Texans head coach Bill O’Brien announced Monday that Brian Hoyer will be the team’s starting quarterback when the regular season opens at NRG Stadium on Sept. 13 against the Chiefs. That settles Houston’s biggest unknown, but what about other position battles and issues facing the team? We’re going inside preseason Week 2, a 14-10 loss to Denver, to look at other position battles, our thoughts on choosing Hoyer, and some items tangentially related to fantasy football.
The Texans have several position battles going on during the preseason, starting with quarterback and the replacement for Andre Johnson at starting wide receiver. Running back had been a lock until Arian Foster’s groin injury re-configured the depth chart. We’ll take a look at their first preseason game, a 23-10 win over San Francisco last Saturday, with an eye toward those position battles and other observations.
It was sad news Friday when manager Red Sox manager John Farrell announced he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma. While undergoing a procedure for a hernia during an off day in Detroit, the presence of cancer was discovered. A tough season for Farrell and everyone associated with the Red Sox now adds a layer of sobering reflection.
It would be hard for Montreal to have a worse season than 2011-12 — they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference — but I don’t see a big change in the team’s fortunes as we enter the lockout-shortened 2012-13. No need to recount the indignities suffered by the Canadiens last season, an embarrassing campaign which led to front-office and behind-the-bench changes. But the labor impasse buys general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien some time to implement changes. Little was expected even if the season started as normal last fall, but those expectations are lowered with a shorter schedule. It’s a built-in excuse for a sub-par season. But the short season is also a concession I’ll grant Bergevin and Therrien. With less than a week of training camp, there’s very little time for the decision-makers to implement the on-ice changes or the players to adjust to change. It’s the stable franchise, one with little organizational change that should do well and carry the burden of expectation. The Canadiens can continue on a course for a high draft pick while cleaning up the problems afflicting their roster. Bergevin/Therrien brought in a couple of heavy hitters that should make it tougher on opponents when beating the Canadiens. Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong won’t solve Montreal’s anemic offense, but teams will know they’ve been in a battle. This will be an opportune season for the Canadiens to let some younger talent develop, like Louis Leblanc and Lars Eller. Or give some real neophytes, with high offensive upside, like Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, minutes in the NHL.
First and foremost, Jaroslav Halak has not been good. The exact opposite of what he showed when the Blues raced to a 9-1-2 start last season. When sorting the goalies on the stats page at NHL.com by save percentage, you have to go the third page to find his .843 (63rd out 64 goalies ranked). Sort by goals-against average and his 3.58 ranks 57th of 64. There have been some softies given up and rebounds for opponents to pounce on, but it hasn’t been all bad play. Halak has been victimized by deflections, poor penalty killing and turnovers in the defensive zone. Still, other than random bounces and deflections, a goalie can still do something about man-down situations and turnovers. Much like a pitcher in baseball after a fielder commits an error, the goalie can bare down and bail out his team. Halak hasn’t been doing that. He showed some of that in Monday’s loss to Edmonton. It was the final game of the Blues extended period on the road and the defense played like they wanted to be on the flight home. Despite giving up another four goals, Halak made some brilliant saves and kept that from being an 8-2 loss. Look for coach Davis Payne to go with him Friday night at home against Vancouver, in an effort to build off an encouraging performance against the Oil. If the Blues are going to do anything this season, they’ll need Halak playing at his peak form. Brian Elliott has been a God-send early on, but he’s not a long-term solution. Chris Mason wasn’t in 2009-10 and Elliott won’t be this year.
Offensively, the Blues have been troubled by a weak power play and little production from the top two lines. The third-line pairing of Alex Steen (nine points) and Jason Arnott (eight points) have carried the forwards. Chris Stewart stands out among the forwards as the biggest disappointment. After scoring 15 goals in 26 games after being traded to St. Louis last season, he has two goals through 11 games and enters Friday on an eight-game scoring drought. Credit Stewart for effort, though. He’s getting the puck to the net with a team-high 37 shots on goal. They’d also like to see T.J. Oshie get his game on track. Normally a good two-way team player, Oshie has shown a penchant for individualism this season resulting in a second-period benching against
Philadelphia two weeks ago. Payne has him playing normal minutes again, but the benching was his second disciplinary event in the calendar year — he was suspended for two games in March of last season for an unexcused absence from practice. Andy McDonald has been lost to a concussion and his first-line minutes have been dispersed among a few players: Oshie, Matt D’Agostini and Vladimir Sobotka. The last few days of practice have been about shuffling combinations to find the right mix on the power play. St. Louis has been a good even strength team, but have the unhealthy combination of being last in power play and next-to-last in the penatly kill. Shoring up those special teams will be key to turning around the slow start.
There are some positives to note. Aside from the shoddy effort in Edmonton on Monday, the Blues’ defense has been stellar at preventing shots. St. Louis goalies are seeing a league-low 25.9 shots per game. And on the ownership front, the Blues entered into an agreement to sell the team to Matthew Hulsizer. The present ownership group was a committed bunch, but didn’t have deep resources to invest. Once new ownership is in place, perhaps we’ll see more investment, such has been going on in Buffalo after new owners entered the picture last season. Lastly, David Perron has returned to the club and has been practicing with the team, albeit in a non-contact environment. There’s still no timetable for his return, but Perron represents the one true sniper on the team.
Perhaps a road-heavy schedule early in the season has had some impact on the team. With six of the next seven games at the Scottrade Center, the Blues are hoping to provide some balance to a disappointing start.
The Canadiens went 2-6 during the preseason, often looking bad in the process, which brought out the worriers among the Habs’ fan base. Goaltender Carey Price allowed seven goals in the first 31 shots faced, prompting some internet muttering about him switching from pads manufactured by Vaughn to Reebok. Settle-D, Goalie geeks. The Habs and Price finished on a high note. Using a group of players resembling the one that will suit up tonight in Toronto, the Canadiens rolled to a resounding 5-1 win over Tampa Bay in their preseason finale.
The biggest concerns entering the offseason were health and personnel-transition on defense, an undersized group on the front line, a need for more scoring, particularly in even-strength situations, and perhaps someone the team could feel comfortable with giving Price 20-25 games off a season.
Injuries last season to defensemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges sent the Canadiens into scramble mode, filling holes with mid-season acquisitions like James Wisiniewski, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara. Those three have moved on as did stalwart Roman Hamrlik. To address their needs, the Canadiens looked in house, re-signing the twice-operated-on Markov to a multi-year deal in the offseason. Markov suffered a setback in his rehab prior to training camp and hasn’t practiced with the team yet. He was placed on injured reserve, and he won’t be in the lineup tonight. Beyond that, head coach Jacques Martin isn’t saying much and there doesn’t seem to be a sense of panic from the team. The slant coming from Montreal is that Markov worked too hard to recover and just needs to be brought along more slowly. I have no reason to believe anything else, however, Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier didn’t plan on him not being available. His absence leaves a void on the power play, where Markov has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league.
Other in-house defenseman candidates didn’t pan out during training camp. Yannick Weber has been moved to forward and is skating on the fourth line. And bruising Russian defenseman Alexi Yemelin, lured to Montreal after seven years in the Kontinental Hockey League, hasn’t been as comfortable in North America. This opened an opportunity for Swiss free agent Raphael Diaz, who will be part of the defense. He keeps the game simple and has worked well with Gorges, whose knee has held up nicely. Montreal also added free agent Chris Campoli late in the game and he’s expected to be part of the top six D-men, if there are no lingering effects to the head shot he absorbed from the Lightning’s Ryan Malone. Until Markov returns, it looks like the three pairings are Hal Gill–P.K. Subban, Diaz-Gorges, Jaroslav Spacek-Campoli. Yemelin is the seventh defenseman.
The early signs from free agent Eric Cole are encouraging. The former Panther scored in his first preseason game for Les Canadiens, and later added a shootout winner plus a two-assist game. He brings size and scoring. The only thing left is to determine which line he skates on. It was presumed he’d line up with Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri, but he may be needed to help add scoring touch to the third line. A full season of Max Pacioretty should help alleviate the scoring problem as well. Scott Gomez was a producer during his preseason action. After the worst statistical season of his NHL career, Gomez has committed to shooting more, feeling he became too predictable for defenders. The third and fourth lines are mess right now. Andrei Kostitsyn, whether he’s happy about it or not, will skate on the third line. He’s entering the final year of his contract. Lars Eller (shoulder) has not been cleared for contact just yet, meaning we’ll probably see David Desharnais skate on this unit to start the season. The freshly acquired Blair Betts, claimed off waivers from Philadelphia on Wednesday, is expected to add some size up the middle, centering the fourth line with Travis Moen and Weber.
Price returns as the most important player on the team. After watching their No. 1 play 72 games and finish second among goalies in minutes played, the Canadiens inked Peter Budaj in the offseason. The thinking is that they can’t ride Price as hard as they did last season. Budaj is coming off his worst season in the NHL, but he’s been a serviceable backup for several years and surely he’d be better behind the Canadiens defense than Colorado’s. Based on the preseason performance, Price better keep his new Reebok pads handy. Budaj was not sharp in his three starts, which included a seven-goal shellacking at the hands the Bruins.
The General Classification (GC) Favorites: This starts and ends with two-time defending champion and three-time winner Alberto Contador. He changed teams from Astana to Saxo Bank and dragged with him three key teammates, who he’ll rely on heavily in the mountain stages. Nothing about Contador’s preparation for 2011 suggests he’s not on form. He handily won the Grio d’Italia in May, which is typically not a good thing for someone looking to win the Tour. No rider has won the Giro/Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998. It’s tough to pull off the Grand Tour double. Last year’s Giro winner, Ivan Basso, finished nearly an hour behind Contador at the Tour. The 2009 Giro winner, Denis Menchov, placed 51st at the 2009 Tour. Contador is a fairly polarizing figure in cycling. Doping allegations continue to dog him. He tested positive for banned anabolic agent clenbutirol during the 2010 Tour — Contador claims to have eaten contaminated beef resulting in the positive test result. Whatever the case, he was cleared by the Spanish cycling federation, but faces an appeal of that favorable decision in the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) one week after this year’s Tour finishes. He also undermined Lance Armstrong’s bid in his return to cycling in 2009 when they both rode for Astana. Last year, he pedaled away when the at-the-time race leader Andy Schleck dropped a chain. Taking advantage of another rider’s mechanical issue is considered bad form in cycling. But there’s no arguing that he’s the best cyclist out there right now, having won the last three Tours de France he’s started while being a career winner at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta Espana.
Andy Schleck of Team Leopard Trek. Schleck rode for Saxo Bank the last few seasons, but is now part of a new start up based in his home country of Luxembourg. The team includes many Saxo defectors, including brother Frank Schleck, time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt. Schleck’s every bit the climber that Contador is, but he’s not good in the time trials. He’s improving, but it’s definitely an Achilles’ heel. He hasn’t looked very good leading up to the Tour. He was not on form at the Amgen Tour of California and was surprisingly dropped from a few climbs at the Tour de Suisse. He came back and had a good ride on one climb in Switzerland, taking second overall on the stage and claiming to show his critics that he was still a factor for the Tour.
Cadel Evans of BMC Racing. For years, Evans has been a top contender but toiled for teams that weren’t overly strong and was racing against Armstrong. BMC has surrounded him with better support, but he’s racing against Contador. He’s had a strong showing so far this season with wins in the Tirreno Adriatico and Tour de Romandie, as well as a second place finish at the Criterium du Dauphine.
Ivan Basso of Liquigas. Basso skipped the Giro this year to focus on the Tour, but had a training crash on Mount Etna (Italy) in May, which preceded his poor showing (26th) at the Criterium du Dauphine. He acknowledged the crash hurt his prep for the Dauphine, but insists he’s on form for the Tour.
Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky. Wiggins will attempt to parlay his win at the Criterium du Dauphine to success at the Tour. It was an impressive performance for Wiggins and Team Sky at the Dauphine, an eight-day stage race through the Alps. It’s a relatively new team which has never been put in the position of defending an overall race leader in decisive mountain stages. Wiggins only recently became a factor in the climbs, something that’s going to need to continue if he wants a podium finish in Paris. He finished 24th at last year’s Tour after a surprising 4th place finish in 2009.
Jurgen Van den Broeck of Omega Pharma-Lotto. Van den Broeck finished fifth at last year’s Tour and was fourth at the Dauphine in 2011 and 2010. However, he won his first stage in a professional bike race in this season’s Dauphine, finishing first on a climb on the race’s first stage. That breakthrough gives the Belgian confidence heading into France. Though the team isn’t very strong and a poor effort in the Team Time Trial on Day 2 could set him back.
Robert Gesink of Rabobank. Gesink finished 6th in last year’s Tour while sharing the team leader role with Denis Menchov. A year later, Menchov is gone and Rabobank management is throwing its full weight behind Gesink, who was encouraged by a couple of top-three finishes at the Dauphine despite finishing 20th overall. He won the Tour of Oman earlier in the year and has generally looked to be in good form. Like many of the contenders, much depends on well Gesink performs in the individual time trial.
Samuel Sanchez of Euskatel-Euskadi. Sanchez finished fourth last year and is targeting a podium finish and a stage win for 2011.
Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Andreas Kloeden, Janez Brajkovic of Radio Shack. Radio Shack has four riders who could emerge as a general classification contender. Leipheimer claimed the Tour de Suisse with a last-day individual time trial performance to knock Damiano Cunego off the top step of the podium. Horner, at age 39, won the Tour of California with Leipheimer playing dutiful lieutenant. Kloeden was the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. And Brajkovic claimed the 2010 Dauphine, beating Contador. We won’t know who the GC leader will be until we get to the mountains.
Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Cervelo. Hesjedal surprised with a seventh-place finish at the Tour in 2010 and became the team leader when Vande Velde was hurt on the second stage. Much like Radio Shack, the GC leader won’t emerge until we see a few climbing stages in the second week of the Tour.
The Race: Try not to get too caught up in who’s wearing yellow during the first week. Most of the GC contenders are content to sit back in the pack and let others grab the glory. The stages are mostly flat and these are days for the sprinters. The first day features a moderate climb at the finish, which will fit Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo) nicely. The Team Time Trial (TTT) on Day 2 will throw a new wrinkle into who wears yellow early on, but we’ll eventually see a lesser known emerge in yellow that first week. The big GC contenders will wait to exert their influence until the race meets the high mountains in the second and third weeks.
Highlight Climbs: 2011 is the 100th year anniversary of the introduction of the Col du Galibier. The Tour loves to celebrate their mountains and the organizers have the riders ascending the Galibier twice. It will be a summit finish atop the Galibier in Stage 18, and then one day later the riders will climb the Galibier in the other direction during Stage 19 on the way to a summit finish atop Alpe d’Huez. That will be a stage not to miss as Alpe d’Huez is the holy land of cycling. The crazies will be out on the sides of the roads, for sure.
The Jerseys: You probably know all about the yellow jersey. It’s worn by the current leader of the race. If you’re in yellow, it is the responsibility of your team to protect it. That typically means leading the peloton and expending much energy. This is why the big GC favorites don’t want to wear yellow too early. They don’t want their teammates taxed out before hitting the high mountains.
Green is the color of the leading sprinter. Tour organizers have changed up how the sprinter points are awarded to the fastest riders and the amount of points will vary depending on the stage’s profile (flat, medium mountains or high mountains). Points are awarded to the top 15 riders at one intermediate point in the stage and at the finish line. The big names you’ll hear about here are Mark Cavendish (HTC-High Road), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) and Allessandro Petacchi (Lampre).
Polka Dot is the jersey worn by the King of the Mountains, the race’s leading climber. Again, like they’ve done with the green jersey, Tour organizers have changed up the points system. Riders receive points depending on the level of a climb at intermediate points in a stage as well as summit finishes. Climbs are organized, in ascending order of difficulty: Category 4, Category 3, Category 2, Category 1 and Hors Category (HC). Under the new points system, the King of the Mountains will wind up being one of the big GC favorites, such as Contador or Andy Schleck.
White is the color of the jersey worn by the race’s best young rider. A young rider is defined as someone less than 25 years of age. It’s based entirely on accumulated time.