Monday Morning Update: December 12, 2016

The Canadiens strike back, who’s nice and naughty on the Bronx Bombers, and the Giants defense grows to new heights

1. The Habs strike back

 

The Montreal Canadiens, thanks to the renewed health of goaltender/human deflector-shield/Ron Hextall reincarnate Carey Price, will have a strong case to make as the strongest side in hockey during the Stanely Cup Playoffs next year. They also have perhaps the most robust resume when it comes to being the most interesting team of the still quite young 2016-2017 NHL season.

Their offseason contained a few bombshells, including the Shea Weber/PK Subban swap and the Radulov return, and so far, both controversial moves are paying off handsomely.

And now they have perhaps the campaign’s most impressive win and embarrassing loss sown up. Le Club de Hockey Canadie were the laughing stock of the league earlier this season when backup netminder Al Montoya did his best Spongebob Squarepants impersonation, the upstart Blue Jackets exposed those holes and Columbus skated away with a 10-0 win.

But how the tables can turn. This weekend, the Canadiens showed off what may end up as the best shooting percentage performance of the season, burying six goals in the first frame against the Avalanche (who rebounded to beat the Bruins and Maple Leafs) and scoring 10 in the game on the way to a 10-1 victory.

It’s not too often a team scores 10 in a game and has 10 scored on them in the same campaign, unless you’re the GM of a Playstation-based franchise.

2. Are the Islanders back?

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Well, well, well, it looks like it’s time for another edition of “are they back?” We spent most of this summer asking the same question of the New York Yankees, who never really came all the way back and failed to push into playoff position for any meaningful stretch of baseball. The Giants also had their turn briefly this fall, but we no longer have to worry about that (more on this shortly.)

Now, with winter upon us, we turn the question of “are they back?” on the New York Islanders. The team got out to a dreadful start to the year and quickly found themselves in the Metro Division and NHL basement. But, after a five-game points streak that included a trio of impressive wins the Islanders find themselves……still at the bottom of the Metro.

Unfortunately for the Islanders, they may just play in hockey’s toughest division, all due respect to the vaunted Central. Between the red-hot Flyers, plucky Blue Jackets and traditional powers in Washington, New York, and Pittsburgh, the Metro looks to be very crowded right now. When you squander as many points as the Islanders already have this season, it’s going to be tough to get them back in the modern Metro, whether it’s an early-season swoon or a late collapse.

So are they back? The Islanders have played themselves back into a competitive position, within 10 points of a playoff spot with about 55 games to play, but it’s a tall order ahead of them.

I still think this team is worse than last year’s squad and has some obvious flaws (most of which were on display during Saturday night’s loss), but if they can make a comeback, they’ll need to keep winning against Metro opponents.

3. The Tavares time is ticking

(Editor’s note: Just stare at that goal for a while and thank me later.)

One more note on the Islanders before we move on. Whether or not the Islanders can turn this roster into a competitive one, it does not seem as if the Islanders brass are buying into the idea they should move on from John Tavares.

Newsday beat writer and Chin Music Pod guest Arthur Staple penned a story in Newsday on Monday that reports some unsurprising news: the team’s new owners are making the extension of John Tavares’ tenure with the New York Islanders their top priority, as well they should. John has said time and time again he wants to stay in New York, and goals like the one above show why the Islanders are so desperate to keep him.

It’s also important to note that, despite what some fans think about the team’s lack of star winger, the owners are backing up those words about priorities with actions. The Isles inked winger Cal Clutterbuck, a crucial part of last year’s team and a noted friend of Tavares, to a long-term deal over the weekend. It’s the second new contract for the vaunted fourth line pairing of Casey Cizikas and Clutterbuck, and it was widely viewed as an overpay for what Clutterbuck’s skill set presents.

That may be true, and plenty of teams have regretted expensive signings made in hopes of appeasing a departing star. But I have little doubt that the Clutterbuck deal, at least between the lines, is linked to the negotiations with Tavares and his agent that will begin this summer.

It’s been a rough season with plenty to complain about, but it’s good to see some actions following strong words.

4. Are the Knicks…..good?!

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Don’t look now, but the New York Knicks are actually an interesting and somewhat competitive basketball team, much to my surprise.

I went on the record on the airwaves of ChinMusicPod.com and in conversations with family and friends about my feelings on this year’s Knickerbockers. Those thoughts were not positive. I thought Carmelo was trending in the wrong direction, I thought Porzingas would regress in his second year, and I thought investing in a pair of Chicago Bulls in Noah and Rose wouldn’t lead to many dividends.

But so far, so good, for your 2016-2017 New York Knicks. The team finds itself off to one of the more pleasantly surprising starts of the season. Porzingas looks to be really developing into a high-quality professional basketball player, and Rose has been good so far, and looks driven to earn a long-term contract this summer, whether in New York or elsewhere.

The NBA season is a slog, and there’s plenty of time for Rose and Noah’s injury problems to return, for teams to find a way to frustrate Kristaps, for Melo’s play to take a nosedive. But there’s some serious reason for hope in the Garden, for the first time in a long time.

5. Celtics’ scare a reminder

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Sports are great because they serve as an escape from the all-too-real issues of the real world. That is, until they don’t.

We were reminded, luckily just briefly, this weekend that despite their exploits, athletes and coaches are human too. It was certainly a humanizing moment when I heard that the Celtics’ team plane had a bomb threat reported shortly before boarding, even if it was a hoax. It was oddly easy to picture myself as a terrified traveler, hoping it was just a cruel prank.

Sports are a great escape, until they aren’t. As nice as it might be to think otherwise, it’s time to stop thinking sports are immune from the same frailties we all are in this day and age.

6. Naughty/Nice: Chase Headley and Starlin Castro

Editor’s note: Naughty/Nice makes another December appearance as we get closer to Christmas. Last week, we looked at a pair of Giants draft picks and this week, we’ll examine a couple of Bronx infielders…

Nice List: Starlin Castro

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It’s never easy to play under the bright lights at Yankee Stadium. That’s especially true for players brought in via trade or signings and even more so when your filling the shoes of a talented and well-liked player like Robinson Cano. But Castro has been more than capable as his replacement.

True, Castro will not be setting any offensive output records at second base, but as a middle infielder, he doesn’t need to. He registered a very strong .270/.300/.433 (93 OPS+) with 21 home runs and 70 RBI last year, which is great for a second baseman, especially when you consider Cano only registered .298/.355/.398 to go with 39 HR and 103 RBI. Better than Castro, sure, but at roughly a quarter of the price, Castro presents good value. He has also been part of a fairly defensively stout middle infield along with shortstop Didi Gregorious, even if Jeter’s heir is the stronger athlete and fielder.

Unfortunately for Castro, he may have to be even nicer in 2017. With top prospect Gleybar Torres waiting to become the middle infielder of the future, Castro may have to find a new spot to call home, whether it’s a new position or a new city.

Naughty List: Chase Headley

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Castro may have to be extra nice to stay in New York for the foreseeable future, but I’m not sure there’s anything Headley can do to get himself off the Naughty List and into the Yankees’ long-term plans.

Headley earned himself a multi-year deal with some nice play during the first part of his stay in the Bronx, but he’s been nothing short of a disaster since. He drove in just 51 runs last year with a slash line of .253/.331/.385 (all stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com) and was a liability in the field.

Odds are, given how eager the Yankees were to ditch other expiring veteran contracts this year, Headley’s deal was so low on value, it couldn’t be moved for anything worthwhile. So, for now, Yankee fans and the front office will have to wait until next Christmas for Headley’s multi-year mistake to expire.

7. A lame spot for Lane

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With Monday’s news that Alabama offensive coordinator and notorious college football figure Lane Kiffin would be headed to the Florida Atlantic University Owls, the college coaching carousel has largely settled for the time being. And I’m not going to lie, it feels a bit….underwhelming.

Don’t get me wrong, this year didn’t disappoint in terms of big moves, backstabbing, and for once, even a heartwarming ending. And I mean no disrespect to the FAU Owls, who will no doubt have their chance to grow under the well-known Kiffin. But there’s just something missing here.

I’ll admit, even though I wanted to see Kiffin join Ed Orgeron at LSU to build a super team, I understand why Kiffin didn’t want to take another job as second fiddle to a big personality. Still, it would have been nice to see Kiffin head to a true contender, or at least a higher-profile team, and compete with his former employers on the biggest stage quickly, but I don’t see that happening.

Then again, this could give Kiffin a chance he needs to return to prominence.

8. Landon Collins Award watch

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When we last checked in we last checked in on Giants’ second-year safety Landon Collins and his bid for the Defensive Player of the Year award, his resume was strong, to say the least.

He had posted game-changing interceptions against the Rams, Bears and Eagles and was powering the Giants to a remarkable midseason record. But what has he done for us lately?

There’s no denying the interception tap has dried up a bit, and that may hurt Collins chances for DPOY. But he still currently is tied for third in the league with 5 INTs, and bolstered his turnover numbers by falling on a crucial fumble in the game’s final moment against the Dallas Cowboys.

But really, the turnovers only tell part of Collins’ story this year. He was strong throughout the game even before the fumble recovery, once again serving as the backbone of a defense that gift-wrapped their offense the chance to win a football game and keeping an elite opponent in check. With the struggles of Eli and the offensive line this year, Collins play and role in keep teams off the field and forcing them into quick punts has been just as valuable as the impact turnovers, if not more so.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again. If the Giants find themselves in the playoffs and Collins stays healthy and hearty, he should at the very least be in the DPOY discussion.

And that’s looking increasingly likely, considering….

9. The 2 in 11-2, the 1 in 18-1

Call it luck, call it fate, call it whatever you want, but Eli Manning and the New York Giants just seem to have a knack for spoiling perfection.

Whether it’s an arrogant and perhaps dishonest New England Patriots team just one win away from football immortality or a re-engineered divisional rival bent on running the table, the Giants of the 2000’s have found a way to beat the best time and time again.

This time, to be fair, there’s little to be thanking Eli Manning for. If anything, he should be very thankful that more of his errant throws weren’t intercepted, and it will be his and the offensive line’s day to rue if and when the Giants’ joyride does indeed come to an end. There’s plenty to say about Eli’s line-aided regression this year, and I’ll have more to say on it soon, but for now, it’s about the positives.

And really, there are plenty of positives. Even with the two wins over Dallas, the Giants division dreams are probably just dreams, thanks to losses to the Redskins, Packers, and Steelers, all winnable games for Big Blue, but their Wild Card position looks secure as they winter the year’s final stretch.

Steve Spagnuolo’s defense is above reproach at this point and frustrated the vaunted Dallas offense even in its first weeks without Jason Pierre-Paul. As I said above, Landon Collins still deserves to be considered among the top players in football this season. There’s also plenty of talent on the offensive skill spots, with three dangerous WRs and some good weapons at running back.

The Giants have flaws. Eli is regressing, and the line is accelerating those results. But if they can find a way to get it together in the next few weeks, Big Blue will cause big problems for whomever they meet in the playoffs.

Have a good week, everybody. For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter.

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