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Wheeling and dealing NHL & MLB

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise

On Sunday, July 23 an arbitrator ruled on the next contract for goaltender Ilya Samsonov and the result was a one-year deal worth $3.55 million. The ruling didn’t require too much creativity. The Toronto Maple Leafs had filed a proposed salary of $2.4 million and the proposal from the player’s camp was $4.9 million. It was a very close meeting in the middle, with just a hair in favour of the Leafs. The ruling means Samsonov will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, giving him a year to prove his worth and the Leafs a year to assess whether he is their long-term solution in net. Last Wednesday the team announced that netminder Matt Murray would be placed on long term injured reserve before the season begins, thereby providing the cap relief needed due to Samsonov’s contract. In other news, one of the league’s top centremen from the past two decades retired this week. Patrice Bergeron, who had turned 38 the day before, announced he would hang up his skates after an accomplished career. Bergeron has 1040 points in 1294 regular season games, and 128 points in 170 playoff games. The Quebec native played his entire 19-season career with the Boston Bruins, leading them to a Stanley Cup in 2011 where he scored the Cup-winning goal in game seven against the Vancouver Canucks. One of the best two-way centres to ever play the game, Bergeron has won the Selke Trophy – awarded each year to the NHL’s best defensive forward – six times, while being nominated a record 12 times. Bergeron is also a two-time Olympic Gold medalist. The announcement does not likely come as a surprise to the Bruins. When they were eliminated from the playoffs, the Captain stayed on the ice to greet each teammate as they left, reminiscent of Shea Weber’s final moments with the Montreal Canadiens before his health forced him to leave the game. While somewhat anticipated, the news raises major questions in Boston. With David Krejci unlikely to return, and Bergeron’s decision made, the middle of the ice is measurably weaker than the Bruins have been in a very long time. Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle are good players, but pale in comparison to Bergeron, and the Bruins do not have the cap space to add another top name if one were available. With one career coming to an end, others are just beginning. The Calgary Flames announced they had signed their 2023 first-round pick, Sam Honzek, to his entry-level contract. The big winger will get a chance to make his mark at training camp but is likely to head back to the Vancouver Giants for another year of development. The Arizona Coyotes also announced they had signed the third overall pick from the 2022 draft, Logan Cooley, to his entry level contract. Cooley has cut his college career short after just one year to kick off his career in the desert. One wonders if the college arena he’ll be moving into will be an upgrade on the barn he’s leaving in Minnesota. The Ottawa Senators also made a big deal on Thursday when they signed one of this summer’s top free agents. Vladimir Tarasenko, who was rumoured to be considering offers from several teams, signed a one-year contract with the Sens worth $5 million. This signing may ease some of the sting fans are experiencing with the departure of Alex DeBrincat. This one might be the knockout punch of the weak. Retired enforcer Georges Laraque has been teaching Montreal’s Michael Pezzetta to fight. Earlier this summer the Canadiens signed the restricted free agent to a two-year contract. The fourth liner, who brings more heart and energy to the line up than he does skill, has developed a reputation for fearlessly defending his teammates. The trouble is that he loses as many fights as he wins, and that’s being kind. This week Laraque acknowledged during a Montreal-based hockey podcast that he has been coaching Pezzetta to improve his fighting skills after the player approached him. Laraque was a feared enforcer in his prime, and it appears his advice in this area is still valued by active players. Here’s hoping the tutoring sessions can tilt a few fights in Pezzetta’s favour.

Blue Jays Babble

Last weekend the Toronto Blue Jays were in Seattle for a three-game series against the Mariners. As they were headed out, the Jays announced a trade for a relief pitcher. Lefty Genesis Cabrera was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals for minor league catcher Sammy Hernandez. General Manager Ross Atkins had indicated in a recent press conference that he saw left-handed relief pitching as a team need ahead of the trade deadline. Cabrera was not having a strong season and was recently designated for assignment by the Cardinals. We will have to wait and see whether Atkins sees this acquisition as enough, or if more pitching help is on the way. On Friday night, it was Yusei Kikuchi that took the starter’s mound and pitched a fine game, throwing five and a third shutout innings, allowing just five hits and striking out eight. But Teoscar Hernandez was a thorn in his former team’s side, singling to right in the bottom of the ninth to drive in the winning run, and the Jays suffered a 3-2 loss. On Saturday, Hernandez struck again, this time hitting a two-run double to hand the Jays a 9-8 loss in a see-saw game. The teams combined for seven home runs in the high-scoring affair. Finally on Sunday, the Jays were able to claim a win in Seattle. Alek Manoah allowed three runs in five and a third innings pitched, and pinch-hitter Santiago Espinal drove in the winning run on a seventh inning single to seal the 4-3 win. From Seattle the Jays headed further west, meeting the Los Angeles Dodgers for three games. Daulton Varsho was the hero on Monday, hitting a two-run double in the 11th inning, leading the Jays to a 6-3 win. On Tuesday, Eric Swanson was the goat, allowing four runs in the ninth inning, the only inning he pitched. The Dodgers won 8-7 in ten innings. Then in Wednesday’s rubber match, it was Kikuchi back on the mound for another strong showing, allowing just one run on seven hits in six innings pitched. Whit Merrified and Danny Jansen homered in the 8-1 win. Earlier in the day, the Jays made another minor trade, sending right-handed pitcher Trent Thornton to the Seattle Mariners for infielder Mason McCoy, who was immediately sent down to the minors in Buffalo. The Blue Jays had the day off Thursday before heading home to greet the Los Angeles Angels for a three-game weekend series. The backdrop of these important games was an approaching trade deadline of August 1st. The Jays went into the weekend in third place in their division, but still holding the third wild card position in the American League. The Red Sox and Yankees are in hot pursuit, and Jays management will have a decision to make about how much they want to invest in improving a team that has not been able to perform consistently. Pundits seem to agree that bullpen depth will be one point of focus for the Boys in Blue. The pitching situation is a bit of a puzzle now, with Hyun-Jin Ryu expected to get his first start at some point in August, but not in time to help with trade deadline decision-making. Will he perform well enough to shake up the starting rotation, and what will that mean for the bullpen? Should the Jays be considering a starter in case Ryu cannot be, and if Alek Manoah cannot return to form? While all eyes have been on pitching, Jays management has to be concerned about hitting inconsistency. An unwanted marker of this season so far has been the unpleasant habit of stranding batters in scoring position. There are nights when the bats are just cold in general, but often on nights when they were able to get runners on base, clutch hitting has been nowhere to be found. Will a clutch hitter become available on the trade market – preferably one who can perform against lefties? By end of business on Tuesday we’ll all know what Jays management group was able to do to improve the team for the stretch, and hopefully set them up for the post-season.

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