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Canada’s World Cup qualifiers: What we learned in first games – Sportsnet.ca

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After more than 16 months without a competitive match, Canada’s men’s national team finally shook off the rust with a pair of victories in World Cup qualifying.

The Canadians opened their campaign last Thursday with a 5-1 win over Bermuda before thrashing the Cayman Islands 11-0 on Monday in record-setting fashion as the attention shifts to a busy June.

While this first round in qualifying is low risk, it’s worth keeping an eye on these games to see if any trends emerge for future matches.

Here’s what we learned in Canada’s opening two contests.

In-form players shine

Yes, it’s a shorthanded Bermuda and Cayman Islands, but after more than a year without playing together, it was encouraging for the squad to see its in-form players shine.

Alphonso Davies recorded three assists in the Bermuda victory before converting a pair of penalties versus the Cayman Islands. Davies, who was deployed as a winger and full-back in each game, respectively, completed 17 of 22 dribbles in those matches, highlighting his threat on the ball.

Cyle Larin was the beneficiary of those three Davies assists against Bermuda before following that up with a goal against the Cayman Islands. Having started as an inside forward with freedom to roam before being deployed as a No. 9 in the latter match. In fact, he wasn’t the only Canadian attacker to produce tremendous expected goals and other underlying numbers in these games.


Underlying numbers and stats for Canadian forwards in both March qualifiers. (data via MLSSoccer.com and Wyscout)

Tactical tweaks incoming?

One benefit to playing these games is gaining match practice whilst perfecting new tactics. Canada might be doing exactly that.

A significant chunk of the European contingent called up for these games, but with only one-and-a-half training sessions in the buildup to these games, head coach John Herdman didn’t have a lot of time to fine tune the tactical framework.

Despite that, there was a trend in both victories. It appeared Canada was set up in a fluid, asymmetrical 3-4-3 in possession and the average positioning from both games backs that up.

Against Bermuda (left, above), three defenders sat back, the midfield partnership of Stephen Eustaquio (No. 7) and Atiba Hutchinson (No. 13) formed a block of four with Alphonso Davies (No. 19) along with Richie Laryea (No. 22). Then the three forwards had freedom to roam, as did Davies and Laryea.

The same occurred against the Cayman Islands. This time it was the centre-backs and Samuel Piette (No. 6) sitting deep with midfielders Mark-Anthony Kaye (No. 14) and David Wotherspoon (No. 8) with the full-backs (Davies and Alistair Johnston).

“We started with a 4-3-3 and then that evolves with the movement and exchanges on that side of the field,” said Herdman. “We knew [Cayman Islands] were going to park the bus with a 5-4-1 and that opportunity to keep penetrating that inside channel was something we targeted. Those runs from behind, two behind, to break the deep block.”

Should Canada maintain this shape in future games, it would have several advantages for the side. Chief among them is the numerical advantage in defence to protect against counter-attacks, which was an issue in the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinals against Haiti and in the loss to the U.S. in November 2019.

There will be wrinkles to iron out, especially without a number of centre-backs available in this window. But with the European season wrapping up as Canada resumes World Cup qualifying, Herdman should have more time to work with his players.

“This team is becoming flexible,” Herdman stated. “We may use that as a principle or a philosophy to develop our tactical blueprints. But my feeling is, I’ll get more time with my European players in the buildup to those fixtures given that they’ll be off-season. Hopefully I can get more time and we can work more cohesively around tactical plans that clearly fit the game.”

Deepening player pool

Five years ago, a player of Jonathan David’s calibre missing an international window would’ve been devastating. Add injuries to Jonathan Osorio, Doneil Henry and Scott Kennedy, that could’ve rendered a roster thin.

Now, the quality of opposition helps, but it speaks to Canada’s growing player pool that it is able to call-up four readymade replacements in their places.

Defenders Alistair Johnston, Frank Sturing and Ricardo Ferreira all made their national-team debuts. Johnston and Sturing even scored their first goals in the Cayman Islands win. Eighteen-year-old forward Theo Corbeanu accomplished the same feats in this window, getting off the mark versus Bermuda.

Even the likes of David Wotherspoon, fresh off a Scottish League Cup triumph with St. Johnstone, proved their worth. Wotherspoon had three assists and a goal on Sunday against the Cayman Islands, but it wasn’t just the offensive contributions that caught the eye. He was covering ground defensively and executing smart runs to the inside of the Cayman defence to attempt a shot or set up a chance.

“Johnston, Wotherspoon, they did that all night,” Herdman said. “They were brilliant at just stretching that back line. Even when it didn’t feel like there was any depth there, they would keep making those runs.”

With at least two World Cup qualifiers (four if they win Group B) in June and a Gold Cup the following month, players like Wotherspoon are needed to fill both rosters. The fact they’re playing leading roles in games only supports their cases.

Eustaquio marks his territory

Of all the players who saw minutes in these games, few bolstered their stocks as much as Stephen Eustaquio.

Earning just his second cap in the win over Bermuda, Eustaquio displayed why he was one of the Canadian players to watch entering 2021.

Eustaquio was routinely breaking through Bermuda’s and Cayman Islands’ blocks with his passes, a trait that drastically alters the complexion of this team.

Throw in the ability to read games defensively at a high level, and Canada finally has its replacement for Atiba Hutchinson, who coincidentally started next to Eustaquio on Thursday.

“Eustaquio was really looking forward to actually playing with Atiba,” said Herdman. “He called us the week prior and was talking about the tactics and how he could work off Atiba. He’d been watching his games in Turkey.”

Even though he has just three caps, Eustaquio needs to be a fixture in this Canadian side. He’s producing majestic performances for Pacos de Ferreira every week, as noted in his statistical radar below.

“I think Stephen just has this instinct to be in the right space at the right time defensively,” said Herdman. “He’ll run all day. As the game went on, you started to see [Eustaquio and Hutchinson] find each other and move off each other at the angles.”

Should a transfer to a bigger club materialize, all the more reason to include Eustaquio in future lineups.

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Coyotes trade Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland to Canucks – Arizona Sports

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Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Arizona Coyotes during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at Gila River Arena on October 30, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Canadiens defeated the Coyotes 4-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes traded captain and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to the Vancouver Canucks, as well as forward Conor Garland, the team announced Friday.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro first reported talks of the deal.

In return, the Coyotes will get forwards Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel and the 9th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft that was used to select Dylan Guenther. Arizona also receives a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 seventh-round selection.

“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to thank Oliver for everything that he has done for the Coyotes the past 10 years,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said in a press release. “He is a tremendous player and person and we wish him and Conor the best of luck in the future.

“We are very pleased to acquire the ninth overall draft choice in this year’s NHL Draft along with Loui, Antoine and Jay. Loui and Jay are both Stanley Cup champions and along with Antoine, they are all solid veterans who will provide us with great leadership and experience.”

Ekman-Larsson, 30, has spent the entirety of his NHL career with the Coyotes after being selected sixth overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. The defenseman has 128 goals and 260 points over his Arizona career, for a total of 388 points.

Last season, Ekman-Larsson recorded three goals and 21 assists in 46 games. He has been the captain of the team for the last three seasons.

The Coyotes signed Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year, $66 million extension in the summer of 2018, a deal that has six more seasons left on it for $8.25 million each year. According to Gambadoro, Arizona will pay for roughly $1.2 million of that salary each of the next six years.

The 25-year-old Garland has been one of the Coyotes’ primary goal scorers in the previous two seasons. The winger had a team-high 22 goals in the 2019-20 season and 12 last season.

Garland is a restricted free agent this offseason.

Beagle, 35, had five points in 30 games last season while the 31-year-old Roussel contributed four points in 35 games. Lastly, the 36-year-old Eriksson played in only seven games.

Roussel is on an expiring deal worth $3 million next year, as are Beagle ($3 million) and Eriksson ($6 million).

The 2021 NHL Draft takes place on Friday.

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Sabres select Owen Power with No. 1 pick in 2021 NHL Draft – Sportsnet.ca

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The NHL draft turned Michigan maize and blue Friday night. And there’s a Hughes sibling reunion set to happen in New Jersey.

The Buffalo Sabres opened the draft by selecting Wolverines defenceman Owen Power with the top pick, and were immediately followed by the expansion Seattle Kraken choosing Michigan centre Matthew Beniers at No. 2. It marked the first time since 1969 that teammates went with the first two selections.

Three picks later, the Wolverines became college hockey’s first program to have three teammates go in the first round after the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Michigan winger Kent Johnson fifth.

“Extremely excited for Owen, Matty and their families. Its’ already a great night for Michigan Hockey. Go Blue,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson texted to The Associated Press after the Kraken made their selection.

That’s not all, however. Luke Hughes, who is committed to playing at Michigan, was chosen fourth overall by the the Devils, where the defenceman is united with brother Jack, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.

Hughes watched the draft on his family’s living room couch with both of his NHL-playing brothers, rounded out by Quinn, who was selected seventh overall by Vancouver in 2018. Jack Hughes immediately jumped up and began hugging Luke upon hearing Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald announce the pick.

Ontario junior centre Mason McTavish was the only player without Michigan ties to round out the top five, after he was selected third overall by Anahiem.

The draft was held remotely for a second consecutive year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with commissioner Gary Bettman hosting the draft in New Jersey, where he introduced teams to make their selections from their home arenas.

On a day the Sabres traded Rasmus Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers, general manager Kevyn Adams continued his offseason bid to overhaul a struggling franchise by choosing the stalwart defenceman’s heir apparent. Power is listed at six-foot-six and 213 pounds and was the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau’s top-ranked North American prospect. After scoring three goals and adding 13 assists in 26 games during his freshman season at Michigan, the 18-year-old Power cemented his draft stock by helping Canada win the world hockey championships.

From Mississauga, Ontario, Power is leaning toward returning to school for his sophomore season, something Adams has said would not play a factor into his selection.

“Not thinking about it too much right now, trying to enjoy the night. That’s something I’ll worry about later,” Power said of his future, while surrounded by his family and friends in his backyard.

As for a message to Sabres fans, he said: “I’m super excited to be part of the franchise and ready to get going.”

Power was the third player drafted first directly out of college, joining Michigan State forward Joe Murphy in 1986 and Boston University goalie Rick DiPietro in 2000. And he became the 16th defenceman to go No. 1 since 1970, and first since the Sabres chose Rasmus Dahlin at No. 1 in 2018.

Power and Dahlin have similar two-way, play-making skills, and will have the opportunity to form the backbone of a retooled defensive unit for years to come.

Beniers was ranked sixth overall among North American prospects. He had 14 goals and 24 points in 24 games for the Wolverines.

In 1969, Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif were Montreal Junior Canadiens teammates, who were selected with the first two picks by Montreal. In 1963, Garry Monahan and St. Michael’s Juveniles teammate Peter Mahovlich were selected first and second.

The Sabres made a splash earlier by adding a second first-round pick, 14th overall, and defenceman Robert Hagg in dealing Ristolainen to Philadelphia.

The trade is part of Adams’ bid to rebuild through youth after Buffalo finished last in the overall standings for a fourth time in eight seasons and extended its playoff drought to an NHL record-matching 10th year.

The acquired pick from Philadelphia is actually 13th in the draft order after the NHL stripped the Arizona Coyotes of their first-round pick, 11th overall, for testing players in violation of league’s combine policy.

The Coyotes, however, moved back into the first round by acquiring the Canucks’ pick, ninth overall, in a five-player trade that sent Arizona captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Vancouver earlier in the day.

The first European players selected were from Sweden in back to back selections. Defenceman Simon Edvinsson went sixth to the Detroit Red Wings, followed by under-sized forward William Eklund, who was chosen seventh by the San Jose Sharks.

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More people watched Seattle NHL expansion draft on ESPN2 than Cubs-Cards on ESPN – Awful Announcing

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In the grand scheme of things, 637,000 viewers nationally is not a huge number for a cable channel with any level of significant distribution. Most things on broadcast TV not only beat that, but beat it by quite a bit, and that kind of number isn’t usually even amongst the top cable broadcasts. However, the news that ESPN2 pulled that number in for its (NHL-produced, but featuring ESPN figures) coverage of the NHL expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken Wednesday night was certainly interesting, especially as so much of the actual news around that draft was reported in advance, and also given that their main-network coverage of the MLB game between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals drew fewer viewers. Here’s a comparison of Wednesday night sporting events from John Ourand of Sports Business Journal:

On the negative side, that draft didn’t even draw the numbers of studio show Pardon The Interruption (however, that airs on ESPN rather than ESPN2; they’re similar in distribution, but many people turn on main ESPN first). It also didn’t draw the numbers of early Olympic programming from NBCSN. On the positive side, it outdrew a national MLB game. And it drew more than the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft five years ago (595,000 on NBCSN for a combined broadcast of that draft and the NHL Awards). And it’s a good sign for ESPN, as this is their first big NHL event they aired under their new deal.

And yes, as Ourand noted in a follow-up tweet, that Cubs-Cards game didn’t have regional sports network blackouts, so Cubs and Cardinals fans could still watch it on their local RSNs. And most probably did, so it likely primarily pulled the national audience that didn’t have those RSNs. But it’s still interesting to see an ESPN2 event outdraw an ESPN event, especially when the ESPN event is a live game and the ESPN2 event is a one-team expansion draft (and one where most of the information was previously available to the public).

If ESPN versus ESPN2 programming decisions were made strictly from a standpoint of what they thought would draw more viewers, this result would go against that. That’s not entirely the case here, as the MLB on ESPN package comes with some restrictions on where games can air. But it’s still interesting to see the NHL expansion draft on ESPN2 outdraw a live MLB game between two prominent teams.

That is also perhaps further evidence that draft “spoilers” don’t always damage the ratings that much. That’s long been a debate, from the NFL’s heavy pushes against pick-tipping to the NBA’s more moderate approach (which sees pick-tipping still happen with some different language, and which hasn’t really led to obvious ratings losses).

In the case of this draft, figures who don’t work for expansion draft rightsholders Sportsnet (Canada) and ESPN (U.S.) reported many of the picks early, with Frank Seravalli (formerly of TSN, now of Daily Faceoff) and Pierre LeBrun (TSN/The Athletic) getting many of those, other national figures getting some more, and local reporters getting some others. So a mostly-full picture was available before the broadcast for those who wanted to find it. But that didn’t stop a significant amount of people from watching this, and that maybe shows that the league pushes against pick-tipping aren’t always that impactful.

[John Ourand on Twitter]

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