode.

These guys love the game...it’s fun to watch and I want to be a part of it
— Marleau on Tim & Sid

Marleau is no spring chicken. The 37 year-old played his first preseason game September 14th, 1997. On September 17th, 1997, three days later, the Leafs lord and savior Auston Matthews was born. Let that sink in... Marleau has been playing professional hockey longer than Matthews has been alive.

About to enter into his 20th NHL season, Marleau proves that age is just a number. In his past two seasons, Marleau has scored 27 and 25 goals respectfully. That's incredible firepower for someone on the wrong side of 30, and should be a welcome addition to an offence that has no problem finding the open man and creating scoring chances.

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

Marleau is a player that is expected to slide into that top line left wing spot that was occupied by Hyman, and help to create even more offence alongside Matthews and Nylander. I'm sure that won't be an issue for anybody.

As it stands currently, here's how I would project the starting forward lineups:

Marleau - Matthews - Nylander
Van Riemsdyk - Bozak - Marner
Komarov - Kadri - Brown
Martin - Moore - Kapanen

My gosh, don't the Leafs look like they boast the best offence in the league? All those names top to bottom look like they belong. However, this would leave Hyman and Leivo as the odd men out, and I honestly believe that the Leafs don't want two productive forwards like them being healthy scratches or extra bodies. 

So what does this mean? This means that trades are coming.

 Source: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Source: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The name that I keep circling back to is the man in the picture above: James Van Riemsdyk. The 28 year-old forward was second on a dynamic Leafs squad with 62 points, only behind Matthews. He's an incredibly talented skater who is a force around the net, has great vision and has incredibly skilled hands. He has been an integral part of the Leafs recent success.

So why trade somebody who is so valuable to their team? It's pretty simple; the salary cap. The reality of the situation is that the Leafs have three budding superstars in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander that they have to pay in a year or two. Nylander will probably command around $8 million AAV and Matthews and Marner will most likely look for around $10 million AAV. With close to $30 million locked up between three players (or roughly 35-40% of the cap), it becomes difficult to have players like JVR on the books as well.

I can’t express enough how much I’ve enjoyed to play in Toronto and how much it has meant to me to play for a team where people care as much as they do here.
— James Van Riemsdyk

A trade of JVR would create space and flexibility for players like Hyman and Leivo to slide in and contribute. Any trade involving Van Riemsdyk would almost certainly center around a defenceman. According to Sportsnet, the Leafs offered the Islanders a 2018 first-round pick and James Van Riemsdyk for Travis Hamonic, but ultimately the Islanders shipped Hamonic off to Calgary. A player like Hamonic would have fit in perfectly with the Leafs top 4 D, and would have helped solidify the lack of defence the team has been plagued with for years.

Saying this, there are other options that the Leafs can explore if they are looking for young controllable defencemen. The name Noah Hanifin out of Carolina keeps getting floated around as a potential piece the Leafs could trade for. With Trevor Van Riemsdyk in Carolina, the Hurricanes could look to reunite the brothers at the cost of Hanifin. The Hurricanes do love having brothers on the team (Staal brothers). Jacob Trouba is another intriguing name out of Winnipeg, as well as Drew Doughty in LA.

It's entirely possible that JVR plays out the season as a Leaf and then leaves as a free agent. A player of his calibre is a great addition to any team, so it wouldn't hinder the Leafs if they couldn't find the perfect trade to include him in. It would just be nice to cash in on an expiring asset that you know has no possibility of returning to the team next season.

If JVR isn't moved, look for another expiring contract like Leo Komarov to be shopped. The Leafs will look to capitalize on expiring contracts and bolster their blue line. Part-time Mafia boss and full-time GM Lou Lamoriello stated that he felt that the defence would have to be improved. The addition of Ron Hainsey helps, but that can't be all that's done.

Either way, it's finally an exciting time to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Fans can now wear their jersey and colours with pride, knowing that they will once again be the center of the hockey universe. The "Shanaplan" has worked so far; let's see how Shanahan and Co. can close this out and claim Lord Stanley as their own once again.

Osuna Announces Battle With Mental State

 Source: Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

Source: Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

People who read my articles and follow me on social media understand my writing style. They know that my content will be informative, yet humorous or satirical. Yet, yesterday afternoon I got a notification on my phone that announced "Osuna struggling with mental illness, feels 'anxious and lost'." When I read that, everything around me seemed to stop for just a second, and my heart poured out to him.

Any type of mental illness is no joke, and as such, this will be a much different style of article for me.

For a 22-year-old superstar to come out and announce this struggle was not only difficult, but brave. As another 22-year-old that has also had his struggles with mental illness, I commend him for allowing himself to become vulnerable. He's putting his trust and faith into the hands of the city and its fans, and Jays fans need to be there for him.

Here is the breakdown of what Osuna said from Blue Jays reporter Arden Zwelling:

So while Osuna has not been officially diagnosed with a mental illness, any type of mental battle is impossible to ignore. We have seen how mental battles can affect players for life, with Exhibit A being Rick Ankiel and his battle with anxiety while in the MLB.

This is just another reminder that we have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. Last night I posted a terrible take in response to the one and only Dean Blundell regarding Osuna not being available for the game. Here it is:

Those that follow my social media know I'm not a fan of Mr. Gibbons. Hindsight being 20/20, I was way too quick to judge and came to a conclusion without knowing all the information. Gibbons was just protecting his player like any other manager would have done. For that I say, "thank you."

 Source: Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Source: Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to remember that Osuna is still so very young. At one point last season he was the youngest player in baseball and was in his second season in the major leagues. Jays fans have been extremely blessed to have a talent such as Osuna.

Time and time again he has brought smiles to our faces. To see him without a smile off the field is not only sad, it's heartbreaking. Now it's time for Jays fans across the nation to show their support and help put the smile back on his face.

Why Every NHL Team Needs a Matt Martin

 Source: Aaron Lynett/Toronto Star

Source: Aaron Lynett/Toronto Star

He's not a "sexy" player. He never will be. He was never supposed to be.

He wasn't brought on for his offensive capabilities. All of those assets are just icing on the cake. Matt Martin was brought in for one thing only...to instill fear in the hearts of opponents.

They say the role of the enforcer is dead and gone. I say that teams are too enamoured by the advanced stats like Corsi to really be paying attention to what's going on at ice level, and more importantly outside of the rink.

 Source: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

Source: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

When the Leafs submitted their protected list for the NHL Draft, Matt Martin was a name that was immediately flagged by Leafs fans. There seem to be an equal divide of fans that believe it was the right move and ones that believe it was a mistake. After having a couple of days to digest this and see who the Leafs left exposed, I've pitched my tent in camp "pro Martin".

Stick With What You Know

The Leafs know what they are getting with Martin. Remember that they signed this guy as a free agent last offseason with the knowledge of the Golden Knights and the expansion draft upcoming for the following year. The front office knew that unless Martin was injured all year or had zero effect on the team, they would be keeping him.

Martin was neither of the two.

Let me break it down for you. Since entering the league as a full-time player with the Islander in the 2010-11 season, Martin has been averaging around 14 points and around 120 penalty minutes per season. This past season he put up 9 points and 123 penalty minutes. A five point difference with a 4th line player like Martin is pretty insignificant because of the other intangibles he brings.

He brings a sense of safety for his teammates whenever he is on the ice. And even when he's not, opposing players know that if they go after any of the big three of Matthews, Marner or Nylander, Martin would make sure to track you down on his next shift. He's like a bouncer at a nightclub...whenever one of your boys gets too rowdy, he comes up and gently reminds him and your crew to settle down or he will kick everyone's ass.

The Leafs players love this guy. The Leafs coaching staff love this guy. The Leafs management love this guy. Tell me this picture doesn't speak a thousand words.

If you do a Google search of Matt Martin and look through the images, it's hard to find one that doesn't have him smiling. That type of attitude and positivity is infectious, especially when you basically live with your teammates for about seven months of the year.

Does it suck to lose Brendan Leipsic to Vegas? Absolutely. He was part of the Cody Franson trade to Nashville, and he was the main piece to come back. Even though he's a highly regarded prospect, that's just what he is...a prospect. The Leafs can't field six full lines of forwards every night. There's no room for Leipsic on the team, and I would rather have Martin than Leipsic on my fourth line come next season.

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

So everybody needs to take a calm and collective deep breath. This Leafs brass is some of the best management minds the league has ever seen in the same room. They understand the team better than anybody else. They know what makes them tick, they know what is important to them, and they know who the "glue" players are; the guys who can keep a locker room together through thick and thin. Martin is a "glue guy".

If you still don't think that Martin is an important piece to the Leafs and their locker room, let me direct you to this article written by Sportsnet's Chris Johnston on Martin and his "big brother" role with the team.

Back yet? Perfect. So hopefully you understand how highly valued this guy is to everyone on the Leafs. I can guarantee you that if the Leafs lost Martin to Vegas, there would be an internal uproar from the players. I'm positive that Leipsic wouldn't have received that kind of support.

I’m a big believer that the room should be like a family. You’ve got to get to know everybody more than just on a hockey level, on a personal level, because that will kind of make you care about everyone even more on the ice.
— Matt Martin

I'll be the first to admit that Martin won't ever impress on the score board, but I'm perfectly content with that. I know that the guys like Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Bozak, JVR, Kadri, Brown and more can carry that load offensively. Martin is the "glue guy". He brings a sense of safety on the ice. He protects his young budding superstars. He injects positivity and chemistry into the locker room. He creates a family atmosphere, regardless of age.

This is why every NHL team needs a Matt Martin.

Toronto's Best Kept Secret? The Toronto Wolfpack.

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

People always ask me what I think the sports world is lacking currently, and my answer never changes. I tell them that fan interaction amongst players is almost non-existent anymore. I understand that professional sports teams such as the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Jays have built up such an enormous brand that it becomes increasingly difficult for fans to interact with players. I find that out of the "big three", the Blue Jays do the best job of accomplishing this, with various outreach events, Jays Care auctions and charity functions. Not even the Blue Jays compares to the fan experience and interactivity that you can experience at the Toronto Wolfpack game.

What and who are the Toronto Wolfpack? Well, let me introduce you.

 Source: Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

Source: Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

The Wolfpack are Canada's first professional rugby team and the first transatlantic professional sports team. Since they could not buy in to the top league, they must progress through the Rugby Football League (RFL) tiers to earn their way up to the top tier, or "Super League." In their first year, the Wolfpack are playing in the third tier, and are outclassing and manhandling every opponent. Scores of 80-0 for the Wolfpack have become commonplace throughout the season.

For at least one day, it was wonderful to be reminded how much fun pro sports can be when the main goal is more than a win or a paycheque.
— Cathal Kelly, Globe and Mail

Yet even with the guaranteed wins and the 10-0 start that the Wolfpack have put together, the fans still find an allure and presence around the sport, the players and the atmosphere. Playing out of Lamport Stadium in the heart of Liberty Village in Toronto, the Wolfpack has an average attendance of approximately 7,000 fans per game. It was expected that fan attendance would drop off after the home opener, but it has remained steady. Why? Simple...the Wolfpack provides a fan experience like no other.

I can guarantee you that majority of the fans watching the game have little to no idea of what's going on or how the game is played. It's like a Homecoming game at a university. Most of the people aren't there to watch the game, but to drink and have a great time with friends. The Wolfpack understand that knowledge of the sport is quite minimal in Canada, so they have come up with some creative elements to entice fan interaction and rebuy.

One of the main elements that contributes to this success is the introduction of the beer garden. Located along the North end of the stadium, fans can walk to and from their seats, drink craft beer from various different tents and get to meet new friends or reconnect with old ones. When you look around at the crowd, it is impossible to find one face without a smile on it.

Oh, and did I mention that the beer garden stays open after the game too? The games have started at 4:30pm on Saturdays, and the tents stay open an hour or two after the conclusion of the game. They are the only venue that keeps alcohol concessions open once the game is over. This is important because this contributes to the second factor in the fan experience success.

Fans of sport are so accustomed to understanding that once the game is over, its time to leave. With the beer garden being open, fans stick around after the game and the players love this. After every home game, you will see Wolfpack players and even players of the opposing team come out from their locker rooms and share a few pints and pictures with the local fans. It's an experience that I have never seen before, and it was amazing to be able to witness it first hand.

 Source: Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

Source: Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

I have had the pleasure of being able to work with the company that handles all the operations for the Wolfpack, and thus I have had access to players, coaches, behind the scenes dialogue and more. The players absolutely love the fans here. As you can tell by the above picture, these guys love the sport, love the team and love the fans. One player told me in a super thick British accent "I never expected the fans here to be this crazy about us and the game, mate."

But here we are, in a city that is learning all about rugby, the players and the team. The fans treat these player's like royalty. I think it's safe to say that this was beyond anybody's expectations.

I never expected the fans here to be this crazy about us and the game, mate.
— Wolfpack Player

There's always a moment in time that you can look back on and make the claim that it was that particular moment or event that inspired the growth of the game in a particular area. When Vince Carter was on the Raptors, it inspired millions of youth to pick up a basketball and fly like VC. When the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles, baseball registration skyrocketed across the nation. If and when rugby begins to grow as a sport in this great nation of ours, I will look back to this moment in time and say that the introduction of the Wolfpack started this great movement.

For more information on the team, its schedules and so much more head over to their website www.torontowolfpack.com.

Blue Jays Monthly Report - May

 Source: Toronto Star

Source: Toronto Star

What a time to be a Jays fan. Just when all hope seemed to be lost, and everybody and their mothers were on the disabled list, the scrappy Jays found ways to grind out important wins and not only keep the team afloat, but propel them back into the playoff picture. After ending the month of April with an 8-17 record, the beaten up blue birds ended the month of May with a 17-10 record, finishing as the third best team in baseball during May. If you told me at the beginning of May that the Jays would be the third best team in baseball during the month with all the injuries they had, I would have encouraged you to call a doctor.

Not only did the bench bodies contribute massively, but certain regular players that survived the DL plague improved on horrendous performances in April. We will touch on a few key contributors that helped the Blue Jays get to where they are currently and what we can expect from this team moving into June.

 Source: Toronto Star

Source: Toronto Star

Look no further than the Blue Jays "Player of the Month" for May than Devon Travis. In my opinion he should have won AL Player of the Month as well, but that's another discussion all together. After batting an abysmal .130, Travis turned it around and batted .364 for the month of May and had 16 doubles to go along with that. Along with the hot bat came some great defence, and we were treated to a lot of stellar plays from Travis this month. His improved play is arguably the most influential factor in propelling the Jays back up near .500.

 Source: UPI

Source: UPI

Sense a theme here? The longest tenured Blue Jay on the team took a long time to reclaim his WBC form, but once Bautista figured that out it's been nothing but rave reviews for the fan favourite. Bautista struggled mightily in April, but had a .317 average and nine home runs during the month of May. These improved numbers help the Jays finally put runs on the board, something that they struggled to do all April. I recently wrote an article showcasing the highlights and disappointments of the 2017 season so far (you can read it here if you haven't already), and I had Bautista listed as a disappointment. I knew that list would look different, I just didn't realize it would only take 10 days for any changes to happen...

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

I don't think there's enough that can be said about Smoak and his season that he's put together so far. At the time of writing this article (June 4th) he leads the team in average (.283), home runs (14) and RBI's (39). If that doesn't have you impressed for whatever reason, here's Smoak's ranking in categories among AL first basemen: Home Runs - 2nd, Runs - Tied for 1st, RBI - 1st, Slugging Percentage - 1st, OPS - 1st and WAR - 2nd. Smoak is on his way to not only being in the All-Star game, but being the AL starter for first base. These type of numbers and productivity from someone you never expected it from goes a long way for a once struggling team. I have been so critical of Smoak in the past, so all I can really do at this point is say that I'm sorry I ever doubted you.

 Source: Toronto Star

Source: Toronto Star

I know I'm going off the board here, but in my opinion the most underrated (or underappreciated) add to this team has been the 8th inning presence of Joe Smith. The 32 year old right handed sidearm pitcher came into this season fighting for that set up role, and he has done a tremendous job closing the gap between the starting pitchers and Osuna. In 27.2 innings pitched, Smith has a 2.93 ERA to go along with 42 STRIKEOUTS! He's also only walked seven batters all year, and has not issued one walk to a right handed batter. This shows an incredible ability to control and locate pitches, and Smith has brought a calming presence to a bullpen that had no sure thing other than Osuna leading into May.

I know these guys, they get frustrated like everybody else, but they never shut down.
— John Gibbons

Maybe Gibbons knew something that the fan base didn't leading into May. He stated that his players "get frustrated" but "never shut down." He must have a great feel for his clubhouse because it appears as though the words "shut down" aren't in anybody's vocabulary.

June promises to be a month in which the Jays can build upon their success of May. Do they have another 17-10 month in them? It's possible. With series matchups against weak opponents such as the A's, Mariners, White Sox, Royals, and the choke of a team Texas Rangers, expect the Jays to finish June no longer being the basement dwellers of the AL East, and being closer to first place than last.

Best and Worst Trades - Toronto Raptors

 Source: Canadian Press

Source: Canadian Press

Welcome to my first article in a series that will examine the best and worst trades of a certain team or league. This article is obviously focused around the Toronto Raptors. I know I'm not the first to do this, and won't be the last, but now is perfect timing to examine this while we wait for the draft, free agency, trades, and the start of the new season.

While Masai Ujiri has pulled off some franchise altering trades, there were trades before his arrival that were deemed...terrible, to say the least. Below is a list of some great and not so great trades over the Raptors 22 year history (in no particular order).

Best - Andrea Bargnani Trade

 Source: Canadian Press

Source: Canadian Press

On July 10th, 2013, Masai Ujiri make his first impact move, trading away shunned Toronto athlete Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks in exchange for (get this) Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, and THREE draft picks (two 2nd round picks and the Knicks 2016 first round pick). For a player that was deemed to have zero value, Ujiri was able to not only unload his contract and get him out of Toronto, but accumulate three draft picks for him. Camby and Richardson were waived before the season began and Novak didn't really accomplish much as a bench player for the Raptors, so the value lied within the draft picks. The cake was getting Bargnani out of Toronto, and the delicious icing was the draft picks.


Worst - Hakeem Olajuwon Trade

 Source: AP

Source: AP

To me, this is like the NBA's version of a Mats Sundin scenario. A player who should have never left his original team, but did so late in his career only to play at a significantly reduced level and be plagued with injuries. Insert Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon. If Hakeem had played to his Hall of Fame career potential in Toronto, this trade would be in a different category, however we know this was not the case. A beast in the paint, Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points per game and 11.1 rebounds per game during his illustrious career, but could not replicate that success in Toronto, averaging single season career lows of 7.1 points per game and 6.0 rebounds per game. Riddled with back injuries, he was forced to retire after his completing only one of his three years he signed on with the Raptors back in 2001 after being traded for a first and second round pick.


Best - Norman Powell Trade

 Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN

The high flyer. "King of the Norm". In the 2015 draft, he was overlooked by every team except for two. The Milwaukee Bucks had drafted Norman Powell with the 46th pick, and it seemed as though Toronto had his eye on him too. The two sides were able to orchestrate a trade, with the Raptors sending Greivis Vasquez to the Bucks for Powell and the LA Clippers 2017 first round draft pick. What a steal for the Raptors. Not only were they able to get Powell for Vasquez, but were able to secure a first round draft pick too! Vasquez, who played an integral role in the 2014 and 2015 Raptors playoff runs, only played for the Bucks for one season and was waived by the Brooklyn Nets last season (when you are waived by the Nets, you should probably retire...). Powell has played an important role for the Raptors, filling in for injured starters and making a strong case to start next season. It's only the beginning for Norm and his potential in this league.


Worst - Rudy Gay Trade (to Toronto)

 Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

On paper, this seemed like the move that the Raptors needed. The Raptors acquired Rudy Gay and Hamed Haddadi from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jose Calderon, Ed Davis and Toronto's 2013 second round draft pick. Haddadi was traded at the deadline that season and never played a role, while Gay was brought in to be a catalyst and leader around a young DeRozan and unproven Lowry. After ending the 2012-13 season with a 34-48 record, the Rudy Gay-led Raptors started the 2013-14 season off with a 6-12 start, which leads right into my next trade discussion...


Best - Rudy Gay Trade (to Sacramento)

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

We were going to blow the team up.
— Jeff Weltman on the Raptor's mind set after the 6-12 start

It's extremely rare to find the same person on any team's best AND worst trade list, but here we are. After that 6-12 start I just spoke of, Masai Ujiri knew that change was needed to this club. Remember, this was the draft year for local boy Andrew Wiggins, and the #TankForWiggins movement was only gaining more and more traction as the losses piled up. After Jeff Weltman made the move to Orlando as their new President, he admitted that the Raptors were planning on blowing the team up. With this decision made, they traded Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy to the Sacramento Kings for Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons. Not only did this trade ignite the team, but it altered the landscape of the franchise for the better. With Gay gone they had the ability to play more as a team, hand the keys of the team to Lowry and DeRozan and the rest is history.


Worst: Hedo Turkoglu Trade

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

Good old Turkoglu. The Masked Man. Just like all of the other "worst" trades, this one appeared to be a home run on paper, but in reality it was just one big strikeout. After making an appearance in the finals for the Magic the season before, the Raptors thought they had found the missing piece to compliment Chris Bosh. The Raptors traded Shawn Marion, Kris Humphries, Nathan Jawai and Toronto's 2016 second round draft pick to the Magic in a four-team trade for Hedo Turkoglu, Devean George and Antoine Wright. The Raptors got sold a bill of goods that never delivered, and when it was realized that Turkoglu would never been the same catalyst that played for the Magic, he was shipped out of town. But it wasn't all bad for the Big Turk's time in Toronto, as he produced super awkward post-game interview gems just like this.


Best - Vince Carter Trade (to Toronto)

 Source: imageslides.com

Source: imageslides.com

Ahh, the trade that may be the reason why basketball in Toronto is not only alive, but thriving. What most new fans and some old fans forget is that VC was not originally drafted by the Raptors. The Raptors had the fourth pick in the 1998 draft, and traded that pick to Golden State for the fifth pick and cash. The Warriors had their sights set on Antawn Jamison and were afraid that the Raptors would draft him before they even had a chance to. The Raptors did in fact take Jamison with the fourth overall pick, and the Warriors then selected Vince Carter with the fifth overall pick, but they were quickly swapped. While Jamison went on to have a great career in the NBA, his college teammate Carter became a legend in the NBA. A sure Hall of Famer, Carter created a passion for basketball in Canada with his dynamic style of play, high flying dunks and love for the game. I love watching his highlights, and I'll never forget dunk #1 from this dunk highlights clip.


Worst - Vince Carter Trade (to New Jersey)

 Source: UPI

Source: UPI

There was no way I was going to leave this trade off the list. There's no argument when it comes to what the worst trade in Raptors history was. The Raptors traded a superstar Carter in his prime and got the equivalent of a bag of balls. Then acting General Manager Rob Babcock had the audacity to send Vince Carter to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams, Alonzo Mourning, Philadelphia's 2005 conditional first round pick and Denver's 2006 conditional first round pick. Here's where it gets even better (aka worse). Mourning, the highlight of the terrible low ball offer from the Nets, refused to report to Toronto, meaning that Babcock had an opportunity to negate the trade and start from scratch. But even at that, he still couldn't figure out how to say no. It was a get out of jail free card handed to him on a silver platter, and he burned it. Anyways, its a no-brainer as to why Babcock has never held a job of any similar ilk, as he was essentially laughed out of the league.


There are obviously more trades that have impacted Toronto's history, positively and negatively. There's the Kyle Lowry trade from Houston that paid massive dividends, and the Jermaine O'Neal trade from Indiana that was another swing and a miss for the Raptors. Either way, all trades and transactions have led to this current Raptors squad, and I am thankful for the way things have panned out, for better or for worse.

Stanley Cup Final Breakdown - Who's Going to Win?

 Source: RealSport101

Source: RealSport101

With puck drop of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled 24 hours from now, hockey fans get the matchup that will not only provide the most entertainment, but the closest results as well.

Anaheim brought a solid veteran team, and Ottawa brought a feel-good Cinderella story, but the matchup that will be the most intense and electric belongs to Nashville versus Pittsburgh. I have to say that I would have never imagined the Guinness Book of World Records be in attendance of a Nashville Predators playoff game to record the sound decibels to measure if it's the loudest indoor sporting event of all time. The #Smashville fans are crazy, and I love how they embrace not only the sport, but the team. The Penguins bring speed and maturity against a relatively young and inexperienced Nashville team. The Pens fans have been through this last year, and you know they will be hungry for a repeat, something that hasn't been done since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings teams.

Each team carries it's own strengths, weaknesses and pressures, which we will dissect below. Categories that will be measured include offence, defence, goaltending, special teams, and "other" intangibles. 

 Source: USA Today

Source: USA Today

Offence Breakdown

Pittsburgh - There's not enough that can be said about this team offensively. Four of the top six total point-getters these playoffs belong to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Malkin - 24, Crosby - 20, Kessel - 19, Guentzel - 16). It is important to keep in mind that the Penguins have played the most amount of games out of any team these playoffs with 19, so these numbers are a little inflated. Even with the amount of games, Malkin, Crosby and Kessel are all averaging a point-per-game or higher. Saying that, hockey fans have seen the potential of this offence, scoring four or more goals in a game six times. Having sustained injuries to key contributors such as Hornqvist, Rust and of course Sid the Kid, this team has received scoring from both likely and unlikely players alike, capped off by the Kunitz two-goal performance in game seven versus Ottawa, who hadn't scored a goal in a game since February 25th.

Nashville - This team definitely does not have the same offensive numbers that the Pens forwards possess, but they can kill you with their speed. The Predators only have four forwards with 10 or more points, with the dynamic Filip Forsberg leading the way (Forsberg - 15, Johansen - 13, Sissons - 10, Arvidsson - 10). Of course, with the season ending injury to Johansen, a big portion of Nashville's offence has been depleted. However, like Pittsburgh, they find clutch scoring from some unlikely names, such as Sissons, Watson and Aberg. The downside to this offence is that not a single forward is averaging a point-per-game or better, and their highest scorer (Forsberg) would rank fifth against Pittsburgh's forwards. Couple this with the fact that Nashville's captain Mike Fisher hasn't registered a single point in the playoffs, and their reliance on secondary scoring may come back to bite them in this final series.

Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins

It will be the toughest challenge of my life.
— Evgeni Malkin on facing Predators defence
 Source: Pred Lines

Source: Pred Lines

Defence Breakdown

Pittsburgh - This team has faced adversity when it comes to its blue line. With Letang ruled out of the playoffs before playing a single game, the Pens have been facing an uphill battle with their defence since game one. Injuries sustained to Schultz and Daley throughout the playoffs forced young players such as Dumoulin and Ruhwedel into the spotlight. They clearly aren't the same impact players as Letang and Schultz for Pittsburgh, and when Dumoulin is leading the defence in ice time during games, you know the Pens are as depleted as can be on the back end. With Schultz and Daley back to adequate health, the Pens do get a boost for their defensive depth that hasn't really been seen for majority of their playoff run.

Nashville - It's no surprise that David Poile has constructed this team from the back end out, and the Predators defence corps are the reason why they are battling for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The top four defence of Josi, Ellis, Subban and Ekholm make up four out of top eight scorers for the Predators. It's extremely rare to have such massive contributions offensively from your defensemen, and to have three in double digit point totals already exemplifies how integral the Predators defence is to their game and overall success. Not to mention they are just as impressive defensively as they are offensively, blocking shots and creating important game-changing turnovers. You know they are impressive when Malkin is quoted as saying that it will be the toughest challenge of his life, also stating that they have four Erik Karlsson's on the blue line.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

 Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Goaltending Breakdown

Pittsburgh - The goaltending carousel of the Penguins has actually been a massive benefit for the team. When Murray went down during practice before game one of the playoffs, there were maybe a handful of people on the entire planet that had the confidence in Fleury to not only keep this team alive but become an integral component. Throughout the playoffs, Fleury posted a respectable 9-6 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. Fleury was a massive contribution for Pittsburgh, literally stealing games for his squad. After his collapse against Ottawa, coach Mike Sullivan made the change to go with Matt Murray, and his gamble paid off. Murray is posting a stellar 4-1 record with a .946 save percentage and a 1.35 goals against average. It will be interesting to see how Murray will stack up against a fast Nashville team while only starting four games these playoffs. It's nice for Pittsburgh to know that if Murray falters, Fleury will be more than capable of handling the duties between the pipes.

Nashville - As impressive as Pittsburgh's goalie tandem has been, Nashville's leading netminder has been just as incredible. Known more for his inconsistencies than stellar play over the past few seasons, Pekka Rinne has put that label behind him. Over the course of 16 games, he's posted a 12-4 record with a .941 save percentage and a 1.70 goals against average. With goaltending being arguably the most important element in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rinne has been the foundation that has allowed other elements to thrive and play loosely over the last 16 games. Something else to consider would be that Rinne had to face arguably more potent offences than Pittsburgh overall these playoffs. This position matchup is as close as any I've seen in a long time, but I would have to give the edge to the netminder who's played the entire playoffs.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

Special Teams Breakdown

Power Play - The power play advantage is a perfect reflection of the balance between offenses. Pittsburgh ranks tied for second in the playoffs with a 25% power play percentage, while Nashville ranks 12th with a 14.9% power play percentage. There's no doubt that this category belongs to Pittsburgh.

Penalty Kill - Similar to the power play, the penalty kill reflects the defensive perceptions well. Nashville ranks fourth in the playoffs with an 88.1% penalty kill percentage, while Pittsburgh ranks eighth with a 85.5% penalty kill percentage. While this category is closer in proximity than the power play, the advantage will still have to go to Nashville.

Summary - While each team excels in one particular aspect of special teams compared to the other, it's hard to ignore the disparity of power play percentages between Pittsburgh and Nashville. Therefore, Pittsburgh has the advantage in the special teams department by a narrow margin.

Advantage - Pittsburgh Penguins

 Source: Tribune News Service

Source: Tribune News Service

"Other" Intangibles Breakdown

Home Ice Crowd - While both clubs are expecting their fans to be the loudest they have heard all year, there's one arena which has stood out above the rest for housing the loudest fans all playoffs long: the Nashville Predators. Like I said earlier, I'm still amazed and shocked at how loud fans in Nashville of all places can get. While Pittsburgh is no slouch for crowd loudness, nobody is topping the Predators and their fan base in this category.

Days Off & Games Played - Since both of these intangibles revolve around the element of fatigue, I decided to group them together. Nashville is definitely the more well rested team, as they have not only had more days off in general, but had been waiting for Pittsburgh for three days already. Another factor to consider is that Nashville has not had to play a game seven yet these playoffs, while Pittsburgh has gone through two of them and have played three more games than Nashville (19 for Pittsburgh, 16 for Nashville). This category favours the Predators.

Home & Road Splits - While it's expected that both teams play better at home than the road, one team does both better than the other. The Penguins have a home split of 7-3 (.700) and a road split of 5-4 (.556), however the Predators have been dominant at home with a split of 7-1 (.875) and a 5-3 split on the road (.625). These splits allow the argument that the Predators will have a easier time defending home ice and winning on the road than the Penguins. Advantage to the Predators for this category.

Summary - There's a lot of "other" intangible factors, but I picked these three in particular as I feel that they have the most underlying influence in the playoffs. In the categories that often go unnoticed, give the edge to Nashville.

Advantage - Nashville Predators

 Source: NY Magazine

Source: NY Magazine

Prediction

This Stanley Cup Final is going to be incredible. The speed, offence, defence, goaltending, crowds and storylines will be on full display, and that's all fans of the game can ask for. When everything is broken down into specific categories, these teams are quite even and match up really well against one another.

Personally, I have always lived by the motto that defence wins championships (unless you are in the NBA...). Nashville has an incredible defensive corps that can not only lock down top line forwards, but can also contribute offensively at the rate of top forwards in the playoffs. When Pittsburgh is locked down offensively, it's difficult for them to fall back on their defence for support, and will lose those close one-goal games more often than a team like Nashville. With this important element combined with the home dominance of Nashville, I believe that Nashville will be lifting Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.

Prediction - Nashville in 6 games

Blue Jays Highlights and Disappointments of the 2017 Season So Far...

 Source: Toronto Star

Source: Toronto Star

It's so hard to figure out if the Jays are contenders or pretenders two months into the 2017 season.

The Jays have so far managed yet again to become the most frustrating yet gratifying Toronto sports team to watch. After starting the year 1-9, the Jays have managed to go 20-17 (.541) since. The recent play of the Jays has been a roller coaster ride to say the least, going on a 5 game win streak that included a series win against the Indians and a sweep of the injured Mariners, but also included three straight losses to the oldest team in baseball (!) and worst in their division, Atlanta Braves. (Side note: The tomahawk chop may be the second worse thing in baseball, with the wave taking the cake). Sitting with a record of 21-26 (.447) after the 8-4 beat down of the Brewers yesterday afternoon, the Jays still sit in the bottom of the AL East, but optimism has started to rise with fans of the beloved blue birds.

Below is a list of the (early) highlights and disappointments from the Blue Jays, and what we can expect to see going forward.

*Note: Players that were expected to be highlights or disappointments were omitted for the purposes of not having a boring article.

 Source: Toronto Star

Source: Toronto Star

HIGHLIGHT: Justin Smoak

If you believed that Smoak would be an major contributor to the team and play an integral role in their success, put your hand up. Nobody? Anybody? As the old saying goes, "where there's smoke, there's fire." There's no statement more true that can describe the year Smoak is having than that one. The 30 year old former first round pick has turned critics into believers, myself included. With a slash line of .278, .340, .542 through 40 games, he's outpacing his careers highs in all three categories. Reaching double digit home runs already while reaching base shows that Smoak is seeing the ball a lot better than he has in the past. A more calm, relaxed approach and stance at the plate might be a factor. It is quite possible that Smoak will have a career year, but don't be surprised if he has a 1 for 20 slump sprinkled in here and there. There will be regression throughout the year, but if he can reach a .250 average, over .300 on base, 20-25 home runs and 60-70 RBI's, I'll be more than happy.

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

DISAPPOINTMENT: Jose Bautista

Yes, I know. Bautista's bat is finally starting to come around. His fielding and arm seem to be in better shape than last year. Recency bias suggests that Bautista is one of the best Blue Jays right now, and that may be true, but it's hard to ignore his horrendous start to the year. Up until around two weeks ago it seemed like fans wanted to run Jose right out of town. Now with his recent surge in offensive productivity, he's starting to climb back to respectable numbers. He has seemed to find whatever was working for him in the pre-season and the WBC and is now producing like the Jose we are used to seeing. I'll classify Bautista as a fringe "disappointment" for now, because if he keeps up this production level, fans will easily forgive and forget the atrocious start. Expect Bautista to continue improving on his numbers gradually throughout the season.

 Source: Fox Sports

Source: Fox Sports

HIGHLIGHT: Kevin Pillar

There's a reason why he's called Superman. He's the hero we need, but don't deserve. Arguably the Blue Jays early MVP candidate, Pillar has career highs in average (.306), on base percentage (.357) and slugging (.483), it seems as though Pillar has finally found his groove in the major league level. It was only a matter of time too, as Pillar has been an offensive weapon in every level of baseball that he has played in leading to the majors. He has solidified himself as the ideal leadoff batter for the Jays, with the ability to hit, walk, and steal. Also, who can forget his defensive prowess? He's like a human vacuum out there, catching any baseball that's remotely within 5,000 feet of him (or so it seems like...). Oh, and don't forget his amazing catch he made on Indians batter Jose Ramirez, robbing him of a guaranteed hit. Most amazing catch I've ever seen live in-stadium. I don't know what's more of a robbery; that catch or the fact that Pillar still hasn't won a gold glove. He is well deserving of an All-Star position in Miami, and I believe he will get one.

 Source: Blue Jays Nation

Source: Blue Jays Nation

DISAPPOINTMENT: Injuries

I don't know what the team or the players did to anger the Baseball Gods, but my goodness did they ever do something. Here's a full list of Jays that have made at least one trip to the DL this year: Alford, Ceciliani, Donaldson, Happ, Howell, Liriano, Martin, Osuna, Pearce, Pompey, Sanchez, Shultz, Sparkman and Tulowitzki. That's FOURTEEN different players and we aren't even through May yet. The amount of games lost to injury this year is at 336. That's a truly astonishing and "disappointing" number. I don't believe this has anything to do with the training staff, as it is essentially the same staff that allowed the Jays to be one of the healthiest teams in baseball last year. Also couple in the fact that the new CBA eliminated the 15-day DL and introduced the 10-day DL and teams are now less reluctant to place a player on the disabled list. Don't expect this trend and these numbers to remain constant throughout the season.

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

HIGHLIGHT: Marcus Stroman

The Stro-Show is off to the best start of his young career. After winning the MVP Award at the WBC, he carried that momentum over into the 2017 season, proving to doubters yet again that he is the real deal. Stroman had a disappointing start to the 2016 season, which saw fans and critics alike call for his demotion to AAA to sort out whatever issues he had going on. Since the second half on the season onward, he has showed an improved maturity and sense of the game on the mound. He's still the youthful, energetic pitcher we all know and love, but he doesn't let the highs get too high and the lows get too low.

 Source: Toronto Star

Source: Toronto Star

DISAPPOINTMENT: Aaron Sanchez

Yes, I know that Sanchez is lumped in with the injury category, and I understand that when he has been on the mound he has been quite effective. The disappointing part of Aaron Sanchez is the false hope we as fans receive. When it seems like his finger and blister problems are behind him, he will be back on the disabled list after one start. Sanchez has already made three separate trips to the DL, which leads the club. It's disappointing that Sanchez cannot get fully healthy because he has shown flashes of brilliance even with blood dripping down his finger. With Biagini holding down Sanchez's spot in the rotation, there's no sense to rush him. With a proper amount of time to heal and recover, I expect Sanchez to make an immediate impact upon return.


I'm fully expecting someone out there to roast me on some of my choices, but those were the ones I feel really stuck out to me. Sure I could have easily thrown in Estrada as a highlight, but that was to be expected leading into the season. Martin was expected to have a disappointing season due to age and wear and tear. Things are sure to change throughout the year, and this list will definitely not look the same come September. It will be interesting to see who the new heroes and villains of the Blue Jays are in a few months. 

Five Offseason Targets the Leafs Should Pursue

 Source: CBS Sports

Source: CBS Sports

Can you believe it's been almost a month since the Leafs lost in the most thrilling first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals? The Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday April 23. I had to triple check my calendar just to make sure.

Regardless, we are approaching the Stanley Cup Final matchup and at this point it's anyone's Cup to win. The injury to Ryan Johansen really puts a dent into the Predators hopes, and if Pittsburgh can't get healthy in time we could end up seeing a 2007 Stanley Cup Final rematch between the Ducks and Senators. Can someone say #boring? Snooze fest. (Sorry Sens fans, your team really is boring).

Something to notice during these playoffs is the commonality that all four remaining teams possess...defence. They are built from the blue line out, and Pittsburgh is suffering because of their depleted blue line. Players like Karlsson, Josi, Subban, Ellis, Schultz, Fowler and many more are catalysts for these teams and their success. The balance of offensive productivity and defensive presence is something to marvel at.

The Leafs have the necessary offensive weapons. They have the goalie that can steal some games for them and has plenty of playoff experience for a player of his age. The one glaring need for this team is defence, but this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone following this team. With that in mind, let's take a look at some free agents and potential trade targets that the Leafs front office should have some serious conversations about (in no particular order):

We have to get better. It’s obvious certain areas we need (help).
— Lou Lamoriello
 Source: Russian Machine Never Breaks

Source: Russian Machine Never Breaks

1) Karl Alzner

No, it's not just because I happen to share the same birthday as Karl Alzner (it's September 24th in case anybody wants to plan ahead for gifts). The Leafs have young defense core that is comprised of Rielly, Gardiner and Zaitsev for the foreseeable future. Alzner would be the perfect fit to slide into that top four. A big, physical body who brings grit and is a great stay at home defenseman who is in his prime is the exact type of player that the Leafs are looking for right now, as is just about every other team in the league. He was sorely missed by the Capitals when he went down with injury during the playoffs, and the Leafs were able to penetrate the zone a lot better without him looming. He will be overpaid, but what decent free agent isn't these days? It would be a smart pursuit for the Leafs.

Priority: HIGH

 Source: Sporting News

Source: Sporting News

2) Sami Vatanen

It's no secret that Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello were spotted together in Nashville catching some of the Nashville vs Anaheim series. While it is entirely possible that they happened to be in the same vacation spot together, one would reason that they are scouting the blue lines of either Nashville, Anaheim, or both. While I'm intrigued by the possibility of a trade with someone like Ellis, I believe the more likely scenario would come from Anaheim in the form of Vatanen. Coming off the worst of his three years, and signed to a contract of three more years with an AAV of $4.875 million, he is an attractive piece for many teams coveting a right hand shot defenseman. Anaheim could use more young offensive talent, and Toronto definitely has a massive surplus of that commodity. Look for Toronto to pounce on the opportunity to get great value for a young defenseman on a great contract.

Priority: HIGH

You do whatever you can to get better. But you don’t do things for the sake of doing things.
— Lou Lamoriello
 Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN

3) Justin Williams

Yep, Mr. Game 7 himself. "But you said the Leafs have a surplus of offence why would you recom-" Stop. If a guy of this experience and caliber becomes available on the market for a reasonable term and dollar value, all 31 teams will jump on it. Father Time may not be on his side (will be 36 by the 2017 season), but he has played arguably his best hockey since joining the Capitals, posting an average of 50 points over 81 games per year. Not to mention he becomes a beast in the playoffs, especially clutch situations. In 15 game 7's, Williams has 7 goals and 7 assists. That's incredible. Who better to teach the meaning of clutch to this young group of Leafs forwards than Mr. Game 7?

Priority: MEDIUM

 Source: Tip of the Tower

Source: Tip of the Tower

4) Brian Boyle

Not all targets have to be new faces. Boyle was acquired at the trade deadline and did a fine job slotting into that fourth line with Martin and the rookie carousel as the other winger. When Kapanen was slotted into the final wing position come playoff time, that fourth line did some damage, and even came up clutch in double OT. That was arguably the greatest moment in the Leafs season, and was set up with a filthy assist from Boyle. (Side note: #BringBowenBack, that guy has the best Leafs broadcasting voice). He brings a physicality and leadership that shouldn't be overlooked. Boyle said he was willing to resign in Toronto, so make it happen Lamoriello and Co.

Priority: MEDIUM

 Source: The Hockey Writers

Source: The Hockey Writers

5) Michael Del Zotto

If the Leafs find themselves penny pinching and want to invest in a player who might have a bounce-back campaign, it's Del Zotto. I'll be the first to admit that this isn't a "sexy" option, but it could be worth exploring if the price is right. Del Zotto will only be 27 years of age come the 2017-18 season, and we have seen defensemen take a long time to mature and develop into the top four guys they were projected to be. Would only sign on a one or two year contract, and go from there.

Priority: LOW

You can’t be satisfied. Once you get satisfied, complacency sets in. Once complacency sets in, you’re in trouble. You’re going a different direction.
— Lou Lamoriello

There are some big names I left off my list. I initially wanted the Leafs to pursue Shattenkirk, but when I saw he couldn't hit the net if his life depended on it in the playoffs, it turned me off. Radulov will go back to the Canadiens. Oshie will command too much money for the Leafs to fit in their cap with the contracts of the big three due for renewal soon (Matthews, Marner, Nylander). Thorton is too slow and old to keep up with the speedy Leafs. So on and so forth.

Lou said changes are coming. This management group has proven over the past few years how brilliant and creative they are. Let's hope they can pull out another bunny from the magic hat this offseason.

Where Do The Raptors Go From Here?

 Source: Raptors Republic

Source: Raptors Republic

Never has there been an offseason as important or unclear as this one upcoming for the Raptors.

The Raptors find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can't seem to get past the massive hump that is LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, and the greatest that I have personally ever seen play the game. As long as that guy is breathing on the court, the East is his playground.

*Note: If you have not watched Masai Ujiri's End of Year Press Conference, you can watch it in its entirety here.*

It's clear that change is coming with this team. The words that came right from Masai's mouth were "We need a culture reset." When Masai says something, you can take it to the bank, because you know #InMasaiWeTrust.  There are a few things that stuck out to me after listening to Masai's press conference, which will be tied in to every topic discussed. Let's begin with the often energetic and enthusiastic coach, Dwane Casey.

We need a culture reset.
— Masai Ujiri

Dwane Casey

Dwane Casey has arguably been the best thing to ever happen to the Raptors. After coming off of a championship run with the Dallas Mavericks as their assistant coach, Casey faced the daunting task of turning a failing Raptors squad around into perennial contenders. After going below .500 in his first two years, he's gone above .500 in the last four, with 48, 49, 56 and 51 wins respectfully. When fans were calling for a rebuild during the 48 win season, Casey was able to get the most our of his players and have them play at a level that was unexpected and welcome in the Toronto basketball landscape.

Even though there's a long list of pros regarding Casey, there are accompanied by cons as well. His iso-ball style of gameplay is no longer effective, with Masai even making mention that this style of play will not work going forward. Couple that with his questionable starting lineup decisions, and he's created a #FireCasey section of the fanbase that arises every time a poor decision is made.

I'm not going to sit here and make excuses for Casey. I love him as a human being and I think he's a players coach and all around good guy. He says the right things and supports his guys no matter what. In the same breath, he makes me want to pull my hair out of my head when he starts DeMarre Carroll over Norman Powell, or when he never properly utilizes weapons such as Jonas Valanciunas or even James Johnson.

Personally, it wouldn't surprise me if the Raptors decided to fire Casey or keep him. There's valid arguments for both, but if I had to make a decision at this very moment, I think I would be more inclined to let Casey go and let another voice such as Rex Kalamian or Jerry Stackhouse take over the room.

It's hard to really read into where Masai's head is at regarding Dwane Casey. He didn't tip his hand much regarding the 60 year old coach, but it seems as though he will have an opportunity to get back in his chair and continue with this team next year. But make no mistake, his seat will be very, very hot.

I just want a ring.
— Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry

The hot debate topic surrounding the Raptors might not be around Coach Casey, but rather his all star starting point guard Kyle Lowry. Today, Lowry officially opted out of his final year in his contract, becoming a free agent. This comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody, unless you are my mom and thought the move meant that he was leaving Toronto for good (I know you're reading this mom, I'm sorry but I had to).

Lowry has been nothing short of a revelation for the Raptors, and this past season was by far his best of his career. Posting career highs in points per game (22.4), field goal percentage (46.4%), three point percentage (41.2%), and even defensive rebounds per game (5.0), Lowry has shown that he can be a complete player and a top tier point guard in the game.

One thing Lowry can't combat though is age. Lowry is on the wrong side of thirty (31), and signing him to a max contract would mean that you have him until the age of 36. While that may be a good contract for the first two to three years, the last two years may come back to haunt the team. The question now becomes this: is that a risk you are willing to take?

The Raptors have good young point guards in local boy Cory Joseph and 2015 1st round draft pick Delon Wright (who I absolutely love). There is no way to completely fill the void left by Kyle Lowry if he or the Raptors choose to part ways, but the Raptors did play well enough without Kyle, going 14-7 once he sustained his wrist injury. Not to mention that the Raptors played some of their best ball against Cleveland during the final two games, also known as the games that Lowry was out of the lineup.

If the Raptors choose to not sign Lowry, its because they have chosen to spend his max dollars elsewhere. If Lowry chooses not to come back, I wish him the best of luck. I believe that if an agreement if not reached between Lowry and the Raptors, fans should expect to see him with the Spurs. If Lowry is serious about a ring, his best chance other than Toronto would be the Spurs. Sorry 76ers, Lowry doesn't have time on his side to "trust the process".

It’s not realistic.
— Masai Ujiri on retaining all free agents

The Other Guys...

Lost in the shuffle and conversation surrounding Casey and Lowry is what to do with the other free agents the Raptors have coming off the books. Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker and Patrick Patterson all hit the open market as UFA's this summer. When the Raptors traded for Ibaka, they also retained his bird rights, which gives the cap situation a bit more flexibility.

Here's where fans and analysts alike can get creative with their offseason plans. Obviously all decisions will be affected based off of Lowry's decision, but I would like to see Ibaka and Tucker back, and Patterson gone. Masai obviously traded for them for a reason, and I believe that he wouldn't have made those trades if he has no intention of keeping them around after this year. Ujiri made it clear that it is impossible to retain all four pending free agents, and I see Patterson as the odd man out. He is a good serviceable stretch four off the bench that can hit shots from deep, but he has shown that he can't be relied on in the playoffs and has a fragile mentality and confidence issues.

There are a lot of players I would love to see the Raptors target. If the Raptor's don't retain Lowry, then they have more money to spend to fill holes on the team. Some players that I would like to see the Raptors target include:

  • Kyle Korver - Arguably one of the best shooters from deep to ever play the game, Korver is deadly from beyond the ark, and if he can come at a reasonable price tag it will fit the new play style of shooting threes.
  • Danilo Gallinari - He won't come cheap, but if the Raptors decide to go small ball and have Serge at center and move JV, then this would be target number one. He has the versatility to play small forward and power forward, and seems to have unlimited range on the court. Again, fitting into the new found three point offence.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic - See a trend here? Looking for small/power forwards that can hit the three well. Bojan fits that bill, and can be a guy to come off the bench and log some solid minutes for that second unit. He has shown an ability to lead a second unit during the Washington vs. Boston series.
  • Joe Ingles - Read above, and just replace Bojan Bogdanovic with Joe Ingles.
  • Vince Carter - Didn't think I would leave out my boy VC right? I've been advocating for his return to the six for a few seasons now. If anybody could get VC to sign a veteran's minimum to come off the bench for the Raptors next season, its Masai.
100 per cent
— Masai Ujiri on ability to spend into the tax threshold

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Raptors right now. Decisions are coming, and the only thing that is certain is that this team will not look the same one way or another. It's an exciting time to be a Raptors fan. Let's just sit back and watch Masai & Co. get to work

3 Reasons For and Against a Blue Jays Rebuild

 Source: TSN

Source: TSN

Should they, or shouldn't they?

That question seems to be on the minds of every Blue Jays fan when pondering the possibility of a rebuild. The franchise that stole the hearts of over 35 million fans across this beautiful nation by making it to two consecutive ALCS series has taken a massive nosedive to the cellar of the league's standings. Yes, I know it's early. Yes, I know nobody should be looking at the standings before July 1st. However, when a team that has been picked by experts to make the playoffs starts this poorly, it becomes hard not to look at the standings. 

As of May 3, 2017, the Blue Jays hold a record of 9-18, which places them 29th out of 30th in the league only behind Kansas City (which is a whole other story in itself). Ironic that the two teams who ferociously dueled it out in the 2015 ALCS and created the infamous Caleb Humphreys scandal are now dueling it out for last in the entire league just two years later. At least we won't have to hear any more terrible interviews from Erin Andrews and awful lies from the Amish sensation...if you forget what I'm talking about, click here.

The Blue Jays are not strangers to slow April starts. Last season, the Blue Jays finished April with an 11-14 record. Should we classify the past month as just another "slow start" for the Jays, or should Toronto fans be slamming the panic button? Below are three reasons why the Jays should rebuild as well as three reasons why they shouldn't.

Reasons to blow this team into smithereens:

1) The start is the main catalyst for the whole "rebuild" conversation to even take place. The benchmark record to make the playoffs based on last year's standings was the Blue Jays record of 89-73, which placed the team in a tie for the Wild Card spot with Baltimore. Let's assume that it will take 90 wins to get to the playoffs in the American League this year. In order to accomplish this, the Jays must go 81-54 the rest of the way. Even that mark might not be enough to get this team in the playoffs. Does the core of this team have what it takes to reach this benchmark?
2) This team isn't getting any younger. With an average age of 30.7 on the MLB roster, the Blue Jays are the oldest team in baseball (thanks Grilli...). A rebuild is inevitable, so why not get a head start on it and get some value for quality players sooner rather than later. Some valuable Blue Jays that will become free agents after the 2017 season include Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano. They have been one of the few shinning spots in an abysmal start to the year, and there's nothing more coveted by a playoff team than reliable pitching down the stretch.
3) Our farm system is actually better than most Blue Jays fans realize. Ranked 19th by SB Nation (who admits they could have ranked the Jays system as high as 12th) and 16th by Bleacher Report, the Jays farm system is not top tier but it is serviceable. If the Blue Jays were to trade players such as Estrada, Liriano, Happ, and even Bautista and *gasp* Donaldson, they could grab some mid to top tier prospects and suddenly have a top 5 farm system once again. Players such as Rowdy Tellez, Sean-Reid Foley, Lourdes Gurriel, Anthony Alford, Richard Urena and more are waiting in the wings for their opportunity to shine on the big stage. They would be more than capable of coming on to a big league roster that would go in the direction of "we don't need to win now, but keep the game exciting" stage. Oh, and don't forget about Vladimir Gurerro Jr. He's pretty good too.

Stay the course you overreacting idiot (actual words from a colleague of mine):
1) I don't need to remind you that the Jays started the year 1-9 do I? I didn't think so. BUT since that disgusting start, the Blue Jays have played better of late, going 8-9 to bring their record to 9-18. Hovering around .500 at this time of the year is respectable, especially when you couldn't even reach .120. The recent play suggests that the Jays players might actually be adjusting to playing proper baseball and potentially turn this season around for the better.
2) Feeding off the first point, the Jays have been able to accomplish this recent record of 8-9 without arguably their best players. Donaldson, Tulo, Happ and Sanchez are all on the 10 day DL with some form of injury, and yet this team has found it within them to play at a level that keeps them treading water. Yeah, we see you Goins and Pillar.
3) Remember that 11-14 record I told you about from April 2016? The Blue Jays were the only team in the league last season to make the playoffs with a record of more than one game under .500. They seem to find an extra gear in the months of May and June, so what's to stop this team from doing the exact same thing and shocking the baseball world yet again?

There's a lot of information to digest, which makes this decision not an easy one either way. Fans seem to be divided on the topic, and one way or another someone won't be happy with the outcome. What would I do if I were Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro? I give this team until the end of May before I start making a decision. If the team performs at a rate lower than a .500 clip (a record worse than 22-31 by end of month) I would blow it up. Percentages and odds are not in your favour, and I would want to recoup value for assets as supposed to letting them go for free.

It's going to be an interesting summer, regardless of the Blue Jays results.