Posts Tagged ‘Season Expectations’

Nazem Kadri first donned a Maple Leafs jersey on a stage at the Bell Centre in Montreal when he was drafted seventh overall by the club in 2009. Now, almost a decade later, John Tavares – his friend, former London Knights teammate, and longtime Leafs fan – will be joining Kadri in Toronto.

Kadri was drafted at one of the lowest points in the Maple Leafs’ illustrious history. The team failed to reach the postseason in seven consecutive seasons from 2005-12. Finally cracking the playoff picture in 2012-13, Toronto suffered the most heartbreaking of exits in an epic Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins in the first round. The Leafs didn’t return to the playoffs again for another four years.

Over the past nine seasons, Kadri, the longest-serving current Leaf, has witnessed restructuring and a total rebuild within the Maple Leafs organization, which he says helped land the biggest free agent in recent history.

“I don’t think a player like (Tavares) would have wanted to sign in Toronto eight, nine years ago,” Kadri said to the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan. “That’s the culture we have been trying to rebuild, is trying to acquire those free agents and try to make Toronto a destination where players want to come and win. Johnny realized something special we had here and I think he made the right choice.”

The buzz of adding one of the league’s top centers brought restored faith to an organization that spent years trying to become a consistent Stanley Cup contender. Even though the addition of Tavares knocks Kadri down to a third-line role, his focus remains on bringing a championship to Toronto.

“You know what, winning is the most important to me.” Kadri shared. “I don’t care where I play, I don’t care what role I play.”

Few teams will be able to match Toronto’s depth at center this upcoming season, sporting a trio threatening enough that Vegas oddsmakers favor the Leafs for the 2019 Stanley Cup.

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The Jacksonville Jaguars return with much of the same roster from the 2017 season, but quarterback Blake Bortles thinks the team may have lost one of its greatest strengths after its shocking appearance in last year’s AFC Championship Game.

“I think last year we kind of caught some teams by surprise …” Bortles said on NFL Network’s “NFL Total Access,” according to Kevin Patra. “I don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen this year. The way we play, as good as our defense was, I think we’re definitely a bit on people’s radar now as far as a team that’s headed in the right direction and a team to be taken seriously.”

The Jaguars defense ranked second in the NFL – and first in the AFC – in both yards and points allowed last season. Only the Baltimore Ravens recorded more takeaways.

Bortles, for his part, was rewarded for his most successful season to date with a three-year, $54-million extension in February. General manager David Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone were also signed through 2021 after the season.

After last season’s success, the 26-year-old quarterback is expecting a more difficult path this year, as the team goes for its second consecutive division title with a target on its back.

“I think we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” said Bortles. “And the AFC South is going to be tough … it’s our goal every year to win that.”

The Kansas City Chiefs seem intent to get everything they can out of wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the first season of the three-year, $48-million contract he signed as a free agent this offseason.

Watkins was asked during offseason practices to move around the field and run a wide variety of routes. The usage provided a challenge he’s enjoying.

“This offense is the broadest offense I’ve ever been in,” Watkins said, according to Adam Teicher of ESPN. “It’s definitely a mental challenge. But I think that’s what kind of gets me up every day to study the plays and come out here encouraged. Anybody can get the ball and I’ve got to learn all the positions. I can’t just learn one position.”

Watkins, who spent the 2017 season with the Los Angeles Rams and Coach of the Year Sean McVay, spoke highly of new head coach Andy Reid.

“I’ve never been in an offense like this, around a coach that just feels like he’s obsessed with the game and makes you want to be obsessed with it, too, to know more about the offense,” Watkins said.

The 25-year-old caught just 39 of 70 targets for 593 yards last season, but he posted eight touchdowns for the second-highest single-season total of his four-year career.

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett is on a mission to erase what amounted to a bittersweet rookie season.

Garrett certainly showed why he was worthy of the first overall pick in 2017, recording 31 tackles, seven sacks, and a forced fumble. However, Garrett missed five games due to injuries and the Browns slumped to a 0-16 record.

Entering his second year, Garrett believes he’s only shown glimpses of his potential.

“Ten times better (than 2017), 15 times better,” Garrett said about his goals for 2018 to ESPN’s Pat McManamon.

Browns head coach Hue Jackson revealed that general manager John Dorsey showed Garrett tape of Julius Peppers, a player he felt drew comparisons to the 22-year-old.

“I think that is the challenge maybe John was serving up, and it is no different a challenge than if I would go to Myles,” Jackson said of Garrett. “‘You are supposed to be one of the best players in this league. Go be it every week.

Garrett also pointed out particular areas of improvement.

“I feel like I was just a little slow with my hands and not as good as I wanted to be last year with disengaging with the offensive linemen,” Garrett said. “I think that I have really improved.”

It’s a terrifying proposition that Garrett, who runs sprints with the Browns’ defensive backs and wide receivers, could only stand to improve after a strong 2017 campaign. If everything goes as planned, expect him to become a household name.

The Dallas Cowboys have been a subject of much discussion this offseason, particularly regarding their 2018 outlook after releasing star receiver Dez Bryantand losing veteran tight end Jason Witten to retirement.

Quarterback Dak Prescott, however, claims the negative media attention is only helping to fuel his team.

“It’s hard to (surprise) people with the Dallas Cowboys; our standards are high,” Prescott told reporters at his annual youth football camp Sunday, via Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Clarence E. Hill Jr. “But when you hear talk, ‘We don’t have this player, we don’t have that player. We don’t have a lot of well-known guys.’ But that only makes the guys we have hungrier.”

The Cowboys added receiver Allen Hurns via free agency while drafting wideout Michael Gallup and tight end Dalton Schultz to help offset their offseason subtractions. Prescott has said he isn’t sure if any team “needs a No. 1 receiver,” and believes the team has the right attitude heading into training camp.

“I like where we are headed,” Prescott said. “I like the way we finished OTAs and minicamp. I like our attitude as a team, our hunger, the youthfulness, the energy. You can see guys excited to get back. And what’s good, the last day of an OTA or minicamp, guys weren’t sprinting out the door. That was exciting to see. And knowing that guys want to get back together in this off time to not only just hang out but to work and get better at ball. That is exactly what we need in a young team.”

The Cowboys missed the playoffs last year after finishing 9-7. They captured the NFC East division crown in 2016.

In a flash, the Los Angles Lakers transitioned from rebuilding a storied NBA franchise amid a down period to featuring a potential championship contender by bringing aboard 14-time All-Star LeBron James in free agency.

Head coach Luke Walton knows the pressure to succeed has increased tenfold, and that there’s going to be a new degree of drama surrounding his squad. Nonetheless, he’s ready to face the challenges head-on after going through a similar song and dance during his rookie year with the Lakers when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined forces with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

“It’s gonna be completely nuts, but it’s also gonna be awesome,” Walton told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “The whole city’s gonna be behind us. We’re gonna be on SportsCenter every night. If we lose, it’s gonna be the end of the world. If we win, it’s gonna be wild. But no matter what, it’s gonna be fun.”

Walton also recalled the day he was informed of James’ decision to head to Hollywood, and how he spent roughly eight-and-a-half hours on the telephone after the news broke, which took him away from his Sunday family barbecue.

He chatted with his father, Bill, with Bryant, and even with Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, who helped guide James to two titles in South Beach.

“He (Spoelstra) said, ‘First of all, you’re getting a different LeBron,'” Walton said. ‘”We (the Heat) got him eight years ago when he hadn’t won a championship.’ But he’s like, ‘Dude, he works extremely hard. He’s so knowledgeable about the game. You gotta always be honest and prepared and ready to work hard. As long as you do those things, the relationship should be fine.'”

James has appeared in each of the last eight Finals as part of the Eastern Conference representative, while the Lakers haven’t even qualified for the postseason since 2013.

Taylor Hall finally got a taste. Now he wants the full course.

This spring, the eventual MVP winner and his 93 points dragged the New Jersey Devils into the NHL playoffs for the first time in five years. The experience lasted just five games, however, as the Devils were bounced by the Tampa Bay Lightning in unceremonious fashion.

Following seven playoff-free seasons with both the Edmonton Oilers and the Devils, Hall finds himself in unfamiliar territory. He’s happy in red and black, but hungry for more.

“Definitely a successful season, but at the same time I watched playoff hockey for a month and a half before the Cup was handed out,” Hall said Wednesday before teeing off at the NHLPA’s annual charity golf tournament. “We’re a long way from where we want to be, but I think it was a great first step.”

Despite the playoff berth, the Devils have been quiet this summer. General manager Ray Shero hasn’t acquired anybody of significance via free agency or trade; he also let a number of veteran players walk, with forwards Brian Gibbons(Anaheim), Michael Grabner (Arizona), and Patrick Maroon (St. Louis), as well as defenseman John Moore (Boston), all signing elsewhere.

“We’re going to have to find a way to make up for that,” the 26-year-old said. “Those are guys that played key roles on our team, whether they were (picked up) at the trade deadline or just guys who came into (training) camp and surprised and made a huge difference for us.”

Hall, whose 26-game point streak, career-high 39 goals, and 1.2 points per game helped him claim the 2018 Hart Trophy, laughed when he was asked about the potential of Shero using the club’s salary cap space ($23 million in 2018-19) to add talent sooner than later.

“I just sit here like you guys …” he told a scrum of reporters. “I’d love to see us add a couple more pieces, but at the end of the day that’s not my job. My job’s to come into camp as healthy as possible, as committed as possible, and just worry about that.”

While the Devils’ depth chart remains unfilled, the team has Nico Hischier, the 2017 first-overall pick. Hall lauded the Swiss centre at the NHL awards, and heaped more praise onto him on Wednesday.

“If he was playing in Toronto, or a big market that would have a lot more spotlight, I think that he’d have a bigger name, a lot more recognition, certainly a lot more Calder votes than he had,” Hall said of Hischier, who finished seventh in rookie-of-the-year voting.

“He had 50 points (52) as a centerman as an 18-year-old and, us playing on a line together, we played the top lines each and every night. I’m proud to be his teammate, I’m proud to be on a line with him, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the evolution of him, how he can improve next year.”

The Devils vastly improved in 2017-18. Playing a speed game under coach John Hynes, they jumped from a winning percentage of .427 in 2016-17 to .591. It’s an appetizing start, a jolt to the franchise’s internal and external expectations.

“It’s hard to get out of the basement. It’s hard to get out of the basement and make the playoffs,” Hall said, emphasizing the leap. “Now, I think the hardest step is going from making the playoffs to being a team that can challenge for the Cup. I’m really looking forward to trying to do that.”