Oliver Ekman-Larsson Locks In A Career Of Mediocrity

Often linked away from Arizona, all star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has apparently agreed to a deal to stay in Arizona for the rest of his career. Sure, this looks like a showing of loyalty by OEL to the team who drafted him, but in reality it is just him accepting that he will not win a Stanley Cup or a Norris Trophy, and will eventually wash away into the forgotten pages of the NHL history books.

Not to be over dramatic, but it’s true. Ekman-Larsson agreeing to a rumoured 8-year deal verbally is him accepting that he enjoys the life he leads in Arizona, wants to remain there, and doesn’t have any desire to chase down a championship. OEL cannot officially sign until July 1st, however the deal has been agreed to verbally from reports by Elliot Friedman and Darren Dreger, two reliable sources.

The decision for him to sign a longterm extension was likely fuelled by money. OEL is currently on one of the most cap-friendly contracts for an elite top pairing defenseman at $5.5 million. And with his contact expiring at the end of next season Ekman-Larsson was a prime candidate for a team to pick up for a massive price and help get them over the line in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, earning him the eventual pay day he probably deserves.

The deal is expected to be 8 years, and now evaluations are coming out suggesting the fee will be $8+ per year. Wow, that would put him in the top three in NHL defenseman contracts with Subban at $9 million and Brent Burns at $8 million.

So is he worth it? Well he puts up solid offensive numbers for a defenseman: Last season in 82 games played he scored 14 goals and added 28 assists. That ranks him 23rd in the league… And despite those 42 points he was still a -28, a career worst plus/minus ranking. His supporters and specifically Arizona Coyote fans will point out that he has successfully maintained his scoring abilities putting up 44, 43, 55, 39, and 42 points since 2013/14 but he has never in those stretches been a + player. His only two season of being positive were 2012/13 where he was +5 in 48 games scoring 24 points, and his rookie season where he played again just 48 games with a +3 rating and 11 points.

What this contract does is effectively price OEL out of any moves based off of duration of the deal and AAV cap hit. He isn’t any closer to winning in Arizona, as his top defence pairing is Luke Schenn, and while there are some exciting young players looking to hopefully take strides next, season (Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, Dylan Strome, Christian Fischer, Jacob Chychrun) this team is unlikely to have any sort of success and simply cannot win with the rest of the veteran players on the team.

Stepan as a first line centre, Richard Panik as a first line left winger, Anti Raanta as a starting goaltender, and Luke Schenn as an NHL defenseman. All of these are glaring issues on the Coyotes roster, and locking down on valuable player does not make up for them. Ultimately it seems like OEL has elected ease of life, low expectations, and the comfort of desert living over trying to achieve something with his career. Shame, and a waste.

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Sweden: World Cup Preview

No Ibrahimovic, no problem? Sweden sure thinks so! A team built around an enigmatic midfielder and an extremely young and solid back line of defenders, Sweden will not be an easy match up for their group mates. However, without their egotistical lion up from in Zlatan Ibrahimovic does Sweden really have any chance of winning? If so the goals will need to be a team effort.

Group F: 
– Germany
– Mexico
– Sweden
– South Korea

Players to watch for Sweden:

Emil Forsberg – The Bundesliga star is set to increase his transfer price with an impressive performance in Russia. After links to Manchester United last summer Forsberg had a difficult, injury riddled, and lackluster 2017/18 season, only scoring 2 goals and adding 2 more assists for RB Leipzig. The attacking player could feature as striker should he be needed, but will likely be the outlet in the midfield for Sweden’s offence.

Pontus Jansson – The central defender for Leeds United in the English Championship will be a prominent member of the stalwart back line for Sweden. The towering 6’4″ defender is a crucial in defensive organization and will need to use his size to chip in offensively should he get the chance. He nabbed 3 goals this season for Leeds and without Zlatan’s size he could be key on corner kicks and set pieces.

Victor Lindelof – Like Jansson, Lindelof at center back will be instrumental in any success Sweden will have at the World Cup. He has come under scrutiny after a pricey £30.7m transfer from Benfica to Manchester United. Despite Lindelof only being 23 he needs a good showing in Russia to justify the price paid for him and to show the world he can be a top defender internationally and for his club.

Sweden is in tough for a long tournament in Russia. South Korea and Mexico are more similar to Sweden but the Mexican side should cruise out of the group stage alongside tournament favorites Germany. Not taking Ibrahimovic to the World Cup is a tactical move by manager Janne Andersson, on one hand you lose the immense talent that he brings. However, without him you have a more balanced team that doesn’t feature his massive ego.

 

Will The Real Randal Grichuk Please Stand Up?

Was an elongated DL stint and a team falling out of contention all that Randal Grichuk needed to find his bat for the Toronto Blue Jays? It would appear so, as Grichuk has turned around his season offensively since his activation just twelve days ago, in a change only paralleled by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

So the question becomes: What can the Blue Jays fans expect from their supposed can’t miss, everyday right fielder?

Hopefully not the Grichuk of April, would generally be the consensus from Blue Jays fans. In 22 games in April Grichuk’s stats were abysmal – 0.89 AVG, .197 OBP, 3 extra base hits, 6 RBIs, 6 Walks and 21 strikeouts. Wow. Ending that month on an even worse note, Grichuk was sent to the ever unpredictable 10-day DL on April 30th for a mild knee sprain. The positive in this? Grichuk was injured on a terrific defensive play that saw him recover from a stumble in the outfield to make an unlikely catch.

And there it was – the heart you want to see from your team’s players. The desire to make in impact any way they can. Grichuk was well aware of his offensive struggles but he never gave up on his ability to play the outfield well. So off to the DL, and after the initial injury rehab the game reports started to come in:

“Randal Grichuk (knee) went 0-for-2 with two walks and two strikeouts in his first rehab game Tuesday with High-A Dunedin.”

“Randal Grichuk (knee) hit a two-run homer and played six innings in right field Wednesday in a rehab game with High-A Dunedin”

“Randal Grichuk (knee) hit a two-run homer Wednesday in his first rehab game with Triple-A Buffalo” 

Grichuk was starting to look like himself in the minors – high strikeout, but power to balance it out with an average in the mid-low .200s. Realistically thats all Toronto needs from him, to be a lower in the line up guy who can add some pop to the order. Now that he has returned from the disabled list it appears he may be able to bring that to the Blue Jays line up!

Since June 1st (when he was activated) Grichuk has settled in nicely with a .357 average including three multi hit games, two coming against Baltimore and the other against Detroit. He has racked up three home runs upon returning, one more that he had before going on the DL, and has 8 RBIs as well, one more that before his injury.

These numbers are from a small sample size and are probably a little too high for Grichuk to maintain but for the time being they are helping resurrect a miserable start to the season for Grichuk, who has had to sacrifice a beautiful full head of hair along the way in an effort to appease the baseball gods.

It appears to have worked as his offensive game is back but honestly it seems like more of a mental adjustment that has positively effected Grichuk more than anything else. He was brought in during a notably depressing off season for Jays fans, and was being sold as an everyday right fielder to build around for the transitioning Blue Jays. Rather than being the cornerstone to the outfield, he looked lost at the plate and overwhelmed by expectations. Now the pressure is off and Grichuk looks like he’s having fun playing the game – something devoid from his game early this season.

Germany: World Cup Preview

The reigning World Cup champions, and bookies favourites to win the tournament again, Germany are filled with elite talent and are going to be challenging for the top spot again. You can judge just how good a team is by the calibre of players left out, for Germany they have dropped Leroy Sane from Manchester United. This player won best young player of the season, co-led the league in assists with 15, and scored 10 goals too. He is world class elite and a walk on on pretty much any other team. So, yeah, be scared of Germany.

Group F: 
– Germany
– Mexico
– South Korea
– Sweden

Players to watch for Germany

Manuel Neuer – The keeper from Bayern Munich was selected to the team despite being out for months and essentially all season (played three games). This should tell just how dominant a keeper he is, especially when he is leading the pack over PSG’s Kevin Trapp, and Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen. He is the only keeper really challenging for Best with David de Gea, and him being  healthy and in the line up is a game changer for team Germany.

Thomas Muller – Once the most exciting prospect in German football, to the veteran renaissance footballer for his international team, Muller is one of the leaders on this team. He has had 90 international caps for Germany and has proved this season that he can play striker, centre-forward behind a striker, right midfielder, attacking midfielder, and right winger. The jack of all trades managed 15 goals and 18 assists in 45 games in all competitions this season. He is a spark plug, a veteran, and will be heavily involved in this relentless German attack.

Timo Werner – A youngster in the pack of international superstar veterans, RB Leipzig striker has quickly earned a spot on this years team for Germany. He scored an impressive 21 goals with 10 assists in 45 games in all competitions this year. He uses his blinding speed to get open and burst through defensive coverages. He is a handful because of his pace and has a clinicalness to his finishes, too. The next Muller for Germany? He’s a hot pick for breakout star for the tournament.

This list of players could be 23 names long as this squad is DEEP. Their centre backs will likely be Hummels and Boateng who play together at Bayern Munich, the likes of Ginter, Tah and Sule are also young, elite prospects to fill their spot if need be. As well, Leon Goretzka, Marco Reus, Toni Kroos, and Mesut Ozil all deserve individual attention for either the seasons or competency for Germany in passed tournaments. This is where my money goes for tournament winner – tight, composed, elite, Germany have it all.

England: World Cup Preview

A squad that is populated by ENTIRELY domestic products, England boasts all 23 of their players as stars in the Premier League. So how will they stack up this year compared to previous tournaments? Well, they should be poised to make a deep run, hopefully eclipsing the 6th, 7th, and 9th place finishes they have had since not qualifying in 1994. The team is young, exciting, and full of fire power. The only setback may be managerially as Gareth Southgate is leaning towards a 3 centre back, 2 wingback formation that is defensive by nature.

Group G:
– Belgium
– Panama
– Tunisia
– England

Players to watch light it up for England:

Harry Kane – The most electric and globally recognized player for England since David Beckham, Harry Kane is a goal scoring monster for Tottenham Hotspur. Putting up 30 goals this season in 37 games, Kane improved pace from his 2016/17 goal scoring total of 29. At only 24 years of age, Kane is poised to be England’s striker for the foreseeable future and for good reason! His name is mentioned with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar as global footballing monsters, so sit back and let the kid get to work!

Raheem Sterling – After winning the Premier League with Manchester City this season, Sterling is looking to keep the good times rolling with England at the World Cup. He had an explosive coming out party this season, scoring 18 goals and adding 15 assists in 32 games played. He is an offensive dynamo who relies on his speed to get open and expose back lines. If Kane is locked up look for Sterling to leap into play from the attacking midfield or wing to support and slot home some goals.

Kyle Walker – Another Manchester City, Premier League winning team member, Walker patrolled the right side of the centre backs, played as a right full back, and also jumped in as a wingback for his league winning team this season. He failed to score this season, but added six assists. If Southgate uses wingbacks, look for Walker to be either the farthest right centre back or the wingback, carrying play up the side of the pitch.

This team is really good on paper, and with a group like their they should cruise through group play along side Belgium. As well, they get to start with Tunisia and Panama before playing Belgium which should essentially see them on enough points to move forward before their biggest challenge. If they can prove effective in a defensive formation they will success this year, however I fear that defensive play and reliance on a team system will only slash their chances of winning the World Cup.

Uruguay: World Cup Preview

Uruguay is in an interesting position. They have star-power, proven winners, a rich footballing history, but also a huge hole right in the middle of their lineup. This is a side that, when you look at their striking ability, shouldn’t have any trouble scoring goals. The problem will be figuring out how to get the ball far enough up the field to give Cavani and Suarez opportunities to do this. With a fresh crop of midfielders who lack a ton of international experience, that’s going to be a massive hole they’ll need to work around.

Group A
– Saudi Arabia
– Uruguay
– Russia
– Egypt

Diego Godin: Widely considered as one of the top defenders in the world, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin is the backbone of Uruguayan team. A leader on and off the pitch, Godin, who beat out the likes of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos for Best Defender in La Liga this past season, has to be at his best if Uruguay have any hope of moving any meaningful distance in the tournament. He helped Atletico to the best goals against record and that proves he’s capable to do it against the best in the world. His own teammate, Luis Suarez, describes him as a complete nuisance on the pitch. That bodes well for the Uruguayan back liner as he’ll need to carry that quality all the way through. Combined with his history of scoring big goals, and the lack of experience in Uruguay’s midfield, he may be asked to take on even more responsibility up the field.

“Nothing thrills me less than playing against Atlético. They’re so annoying and Godín is a nuisance; he’s always there next to me, he never leaves me alone.”
– Luis Suárez

Edinson Cavani: Don’t let those flowing locks distract you – this is one of the most lethal finishers in world football. Coming off a 27-goal campaign with PSG, Cavani won’t be solely depended on to score goals as he has some help up there, but with that help comes the need to adjust his game a tad. Similar to Godin’s need to move up the pitch a bit, Cavani may need to slide back to receive the ball more. It’s a change for him but not one he couldn’t do. Look for Cavani and his striking partner to be up there in the Golden Boot race.

Luis Suarez: It’s that time again that Luis ‘the vampire’ Suarez is back in the international limelight. While fair-weather fans remember him solely for his bites-capades™, true fans realize just how clinical of a finisher he can be. To go along with that, his time in Barcelona with Lionel Messi have provided him a platform to highlight his distribution abilities, which should prove incredibly valuable alongside Cavani. Not a ton needs to be said about his abilities on the pitch, let’s just hope for Uruguay’s sake, that remains the story when all is said and done.

To me, Uruguay has come away from the group draw very lucky. They should be walking away with 1st place and move on with no issues as there isn’t a clear rival in their group to knock them out. While it won’t an easy task per se, I’d venture a guess that they’d be heavily disappointed not to make it out of the first stage.

Japan: World Cup Preview

Their team will be unknown by a lot, but the few faces that are known are WELL known. Japan is an underdog team this year, but that has never discouraged them from World Cup play in the passed. Having been a fixture in the World Cup uninterrupted since 1998, Japan have seemingly forced their way into the collective “World Cup consciousness”. Their pool has very competative and lacks a top ten team globally, however if they are going to escape group play and make it to elimination play it will be a dog fight the whole way.

Group H: 
– Poland
– Senegal
– Colombia
– Japan

Players to watch for:

Shinji Kagawa – One of the faces of the Borussia Dortmund team, Kagawa has had a storied career notably here at Dortmund and at Manchester United before. He has managed 5 goals and 3 assists in 19 games this season for Dortmund in the attacking midfield and is the superstar for Japan heading into the season. The Japan offence will run through him, so look for some Kagawa assists and goals in the box score!

Keisuke Honda – Another well known face of the Japanese International football team, Honda, 31, is still doing it for Mexican Liga MX team CF Pachuca this season. The striker/winger has scored 10 goals in 30 appearances this season, adding 7 assists in that stretch as well. He is well known and beloved by his countries supporters and will still be a focal point of Japan’s offence in his 94+ national caps.

Maya Yoshida – A face known well around the Premier League, and luck enough after a disastrous season by Southampton, Yoshida and Co. managed to avoid relegation. He is a terror in both his own and his opposition’s penalty areas either shutting teams down offensively or bullishly flying through the air to try and smash in a corner or set piece. He will look to put a disappointing season behind him this year and impress for Japan in a weeks time.

Fielding a pretty old squad in this tournament, Japan are looking to their veteran players to lead the way in Russia this summer. They have big names, star power, and European talent, however the gap between them and the bog dogs may be too much to over come should they escape the group stage. However, their group is not impossible to escape. All four teams – Poland, Colombia, Senegal, and Japan have the ability to win that group and for that reason it should be the “must watch” group of the tournament.