North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘phil kessel

Goodbye Phil, Goodbye Amir

Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.

1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.

Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.

The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.

In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.

Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.

In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.

I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.

2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic. 

When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.

Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.

Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.

It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.

In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:

Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.

He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.

My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.

The Doom and Gloomy Leafs on a Sunny Jays Sunday

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It was warm and sunny on Sunday as I drove into Blue Mountain, but it was also a day where the slopes were still open, too: people carrying snowboards, skis and helmets commingled with people in shorts, tank tops and sandals at the bottom of the hill.

Seemed like fitting weather, given the day’s sports news coming out of Toronto. It too was a mix of summer and winter, the Jays and Leafs each with moves that would normally lead the sports section.

On Saturday night the Leafs season finally came to an end against Montreal. Not an exciting game, not even one I bothered watching to completion. It’d been a rough year by anyone’s standards, not even getting into the weird little soap operas that kept bubbling up throughout the year: Kessel snapping at the media, a plague of jerseys thrown on the ice, a media-driven flap over players not saluting fans who were booing them off the ice. Like I said: it was a weird year.

Anyway, less than 24 hours after the Leafs final game, Brendan Shanahan started purging the team. He fired the general manager, the coach and a bunch of assistants. Depending on who you read, their scouting department was gutted as well. He had promised quick changes, but man, this was quick. As a twitter wag noted, there wasn’t even time for the traditional contract extensions first.

There aren’t really any compelling arguments for keeping Dave Nonis on as GM. For one, his position under Shanahan seems ill defined and is maybe powerless. Even last summer, when the Leafs started hiring management, the moves were seen as Shanahan moves, like when the Leafs hired Kyle Dubas away from the OHL’s Sault St Marie Greyhounds.

If that left the player moves to Nonis, it’s worth noting what happened there is problem number two. Over the past few seasons, the Leafs have let much of their talent walk, kept underperforming players around and never really addressed positional needs.

One example: In the spring of 2013, James Reimer backstopped the Leafs deep into the first round of the playoffs, often while facing upwards of 40 shots a night. That summer, the Leafs added another goalie, who also regularly faces upwards of 40 shots a night. They still haven’t really addressed their defensive and puck possession problems.

In a way, it’s frustrating. The Leafs are always in the news and it’s rarely for something interesting. It’s always negative, either because they lost, because the media is throwing someone under the bus or because there’s some kind of controversy being drummed up. First it was people throwing jerseys, then it was salute-gate, finally it was Kessel getting fed up by accusatory questions.

This season, more than any other I can remember, seemed like the media trying to crank out a new scandal every few days to sell papers or push a columnists name ahead. When I get around to the sports section, it feels like the same old doom and gloom from a crop of writers I used to enjoy reading. Maybe that’s why I read it less and less these days.

And indeed, all the moves are leading the sports pages today. The scribes are already writing stuff that throws Kessel under the bus (no, I’m not linking to it) and slamming Nonis on the way out. I’m sure that in days to come, they’ll find hands to wring, people to blame and easy solutions that won’t really solve anything. I’m also sure I won’t bother reading any of it.

It’s too bad: the Jays played their most exciting game of the year on Sunday and frankly, it might be one of their best games of 2015.

 

I caught snatches of the game on the radio and on Twitter: lots of hitting, a big Jays lead and a near-comeback by the Baltimore Orioles. I think my favourite part was the late home run by Bautista: buzzed by an inside pitch, he took the next into the seats and ran around the bases yelling at Darren O’Day. If I remember right, he was even yelling from the dugout afterwards! It was great: his first home run of the year, one that gave the Jays an extended lead in the late innings and a nice display of emotion from a guy who generally seems pretty reserved.

 

But remember: late last year, Bautista went on a tear and more or less kept the Jays in playoff contention almost single-handedly (I even wrote about it here). He hit .299/.430/.540 in September, including a 12-game stretch where he hit eight homers and slugged a 1.205 OPS. He started this season a little slowly, but man, he seemed jacked up after that dinger and I’m hoping it’s a sign he’ll go on a tear.

 

There were other cool moments. There was a great grab by Donaldson late in the game, where he dove and grabbed a sharply-hit ball. There was two good grabs by Kevin Pillar, including one in the ninth where he lost his glove but the ball stayed inside (he hit a dinger, too). And there was Castro, who found himself in a jam in the ninth, with the tying run at the plate and one out, but pitched his way out of it. Not bad for a rookie!

 

For me, the game hit all the right notes: memorable defense, good pitching (by Castro, anyway) and a Bautista dinger. And what’s more, it’s a positive story: there isn’t anyone to throw under the bus, nobody you to assign blame to, not even a stupid controversy to milk. After all, after a week into the new season, the Jays have gone 4-2 and are tied for the AL East lead. It should be an exciting time!

 

It’s too bad it’s buried under a pile of Leafs-autopsy ink.

Swoon City: Toronto, Sports and the Media in 2015

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It’s early on Wednesday morning and I’m driving around, listening to 1050 TSN when I hear the latest Hot Take: the Raptors are bad because the Leafs are bad because Toronto likes bad teams.

 

I used to call this The Toronto Malaise, a general feeling of depression that hangs over the city and it’s sports teams. When I wrote that, the Jays and Leafs were doormats and the Raptors the best of a bad division, fading with nothing to show for it.

 

But that was then and this is now: both the Leafs and Raptors have been in the playoffs in recent years and the Jays might too, if they can stay healthy and shore up their pitching. There are several great athletes in this city and most of them are pretty young. They’re even happy to be here! So things should be looking better, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

March 26, 2015 at 10:47 am