Hockey season is right around the corner, but these are still the dog days of summer in which puck fanatics must find other forms of entertainment.
For me, this off-season has been largely about music, attending several live shows and festivals.
Let it be known that I’m not musically, nor mechanically, inclined. Leaving the latter laughing matter for another day, when it comes to music, I’m a big fan of listening to many genres — from country to dubstep, and everything in between. There’s a few musicians in my family tree, but rest assured, I’m not one of them. I grew up enjoying an uncle-and-aunt tandem that sang and played acoustic guitar together; a cousin currently writes and performs original material; and even my younger sister could strum a chord or two back in the day . . . to such classics as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
I’ve always been a bit jealous or envious of their talents, myself being totally tone deaf and unable to keep a beat for the life of me. Despite a few futile attempts over the last 28-plus years, I’ve never been able to play any instruments — I was politely asked to drop the band program from my high school class list to the tune of “this just isn’t for you”, and my college roommate gave me a second chance on the drums to no avail and even worse reviews, something along the lines of “sorry man, you suck real bad”.
I thought I had finally caught my musical break with the sudden popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games — for which I was average at best — but sadly just as I was mastering those easy-to-medium riffs, that fad died off and I was back to playing the good ol’ air guitar.
My karaoke, um, performances have been equally forgettable, regardless my level of intoxication upon taking the stage. Liquid courage has little to no impact on my all-over-the-map atrocious vocals, and my singing has always been best confined to shower solos or the occasional outburst while travelling, providing the vehicle stereo is able to drown me out.
Bare with me, I’m almost done with the self-deprecation, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss my dancing skills — or lack thereof. When it comes to club tracks or dare I say dirty beats, I am utterly clueless to the proper, acceptable bodily movements. Think Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights and the whole “what do I do with my hands” conundrum and apply that logic to your local dance floor. I like to think I’m capable of two-stepping from time to time — aided, again, by bottle bravery — but, the reality is, I was blessed with two left feet and can’t hold my own in that department either.
Yet, for some strange reason, I genuinely enjoy most types of music. My first love was classic rock and ’80s metal, inspired by my late uncle who introduced me to the likes of AC/DC, KISS, Guns N Roses and Motley Crue. My cassette Walkman could often be heard blaring those bands throughout my pre-teen years on the school bus, at recess and even at the supper table.
Then, in junior high, I softened to inexplicably liking country music. Well, I guess there was good reason for my change of heart, with my dad taking my aforementioned younger sister and I to our first Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose in I believe it was 1995. I was only turning 11 years old back then, but I was almost instantly converted and my upgraded Discman soon reflected that. BVJ became an annual family holiday through high school and I continued attending in college and made it a priority even upon entering the workforce. Fortunately, as a member of the media, I was able to secure press passes and free tickets for a few years prior to moving to Kelowna immediately following BVJ in 2008.
It was a good run of more than a decade where I didn’t miss a BVJ — rain or shine, or even snow — and I got to see the who’s who of country music, including headliners Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols, Gary Allan and Trace Adkins. That’s not to discriminate, as I also saw great female acts such as Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, Reba, Martina McBride, Michelle Wright, Terri Clark, Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina and LeAnn Rimes. There were several bands worth the price of admission too, with Brooks & Dunn, Big & Rich, Lonestar, Blackhawk, Diamond Rio and Montgomery Gentry among them. For the more nostalgic fans, Alabama, Randy Travis, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sawyer Brown, Billy Ray Cyrus (yes, Miley’s old man), Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, John Michael Montgomery, Clay Walker, Clint Black and Joe Diffie all entertained the masses in Camrose as well. And there was never a shortage of Canadian talent spread over the three-day showcase, with Emerson Drive, Doc Walker, Paul Brandt, Aaron Pritchett, Corb Lund, Jason McCoy and Adam Gregory making multiple appearances from the beer gardens to the main stage.
In recent years, distance and work commitments have prevented me from making it back to BVJ and I’ve begrudgingly missed out on Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Rascal Flatts, Rodney Atkins and Miranda Lambert, among many others.
Making things worse, country music isn’t as popular in the Okanagan as the Prairies, or at least not with the friend group I latched onto. They were more into the dirty beats — house, dubstep, trance and electronic — all genres that didn’t really exist or appeal to the majority of my friends back home. So my musical interests became more diverse, not by choice at first, but soon I was attending shows ranging from Deadmau5 in Waterfront Park to Lady Gaga at Flashbacks. Not to mention downloading all their chart-toppers to my shiny new iPod in order to fit in.
Consider it a culture shock but, before long, my BVJ weekend had been replaced by the local Center of Gravity festival, which has featured headliners such as Steve Aoki, Calvin Harris, Morgan Page, Knife Party, Kaskade and Tiesto over the last few years. COG, as its known by acronym, offers a vastly different experience, environment and scenery for which I’m still adapting to within my comfort zone.
Testing my extreme limits, I travelled to Las Vegas this June for the Electric Daisy Carnival, joining more than 300,000 concert-goers for the epic and euphoric EDC. There, I was mesmerized by wild lighting displays and even wilder outfits, all the while listening to the world’s best DJs, including Avicii, Afrojack, Benny Benassi, Wolfgang Gartner, Hardwell, Krewella and Above & Beyond amongst literally hundreds of acts.
As cool and crazy as EDC was, the fact remains I’ll always be a country boy at heart — like the saying goes “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many country shows around here, not since Merritt Mountain Music Festival was scrapped in 2010, although Penticton has been bringing in a few more as of late to sell-out audiences.
I was super stoked for Eric Church’s show in February, being my first country concert since moving to B.C. and one of my favourite artists who I had yet to see live. I underestimated his popularity around these parts and missed the boat on the pre-sale tickets that claimed all the standing room and floor seating. I still scored decent seats off to the right side of the stage about halfway down the bowl, but the entire experience left a lot to be desired. I’m not sure if my expectations were just too high, or if I was comparing Church to past acts that outperformed him, or if I just wasn’t in the mood for whatever reason that night. It was a decent show, but I wasn’t blown away and he lost me a bit in the middle portion when he played a big block of little-known songs from his latest album that had yet to hit the airwaves up here. Some of those tracks are gaining traction now and perhaps I just didn’t appreciate them at the time, but Church failed to crack my all-time top 10.
Then, just last week on a spur-of-the-moment, last-minute decision, I made plans to attend Paisley’s show in Penticton providing I could still find tickets. Stubhub turned up dry but to my surprise there were plenty for the picking on Castanet and Kijiji, so I called around and lucked out with two standing-room tickets for face value ($125 each). Let me preface this portion by simply saying: It was well worth it.
The morning of the concert, I learned via Twitter that one of the opening acts, Chris Young, who I was lukewarm on seeing, had been hospitalized with a leg infection and Paisley would be playing an extended set. Having previously saw Paisley at BVJ in 2004, I knew we were in for a treat, considering how good he was back then and how many stellar albums he has put out since.
We showed up just as his other opener Kristen Kelly was wrapping up, with a fun cover of The Eagles’ Heartache Tonight that energized the crowd prior to a brief break for Paisley’s stage setup. We found our way to standing room — a surprisingly small and intimate section surrounding the stage — and settled into the very left front row, sipping our first drink in anticipation of the night to come.
Paisley did not disappoint, kicking things off with Southern Comfort Zone and altering the lyrics to include Penticton and Canadian references. He followed it up with Mud On The Tires and the place went into a frenzy on what was a rainy Thursday night.
Hit after hit, Paisley kept them coming in an adrenaline-pumping performance that lasted upwards of 2 1/2 hours before winding down with Water. In between, he belted out dozens of songs past, present and future, and even gave his band a break to bust out some slower ballads such as She’s Everything and Then. But he mixed the set-list to perfection and maintained the party vibes throughout, even performing a cover of Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher before transitioning seamlessly into Old Alabama.
The only lowlight, if there was one, had to be the lacklustre “light show” that accompanied his current smash single Beat This Summer. Fans were encouraged by the local radio station and through social media to download a cellphone app that would play along to the tour’s title track, but it turned out to be little more than a flash strobe alternating solid colours. Some of the fans seemed impressed but having been to EDC, I found the crossover to be comical in comparison. But by no means did it diminish the show’s overall greatness, and the live version of Beat This Summer from a vocal standpoint was among the highlights.
Paisley played a handful of other songs from his new album, Wheelhouse, and it definitely sounded like a few of them will be climbing the charts in the coming months. My personal favourite was Outstanding In Our Field, and it actually reminded me of the time I heard Pritchett’s Hold My Beer the summer prior to it being released as a single. I called that hit well in advance of it going viral in 2006 and I’m confident in proclaiming the same for Outstanding In Our Field — YouTube it, if you haven’t already.
When Paisley finally put the finishing touches on, I’m fairly certain everybody went home satisfied and feeling as though they got their money’s worth. We certainly did, even if we might have missed his Alcohol encore and he didn’t have time to play several other hits such as Ticks, The World, Me Neither, We Danced and He Didn’t Have To Be.
All in all, this Paisley show undoubtedly ranks among my top 10 and might even be No. 1 when taking into account the standing-room view and my hot date — the one and only, Sarah, who doubled as fabulous photographer, providing us with the following slideshow. Enjoy!
Another memorable Center of Gravity festival has come and gone over the August long weekend in Kelowna.
This year’s event, the sixth annual under the COG banner, delivered arguably the best collection of music and sports entertainment to date despite less than ideal weather conditions at times. Mother Nature held off on the rain for the most part over the three days, and constant cloud cover did little to dampen the spirits among thousands of concert-goers.
Tiesto, a world-renowned DJ from the Netherlands, closed the show with a powerful and captivating performance Sunday night that had the capacity crowd in a frenzy at City Park. Tiesto’s act followed stellar sets by fellow headliners, Kaskade on Friday and Cazzette on Saturday. Also showcasing their wide-ranging talents on the main stage were the likes of Wolfgang Gartner, Dada Life, Tommy Lee (with DJ Aero and SOFI), Lights and several more.
For the sports enthusiasts, there was a little something for everyone. The Dirt Zone was extra popular this year, with organizers combining freestyle motocross with mountain biking for the first time in history. It was well received by fans who couldn’t get enough of the daring two-wheeled tricksters.
Offering a cooler — or at least wetter — experience was the Water Zone, where some of the planet’s best wakeboarders and wakeskaters busted out equally impressive maneuvers. In another new twist this year, the riders were pulled by an innovative 2.0 cable system rather than by boat, which made their runs quicker in succession with next to no wait between competitors.
There was also skateboarding on display in the Urban Zone, plus 4-on-4 basketball in the Hoop Zone and beach volleyball at Hot Sands Beach.
So, literally, something for everyone. Well, except perhaps for those ice hockey fans who were forced to broaden their horizons in the off-season.
For those not fortunate enough to attend this year’s festival, Sarah Offermann and myself were able to capture the following images to hopefully showcase some of the electric atmosphere from all facets. It’s only a small sample of what COG has to offer, and the only way to experience the full realm is to make next year’s event a reality. Until then, enjoy this photographic recap:
From the Main Stage
From the Dirt Zone
From the Water Zone
Hockey Canada will host an Olympic orientation camp in Calgary next month, featuring 47 of the country’s best NHL players — who may or may not take the ice — in preparation for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Personally, with insurance costing roughly $1 million for the weekend gathering — or $21,276 each — I would hope the players pony up to increase their chances at gold with additional on-ice chemistry. Surely, if they don’t and other nations do, Canada will be a step behind and critics will hold them accountable for any shortcomings in February — such as silver, bronze or, heaven forbid, no medal at all.
There’s still plenty of time to figure that out, and even more time to finalize the 25-man Olympic roster ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline. The latter decisions lie in the hands of Steve Yzerman and company, and the first three months of the NHL season will largely influence who makes the cut.
That said, there are already the proverbial locks — at least a half-dozen, maybe even a dozen players who are assured spots in Sochi, barring injury between now and then. But it’s often said Canada could ice two medal teams and these Olympics are no exception, though the Americans, host Russians, Swedes, Finns and lesser lights such as the Swiss, Slovaks and Czechs would all beg to differ.
On paper, though, Canada will certainly enter the tournament as the odds-on favourite, not to mention the defending champions from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Yzerman has indicated there will be a changing of the guard this time around, and the invitation list to orientation camp echoes that sentiment with 2010 veterans Martin Brodeur and Jarome Iginla not attending and key defencemen Scott Niedermayer (retired) and Chris Pronger (injured) no longer in the picture.
There has also been little to no fanfare for Dan Boyle or Joe Thornton in terms of making the 2014 edition, while fellow 2010 holdovers Brenden Morrow, Dany Heatley and Marc-Andre Fleury have also become afterthoughts for arm-chair GMs trying to assemble their golden lineup.
Instead, a new wave of talent is likely to take the torch and replace their roles, led by a trio of first overall draft picks in Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and, potentially, Taylor Hall.
Just how much turnover will there be? I’m honestly thinking 45 per cent — yes, essentially half the roster, or nine of the 20 players in Canada’s starting lineup on Feb. 13 against Norway. In that estimation, I have five new forwards, three new blue-liners and one new netminder — plus a few more fresh faces among the five ‘taxi squad’ reserves.
Without further a do, here’s my Canadian roster for the 2014 Olympics, with reasoning to follow:
Eric Staal-Sidney Crosby-Steven Stamkos
Rich Nash-Jonathan Toews-Claude Giroux
John Tavares-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry
Logan Couture-Patrice Bergeron-Jamie Benn
Taxi Squad = Taylor Hall, Andrew Ladd and James Neal/Patrick Sharp
Shea Weber-Drew Doughty
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Kris Letang-Alex Pietrangelo
Taxi Squad = P.K. Subban/Marc Staal/Mike Green
Taxi Squad = Cam Ward/Corey Crawford
Starting from the top, with the forwards, I think Stamkos, Giroux and Tavares are already penciled in among the top 12 providing they are healthy and productive, as expected, at Christmastime. I’m also fairly confident that centre depth will be reflected on the final roster. If I had to label three forwards as “on the bubble”, it would Perry, Couture and Benn. Perry has been a staple with Hockey Canada and always seems to deliver, but he’s not the best skater and these Olympics are being played on the bigger ice surface again. Couture and Benn would be newcomers and could easily be upstaged by Hall, Ladd, Neal or Sharp. Benn wasn’t even invited to the orientation camp — albeit shockingly — so I’m going out on a limb by listing him among the top 12 and he’ll be hard-pressed to achieve that. But those six are pretty interchangeable in my opinion, and I wouldn’t go as far as to call Perry’s spot safe, either, although his chemistry with Getzlaf should also work in his favour.
Defensively, I think the top four are set in stone and will remain the same as in Vancouver. The bottom pairing could go a few different directions, but I think Letang and Pietrangelo would complement each other nicely. If Letang struggles or gets hurt again early in the NHL season, then Subban could be paired with Pietrangelo or they may prefer more of a shutdown replacement in Marc Staal. The other wild card would be Mike Green, arguably Canada’s best offensive defenceman, and he looked like his old self for Washington down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. If Green picks up where he left off and stays healthy until Christmas, he may very well enter the conversation.
Last but by no means least, goaltending is Canada’s biggest question mark. Luongo is the incumbent starter, but he’s not even the incumbent starter on his own NHL team these days, having been supplanted by Cory Schneider in Vancouver. He is, however, the default starter now that Schneider has been shipped to New Jersey to compete with Brodeur, another former Canadian Olympic goaltender nearing retirement. Luongo is still in his prime years, but he hasn’t been that spectacular in recent seasons since the 2010 Games. But nor has any other Canadian between the pipes, at least not with any alarming consistency. Price is often thought to be the heir apparent to Canada’s goaltending throne and he’s shone on the big stage before at the world juniors and in winning the AHL’s Calder Cup. But Price hasn’t fully lived up to expectations, or his potential, in Montreal where he was also outplayed by former Hab Jaroslav Halak a couple years back and wasn’t at his best in a first-round playoff upset loss to Ottawa this spring. Fleury has been worse, much worse, the past two playoffs — ultimately losing his starting job to Tomas Vokoun. Ward wasn’t invited to the orientation camp, perhaps still recovering from a knee injury that prematurely ended his season, but if healthy, he has the ability to be in the mix and has played well at world championships over the years. Ward is my dark horse, but he would also have to outperform reigning Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford of Chicago, Mike Smith of Phoenix and Braden Holtby of Washington, all of whom are slated to join Luongo and Price at the summer camp.
Taking everything into account at all three positions, it’s evident that competition will once again be steep for those hoping to crack Canada’s Olympic roster. Crosby, if his health holds up — and that’s a fair-sized IF — will likely captain this team, having scored the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime against the rival United States in 2010. Leadership won’t be an issue, with several of Canada’s prospective players wearing captaincy letters on their NHL teams. If the goaltending dilemma solves itself and the appointed starter is anything above average, then I like Canada’s chances to repeat as Olympic champions and top the podium in Sochi. If the goaltending falters, as has been the case at recent world juniors, then Canada will have its work cut out and may need to outscore the opposition to accomplish the same feat, which will be no easy task. Time will tell, but I would agree with the odds-makers that Canada is still the team to beat at the outset of the Games.
It’s that time of the year again — mock draft time.
With less than a week until the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in Newark, N.J., on June 30th, prospect junkies from around the world are taking their best shot at predicting which teams will pick which players. It’s never an easy process and there are always surprises on draft day, whether it’s the highly ranked prospect falling to the middle of the first round or the relatively unheralded prospect getting selected much sooner than expected.
Last year’s draft, for example, had an early run of defencemen that caused European forwards Filip Forsberg and Mikhail Grigorenko to drop out of the top 10, though both still wound up making their NHL debuts this past winter.
In my annual mock draft, I had them going second and third, respectively, behind first overall selection Nail Yakupov, when in reality they went 11th and 12th, respectively.
Overall, I correctly predicted 25 of the 30 players picked in the 2012 first round — missing Scott Laughton, Mike Matheson, Jordan Schmaltz, Henrik Samuelsson and Tanner Pearson. That sounds pretty good, but — and it’s a big BUT — Yakupov was the only player among those 25 that I matched with the right team. So, mixed results at best.
This year promises to be no different, with the 2013 draft class exceptionally deep and categorized by some as the best in a decade — since the stacked 2003 draft.
For a change, the Edmonton Oilers won’t have the No. 1 pick — barring a blockbuster trade — after three straight years of picking first and landing Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the aforementioned Yakupov.
The Colorado Avalanche currently have that honour and assuming the order stays the same — which it never does — here is how I see the opening two rounds playing out. For the record, I went two rounds deep instead of one this year due to the amount of quality prospects past the top 30.
1) Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon (C, QMJHL, Halifax) = Joe Sakic is in a win-win situation with his first trip to the draft podium, having the choice between a high-scoring Canadian forward in Nathan MacKinnon or a big American defenceman with a diverse skill-set in Seth Jones. Both are proven winners — MacKinnon recently hoisting the Memorial Cup and Jones previously capturing world-junior gold — and both appear primed to make immediate impacts in the NHL next season. If Sakic was to simply flip a coin, he probably couldn’t go wrong here, but Sakic, new head coach Patrick Roy and some of the team’s scouting staff have instead gone on the record to indicate they are “leaning towards MacKinnon” and “the forward(s) is too good to pass up.” So despite the fact Jones has Denver roots (his dad Popeye played for the NBA’s Nuggets) and he grew up as family friends with Roy, it seems MacKinnon is Colorado’s target and I’m not about to call their bluff. That said, I believe taking Jones would address a bigger organizational need for the Avs than MacKinnon, who projects to be a better version of Gabriel Landeskog, who Colorado selected second overall in 2011.
2) Florida Panthers: Seth Jones (D, WHL, Portland) = This pick becomes a no-brainer, in my opinion, for Dale Tallon. While MacKinnon might have been the perfect complement to Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in 2011, Jones is the best player available at No. 2 (and arguably at No. 1), and he’ll be a cornerstone on the blue-line in South Florida for the next decade. Unless, of course, Tallon trades up to select MacKinnon, who I assume was his No. 1 choice as well.
3) Tampa Bay Lightning: Jonathan Drouin (LW, QMJHL, Halifax) = After those potential franchise players are off the board at 1-2, things get a little dicey. Steve Yzerman and his staff could go a few different directions at No. 3 and reports indicate they are mulling several options — namely, MacKinnon’s wingman with the Halifax Mooseheads, Jonathan Drouin, plus two European power forwards in Russia’s Valeri Nichushkin and Finland’s Sasha Barkov. In the end, I can’t see the Lightning passing on Drouin, who has drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane and could be an ideal replacement for the aging Martin St. Louis.
4) Nashville Predators: Sasha Barkov (C, Finland, Tappara) = That brings us to the Predators, who have a need for size and scoring ability among their forward group, with Barkov surely fitting the bill. David Poile dealt for Filip Forsberg at the trade deadline, sending Martin Erat to Washington, and Barkov should gel well with Forsberg as a 1-2 punch in Music City for years to come.
5) Carolina Hurricanes: Darnell Nurse (D, OHL, Sault Ste. Marie) = I could see Jim Rutherford trading this pick, perhaps to the New York Rangers to complete the Staal family tree by acquiring Marc Staal, a steady shutdown defenceman to anchor the blue-line alongside more offensive talents such as Justin Faulk (second rounder in 2010) and Ryan Murphy (first rounder in 2011). Failing that, I could see the ’Canes picking a Staal-type defender in Darnell Nurse over a handful of forward options at No. 5.
6) Calgary Flames: Elias Lindholm (C, Sweden, Brynas) = This pick will be especially important for the future of the Flames and general manager Jay Feaster needs to make the most of it to kick-start Calgary’s rebuild. I fully expect him to take a forward here and I think he’ll opt for Lindholm as a future linemate for Sven Baertschi (first rounder in 2011).
7) Edmonton Oilers: Sean Monahan (C, OHL, Ottawa) = The Oilers are apparently entertaining trade options — to move up or down — but if they stand pat, I expect new general manager Craig MacTavish to announce Monahan’s name if he’s available at No. 7. He is a bigger, grittier version of Sam Gagner (sixth overall in 2007), who may be better suited to playing wing going forward anyway.
8) Buffalo Sabres: Valeri Nichushkin (LW, Russia, Chelijabinsk) = Buffalo benefitted from Grigorenko’s fall last year and I don’t think Darcy Regier will shy away from picking another Russian in Nichushkin, who is likely the best talent left on the board here. Buffalo’s offence needs replenishing with Jason Pominville traded to Minnesota and Thomas Vanek also rumoured to be on the block, so I see Nichushkin fitting in well with the likes of Cody Hodgson, Grigorenko and Joel Armia (first rounder in 2011) in the future.
9) New Jersey Devils: Bo Horvat (C/LW, OHL, London) = I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a drop-off in talent after the top 8, but I think this is where the draft really starts to get intriguing as individual team’s scouting lists could have 20 different players ranked at No. 9. In other words, there’s no consensus next-best prospect here, but I think Horvat’s performance at the Memorial Cup and throughout the OHL playoffs could elevate him into the top 10. Horvat is close to NHL-ready and the Devils could use a player capable of stepping into the lineup and contributing next season, considering Lou Lamoriello must forfeit the franchise’s 2014 first-round pick as penalty for Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract.
10) Dallas Stars: Hunter Shinkaruk (C/RW, WHL, Medicine Hat) = The Stars could use another coveted defence prospect and there’s a couple still available in this mock, but new owner Tom Gaglardi is a Western Canadian boy and I think he’ll push for that type of team make-up, with Shinkaruk perhaps the first step in that direction. Shinkaruk is blazing fast and has some sniping ability, not unlike former Medicine Hat teammate Emerson Etem, an Anaheim first-rounder in 2010.
11) Philadelphia Flyers: Nikita Zadorov (D, OHL, London) = Speaking of teams in need of defence prospects, the Flyers will likely be thrilled to see Zadorov still available, along with Finland’s Rasmus Ristolainen. I think Paul Holmgren will pick one of those two, with the edge to Zadorov.
12) Phoenix Coyotes: Curtis Lazar (C, WHL, Edmonton) = The Coyotes are pretty set on the back end but could use more depth up front. I think Don Maloney will opt for Lazar over Max Domi, given Lazar’s already established chemistry with Phoenix’s 2012 first-rounder, Henrik Samuelsson. The Edmonton linemates will try to translate their junior success to the NHL in the desert or elsewhere should the franchise relocate before they make the jump.
13) Winnipeg Jets: Max Domi (C/LW, OHL, London) = This seems like another natural fit, with Domi’s dad Tie having played for the old Jets and Winnipeg in need of future offensive catalysts to pair with Mark Scheifele (first rounder in 2011). Alexander Burmistrov (first rounder in 2010) has asked to be traded and the addition of Domi could offset that eventual loss should the request be granted.
14) Columbus Blue Jackets: Frederik Gauthier (C, QMJHL, Rimouski) = This pick is the opposite from the last two in that nobody really jumps out at me here. New Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen obviously has Finnish roots and is likely quite familiar with Ristolainen, who is a very viable option at No. 14, but the Blue Jackets are already strong on defence — or stronger than they are at forward. I’m not convinced Kekalainen will go with a European, but it wouldn’t surprise me, either. That said, I could see Columbus picking Gauthier, a late bloomer with size and skill who reminds some of Benoit Pouliot (fourth overall in 2005).
15) New York Islanders: Rasmus Ristolainen (D, Finland, Turku) = The Islanders have good prospect depth and will likely go with the best player available approach here. In my estimation, that would be Ristolainen, a good complement to last year’s first rounder, Griffin Reinhart (fourth overall). They are both big and blonde and could be quite the tower of power on Long Island. Another option here that might make sense is the top-rated goaltender, Zachary Fucale, with Evgeni Nabokov and-or Tim Thomas on the downside of their careers and Kevin Poulin and-or Anders Nilsson not necessarily looking like heir apparents. But the Islanders are still sporting that Rick DiPietro noose, so they may opt against picking another netminder in the first round for the sake of their fan base’s sanity.
16) Buffalo Sabres (from Minnesota): Zachary Fucale (G, QMJHL, Halifax) = With their second pick of the first round, I can see the Sabres gambling on Fucale, although I don’t think it’s that much of a gamble. I think he’ll be a poor man’s Marc-Andre Fleury — not the Fleury that sieved out in the last two playoffs, but the usually stellar, incredibly athletic version. Buffalo is rumoured to be shopping longtime netminder Ryan Miller, which would leave Jhonas Enroth (second rounder in 2006) and Matt Hackett (third rounder in 2009) as the future between the pipes. A little extra competition certainly wouldn’t hurt in my estimation.
17) Ottawa Senators: Alexander Wennberg (C, Sweden, Djurgardens) = The Senators have always had success with Swedish prospects and players, so I could see them going back to that well again at this year’s draft. According to my mock thus far, there will be a few good Swedes left on the board here, but I think Wennberg is the best of the bunch and a nice addition to Ottawa’s forward ranks.
18) Detroit Red Wings: Valentin Zykov (RW, QMJHL, Baie-Comeau) = Of course, the Red Wings would get another steal of a European forward in this year’s draft — why wouldn’t they? Zykov burst onto the Canadian scene, scoring 40 goals and earning CHL rookie of the year honours. He’s no longer under the radar, but I can totally see Detroit taking him here and turning him into a top-10 talent from this draft class in hindsight.
19) Columbus Blue Jackets (from N.Y. Rangers): Ryan Pulock (D, WHL, Brandon) = Again, Columbus is in a strange spot here, with a couple European talents left that might catch Kekalainen’s eye, but at this point, and after already selecting a forward, I think Pulock is the best player available. He has arguably the best (or hardest) shot of anybody in this draft class and could make a great future partner for 2012 first-rounder, Ryan Murray (second overall).
20) San Jose Sharks: Andre Burakowsky (LW, Sweden, Malmo) = I have no clue what the Sharks will do with this pick, but Burakowsky’s name leapt out at me for some reason, so call this selection a gut feeling. If San Jose wanted defence instead, don’t be surprised if they go with the hulking Samuel Morin here.
21) Toronto Maple Leafs: Anthony Mantha (LW, QMJHL, Val d’Or) = The Leafs have long been attracted to big forwards and Dave Nonis is still an understudy to Brian Burke, so I could totally see him taking Mantha here. Especially considering how well James van Riemsdyk played this season, perhaps Toronto’s scouting staff projects Mantha to have a somewhat similar trajectory.
22) Calgary Flames (from St. Louis): Josh Morrissey (D, WHL, Prince Albert) = With their second pick of the first round and after going overseas for their first selection, the Flames take the hometown kid at No. 22. Morrissey is a Calgary product and one of several puck-moving defencemen from the WHL expected to be selected in this range, along with Shea Theodore, Mirco Mueller and Madison Bowey. I full expect Calgary to take one of those four blue-liners but most likely the local if he’s available.
23) Washington Capitals: Samuel Morin (D, QMJHL, Rimouski) = Washington went with size up front in last year’s first-round pick of Tom Wilson and I can see the Capitals going with size on the back end this time around by taking the 6-foot-7 Morin. Then again, Washington might go in a different direction with another former first-rounder cut from the same cloth, 6-foot-6 Jeff Schultz (27th overall in 2004), requesting a trade this spring after struggling to secure a roster spot.
24) Vancouver Canucks: Shea Theodore (D, WHL, Seattle) = I have a feeling the Canucks will also tap into that WHL defence group with their pick and Theodore boasts good size and skating ability with offensive upside. Mueller and Bowey are also options here.
25) Montreal Canadiens: Michael McCarron (RW, USA U-18) = The Canadiens could use some more size up front to complement Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, and McCarron certainly offers that at 6-foot-5, 228 pounds. Despite his stature, he’s likely a few years away from making an impact in the NHL, so perhaps a long-term replacement for another former first-rounder in Max Pacioretty (22nd in 2007).
26) Anaheim Ducks: Kerby Rychel (LW, OHL, Windsor) = Rychel is one of those wild-cards who could go as high as 15 or as low as 45, but I think he’s a good fit for the Ducks. He might never be a big scorer at the next level, but you have to think he’d look right at home on an energy line with Devante Smith-Pelly.
27) Columbus Blue Jackets (from Los Angeles): Robert Hagg (D, Sweden, Modo) = My mind is made up that Columbus will be to blame for throwing my mock draft to the wolves as once again I’m stumped as to what the Blue Jackets do here. I can’t see Kekalainen making three first-round picks without a single European, but my research also tells me it is unlikely Columbus will take two defencemen in the first round with that position being an organizational strength. Still, for some reason, I see Hagg to the Blue Jackets, so I guess we will all have to wait and see.
28) Calgary Flames (from Pittsburgh): Morgan Klimchuk (C/LW, WHL, Regina) = Meanwhile, the Flames come across as more predictable to me (maybe that’s just me), and I think Klimchuk would round out an awfully good first round for Calgary following the selections of Lindholm and Morrissey. Klimchuk is no Jarome Iginla — for whom this pick was acquired — but he is a shoot-first scorer with a skill-set that should work well at the next level, potentially alongside Lindholm and Baertschi.
29) Dallas Stars (from Boston): Mirco Mueller (D, WHL, Everett) = Mueller made a lot of strides in Everett this season in the absence of last year’s second overall selection, Ryan Murray (shoulder injury). Lots of teams have apparently taken a liking to Mueller and I expect Dallas to be among them, with Gaglardi again paying extra close attention to the Dub.
30) Chicago Blackhawks: Steve Santini (D, USA U-18) = More than happy to pick last, Stan Bowman is still going to announce a quality prospect’s name at No. 30. It could any number of players at any position, but I have a feeling the Blackhawks will go with a defenceman here and Santini offers a pretty complete package.
31) Florida Panthers: Nicolas Petan (C, WHL, Portland) = With Jones already sitting at their draft table, Tallon returns to the podium with the goal of adding another key piece to Florida’s puzzle. He finds that in Petan, who put up a lot of points as part of Portland’s potent offence alongside Jones. Petan is on the small side, but he’s a competitor that could, in time, replace the presence of now unrestricted free agent and former first-round pick Stephen Weiss (4th overall in 2001).
32) Colorado Avalanche: Madison Bowey (D, WHL, Kelowna) = The Avs go the opposite route, getting in on the run of defencemen and possibly getting the best of the bunch. Bowey is a potential steal at this point and could be off the board much sooner after an impressive showing at the under-18 tournament, including a goal in the championship game to help Canada capture gold. Not to mention the Avs already landed a pretty promising defenceman out of Kelowna’s program in 2009 third-rounder Tyson Barrie. Further, the Rockets recently drafted the bantam-aged son of Avs defence coach/consultant Adam Foote, so add it all up and Bowey seems like a perfect fit here. However, another option could be Adam Erne, who played for Roy’s Quebec Remparts last season.
33) Tampa Bay Lightning: Adam Erne (LW, QMJHL, Quebec) = The Lightning already have a small forward in Drouin, but although Erne is only 6-foot, he is solidly built at 210 pounds. Erne is a bit of a faller at this point, so Yzerman considers him the best player available.
34) Montreal Canadiens (from Nashville): Laurent Dauphin (C, QMJHL, Chicoutimi) = A francophone point-producer seems like the perfect fit here for Montreal, especially a versatile one like Dauphin who earned a lot of praise for his efforts in winning U-18 gold. Montreal is still waiting on former first-rounder Louis Leblanc (18th in 2009), but I don’t think Marc Bergevin will overlook Dauphin with this pick.
35) Carolina Hurricanes: Jacob De La Rose (C, Sweden, Leksand) = The Hurricanes went with a big defenceman in the first round and follow up with a big forward in the second round. Although De La Rose may be somewhat similar to another recent Carolina second-rounder in Victor Rask (42nd in 2011), that pick seems to be panning out, so I could see Rutherford looking for a repeat.
36) Montreal Canadiens (from Calgary): Jordan Subban (D, OHL, Belleville) = Speaking of natural fits for the Canadiens, with this already their third pick of the draft, the Habs can afford to use it on Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban’s little brother, a fellow defenceman. It makes sense and although Subban is considered one of the draft’s biggest risers, he should still be on the board at this spot.
37) Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Hartman (RW, OHL, Plymouth) = Hartman plays much bigger than he is (5-foot-11, 185 pounds), and he possesses the jam that Edmonton is coveting to complement all of its skilled forwards. If the Oilers can come away with Monahan and Hartman, they could have two-thirds of a future checking line, something they sorely lacked in recent years. Monahan will likely play a scoring-shutdown role better than Shawn Horcoff in his prime and Hartman could develop into a more physical, less offensive Ryan Smyth.
38) Buffalo Sabres: Ian McCoshen (D, USHL, Waterloo) = The Sabres are having a good draft already at this point with a forward in Nichushkin and a goaltender in Fucale, so they opt for a defenceman here. At 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, McCoshen offers a lot to like and is perhaps overshadowed or lost in the shuffle among a strong crop of blue-liners this year.
39) New Jersey Devils: Chris Bigras (D, OHL, Owen Sound) = Speaking of lost in that defence shuffle, Bigras is a steady blue-liner that does almost everything good but nothing great. The Devils took a similar defender in last year’s second round, selecting Damon Severson at No. 60, but Bigras may be too good to pass up here.
40) Dallas Stars: William Carrier (LW, QMJHL, Cape Breton) = The Stars might have wanted to go defence with this pick, but most the top tier blue-liners are now off the board, so they gladly select a 6-foot-2 potential power forward as a consolation prize.
41) Philadelphia Flyers: Justin Bailey (RW, OHL, Kitchener) = The Flyers have always had a thing for big forwards and Bailey is 6-foot-3, so I can’t imagine Holmgren not liking his potential here. Wayne Simmonds is a 6-foot-2 former second-rounder (61st in 2007), so that could be a decent comparable and not just because both are African-American.
42) Phoenix Coyotes: Eric Comrie (G, WHL, Tri-City) = The Coyotes could be losing Mike Smith to free agency this summer and their goaltending pipeline isn’t exactly stocked with prospects, though Phoenix did use a recent first-rounder on Mark Visentin (27th in 2010). He could use some competition and Comrie is as competitive as they come, so a homegrown netminder would certainly bode well for the Coyotes.
43) Winnipeg Jets: Eric Roy (D, WHL, Brandon) = The Jets seem to like character kids in the second round, selecting gritty forward Lukas Sutter at No. 39 last year, so I could see that trend continuing with Roy. Winnipeg’s scouts likely saw plenty of Roy this winter and he scored 17 goals — three more than Pulock — so this could be a solid addition in terms of defensive depth.
44) Columbus Blue Jackets: Bogdan Yakimov (C, Russia, Nizhnekamsk) = Ughh, Columbus again. After picking two defencemen and a big forward in the first round, Kekalainen could very well target a boom-or-bust project with this pick. Yakimov would fit that bill as a 6-foot-5 centre who could develop into a Nik Antropov type.
45) Anaheim Ducks (from N.Y. Islanders): J.T. Compher (LW, USA U-18) = Call it a gut feeling, but I think Compher is destined to be a Duck with this pick. Anaheim went with a similar player in last year’s second round, selecting Nicolas Kerdiles at No. 36, and I think that tandem could work well together going forward.
46) Minnesota Wild: Juuse Saros (G, Finland, HPK) = The Wild have been backstopped by a Finnish goaltender for the last seven seasons in Niklas Backstrom, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer before signing a three-year extension earlier this week. Backstrom could serve as a quality mentor for Saros, who could, in turn, be a long-term solution and give Minnesota more options between the pipes beyond Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper.
47) St. Louis Blues (from Ottawa): John Hayden (C, USA U-18) = Kind of like Compher in Anaheim, I just see Hayden in St. Louis for some reason. He reminds some of current Blues forward T.J. Oshie and others of Ryan Kesler, but Hayden has the physical toolbox to work with at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. The Blues have good forward depth for the time being, so they could afford to wait and allow Hayden to properly develop.
48) Detroit Red Wings: Pavel Buchnevich (LW, Russia, Cherepovets) = This is another pick that almost seems too obvious, given Detroit’s success with another Russian named Pavel (Datsyuk). Not to make that comparison as Buchnevich is a totally different player, but I could see the Red Wings trying to catch lightning in a bottle again here.
49) San Jose Sharks (from N.Y. Rangers): Emile Poirier (LW, QMJHL, Gatineau) = With three of the next 10 picks, I think the Sharks can afford to take a couple chances in the second round. That said, Poirier isn’t a huge risk as he’s decent-sized and put up a good number of points (32 goals, 70 points) this season, so he might more so fit the label of best player available here.
50) San Jose Sharks: Oliver Bjorkstrand (LW, WHL, Portland) = Bjorkstrand, on the other hand, is a bit more of an enigma despite a stellar North American debut for the Winterhawks. Originally from Denmark, it’s difficult to decipher what Bjorkstrand will become, but the Sharks are intrigued by his potential.
51) Toronto Maple Leafs: Jason Dickinson (C, OHL, Guelph) = This could be deemed a slightly safer pick for Toronto, with Nonis simply picking his best player available in Dickinson. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an Ontario boy, either.
52) Buffalo Sabres (from St. Louis): Zach Nastasiuk (RW, OHL, Owen Sound) = The Sabres almost took an Owen Sound player with their last pick but settled on Ian McCoshen over Chris Bigras. This time, the Owen Sound prospect wins out, with Buffalo opting for an all-around forward in Nastasiuk.
53) Washington Capitals: Marko Dano (C, Slovakia, Trencin) = As much as the Capitals like their size, they also like their skill and some flash. Dano represents the latter and could become an electrifying player if he pans out.
54) Dallas Stars (from Vancouver): JC Lipon (C, WHL, Kamloops) = This might be a bit high for Lipon based on some scouting lists, but I think the Stars will roll the dice on the over-ager here. The Los Angeles Kings took Tanner Pearson to end last year’s first round and he didn’t disappoint in his first pro season, though he’s a bit bigger than Lipon. But again I think Dallas will begin to target WHL talents and Lipon is one of the better WHL forwards available this year.
55) Montreal Canadiens: Artturi Lehkonen (LW, Finland, TPS) = I’d say the Canadiens are having a good draft at this point, getting most of their targets, so they decide to take a bit of a flyer here on a falling European in Lehkonen. His skill-set could be first-round calibre, but it’s hard to predict where Lehkonen will go, so I expect a team with multiple picks to take a chance on him if he starts sliding.
56) Edmonton Oilers (from Anaheim): Tristan Jarry (G, WHL, Edmonton) = This seems to be a popular pick amongst Oilers fans and Edmonton has shown a tendency to pick Oil Kings in the past. The Oilers have a couple goaltending prospects in the pipeline (Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz), but another couldn’t hurt, especially one developing in their own backyard.
57) Los Angeles Kings: Jimmy Lodge (C, OHL, Saginaw) = This is likely another case of best player available, with the Kings having above average prospect depth at all positions. Perhaps they would go with a goaltender here, having decided against signing former second-rounder Christopher Gibson (49th in 2011), but the best option left is likely Philippe Desrosiers.
58) San Jose Sharks (from Pittsburgh): Jan Kostalek (D, QMJHL, Rimouski) = After adding three forwards, the Sharks go defence here and take who they see as the best blue-liner left in Kostalek. A product of the Czech Republic, Kostalek made the move to North America this past season and still has some developing to do, but the upside is worth this pick.
59) Winnipeg Jets (compensatory): Adam Tambellini (LW, BCHL, Surrey) = Tambellini is a bit of a high-risk, high-reward project, but the Jets can afford that type of prospect here. He has good bloodlines, which Winnipeg will like, so I see this as another good fit, though Tambellini could be a surprise draft riser and be off the board well before this pick.
60) Boston Bruins: Dillon Heatherington (D, WHL, Swift Current) = The Bruins know all about the importance of a big, mean defenceman having been captained to a Stanley Cup championship by Zdeno Chara and coming within two wins of repeating that feat this spring. Not to compare Heatherington to Chara because there’s really no comparison there, other than the fact Heatherington has decent size at 6-foot-3 and plays a physical, defence-first style. This wouldn’t be a sexy pick, but it’s the kind of pick that helps put teams over the top when the going gets tough.
61) Winnipeg Jets (from Chicago): Philippe Desrosiers (G, QMJHL, Rimouski) = Winnipeg is another franchise that could use a goaltending prospect and I fully expect the Jets to use one of their four picks in the opening two rounds to address that need. With two forwards (Domi, Tambellini) and a defenceman (Roy) already in their stable from this draft, the Jets can roll the dice on Desrosiers, who backstopped Canada to under-18 gold this spring. Then again, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Winnipeg use an earlier pick on one of Fucale, Comrie or Jarry, perhaps even Saros or Spencer Martin (OHL, Mississauga).
Negotiations have taken a positive turn towards ending the NHL lockout, but there will be no Hockey Night In Canada again this Saturday.
Craving a fix to fill that void? Look no further than Sportsnet, which will be airing UFC on FOX 5 — a stacked mixed martial arts card headlined by the lightweight (155-pound) title fight between champion Benson (Smooth) Henderson and top-ranked challenger Nate Diaz — live from KeyArena in Seattle, Wash.
This televised show, celebrating the one-year partnership between the UFC and FOX, rivals most recent pay-per-views for quality and quantity of talent. It features several highly anticipated scraps with title implications, plus others that promise to be crowd (and couch potato) pleasers.
The co-main event pits former light-heavyweight (205-pound) champion Mauricio (Shogun) Rua of Brazil against fast-rising contender Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson of Sweden in an international matchup.
Speaking of rising contenders, the third-to-last fight will showcase Canada’s Rory (Ares) MacDonald — often hailed the future of the welterweight (170-pound) division — against B.J. (The Prodigy) Penn, a living legend who has held belts in two divisions (welterweight and lightweight) and is returning from a brief retirement. To many hardcore MMA fans, that past-versus-future theme holds the most intrigue of any matchup, not to mention the bad blood that’s brewed between the combatants.
The main card will likely start off with a bang as Mike (Quick) Swick squares off against Matt (The Immortal) Brown in a battle of welterweight strikers — or rather sluggers. The preliminary card, also to be shown on Sportsnet, has its share of barnburners (on paper) that should set the tone for an exciting night of fights.
Personally, it’s been more than two months since my last blog entry and UFC predictions, so while I plan on posting with more regularity going forward, be forewarned this submission could show signs of ring rust.
Then again, Georges St-Pierre showed no ill effects from his 18-month layoff in handily dispatching Carlos Condit a couple weeks back, successfully defending his welterweight title for the seventh time.
So let’s see if I can perhaps pick up where I left off as well, starting with the main event and working my way down.
Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz
The lighter weight classes never seem to disappoint and I fully expect this pairing to put on another fun fight — granted they’ll likely have a tough act to follow with the fireworks expected beforehand.
Henderson is bigger and more powerful, but Diaz is dangerous in all aspects as evidenced by three straight finishes — all submissions — during his current winning streak since dropping to lightweight following a lopsided decision loss to MacDonald at welterweight.
Henderson (17-2), currently on a five-fight winning streak, used his size advantage to score consecutive decision victories over former kingpin Frankie Edgar, dethroning the undersized champ and then thwarting his efforts again in a title defence this past August. Diaz (16-7) most recently choked out Jim Miller in May to secure No. 1-contender status and set the stage for Saturday’s showdown.
My take: I see Henderson controlling Diaz with his wrestling and outmuscling him, basically imposing his will and better executing his game plan en route to defending his belt. I don’t think Diaz’s punches-in-bunches will faze Henderson, so his only chance is to lock up a submission by catching hold of his opponent’s limbs. Henderson is a smart, technical fighter, so I’m picking him by unanimous decision.
Mauricio Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson
I don’t know what to expect from these two. It’s a step up in competition for Gustafsson, but I think he’s ready for this kind of test. Whether he’s ready to pass it and inch closer to challenging Jon (Bones) Jones, that remains to be seen.
Rua (22-4-1) has been in a lot of wars over the years and he’s about as battle-tested (and proven) as they come. He’s been fighting professionally for a decade and, at 31 years old, might be in the midst of his final run toward reclaiming the UFC belt he lost to Jones last March. Since then, Rua has won two of his last three, the third result being a draw with Dan Henderson in the 2011 Fight of the Year.
Gustafsson (14-1), meanwhile, is on the upswing. He’s won five straight since his only loss to Phil Davis in April 2010, but he hasn’t been in the Octagon with the same level of fighters as Rua. For the most part, Gustafsson has been facing (and beating) middle-of-the-pack, gate-keeper types such as Matt Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko and, most recently in April, Thiago Silva via decision.
My take: It’s time to see what Gustafsson is made of and I’m honestly torn over how he’ll handle this opportunity. By all accounts, he’s confident and determined to succeed, yet I can’t help but think he could be in over his head against Rua. Gustafsson is tall and lanky, somewhat similar to Jones in body type, but Rua is a powerhouse and devastating striker who always goes for the kill. I think Rua will add another victim to his resumé by night’s end, via second-round TKO.
B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald
MacDonald picked this fight and now he’s got it. Delayed from September’s Toronto card until Saturday in Seattle due to MacDonald suffering a severe cut over his eye during training camp, both have been chomping at the bit to settle this score and prove themselves.
Obviously Penn (16-8-2) has little to prove in the grand scheme, with his legacy already cemented as a pioneer and one of the sports’ all-time best pound-for-pound fighters. But Penn is still only 33 years old and, despite losing three of his last five fights and settling for a draw in another, he’s out to silence his critics and prove he’s not “washed up.” A driven and dedicated Penn is always dangerous — and downright scary — for any opponent.
The 23-year-old MacDonald (13-1) won’t be intimidated. In fact, he’s been taking an intimidator approach in the build-up, threatening to “smash” and “destroy” Penn — punching his ticket back to pasture, while propelling himself into a household name and perhaps into the title picture.
MacDonald, formerly a Kelowna resident who now trains out of Montreal’s famed Tristar gym, has gone on the record as refusing to fight teammate St-Pierre, who echoes that sentiment. A couple more MacDonald wins and one of them will likely have to move to middleweight to avoid that clash.
First things first, MacDonald will have his hands full with Penn. Once known as The Waterboy, MacDonald (4-1 in UFC) is constantly maturing and developing into a force to be reckoned with. He’s won three straight since his only loss to Condit in June 2010, a fight MacDonald was winning through two of three rounds.
My take: Penn is a prickly opponent and offers more challenges than Mike Pyle or Che Mills — MacDonald’s last two TKOed stepping stones. I wouldn’t necessarily say Penn is past his prime, but MacDonald is more certainly entering his prime and has the potential to not only defeat but finish Penn. Listening to MacDonald’s training partners, it sounds as though GSP’s protégé is not one to be messed with. MacDonald’s skill-set will speak for itself sooner than later and I’m expecting more of a statement win over Penn than either of St-Pierre’s past triumphs versus their Tristar nemesis. I’m predicting a star will officially be born, with MacDonald pounding out a first-round TKO.
Mike Swick vs. Matt Brown
Both fighters have compelling back stories, overcoming illness, injury and other personal demons in years past. They have got off life’s canvas more than once, and will now try to put each other down for the count.
UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva are counting on these two to deliver a toe-to-toe display to open the main card — and, based on their track records, there’s no reason to expect anything less.
Swick (15-4, with 8 TKOs and 8 first-round finishes) and Brown (15-11, with 8 TKOs and 6 first-round stoppages) have only combined for 10 decisions in 45 career fights, so don’t expect this tilt to go the distance.
My take: With all due respect, I’m anticipating a glorified street fight with Swick and Brown meeting in the centre of the cage and trading blows until somebody hits the deck. Flip a coin as to who that will be, but my gut says Swick is left standing, emerging victorious by first-round TKO.
Yves Edwards vs. Jeremy Stephens = A lightweight fight that could also produce Saturday’s Knockout of the Night, or Fight of the Night if they are able to absorb each other’s punishment until the final horn. I’m picking Stephens (20-8) by TKO over the more experienced Edwards (41-18-1).
Raphael Assuncao vs. Mike Easton = A bantamweight (135-pound) fight that could go either way, but I’ve been extremely impressed with Easton (13-1, 3-0 in UFC), so I’ll go with him by decision over Assuncao (17-4, 2-1 in UFC).
Ramsey Nijem vs. Joe Proctor = A couple of TUF alumni squaring off in hopes of climbing the lightweight ladder, I’ll literally flip a coin on this one and go with Nijem (6-2, 2-1 in UFC) by decision over Proctor (9-1, 1-0 in UFC).
Daron Cruickshank vs. Henry Martinez = I actually like this lightweight fight and think it could be the sleeper on this card. Both guys are exciting and like to push the pace, so it should be entertaining one way or the other. For the sake of picking a winner, I’ll go with Cruickshank (11-2, 1-0 in UFC) by decision over Martinez (9-2, 1-1 in UFC).
Tim Means vs. Abel Trujillo = Another lightweight bout that I’m, admittedly, unfamiliar with the combatants and haven’t watched any of their previous fights. Trujillo (9-4) is making his UFC debut and that might be overwhelming against Means (18-3-1, 2-0 in UFC), who I will pick by decision again.
Dennis Siver vs. Nam Phan = This featherweight (145-pound) scrap really seems buried, or at least lost in the shuffle. Not too long ago, Siver (20-8) was considered a UFC contender at lightweight and Phan (18-10) has a penchant for action-packed fights. Expect a stand-up war, with Siver perhaps the more technical striker. I like Phan, but I’m picking Siver by third-round TKO.
Scott Jorgenson vs. John Albert = Both these bantamweights have lost two straight, albeit to their division’s top-end talents. I’ve always liked Jorgenson (13-6, 2-2 in UFC), he always brings it and there’s never a dull moment when his Mohawk enters the Octagon. He’ll have a sense of desperation for this one, despite his losses coming to interim champion Renan Barao and a Fight-of-the-Night performance against Eddie Wineland. I think that will fuel Jorgenson to a dominant decision victory over Albert (7-3, 1-2 in UFC).
After a brief late-summer hiatus, the UFC will look to make a triumphant return with this Saturday’s UFC 152 card in Toronto. And the dominant mixed martial arts promotion will be counting on one of its dominant champions to make up for that lost time. Light-heavyweight kingpin Jon (Bones) Jones — the man shouldering most of the blame for the extended layoff after his refusal to fight Chael Sonnen resulted in the cancellation of UFC 151 on Sept. 1 — will defend his 205-pound title at the Air Canada Centre against veteran underdog Vitor Belfort.
Although this card is stacked from top to bottom — also featuring the first-ever flyweight (125-pound) title fight between Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson, plus a middleweight contender bout between Michael Bisping and Brian Stann, not to mention four Canadians fighting on home soil — most eyes will be on the main event, and mainly on Jones.
Once a fan favourite for his unorthodox but extremely effective and entertaining style, Jones has drawn the ire of everybody as of late — from UFC president Dana White, who pointed the finger at Jones for the organization’s only cancelled card in 11 years, to fellow fighters, who disagreed with his decision to duck Sonnen while consequently postponing paydays for those on the undercard. And not to be lost in this, growing fan frustration with some having already lost respect for Jones over a drunk-driving arrest back in May following his last fight, a lacklustre decision victory over former training partner Rashad Evans at UFC 145 on April 21.
Almost as fast as Jones rose to stardom, he’s falling from grace and even getting labeled a prima donna these days, having recently inked a deal with Nike. But, in the dog-eat-dog, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport of MMA, that could all change with one impressive performance over a ripe-for-the-picking opponent such as Belfort.
The UFC desperately needs these headliners and their supporting cast to deliver in highlight-reel fashion to avoid losing additional momentum. Especially staging a show in hockey-mad Canada where blood-or-adrenaline-thirsty fans will need a new winter fix should the NHL’s current lockout be long-lasting — and coming off an underwhelming Calgary debut in the UFC’s last trip north of the 49th parallel for injury-riddled UFC 149 on July 21.
That Calgary card came in the midst of a busy stretch for the UFC, which held five events in just over a calendar month from July 7 to Aug. 11, but none since the latter saw Benson Henderson defeat Frankie Edgar for a second time by controversial split decision to retain the lightweight (155-pound) title.
While the UFC’s bottom line might not be taking a hit yet — in terms of gate revenue and pay-per-view purchases — the last couple months have certainly been a blow to its popularity with the general public slowly but surely losing interest.
The next couple months could, again, change all that as pound-for-pound superstar Anderson Silva headlines UFC 153 in his native Brazil next month before Canadian welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre does the same for UFC 154 in his hometown of Montreal on Nov. 17. St-Pierre hasn’t fought since April 2011, recovering from a knee injury and returning to face interim title-holder Carlos Condit.
Should Silva and St-Pierre both prevail, the stage could be set for a super-fight between the two sometime in 2013 — a dream matchup for White, fans and media alike, akin to the long-rumoured-but-yet-to-materialize boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
That said, nobody should look past the potential fireworks of this Saturday’s card. Without further ado, here are my predictions:
Jon Jones (16-1) vs. Vitor Belfort (21-9)
Jones needs to make a statement in this fight and I’m confident he will. Belfort is better than the bookies are giving him credit for, but Jones is simply on another level and will be out to showcase that. Belfort may be getting long in the tooth at 35 and having been fighting professionally since 1996, but he’s still powerful and explosive, thus giving him a puncher’s chance similar to Matt Serra’s memorable upset of GSP. Jones will no doubt have a lot on his mind and will likely be given a villain’s welcome with a chorus of boos, but I don’t see the champ getting shaken, stirred or stopped in his fourth title defence. Expect Jones, who is more talented in every facet of MMA and possesses a 10-inch reach advantage over Belfort, to stay focused and execute the game plan given to him by renowned trainer Greg Jackson. Expect the result to be devastating and electrifying.
Prediction: Jones by first-round stoppage (KO or submission).
Joseph Benavidez (16-2) vs. Demetrious Johnson (15-2)
Two relative newcomers to the UFC, which only introduced the flyweight division in March, Benavidez and Johnson are as elite as it gets for their weight class. As is common of the lighter fighters, they both scrap at a frenetic, crowd-pleasing pace thanks to unmatched speed and abundant stamina. They could go the full five rounds without skipping much of a beat, a likely outcome as they also lack knockout power because of their slight stature. Having not seen enough of either combatant from past bouts contested outside the Octagon, I’ll go with my gut on this one.
Prediction: Benavidez by unanimous decision (wins 4 rounds to 1).
Michael Bisping (22-4) vs. Brian Stann (12-4)
Bisping has been humble in the build-up to this fight, an adjective not commonly associated with the brash Brit. Perhaps he’s trying a new approach, leaving the trash-talking to the likes of Sonnen, or perhaps Bisping just respects Stann, a former war hero with no real chink in his amour — at least not one to attack verbally. Stann has a big right hand, something Bisping has been vulnerable to in the past — lest we forget how his Ultimate Fighter coaching experience ended at the hands of Dan Henderson. But Bisping is a workhorse who kept up with Sonnen in a close decision loss and might be able to wear down Stann as the fight wears on — that is providing he can keep his hands up and his chin down. Easier said than done for a guy that likes to brawl at times.
Prediction: Stann by second-round KO/TKO.
Matt Hamill (10-4) vs. Roger Hollett (13-3)
Hollett, a Halifax, N.S., native making his UFC debut, has the better record, but Hamill, making his Octagon return after a year-long retirement, has faced the much better competition. Will Hollett have jitters? Or will Hamill have ring rust? Or both . . . ? Regardless, it’s an intriguing fight between 205-pounders looking to take the next step in their respective careers. As much as I don’t like betting against Canadians, I just think a rejuvenated Hamill will be too much to handle for Hollett.
Prediction: Hamill by unanimous decision (3 rounds to none).
Cub Swanson (17-5) vs. Charles Oliveira (16-2)
This has the makings of another fun fight between two action-packed featherweights (145 pounds). I enjoy watching both, but I think there is a discrepancy in their natural skill level, with Oliveira holding a distinct edge on the ground and debatably even standing up. But Swanson is always game and will try to impose his will on an opponent six years his junior. However, I think Swanson’s bullish ways will play right into the hands of Oliveira.
Prediction: Oliveira by first-round submission (armbar).
As for the preliminary fights, I’ll keep these short and sweet:
Igor Pokrajac (25-8) vs. Vinny Magalhães (9-5), light-heavyweight = Magalhães is back in the UFC and back to stay, winning by submission.
T.J. Grant (18-5) vs. Evan Dunham (13-2), lightweight = Grant, from Dartmouth, N.S., has won two straight since dropping down from welterweight, but Dunham is a tough customer who has also won two in a row. Grant will still have a size advantage and use that to his advantage, earning a decision victory.
Sean Pierson (12-6) vs. Lance Benoist (6-1), welterweight = Pierson, from Toronto, will be fighting in front of family and friends and is 12 years older at 36, but the 24-year-old Benoist is considered a well-rounded up-and-comer, with this potentially being his coming-out party . . . Benoist by first-round submission (triangle choke).
Jimmy Hettes (10-0) vs. Marcus Brimage (5-1), featherweight = Speaking of up-and-comers, Hettes is also being hailed as a force to be reckoned with at 145 pounds, with Brimage serving as another stepping stone toward title contention. Hettes by first-round stoppage.
Seth Baczynski (17-8) vs. Simeon Thoresen (17-2), welterweight = Thoresen, a native of Norway, has the more impressive record, but Baczynski has won five straight, including a split decision over Benoist in June. That result, to me, was telling and I expect Baczynski to outlast Thoresen as well, likely by decision.
Mitch Gagnon (8-2) vs. Walel Watson (9-4), bantamweight (135 lbs.) = Gagnon will be the first Canadian in the cage, fighting out of Sudbury, Ont., but at 5-foot-6 he’ll have his hands full with the cagey 5-foot-11 Watson. Gagnon is looking to rebound after losing his UFC debut, while Watson has dropped two straight decisions. An important tilt for both guys, but I’ll go with the Canadian by way of a coin flip and say Gagnon by majority decision.
Tune in to TUF
In UFC news unrelated to the Toronto card, the 16th season of The Ultimate Fighter has started airing and features two Canadian welterweight prospects in Kelowna’s Mike (The Messenger) Hill, 25, and Montreal’s Mike (The Martian) Ricci, 26.
Both have trained with fellow Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald (13-1), a 23-year-old originally from Kelowna who moved to Montreal where he currently fights out of the TriStar Gym, alongside Ricci (7-2).
Hill (4-0) and Ricci both scored quality TKO victories in the elimination round to earn entry into the TUF house during last Friday’s premier episode, with the ensuing teaser highlighting Hill as one of this season’s more colourful — or possibly controversial — characters. Stay tuned and, as always, enjoy the show (Friday evenings on FX Canada and Rogers Sportsnet, check local listings).
Fight fans have had this Saturday circled on their calendar ever since the main event was announced. That being the rematch between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and brash challenger Chael Sonnen. The co-main event is a trilogy bout between retiring Hall-of-Famer Tito Ortiz and Forrest Griffin, the original Ultimate Fighter. There’s even significant appeal to Canadians, with Patrick Cote and Ivan Menjivar, both training out of Montreal, also on the UFC 148 main card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Add it all up and this is one of the most anticipated UFC events in recent memory, promising to produce fireworks for Independence Day weekend. Thanks mainly to the headlining title fight, UFC 148 could rival the historic UFC 129 at Toronto’s Rogers Centre or even the stacked UFC 100 in Las Vegas for pay-per-view revenue.
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen
This scrap more than sells itself, but Sonnen is a master salesman — a former realtor by trade who also dabbled in politics — so not surprisingly he’s still fuelling the hype machine. More surprising is Silva’s willingness to exchange verbal barbs, showing unprecedented swagger and intensity while threatening to knock out all of Sonnen’s teeth. Silva has evidently taken some of Sonnen’s potshots personally and is now on a mission to silence The American Gangster once and for all.
Most opponents show Silva the utmost respect for his accomplishments in mixed martial arts, which include a 14-fight winning streak dating back to 2006, highlighted by nine straight UFC title defences, in racking up a 31-4 overall record. Sonnen (27-11-1) is the exception, constantly slamming Silva for everything and anything, while diminishing his laundry list of accolades and UFC records.
Sonnen makes some valid points amidst his madness, however. Most notably the fact Sonnen dominated Silva in their initial bout on Aug. 7, 2010, in Oakland, Calif., using superior wrestling skills to control The Spider for the better part of 20 minutes only to succumb to a last-ditch submission (triangle choke).
Silva survived that onslaught to pull off the latest finish in UFC history, and has since finished two more opponents — Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami — in more impressive fashion. Getting training tips from actor Steven Seagal, Silva has achieved rock-star status in his native Brazil, even gracing the cover of that country’s Rolling Stone magazine.
With a highlight-reel finish of Sonnen, Silva’s legacy would reach epic proportions as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. But if Sonnen can score the upset by delivering a repeat performance without getting caught, he would become the new face of the sport in the 185-pound division. I don’t see the latter coming to fruition, as I think Sonnen pushed one too many buttons on Silva, much like Josh Koscheck did on Georges St-Pierre, and as Silva said in a recent interview: “The game’s over!”
Prediction: Silva by second-round TKO/KO.
Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin
This is a fun fight between two former light-heavyweight champions, even if neither athlete is near his peak or prime at this point. Both are pioneers, responsible in their own right for the sport’s meteoric rise to mainstream. Ortiz has announced his retirement, win or lose, but he got an early start to his training camp and fully intends to leave the UFC on a triumphant note. That will be a tall order, though, having lost five of his last six fights and only winning once since 2006.
Ortiz (16-10-1) won a split decision over Griffin that year in their initial bout, which Griffin (18-7) avenged with a split-decision victory of his own in 2009. But Griffin hasn’t fought since last August, a knockout loss at the hands of Mauricio (Shogun) Rua in Brazil. Griffin has lost three of his last five and needs to win this rubber match to stay relevant in the 205-pound division.
Prediction: Ortiz by third-round TKO via ground-and-pound.
Cung Le vs. Patrick Cote
This middleweight bout should be a stand-up battle with both combatants best known for their striking skills. Le is the flashier of the two, but Cote might possess more power. Cote is also driven to succeed is his return to the UFC, riding a four-fight winning streak from other organizations. Le turned 40 years old since he last entered the Octagon — a TKO loss to Wanderlei Silva in a fight-of-the-night performance last November.
Cote (17-7) has one of the best chins in the business, having never been knocked out, so Le (7-2) will need to be at his kickboxing best to pull off a finish. I can’t see that happening, but I can see an entertaining (if short) tilt . . .
Prediction: Cote by first-round TKO/KO.
Dong Hyun Kim vs. Demian Maia
Maia (15-4) is making his welterweight (170-pound) debut, dropping down from 185. With a relatively slim frame, the weight cut shouldn’t pose too big a problem for the world-class jiu-jitsu practitioner. Kim (15-1-1) poses a much bigger challenge, his only career loss coming against current interim champion Carlos Condit last July. But Kim, nicknamed Stun Gun, rebounded to beat Canada’s Sean Pierson to end 2011 and can stay in title contention with a strong showing against Maia.
It will be interesting to see where this fight is contested, on the feet or on the canvas, as Kim specializes in judo and takedowns but may avoid gambling on the ground against Maia, a submission specialist. It wouldn’t surprise me if this scrap stays standing for the most part.
Prediction: Kim by unanimous decision.
Chad Mendes vs. Cody McKenzie
Speaking of submission specialists, McKenzie is Mr. Guillotine, with his last 11 wins coming via that specific chokehold. McKenzie (13-2) may be a one-trick pony, but his trick is proving pretty effective. Mendes (11-1) certainly knows what to defend against, but he’s likely more concerned with going on the offensive. Coming off his only career loss in January, knocked out in a title fight by featherweight (145-pound) champion Jose Aldo, Mendes will be determined to bounce back with a convincing win.
Prediction: Mendes by first-round TKO via ground-and-pound.
Ivan Menjivar vs. Mike Easton
This is a clash between two exciting bantamweight (135-pound) fighters who are on lengthy winning streaks and are undefeated in the UFC to date. Menjivar (24-8, 3-0 in UFC) has won by submission, decision and knockout thus far and, with another finish here, could be in line to face the winner of Urijah Faber and Renan Barao, who compete for the interim title in Calgary later this month. The same opportunity could be granted to Easton (12-1, 2-0 in UFC), who can stretch his overall win streak to eight by beating Menjivar. Both fighters are well rounded and aggressive, with Menjivar perhaps more technical and Easton more powerful. Sparks are sure to fly when they meet in the middle of the cage in a tantalizing appetizer for another night of great fights.
Prediction: Menjivar by split decision.