SIMMONS SAYS: Coaching changes paying dividends early in NHL season

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This was supposed to be the year the Boston Bruins finally returned to the pack — and then they made a coaching change and seemingly everything about this team seems different yet familiar.

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Early on, with Jim Montgomery having replaced Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins have the best record in the National Hockey League.

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This was supposed to be the year the Vegas Golden Knights finally lost themselves. They didn’t have a goalie. They had salary cap issues. And yet now, with Cassidy coaching, the Knights have the best record in the Western Conference of the NHL.

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It isn’t just Boston and Vegas who have found an even better place with a new coach. Philadelphia was thought to be a disaster — and still might be — but John Tortorella has made his mark in just seven games with the Flyers.

Vegas and Dallas have the most points in the West: Both teams changed coaches in the off-season, with Pete DeBoer leaving the Knights to coach the Stars.

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Sometimes you need a different voice, a different style. Cassidy had gone stale in Boston and is now showing his stuff in Vegas. DeBoer was pushed out in Vegas and Dallas is playing like a contender in the West.

There’s little doubt owners will watch this trend to see how it plays out over an entire season. Nine teams begin this season with new coaches — 10 if you count Martin St. Louis in Montreal. Thus far, the biggest surprises in the NHL — Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Vegas, Dallas — all of them with new bench bosses.

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THIS AND THAT

When the Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock in November of 2019, they did so for a laundry list of reasons. Their record was only 9-10-4. They had relinquished more goals against than they had scored. Their play was sloppy and listless. Their effort level was well below expectations. The players and the coach had clearly lost each other. Now here we are, coming up to November of 2022, and the Leafs have lost to three of the NHL’s worst teams in their first eight games. No one other than Ilya Samsonov is playing beyond expectations. It makes you wonder, with more pressure from within than there has been in the past, with ownership more involved, whether the Leafs are heading to a similar place with Sheldon Keefe. And if they are, who does that say more about: The coach, general manager Kyle Dubas, or the players he and others have assembled? … Mitch Marner passed Doug Gilmour in career assists as a Maple Leaf the other night, and that was nice. What would really be nice, is if he ever passes Gilmour in playoff assists as a Leaf. Gilmour had 60 in just four playoff seasons. Marner has 26 in six playoff years … Borje Salming leads all-time regular-season assists with 620. It would take Marner five more healthy seasons to get close to that number … Gilmour leads the Leafs, all-time, in regular-season points per game. Auston Matthews is already second, ahead of the surprising Wilf Paiement, Darryl Sittler and Marner. In sixth spot, and I didn’t see this coming, Ed Olczyk … John Tavares has scored .983 points per game as a Leaf. In nine years with the Islanders, he scored .928 per game. And he’s probably playing the best hockey in Toronto he has played since arriving here … A year ago, Dubas went shopping on the cheap and came away with bargains like David Kampf, Ondrej Kase and Michael Bunting. That was good work. This year, he has added Calle Jarnkrok, Denis Malgin, Zach Aston-Reese and Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and he’s waiting for someone other than a goalie to surprise him … Poor Justin Holl reminds me of a golfer who has the yips. He doesn’t want the puck. He’s not comfortable with it. He doesn’t want to make a decision. He reminds me of an old Harry Neale line: He has to play more to play better and he has to play better to play more. Right now, the Leafs can’t afford to sit out Holl and can’t afford to play him on defence.

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HEAR AND THERE

Knowing Justin Verlander’s history in the World Series, I can’t understand why manager Dusty Baker left him in so long in Game 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night. The Astros had a 5-0 lead early and couldn’t hold on. The last thing you can give this explosive Phillies team is hope. Great as Verlander has been in his spectacular career — he should win the Cy Young Award again this season — he has had eight World Series starts now and has won none of them, with a crummy earned run average to boot … A win in this Series, experts say, will earn Baker an eventual place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which he should reach no matter what happens here. And still, we ask, with two World Series rings, and one of the few back-to-back championships in modern history, why doesn’t Cito Gaston get any consideration for the Hall? Others with two World Series titles and no Hall of Fame recognition are Minnesota’s Tom Kelly and Pittsburgh’s Danny Murtaugh. Cleveland’s Tito Francona has two wins as well, but he’s still active in the game … How do you get to the World Series? You can start with terrific defensive play at shortstop. Houston’s rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena led the American League in defensive runs saved. Last in the league, by the way, the Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette … Atlanta won the World Series last year after an 88-win season. Philadelphia is in the World Series after an 87-win season. The world according to Brian Burke is happening in baseball. Just make the playoffs and then figure out what will happen … Should the Phillies go on to win the Series, it will mark the second year in a row in which the Blue Jays will have won more games during the season than the championship team … Every time they show a close-up of Phillies manager Rob Thomson on television I want them to mention that he’s Canadian. It’s that silly nationalist in me. And maybe mention that he played in the Ontario junior all-stars in 1993, alongside Rob Ducey … There are no African-American players in the World Series for the first time since 1950, which by itself is not surprising but instead rather startling. For a long time, the shifting trend in baseball is to Hispanic ballplayers: There are 12 non-Americans on the Astros roster, players from Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Mexico. So many of them stars.

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SCENE AND HEARD

Everybody has lousy games. These things happen in professional sports. Fred VanVleet was 0-for-11 shooting on Friday night, the first real stinker of this young Raptors season. His one point came from the free-throw line … Does OG Anunoby know how great a player he can be? Every time you watch him, you think he’s doing fine, but he looks like there’s so much more in him … Don’t know if Pascal Siakam can do any more than he’s doing right now. He’s handling the ball like a point guard. He’s leading the Raptors every night. He’s shooting threes and making them. It’s impressive to watch a 28-year-old man grow before your very eyes … Am looking forward to the Raptors-Mavericks game in Dallas this Friday night. Siakam vs. Luka Doncic … Just an unrelated thought: I think Halloween should be moved from October 31 to September 30. Better weather for the kids and their parents to trick or treat … Weird start to the NBA season. The Lakers, with LeBron James, haven’t won a game. The Nets, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are 1-4. The Heat, with Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, are 2-4 … The book on Kawhi Leonard in the early season in Los Angeles: Two games played, three games missed. Load management is alive and well after a year off for Leonard. Nice way to earn $40 million if you can get it … The still-emerging Canadian, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, has played four games for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season: He’s averaging 29.3 a game, which is nothing short of fabulous …. Also impressive, what Montreal’s Bennedict Mathurin has done as a rookie for the Indiana Pacers. He has already had a 27-point and a 26-point game.

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AND ANOTHER THING

If I could be nominated for any award in baseball, I’d want it to be the Curt Flood Award. Buck Martinez is among three nominees this year. What an honour it would be to win something named for one of the most important people in baseball and sports history … Love the Darryl Sutter approach to using his backup goaltender, Dan Vladar in Calgary. There are 26 weeks in the NHL season, Vladar is expected to play once a week … Matthews is eighth all-time in goal-scoring for the Leafs. This season, he should pass George Armstrong, Frank Mahovlich and Rick Vaive to move into fifth-place overall. Next year, he’ll pass Ron Ellis. Pretty heady company to be hanging around … The hiring of a CEO for Hockey Canada is more important than who winds up on the board of directors. The CEO of any company is the engine that drives the place — the board more for overseeing things … Luke Richardson’s Chicago Blackhawks remind me of Dwane Casey’s early Raptors teams. Management wanted to tank but the coach would have none of that … Just read John Shannon’s book, Evolve or Die. Highly recommend this for anyone who is passionate about hockey on television in Canada. The stories of Bobby Hull and Mike Palmateer, which make you laugh out loud, are among the best in the book … It is easy to wonder about coach Ryan Dinwiddie and about Argos quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. But here they are, in first place, for the second year in a row. Two years together, two years hosting the Eastern Final. So we’re supposed to like that, aren’t we? … The top 10 scorers in the NHL as of Saturday: Three Russians, three Canadians, one Czech, one Swede, one German, one Norwegian. Not sure that’s ever happened before … How much do passing yards mean? Sometimes not a lot. Matt Ryan was among the best in the NFL when Indianapolis pulled him as its starter. Tom Brady leads the NFL in passing and couldn’t be more disappointed in his team. Jalen Hurts is way behind Ryan in yards thrown for but Philadelphia might be the best team in the NFC … The biggest problem in Tampa Bay is not Brady or his marital status. It’s their defence. They lost Ndamukong Suh to retirement. They lost Jason Pierre-Paul to Baltimore. They don’t have the pounding defence they had when they won the Super Bowl. They can’t stop people when they have to … Mike O’Shea has a chance for a three-peat as Grey Cup champion with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, something that hasn’t been done with the same team since Hugh Campbell coached the Edmonton Eskimos to championships from 1978-82. That was 40 years ago. Don Matthews won three Grey Cups in a row as a coach, one with the Baltimore Stallions, two with Doug Flutie and the Argos in 1995-97. In earlier times, Bud Grant won four Grey Cups in five seasons in Winnipeg and Pop Ivy won three in a row in Edmonton in the 50s after Teddy Morris had won three in a row in Toronto in the 40s … Happy birthday to Denis Potvin (69), Cale Makar (24), Jesse Barfield (63), Mike Gartner (63), Dean Chynoweth (54), R.A. Dickey (48), Devin Booker (26), Tage Thompson (25), Artemi Panarin (31), Johan Olav Koss (54), Adam (Edge) Copeland (49), Eric Staal (38), Mikko Rantanen (26) and Lou Williams (36) … And hey, whatever became of Jorge Garbajosa?

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NOTHING LEFT IN JUDGE’S TANK

The magical season of Aaron Judge began to wind down in the final weeks of the Major League year — and some of it you couldn’t take your eyes off him and some found the last weeks difficult to watch.

While he was clearly exhausted — mentally, if not physically — and struggling somewhat, Judge continued to play every day, leading off so many of those days for the New York Yankees, getting pitched around, having his upcoming record being the topic of conversation every single day.

Still, he smiled, he carried on, and while he didn’t exactly race to the finish line hitting his 61st home run and his record-setting 62nd blast, you could see his game was suffering even though he wouldn’t show it.

When it came to the playoffs, and you see the energy of Bryce Harper, and you see the explosiveness of Yordan Alvarez, and you saw none of that from Judge, who had a transcendent season, in the Yankees playoff series against Cleveland and Houston. The Yankees ended up winning three post-season games, losing six. Judge hit just .139 in the playoffs. He hit three singles and two home runs in nine games.

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We don’t know where he will play next season and we don’t know how many home runs he will hit. Sixty-two is a once-in-a-lifetime number. Coming a few batting points away from the Triple Crown while breaking the home run record is also a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

It may be better for Judge down the road to hit 50 home runs per season or so, to not lead off, to take the occasional day off. This was a season beyond belief for Judge. He won the race and it was a marathon. But along the way with his team, he ended up getting lapped.

HARD TO ROOT AGAINST ROURKE

Loved the Nathan Rourke interview on TSN Friday Night Football.

“How do you assess your performance?” Farhan Lalji asked after the young Canadian after he returned from injury and played just a few series with the B.C. Lions.

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“Pretty good,” the quarterback said. “What did you think?” he asked, which is completely unusual for a quarterback or anyone else in pro sports to ask.

“Doesn’t matter what I think,” said Lalji, the longtime football reporter.

“Matters to me,” said Rourke, who was being serious. He wanted to know what Lalji, the longtime football coach and commentator though.

They both smiled.

This is what is most attractive about the CFL. The players are human. They’re real. They’re not robots.

If you don’t like Nathan Rourke and everything he has accomplished in first full season as a CFL starter, you don’t like football and you don’t like sports.


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