The Toronto Blue Jays have reached an inflection point in their history. After three seasons of skittering backward in the standings, the coming year should be better. It needs to be.
There are signs that after the past few seasons’ strategic retreat, the collection of young and emerging talent assembled by the Blue Jays will be prepared to step up and move the team’s fortunes in a positive direction. Maybe not into contention just yet, but something better than 67 wins.
You’d be hard-pressed, though, to find much optimism for the state of the team among the fanbase lately. Maybe it’s the echo chamber of snark and negativity that thrives on social media, but the overriding sentiment is frustration, and maybe even worse, a growing disheartenment and apathy with where the Blue Jays stand.
Some of this is simply the turgid rot of modern sports fandom, where a segment of every team’s fans believes that if they aren’t in ecstasy, then they should be affecting agony at the top of their voice. But some of it runs deeper, and some of it is less cynical and more true, and it should be a concern for the brain trust and stewards of the franchise.
The public trust in the Blue Jays is bottoming out, to a point where the management team can seemingly do no right. If they add starting pitchers like a Tanner Roark, or a Chase Anderson, it’s viewed as bargain shopping to raise the floor. And there’s not much reason to get excited about that.
If the Blue Jays take a serious run at players who may be slightly more skilled or revered, but come up empty, it feeds into the negative perception of the team. Either Toronto didn’t do enough to lock the player down, or nobody wants to come play for them. Both explanations leave fans demoralized and frustrated.
It has created a situation where, if the Blue Jays aren’t able to lock up a top player by the time they report to Dunedin in February, the season will begin to feel like another failure before it even begins.
This crisis of consumer confidence didn’t happen all at once. While there are arguments to be had over the team’s transactions in the past year, the messaging around the deals that sent long-serving players out of town for uninspiring returns helped to feed into a bitter pessimism about the team and those managing it.
From a purely rational perspective, one can’t blame the management team if they walk away from the off-season and pocket the “payroll flexibility” until a better player becomes available. But with the current perception of the team as low as it is, it’s hard to imagine how they could get away from the winter without making at least one big splash.
This isn’t an unprecedented situation. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Alex Anthopoulos found himself in the same spot. Following a disastrous 2012 season, in which manager John Farrell left for his “dream job” with a divisional rival, shortstop Yunel Escobar walked onto the field with homophobic slurs written on his eye black and the team’s future core seemingly imploded in unison, something needed to change to save the perception of the team.
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
By Christmas of that offseason, Anthopoulos had pulled off two mega deals to bring veterans, league-leaders, all-stars and a reigning Cy Young laureate. They brought back a well-liked manager (John Gibbons) and those blue uniforms — and their offseason boldness was rewarded with a level of reinvigorated fervor from the fans.
It didn’t actually work so well on the field, mind you. Not initially, at least, as the 2013 Blue Jays won just one more game (76) than the shambolic 2012 team. It took two more seasons before some of that massive haul could contribute to the moment when the team’s fortunes truly turned. But the big deals at least created the impression that the team could be bold if it needed to be.
There is some hazard in attempting to turn around the public perception all at once. The free agent market this year ran hotter and faster than any in recent memory, which left the Blue Jays – and many other teams – chasing after a scant few players at the top of everyone’s lists. It has left them in a situation where the decision of a single player could make or break their offseason, potentially sinking the customers’ trust that much more.
This is likely an argument for why teams shouldn’t wait until the perfect moment to begin adding substantively all at once when they are “ready”, and why they should always be looking to make their team better. But that’s another treatise for a another day.
It’s one thing to sneer at the notion of “winning the off-season,” but there comes a moment where if you don’t do something notable, you risk losing more fans’ faith.
Marcus Smart Heard Yelling At Teammates Following Game 2 Loss – RealGM.com
Marcus Smart reportedly yelled at his teammates in the locker room following the Boston Celtics’ 106-101 loss to the Miami Heat in game 2, according to Malika Andrews of ESPN.
The Celtics, who blew their second straight lead in the second half, are now down 2-0 in the series.
“Y’all on some bulls—,” Smart yelled while leaving the locker room. Several other teammates were also reportedly heard yelling following the game.
Smart did not talk to reporters after the game.
Brad Stevens, Kemba Walker, and Jayson Tatum all downplayed the situation, chalking it up to the emotion of the loss.
“It really just, a lot of emotions just flying around. Obviously we feel like we could have won, we should have won, but we didn’t. So just a lot of emotions flying around. That’s it,” said Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics were outscored 37-17 in the third quarter.
Walker added that the Celtics were simply outplayed during the third.
“Man, they outplayed us. They outplayed us. It’s really unacceptable on our behalf. It was just a really bad quarter for us. We didn’t continue to do the things that we did to get us up and get us that lead. I think we got kind of comfortable and those guys, they took great advantage of it. They played hard. They played really hard. They played a lot harder than us. They wanted it.”
Lightning cherishing every moment of opportunity for Cup Final redemption – Sportsnet.ca
EDMONTON — What I’ll remember most was the pure guttural scream.
It echoed up through Rogers Place when the Tampa Bay Lightning gathered 48 of the 52 members of their travelling party on the ice with the Prince of Wales Trophy to take a photo here Thursday night.
You’d never know that a celebration could be so emotional in an empty building because, until three days ago with the Dallas Stars, this was completely unprecedented.
The Lightning left their hearts out there. This was a moment six years in the making, or more, for so many members of this organization. And it was clear that booking a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was no less rewarding under these circumstances than it would have been before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19.
“It is so hard to explain, because regardless if there’s fans in the building or not, the exuberance and relief, it’s unparalleled how you feel inside,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “When you look back at this — and it’s not over — but we’ve been in a hotel for 54 straight days. And when people said this might be one of the hardest Cups to win, it might be one of the hardest Cups ever to win. There’s two of us left standing, they’re going through the exact same thing we are.
“You want your fans there, but it’s not about the fans, it’s about the players and the effort and dedication and perseverance they’ve put into this. And they’re the ones that deserve this, because they’ve done all the work.”
For the Lightning, it was also about Steven Stamkos, even though the captain hasn’t played a game since late February. He’s been rehabbing an undisclosed injury inside the NHL bubble without playing a game and was called out to join Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Alex Killorn for the trophy presentation with deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
The pride on Stamkos’s face was unmistakable. He let Hedman and the others who played in the six-game series victory over the New York Islanders touch the trophy — at least until Hedman skated it over to him with instructions to carry it into the team’s dressing room.
“It was obviously a great feeling,” said Hedman. “Even though Stammer’s not playing, he’s still the leader of this team and he’s such a good influence on the room. During practices and morning skates. He’s still a big reason that he’s here where we are.
“I’m just so happy for the whole group obviously to once again — you know, a few of us went there in 2015. To go back in the Final with the Lightning again is an unreal experience.”
They had good reason to believe this would have happened sooner. It was a young team that lost the 2015 Stanley Cup Final to Chicago in six games.
Tampa has been the NHL’s top team in basically every measurable category since that happened but they’ve experienced nothing but heartbreak. A Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018, and then a record-breaking 62-win season last year followed by a sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Losing this would have been the ultimate gut punch.
The Lightning were the better team against New York, but there’s a price to be paid against the Islanders. Brayden Point was in and out of the series, Ondrej Palat took a shot off the foot during Thursday’s series-clinching 2-1 victory and Anthony Cirelli left for a time after an accidental knee-on-knee collision with Anders Lee.
It was Cirelli who finally froze the clock in overtime with his first goal and first point of the season.
The celebration was incredible. These guys understood on a fundamental level what this meant.
“You have to cherish these moments and try your best to take advantage of them,” said Cooper. “We’ve been knocking at the door and it can get frustrating. It can make the summers, time-wise they’re so short, but mentality-wise they’re long. You just have to believe in your process and you have to believe in what you’re doing and you have to have players that jump on board.
“In the end, it’s a player’s game.”
The players celebrated this one together. The Lightning brought every extra skater they have here on the ice for this Eastern Conference Championships photo. There was Mathieu Joseph and his wonderful hair, Braydon Coburn and his thick playoff beard, Stamkos and his ever-present smile.
“Definitely a special moment for that group and then to get the whole team involved,” said veteran defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “Great moment.”
Hedman is always the last player on the ice after a Tampa victory and had to wait out a four-question Killorn interview with NBC after they eliminated the Islanders. You could hear him banging his stick while Killorn spoke with Pierre McGuire inside this empty building.
He knew his teammates were celebrating without them but still wouldn’t skate off.
What a cool scene, all of it.
The Lightning will be back out here against the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night and they didn’t shy away from the fact they may have emptied a couple veins just to get the opportunity.
“As for gas in the tank, I guess we’ll see,” said Cooper. “This is unlike any other Stanley Cup Final where we’d get days rest. If you don’t go seven, you usually get days rest. We’re not here, but if you were going to tell me, ‘Hey Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup Final.
“You’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game but you’re going to get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”
Toronto Maple Leafs add Manny Malhotra to coaching staff – TSN
It’s been a whirlwind few days for Manny Malhotra, who on Thursday officially left the Vancouver Canucks organization to become the Maple Leafs’ newest assistant coach.
“I had a lot of conversations with [Canucks’ head coach Travis Green] here and then after talking with [Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe], I was left with about two days to make the decision,” Malhotra told TSN on Thursday.
“For me, it came down to [the fact] this is an opportunity to advance my coaching career and be a part of a really good organization with a lot of good talent to work with. So I’m very happy at the conclusion of this whole process, but it was a very hectic four or five days.”
Malhotra comes to the Leafs after a three-year stint as an assistant coach in Vancouver, joining Dave Hakstol in rounding out Keefe’s staff. A native of Mississauga, Ont., Malhotra’s French-Canadian and South Asian background make him one of the few visible minority coaches in the NHL.
He replaces the recently departed Paul McFarland, who became general manager and head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs in August.
TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun reported that the Leafs also spoke with Rocky Thompson and Bruce Boudreau about the job before landing on Malhotra. Thompson had been the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves and is now joining the San Jose Sharks’ staff for next season, while Boudreau has been a free agent since the Minnesota Wild relieved him of head coaching duties in February.
Malhotra, 40, will bring plenty of experience with him to the Leafs’ post, having segued into roles behind the bench after his 16-year playing career ended in 2016.
Originally selected seventh overall by the New York Rangers in the 1998 draft, Malhotra developed into a strong two-way centre over his 991-game tenure with seven different teams. He retired with 295 points (116 goals, 179 assists) and an impressive winning percentage in the faceoff circle (56.4), making a quick transition from there to a one-season development coach role with the Canucks. Malhotra became a full-fledged assistant in 2017.
“The work ethic, character, intelligence and attention to detail that made Manny the ultimate teammate when he played are all assets that have translated to his coaching. That, combined with his charisma and communication skills, make us really excited to have him join the organization,” said Keefe in a press release.
Malhotra hopes to help Toronto’s top offensive players, like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, become stronger two-way players.
“First and foremost I’m really looking to just get to know those guys and try to understand their make-up and what makes them tick, what motivates them,” Malhotra said. “I think it’s most important to find out who they are as a player, and then find out their mindset and where they are in their career, and then just try to relay some of those messages on the details of your game and sharpening up the small, finer points that everybody always harps on from a young age. It’s a matter of putting those into play on a regular basis that separates guys and allows guys to grow in your career.”
Malhotra learned the benefits of focusing on those little things from Green – not just with individual players, but in coaching as a whole.
“He really likes to analyze things, overanalyze, overcook,” Malhotra said. “And initially you think it’s probably a little bit of overkill, but you realize when you put that type of thought into decisions, into systems, into lineups, that it shows you care. It shows that you’re putting the proper time in to make those key decisions.”
Malhotra can apply all that while taking over the duties vacated by McFarland, who spent one season in Toronto primarily running the Leafs’ power play.
McFarland and Hakstol were hired under former head coach Mike Babcock in May 2019, but remained on with Keefe after Babcock’s firing in mid-November and Keefe’s subsequent promotion into the role.
Malhotra is now the second coaching appointment Toronto has made under Keefe’s direction. The club had parted ways with another of Babcock’s hires – video coach Andrew Brewer – in August, and brought in Samuel Kim as his replacement on Sept. 1.
Malhotra said the opportunity to work with Keefe was a driving force behind his choice to change coasts.
“His credentials and his accomplishments as a coach speak for themselves,” he said of Keefe. “There’s nothing but complimentary things said about him and his character and his personality and his knowledge of the game, so I’m excited to work with [Keefe and Hakstol].”
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