Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: Tony Dungy's Irrational Fear of Distractions, Chris Kluwe's Fight

The idea of an openly gay player in a professional sports locker room is one that's been danced around for years. Many have been afraid to discuss it, and while it's unquestionably true that we've had gay professional athletes, none have been willing to come out during their playing careers.

Before going through the combine and the NFL Draft, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam decided it was time to do just that. He came out as gay, saying his teammates knew last season.

You know the rest of this story. The St. Louis Rams took Sam in the seventh round, and he will have a chance to make the team during training camp, which starts this week.

Good thing Tony Dungy wasn't in Jeff Fisher's spot.

"I wouldn't have taken him,'' Dungy told the Tampa Bay Tribune. “Not because I don't believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn't want to deal with all of it.

"It's not going to be totally smooth ... things will happen."

Keep in mind: Dungy blazed a trail for African Americans to become head coaches in the NFL. He wasn't the first, but he was one of the most successful, and his presence made a huge difference for those who thought the NFL was not providing African Americans the opportunity to become head coaches.

Dungy is a man who stared racism down and persevered despite it.

Sam is blazing a different kind of trail, and Dungy says that trail is too distracting to a team.

That tells you all you need to know about the NFL and its priorities.

Michael Sam's gay. That's a distraction.

Ray Rice drags his fiancee around a casino, and that isn't.

Take it away, Mike Freeman.
Unfortunately, Dungy isn't alone, but Dungy is supposed to know better. He's supposed to be a leader, a man of principal, a man who knows the sting of bigotry. Quite simply, he's supposed to understand.

... Dungy should know better, but he is clearly a good man with a weak spot. Imagine if an NFL team, when Dungy came into football, decided not to draft him because they wouldn't want to "deal with all of it" by picking a black man. Or if Dungy's hero, Chuck Noll, instead of hiring Dungy as an assistant coach, decided, "You know what, the attention will be negative. I don't want to 'deal with all of it.' "

When Dungy was trying to be a head coach, he was rebuffed in many instances because of the color of his skin. Or other superficial features. The late George Young, who was the general manager of the Giants, once told Dungy (as told in Michael MacCambridge's book America's Game): "I want to help you. I want to see you succeed in this business, and I think you can. But you'll never advance any farther with that beard. It's just not seen in the NFL."

When Dungy told Steelers owner Dan Rooney about Young's words, Rooney said: "In some organizations, that's probably true. But we like people to be themselves."
I like people to be themselves, too. I like Richard Sherman as Richard Sherman. He adds to the experience of watching football. As much as Jermichael Finley's flamboyance drove me nuts at times, it'll be missed in Green Bay if he can't play again. I believe the Vikings will miss Jared Allen's personality, possibly as much as the Bears will appreciate having him around.

Some guys stand out because of their uniqueness. If they're doing their jobs and the team isn't suffering because of that "individuality," there's no reason to think that player is a distraction.

Sure, Finley's gestures after every random catch look stupid if the team is down 30-7 or if the record is 3-9. Same for Allen's calf-roping sack dance. But if the team is winning, it's like a rallying cry.

It's amazing that Dungy -- a well-spoken, intelligent man who went through a lot of crap before he finally got the opportunity he needed to prove himself as a coach -- would so easily dismiss a guy like Sam.

Michael Sam's a distraction, but the guy who was thrown in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring (Michael Vick) deserved a second chance at the NFL.

OK, Tony.

I wonder how Dungy would have handled Chris Kluwe if the two had worked together at any point. There's another story.

Kluwe basically took a live grenade to his NFL career in January, when he penned a piece for Deadspin.com where he alleged he was let go by the Vikings because of his outspoken support for gay marriage. If that wasn't enough, Kluwe threatened to sue the team (and apparently will file that suit on Wednesday) if they didn't release the results of their commissioned investigation that resulted from Kluwe's piece, as well as levy heavy sanctions against the main subject of that story, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.

The Vikings called Kluwe's bluff. He wasn't bluffing.

Do I think Kluwe is a bit of an attention seeker? Yes. But I also believe he is standing up for something he feels strongly about: gay rights. And he thinks he is still doing that in trying to get the Vikings to change what he insists is a broken culture within the organization and, more specifically, in the locker room.

This isn't a money grab from Kluwe. He said he will donate every dime he may be awarded from the Vikings. It also isn't a ploy to get back in the NFL. Between the Deadspin piece that started all of this in January and the pending lawsuit, Kluwe knows he's done in the league.

And as the Vikings tried to deflect Kluwe's barbs by leaking word that he had taken part in some ribbing of a Penn State alum on the Vikings' staff (making fun of the Jerry Sandusky scandal), Kluwe went back on the offensive. He said (correctly) that his behavior, while not necessarily right, doesn't justify anything Priefer is alleged to have said in team settings. Priefer is a leader and held to a higher standard, Kluwe says, and he's right.

Just ask the Miami Dolphins, who fired offensive line coach Jim Turner last year after he was found to be taking part in the bullying of lineman Jonathan Martin.
"The language and behavior as described in the Ted Wells report are against the core values of our organization," Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement. "After receiving the report, I conducted my own internal review of the facts to determine the appropriate steps for our organization. Jim Turner and Kevin O'Neill are good people who care a great deal about their profession and the players whom they serve, but both exhibited poor judgment at times which led me to this conclusion.

"As owner, I know firsthand of the high-character and dedicated professionals in our building. I believe in our team and know the hard work and sacrifices they make every day on the field and in the community. However, this is an opportunity and a teaching moment not only for the coaches, staff and players in our locker room, but also for participants throughout sports."
I don't know if Priefer should have been fired, but the results of this Vikings investigation -- even our limited knowledge from that report -- make it clear that locker-room behavior continues to be a problem for the NFL.

Guys are going to kid around, have fun, and get on each other's nerves. But there has to be a line where words and actions start to genuinely offend people. And those people have to be encouraged to speak up, not ripped limb from limb when they do.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: California Chrome Fails, So Do Hockey Fans

Listen, I'll be the first to admit. I'm not a horse racing guy. I bet on the Kentucky Derby in Vegas four years ago (won), but it was nothing more than a lucky guess.

I'm a passive fan when it comes to the Triple Crown, but I'm fully aware of how it works. When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, he will inevitably face a horse in the Belmont that did not run each of the first two legs.

The co-owner of California Chrome, Steve Coburn, clearly isn't happy about this fact. Here is his rant from after Saturday's Belmont Stakes.



Coburn didn't back off Sunday.

"It says Triple Crown. You nominate your horse for the Triple Crown. That means three," Coburn said in the track-side interview with ESPN on Sunday. "Even the Triple Crown trophy has three points on it. So when you earn enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby should be the only 20 allowed to run in the Preakness and the Belmont for the Triple Crown."

He also made a questionable analogy of why Tonalist's participation Saturday was unfair.

"These people nominate their horses for the Triple Crown and then they hold out two [races] and then come back and run one," Coburn told ESPN. "That would be like me at 6-2 playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair. They haven't done anything with their horses in the Triple Crown. There were three horses in this race that ran in the first two -- California Chrome, Ride on Curlin and General a Rod -- none of the other horses did.  You figure out. You ask yourself, 'Would it be fair if I played basketball with a child in a wheel chair?"

Coburn made the analogy in both interviews Sunday morning. He was asked in the "Good Morning America interview" if he considered the comparison offensive.

"No, I'm just trying to compare the two," he said. "Is it fair for me to play with this child in a wheelchair? Is it fair for them to hold their horses back?"

Coburn said he has no problems if people label him a "sore loser" and even proceeded to give out his phone number so people can call him with their complaints.

Listen, I'm not an expert on this. But the Triple Crown has been run the same way for 146 years. When Affirmed won in 1973, he beat horses that didn't run all three races. When Secretariat won two years earlier, same story.

Whether Coburn likes it or not, this is how the sport works. If he doesn't like it, maybe he should bring it up with racing commissions who run the Triple Crown. I highly doubt anything will change, but perhaps Coburn will feel better.

I get that it's a quick turnaround for the horses who run, but I'm not in favor of anything that will make the Triple Crown easier to win. It's been done 11 times, and it should be difficult. Otherwise, it wouldn't carry nearly the prestige it does. Then the sport suffers, and horse racing has suffered enough over the years.

******

Coburn wasn't the only person putting his foot squarely in his mouth over the weekend.

Hello, hockey fans.

As soon as LeBron James left Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday because of leg cramps, the internet started in.

I'm as pro-NHL as the next guy, but this is a great example of hockey fans' inferiority complex. The sport doesn't do as well on television as the NBA does, and that drives people crazy, because they don't think there's any competition when it comes to the quality of the games.

I don't argue that. What I argue is how NHL fans choose to articulate themselves.

LeBron James might be an egomaniac, but he's a two-time NBA champion, NBA MVP, and an Olympic gold medalist. He isn't a quitter. If he's not finishing an NBA Finals game, something is wrong.

And I've seen what leg cramps can do to elite athletes. I've seen some of the best marathon runners in the world crippled by cramps less than halfway into a 26-mile race. These folks train their entire lives to run distance, but end up unable to stand without help when the heat and humidity prove to be too much for them.

Comparing LeBron James to a hockey player just doesn't work. All it does it make hockey fans look petty and silly.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

UMD Completes 2014-15 Recruiting Class, Announces Awards and 2014-15 Captains

In case you missed it earlier this week, UMD (presumably) finished up its 2014-15 recruiting class this week. The Bulldogs secured a commitment from defenseman Nick McCormack. The Elk River product played last season for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He scored 12 goals and totaled 39 points in 59 games. Before that, he played for the SIJHL's Minnesota Wildnerness (based in Cloquet), where he scored 14 goals and picked up 40 points in 47 games.

McCormack is the final player who will jump into the UMD program this fall. He gives UMD eight defensemen to go along with 15 forwards and three goalies. He is the only defenseman who will be a freshman next season.

That 2014-15 team will be captained by Hermantown's Adam Krause, who will enter his senior season and serve as a back-to-back captain for the Bulldog program. Krause's assistant captains will be senior forward Justin Crandall and junior defenseman Andy Welinski of Duluth.

UMD also announced its 2013-14 postseason awards this week. Led by team MVP Aaron Crandall, here is the lowdown.
The fifth-year senior from Lakeville, Minn., eclipsed previous bests for victories (he was 14-12-3 overall), goals against average (2.76), saves percentage (.900), starts (29), appearances (31) and minutes (1,738:55). One of only three individuals to be selected the National Collegiate Hockey Association's Rookie of the Week three or more times in 2013-14 (he earned that honor on three occasions), Crandall closed out his career ranking third among all-time Bulldogs in  UMD's all-time in winning percentage (.559 off a 30-23-6 record), fourth in goals against average (2.83), and fifth in both career saves percentage (.895) and shutouts (five).

The Jerry Chumola Rookie of the Year Award went to left winger Alex Iafallo, a member of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference All-Rookie Team who racked up 11 goals and 11 assists for 22 points while skating in all 36 games. Freshman defenseman Dan Molenaar landed the Mike Sertich Award (Most Improved Player) while junior right winger Adam Krause was the recipient of both the Goldie Wolf Award (Most Inspirational Player) and the Bulldog Community Service Award.
UMD opens Oct. 10 at the IceBreaker in South Bend, where it matches up against Minnesota while host Notre Dame takes on RPI.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: NBA Playoffs, Baseball, Lacrosse

I'm going to try to do this more often, by the way.

The NBA wrapped up its first round of playoffs over the weekend. Plenty of fun games were played, with defense optional all over the place. Nowhere was this more true than with the Clippers and Golden State. Caught a good chunk of Games 4 and 7 of this series, which was probably the best of the first-round series. Donald Sterling's idiocy made it a newsworthy series, but it was already a highly-watchable one.

The Clippers just couldn't defend DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin enough, and Stephen Curry couldn't hit enough shots to render the Clips' bigs moot. It was a lot of fun to watch, however, because you new you saw Golden State give LA its very best. The Warriors didn't lose because of poor coaching, or a bad GM, or because a starter took too many minutes off. The Warriors lost because the Clippers were (barely) a better team.

By the way, Brooklyn and Toronto played 11 games this season between the regular season and playoffs. They each scored 1,070 points. Couldn't get more even than that. Of course, that doesn't make the Raptors feel any better.

Conference semifinals are Indiana vs Washington and Brooklyn vs Miami in the East, with Portland vs San Antonio and Oklahoma City vs the Clippers in the West. Thunder-Clippers could be every bit as entertaining as Clippers-Warriors was, and the Blazers might give San Antonio a run if Damian Lillard hits enough shots to keep the Spurs honest. Otherwise, they clamp down on LaMarcus Aldridge and the series is over.

******

Despite losing three of four to Cincinnati, the Milwaukee Brewers still sport the best record in baseball. That advantage is down to a half-game over San Francisco at 21-11 versus 20-11.

I'm not here to be a Debbie Downer, but this team has to start hitting if it is to have any chance. The Brewers' pitching has been nails. The rotation has gotten great outings from all five starters, and all but third starter Matt Garza have given them multiple great outings. Garza is about the only one of the five who hasn't gotten going. That's bad -- the Brewers paid him a hell of a lot of money, presumably not to post an ERA over 5 -- but it's also good, because he's bound to figure things out.

The bullpen has been fantastic, though it faltered a couple times in Cincinnati. Over the course of a 162-game season, even the best pitching staff experiences the occasional meltdown. What the Brewers need is for the offense to start pulling its weight.

If that happens, Milwaukee has a contender.

******

My son is in his first year of lacrosse, and he's amped about it. Loving the game.

The pinnacle of the lacrosse season nationally is the NCAA Tournament, which opens this week. The field has been expanded to 18 teams from its previous 16, with the top two seeds facing the winners of two play-in games during the week.

Defending national champion Duke is the top seed, followed by ACC rival Syracuse and 15-1 Loyola of Maryland.

The field is always dominated by East teams, but there are a couple entries from Colorado, including the No. 5 national seed Denver, which enters at 14-2. Air Force is in for the first time and will play in a play-in game for the right to get hammered by play Duke on Sunday.

The national semifinals are May 24, with the title game May 26 in Baltimore.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wild, 15 Others Chase Lord Stanley

You can have your March Madness, your September football openers, your October baseball playoffs/cranking-up of football season, December bowls into NFL and college football playoffs, or whatever sports time of year you prefer.

Nothing makes goosebumps form on top of  goosebumps like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I mean, well, um ... hold on. Just watch this.



Says it all.

First team to 16 wins gets the spoils. And the tears.

Anyway, the playoffs start Wednesday. I'll deliver some predictions later, but here are some thoughts on the Wild as they prepare to open up Thursday at Colorado.

This is really simple, in many ways. Colorado is a great story, but the story masks some problems with this team.

The nerds like to note that Colorado is the worst possession team in the tournament. The Avalanche get by that issue by carrying the best shooting percentage of any of these 16 teams. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog are elite. Semyon Varlamov had a great run this season.

However, Colorado's possession problem could rear its ugly head in this division bracket. St. Louis and Chicago are going to go to war for the right to advance, but both teams sport the kind of hard-nosed forwards it takes to break down the Avalanche.

So does Minnesota.

Ever since a 5-1 loss to St. Louis had the Wild on the brink of a lot of bad things, the group has banded together. If you're enough of a diehard, you probably know about the off-day "summit" the Wild on-ice leadership had in Phoenix after that St. Louis debacling. If not, stud beat writer Michael Russo wrote a lot about it, including here.

Bottom line: This team has been much more system-strong since that day off. Zach Parise made a comment after the St. Louis loss about the Blues' commitment to their system, and it was a subtle shot at his guys for a bevy of blue line turnovers that led to chances (and sometimes goals) for the opponents.

The Wild have been much better since then at getting pucks behind defensemen and going after them on the forecheck. It's one part of the success story, but it's a huge one, especially going into this best-of-seven.

Colorado isn't weak on defense, but the Avs aren't strong there, either. There are some young guys there, and some potentially vulnerable players. I'd like to see the Wild make them work for possession and make them earn their space up the rink. Colorado wants to play a rush game, but if the Wild can make them get away from firewagon hockey, the Avalanche can easily be beaten in this series.

Make Colorado break out more slowly, and make their forwards more engaged in the defensive zone. Puck retrievals and wall play take energy. Sap their will by making them earn every puck they get and every rush they're able to generate. Colorado has been really good this season at getting into run-and-gun type of games.

Remember the structure and the system. Stick to it, and good things will happen.

Of course, it ultimately comes down to goaltending. Varlamov has been great, and while Ilya Bryzgalov has been good for the Wild, the sample isn't very big. I did say when the Wild got him from Edmonton that I thought Bryzgalov would be solid playing for a team that has some structure in front of him, as Minnesota certainly does.

If Bryzgalov, who has a promising .923 even-strength save percentage, even matches what Varlamov (.933, by the way) can do, Minnesota probably wins. Ultimately, the talent gap in goal, which I do believe exists, is the biggest reason I have Colorado beating the Wild. If the Wild avoid getting suckered into run-and-gun hockey and get good goaltending, they very much have a shot in this series.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

College Hockey Almost Certainly Not Done Changing

One-time Minnesota Wild executive Bill Robertson was named the new commissioner of the WCHA Tuesday. Robertson will replace Bruce McLeod, who ran the league for 20 years and will retire in June. Robertson will actually join the league next month, providing a bit of a buffer between his official arrival and McLeod's official departure.

(Notice how I resisted jokes about McLeod's departure actually having taken place about a decade ago. I'm actually proud of myself for that.)

Robertson's task is not a small one, but he's not alone.

College hockey is not in a stable position, for a variety of reasons. Namely, there are schools in virtually every league that aren't happy. Something is irking them, be it travel, scholarships, finances, or administrative issues of some sort.

I'm not here to say everyone was happy with the old arrangement. I'd bet there were unhappy types back then. It just wasn't as vocal a group, and everyone had their traditional leagues to lean on. The WCHA and CCHA had their warts, but they'd also been around for a long time and had experienced a ton of success, both on the ice and off.

(Example of off-ice success in the old alignment? Look what the WCHA Final Five became at its zenith, in the early and mid 2000s.)

When the Big Ten and NCHC plucked all the "big-name" programs from those leagues, the CCHA died completely and the WCHA changed dramatically.

Now, it seems the majority of hockey people involved in these leagues would probably revert back to the way things used to be, if only it was that easy.

Since we know that won't happen, it might be time for fans to resign themselves to more changes.

With that potential inevitability in mind, here are a few ideas -- both mine and others -- that could help alleviate the concerns of programs and remove some of the "buyer's remorse," as Mankato Free Press scribe and wonderful human Shane Frederick tweeted Tuesday.

The WCHA should cut to 24 conference games.

Will this create more holes to fill in non-league schedules? Absolutely. But the NCHC (ten) and Big Ten (14) have plenty of them, too.

Why should the WCHA cut from 28 to 24? Money.

Last season, every WCHA team visited Alaska at least once. Four teams went twice, playing road series against both Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska. Two of those teams made two separate trips north, while Michigan Tech and Minnesota State spent a whole week up there. With a 24-game league schedule, it could be structured so three teams don't go to Alaska at all during a season, and certainly you wouldn't have four teams going twice.

Not only does it remove some of the financial strain, but it makes travel a little less than a pain.

The WCHA should seek to expand.

This one will be a little controversial. I know that there are some teams in Atlantic Hockey that want to go to 18 scholarships. That's been the case for a while. If the WCHA finds two of them, expands to 12 teams, and goes to a two-division format where the Alaska teams are in separate divisions but locked into playing each other four times a season, the league could settle travel concerns without necessarily cutting the league schedule.

A so-called Eastern Division would comprise the two AHA teams, one of the Alaska schools, Alabama-Huntsville, Ferris State, and Bowling Green. The upper Michigan teams, Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and the other Alaska team would make up the West.

Structuring a full league schedule could be difficult. If each team in the division played a home-and-away, that would be 20 games. With a 24-game conference slate, that would leave four games, two home and two away, to be played outside the division. Doing that would mean only two teams out of 12 would have to make the double-trip north, and that would be easily handled around school breaks to minimize academic impact of the travel. At 28 games, you'd have eight games to play against the opposite division. Either way, there would be teams in the league that did not meet during the regular season.

In addition, I'm told the travel arrangements for UAA and UAF are different, and it's more expensive for teams to go to Anchorage. I'm not sure how this is possible, but Robertson needs to fix it if it's the case.

The NCHC should run its tournament the way the Big Ten does.

This has been suggested to me multiple times.

I'm not sure how it would be executed, but there are a couple options.

The first is to bring every team to Minneapolis, which would allow for travel arrangements to be made far in advance, thus making that side of things cheaper than it is now, where arrangements are made on short notice. The negative? Four games on Thursday. You think the tournament wasn't attended well this year? Wait until -- as an example -- Denver and UNO are playing a quarterfinal game at like 10am on a Thursday.

The other option? Take six teams to Minneapolis and play single elimination. Top two get byes into the semifinals, and there are two quarterfinal games Thursday. Same format as the Big Ten. Teams couldn't arrange their travel until late notice, but the tournament would be structured to succeed. Gives the teams at the bottom even more to play for at the end of the season, because they have to fight for inclusion into the conference tournament.

Why go this route? Look at the crowds drawn for first-round campus-site playoff series this season. It could be argued that teams are better off playing in a centralized location and building a cool event that way.

******

None of this is guaranteed to help, but it's clear change is coming.

I don't know what that change will be, but I'd be stunned if we kept this configuration in place any longer than schools are contractually obligated to stick around for. We might see new leagues formed, we might see current leagues dissolved.

We welcome Robertson to college hockey. Hopefully he doesn't end up regretting what he got himself into, and hopefully all the leagues can find common ground and work together for the good of the sport.

UMD Men's Hockey Schedule 2014-15

As published in Tuesday's Duluth News Tribune, here is the UMD men's hockey schedule for next season.

Oct. 10 -- vs. Minnesota at Icebreaker, South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 12 -- vs. Notre Dame or RPI at Icebreaker, South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 17 -- Minnesota State
Oct. 18 -- at Minnesota State
Oct. 24-25 -- Denver
Oct. 31-Nov. 1 -- Miami
Nov. 7-8 -- at St. Cloud State
Nov. 14 -- at Minnesota
Nov. 15 -- Minnesota
Nov. 21-22 -- at Nebraska-Omaha
Dec. 5-6 -- Colorado College
Dec. 12-13 -- at Michigan Tech
Jan. 9-10 -- at North Dakota
Jan. 16-17 -- Western Michigan
Jan. 23 -- vs. Bemidji State at North Star College Cup, St. Paul
Jan. 24 -- vs. Minnesota or Minnesota State at North Star College Cup, St. Paul
Jan. 30-31 -- at Denver
Feb. 6-7 -- Northern Michigan
Feb. 13-14 -- St. Cloud State
Feb. 20-21 -- at Miami
Feb. 27-28 -- Nebraska-Omaha
March 6-7 -- at Western Michigan
March 13-15 -- NCHC playoffs first round
March 20-21 -- NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Target Center

A few things:
  • Expect at least one home exhibition game to be added, especially with there being a month between games over the holiday break. That seems like a good spot for something.
  • No North Dakota in Duluth next season, and UMD will not visit Colorado Springs. Sad face.
  • Home non-conference is Minnesota and Minnesota State for single games, then Northern Michigan for two. UMD plays in two tournaments -- the Icebreaker and North Star College Cup -- and also visits Michigan Tech in December.
  • As for the Icebreaker, it's a Friday/Sunday event in South Bend because Notre Dame football is home to take on North Carolina that Saturday. If you're traveling out for that event, the football game is probably a must if you're at all a football fan. Actually, I'd carve out time for a campus tour of some sort if you've never done that before. And go to the football game.
  • 2014-15 will be the fourth time in five years that UMD's final regular season home series has come against Nebraska Omaha.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: Twins, Brewers Seek Improvement

Baseball is back. I'll have to admit: I didn't watch much of it last year. The Brewers stunk, and the Twins were much worse. Our local nines were stuck in the bowels of sucktitude. Once June hit, there was no real reason to watch baseball, and I might have seen a couple games through the summer.

In the words of Canadian alternative band Evans Blue, this time it's different.

Maybe.

The Twins look miserable once again. Yeah, they went out and bought themselves some requisite major league pitching. That was good, because they didn't really have any in 2013. For an organization that home-grew guys like Brad Radke, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano (yeah, I know he wasn't drafted, but most of his development was as a Twin), and others, the well ran dry in a hurry.

While Trevor May and Alex Meyer mature in Rochester, the team needs Ricky Nolasco, Philip Hughes, and 2013 newcomers Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey to lead the way. Monday, Nolasco sure didn't start well, giving up five runs and ten hits in six innings as Minnesota fell 5-3 to the White Sox.

I'm actually optimistic about Minnesota's pitching. Less so about the bats.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I've been pretty consistent with the stance that Joe Mauer will have a big offensive season, by his standards. I said that when the team announced his move to first base. I'm thinking 15-20 home runs, the typical 30-35 doubles, .400 OBP, and a jump in slugging percentage, closer to his MVP season (.587) but not quite hitting that unsustainable number.

Mauer won't be the problem. If Monday's lineup is any indication, the problem will lie above him in the batting order.

Spare me the "two hits, three RBI" talk with Kurt Suzuki. He's a good defensive catcher and only a passable, replacement-level bat for the position.

He hit second in Monday's game. Brian Dozier, who makes outs for breakfast every day, was the leadoff hitter. Ahead of Mauer. Poor guy -- figuratively speaking, of course, since we all know Mauer is filthy rich -- is going to lead the American League in "at bats with two out and nobody on base" this season (had one Monday, three total two-out at bats).

I'd love to rip Ron Gardenhire, but until Aaron Hicks proves himself, the Twins don't have a viable leadoff hitter, or No. 2 guy.

Unless you put Mauer in the leadoff spot. And even that's not ideal, because while he gets more at bats, it also takes him away from more of a run-producing role.

And, no, Byron Buxton isn't ready yet.

Meanwhile, the Brewers actually have a pretty formidable top of the order. Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy can all rake. Youngster Scooter Gennett has shown promise at second base, where Rickie Weeks has sufficiently flamed out and has little use to this team in his current form.

This team can score runs from the top of the order. It's the bottom that has me concerned, but lots of teams can say that.

Who's playing first base? Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay.

Who's in left instead of Braun? Khris Davis.

Yuck.

They better get runs out of the top five guys, and some production out of Gennett, because whatever they get from left field and (especially) first base is going to be a bonus.

The pitching staff is solid (the Matt Garza signing was genius, because now Milwaukee has three proven starters in a pitching-rich division), but the NL Central is stacked. The Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are all contender types, so the Brewers are lost in the shuffle in the division race.

I have hope for Milwaukee, though. Ownership is committed to competing, and since the young talent pool is dry compared to, say, Minnesota, the Brewers have to make moves like the Garza and Kyle Lohse (last year) signings to stay above water.

What do the teams have in common? Solid bullpens. Minnesota's has more upside, but both should be just fine, at the worst.

For the Twins, the offense and the lack of high-end pitching will hold them back in a division that isn't exactly stacked.

For the Brewers, it's more about the top teams that already exist, along with the lack of balance in the batting order. Damn, do they miss Prince Fielder in Milwaukee.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Dominate Everywhere But Scoreboard, Season Over

Buzz. Kill.

That's the best I can do to describe the sensation as Western Michigan scored two third-period goals Saturday to beat UMD 4-3 and end the Bulldogs' season.

In all honesty, one weekend of hockey pretty accurately summed up UMD's entire 16-16-4 season. On Friday, UMD outshot and outchanced Western Michigan, but gave up a power-play goal off a faceoff win and ended up never drawing even again from that point, despite a furious rally.

Saturday, the Bulldogs jumped to a 2-0 lead, dominated long stretches of play (specifically, puck possession, scoring chances, shots on goal, and shot attempts), ended up outshooting WMU 37-11, and lost 4-3.

It might have been an extreme example -- and it certainly was a poorly-timed one -- but it painted a perfect picture of UMD's season-long home-ice struggles.

That 5-10-3 Amsoil Arena record was not something head coach Scott Sandelin ever really wanted to talk about, but you have to know it ate at the UMD players and coaches. It's just not something you can flip a switch and solve, and it affected the team's postseason chances. 11-6-1 is a fine record away from home. Even if this team goes 8-7-3 at home, it's probably sitting in at least a bubble spot now, even with the WMU series loss.

UMD was outscored 2-0 on special teams Friday, and 3-0 on the weekend. The Bulldog power play was very good, especially on Saturday, but in that game, they couldn't beat Frank Slubowski. While the power play was inconsistent in terms of its execution, the one consistency was the lack of scoring punch from that unit.

UMD scored 41 power play goals and was an impressive 23.4 percent on the season in 2012-13. This season, the Bulldogs scored 26 power play goals and went just 15.8 percent on the power play, its worst percentage since the 2007-2008 Season of No Goals (11.5). It was a combination of inexperience all over the ice, shuffling the high forwards a few times, and occasionally not getting enough pucks or bodies to the net. The inexperience showed itself on occasion against good and aggressive kills like Denver and UNO.

But let's digest the numbers a bit when it comes to the UMD offense.

In 2012-13, UMD scored 99 goals in 38 games, an average of 2.61 per game. Special teams accounted for 42 of those 99 goals (41 PPG and one short-handed), leaving UMD with just 57 even-strength goals, an average of 1.5 per game. UMD was outscored 76-57 at even-strength, an eye-popping minus-19 differential.

In 2013-14, UMD scored 104 goals in 36 games, an average of 2.89 per game. Special teams accounted for 30 of those 104 goals (26 PPG and four short-handed), leaving UMD with 74 even-strength goals, an average of 2.06 per game. UMD outscored opponents 74-66 even-strength. The plus-eight differential was 27 goals better than last year!

(Honestly, this math leads to the conclusion that UMD absolutely should have experienced more than a two-win improvement over last season.)

Before the season, Sandelin and others talked about the need for improved goaltending. Last year, UMD posted a team save percentage of .896. Despite some positives scattered throughout the season, UMD's team save percentage ended up at -- you guessed it -- .896 this year. Counting conference games only, it actually dipped from .898 in the WCHA last year to .891 in the NCHC in 2013-14.

It's not about blame. There are five guys in front of the goalie, and before the goalie can fail to stop the puck that goes into the net, those five guys may all have made mistakes. Hockey is a game of mistakes. Pinning blame on one player out of six on the ice is just farcical.

Especially when that player, Aaron Crandall, saved this team's bacon so many times. 90 saves on 93 shots against UNO. 30-save shutout of hard-charging Miami in a great pitchers' goalies' duel. The win at Western Michigan where WMU scored first and had two five-on-threes in the first 30 minutes of the game.

Want me to go on?

Four goals on 11 shots doesn't look like great goaltending. And he's certainly played better. But be fair. You didn't think Crandall would do what he did in the second half of the season. And if he hadn't done that, we wouldn't have won 16 games or earned home ice in the NCHC quarterfinals.

Not Crandall's fault that the team took a bunch of dumb penalties throughout the season, including some horribly-timed ones.

(UMD completely dominated the first period Saturday, yet only had one power play to WMU's three when the horn sounded. Because of that, it was only 2-1 UMD after one instead of maybe 3-0 or 4-0, which would have been more fitting of how the 20 minutes were played. The penalties were avoidable. Two of them came in the offensive zone, which happened too much this season.)

In the end, there are a few different reasons UMD didn't win more, and why the season has come to a seemingly premature end. It isn't all on one guy, and it isn't all on one part of the team. Next year's group will have more experience, and therefore will have more leadership (remember, leadership isn't just about the captain and assistant captains). And there will be a lot of pressure on Matt McNeely and newcomer Kasimir Kaskisuo to improve the team's goaltending.

A few more quick thoughts on the season's end:
  • If money had to be placed on an early departure, it would be bet on Caleb Herbert signing with the Washington Capitals. 32 goals and 89 points in three years is nice, but Herbert could improve his game in college. I'm not sure I'd say he's ready, but it isn't my call. I don't think anyone else leaves early.
  • If Herbert leaves, look for a 2015 forward to come in one year earlier than previously planned.
  • Look for a 2015 defenseman to fill the 2014 recruiting class, a move brought on by the retirement of Luke McManus.
  • UMD's blue line could be stacked next season. Andy Welinski, Carson Soucy, Derik Johnson, Willie Raskob, Dan Molenaar, and Willie Corrin all have eligibility remaining. Add St. Scholastica transfer Brenden Kotyk, whom I was told would absolutely have been in the mix this season if NCAA rules didn't prohibit him from doing so as a transfer, and you have an impressive group.
  • Molenaar is going to be a stud. So is Raskob. Love the young guys in this group. Kotyk brings some serious size, and Johnson will block any shot and hit any player.
  • Doesn't hurt to have the three components of the top line all returning. Tony Cameranesi played really well, no matter what the numbers tell you. Led the team in shots on goal, and probably deserved double the total of seven he had on the season. Kyle Osterberg had a great year, as did Justin Crandall. This group came on very nicely over the last month.
  • If Herbert leaves, we need a second-line center. Hello, Cal Decowski.
  • Dominic Toninato, Alex Iafallo, and Adam Krause could make a great shutdown line again next season. I'd like to see them get more offensively, because their puck possession and work ethic justify it. Modestly increase their total of 25 goals between them, and watch the team's overall numbers improve even more as a result.
Another fun year. It's always fun to get to know guys. Lots of fun times and unique memories with every season. Thanks to the UMD staff -- Scott Sandelin, Jason Herter, Derek Plante, Christian Koelling, Josh Berlo (who is doing a fantastic job as AD, by the way, and I'm sure the best is yet to come in that regard), Bob Nygaard, Suz Hoppe, Chris Garner, Hogie, and countless others -- for the constant accommodations at home and on the road. Thanks also to the players for being such good kids and such a joy to be around during the week and during road trips.

We'll keep you up to date on news as it happens during the offseason. In the meantime, prepare for mindless rambling about things other than UMD hockey.

Enjoy the summer, if the snow ever goes away.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Game 36: Western Michigan at UMD (NCHC First Round Game 2 - WMU Leads 1-0)

This could very well be it.

Facing elimination on home ice, there isn't much that can comfort UMD about Friday's 3-2 loss. The Bulldogs have to crank up the intensity from the opening bell, as Western Michigan proved very difficult to solve defensively, especially once having taken the lead.

Every facet of the Bulldogs' game has to be sharp. Net-front presence is a must. There are little battles you can watch in this game in front of the Western Michigan net. If UMD is losing battles for position and for loose pucks, it's a bad sign.

All four lines contributed good shifts and scoring chances Friday. However, all four can play better. Dominic Toninato won a lot of draws, and his line had a ton of zone time, but they didn't win many battles in front of the net, something that cut back a bit on scoring chances.

A sleepy second period was ignited by a great shift from the fourth line, led by Cal Decowski and Max Tardy, who were wonderful on Friday and ended up scoring UMD's only goals in the game's final 90 seconds. I'm not exaggerating by saying it might have been Tardy's best game in these colors.

(Perhaps a coincidence, but Western Michigan coach Andy Murray went out of his way to praise Tardy when I spoke to him this week. "He's had a good influence on them. I think he brings that senior leadership to their lineup.")

Bottom line: UMD hit three pipes and was somewhat unlucky against Lukas Hafner throughout the evening. But more bad luck will only lead to the end of the season, so there is no time to lament it now. Instead, the onus is on the Bulldogs to play a stronger, harder game, get to Hafner, and break down this solid WMU defense.

I don't have anything planned Sunday night. Might as well come back here one more time.

Make it so, boys.

Lines?

Lines.

UMD
Osterberg - Cameranesi - Crandall (Justin)
Farley - Herbert - Basaraba
Iafallo - Toninato - Krause
Tardy - Decowski - Spurrell

Soucy - Welinski
Johnson - Raskob
Smith - Molenaar

Crandall (Aaron) - McNeely - Fons

WMU
Dries - Kessel - Cichy
McKee - Mellor - Hadley
Berschbach - Balisy - Kovacs
Hargrove - Pitt - LaPorte

Nitsche - Morrison
Dienes - Fleming
Oesterle - Brown

Slubowski - Bloomberg - Hafner

(Note: Hafner is starting. WMU lists goalies in numerical order.)