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Unable to capitalize

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist NHL Noise As opening day approaches for the 2023-24 NHL hockey season, fans are getting a closer look at how their team’s rosters will look for this coming year, while executives struggle through waiver wire woes. The Ottawa Senators have been running a clinic on how not to manage assets. Last weekend they placed defenseman Lassi Thompson on waivers for the purpose of sending him to their farm team in Belleville. But Thompson is a talented offensive defenseman, a coveted right shot, who was drafted by the Sens at 19th overall in the 2019 draft. On Sunday, Sept. 29, the Anaheim Ducks claimed him, and a valued first round pick was squandered. On Tuesday, Ottawa played with fire again. This time, defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker and forward Egor Sokolov were waived with hopes they would not be claimed by rival teams. Bernard-Docker is another right-shot defender who was selected in the first round in 2018, while Sokolov was chosen in the early second round in 2020. The Sens were fortunate that no one claimed either player, but there are plenty of questions to be asked. Just this summer GM Pierre Dorion extended veteran right-shot defenseman Travis Hamonic, who is not exactly tearing up the league in the twilight of his career, blocking the path of two promising young blueliners and ultimately losing one of them for nothing. Meanwhile, restricted free agent centreman Shane Pinto remained unsigned while Josh Norris was still working to get healthy, leaving serious questions about centre depth. The whole point of a rebuild is to draft young, high-end talent, develop them, and get them under reasonable long term contracts, and that point seems to be lost in some of this decision-making. The Senators weren’t alone when it came to tough waiver wire decisions. In Montreal, the tough call comes in net. Veteran Jake Allen is entering the first year of a two-year contract extension and is expected to form a tandem with Samuel Montembeault. Montembeault was, ironically, claimed off waivers two years ago and has developed to the point of challenging Allen for the starter’s net. The fly in the tandem ointment is Cayden Primeau, the prospect that was expected to replace Carey Price. But between an earlier than necessary departure from his college developmental path and time lost to COVID-19 interruptions, Primeau is not considered ready for the NHL, but is waiver eligible. The Canadiens would love to see him spend another year in Laval, but they’re not convinced another team won’t claim him off waivers. As of press deadline, the Habs were considering the option of starting the season with three goalies to avoid losing Primeau for nothing, and they’re not the only team considering that approach. The Toronto Maple Leafs have had their own waiver wire woes. They have several young forwards doing everything they can to claim a spot on the team. Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan have exceeded expectations in the preseason, but both players still have things to learn at the junior level and a return to their respective teams is sensible. Nick Robertson, on the other hand, has split three seasons between the Leafs and the Marlies. The Leafs would probably love to give him his shot to make the team this year, but he’s been competing for a spot against several guys who would have to pass through waivers, like Sam Lafferty and Noah Gregor, while Robertson is still waiver exempt. Sometimes the CBA rules impact choices. Blue Jays Babble The post-season run for the Toronto Blue Jays was short lived and will be long considered. The Jays were swept in the American League Wild Card Series by the Minnesota Twins. On Tuesday night, Oct. 3, the Blue Jays sent their ace Kevin Gausman to the mound. Gausman pitched four innings and gave up just three hits, but they were damning ones. Royce Lewis was a thorn in Gausman’s side, hitting a two-run homerun in the bottom of the first inning, and then hitting a solo homer in the bottom of the third. That’s all the Twins needed to hand the Jays a 3-1 loss. Believe it or not, Toronto had more hits in the opening game than Minnesota but were unable to capitalize. If anyone writes a book about the 2023 Toronto Blue Jays, that might be an obvious title: Unable to Capitalize. Perhaps one of their best opportunities came in the fourth inning when Bo Bichette singled to get on base with one out. He made it to second on a fielder’s choice and then Alejandro Kirk was hit by a pitch for a walk. The Jays had runners on first and second with two outs when Kevin Kiermaier hit a single. But Bichette, trying to do too much, made an ill-fated attempt to make it home on the play and was thrown out at home for the third out. They left the inning with not one run. In the sixth inning, the Jays were threatening again. Bichette hit a one-out single and, then, with two out, Kirk was walked and it was déjà vu all over again, with two out and runners on first and second with Kiermaier at the plate and delivering another single. This time Bichette made it home for the only run of the game for the Jays. After a disappointing loss on Tuesday, the teams were back at it on Wednesday in a must win game for the Boys in Blue. Jose Berrios got the call for the Jays in Game 2, and he was excellent in three innings allowing three hits and collecting five strikeouts while holding the Twins off the scoreboard. But while Berrios was finishing up the third, the Jays already had lefthanded pitcher Yusei Kikuchi warming up in the bullpen. Berrios was allowed to start the fourth inning but after he walked the first batter, Manager John Schneider made the hook. Things fell apart from there. Kikuchi loaded the bases, allowing a single followed by a walk. The only two runs of the game were scored before Kikuchi was able to retire the side. Why on earth was Berrios pulled after just 47 pitches when things were going well? The plan was in place well before that walked first batter in the fourth. The prevailing theory is that it was driven by analytics, and that perhaps Schneider’s strings were being pulled by management. Whit Merrifield pretty much confirmed it. “I hated it, frankly. It’s not what cost us the game, but it’s the kind of baseball decisions that are taking away from managers and baseball, at this stage of the game.” Does management interference based on analytics explain every questionable pitching call from Schneider that we’ve seen this summer? And pitching gaffes aside, the combined crew of throwers only allowed two runs. If the batters are unable to cash in even one run, it’s hard to blame the pitching. The only real threat from the Jays came in the fifth inning. With two out, they had runners at second and third base with Bichette at the plate. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made a baserunning error and was thrown out at second to end the inning. After Bichette’s error from the night before, questions are being asked about sloppy play and this roster’s ability to focus under pressure. Just like that, Toronto’s 2023 playoff run is done after barely getting started. The Twins are headed to Houston, while the Jays are headed home to clean out their lockers with a long winter to think.

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