Thursday, June 30, 2016

A day to remember in the NHL

There were two days before NHL free agency started. So when the Columbus Blue Jackets re-signed 21-year old defenseman Seth Jones to a six-year contract, the timing seemed right. Jones is a promising young defenseman on a team looking more towards the future than the present so it made sense for Columbus to lock him up before he became a restricted free agent.

But once Jones signed the dotted line, hockey fans everywhere were almost certainly gearing up for July 1. The NHL Draft was in the rear view mirror and free agency was less than a mile away. The free agent class this year happened to include one of the game’s elite goal scorers, Steven Stamkos. During the draft, one of the best defenseman in the NHL, Montreal’s P.K. Subban was the subject of trade rumors, though Subban was not moved over draft weekend.

But then another move came. This one was much more perplexing than Columbus inking Jones. Edmonton had traded left winger and 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall to New Jersey for defenseman Adam Larsson. Hall was coming off of the second highest point total of his career and while Oilers fans haven’t had much to cheer about over the last decade, Hall was one of their better young players. It seemed like General Manager Peter Chiarelli gave him away for 50 cents on the dollar considering Larsson has proved to be no more than a second pairing defenseman in his time with the Devils.

                                                      Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Weber (left) signed a huge offer sheet with the Philadelphia
Flyers four years ago. Nashville opted to match the offer
but yesterday was able to unload the massive contract
and get the 2013 Norris Trophy winner in return.
Then came the bombshell. Days after the draft, Montreal ended up trading Subban who wound up netting them Nashville’s Shea Weber. Elite defenseman for elite defenseman except when the 2016-17 season gets underway Subban will be four years younger than Weber and won’t have 10 more years left on his contract like Weber does. Montreal made the Eastern Conference Final two years ago and had home ice in the series against the New York Rangers. Had goaltender Carey Price not gone down early in the series, the Canadiens very well could have found themselves in the Stanley Cup Final. Last year, they started red hot out of the gate, but another injury to Price caused their season to blow up and Canadiens missed the postseason. But the core of the team that went to the conference final in 2014 was expected to be with the organization in the fall and at the very least, Montreal was poised to return to the playoffs. That hasn’t changed now, except their top defenseman is four years older and not significantly better than their top defenseman two days ago. Meanwhile, Nashville unloaded a huge contract, its back end gets younger, and remains very good. It seemed like an obvious win for the Predators.

Lost in the hysteria of this blockbuster was Stamkos re-signing with Tampa Bay before free agency started. The Lightning took care of their superstar forward with an eight-year, $68 million contract leaving Detroit and other suitors who focused on clearing cap to make a run at Stamkos to opt for plan B.

Stamkos, Weber and Subban. Three of hockey’s biggest names all in the news on the same day and two of them traded for one another. Not to disrespect Jones and Hall of course, who are two young talents in their own right. As the day went on, it seemed like yet another indictment of ESPN’s lack of hockey coverage. NHL Network interrupted regularly scheduled programming of course and Canadian reporters were blowing up Twitter. Meanwhile, ESPN continued to discuss Kevin Durant’s NBA free agency decision while dropping in a segment here or there about what will likely be the most active day in either league’s offseason. Some things will never change. But on June 29, 2016, a lot sure changed in the National Hockey League.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Eagles had no choice but to pay Fletcher Cox

The Eagles were one of the most active teams in the NFL’s offseason. The team shelled out just over $280 million in guaranteed money. Resurrected Vice President of Football Operations Howie Roseman spent most of the first half of the offseason locking up the players already on the roster that he wanted to retain long term. Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson, Malcolm Jenkins and Vinny Curry all signed lucrative contracts that will keep them in Philadelphia until at least 2021. Other players like Brent Celek and Sam Bradford received shorter term deals to stay in midnight green. Then the Eagles went out into free agency and dished out more money. Their biggest acquisitions were safety Rodney McLeod and guard Brandon Brooks. Roseman made two big trades to move up in the draft all the way to number two overall to select who he hopes to be next franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz.

                                                    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
After an extremely busy four months, the biggest question hovering over the Eagles wasn’t if the new-look roster would have instant success in the first year of a new coaching regime, but rather one surrounding a player who had not yet received a new contract. It happened to be the team’s best player. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had yet to sign his second contract and was absent at the team’s voluntary minicamp.  While Cox still had one year left on his rookie deal, and the team had the option of placing the franchise tag on him following the season, given all the other players the team locked up, it made sense to take care of Cox.

Cox fired off of a couple of cryptic tweets in the offseason after some of his teammates signed new deals. Media members that tried to contact him weren’t given much intel on the situation between Cox, agent Todd France, and the Eagles. It doesn’t take brain surgery to put two and two together and realize that Cox wanted his money. He deserved it. He got it when he signed a six-year $103 million deal with $63 million guaranteed as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Monday.

It was the largest amount of guaranteed money for a non-quarterback in NFL history. But as crazy as this sounds, that’s not what’s really important here. The NFL’s salary cap for 2016 increased by $12 million. The contracts are only getting bigger. Pretty soon, there will probably be a new player that signs a contract with the highest amount of guaranteed money for a non-quarterback. The New York Jets are in the middle of a contract dispute with defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson and decided to franchise him. Another one of the game’s upper echelon defensive players, Denver outside linebacker Von Miller, has also been franchised. Cox signing this big contract gives players like Wilkerson and Miller leverage that could make negotiations harder for the Jets and Broncos. Fortunately for the Eagles, Cox doesn’t have similar leverage since his contract set the bar.

Many of the contracts the Eagles handed out this offseason were given to players they were betting on to take the next step in their careers. Players like Ertz and Lane Johnson are finishing up their rookie deals in 2016.  Vinny Curry has never been an elite pass rusher but the team hopes Jim Schwartz’s new defense allows Curry to reach a new level. But Cox has proven to be a game-changing talent in the trenches. It doesn’t send the best message to other players on the roster if the Eagles are willing to give out contracts to players they’re banking on to take the next step but not give contracts to players that have already arrived. The ripple effect in the short term that this deal will have on the NFL and the long term organizational effect not getting a deal done could have had are exactly why the Eagles had to get this done. There was no other option.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ryan Howard situation isn't as bad as you think it is

The Phillies are in the midst of a season high six-game losing streak. Their offense has remained lifeless and the starting pitching hasn’t been able to continue carrying the load. The six losses have been against the teams that currently hold baseball’s top two records, the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals. The early season magic that saw the Phillies win 13 out of 16 one-run games on their way to a 21-15 start has disappeared.

When the Phillies were winning, conversations sparked about what the team would do at the trade deadline if still in contention. Now, the primary topic of discussion surrounding the Phillies is about a player who doesn’t play every day and is hitting .153. It’s no secret the end is near for Ryan Howard in a Phillies uniform. His current contract includes a $10 million buyout for the 2017 season, therefore 2016 is bound to be the last season Howard will play in Philadelphia.

In the middle of May, the Phillies called up 24-year old first base prospect Tommy Joseph from Lehigh Valley as Joseph was tearing it up in Triple A. Initially, the plan was to platoon Howard and Joseph and have Howard play against right handers while Joseph got all the at-bats against left-handed starting pitchers. As Howard’s struggles continued, manager Pete Mackanin began to mix Joseph in against right-handers and some called for the Phillies to just release Howard and be done with him.

There is no doubt that for the rest of the season, Joseph is a better option than Howard at first base. However, remember those discussions about the trade deadline and what the team should do if it continues to overachieve? Well, it doesn’t look like that will be a realistic scenario regardless of who is playing first base. So that begs the question, what’s wrong with riding out the rest of the season, with Joseph starting approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the remaining games, and mixing in Howard once or twice a week?  After all, there could be value in just having him act as a soundboard for a lot of the younger players on the roster to bounce ideas off of.

It’s important to remember this team was supposed to be one of the worst in baseball this year. Many prognosticators had the Phillies winning in the upper 60s or at best low 70s. Perhaps they could end up a little bit better than that, but .500 would be quite a step forward after 63 wins last season. The team is in the midst of a rebuild and the focus has been placed on developing the farm system, which is now one of the better ones in baseball. As the team continued to add prospects to its system, Joseph continued to drop down the organizational ladder by many experts who ranked prospects in farm systems. Joseph was traded to the Phillies in 2012 as a part of the Hunter Pence trade. His lengthy injury history prolonged his stay in the minor leagues and forced him to move from catcher to first base. As the Phillies replenished the farm, discussions about the future of the organization were centered around lots of prospects not named Tommy Joseph.

Yet, here we are in 2016 and the team has sold off almost all of its veterans over the last year and a half, and Joseph is getting a chance. First base was one of the positions the farm system lacked a definitive answer to and when Joseph started hot in Lehigh Valley, the timing made sense to promote him and give him a look in the majors. He will start more than Howard will for the rest of this season, and will almost certainly get a good chunk of 2017 as the team’s first baseman. That seems like plenty of time to evaluate if there’s a future for Joseph or not as the team’s first baseman so it seems petty to think Howard is blocking him.
                                                            Ron Cortes/
Howard has seen his role reduced in the early stages of 2016.

Howard’s decline since 2011 has been well-documented. Injuries forced him to miss the first half of 2012 and the second half of 2013. When healthy, his production hasn’t been close to what it once was. Previous General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was rightfully criticized for being loyal to a fault and trying to turn back the clock by gambling on lots of veterans during the 2012-14 seasons instead of hitting the reset button. But that same argument cannot be applied to current General Manager Matt Klentak here. Howard just happens to be one of few veterans left on the roster, is untradeable, and the team doesn’t have a slam-dunk option to play every day at first base. Therefore, since Joseph’s promotion, Mackanin has played both Joseph and Howard but Joseph more frequently in hopes of him becoming that slam-dunk option or just proving to be someone worth keeping around on the active 25-man roster for years to come. Before Joseph got to Philadelphia, there were some fans complaining that Howard was blocking Darin Ruf. However, even with Howard on the roster, Ruf was given countless opportunities from 2012 to 2015 to prove to be a part of the organization’s future and failed to capitalize. So why is Ryan Howard’s presence on a team that is clearly proving not to be a contender and isn’t getting much offensive production from anyone else either so detrimental to the organization? It just doesn’t add up.