February 25, 2013

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The Week in Sports

By: Anson Whaley

Jimmie Johnson wins the Daytona 500: Danica Patrick made a bit of history as the first woman to start at the pole position in a Daytona 500 race. She was passed up quickly, but also later regained the lead to become the first female to lead a lap in the event. But the day belonged to Jimmie Johnson who won the race and his second Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made a late push, but for the third time in four years, he finished in second place. Winning second place on the biggest stage in NASCAR is quite an achievement and to do it three times in four years is flat out amazing. But it also has to sting to finish as the bridesmaid that many times.

NASCAR kicked off its 2013 season with the Daytona 500 this weekend.

Curtis Granderson breaks arm … on first Spring Training at bat: After sitting out for months, major leaguers probably can’t wait until their first Spring Training at bat. Yankees’ outfielder Curtis Granderson may be having second thoughts about that, though. Granderson was promptly hit by a pitch in his first at bat by the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, suffering a broken arm. The star will be out for two to three months and will likely miss the first five weeks of the regular season. Granderson was the team’s biggest offensive star last season, leading the Yankees in home runs (43) and RBI (106), so it will be a significant blow. The loss hurts even more when you consider that New York lost several offensive stars in the offseason including Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, and Russell Martin, who combined for 64 home runs last year.

Marquise Goodwin dominates NFL Combine: The NFL Combine started over the weekend and a few wide receivers made their marks. Most notably, Texas’ Marquise Goodwin had a great weekend. He was timed unofficially at 4.25 and officially, he received a 4.27 – narrowly missing the 4.24 Combine record set by running back Chris Johnson. Breaking 4.4 is considered at the elite level and a sub 4.3 is insane. There’s no doubt that Goodwin improved his draft status in a big way and could make himself a top pick.

49ers looking to unload Alex Smith: News broke over the weekend that the San Francisco 49ers were not only hoping to trade backup quarterback Alex Smith, but that they might already be close to a deal with an unspecified team. Trading Smith is really a no-brainer for the team since they’re all in with Colin Kaepernick. And since Kaepernick nearly helped lead the team to a sixth Super Bowl title this past year, it’s hard to argue with that logic. Smith was finally turning into a serviceable quarterback and San Francisco should be able to land a nice deal for him. He’s not an elite player by any means, but he would be an upgrade under center for many franchises. Ideally, the 49ers would be thrilled to have a backup of Smith’s stature. But he’s obviously unhappy after losing his job to Kaepernick last season and keeping him makes little sense when they can bring in another player who can help them.

Jerry Buss dies: Iconic Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss passed away this week at the age of 80. With his ten NBA championships, Buss wasn’t only one of the top owners in the NBA, but all of sports. Think of all he’s seen … Magic Johnson winning a title as a rookie. The 1980s Showtime Lakers with Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and company. A three-peat with Kobe and Shaq. Buss had really seen it all in the NBA over the past 30+ years and had the experience of a lifetime.

Evgeni Malkin has concussion symptoms: The NHL’s Most Valuable Player for 2011-12, Evgeni Malkin, has showed signs of a concussion after a recent game. The Penguins’ star suffered the injury on Friday against the Florida Panthers. If Malkin misses any length of time, it won’t be anything new for Pittsburgh. The Pens have dealt with missing Sidney Crosby for long stretches after a concussion and the team can’t seem to catch a break. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Penguins, who lead the Atlantic Division.

Syracuse retires Carmelo Anthony’s jersey: Knicks star Carmelo Anthony had his jersey retired by Syracuse in a game last week. Anthony played only one season for Syracuse, but it was one to remember. He was the best freshman in college basketball that year and led his team to an NCAA championship. Typically, I’d be against retiring the jersey of a player who stayed in college for only a single season. I think that honor should be reserved for the best players of all time in the sport and you simply can’t be in that conversation if you only stick around for one year. But in winning a title, I’m okay with it. Anthony had such a special year that he probably deserves the recognition. Syracuse also waited a decade to do this, so it clearly was something with which they had reservations. But if they’re okay with it, I’m okay with it.

February 29, 2012

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Giving Credit to Evgeni Malkin

By: Matt Bowen

Heading into the 2011-12 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a few looming questions. Mainly, what was the future of their franchise with injuries to stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?

Even with Sidney Crosby injured, Evgeni Malkin is having an amazing season.

Within a three week span in January 2011, Crosby fell to a concussion and Malkin suffered a devastating knee injury. For a team that’s expected to perennially contend for the Stanley Cup, having their future Hall of Famers in doubt was worrisome.

While it’s unfortunate that Sidney Crosby is still sidelined with lingering effects of a concussion, Malkin has dominated this season. One would never guess that he shredded his knee not too long ago because he’s playing at such a high level. At this time, Malkin is leading the NHL with 78 points and has the Penguins looking like the Cup contender they’re supposed to be.

Because of Malkin, the Penguins are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. He has scored five points in a game a remarkable five times this season. Five times! In the modern day NHL, that is simply astounding.

Malkin’s 37 goals are second-best in the NHL behind Steven Stamkos at the moment.  His eight game-winning goals are just another reason why Malkin will be named NHL MVP at the end of the season.

The scary thing about Malkin is that he’s only 25 years old. He’s in his sixth NHL season and hasn’t even hit his prime yet. He has 195 career goals, 301 assists and 496 points. These numbers are undeniably great.

With an injury-free and solid finish to the season, Malkin will eclipse the 50 goal mark for the first time, which is the pinnacle in the NHL. Watching Malkin bloom into a legitimate superstar is pure fun. He’s proven that he can step out of the shadows of Crosby and shine on his own.

Keep your eye on Malkin down the stretch. There’s no slowing him down.

July 5, 2011

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Jaromir Jagr’s Road Ends In Philadelphia

By: Anson Whaley

When former NHL star Jaromir Jagr announced he was open to returning to the league, it was one of the few hockey stories that could cause a stir during the summer. Usually during this time, sports fans are discussing the MLB All-Star game, the NBA Draft, and NFL training camps (or, more importantly, Fantasy Football drafts). But this year, with two ongoing lockouts, the NHL found its way into the spotlight.

The Jagr tale is a curious one to be sure, having so many twists and turns that a compass would be needed to accurately follow it. It didn’t always look that way, though. Jagr appeared headed back to Pittsburgh near the end of the process without much controversy. He played the majority of his career with the Penguins, still has a home in the area, and had talked to owner Mario Lemieux (who he credits for his successful NHL career) about a possible return. But leave it to the enigmatic star to cause some drama and we should have all known it would never be quite so simple.

It all started with rumors that three teams were involved for Jagr’s services – the Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, and a mystery team. Various reports, including one from the reputable Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, spoke of a possible contract being in place even before Jagr’s flight landed in the U.S. as he traveled from Russia. But from there, it got murky – he didn’t arrive on time and his agent reportedly didn’t even know where he was for a brief time. The deal with Pittsburgh that seemed to be in place dissolved. From there, more teams got involved in the bidding, the Penguins and Red Wings both pulled their initial offers, and Jagr was off to the Philadelphia Flyers for a one-year deal worth more than $3M.

So what kind of impact can the former All-Star have on next year’s Flyers team? It’s safe to say that anyone expecting the Jagr of the 1990s will be disappointed.

While still a serviceable wing (and one that could have greatly helped a team such as the Penguins who are desperate for pieces to play alongside centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), Jagr’s game has predictably seen a steady decline. In his last three years in the NHL, his scoring plummeted from 54 goals to 30, then to 25. While 25 goals is still worthy of first-line minutes, the quick decline he had from those three years from 2005 – 2008 needs to be noted. And despite playing in the KHL, a Russian hockey league that isn’t on the same level as the NHL, his scoring further declined over the past two seasons. Jagr’s 2010-11 total of 19 goals with KHL club Avangard Omsk was the first time in his career that he dipped below 20 since joining the NHL as a rookie in 1990.

Now at the age of 39, Jagr will be hard pressed to score much more than 20 goals next season. Joining the Penguins would have meant playing alongside Crosby or Malkin and the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk could have been ideal fits as well. Either team would have offered innumerable scoring opportunities and a 25-goal season might have been within his reach – not to mention a legitimate chance to play for a Stanley Cup. But Jagr is joining a Flyers team which has cleared house this offseason, dumping nearly 80 goals in production by dismissing centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and forward Ville Leino. What does it all mean? With fewer scorers, Jagr should have more chances with the puck, but in losing its top two centers, he will be left trying to score on his own creativity. And at 39, that will be a bit tough to do.

Mix in the fact that Philadelphia is a big-time hockey town and one of the major media centers of the U.S., and Jagr will be feeling an enormous pressure to score.

When you add it all up, I’m not sure it spells disaster. But there were certainly better fits for Jagr than Philadelphia

April 11, 2011

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Who Will Bring Home the 2010-11 Hart Trophy?

By: Anson Whaley

The NHL 2010-11 regular season is winding down, and it’s time to take a look at some of the leading candidates to take home the league’s Most Valuable Player award – the Hart Trophy.

Last year’s honoree, Henrik Sedin, is a candidate to become a repeat winner. With a second consecutive trophy, Sedin would join an exclusive club consisting of only 11 players including greats such as Wayne Gretzky, Dominik Hasek, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe. Sure, he doesn’t score much (Sedin has a modest 19 goals this year and has never scored 30 during any season in his career), but he sets up other scoring plays as few others can and has more than 150 assists over the past two years.

Sedin’s stiffest challenge for the award could ironically come from twin brother and Vancouver Canucks teammate, Daniel Sedin. Despite a spectacular 2009-10 season in which he tallied 85 points in only 63 games, Daniel didn’t figure into the Hart Trophy voting. A foot injury that cost him several weeks of playing time last season wiped out any chance he had of gathering any votes for the award in 2010. But fully healthy this year, Daniel has put up the best numbers of his career. He led the league in scoring and set career highs in goals and assists. The Sedin brothers may be competing with each other, though, since they’re on the same team and could end up splitting some votes as voters try to decide just who is Vancouver’s MVP.

Another pair of teammates are also right there for a chance at the Hart. Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightningare another duo putting up a lot of points this season. St. Louis has been the model of consistency over his career, scoring at least 25 goals over the past eight seasons. As one of the top three scorers in the league, he’s sure to get at least some consideration for the trophy. Unfortunately for him, teammate Steven Stamkos is having quite a year himself, scoring 40 goals and also putting up nearly 100 points. St. Louis and Stamkos may have a similar problem as the Sedins in that they may cost each other some votes.

While the Canucks and Lightning made the playoffs comfortably, another candidate comes from a team that had to fight its way in, clinching a spot late in the season. Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks should garner quite a bit of consideration for leading his team to the playoffs. The Ducks finished near the bottom of the conference, but an argument could be made that they’re not a postseason team without the 50-goal scorer. He’s always been a reliable goal scorer, but this season went from good to great, finishing with close to 100 points. That could be the difference in him winning the award for the first time in his career.

One player a bit under the radar for the first time in a while is the CapitalsAlex Ovechkin.  Ovechkin may be the league’s most talented player, and, even though his point totals are the lowest of his career, he still led Washington to the top of the Eastern Conference. That alone should be enough to keep him in contention for some votes.

And even though the award typically goes to an offensive talent, goalies and defensemen do occasionally win the trophy. A few goalies to keep an eye on are Boston’s Tim Thomas and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo. Thomas is the better goalie statistically, leading the league in goals against average and save percentage. The Bruins also won the Division title and he was obviously a big reason for that. Luongo, however, plays for the NHL’s top team, the only team to win 50 games. His nearly 40 wins led the league this season. And a dark horse candidate to steal a few votes may be the PenguinsMarc Andre Fleury. The Pens have played much of the season without their two best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Fleury’s goaltending is the sole reason they are still standing. Pittsburgh has not only finished as a playoff team, but they were near the top of the entire conference. Take away a team’s two best players, and many teams would not win as much as the Penguins have this season.

March 7, 2011

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Crosby and Malkin Injuries

By: Anson Whaley

Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pens Championship Hopes Dim

Looking at the overall stats, it’s hard to see why the Penguins can’t make another Stanley Cup run this season. As of Sunday, the Pens ranked tenth in total offense (2.8 goals per game), sixth in total defense (giving up 2.4 goals per game), and first in penalty kill defense (86.7%). More impressively, they sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and their 84 points are only two behind the first place Philadelphia Flyers.

But don’t let that fool you – the Penguins have virtually no chance to win the championship this season. That’s because the team is missing not only their two best players, but two of the best in all of hockey.

The Penguins were flying high after an 8-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 5th. Little did they know that the win would be a costly one. At the time, Sidney Crosby was looking more and more like the league’s Most Valuable Player. Through only 41 games, he had scored 32 goals and had a total of 66 points – better than a point and a half per game. But Crosby sustained a concussion in that contest and has been out with the injury ever since. The early projections were that he would likely miss about a week, but more than two months later, Crosby is still missing in action, and there is a possibility that he could be lost for the rest of the season.

The news only got worse for Pittsburgh when Evgeni Malkin suffered a season-ending knee injury a month later in a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres. Malkin wasn’t having a great year, but the Penguins could have really used him with Crosby out. And when healthy, he can be one of the league’s best scorers – Malkin averaged nearly 40 goals per season over the first three years of his career, and, though playing only 67 games, he scored 28 goals last season.

Things have certainly taken a turn for the worse without both players. Pittsburgh has won only four of the 14 games since Malkin went down, and they’ve not yet won one in regulation; all of those victories came in overtime or shootouts.

With the possibility that both Crosby and Malkin will be out for the season, the Penguins made some moves before the trade deadline to try to improve the team. General Manager Ray Shero first traded with the Dallas Stars, sending 2004 second-round draft pick Alex Goligoski for winger James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen. Goligoski was a promising young defenseman, but Neal (who should soon be a 30-goal scorer) will give the Pens some much-needed scoring on the wing.

Shero wasn’t done, though. He then traded a conditional seventh-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for a familiar face in winger Alexei Kovalev. No one would argue that Kovalev has seen better days, and at 38, he’s obviously on the downside of his career. But he scored 44 goals the past two seasons, and he’s on pace to score more than 20 this year. Because of his age, he won’t be a part of the Penguins’ long-term plans. But Pittsburgh got exactly what it needed for the playoff run – an experienced player capable of scoring some goals.

Still, while Neal and Kovalev could help, they can’t make up for the production lost by the injuries to Crosby and Malkin. With Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh has a goaltender that’s won a Stanley Cup, but the offensive deficiencies are probably too great to overcome.

So while I expect Pittsburgh to reach the playoffs and even win a round or two, Stanley Cup expectations are going to have to be put on hold until next season.