Monday Morning Update: March 6, 2017

College sports take center stage, Boogie is lost in the Bayou, and the Islanders add from within

1. Psychic Is In: The Hockey East 

hockey east.jpg

And then there were eight….

The Hockey East tourney kicked off around New England this weekend, with Vermont, Northeastern, New Hampshire, and Providence moving on to earn spots in the Quarterfinal round against Boston College, Boston University, UMass-Lowell, and Notre Dame, respectively.

With the strange way the conference has shaken out over the course of this season, each matchup presents an interesting angle to inspect. Vermont, for example, comes in as the lower seed and the de facto underdog, and will be playing their quarterfinal games away from the comforts of home in Burlington, where they earned a pair of victories this past weekend—all despite the fact that the Catamounts (#14) are ranked above the Eagles (#17) in the National poll, and have lost fewer games. Similarly, the Friars of Providence College (#10) will have to travel time zones for their matchup against Notre Dame (#12), who like BC, apparently saved their best hockey for in-conference play and have earned a bye and a round at home as a result.

Meanwhile, the BU Terriers and the Northeastern Huskies face off in a Beanpot matchup that wasn’t, as the two teams that lost to Harvard fight for a strange kind of City of Boston consolation prize.

The last remaining matchup is probably the most lopsided on paper, as UMass welcomes the University of New Hampshire. But, as there always is in “amateur athletics,” there’s aa Cinderella story lurking here in the Hockey East. UNH topped Merrimack to get to Lowell, winning on the road across state lines in the process—can they do it again?

2. Big East Battle

The East is back, and it’s as Big as it ever was before.

The conference may not have the reputation of its predecessor and namesake, and it probably hasn’t earned it. But this season is as good as any season the conference has seen in some time, and the tournament is shaping up to look like another classic battle, one like many before that have gone this way—a blue-blooded behemoth in Villanova, looking to defend it’s honor and a national title, against perennial underdog and fan favorite Butler.

But like you’ll hear recurring guest Steve Lavin say in his return to the Chin Music Podcast, the Big East is as strong as it has ever been. The league will likely send not just Butler and Villanova to the national tournament, but as many as seven different entrants, as  Creighton has seemingly already punched its ticket, and squads like St. Johns, Providence, Marquette, and Xavier could play their way into the big dance with either an automatic big or by improving their bubble bid resume in the Big Apple.

The result is a tournament that offers storylines from top to finish Can Butler complete a Big East sweep of Villanova, and take some of the shine off that National title defense? Can teams like St. John’s, who Lavin called his team to watch in our interview, earn a chance at the dance?

The Big East is back, and to tell the truth, it hardly ever left.

3. Fight for Carolina 

The East is to college basketball what the South is to college football. While the states below the Mason-Dixon line are where not just the best one, but best two or three of the college football conferences largely reside, those that lie East of the Mississippi are where the best basketball is played.

I guess that makes folks like those in North Carolina and the rest of the southeast pretty damn lucky.

The fans in the Tar Heel state were reminded of just how lucky they were once again this weekend, and fans of the Tar Heels were even luckier. In what has been one of the more captivating and drama-filled seasons that North Carolina basketball has produced in a while, the school bearing the state’s name and nickname won the Atlantic Coast Conference outright after beating archrival Duke this weekend.

And UNC has plenty of reason the celebrate this week. They stand outright at the top of their league after beating their rival, late season revival and all, and will likely be rewarded with a #1 seed on Selection Sunday.

But they best not celebrate too hard—Duke still projects as the most talented team in the NCAA tournament, and if the Tar Heels want to hoist the trophy that really matters, they will likely have to beat Coach K’s crew again,

4. Wherefore art thou Boogie? 

demarcus-cousins-trade-reaction

I guess it was bound to happen eventually, no matter how unlikely it may have seemed at the moment: Boogie Cousins finally got his first W as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.

This trade, unsurprisingly, is going to be an interesting and inherently imperfect chapter of Cousins’ career. The boisterous big man won’t get a chance to be the best offensive option on a playoff contender—he won’t even get to be the best low post option. While this trade is almost certainly an upgrade for Cousins chances of playing in meaningful late-season and postseason basketball games, it was more a lateral move than a move up the ladder. He went from one bad situation to another—in Sacramento, he had no complimentary players whatsoever to work off of, and in New Orleans, his best teammate plays the same position as he does, and does it more effectively, albeit in a different manner.

That’s not much better than what he was working with in Sacramento, even if it seems rosier on the surface. And with only a few months before he inevitably hits the open market, continued struggles from the Pelicans and a playoff absence or early exit is going to further polarize basketball fans—is Boogie a talented player trapped in the worst of circumstances and stopped by obstacles outside of his control at every turn, or an obstacle to success in and of himself?

Odds are, you already had an answer to that question picked out, and the events of the last few weeks or the next few weeks won’t be enough to change your mind.

5. Picking from the scrap heap 

NFL free agency is a fickle beast.

On one hand, there aren’t very many ways to improve your team quickly in the modern NFL and finding an impactful addition on the open market is a good way to do so with pace. On the other, though, most names on the market have earned that status from past performance, and often have their best days behind them. For every Oliver Vernon, who is handed a big contract and pays big dividends, there’s a Brock Osweiler, who signs a costly contract and doesn’t produce. And if football fans are being honest, they’ll probably admit there’s more of the latter more than the former.

That’s why the New York Giants will be wise to walk carefully in the coming weeks and months and assume that their past success guarantee more of the same in the future. The team has been mentioned in the same breath as two of the biggest free agents in the waters in 2017, and a pair of players that have plenty of problems attached to those big names. If you believe everything you read, there’s a pretty high chance that the Big Blue offense will be looking to Adrian Peterson or Brandon Marshall for a boost in 2017.

And there’s no doubt that the idea of adding Marshall or Peterson to a star-studded Giants offensive unit holds plenty of promise and potential, but it also holds plenty of risks. Remember Giant fans, and football fans everywhere—there’s a reason these incredibly talented players are on the market. That doesn’t mean there’s no value to be found but tread lightly, as the team seems to be doing so far.

6. World Baseball Classic

With an upset win by Israel over Korea, the 2017 World Baseball Classic kicked off on Monday, even if many American fans, even fans of the country’s supposed pastime, didn’t quite get the memo.

Listen, you’ll rarely catch me complaining about a chance to watch meaningful baseball, and the same goes for international competition, so the WBC should be tailor made for fans like me. Just look at how excited I got over the World Cup of Hockey—I’m the target for these sorts of things.

But more times than not, the WBC just doesn’t move the needle for me. Maybe it’s the long summer slog that is the baseball season, maybe it’s the United States dominance of the global game in every arena other than this, maybe it’s something else entirely, but the event just doesn’t attract attention from most fans, myself included.

Instead, most fans just hope that as few of their favorite players as possible play in the event, especially the non-American ones, and that the ones that do stay healthy. I certainly didn’t see any invitations to watch parties in the mail.

Maybe a preseason tournament isn’t the answer for baseball, and something in Winter, where there’s no other hardball to distract and the injury risk is minimal, could hit the right notes. But ultimately, there’s plenty of time on the calendar already reserved for a baseball game, and I think there just isn’t a market for international competition.

7. Nifty Nikita

Poor Robin Lehner. First, the announcer does him the courtesy of reminding every viewer that the Buffalo Sabres netminder is the definition of imperfect against the shootout this year, then Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov makes sure that every hockey fan with a pair of eyes and ears would find out that piece of trivia, as he make Lehner look as bad as he has in any of those shootout goals this year.

This is one of those hockey clips that just boggles your mind. It takes two or three looks to definitively determine what Kucherov does to put the puck in the net, a few more to convince yourself he did it on purpose, and a few more to realize just how brilliant of a move it was. Even his teammate Steven Stamkos marveled at the feat, and he’s apparently seen #86 bust the move out before.

But make no mistake dear reader, this is not something out of the ordinary for Kucherov, who has been performing superhuman feats with stunning regularity as of late. He ended last month with a natural hat trick that looked like three replays of the same goal:

Then carried that performance into a scoring streak that now stands at six games. Kucherov has certainly had a season to remember after he signed a new contract over the summer, leading the team in plus/minus (+11) points (63) and goals (28) so far this year, and sits in second behind Viktor Hedman with 35 assists and third behind defensemen Hedman and Anton Stralman in time on ice (he’s first among forwards.)

I’ve long salivated at the idea of Kucherov wearing Isles colors, as I discussed this summer with frequent podcast guest Arthur Staple. That probably won’t happen, however—Kucherov is quickly becoming the best player on Steve Yzerman’s roster, whether or not Stamkos is active on a given day. My guess is he’ll be inFlorida for some time.

8. Ho-Sang is here

In the absence of an already-shinning star on the right wing like Nikita Kucherov, my beloved Islanders will likely be resting their hopes on the shoulders of young Joshua Ho-Sang, who finally made his long-awaited blue-and-orange debut last week in a victory over the Dallas Stars.

The youngster has yet to leave his mark on the score sheet, as he’s been held without a point in a win, loss and shootout loss in the NHL so far. And while I’m certain he’s eager to make an impact after plenty of talk, good and bad, surrounding his nascent career, he’s been good while on the ice so far.

And he’s kept himself out of trouble so far. No late arrivals, and he’s been very composed in talking to the media, even handling the madness surrounding his choice of uniform number with some surprising grace given the year on his birth certificate.  But even if he’s saying all the right things off of it, the Islanders and Ho-Sang himself want to see his play on the ice do the talking—and I’m sure those points will come soon enough.

The question is whether they’ll arrive in time to keep JHS with the big team long-term.

9. Deadline debrief

The Islanders trade deadline was somehow both highly eventful and surprisingly quiet at the same time. The team didn’t make a single transaction with another team in the NHL, but they were involved in rumors involving players at every position on the ice and at every level of the NHL game, from star centers to cast-off AHL goaltenders.

But now that a few days have passed and three games have been played since the deadline expired, what do we make of this Islanders team, and season?

In one hand, the team has made a charge with its roster under new coach Doug Weight, are getting players like Travis Hamonic, Cal Clutterbuck and Shane Prince back from injury, as well as experimenting with in-house additions like the aforementioned Ho-Sang. And like Brian Compton pointed out in last week’s podcast, none of the players moved at the deadline seemed to be the kinds the Isles coveted—one that could make an immediate and large impact on a team that’s firmly on the fence of contending and rebuilding.

But that’s of little consolation to the fans, who are seeing a team they thought was rising in the new NHL fall quickly, and who likely not feel much solace in a narrow playoff appearance and first-round beatdown. What is the harm in trading a low-value asset (like a mid/late/conditional draft pick) for a Drew Stafford-type player? IT certainly cannot make the team much worse.

Ultimately, though, if Joe Sakic really did move the goal posts on Garth Snow when it comes to Matt Duchene and acquiring the centerman was off the table, there wasn;t much to be done. While it’s one of the more tired cliches you’ll hear this time of the year, it seems Snow really did think there was no point to making a move for the sake of making a move.

Even if it wouldn’t cost much in assets, the addition of a Stafford or another similar rental would mean Ho-Sang would be back in Bridgeport along with other young forwards hoping to make an appearance on the major league club this year, and less ice time for young players like Ho-Sang, Beau, and Prince. Snow felt comfortable and confident enough, both in his status as GM (sorry fans, he isn’t going anywhere) and in the team he has right now, that he didn’t feel forced into making a move.

On the surface, that’s a position of strength. But Snow’s tenure is marked with times the Isles overplayed what may have been a strong hand—here’s hoping that hasn’t happened again.

That’ll do it for this edition—have a great week everyone! For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter.

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