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What Atkins does next will be critical for Blue Jays after stunning setback

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TORONTO – There’s no making what happened to the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 2 any better, nothing anyone can say to ease the anger, erase the hurt, or change the bitter outcome. Much like the 1985 American League Championship Series, the seven straight losses to close out 1987 and the playoff drubbings in 1989 and 1991, the wild-card series against the Seattle Mariners will be part of the franchise narrative until a new round of October success ensures it’s not.

This is the show-us-don’t-tell-us space in which the Blue Jays are now firmly planted.

Still, how general manager Ross Atkins and the baseball operations department process this is vital, because the next steps really matter.

Absent long-term extensions for cornerstones Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and, time to include him in this category, Alek Manoah, the clock is ticking on this core. The bullpen can’t be a soft-spot again in 2023 after costing the club a trip to the playoffs in 2021 and undermining their chances against the Mariners this year. They can’t spend another summer working through the issues with consistency, focus and attention to detail that, particularly early in 2022, nearly submarined their season.

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Having whiffed in the hiring of Charlie Montoyo, with whom it’s reasonable to wonder if he ever really meshed, Atkins must get the hiring of the next Blue Jays manager right, which is why he left himself some very notable wiggle room even after saying that, “I think it will be very difficult for us to find better than John Schneider.”

“Out of respect for the organization, out of respect for John Schneider, I do want time to work through the process with him,” Atkins added during his season-wrap meeting with media Tuesday.

Translated from executive-speak, every single thing the Blue Jays do must run through their beloved processes and they need to go through one before removing Schneider’s interim tag. That will involve, at a minimum, talking internally about a few other names but the bigger piece will be Atkins and Schneider both hammering out what a long-term relationship looks like.

It worked over 74 games this summer because it had to after Montoyo’s firing but, over the long-term, are they ready to work together? Do they see eye-to-eye on enough things, including a balance of control? Can they build a trust that never developed between Atkins and Montoyo? Can they avoid the same pitfalls?

No one should doubt Schneider’s commitment to the Blue Jays after two decades with the organization, but with four other vacancies around the majors, he’d be well within his rights to explore his options, too.

Still, given the way he worked to establish consistent requirements for his players, emphasized attention to detail, both publicly (think of him calling out Guerrero Jr. for poor baserunning) and privately quashed moments of carelessness, and tried to mould the clubhouse into a more cohesive group, he established himself as the right person for the job.

“If you think about his history with this organization and his history with the players, you’re seeing how he handled the pressure, seeing how he handled decision-making, how he handled communication, we feel that he’s a very strong candidate,” said Atkins. “And if you put all of those pieces together and then knowing what we know about external candidates, I feel like it would be very difficult to do better than him.”

Resolution on that front should come in the next two or three weeks, with decisions on the coaching staff to follow, and while there’s plenty more on the docket, in some ways it’s the platform for everything that’s to follow.

After all, no matter what the Blue Jays do from a roster standpoint, and we’ll delve into that in a bit, the players must be deployed effectively. To do so requires alignment from the moment of acquisition, ensuring that the coaching staff knows how the player fits and how to help him deliver optimal performance. There needs to be more trust all around.

The Blue Jays need only to look at how they didn’t perform to their talent level on a consistent basis until after Montoyo’s dismissal, going 46-42 under him before a 46-28 finish under Schneider. Further closing the gap between how ability and preparation translated into consistent execution on the field is essential.

“I just feel like you continue to work to make it better,” said Atkins. “John Schneider was a big step in that process and that’s why he’s put himself in a good position.”

Personnel is part of that equation and despite the post-season outcome, worth remembering is that the Blue Jays won 92 games and have consecutive 90-win seasons for just the second time franchise history, so the roster starts in a good position.

With Ross Stripling ($3.79 million) and David Phelps ($1.75 million) the club’s only pending free agents, very little money is coming off the books and with 13 players eligible for arbitration, simply retaining their current roster will be significantly more expensive. Based on MLB Trade Rumors’ projections, the cost of Guerrero Jr. ($14.8 million), Teoscar Hernandez ($14.1 million) and Bichette ($6.1 million) and Jordan Romano ($4.4 million) will rise roughly $20 million alone.

As a result, the likelihood is that the Blue Jays, having shopped in the upper-end aisles (signing Hyun Jin Ryu, George Springer, Kevin Gausman and extending Jose Berrios) the past three winters, will likely need to make trades to get back there this winter. The financial flexibility of years past won’t return until after 2023, when several significant contracts, including that of Ryu, comes of the books.

Hernandez is one name to watch either way, as Springer – who suffered a concussion and a shoulder sprain in his collision with Bichette on Saturday and will soon be cleared for travel to determine if he needs surgery to remove a bone spur on his troublesome right elbow – may be better off in right field instead of centre.

A left-handed or switch-hitting centre-fielder would be ideal and one could perhaps be acquired with their surplus of catchers. The St. Louis Cardinals, set to lose the retiring Yadier Molina, have Dylan Carlson and right-fielder Lars Nootbar and make for an interesting potential match.

Regardless, balancing out a right-handed heavy lineup has long been a desire but one that’s easier said than done when the acquisition cost is factored in for a potentially marginal gain. There’s little point in change for the sake of change.

Yet, worth noting is Atkins pointing out that “there is something to having similar types of hitters and game-planning for them that we need to dig deeper into and how we can account for that and offset that.” He is essentially acknowledging his lineup may need to be more diverse.

Stripling’s potential departure leaves a rotation fronted by Manoah, Gausman and Berrios, with Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White as potential options for the mix. At least one, if not two arms is needed there while the bullpen needs more swing and miss, something Atkins acknowledged contributed to Saturday’s stunning setback.

Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather are among internal options there, but like Kikuchi, they can’t be counted on to be major contributors. Building out a better layer of minor-league depth will be needed and there’s also a private acknowledgement that the Blue Jays should have done more on the minor-league free agent front coming out of the lockout, rather than counting on Bowden Francis, Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay and Pearson to provide a layer of protection.

All of it will be done with the aim of avoiding a repeat of the weekend, when the Blue Jays went into a series with the Mariners expecting to be in Houston facing the Astros this week instead of home, pondering what went wrong and how to get better.

There will be a deep dive into that, too, trying to decide how much to read into a two-game sample, although one that came amid the highly charged pressures of the post-season.

“Some, for sure. We definitely want to think about why that occurred,” said Atkins. “Why were we out in two games and what needs to change to decrease the likelihood of that? But I still feel that the hardest thing to do is to win a division to get into the playoffs and you put yourself in those positions to then be successful. But yes, we definitely need to be thinking about that and determine how to weigh that we’ve just started that process.”

After adding to the wrong end of franchise lore, it’s the only path forward for the Blue Jays.

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As winter meetings come to a close, Blue Jays opt to wait for other opportunities – Sportsnet.ca

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Hazel Mae sits down with Toronto Blue Jays manager John Schneider to discuss his experience at the winter meetings, what the Blue Jays will look to improve upon this offseason, whether outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can play in right field, and more.

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Edmonton Oilers turn it on against a wounded opponent in an 8-2 win: Cult of Hockey Player Grades – Edmonton Journal

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The Edmonton Oilers earned only their 2nd 2-0 lead of the season against the Arizona Coyotes Wednesday. Then did not look back, en route to an 8-2 no-doubter at Rogers Place.

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And while Edmonton deserves fair marks for the victory…

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Arizona came into this one with just 1 win in their last 10 games and at the tail end of a withering 14-game road trip.

Bad team. Bad schedule. Bad result.

Aside from the 2 points, Jay Woodcroft was able to ease off the gas on McDavid, Draisaitl and Hyman’s ice time.

Here is the tale of the tape…

Cult of Hockey Player Grades

STUART SKINNER. 7. As good as they needed him to be. Stuart Skinner’s best save early was a point-blank stuff on Crouse. Excellent kick save on Keller in the 2nd. Left to his own devices on an Oilers defensive zone breakdown on the 3-1. Handled a breakaway shot in the 3rd thanks in part to a hard back-check by Bouchard. Stopped 16-18.

CONNOR McDAVID. 9. Second assist on the 1-0. Drew a Power Play with a dogged play in the high slot and then fed Draisaitl net side for the 3-0. Just missed an opportunity short side. Received a stretch pass from Draisaitl and then sifted a nice pass to Hyman who took it hard to the net. A lightening fast wraparound on a circus-like pass from Draisaitl made it 7-1. A 1-timer from the bottom of the circle off a Hyman pass made it 8-1. His 18:32 was the least so far this season.

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LEON DRAISAITL. 7. Could not bat home a rebound off a pass from McDavid in the 1st. Contributed to 3 chances on a 2nd Period PP. The next man advantage, he made short work of a tidy McDavid pass net side for the 3-0. Fired a stretch pass in the 2nd that ended with a Hyman chance in tight. Who did not marvel at the spin-o-rama at the attacking blueline followed by the sublime cross-ice backhand pass to McDavid for the 7-1. A relatively light night at 17:40. 57% on draws.

ZACH HYMAN. 6. Drew a 1st Period Power Play and then was net front on the resulting 1-0. Took a McDavid set up hard to the net in the 2nd. Another net drive in the 3rd, followed by a terrific pass that McDavid turned into the 8-1. 4 shots. Good to see him healthy.

DARNELL NURSE. 7. A fine defensive play thwarted a would-be Arizona 2-on-1 in the 1st. An assist on McDavid’s 1st. Quiet, confident game.

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CODY CECI. 5. 1st Period hooking minor. 2 hits, 2 blocks.

RYAN NUGENT-HOPKINS. 9. He was excellent. Wristed home his 12th of the season on a Power Play in the 1st. Another hard wrister after an Arizona turnover delivered career NHL goal 209 to make it 4-1. That tied him with the great Paul Coffey for 8th on the all-time franchise list. A helper on the Draisaitl goal. Late to his man on the 8-2. 4 shots in 17:59. 50% on draws. A clean sheet in 1:16 of PK time.

MATTIAS JANMARK. 6. Dangerous wrap-around attempt in the 1st. Next shift won an important battle to help clear his own zone. 3 shots.

KAILER YAMAMOTO. 7. His hustle drew an interference call on a pic to negate an Arizona Power Play. Good positioning on the forecheck and then intercepted a clumsy pass and funneled it up to Nugent-Hopkins for the 4-1. Earned the primary assist on the Kulak goal. 3rd Period breakaway but his back-hand deke was stopped. Has been since he has been back.

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BRETT KULAK. 6. His elite skating skills were on full display to erase a would-be Arizona breakaway by Maccelli in the 2nd. Corralled his man but got no puck support from his forwards on the 3-1. Walked in and fired a laser off a hard-working flurry by Holloway and Yamamoto for the 5-1. His man deflected home the 8-2.

TYSON BARRIE. 8. Primary assist on the 1-0. Threw a lovely cross-seam pass to Nugent-Hopkins on a 1st period PP. Wrist shot off a 2-on-1 feed from Ryan. On the ice but not at fault on the 3-1. Diving block broke up an Arizona 2-on-1. Zone entry on the 8-1. 3 shots, +2. High Dangers 6-2. Led the club in TOI at 22:40. The Oilers best D-man tonight.

JAMES HAMBLIN. 5. Good defensive stick at his own blueline in the 1st. Hustled. A shot.

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DYLAN HOLLOWAY. 7. Drew a penalty in the 1st by tucking his shoulder into Nemeth on a hard net drive. Tremendous shift late in the 2nd where he created a chance, just missed one of his own, and then finally drew the 2nd assist on Kulak’s 5-1 goal. Hard 3rd Period net drive but the puck wobbled wide. Led the Oilers in 5v5 CF at 14-3, 82%.A very noticeable 15:05 of TOI.

JESSE PULJUJARVI. 5. 3 shots credited although none particularly dangerous.

EVAN BOUCHARD. 6. Looked much better tonight after the benching last game. Walked in from the point and ripped a hard wrist shot early in the 2nd. 3 shots 3 hits. 22:0q in a boucne-back effort.

PHILIP BROBERG. 6. Second assist on the 2-0. Inadvisable reverse in own zone led to a long Arizona shift in the Edmonton zone. But over-all a solid effort.

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DEVIN SHORE. 5. 80% on faceoffs. Worked hard, fought the puck a fair bit. 3rd Period minor.

KLIM KOSTIN. 8. The Gordie Howe hat trick for the big forward. Rattled the boards with a hit on Nemeth. Later, calmly cleared the zone and then putted a smart pass up the middle which Derek Ryan deposited for the 2-0. Could not clear the zone up the wall on the 3-1 against, although the bounce did him no favors. Laser wrist shot glove side high on the 6-1. Finally, took on and bloodied the nose of Zack Kassian in a late scrap. 3 hits. Opening some eyes…

DEREK RYAN. 7. Had a very good night. Scored an industrious goal for the 2-0 by grabbing a Kostin area pass, battling past 2 defenders, and then depositing a skillful for-back-for-back deke. Fed Barrie on a 2nd Period 2-on-1. Lost his check on the 3-1. Forced a 3rd Period turnover which Kostin deposited for the 6-1. 1:19 short handed.

The Oilers are now 15-12 for 30 points in 27 games. That is good for 4th in the Pacific, and in the 1st Wild Card spot. Minnesota is up next.

Find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins, on Instagram at LeavinsOnHockey, and now on Mastodon at KurtLeavins@mstdn.social

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Seattle Kraken to release Shane Wright for World Juniors – TSN

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The Seattle Kraken have loaned forward Shane Wright to play for Team Canada at the upcoming World Junior Championship in Halifax and Moncton.

Wright, 18, is expected to report to Team Canada in Moncton on Thursday, according to TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger.

The 6-foot centre is fresh off scoring his first NHL goal on Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens in a 4-2 loss for the Kraken. He has a goal and an assist in eight NHL games this season. He had four goals in five games during a conditioning stint with the AHL’s Coachella Valley Firebirds. 

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Drafted fourth overall by Seattle in June, Wright is the sixth player in Canadian Hockey League history to be granted exceptional status to join the OHL a year early. He won CHL Rookie of the Year in 2020. The Burlington, Ont., product had 32 goals and 62 assists in 63 games with the Kingston Frontenacs in 2021-22. 

Internationally, he captained Canada to gold at the 2021 IIHF U18s, where he was second in tournament scoring with nine goals and 14 points in five games. Wright was named to the 2022 World Juniors team but only played in two games before it was cancelled. He did not participate in the rescheduled tournament in August where Canada won gold. 

The tournament is set to run from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5. Canada kicks off its tournament on Boxing Day against Czechia on TSN at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT.

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