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Stress over Masai Ujiri’s future with Raptors just beginning – Sportsnet.ca



For the moment, there is time to exhale, breathe deeply, and exhale again.

The Toronto Raptors were never likely to make a significant move before the NBA trade deadline passed Thursday afternoon.

But now the focus can be entirely on the group at hand, the one that has a chance to win a franchise-record 60 games, the one that has the third-best record in the league.

From Toronto’s point of view the biggest deal of all is the one that’s not going down, at least for now.

The New York Knicks no longer have a job opening with Masai Ujiri’s name on it.

All indications are that the Knicks have opted to replace former president Steve Mills with prominent player agent Leon Rose.

The move should temporarily quell the fevered speculation around the possibility of Ujiri bolting – either to the Knicks, where there no longer appears to be an obvious job available, or anywhere else at the moment.

That Knicks owner James Dolan was so easily distracted from his widely-reported determination to lure Ujiri to dig New York out of 20 years of dysfunction is telling.

Basically Dolan is going to Dolan.

“You can give him all the advice, all the guidance, all the background and he’s still going to do what he wants to do. He moves to the beat of his own drum,” a source familiar with the Knicks’ search told me Tuesday when the rumours bubbled up again.

Even if the wheels were being greased to ease Ujiri to the Knicks at some point – and multiple league sources have confirmed to me that the Raptors executive has seen the Knicks as a viable destination, depending on timing – there was always the possibility that Dolan would veer into another direction, and he did.

It probably didn’t help that Larry Tanenbaum — Raptors minority owner and chairman of the NBA board of governors – was not about to make it easy for the Knicks to poach the architect of the Raptors’ success.

Whether that involved Tanenbaum appealing directly to Dolan or to NBA commissioner Adam Silver or both, the sense is Raptors ownership was emphatic: there would be no cooperation from them to make Ujiri’s exit at any time in advance of the natural end of his contract in the summer of 2021 any easier.

Faced with the possibility of massive demands for compensation, obstacles to granting permission to talk, and the message that the tampering radar would be on full, Dolan has apparently chosen the bird in the hand rather than waiting to see when Ujiri could be flushed out.

Back in Toronto there remains some toothpaste to push back in the tube, however.

The immediate question is if and when Ujiri will sign a new deal with the Raptors – the only measure that would put to rest speculation on his long-term future with the team he is poised to lead to the playoffs for the seventh straight season, this time while defending an NBA title.

My understanding of the situation is that though there have been some preliminary discussions between Ujiri and the ownership group at MLSE, nothing has changed in the past month regarding the Raptors president’s desire to not address his contract status until the summer of 2020 at the earliest and maybe all the way to 2021. That doesn’t mean MLSE won’t get a chance to pitch him on a new deal, but there’s no guarantee Ujiri won’t push his decision as far out as possible.

Why was ownership slow off the mark in initiating contract talks with Ujiri?

That he had two years left on his deal, a championship bonus to spend and the principals were all embarking on a compressed, post-championship summer schedule is the best explanation I’ve come up with.

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Ujiri certainly has no incentive to push things along in the meantime. The longer he waits the more his leverage will build. Not only will he be entering the final year of his deal in 2020-21, all his top basketball staff are in the same boat.

Not that he should need it, but it’s impossible to navigate NBA waters as successfully as Ujiri has over his career without understanding the benefits of negotiating from a position of strength.

But considering how strong a relationship Ujiri has with Tanenbaum (“he’s like a son,” the Raptors chairman said in the championship dressing room back in June when reports of the Washington Wizards’ play for Ujiri surfaced), it’s interesting to speculate about what might be holding Ujiri back even now with the opportunity in New York apparently past.

One clue could be the future status of the eight-member MLSE board and what kind of company Ujiri would be signing up to spend the prime years of his career with.

Since being recruited from the Denver Nuggets – where it should be pointed out, Ujiri passed on opportunities to sign an extension and worked through to end of his contract before leaving for Toronto – in 2013, Ujiri has enjoyed a charmed corporate existence.

The Raptors are owned by MLSE, which in turn is owned by Tanenbaum (25 per cent) and Rogers Communications and BCE (37.5 per cent each), and which owns the Maple Leafs, Toronto FC and Scotiabank Arena among other properties.

As it relates to the basketball operation, Ujiri’s reporting structure has been fairly streamlined.

Tanenbaum could always be counted on to be in his corner. Tanenbaum was in the bidding to bring the NBA to Toronto in the early 1990s. The 2019 title was a dream come true. He has always been all in.

Over the years, Bell chief executive officer George Cope became a staunch ally too. Cope played basketball at the university level and is a passionate and knowledgeable NBA fan. The potential for basketball’s growth in Toronto and Canada didn’t have to be explained to him. Moreover, as one of the driving forces behind the Bell Let’s Talk Day initiative to raise funds and awareness around mental health, he could appreciate Ujiri’s passion for his Giants of Africa Foundation.

With Tanenbaum and Cope in his corner, Ujiri could feel confident that his vision for the basketball operation could unfold relatively seamlessly. The Raptors’ new practice facility, the addition of the G-League franchise, a commitment to reward staff and to go into the luxury tax when needed are all evidence.

But Cope retired as Bell CEO last month and his term on the MLSE board is up this summer.

Will the incoming Mirko Bibic replicate his predecessor’s basketball passion?

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Given that the Rogers side of the ownership group haven’t been as directly tied in with the day-to-day operations of the team, it makes sense that Ujiri might be looking for reassurances that the new-look board of directors will share his vision and passion, neither of which come cheap.

For the first time since Ujiri came to work in Toronto there is some uncertainty.

In that same vein, the status of Tanenbaum could be worth watching.

Tanenbaum is 75 and in robust health, but it’s fair to wonder if his influence within MLSE is forever. Is there a timeline during which a change of control could be required? What would MLSE look like then?

More broadly: after a period of aggressive expansion and a fairy tale championship, you can assume Ujiri would want to feel confident about MLSE’s future ambitions and their willingness to compete in a world where payrolls crack $200-million and beyond.

Do they want to stand out? Not just in the NBA, but beyond?

Suggesting that Ujiri would be satisfied working for a nice Canadian NBA franchise that won a title once and is content to string together a few winning seasons here or there is to suggest you don’t understand the man.

And on that subject, how much do they really value the charitable work he does? Enough to make a donation and provide some back-office logistical support as they do now?

Or enough to help him make it as big as Ujiri wants it to be? To have a presence throughout Africa, rather than a handful of countries? To help grow the sport and move the needle across the continent?

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The trade deadline is over and the Raptors can now get on with the business of winning games and positioning themselves for what is looking like a spirited title defence.

For the moment, concerns about Ujiri’s immediate status have passed.

But in the meantime, MLSE will need to figure out what kind of organization they are and what kind of basketball franchise they want to have when the time comes to talk about the future with their most forward-looking employee.

Catch your breath, things are just getting started.

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Toffoli acquisition shows Canucks believe in mounting playoff run – Sportsnet.ca



VANCOUVER – If you didn’t understand the Tyler Toffoli trade when it was first reported, it made a lot more sense at 6:04 p.m. PT on Monday.

That’s when Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning, after confirming he had surrendered Tim Schaller, a solid prospect in Tyler Madden and a second-round pick to get Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings, announced in a press release that heavy forward Micheal Ferland is out for the season with a concussion and first-line winger Brock Boeser will miss another three weeks – minimum – with fractured rib cartilage.

The Canucks may need Toffoli to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Benning, who will explain the trade at a press conference Tuesday morning, told Sportsnet in December that he hoped to add another top-six winger this season. That search became a little more urgent when Boeser’s injury on Feb. 8 against Calgary was followed six days later by another failed comeback by Ferland, who lasted only one period of an AHL game before going back to the injured list with concussion symptoms that have limited him to just 14 NHL games this season.

Boeser has played 56 games — without any goals in the last 11 of them — and there is no way to know when he will play his 57th.

Toffoli was always one of the Canucks’ preferred options because he is a proven supporting scorer who plays the fast, direct, heavy game that Vancouver coach Travis Green preaches, and should fit instantly alongside Bo Horvat and former Kings linemate Tanner Pearson.

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After enduring his worst season last year in the NHL, with just 13 goals and 34 points in 82 games, Toffoli is having a bounce-back campaign. His hat trick in his final game with the Kings, Saturday’s 3-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche, gave the 27-year-old 18 goals and 34 points in 58 games.

His 18 goals would be third on the Canucks, one ahead of Horvat and Pearson.

Toffoli has been among the NHL’s most active shooters the last 10 weeks and led the Kings with an even-strength shots-for percentage of 57.4, which is backed up by an expected-goals-for percentage of 57.3.

Toffoli is on an expiring contract paying him $4.6 million, which is why it was important for the Canucks to pass on to the Kings depth forward Tim Schaller and his bloated $1.9-million cap hit. But the newest Canuck is young enough to re-sign, and the team hopes that if Toffoli is successful with Horvat and his old buddy, Pearson, he will want to stay in Vancouver.

The Canucks, however, need to re-sign starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and would like to re-sign defenceman Chris Tanev, another potential unrestricted free agent, so it would be naïve for now to think of Toffoli as anything but a rental.

He should make the Canucks better, and he could prove vital if Boeser stays on the injured list. Green has replaced Boeser on the first power-play unit with checking centre Brandon Sutter. We’re pretty sure Toffoli is an upgrade.

But unless you win the Stanley Cup, all rental trades must be gauged by costs in the future.

After all, Derek Roy for a second-round pick and Kevin Connauton seemed like a reasonable idea for the Canucks as a deadline rental back in 2013.

Madden, a 2018 third-round pick who is having an outstanding sophomore season at Northeastern University, is a good prospect. But he is also a 160-pound centre who wasn’t going to play ahead of Horvat, Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette anytime in the next several years.

If you listed the Canucks’ top-five prospects, Madden doesn’t make it. Vancouver is keeping Vasily Podkolzin, Nils Hoglander, Olli Juolevi, Kole Lind and Mike DiPietro. There are probably at least another couple of prospects ahead of Madden.

The real cost to the Canucks is that second-round pick, which was not expected to be in play this deadline because Benning surrendered his first-rounder to get J.T. Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning last June. Miller has merely been one of the best three Canucks all season, so no one is asking for a do-over on that one.

Toffoli was one of the better rental wingers available and Benning and his staff obviously felt in the wake of Boeser’s injury that this was a deal the Canucks needed and could afford.

The right winger is expected to practise with the Canucks on Tuesday. Vancouver plays the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday and is just 2-4-1 in its last seven games.

The Canucks were passed in the Pacific Division by the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday and the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday. Vancouver’s playoff cushion has deflated to just four points, which may be another reason Benning was motivated to move for Toffoli now rather than waiting until nearer Monday’s trade deadline to check on NHL inventory and prices.

But beyond the Canucks’ present scuffling, remember they are still further ahead in their evolution than most people expected them to be with 23 games to go. They led their division for a month, boast a potent attack driven by rising stars in Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and still have a goalie in Markstrom under contract who should be a Vezina Trophy candidate this season.

They’ve also beaten nearly every top team in a Western Conference that is without a formidable giant. No team is fearful of what they’ll find should they make the playoffs. They just need to get there. The Canucks believe they have as a good a chance as anyone. And on Tuesday they got a little bit better.

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Astros’ Francis Martes suspended for 2020 season following drug test – Sportsnet.ca



NEW YORK — Houston Astros pitcher Francis Martes was suspended for the 2020 season following his second positive test for a performance-enhancing substance under baseball’s major league drug program.

Martes tested positive for Boldenone, the commissioner’s office said Monday. Boldenone is sold under the brand name Equipose and is used commonly on horses.

A 24-year-old right-hander, Martes is on the Astros’ 40-man major league roster but hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2017.

He was suspended last March 12 for 80 games following a positive test for Clomiphene, a women’s fertility drug that has been used by some athletes to counter side effects of steroids use. Martes returned Aug. 21 and made two starts for the rookie level Gulf Coast Astros and one for Quad Cities of the Class A Midwest League. He was 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA in 5 1/3 innings.

Martes’ ban isn’t quite the Houston-related cheating punishment fans and players have clamoured for around baseball. The Astros have been pummeled via the press by opposing teams since opening spring training, with many expressing disappointment that no players were suspended for their sign-stealing scam.

Martes did not have a statement, the players’ association said.

“Throughout our system, players are educated through MLB’s drug prevention and treatment programs,” the Astros said in a statement. “We hope that Francis will learn from this experience moving forward.”

He is the second player suspended this year under the big league program. Colorado pitcher Justin Lawrence was suspended for 80 games following a positive test for the performance-enhancing substance Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (DHCMT). Lawrence also has yet to make his big league debut.

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Ryan Newman hospitalized after fiery crash at Daytona 500 – CBC.ca



Ryan Newman flipped across the finish line, his Ford planted upside down and engulfed in flames, a grim reminder of a sport steeped in danger that has stretched nearly two decades without a fatality.

At the finish line, Denny Hamlin made history with a second straight Daytona 500 victory in an an overtime photo-finish over Ryan Blaney, a celebration that quickly became muted as word of Newman’s wreck spread.

“I think we take for granted sometimes how safe the cars are,” Hamlin said. “But number one, we are praying for Ryan.”

Roughly two hours after the crash, NASCAR read a statement from Roush Fenway Racing that said Newman is in “serious condition, but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life threatening.”

WATCH | Ryan Newman involved in terrifying crash at Daytona 500:

Ryan Newman was leading the race when he was involved in a crash that sent his car spinning before it caught on fire. 2:08

NASCAR scrapped the traditional victory lane party for Hamlin’s third Daytona 500 victory, rocked by Newman’s accident 19 years after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt was the last driver killed in a NASCAR Cup Series race.

Newman had surged into the lead on the final lap when Blaney’s bumper caught the back of his Ford and sent Newman hard right into the wall. His car flipped, rolled, was hit on the driver’s side by another car, and finally skidded across the finish line in flames.

It took several minutes for his car to be rolled back onto its wheels. The 2008 Daytona 500 winner was placed in a waiting ambulance and taken directly to a hospital, and the damage to his Mustang was extensive. It appeared the entire roll cage designed to protect his head had caved.

Drivers were stricken with concern, including a rattled Corey LaJoie, the driver who hit Newman’s car as it was flipping.

“Dang, I hope Newman is ok,” he posted on Twitter. “That is [the] worst case scenario and I had nowhere to go but [into the] smoke.”

Hamlin is the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1995 to win consecutive Daytona 500s, but his celebration in victory lane was subdued.

Hamlin said he was unaware of Newman’s situation when he initially began his celebration. It wasn’t until Fox Sports told him they would not interview him on the frontstretch after his burnouts that Hamlin learned Newman’s incident was bad.

“It’s a weird balance of excitement and happiness for yourself, but someone’s health and their family is bigger than any win in any sport,” he said. “We are just hoping for the best.”

Team owner Joe Gibbs apologized after the race for the winning team celebration.

“We didn’t know until victory lane,” Gibbs said. “I know that for a lot of us, participating in sports and being in things where there are some risks, in a way, that’s what they get excited about. Racing, we know what can happen, we just dream it doesn’t happen. We are all just praying now for the outcome on this.”

Runner-up Blaney said the way the final lap shook out, with Newman surging ahead of Hamlin, that Blaney got a push from Hamlin that locked him in behind Newman in a move of brand alliance for Ford.

“We pushed Newman there to the lead and then we got a push from the 11 … I was committed to just pushing him to the win and having a Ford win it and got the bumpers hooked up wrong,” he said. “It looked bad.”

Track workers attend to Ryan Newman, driver of the #6 Koch Industries Ford, following a crash during the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Hamlin had eight Ford drivers lined up behind him as the leader on the second overtime shootout without a single fellow Toyota driver in the vicinity to help him. It allowed Newman to get past him for the lead, but the bumping in the pack led to Newman’s hard turn right into the wall, followed by multiple rolls and a long skid across the finish line.

Hamlin’s win last year was a 1-2-3 sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing and kicked off a yearlong company celebration in which Gibbs drivers won a record 19 races and the Cup championship. Now his third Daytona 500 win puts him alongside six Hall of Fame drivers as winners of three or more Daytona 500s. He tied Dale Jarrett — who gave JGR its first Daytona 500 win in 1993 — Jeff Gordon and Bobby Allison. Hamlin trails Cale Yarborough’s four wins and the record seven by Richard Petty.

This victory came after just the second rain postponement in 62 years, a visit from President Donald Trump, a pair of red flag stoppages and two overtimes. The 0.014 margin of victory was the second closest in race history, and Hamlin’s win over Martin Truex Jr. in 2016 was the closest finish in race history.

That margin of victory was 0.01 seconds. The win in “The Great American Race” is the third for Toyota, all won by Hamlin. Gibbs has four Daytona 500 victories as an owner.

“I just feel like I’m a student to the game. I never stop learning and trying to figure out where I need to put myself at the right time,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t always work. We’ve defied odds here in the last eight years or so in the Daytona 500, but just trust my instincts, and so far they’ve been good for me.”

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