A touch of perspective on the playoff-bound Blue Jays in this asterisk-shortened big-league season: Nineteen times in Jays history the club has finished in the top eight in the American League and not qualified for the playoffs.
Nineteen different times. Longer seasons then. Fewer playoff teams.
Six of those top-eight teams were run by the somewhat despised J.P. Ricciardi. Four of the teams were run by Gord Ash. Both of whom were considered semi-failures after the combined 14 seasons they spent as general manager in the post-Pat Gillick years.
There is, of course, some celebration now as this unlikely Blue Jays team, a few games over .500 in a weak American League, heads to the playoffs Tuesday and, really, there should be. But understand this: In any other year the season would be coming to an end Sunday and tomorrow the Jays would be cleaning out their lockers and talking optimistically about next year.
Looking back, if any of the previous general managers deserve a reconsideration of their time in Toronto, it would be Ricciardi. His teams played in an American League East during the hottest era of Yankees-Red Sox madness.
Ricciardi was GM for eight years, six times his team finished top eight in the league, good enough for the playoffs this year, but not when he was around.
In his eight seasons, the Yankees averaged a remarkable 98 wins a year with the Bosox not far behind at 94. Ricciardi’s Jays had 87 wins once, 86 wins twice, over 80 two other times. Realistically, you can count at least 12 Blue Jays teams over the years, and maybe more, that were more equipped, more talented and more fundamentally sound than this year’s team.
But there are no recounts now for Ricciardi or for Ash. They got little applause for their work. Perhaps, in retrospect, they deserved better.
THIS AND THAT
I’m confused. More than usual. Charlie Montoyo insists that Hyun-jin Ryu is fine. Not hurt at all. Not even sore. But he won’t commit to him as his Game 1 starter in the playoffs. The Jays won nine of 12 games Ryu started this season, including the brilliant start Thursday against the Yankees. It’s a best-of-three. Don’t you need your best pitcher in the first game or is there some kind of strategy here thaat I’m unfamiliar with? … Reminds me of the year GM Gillick — against Cito Gaston’s best wishes — insisted that Tom Candiotti start Game 1 of a playoff series in 1991. It didn’t turn out well for Candiotti or the Jays against the Minnesota Twins … Teoscar Hernandez has Mike Trout offensive numbers this season. Honest … Have to like what Derek Jeter did after the COVID-ravaged Miami Marlins qualified for the playoffs after a rather crazy season. He called every member of the organization and congratulated them personally. The Jays called people, too. They called Pat Hentgen and Paul Quantrill and fired them … Watching Nate Pearson in the bullpen is reminiscent of Aaron Sanchez’s first and best big-league season when he was lights-out as a setup man … Alex Anthopoulos’ past six seasons: First place with the Blue Jays. First place with the Los Angeles Dodgers twice. First place with the Atlanta Braves three years in a row. That may not be comparable to John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox finishing first 11 years in a row in Atlanta, but impressive nonetheless … And you have to be hoping that Alejandro Kirk isn’t just a one-week wonder. He looks like a large package and a whole lot of fun … If I’m voting, Cavan Biggio is my Jays player of the year.
HEAR AND THERE
I keep telling people what a great Stanley Cup final this has been and they keep telling me that they don’t care and they aren’t watching … Game 2 of the Cup final had a television rating across Canada that was about one-third of Game 7 of the Raptors-Celtics series and less than half of the Toronto-Columbus non-playoff round of playoffs … Paul Coffey can’t stand the gratuitous videos being shown in arenas when former players returnfor a game in their old towns. “I find it embarrassing,” said the Hall of Famer. “Getting booed used to be a badge of honour in the NHL. The louder you were booed, the better player you were. I liked going back to my old cities and see how loud the booing would be.” … How is the NHL changing? “More teams are freeing up their defencemen to score than ever before,” said Scotty Bowman. “I think Peter Laviolette was the first guy to do it.” Heading into Saturday night, goal-scoring among playoff defencemen was up 58% over a year ago and up 52% over two seasons ago … The Leafs had two supposed playoff goals from defencemen: A short-handed goal by Cody Ceci and an empty-netter by Morgan Rielly. Offensively, the Leafs are trending in the wrong direction on the blue line and should be searching for both a right-handed defenceman and a hard-shooting defenceman when the off-season begins … Best way to make a Leafs fan cry? Show them the figures on Brayden Point’s contract. He’s been the Doug Gilmour of this year’s playoffs, high-energy and high-production, pulling in $4 to $5 million-plus less than Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner … LeBron James got 16 first-place votes for the NBA’s MVP award and wasn’t at all happy about finishing second, well behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, who received 85 first-place votes. And I wonder how it hit Connor McDavid, who received one first-place Hart Trophy vote when teammate Leon Draisaitl won the award with 91 votes. We don’t know what the voting was for the Ted Lindsay Award because the players announce the finalists for the trophy, but not the actual results.
SCENE AND HEARD
I can’t stop thinking that if Pascal Siakam had been just average, not terrible, the Raptors would have beaten the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Not sure they would have been tough enough to handle the Miami Heat and all of its options in the next round, but I sure would like to have seen it … The basketball world went close to insane when Anthony Davis hit a game-winning three against the Denver Nuggets. Like it never happened before? Just a few days earlier, Kyle Lowry passed to OG Anunoby with no time left for a forever-breathtaking winning three. The Davis shot was treated like man on the moon. The OG shot: In the U.S., it was other news … One letter away from being perfectly named: Tyler Herro … The best Toronto basketball-hockey name ever: Keon Clark … Eleven different NBA players, including Siakam, received votes for the MVP award. Jamal Murray didn’t get a sniff. Twelve different guards, including Lowry, received votes for the all-NBA teams. Again, Murray didn’t get a mention … The older that Denver coach Mike Malone gets, the more he looks like his dad, Brendan Malone — the first Raptors coach — in both body language and facial expressions.
AND ANOTHER THING
There is nothing more disheartening than what the Edmonton Football Club managed in a season without games. It got him rid of long-time equipment man and team conscience Dwayne Mandrusiak. He wasn’t just part of the club; he was part of the furniture, the history, the culture. And, by the way, hand in your cell phone, too. If the Jeopardy category were ‘Classless,’ the Mandrusiak parting would be a question … Pick your order: The three best quarterbacks in the NFL are Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson … You never want to say it’s the end, but it sure looks like Drew Brees is getting close to it …. Will all NFL players who aren’t injured please put up your hands? … As much as people try, you can’t compare the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Maple Leafs. Tampa has the best defenceman in the world and a top-three goalie. When the Leafs acquire that, let’s talk about it … If Nick Nurse is worth $8 million a year, what’s the starting price for Masai Ujiri, if there is a price at all? Fifteen million? Twenty? Whatever he wants, if he still wants to be in basketball … Forty-nine years after Frank Mahovlich played his last game for the Maple Leafs, a statue of him was erected outside of Scotiabank Arena. It was probably a few decades late. But there are silly people now demanding a statue for Kyle Lowry. Like tomorrow. What’s the hurry? If a statue is built for Lowry, that comes after retirement, not while he’s still active … Happy birthday to Terry Greer (63), Mike Schmidt (71), Clara Hughes (48), Steve Kerr (55), Bob McAdoo (69), Scottie Pippen (55), Daniel and Henrik Sedin (40), Chauncey Billups (44), Elliotte Friedman (50), Matt Shoemaker (34) and Randy Bachman (77) … And, hey, whatever became of Juan Guzman?
NURSE FINALLY CASHES IN
When you’ve kicked around the fringes of basketball for most of your adult life, barely making a living, operating cheque to cheque and season to season, it must feel almost surreal for Nick Nurse to finally hit it big at the age of 53.
To suddenly get life-changing money for Nurse and his family and probably his family’s family. That’s what $8 million a year can buy you, if the reports of Nurse’s annual salary are accurate, and why shouldn’t they be?
The figure, which translates to nearly $11 million a year Canadian, makes Nurse the highest-paid coach in the history of Canadian sport and his salary is not at all out of line when compared to what the best in the NBA are paid.
The dean of NBA coaches, Gregg Popovich, and probably the best of them, is paid $11 million a year in San Antonio. Doc Rivers, who has the odd combination title of team president and head coach of the Clippers, comes in at $10 million a season and Steve Kerr of Golden State is just below that at $9.5 million.
Just ahead of Nurse is Erik Spoelstra of Miami, who has been coaching the Heat for 11 seasons and just below him is the table-setter, Dwane Casey, who is being paid $7 million to coach the Pistons, the same money Rick Carlisle apparently makes in Dallas.
Still, it must be mind-boggling in a way to spend so much of your time on the fringes and now succeeding in the main stream. Mind boggling to be paid significantly more for the upcoming season than he has earned in the previous 30 working years.
NEW MAPLE LEAFS ASSISTANT COACH MACLEAN HAS SEEN IT ALL
Some interesting and unrelated tidbits about hockey lifer Paul MacLean, recently added to Sheldon Keefe’s Toronto coaching staff as the eye-in-the-sky for the Maple Leafs:
MacLean spent eight seasons as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Anaheim and Detroit. One of those seasons was Brendan Shanahan’s last with the Red Wings, who would be familiar with MacLean as both player and coach.
MacLean played for the Canadian Olympic team in 1980. Among his teammates were Dallas general manager Jim Nill and Hall of Famer Glenn Anderson. His coach on that team was former Leafs coach and current Leafs scout Tom Watt. MacLean’s son, A.J., was an assistant coach with Keefe, both with the Marlies and the Ontario Hockey League team in Sault Ste. Marie.
MacLean had his best seasons playing alongside the late Dale Hawerchuk In Winnipeg, where he scored 36, 32, 40 and 41 goals in his first four NHL years.
MacLean played in St. Louis when Curtis Joseph and Greg Millen were the goalies, and in his two years there, Brett Hull scored 72 and 86 goals, things you don’t see every day or almost any day.
Along the way, he also played with Gerard Gallant, Rod Brind’Amour, Steve Yzerman, and in pre-season games with a budding big-leaguer named Rick Bowness.
And somewhat strange about this hiring: Columbus brought him in last season to fix its power play. Clearly, John Tortorella wasn’t thrilled with how that worked out. When the Leafs lost to Columbus in the pre-playoff playoffs, MacLean happened to be on the Blue Jackets bench.
BOLTS COACH DESERVING OF CUP CROWN, IF IT HAPPENS
On a Saturday night in the Edmonton bubble, Jon Cooper coached in his 92nd career Stanley Cup playoff game in search of his first Stanley Cup championship. The number resonates in Toronto of all places because 92 is the number of post-season games Punch Imlach coached with the Maple Leafs en route to his four Stanley Cup championships. The most in Leafs history.
For Cooper, it has only seemed like a long time coming because the Tampa Bay Lightning has been a contender for six of his seven NHL seasons and this is his fourth playoff run of some length. Winning is what Cooper was known for before getting to the NHL, after giving up his career in law.
He won in the United States Hockey League and then advanced to the American Hockey League, where he won a championship on a team that included Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson, who have combined for 19 goals and 34 points this playoff season heading into Saturday night.
He almost won the Cup in 2015 but his goalie, Ben Bishop, went down in the final. He could well win the Cup without any real contribution from his captain, Steven Stamkos. Cooper has a superior roster, fine-tuned by the general manager, Julien BriseBois, but often coaching that kind of team is the most challenging. And in this very odd and unusual Stanley Cup season, Cooper is more than deserving of his first NHL crown.