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Justin Verlander the AL MVP

Rarely have there been many seasons where the baseball MVP award, for either league, has a run away winner, especially since so many voters have a different a opinion of what MVP means.  The 2011 season has been no different with candidates ranging from Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.  Obviously all of these players have played major roles in contributing to their teams’ success, but determining who has had the most exciting and impressive stats on a contender (which is generally how voters define MVP) is where Verlander separates himself.

Of all the other MVP contenders none of the hitters are putting numbers that have rarely been touched.  Verlander is either the leader or ranked in the top three in nearly every pitching category and is ranked second in WAR (wins above replacement) trailing only the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista.  He is on pace to win the AL pitching triple crown (leading the league in wins, ERA and strike outs), something that has only been done five times since World War II.  While he doesn’t play every day, he certainly has made the most of his opportunities twenty seven of his thirty two starts have been quality starts.  Not to mention Verlander has become must see TV, as fans are eager to see his 100 mph fastball and threat of throwing a no hitter every start.

Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

At the beginning of the season the Tigers had division title expectations, but were desperate for a leader to emerge who could push them over their post 2006 funk.  Verlander made this team his own from day one and has been the driving force all season long, that put this team into position to contend.  The Detroit Tigers have become a complete team the past 20 games, compiling a 17-3 record and running away with AL Central in the process.  They have received break out seasons from unexpected places (Avial & Peralta), dominant performances from the bullpen, under appreciated great seasons from their stars (Cabrera & Martinez) and a huge lift from deadline deals (Fister, Young, Betemit) but none of them have had the impact of Verlander.

Clearly the biggest knock against Verlander winning the MVP is that he doesn’t play every day, but few players have the same impact Verlander has had every five days.  The other MVP candidates teams would likely still be contenders without them, but when Verlander takes to the hill the Tigers transform into one of the best teams in baseball and the last pitcher any team wants to face in the playoffs.  This transformation help build confidence in the team and also help the front office realize relying on long time veterans weren’t going to get it done.  The Tigers would have likely been sellers at the trade deadline or would have had to mortgage their future to claw their way back into the race if not for Verlander.  Verlander’s special season has been filled with amazingAt the end of the day Verlander and the Tigers are far more focused on bringing home their fifth World Series title, but Verlander’s magical 2011 season should end with the  Cy Young and MVP awards.

Red Wings Rally, Force Game 7

After the first three games the Red Wings were left for dead, the Sharks made them appear old, slow and simply not good enough.  However things have slowly changed for the Red Wings and they have come alive the past three games.  They have chipped away at the Sharks, and eventually found chinks in their armor.  Despite being outplayed for large chunks of games four and five the Red Wings found ways to win the little battles, and eventually created their own opportunities.  Tonight the Red Wings applied pressure early and often, refusing to go down without a fight.

In order to win in the playoffs a team needs contributions from up and down the roster.  The first three games the Red Wings had little help from anyone, but the previous three games everyone seems faster, more aggressive and eager to do whatever it takes to win.  It’s been amazing to see how much better the entire team has played, refusing to give in to another early playoff exit.  However the two Red WIngs that have stood out the most have been Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard.

When Kronwall hasn’t been delivering bone crushing hits he has been joining the rush creating and capitalizing on excellent scoring chances.  He has also made the little plays and stayed within his game not forcing the issue.  Often times he has been held back by always looking for the big play, but his steady effort has made a huge difference on both ends of the ice.  Meanwhile Jimmy Howard has established himself as an elite goaltender this series.  Howard has silenced any doubt regarding his ability to carry this team, and has done everything possible to keep the Red Wings in every game in this series, whether they deserved to be or not.  Without Howard the Red Wings could have easily been swept, instead of heading to San Jose for game seven.

While it’s certainly no surprise to see this series going seven games, it has been great to see the Red Wings respond when they had few reasons to believe.  This team has relied heavily on experience, determination and confidence in themselves.  While coach Babcock may not come across as an active leader or a voice for the team to rally around they sure have taken to heart his words of wisdom after game three:

‎”I believe in being positive. That’s how I live my life. That’s how I deal with my family. That’s how I deal with every game. In other words, I just think that I’m going to disarm the bomb. I’ve always thought that. That’s how a coach thinks. Whether that’s selective memory, whether that’s being hard-headed or that’s just not being that smart … whatever you want to call it, I’m just a believer.”

Game 7 is Thursday night at 9pm and will once again be on Versus and Fox Sports Detroit.

The Detroit Red Wings have fallen into some trouble down 0-3 in their second round of the playoffs, but this series has shown they have issues that extend into the future as well.  While the Red Wings have lost each game by just one goal, their inability to control the game and take advantage of opportunities has been alarming.  The Sharks have sucked the passion out of the Red Wings, beating them to every loose puck, finishing every check, making the most of lucky bounces, and punishing them for their mistakes.  All that being said, one of the main advantages the Sharks have has been their young talent. The Red Wings displayed their excellent depth in the first round against the Coyotes, but their depth has been neutralized and trumped by the Sharks.

The Red Wings are and will continue to built around Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen, but they have lacked scoring from their young players.  For the most part they mainly rely on their young players to provide energy and occasionally points, but the Sharks have a youth movement that easily trumps the Red Wings.  While Helm, Abdelkader, Filppula and Hudler have all progressed this season they certaintly aren’t on the same level as Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Devin Setoguchi.  The Sharks talented trio is contributing impressively in the present and gives the Sharks an impressive blue print for the future.   Meanwhile it would be hard to argue that the Red Wings could rely on their current players to eventually replace their veteran core.

The Red Wings now face the tall task of  trying to come back from being three games to none, but whether they win or not the Sharks have exposed them going forward.  Whenever the Red Wings offseason arrives it will be a far more challenging time as this team must find ways to provide speed and scoring in the difficult cap world.  Obviously it helps having such a strong core, but they still have many questions to answer; will Nick Lidstrom return, can Dan Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom still be difference makers, will Filppula and Hudler every take their games to the next level, do they have future stars in prospects such as Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Jakub Kindl or Brendan Smith?  HockeyTown nor the Red Wings have any interest in another early playoff exit, but they now find themselves in serious trouble and life won’t get any easier once the offseason does begin.

The Tigers offense has once again failed to live up to expectations early on this season, and few have struggled as heavily as Austin Jackson.  While he had one of the finest rookies seasons last year he has failed to find similar magic this season.  When the Tigers were making improvements this offseason one area they felt very confident was their leadoff hitter.  It’s hard to imagine the Tigers brass was expecting such a fine season from Jackson, but they certainly weren’t anticipating such a poor start.

While it would be ideal to use Jackson as a leadoff hitter to set up the Tigers offense with his speed, batting .189 is making it very difficult to keep him in the lineup let alone the top of the order.  Jackson has been in a slump for the first 28 games of the season, and has only just recently started hitting the ball hard.  When Jackson has made contact he has frequently hit soft rollers in the infield, skied pop ups to outfield, and simply looked over matched by opposing pitchers.  Unfortunately making contact has been easier said than done for the Tigers young phoneme.  After striking out 170 times last season it was clear one of his main goals would be to cut down on giving away at bats, but he is actually gone in the wrong direction so far this season.  Jackson is currently on pace to tie the single season record for strike outs with 223.  Despite cruising his way through his rookie year, he has had nothing but struggles in his sophomore campaign.

It would be too easy for the Tigers to drop Jackson in the order or send him down to the minors for to rebuild his confidence, except the Tigers don’t have a player like him anywhere in their system.  As Jacksons struggles are punishing the Tigers for relying so heavily on a young player in such an important spot, it also is another reminder of the Tigers inability to develop position players.  Another factor that is certainly isn’t making life any easier for Austin Jackson is living within Curtis Granderson’s shadow.

Last year Jackson made it relatively easy for fans to get over Grandersons departure, but that didn’t stop fans from still rooting and following the former Tiger.  Granderson’s jersey is still frequently seen at Comerica Park and fans are questioning more than ever why isn’t on the team as he he propelled a strong finish into an all-star caliber start to this season.  Regardless of how well the trade has worked out for the Tigers, it has become apparent Granderson will always hold a special place in Tiger fans hearts and be a player Jackson will be compared to.

However the Tigers must find ways for Jackson to regain his confidence, days off haven’t seemed to help, but batting him in front of Cabrera might ignite his bat.  Batting in front of Cabrera should allow him to see better pitches and lessen the pressure of batting leadoff.  Granted that leaves the Tigers with few options atop the order, it’s a role Jackson cannot handle right now.

The Red Wings Struggling to Solve Sharks

After two games in San Jose the Red Wings find themselves down 2-0 and with few answers.  While they may have only lost each game by one goal the Sharks dominated them for majority of both games.  Last post-season when the Sharks eliminated the Red Wings with relative ease many pointed to the team being worn out from a long season of injuries.  However this time around the Sharks just appear to be better.  The Sharks have played stronger, smarter, faster and have given the Red Wings few opportunities to take control.

As impressive as the Red Wings looked in the first round they have looked equally unimpressive in the 2nd round.  The power play has been pathetic and they have received few quality scoring chances unless the Zetterberg and Datsyuk like has been on the ice.  All season the Red Wings have consistently relied on the ability to play four lines that could also produce quality chances and excellent shifts.  The Sharks have neutralized the Red Wings depth with their youth, speed and hunger.  The 3rd and 4th lines have been non-existence, unable to provide a spark or their usual agitation.  Not to mention they have provided little support to their goalie Jimmy Howard.

Entering the playoffs the spotlight was on Howard and whether he was up for the challenge of leading this team towards a long playoff run.  However, Howard has simply stood on his head, keeping the Red Wings in both games.

The Red Wings main issue has been making life too easy on Antti Niemi.  While he has played well, he hasn’t faced half the pressure that Howard has seen.  Against the Kings in round one (a team that scored the 4th fewest goals in the Western Conference) Niemi allowed over three goals a game and was pulled from two games for his subpar play.  There is no reason the Red Wings shouldn’t be able to get inside his head in a similar fashion.  Certainly it will take tweaking of lines, increased effort from their stars and supporting cast alike, but also a major get check.

The Red Wings have been pushed around and the Sharks clearly have their number, but without a dramatic change and this team will once again be ousted in the second round.  Despite being down 0-2 in the series the Red Wings must treat game three as a game seven, falling behind 0-3 likely makes a comeback nearly impossible.  I’d expect coach Babcock to split up Zetterberg and Datsyuk, in hopes of spreading out scoring chances and not allowing the Sharks to zero in on their other lines so easily.  Hopefully the Red Wings can get on the board early and build confidence that can make this a series.  Obviously the Red Wings will also need Howard to stay locked in, but that seems to be the one area they don’t have to worry about.

While this year’s draft may lack the talent and buzz from drafts in years past, without free agency this is the first chance for teams to improve themselves.  The Detroit Lions ended the season with momentum and hope to use this draft to continue to add quality talent to their roster.  They may not be in the best position to select an blue chip prospect, they can certainly add a player who can make this team better at number 13.  All offseason Lions GM Martin Mayhew has been preaching to anyone who will listen that the Lions are committed to drafting the best player available when it’s their turn to pick, however the number of directions they could go in is endless.

Associated Press

Ideally the Lions would like to find an impact cornerback, linebacker, defensive end or offensive tackle with their first round pick, but since few teams appear locked in to any player picking ahead of the Lions its hard to predict who might still be available.  The top names associated with the Lions have been cornerback Prince Amukamara, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.  All three address needs and all have the potential to be high impact players immediately.  Unfortunately they also come with risks, does Amukamara have the second level speed to become a shut down corner?   Is Castonzo worthy of such a high pick and is he even the best offensive lineman to select?  Is Bowers knee healthy?  While all three players are interesting options, one player who could improve the Lions in many areas is the multi-dimensional Aldon Smith.

He spent the bulk of his college career wrecking havoc as a defensive end at Missouri, but has the size and speed to drop back as an outside linebacker as well.  Finding a player who can disrupt the passing game and slow down the running game would be an ideal fit for the Lions.  Smith’s versatility would give the Lions endless options and many different looks to throw at opponents.  Not to mention wherever he lines up on the field he has a nose for the football and is an excellent tackler.  His ability to play become a playmaker at both positions would allow the Lions to the lessen the load on veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch as well as give them another linebacker to pair with DeAndre Levy.  Obviously Smith’s rare talent make it possible for another team to select him, but if available the Lions shouldn’t hesitate.

The Lions have many needs and adding any of the aforementioned players could play a major role in helping the Lions make a push towards the playoffs.  It will certainly be interesting to see what options present themselves on draft day, but Aldon Smith is an intriguing option that should not be ignored.

For the second year in a row the Detroit Red Wings will be facing off against the Phoenix Coyotes in round one of the Stanley Cup Finals.  Last year these teams battled through seven games before the Red Wings eventually advanced, one would have to imagine another long series is in store for these two teams.  For the most part both teams are returning virtually the same teams, and their styles of play also remain the same.  These two franchises couldn’t be more different as the Coyotes have spent the entire year with a for sale stuck outside their arena desperate for interest and support, while they actively look for a new home.  The Red Wings reside in HockeyTown where they have made the playoffs 20 years in a row and are looking for the 12th Stanley Cup in team history.

Key Factors:

Special Teams-

The Red Wings hold an extreme advantage  with their 5th ranked power play match up against the Coyotes 26th ranked penalty kill.  While the rankings become irrelevant in the playoffs this is a match up neither team ignore.  They power play unit will be missing Henrik Zetterberg for the foreseeable future (not encouraging to hear he isn’t skating), but the Red Wings have more than enough talent to still produce on a high level.  Not to mention, numerous injuries over the past two seasons has made this team very flexible.  The one bright side for the Coyotes is that they were the 23rd least penalized team in the league, so if they can stay disciplined they could neutralize a potentially dramatic advantage for the Red Wings.

Style of Play-

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

In any playoff series controlling the style of play goes a long way towards deciding a series.  The Coyotes prefer to grind out games and have no problem letting their opponent out shoot them (out shot 52 times).  While the Red Wings prefer to control the puck and score early and often.  The past two seasons the Coyotes have concentrated on picking their spots and rely on a team attack to score goals, not to mention the Red Wings continuously struggle with turnovers that lead to great scoring chances.  However allowing the Red Wings to control the puck will give them the opportunity to control their own destiny.  If he Red Wings can cycle the puck and limit turnovers they should be able to have many opportunities.  Certainly it will be no easy task scoring, since the Coyotes have a goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov who can stand on his head and shut teams down regardless of the number of shots he faces.

Difference Makers-

Keith Yandle: The Coyotes have a clear cut offensive leader in Shane Doan, but as mentioned before they mainly rely on a team attack.  However they do have a special player on defense in Keith Yandle.  While he is far from Nick Lidstrom he is the Coyotes version of him as far as what he provides on both offense and defense.  He finished the year with 48 assists and has a knack for slowing down his opponents top scorers.  The Coyotes don’t have a lot of depth behind him so they will rely heavily on him, but if the Coyotes are to pull the upset Yandle will be a big part of their success.

Darren Helm: The Red Wings will need a big series from their stars, especially with Zetterberg out of the lineup, but Helm will play a large role in deciding this series.  It’s no secret the Red Wings aren’t built with speed, but few have the jets to match Helm.  His speed, big play ability, (as well as his new found ability to finish) and aggressive make him very special.  Throughout the year the Red Wings fourth line has been their most consistent and Helm was a major reason for that success.  If Helm can continue his break out success he will give the Coyotes fits, with his speed, agitation, and grit.

Prediction:

The Coyotes may be the under dog in this series, but the Red Wings fizzled down the stretch and now find themselves as one of the forgotten teams in the playoffs.  While the Coyotes are more experienced this time around, the Red Wings ability to control the puck, along with their offensive depth should make the difference in this series.

Detroit 4 – Phoenix 2*

*It is Important to note, if the Red Wings plan on taking the Coyotes for granted they will lose this series.  While the Red Wings have plenty of talent, they don’t have enough to play ‘flip the switch’ hockey whenever they want.  Not to mention they need a big playoffs from all of their defensemen.  The unit as a whole turned the puck over far too frequently and should  error on the side of conservative play.  Turnovers in their own zone will create opportunities that the Coyotes thrive off of and will take advantage of.  Also it would be great if Mike Babcock played Jonathan Ericsson as little as possible, it would be great if he played up to his potential, but it’s becoming clear that he isn’t there and may never be the player they want or think he can be.

The Detroit Red Wings are entering the playoffs for the 20th straight season, looking to bring home the 12th Stanley Cup in the franchise history.  This veteran team is very aware of what it will take to make another deep run into the playoffs, but no matter who they match up against in round one they will find no easy path through the Western Conference.  Although the Red Wings have one of the deepest teams in the league offensively, their very average defense will have to step up to avoid another early exit.

David Guralnick/The Detroit News

Playoff hockey becomes far more defensive, which slows the game down and will mask the Red Wings lack of speed, but they will still need to be better defensively.  While they have one of the best defensemen of all time in captain Nick Lidstrom, they lack good defense beyond him.  The team has seen Brad Stuart elevate this game this season, but they will need more from Niklas Kronwall, Brian Rafalski, Jakub Kindl, Ruslan Salei and (gulp) Jonathan Ericsson.  With one game left in the regular season the Red Wings have allowed more goals than any other playoff team, and have committed an alarming number of turnovers from their defensemen in their own zone (If the NHL kept track of turnovers the way the NFL does interceptions, Jonathan Ericsson would be the second coming of Scott Mitchell).

Obviously the Red Wings cant expect their defenseman to become dramatically better when the playoffs start, there are little things they can do to improve.  All too frequently the Red Wings defensemen play far too offensively and leave Jimmy Howard out to dry.  While the Red Wings will need stellar goaltending from Jimmy Howard, they also need to do a better job of making his life easier.  Limiting turnovers, cutting down on the number of breakaways allowed, and clearing rebounds will be crucial to staying in games and should help buck the trend of falling behind 0-2 in games.

Every great playoff run has its share of unlikely heroes or players who take their game to the next level.  The Red Wings will need at least one of their unlikely heroes to come from the defensive end. Whether the Red Wings receive a defensive boost or not expect the team to devote their offseason to improving the defense.

As winter drags on and spring refuses to arrive Detroit sports have fallen into quite the funk.  Usually April acts as the best time of year for all of your favorite sports teams.  The Pistons and Red Wings are usually preparing for the playoffs, Lions fans are rallying around the draft/ free agency, plus the Tigers are finally returning from their winter break.  However this year the  gloomy weather has hovered over Detroit sports and the excitement for the four teams.

The NFL lockout is settling in and the potential for no season increases with each passing day.  While the thought of no football in the fall is bad enough, this labor dispute is keeping Lions fans from its favorite time of the year, the offseason.  The NFL Draft will still occur, but the absence of free agency and lack of excitement surrounding the Lions pick has created a rare offseason of melancholy.  Usually the Lions offseason is built off false hope, but ending last year on a win streak brought added expectations to this offseason.  Compromising the NFL season is bad enough, but taking away the hype and hope of a true offseason season has even gotten Lions fans down.

Meanwhile the Pistons have been stuck in reverse all season long, losses piling up, feuding players, a lame duck coach and still no owner.   Karen Davidson appears determined to drive away any interested buyer with her ridiculous demands, for a team that is headed nowhere fast.  Not to mention the team has few players worth building around.  Rodney Stuckey has gone from a potential leader and building chip to a punk with a bad attitude who appears headed out of town.  Chemistry and team work are a thing of the past and their coach is terrible at communicating.  Fans used to live and breath Detroit basketball, and now they have become quite an after thought.  It’s impossible to predict how this will will rebound, but the future does not look bright.

The Tigers have gotten off to a poor start that has quickly tempered expectations and brought on early questions regarding the rotation.  While Verlander had a nice outing, but Penny, Porcello, and Scherzer were brutal in their first start.  Obviously there is plenty of time to turn it around, but the Tigers haven’t the early spark everyone was expecting.  Either catcher Alex Avila has forgotten how to call a game and isn’t ready to control a staff or Tigers pitchers have added hanging fastballs to their arsenal.  Certaintly it would be a nice change of pace for this team to save their best baseball for the end of the season, but falling into a deep hole early that forces this team to play catch up all year isn’t ideal.

As the Red Wings prepare for their 20th straight postseason fans are cautiously waiting to see which teams shows up.  Many years this team is the odds on favorite, but despite another stellar year they find themselves with many questions.  Can they stay healthy?  Will their lack of goalie depth come back to haunt them?  Can the Red Wings defense step up, beyond Stuart and Lidstrom?  Will all of their streaky goal scorers struggle at the same time?  Can they survive a loaded Western Conference?  Hockeytown has been spoiled by the Red Wings success, which has fans in wait and see mode to see how excited they will get about this postseason.

Needless to say Detroit and its sports teams could certainly use rays of sunshine and optimism for the present and the future.  Hopefully the Tigers pitchers can move past this poor start, and hit the reset button to their season for their home opener.  It would be refreshing if the Pistons can finally get a new owner and hopefully be lucky enough to get a lottery pick that they can build their new identity around.  It would also be nice to see the battle of the billionaires and millionaires come to an end giving the Lions the proper opportunity prepare and retool for what could be a very exciting season.  Finally, let’s hope the Red Wings can avoid trying to play ‘flip the switch’ hockey and simply bring they best from the first round.  Oh it would also be great if the sunshine and spring temperature would actually arrive as well, we’ve waited long enough.

Datsyuk’s Value Should Never Be Overlooked

Most seasons the Red Wings receive tremendous efforts from their two stars, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.  This year the Red Wings have had to rely more on Henrik Zetterberg as Datsyuk has only played in 52 games this season because of injuries.  While Zetterberg has stepped up to the challenge and the team has stayed atop the standings, the Red Wings are far better with Datsyuk.

David Guralnick / The Detroit News

Obviously it’s far from breaking news that Red Wings are better off with Datsyuk on the ice, but his absence has shown how much better the team is with him on many different levels.  The Red Wings record without him has been very average, as they went 18-15 during his two injuries.  Without Datsyuk even the Red Wings style of play is altered. They play far less efficiently, turn the puck over at a higher rate and get dominated within the neutral zone by their opponents.

Datsyuk is one of the most dynamic players with the puck, and has made a habit of leading the league in takeaways.  His tenacity to control the puck is something the entire team buys into, and has helped make them a puck possession team.  This style allows the Red Wings to play with far more confidence and dictate the flow of the game.  When Datsyuk is not in the lineup the team’s passing game isn’t as crisp and they are often chasing the other team for the puck, becoming more of a dump and chase team.  The change in style of play forced the Red Wings to play more high scoring games, which can wear the entire team out.

While Datsyuk will play in his lowest total of games this season, it has given the team extra opportunity to allow other players to emerge and for the team to appreciate Datsyuk on a far greater level.  Hopefully he has had his last injury and will be able to keep this team playing at their best with the playoffs approaching.

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