2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Semifinal Round Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Semifinal Round Prospectus
M.D. Wright
4.28.2016

Despite the goofy machinations involving the seedings in the NHL, we have had some very intriguing matchups thus far, as the first round indicated. There were several “upsets” in some cases, and in others, some were upset with the slanted officiating benefiting certain teams. We will have a new Stanley Cup Champion, as the Chicago Blackhawks were ousted on the home ice of the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of the Western Conference’s first round. That series encapsulated all that is wrong with the seedings in the NHL, as the two teams were among the league leaders in points (3rd and 5th, respective to the Blues and Blackhawks; more than all but two Eastern Conference teams) and squared off in the first round (?!?!?!)

Nevertheless, what we have going forward are a series of even more intriguing matchups, even if there is no large market with which to reap a ratings bonanza (we are aware that the New York Islanders play in New York, but their fanbase is almost exclusive to the New York area, and no one else cares about the Islanders). So here are our thoughts heading into the semifinals.

Yes, the first game of the East semis began on Wednesday, before Game 7 of the final first round series involving the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators (which the Predators won), which is more goofiness from a goofy league and goofy commissioner, the prediction of that series (Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning does not change, even after the outcome of Game 1).

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Pittsburgh Penguins (2 Metropolitan) vs. Washington Capitals (1 Metropolitan, 1 Eastern)
Playoff hockey is about attrition. The teams that give up soft goals do not last long. Every shift is a grind. Every game is a battle to see who can get to the finish without ending up in the locker room. Washington lost D Brooks Orpik to a clean, but vicious hit in the Philadelphia Flyers series. Some Capitals fans wouldn’t necessarily view this as a “loss”, per sé, as Orpik is a shell of his former self (in fact, the hit on him is one that he is long known for, albeit his were mostly of the late and dirty variety over the years), and it provides more ice time for young Taylor Chorney (whose own goal was the difference in Washington’s embarrassing Game 5 loss at home, while outshooting the Flyers 45-11) . Top lines typically cancel each other out at this point in the playoffs, until special teams are involved. Your depth forwards and third pair defence are key.

The Capitals have the slight depth advantage at forward, as several of their top nine have been to and/or won Stanley Cups. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have won a Cup as well, although the emergence of the Penguins pseudo fourth line (as Conor Sheary, who had been on the fourth, was moved up to the Crosby line during the first round series versus the New York Rangers) has had just as much to do with the Penguins advancing as the Pens’ two top centres.

Goaltending will be a focus. Braden Holtby has continued his likely (side note: how is Jonathan Quick even remotely a Vezina candidate this year?) Vezina Trophy season by being a brick wall. Granted, the Flyers only had one line working (and it was not either of their top six, which is why they’re home) all series, but Holtby has had a fantastic season, and he will face his stiffest test yet from the speedy and skillful Penguins. We do not know the goalie situation with the Penguins, however. The Rangers made Matt Murray looked like a multiple Vezina winner last series, but the Caps are a different animal. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played in nearly a month, and it is difficult to insert a goalie into the heart of a playoff series with that much time off. The Pens can hope that Murray’s efforts have a carryover effect and not a product of facing the extremely timid Rangers forwards, but if Fleury either starts the series or is pressed into duty, Pittsburgh must know that the Caps are going to come aiming for him every chance they get.

Alexander Ovechkin is going to shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot some more. What should be concerning for teams is that Nicklas Backstrom is shooting more. He has always had a fantastic shot (i.e. his roofer to basically end the Flyers’ hopes in Game 6), but spends more time setting up T.J. Oshie and Ovechkin than he does shooting. If Backstrom continues to be more inclined to shoot, the Pens better stay out of the box, because their average defence cannot hold up both on the penalty kill against Ovechkin & Co. and get into a chip and chase, board-banging game with the heavy Caps, should Washington manage to carve out leads in any of these games.

It is difficult to project out hockey over a series as it is, but even more so with an uncertain goalie situation. The Capitals are known to be historic chokers (never mind their entire franchise history, but just since the post-2005 lockout years since Ovechkin’s rookie season), and while they appeared to be well on their way to another against the Flyers, one does not transpose the outcomes of one series onto another, where matchups are different. The Penguins are going to come swiftly and deftly with their top six, with Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and netfront pest Patric Hornqvist, but Washington’s physicality and better top four defence may prove to be the difference.

Call: Caps in 6.
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New York Islanders (WC1) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (2 Atlantic)
This series has already begun, as a result of scheduling. Some suggest the Ducks series — which began later than the others, due to the Ducks and Caps having to play a makeup game from the mid-Atlantic blizzard in January on the Sunday prior to the playoffs — having not concluded its Game 7 until Wednesday, because very few expected the series to get to that point, and having multiple days without hockey in primetime would not be good for ratings. No evidence of such, but it has been suggested by some.

Side note: NHL ratings are a tricky item, because its general constituency is starkly different than that of the NFL, NBA and MLB. Add to the fact that there are no Canadian teams (still responsible for most of the NHL’s ratings) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nearly a half-century, combined with small market teams comprising the rest of the playoff field, and you have a potential ratings nightmare.

Except the Islanders represent New York.

… and if you watched their first round series with the Florida Panthers, well, you could assert… you know what? Skip it.

The Islanders won Game 1 in Tampa and temporarily wrested home ice advance away from Tampa in the process.

As always, depth players make the difference, as the Isles got scoring from theirs, while the Lightning got nothing from theirs but giveaways and awful attempts at backchecking early on, as Tampa dug itself into a huge hole. Ben Bishop, who looked otherworldly in last year’s playoffs, became a sieve, although much of Tampa’s play could be attributed to a week-long layoff. They eventually found their game and got their legs midway through the game, but facing a 4-1 deficit at the time proved to be insurmountable.

Thomas Greiss has stood on his head since the puck dropped in Game 1 of the first round. While not entirely impossible that he continues to do so, one cannot expect it to project out over another long series, particularly with the Isles only having one real working line (Game 1 of this series was an outlier until proven otherwise). The Isles truly cannot skate with Tampa, as the Lightning’s feverish comeback illustrated. The Isles were pinned in their own zone for over two minutes multiple times in the second and third periods. If Steven Stamkos is able to return from his blood clot injury to play in this series (he is skating and doing drills at this point), the Isles are really in trouble.

If Game 1 was a sign of things to come with Ben Bishop, however, we can all toss aside everything we think we know about hockey. Bishop is a Vezina finalist, though (won’t win it, but deserved to be among the finalists) and odds are he will rebound. Tampa has the advantage across the lines, and while the Isles defence is very good, it isn’t enough to contain Tampa’s speed.

Call: Lightning in 6.


WESTERN CONFERENCE
Nashville Predators (WC1) vs. San Jose Sharks (3 Pacific)
We have documented what the Sharks bring to the table. We’ll not rehash that. This is not the decade-long chokers from the 2000s, or the gutless 2014 team.

All the focus is on Nashville.

The Preds play an outside-in game, as their defence generate so much in the way of scoring (scoring themselves, primary and secondary assists and moving the puck aggressively in general) and pitched a damn-near perfect Game 7 against Anaheim on the Ducks’ home ice.

Not to be overlooked is the combination of lines featuring Ryan Johansen and James Neal, and Filip Forsberg (on the second line). These are game-changing players, and it will be interesting to see how defensive-minded Pete DeBoer counters with the plethora of line combinations that he is capable of throwing out there himself.

This series can go either way, and the “Call” here isn’t a hard stance by any means. Pekka Rinne has been fantastic for Nashville, after a couple of rocky games (three in a row, in fact) against Anaheim, he shut down the Ducks in Games 6 and 7, which were both elimination games for the Preds. The Sharks seemingly haven’t played in eons, and it could be a similar situation for them which plagued the Lightning in Game 1 of their series. Long layoffs affect teams differently, however. The focus should be more on Martin Jones, the Sharks’ goalie when considering the effects of the layoff. This tends to affect goalies more than the skaters. I have literally gone back and forth in picking this series as I’ve written this piece, but all I can ask is do not overreact to the outcome of Game 1 either way.

Call: Sharks in 7.
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St. Louis Blues (2 Central) vs. Dallas Stars (1 Central, 1 Western)
Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, Tyler Seguin (if he is healthy — if not, Dallas was foolish to even play him at all in the one game he played vs. Minnesota, rushing back from an Achilles injury), Jason Spezza, Val Nichushkin, Patrick Eaves, etc. etc. etc. Dallas comes at you in waves, as if Lindy Ruff’s style. This series is going to be underrated by some, but loved by others who love a high-paced, physical game. Dallas does not like to hit, per , but they can really skate. St. Louis can match Dallas’ offensive exploits, and have the better overall defence.

Of concern is Alex Steen. He had a rough time of it in Game 7 vs. Chicago, and it is known that he had just returned to the lineup from injury shortly before the regular season ended. Some speculated that he may be playing injured. If so, the Blues have issues. However, with four solid lines, including all-world Vladimir Tarasenko, all would not be lost if Steen is indeed hindered by a recurrence of his injury.

I do not like Dallas’ goalies at all. The Stars cover up these average goalies (Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi) with their scoring ability, but outside of a couple of shaky games, Brian Elliott has been magnificent for the Blues all year and in five of the seven games against Chicago. He’ll have to be, but will Lehtonen and/or Niemi be? In the face of an equally-skilled offence like St. Louis? Dallas struggled with a Minnesota team that was missing former 40-goal scorer Zach Parise for the entire series, Eric Haula for a game, and a Minnesota team that has been prone to long scoring droughts throughout the 2015-2016 season.

The Blues don’t have that problem.

Call: Blues in 6.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus


2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Prospectus
M.D. Wright
4.10.2016

Hockey is a total crapshoot once the playoffs begin. Most of us know this, and as such, these predictions should be taken as a grain of salt (excluding a couple of these series). However, the thing about this year’s pool is that all eight series will have a high level of intrigue and there will be no dull moments in any of these series (unlike the first round of NBA playoffs in recent years). Be there, or miss it at your own peril. The playoffs begin Wednesday night, April 13, 2016.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Washington Capitals (1st, Metropolitan Division; 1st, Eastern Conference; President’s Trophy Winner) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (2nd Wild Card, Eastern Conference)
The Capitals have plenty of depth throughout all four lines and have a solid defence, with Braden Holtby in goal, coming off what will most likely be a Vezina Trophy season. Part of the intrigue of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey is the randomness and the irrelevance of regular season. As it is, however, the Flyers and Capitals split four games during the regular season, with the Flyers winning both their games in overtime and in a shootout. Records don’t matter as much as matchups do, and the Flyers match up very well with the Capitals.

Claude Giroux is a master in the faceoff circle, Wayne Simmonds basically sets up a camping tent in front of the crease all game (particularly on power plays, of which there figures to be plenty early on in this series, for both teams — more on the Washington side of this later in this piece), and Jake Voracek is very strong on the puck, matching up well with the once-again-winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy, Alexander Ovechkin. The Flyers’ fourth line is productive, and the Flyers kill penalties very well. Then there is the newfound X-factor, Shayne Gostisbehere on the blue line for the Flyers, which will dictate how the Capitals play defence themselves. Steve Mason will be in goal for the Flyers and his right hand catching glove has presented some teams problems while he stands (or kneels?) at 6’4″ taking up a good amount of the net, with some of the largest shoulder pads that you will see in the NHL. Goaltending will be solid in this series. The key may be which blue line pairing can have a bigger impact in generating offence, as both teams’ top two lines will pretty much cancel out the other.

John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are well-established and solid on the power play, often looking for Ovechkin for arguably one of the best one-timers in NHL history on the left faceoff circle. Gostisbehere possesses a wicked wrist shot and a heavy slap shot (and a quick one-timer, as well). Simmonds tracks the puck very well from the point and redirects the puck better than most in front.

This series may come down to who can avoid the penalty box; particularly in the 3rd period of games. But it will be close, and to go out on a limb…

Call: Flyers in 6.
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New York Rangers (3rd, Metropolitan Division) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd, Metropolitan Division)
The Penguins were predicted to falter once C Evgeni Malkin went down with what many thought was (and can potentially still be) a season-ending injury, but they went in the complete opposite direction: winning 11 of 12 games (and the lone loss came in their final regular season game sitting several starters and playing second and third string goaltenders). However, their starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is battling concussion symptoms, and his backup, Matt Murray, may have one as well. It will be interesting to see who will be in goal for Pittsburgh for Game 1, whether it is Murray or Jeff Zatkoff. We can be almost 100% certain that it won’t be Fleury.

The Penguins’ top two lines have been lethal, and even their bottom six have been, as well, in Malkin’s absence. The Penguins moved Nick Bonino up to Malkin’s line to run with former Ranger Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, both of whom possess high-end skating ability, giving most teams nightmares on defence. Sidney Crosby elevated his game to near-Hart trophy levels since February, which has been key in the Penguins’ run. Outside of Kris(topher) Letang, the Penguins’ blue liners are nothing special to write home about, although they are solid enough that they do not cost the team games, regardless of the output of the offense.

The Rangers have issues across the board. Derick Brassard has not played well of late (although Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider are in playoff form already). Rick Nash is just finding his game after missing 20 games due to a leg injury. For long stretches of time, the Rangers’ fourth line was their best line, which is not a good thing. All world goalie Henrik Lundqvist appeared fatigued in the final weeks of the season (or fatigued by the ghastly play of the defencemen in front of him for most of the season), while injuries began to mount just as the regular season came to a close. D Dan Girardi has dealt with a cracked kneecap and various nicks and bumps — the latest being a heavy hit into the boards from former Ranger Brian Boyle in the 80th game — and is in rapid decline physically overall, while logging major minutes. Team captain Ryan McDonagh broke a bone in his hand in the 79th game. Dan Boyle has practically calcified before Ranger fans’ eyes since he came to New York before the 2014-2015 season, although he played well to close out the season. Kevin Klein has been steady (although a turnover machine of late), and Keith Yandle is always going to be high risk (giveaways and weak along the boards in his own zone) and high reward (arguably a top 3 defenceman in quarterbacking power plays in the NHL). Marc Staal has had an uncharacteristically shaky season overall, and with the uncertainty of McDonagh and Girardi’s respective availabilities, young defencemen Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath may be pressed into duty. Both have been far more efficient with the puck than Girardi and Staal, it should be noted. The Rangers have played the Penguins well enough to win three of the four games this season, but the team’s bugaboo all season has been giveaways in their own zone by defencemen (mostly) and those foibles cost them each time the Rangers lost to the Penguins this season (three out of four games). The Eric Staal line is one to watch in this series, just as much as the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line for Pittsburgh.

With the playoffs being a tighter checking game and generally less open ice with which to generate wide open scoring plays, and the Rangers having a decided advantage at goalie, much of the conjecture about teams wanting to avoid Pittsburgh is overblown. Had Fleury been healthy and in net, the predictions would have been amended in a major way, but as of now…

Call: Rangers in 6.
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Florida Panthers (1st, Atlantic Division; 2nd, Eastern Conference) vs. New York Islanders (1st Wild Card, Eastern Conference)
The Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993 and their blatantly obvious tank job to close out the season will not be lost on the Panthers, who are a match up nightmare for the beat-up Islanders, who have injuries to a key defenceman (Travis Hamonic) and one of their netfront presences (Anders Lee), which will affect the Islandes’ power play. Goalie Jaroslav Halak will be out with a groin, pressing Thomas Greiss into duty, and it will be key to see whether the Islanders’ defence can handle the heavy Panthers forwards, including the ageless Jaromir Jagr, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and several others. The Panthers had Vincent Trocheck emerging in the second half of the season before he got hurt, but they still have the consistent Jussi Jokinen in the fold, as well. Another key will be the Panthers’ young defence. Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, Erik Gudbranson (should he return from a concussion in time for the series), particularly the top pair against the John Tavares line with Kyle Okposo.

Former Islander Roberto Luongo (ironically) is in goal and had a good season for the Panthers, helping them to their best win total in team history. The Panthers are young, big and fast, and without Hamonic, guys like Nick Leddy, Calvin de Haan and others will log bigger minutes. Considering the Penguins’ goalie situation and lack of physicality (Phil Kessel hit hot dog stands more than he hit opposing players all season) one would think that the Isles would have done everything to maintain integrity of competition and draw a slightly more favorable match up than the nightmare that awaits them in Sunrise, Florida.

Call: Panthers in 5.


 

Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd, Atlantic Division) vs. Detroit Red Wings (3rd, Atlantic Division)
The Red Wings have made it to the playoffs now for the 25th straight season, and are in line for a rematch with the team that eliminated them last spring, the Lightning.

Lightning C Steven Stamkos (blood clot) will not play, nor will D Anton Stralman (broken leg). Stamkos’ loss is huge, but Stralman’s is as well, as he is important to the Tampa Bay power play.

This will be a speed game, and it will be interesting to see the deployment of the Lightning defence against the Wings’ speedy forwards such as rookie Pavel Datsyuk, Dylan Larkin, and Andreas Athanasiou. Overall, the Wings don’t have much quality depth beyond their top two lines, with Henrik Zetterberg, Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar rounding out those lines. Athanasiou is mainly a 4th liner, it should be noted, but maximizes his limited ice time in a way that could give the Lightning fits. Detroit only really has one very good defenceman, but at this point, the Lightning only have one, as well. Tampa’s X-factor will be Jonathan Drouin. If he can come of age and produce as the team envisioned when taking him early in the draft a couple of summers ago, then the Lightning will have a chance with Ben Bishop consuming nearly all of the net.

Then again, the Red Wings were beat up on the blue line last year and had the series wrapped up before choking it away — and this was with the Lightning healthy.

Barring something unforeseen from the Tampa blue line offensively, the Wings should win this series.

Call: Red Wings in 6.
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WESTERN CONFERENCE
Dallas Stars (1st, Central Division; 1st Western Conference) vs. Minnesota Wild (2nd Wild Card, Western Conference)
The Wild are in trouble. They have been maddeningly inconsistent all season, prone to long streaks of both good and poor play. Dallas is the most explosive offensive team in the NHL; leading the league in goals scored in back to back seasons. Their offence is spearheaded by C Tyler Seguin and winger Jamie Benn, along with an assortment of good forwards, including the still-useful Patrick Sharp. The major question with Dallas is their defence; and if Minnesota is to have any chance to win more than one game in this series, it will be because they take advantage of what has largely been an issue for Dallas the past two season: defensive lapses (although the team strangely got marginally better after Seguin’s late-season injury).

Minnesota has the ability to score, and goalie Devan Dubnyk will keep them in most games (while giving up three or four quick ones in one of these games, I can almost see it from here), but how well can the Wild defend after Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon? Too many questions and too much inconsistency from this team to think that they can generate enough on offence to match Dallas.

Call: Stars in 5.


 

Anaheim Ducks (1st, Pacific Division; 2nd, Western Conference) vs. Nashville Predators (1st Wild Card, Western Conference)
This series could go either way, if we’re being honest. The Ducks finally played up to expectations after a brutal start to the season that left many dumbfounded. Nashville has been similar to Minnesota in regards to up and down play over the past month, and as always, the play of Shea Weber (along with Roman Josi) will have a say in the Preds’ fortunes, but newly formed combo of Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg has lit up the skies since the trade deadline (especially Forsberg). Along with Pekka Rinne in goal, the Preds can beat anyone, but the Ducks are a heavy, tight-checking, puck-dominant team, and this will be a slugfest; which the Ducks want. Between Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry and the emergent Jakob Silfverberg, the Ducks have plenty of depth. Additionally, they brought up another big body in Nick Ritchie to bang even more throughout all four of their lines. The Ducks defence is solid and often jumps into the rush offensively, which will press the Preds’ forwards into duty all game. This may be the difference in the series, if, if we are to believe what appearances show… which is that goalie play is virtually a wash (even if Bruce Boudreau sticks with Frederik Andersen over John Gibson, who is potentially every bit as good). Andersen’s meltdown against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks last year is not a distant memory, however.

A tough call, but the Ducks’ home ice advantage is palpable. They’ve virtually not lost there (other than a game against the Rangers, strangely) in eons.

Call: Ducks in 6.
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Los Angeles Kings (2nd, Pacific Division) vs. San Jose Sharks (3rd, Pacific Division)
This could very well be a toss up. Joe Thornton  is still doing “Jumbo Joe” things, and Patrick Marleau came on late in the season, to help the consistent Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and the revelation that is Joonas Donskoi.

You know what you get with the Kings: goaltending (Jonathan Quick) big, heavy, mashing, high-possession (Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli, Milan Lucic, Jeff Carter, etc.) and the best defenceman in the NHL: Drew Doughty.

The Sharks use former Kings/Quick backup Martin Jones as their starter, and should he falter (and it is entirely possible, given that nearly everyone on the Kings knows his strengths and weaknesses), James Reimer, but the Kings have a major advantage in goal. Brent Burns jumps into the rush at times as a “winger” for the Sharks, giving them a heavy presence out high and a hard shot from the point, with the hands of a 6′ centre. On the surface, one would think that this could go either way, with a slight edge to the Kings, but keep in mind that the last time the Sharks made the playoffs, they inexplicably blew a 3-0 series lead by losing four straight to the Kings, who won the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of that 2013-2014 season.

For now…

Call: Kings in 6.
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St. Louis Blues (2nd, Central Division) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (3rd, Central Division)
Some tend to think that there is a magic light switch to turn on and off, but this is not the Chicago team that won the Cup last year, nor was there any expectation for it to be so, given the amount of roster turnover. Artemi Panarin, aka the “Bread Man” (Panera Bread, for my slow readers) may very well win the Calder Trophy for best rookie given the season he has had, filling a void left by the departure of Patrick Sharp. The Blues know what they are going to get from Art Ross Trophy winner, Patrick Kane, along with arguably the best two way centre in the NHL, Jonathan Toews, and the Blues are certainly equipped defensively to slow down the Blackhawks enough to manage offence of their own. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock preaches defence wherever he goes, and the Blues will be ready in that regard, from the blue line on in.

Corey Crawford is so schizophrenic. He led the league for most of the season in shutouts, but also had (seemingly) numerous games where he gave up goals in bunches. He had to be pulled several times due to ineffectiveness last year. Brian Elliott (presumably) will get the nod for St. Louis, which is awash in offensive firepower, ranging from the speedy Robby Fabbri, to the steady Alexander Steen, to the big bodied David Backes (presuming he will be able to go, coming off injury), Jaden Schwartz, and all world Vladimir Tarasenko.

That’s before getting into Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and the other stalwarts on defence who contribute in the offensive zone as well. The Blues are in the best position that they have been to beat the Blackhawks in ages (as they seemingly lose to Chicago each time they square off in the playoffs). Regular season means little, but the Blues did play Chicago very well this regular season (then again, so did the Wild, who swept Chicago, and the Wild had lost something like a dozen games in a row at one point, so there’s that). You can’t ever really bet against a team like Chicago, but in some regards this has to feel like a “House Money” season for them, regardless of the outcome of this series.

This might be the Blues’ year (and those who know me know I love to ridicule them for choking every year).

Call: Blues in 7.
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CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS PREDICTIONS FOLLOWING THE CONCLUSION OF THE FIRST ROUND.

Sports Fandom: How I Became a Fan Series


Sports Fandom: How I Became a Fan Series
M.D. Wright
2.15.2016

Every few years, we like to look back on the history of the teams that we support (in some cases, become fanatics of, which I am not personally), the circuitous route that is sometimes taken to becoming a fan of certain teams. Everyone’s story is different, which makes this fun. Feel free to share your story. Here is mine.

HOW I BECAME A FAN:
New York Football Giants.
1985, even though it was a “down” season for Lawrence Taylor in retrospect, his play jumped off the screen to me, as I was just 6 years old. No, I didn’t become a fan because of the hit that ended Theismann’s career. Again, my relative dislike (and even that is a strong word) for the arrogant Theismann didn’t develop until he began doing Sunday Night Football games on ESPN, where he was a know-it-all. 1986 solidified my support for the Giants, although I continued to have favorite players on other teams until my teen years, when rivalries became the centerpiece (excluding Deion Sanders when he went to San Francisco and Dallas).
New York Knicks.
Patrick Ewing. You had to have been around, either as a kid or someone older, of age, to understand how much gravity Ewing had on basketball in the early-mid 80s. All you heard was Georgetown was Ewing this, Ewing that, and Bernard King (who my dad constantly talked about, but I only got to watch play a handful of games with the Knicks with my own eyes live). Once the Knicks drafted Ewing, it was a wrap. I remembered King’s injury a few months before that draft, but I didn’t become a fan until Ewing was drafted that summer in 1985. Yes, I was always a Jordan supporter, and wanted him to do well as long as the Knicks won. Sometimes that happened, but more often than not — especially in playoffs — it did not.
New York Yankees.
I was not a day one Yankee fan. I grew up breaking my neck to see every Darryl Strawberry at bat that I could, and tried to catch every Dwight Gooden start that I could, and that occurred from 1985 when I began watching baseball (my grandmother used to play the tickets and even had me run them for the lady who would come to pay up when my grandmother’s tickets hit) during the 1985 playoffs when my sister and I were living with my grandmother that fall. I only became a Yankee fan (during their worst years) because Deion Sanders went there in 1989. Not sure that I would have become a fan otherwise. Probably would have become a Pirates fan if Deion had not come to the Bronx, as the Pirates had several players who I liked… Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and a couple others.
New York Rangers.
Hockey has pissed me off over the years with their numerous lockouts. I’ve been watching hockey since about 1988, and remember when Ron Greschner and others left the team. I watched copious amounts of hockey in the 90s, as I was home sick for most of my high school years with my illness (was in bed sick as ever in June 1994, otherwise I might have missed the Stanley Cup title, while getting sicker watching NBC preempt a Knicks Game 5 with that OJ trash). But a series of lockouts in the past 15 years nearly caused me to stop watching altogether. After about 2001, I watched a couple of years, and then after the 2005 lockout, I stopped watching altogether until 2010, when I began watching religiously again.
UConn Huskies.
Same as the Yankees, I was not day one with UConn. Not many are. Jim Calhoun is one of the greatest recruiters and coaches of all time, though. My original team (and I still support them) is North Carolina. I still have a beanie from 1982 that I got at the state fair. I became a UConn fan in 1994 when Donyell Marshall owned the Big East (my favorite conference, and the one I purported over the ACC even when I was living in ACC country and supported UNC, as some of my buddies from high school will tell you). I used to cut class every March to watch the Big East tournament (not the ACC tournament) and that was further solidified when Ray Allen came through, then Khalid El-Amin, then Rip Hamilton, then Caron Butler, then Emeka Okafor, then Ben Gordon, then Rudy Gay, then Kemba Walker, then Shabazz Napier, then Boatright, and now Kevin Ollie — who was on those teams that I originally became a fan of, is back as head coach and already has a national title under his belt.
Florida State Seminoles.
Deion Sanders. Period. Before I learned that idolatry was an affront to God, I idolized #2. Wanted to, and eventually did, play corner because he did. Wore the same number in every sport that he did, high stepped like he did, ran faster than every one (except this one cat who I swear was juicing) through high school, but the aforementioned illness killed any hopes of playing sports collegiately. But from 1987 onward, I have been all about Garnet and Gold.

North Carolina Tar Heels.
I was born 9 miles away from Carmichael Auditorium (where the Heels played when I was born, before the Dean E. Smith Center was built), at DUKE HOSPITAL of all places. Yet I have hated Duke all of my life. Did not get to watch Jordan in college, and only got to watch a compromised Kenny Smith (after that dirty foul that broke his wrist vs. LSU, I believe it was), but those teams with King Rice, JR Reid and those guys were fun to watch. I did support them through the 1993 tournament run, but they have been secondary to UConn since that season.
San Diego Chargers.
I have always liked the Bolts. Not nearly on par with the Giants, but ever since they had Marion BUTTTSSSS (Chris Berman voice when he did Chargers highlights back then… BTW… FROMMMMMM???) and Junior Seau, I always supported them. Except, of course, when they faced the Giants; including that snowball game at Giants Stadium in the 90s. I even go back to 1986 when the Giants knocked the rat piss out of Dan Fouts, who ended up retiring the next year. But again, the Giants came first in that game, and every subsequent game when it’s G-Men/Bolts.
And yes, I want Spanos to sell the team and for them to remain in San Diego where they belong.
Feel free to share your story with me.

2015 NFL Conference Championship Bettor’s Guide


2015 NFL Conference Championship Bettor’s Guide
M.D. Wright
1.23.2016

This week we will decide the two teams who will participate in Super Bowl 50. It is fitting that they don’t call it “Super Bowl L”, in keeping with longstanding affinities for Roman numeration. However, for some of us handicappers, an “L” is what many of us took throughout the year both on money lines and spreads. Last week was no different.

Last Week:
SU: 2-2
ATS: 0-4

Postseason:
SU: 6-2
ATS: 2-6
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Conference Championship Weekend:
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium
Denver, Colorado
Denver Broncos 4
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
3:00 PM EST
Coverage: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
My Call: DEN +3
Over/Under: Under 44.5

Analysis:
The conjecture and posturing done through the media this week has been palpable, but it does not have any real bearing on the outcome of the game.

New England did not have their chain-mover, Julian Edelman in their loss to Denver here in the previous match up, which is big (as the superlative affixed to Edelman suggests). New England’s drives tend to stall at times, especially now with a non-existent running game.

Injuries are not going to play a major role, as virtually the players who started games last weekend will play; or, at the very worst, be a game-time decision. The keys to this game, and how it will affect your wagering is whether Denver decides to play press coverage and use a lot of nickel to limit the run after the catch, which is a staple of New England’s dink and dunk offense. They really do not need to honor the run game, as Steven Jackson could not out-run a parked car at this point, and with Wade Phillips’ default Phillips (named after his father, not him) 3-4 attacking defense, they can more than handle it, even if New England did attempt to sneak in a run here and there.

Denver will devote underneath and over the top help on Rob Gronkowski and dare Tom Brady to beat them with players like Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola and Scott Chandler. New England knows this, and expect to see multiple two (or even three) tight end looks.

Denver’s main issue is whether they can sustain drives and run the football effectively without fumbling and losing those fumbles. Peyton Manning does not need to air it out to beat New England: rather; do what he does best: patiently take what the defense gives (and hope that his receivers don’t have a half-dozen dropped passes in this game). It is somewhat understandable that Denver is getting points at home, but the altitude will play a role by the 4th quarter, and if New England is unable to rattle Manning in the pocket all game, there will be plays available against a decidedly average Patriots secondary. There won’t be a plethora of points or any blowouts here (barring impossible-to-predict turnovers), unlike what some claim, but Denver gets it done here.

Call:
New England                               19
Denver                                          23
FINAL
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Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte, North Carolina
Carolina Panthers 31
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
6:40 PM EST
Coverage: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman)
My Call: ARZ +3
Over/Under: Over 47.5

Analysis:
Unlike Seattle, who fell short in a comeback attempt, after digging themselves into a hole fooling around with the Panthers’ intentional shenanigans with the field conditions, the Cardinals are well-prepared for what they will face with the turf in Charlotte on Sunday. And it will be just as bad as it was last week, as Charlotte was hit with a decent amount of snow and (mostly) ice. Temperatures will be moderate, which certainly helps, but overall, field conditions don’t appear to be slanted toward one team that is accustomed to practicing on a choppy, sloppy field, versus the other. Let’s just get that out of the way before handicapping.

As for the Cards’ offense, they have an answer at every slot: running back, X, Y, Z and backups at each position. What would haunt them all summer is if they were to lose this game and know that they would have gotten Chris Johnson back had they done so. That may not play as a motivating point, but Arizona could use a bit more depth at RB, as David Johnson and Andre Ellington’s production is rather duplicitous. David Johnson appeared apprehensive and somewhat overwhelmed at the moment last week, which may or may not impact his running in this game. It should be noted that Green Bay plays the run differently than Carolina, so Johnson’s results against Green Bay have little to no bearing in this game.

Jonathan Stewart caught Seattle off guard with his initial rushing attempt last week, and tacked on a few yards here and there to push his total over 100, but he did little to nothing outside of that first run. The Cards’ defense has been solid against the run all year (but not spectacular, which they were under Todd Bowles), as they have been prone to giving up a big run here and there (i.e. Eddie Lacy last week). Same goes for their pass defense — particularly now without Tyrann Mathieu — as they are generally very solid, and attacking, but are prone to a big play here and there; usually the side opposite of where Patrick Peterson (who has actually played like a lockdown corner this season, unlike zone coverage specialist Josh Norman) lines up.

Carolina is going to run the football. If they go down with the ship, it will be while running the football. There are two concerns: 1) Can the Panthers avoid costly turnovers and/or 2) Can the Panthers — should they earn a lead — hang on without blowing the lead for seemingly the millionth time this season? The Cardinals are more quick strike than any team that Carolina has faced all season, and can capitalize quickly on coverage gaffes (of which Carolina has had many, including several in Seattle’s comeback attempt [while Carolina was held scoreless for the entire second half, despite truly attempting to move the football and add to the lead]) and it should be cause for concern…

… Unless Carson Palmer is throwing wild passes that are more at-risk than runaway ward of the state, as was the case last week against Green Bay. Green Bay’s secondary is better (collectively) than Carolina’s, by far, but Palmer’s mistakes with the football did not cost him, because Clay Matthews is not on Luke Kuechly’s (or Thomas Davis’) level in terms of playing in coverage downfield.

If Palmer avoids turning over the football, the Panthers are going to have to play a near-flawless game in order to win. You know what you are going to get from Carolina: 25+ rushing attempts (including a few designed for Cam Newton), about 20-23 points, and a big play or two on defense. Rarely does anything outside of that occur.

What you don’t know is what you will get from Arizona. This game could either be disastrous, and marred by turnovers on the part of the Cards, or it will be a pick-your-poison scenario for Sean McDermott, who plays a lot more zone coverage than people think the Panthers truly do, before watching film. Larry Fitzgerald is going to get his, because he lines up at every slot and runs all of the routes in the tree. What you don’t know is will it be David Johnson or John Brown who takes advantage of what will be favorable matchups (particularly Brown, as you can expect Arizona to use Michael Floyd on Josh Norman’s side in order to force some coverage to that side and isolate opposite field). And if it’s not John Brown, will it be JJ Nelson? Or Floyd? Or even Darren Fells? The Cards have more weapons than the Panthers, and the teams are equal defensively, but will Carson Palmer be John Wayne with those weapons, or will he be Jayson Williams?

For now, all conjecture about his prior playoff performances aside, we are going to go with the former, rather than the latter.

Call:
Arizona                      27
Carolina                    23
FINAL
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2015 New York Football Giants Season Recap/Offseason Changes and NFL Draft Outlook


2015 New York Football Giants Season Recap/Offseason Changes and NFL Draft Outlook
M.D. Wright
1.7.2016

The 2015 New York Football Giants recently concluded their fourth straight season of missing the playoffs. Many reach for explanations and scapegoats for whatever reason this occurred, but the only thing that can be definitively pointed out is that the Giants did a complete 180 in Cincinnati in 2012, where most of the defense was loafing and the offense became stuck in mud; unable to sustain any drives. Prior to that game, the Giants were previously off to a 6-2 start to the season, and this game precipitated a nosedive that concluded with them finishing the season 3-5. From there, the 2013 season saw them open at 0-6 with ghastly play along the offensive line, before rattling off a few wins against backup quarterbacks at the end of that season. In 2014, there was more of the same with a brutal won-loss record and again, rattling off wins against similarly losing teams late to make the despair more cosmetic.

2015 was a bit different. Entering the season, objective Giants faithful knew that the defense would not be good. It was missing Jason Pierre-Paul due to injury. There was no serious player at free safety. Landon Collins was a rookie at strong safety who had major questions regarding his abilities in downfield pass coverage (for those who actually watched him play at Alabama in college), and the linebacker situation was hanging tenuously by a thread; with the team pinning its hopes on Jon Beason remaining healthy — which, as he hasn’t in years, he didn’t — and trotting out career special teamer Jonathan Casillas and decidedly average strong side ‘backer Devon Kennard. Kennard showed flashes toward the end of his rookie season that he could man the “Sam” and be a presence in run support and cover the flats in pass coverage, but 2015 was a repeat of his early years at USC, when he battled numerous injuries at the same time. This year, it was multiple injuries with his legs which hampered him all season. Even if the entire defense had been healthy entering the season and remained as such all season, the defense would have been average, at best.

Nevertheless, that unit had forced a good number of turnovers, despite giving up the most yardage of all-time in Giants history, and statistically the second-worst defense in NFL history since tackles, sacks and other metrics became official stats. Even still, the Giants had leads in 12 of their 16 games, and blew those leads in nine of those games, and lost seven (at Dallas, vs. Atlanta, at Philadelphia, vs. New England, at New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. NY Jets). They defeated San Francisco and had blown an early lead at Miami before pulling into a halftime tie, falling behind in the 3rd quarter and scoring two touchdowns to hold on late.) The other losses (which pushed the team to a final 6-10 record) were games in which they trailed the entire way: at Washington, at Minnesota.

Despite the shortcomings with the defense, the Giants were in every game except three (and initially led the game in one of those) and the offense was incapable of milking the clock, while the defense was unable to get critical stops. This may have been Tom Coughlin’s best work as the Giants’ head coach, short of leading the team to wins in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. His team was woefully bereft of talent on defense, and was missing his former 2nd team All-Pro WR Victor Cruz all season.

Rather than go by a game-by-game breakdown, one can refer to all 16 game threads on my Facebook page.

Instead, I will do my normal assessment of all three phases of the team: offense, defense and special teams, with position group grades for the season (including coaches).

COACHING
Head Coach
Tom Coughlin: C.

This could be categorized as Coughlin’s best work, outside of the two Super Bowl wins, considering the overall talent level on the team. However, there were numerous clock management errors on the part of Coughlin and the offense, and there were times that Coughlin “played it straight” when the Giants were within reach (i.e. punting in opponents’ territory when he very well should have gone for it on 4th down) and gambled when he should have taken the points, which cost them in three of these losses. A very uneven performance by the offense, spearheaded by a predictably bad defense, and a special teams unit that gave up critical punt returns which swung the momentum against New Orleans and New England.

Ultimately, Coughlin lost his job as a result. Not so much for 2015, but the cumulative effect of what has occurred since the middle of the 2012 season, in which the Giants seemed to go from a highly efficient offense, still-good defense and competitive, to listless and entering a shell; from which they have yet to emerge in the past 52 games (22-32, and 28-36 overall since the beginning of 2012) since the aforementioned game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Offensive Coordinator
Ben McAdoo: B.
McAdoo was elevated to head coach of the team, after Coughlin was scapegoated jettisoned following the season. During the two seasons as Giants’ offensive coordinator, Eli Manning has thrown over 60 touchdown passes, and had as many interceptions total during that span, as he had during the 2013, preceding McAdoo’s arrival. Considering that Victor Cruz missed the entire season, had the typically-sometimey effort from Rueben Randle, the granted (if not spectacular — considering the amount of coverage he saw — output) by Odell Beckham, and shell-of-himself Hakeem Nicks, the only major surprise was the contributions by career special teams ace Dwayne Harris on offense. At times, only Manning had Beckham and unheard of players such as Myles White and Geremy Davis at his dispotal, with Randle’s constant disappearing acts. In one game (at Minnesota, following Beckham’s suspension), Manning only had Randle and nothing more, and the results showed.

Overall, McAdoo did a decent job with the offense, but there were many plays and points left on the field several times per game, and in every game, every week. With the deficiencies on defense, the offense needed to be more efficient that it was in 2015; particularly in the red zone. Even with the defense, the Giants could have very well won 11 or 12 games, if the offense had been able to convert in the red zone with higher efficacy, and be able to milk the clock late with the running game.

No one knows for sure who the “Running Back by Committee” approach came from — whether it was Coughlin or McAdoo — but in the final four games, after abandoning that foolish approach (which never works), Rashad Jennings emerged as the Giants’ lead back, and the offense became the efficient unit that it is designed to be in McAdoo’s offense. There needs to be continuity with this in 2016, with McAdoo calling his own plays hereafter.

Defensive Coordinator
Steve Spagnuolo: C.
There is no need to enter platitudes and disclaimers here. Everyone knows what the talent level was for the Giants defense this season. However, “Spags” misused what he had, and had players in space attempting to make plays that they are either lacking the talent to complete, or were too inexperienced to execute. There were times when blitzes were called and the players used the wrong rushing lanes, and basically took themselves out of the play. In bringing so much pressure every game, the middle of the field was a wasteland for the Giants all season, and that’s with an embarrassing lack of talent at that level (other than Jasper Brinkley, who played very admirably when he became the starter).

Coaches are charged with getting the most out of their players, which includes playing to the strengths of those players. The defensive line was hindered due to injuries to Pierre-Paul, and Johnathan Hankins (who was injured and lost for the season in the first game of Pierre-Paul’s return), which played a role in some of the pass defense issue. Playing zone all game is certainly not the best approach, nor is playing man coverage with substandard members of the secondary. However, Landon Collins should have almost exclusively been utilized “in the box” and Cooper Taylor should have gotten more immediate reps once Brandon Meriweather was initially lost to a knee injury. Chris Dahl does not belong on any NFL roster, other than on special teams. And even there, he had a (bad) hand in a couple of game-swinging kick or punt returns against.

Ultimately, given NFL-level talent (particularly along the defensive line, which emerged upon Pierre-Paul’s return — as Robert Ayers ended up tied for 10th in the league with 9 1/2 sacks), Spagnuolo will field a better unit, which is why he wasn’t scapegoated along with Coughlin after the season; despite the ghastly numbers produced by his unit.

Special Teams
Tom Quinn: B+.
Special teams gave up a couple of returns that killed the team’s momentum, but overall, coverage was relatively good. This is a far cry from some of the putrid units that Quinn produced, particularly in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
_________________________________________________________________

OFFENSE
OFFENSIVE LINE
Left Tackle: A-.
Ereck Flowers played both tackle positions at times at “The U.” (Miami, FL) and it was pivotal for the Giants that he had experience at both left and right tackle, as the incumbent starter at left tackle, Will Beatty, was lost to a freak weight-lifting injury during spring organized team activities. Flowers was expected to play at right tackle, so that Justin Pugh could move inside to left guard, after he himself had a brutal 2014 season (attributed in part to his relatively short arms, despite having good feet). Flowers performed admirably well, despite injuring his ankle in Week 1, and dealing with the ankle periodically for the entire season. He gave up some game-changing sacks (New England, and both Philadelphia games), but these were growing pains which will aid him well going forward, should Beatty decide to move on from the Giants this offseason.

Left Guard: B.
Justin Pugh was solid, although not spectacular, in 2015. He actually became a sieve late in the season, after returning from a midseason concussion. He got off to a good start in both run blocking and pass protection, but he repeatedly whiffed on blocks in the final few weeks of the season. He should remain at guard going forward, if not at right guard.

Center: B.
Weston Richburg is steadily improving. He was expected to man the center position and be an anchor for the next decade or so. He has proven his worth. He doesn’t get beat often at all, and holds up well in run blocking and pass pro. There is obviously room for improvement, but when he was out with his ankle injury, his absence was glaring, which speaks to his abilities that often go overlooked by casual fans.

Right Guard: C-.
Geoff Schwartz has spent more time on injured reserve than he has on the field, and was only average in both aspects of blocking when he was on the field. To be 340 lbs, he is not a road grader, and whiffs far more than a man that size should in pass pro. John Jerry is 345 lbs himself, and he played both guard positions at times, and actually played pass protection better than run blocking, which is extremely baffling; given that a 345 lb man should not be  such a turnstile inside.

Right Tackle: D+.
Marshall Newhouse’s performance throughout 2015 was unacceptable in every phase. The Giants could barely run to his side (their best runs came behind Flowers, Pugh and Richburg), and he was a matador in pass protection. Additionally, he had untimely, drive-killing penalties in multiple games. The only thing that prevented the grade for this position from being an “F” was the play of Bobby Hart in the 2 1/2 games in which he played, which were on par with his play on the 2013 Florida State Seminoles national championship team, in which he was a brick wall on Jameis Winston’s front side, while paving the way for Devonta Freeman, James Wilder, Jr., and Karlos Williams, as the Seminoles got whatever they wanted in the run game all year in 2013. Hart was selected in the 7th Round of the 2015 Draft, and it would be a major disappointment if Newhouse is starting at right tackle and not Hart, come Week 1 2016. Unless Beatty returns, which would allow Hart to move to right guard (which he also played well), the Giants would be better served to maximize Hart’s ability at a premium cost position, as his cap number is extremely low as a 7th Round pick. Any free agent dollars or draft pick (which should not come before the 4th Round at this position, more on that later) allocated to the offensive line need to be used for right guard, if Beatty decides to leave.
_________________________________________________________________

POSSESSION PLAYERS
Quarterback: B+
Eli Manning had a sterling season, before reverting to some bad habits (albeit aided by a revolving door at WR due to injuries and suspension; particularly late in the season), which coincided with an uptick in interceptions late in the season. It should be noted that virtually half of the interceptions Manning has thrown since the beginning of the 2014 season have come as a result of Rueben Randle’s loafing, which is a galling statistic. Interceptions aside, a season of 4,400 yards and 35 touchdowns and a 93.6 rating are astounding statistics, since he played the majority of the season with only one dependable receiver which every team double teamed nearly all game, every week.

Running Back: C*
* – Disclaimer due to the utilization of each player on this section of the depth chart.
Rashad Jennings could have easily had a 1,200-yard season if he had been used as the lead  back/bell-cow in the offense (which he was, finally, in the final quarter of the season). As it were, the Giants ran with a baffling running back-by-committee approach, which prevented any of the back from establishing a rhythm of setting up their blocks and defenders, and recognizing some of the “tells” that defensive players give, as well. Jennings is still versatile and doesn’t have the normal wear-and-tear of a 30 year old back, as he had never been a full-time starter, other than a stint in Jacksonville when Maurice Jones-Drew was out, and a few games when Darren McFadden made his annual trip to the injured list in Oakland. He can catch passes out of the backfield, surprising speed at the second level, a very good pass blocking back who can run between the tackles and get outside. Prior to the final few weeks of the season, Jennings would go several series of downs without even seeing the field, which was appalling to Giants supporters.

Shane Vereen established career highs in receptions (59), yards (494), and touchdowns (4), after coming to the Giants from New England this past offseason. He was miscast as a runner out of the backfield (although he can do this at times out of shotgun/inside-handoff checks by Manning) a bit too often, and was underutilized in certain games, but he and Jennings help this grade.

Andre Williams had questions about his vision in terms of setting up his blocks and when to hit holes or just dive into the line when the holes were not there. To his credit, he only did as he was told, but there were times when he attempted to cut back on plays that were apparently not designed to do so, and lacks the ability of a Jamaal Charles or Lesean McCoy, to execute those types of runs. Too often, Williams was used for outside zone runs and “counter trey” plays, which may have been his strength behind a eight-man offensive line in Boston College’s winged-T system, but that does not work in the NFL. Williams has ability, but he is still ultra raw, and his lack of vision shows (although it got better as the season concluded).

Orleans Darkwa wasn’t given as much of a chance to establish himself this season, but the few times he entered games (which were sometimes just one or two carries in a game, and then not to be heard from for the rest of the game, while getting five or six in one game and none for a couple of other games), he did not disappoint.

Ideally, the Giants should roll with Jennings as the full-time back, use Darkwa to spell him, and Vereen as a spread back out of the shotgun to set up checks to runs or passes out of the backfield. Williams has enough value that he can be traded for a late-round pick (picks that the Giants cannot get enough of in the upcoming draft), but he may be the odd man out here.

Tight End: B-.
Larry Donnell had his moments, but he has a maddening tendency to leap or tumble when he should run with leverage after catching the football. This led to him being in vulnerable positions for big hits, which often led to drops, fumbles, and an embarrassing stripping of the football in a game where the Giants were about to go up two scores in Philadelphia by Malcolm Jenkins (which ended up being the turning point in a game where the Giants, for all intents and purposes, quit for the rest of the night). But he is a big, athletic target who can run and make exceptional catches. If he can clean up the aforementioned issues, he can be dependable.

Daniel Fells was more consistent as a blocker and with his hands than Donnell, but unfortunately, he was lost to a staph infection that may indeed derail his NFL career.

Jerome Cunningham made a play or two here and there, but those were outnumbered by the number of incorrectly-run routes, drops and whiffs on blocks.

Will Tye is intriguing because he has advanced physical attributes (ran a sub 4.5 in the 40 yard dash), and has good hands. He has to work on his blocking, but he has a promising future and comes at a low price for the Giants going forward.

Wide Receiver: B.
Odell Beckham carries most of this grade, although Dwayne Harris plays a good part of this as well. Other than those two, there is not much to write home about at this position after Victor Cruz was unable to see the field throughout 2015.

Beckham would have had a good shot to break all of the Giants’ single-season records for receptions, yards and touchdowns, but has already established himself as a Top 5 WR (he’s not the best WR in the NFL, for those who think so; although he could potentially become such, later). Despite the considerable coverage that he drew, he was able to gain separation due to superior route-running and exceptional hands (although he had a eye-popping number of drops or misreads on passes that he makes without looking in warm ups). But barring injury, Beckham will be a stalwart for years.

Rueben Randle is an enigma of the highest order. With teams often double teaming Beckham, and Randle often drawing everything from castoff cornerbacks, undrafted rookie free agents, and even some who played against him with injuries, Randle should have easily had an 80-catch, 1,100-yard, 10-touchdown season, and only managed two-thirds of those numbers. In fact, much of that came in roughly seven games. Where was he in the other games (excusing the game and a half that he was hampered by a hamstring injury?) He may want to return to the Giants, but the Giants should lace his contract with as many incentives as much as Chandler Jones’ synthetic marijuana was laced with other substances. Otherwise, the Giants or any team would be fools to give him a big-time, multi-year contract. He has failed to even achieve half of what was expected of him in his time in the NFL thus far, particularly in a pass-friendly offense that gives him many opportunities to post big games on par with Beckham, who has to work twice as hard to get open and still dwarfed Randle’s numbers.

Victor Cruz rehabilitated a fractured patella from 2014, and successfully returned from that injury, only to have an ongoing calf injury related to blood clots, which — despite hopes to the contrary several times during the season — cost him the entire 2015 season, and he was played on injured reserve in midseason.

Dwayne Harris fulfilled expectations this season. He had never been a big part of the offense in Dallas. As Terrell Owens once surmised, Tony Romo does indeed play favorites Owens had been Hall-of-Fame level productive everywhere he had been before going to Dallas, and became the scapegoat for Romo and Dallas’ failures in the mid-2000s. Martellus Bennett was another guy who has sprouted into a high caliber receiving (and blocking) tight end since leaving Dallas. Harris was able to take some of the burden off Beckham at critical junctures in several games, making big catches and scoring important touchdowns. He was mostly in the slot to “replace” Cruz, but, in effect, ended up replacing the productivity of Randle, who was lost in space for good portions of the season.

The rest of the receivers are young and inexperienced, aside from Hakeem Nicks, who looked like he had been lounging in his recliner for most of the season before the Giants came calling out of desperation. It is a shame what happened to him with his various leg ailments, because he looks like a shell of his former self, but maybe an offseason of work can help him if he and the Giants agree to his return in 2016.
_________________________________________________________________

DEFENSE
Defensive Line
Defensive Ends: B.
Robert Ayers played well, when he wasn’t in and out of games with various nicks and bumps, and really took off upon the return of Jason Pierre-Paul. This took away some of the attention from Ayers himself (while teams did not fear Kerry Wynn, George Selvie or Cullen Jenkins — when he was at either end position).

Jason Pierre-Paul was his normally active self in his eight games, although obviously hindered by his hand injury. He was disruptive in the run game, as usual, and got tons of quarterback pressures, several of which would have been sacks if he had been able to use both hands as he expects to do following recent surgery to help with flexibility in his hand.

Selvie and Wynn did their best, but they are not highly skilled and it showed whenever Ayers and/or Pierre-Paul were both out of games.

Damontre Moore has ability, but he matched big plays with big penalties or galling misreads. A senseless locker room fight led to his eventual dismissal from the team.

Defensive Tackles: C.
Johnathan Hankins played well inside, but he had very little help. The fact that the untalented Markus Kuhn started (!) several games before landing on IR late in the season, just shows how big of a hole the Giants had at that position. Jay Bromley got important reps and can be a rotational player going forward, but the team must address this position this offseason. Cullen Jenkins is just about at the end of the line in his career, which has been a very good one, but it is time to upgrade next to Hankins. No one else distinguished themselves at defensive tackle after Hankins’ injury in Tampa, which landed him on IR.

LINEBACKERS
Sam: C.
Mike: C.
Will: C-.
Devon Kennard has had a history of dealing with multiple injuries dating back to his time in college at USC, and those reared their ugly head again this season. Not his fault, but he played decently before the injuries clearly affected his ability to run effectively. He was late to the right spot, and too quick to the wrong spot (if that makes sense), depending on whether teams ran right at him or screened to his side. He did not cover tight ends well all season (then again, no one on the Giants did all season, and all of the linebackers and each of the guys who played free or strong safety all took their lumps). Absent were the big plays that he made toward the end of his rookie season in 2014.

Jon Beason was an all world player in college at Miami (FL), and was the anchor of the Carolina Panthers for years, but once he tore his Achilles a few years ago, he has been in and out of the lineup for numerous games both in Carolina and in East Rutherford. It is certainly not from a lack of effort. If anything, his relentless style of play puts him into position to be injured or reaggravate those injuries.

Uani Unga was a good story at first, and his perpetual motor paid off in preseason and early in the regular season. But in reality, he does not belong on the field on anyone’s defense. However, he was forced into that role upon Beason’s season-ending injury. Unga himself was in and out of the lineup with various injuries soon thereafter, forcing Jasper Brinkley into the middle of the defense. Brinkley was only picked up after Dallas cast him off before the season began. If Brinkley had not been in the stead for the Giants, the team might have had every “worst” statistic on defense after the season. He shored up the run defense and handled his responsibilities when he didn’t come off the field in some passing situations.

JT Thomas was always hurt this season also, and was lost in space for most of the season at Will, which is a position the Giants have still yet to fill 15 years after Jessie Armstead left the team in free agency. The linebacking corps must be upgraded to at least AVERAGE NFL standards if the Giants expect to be contenders again.

SECONDARY
Cornerback: B.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has the freedom to play press, bail, trail, shuffle, or “off” (the latter is his preference). He does this because he has elite closing speed and can “bait” quarterbacks into throwing passes that he can jump and take for interceptions. He did this quite often this year, but he dropped two critical “pick six” interceptions (at Washington, vs. Carolina) and dropped a couple others that were gimmes. Otherwise, he was everything that you want from a corner, other than taking himself out of the game a bit too frequently.

Prince Amukamara played well before he had his annual trip to the injured list while making a perfect form tackle. Once he came back, he began to stare into the backfield far too often and gave up several big plays. He can be a very good to All-Pro level corner when he’s on, but if reading the QB is his thing, he ought to consider moving to free safety, where those attributes are better suited. As he is a free agent this offseason, one has to wonder what tenor the negotiatons will take. Considering his constant injury issues, if he re-signs with the Giants, it likely won’t break the bank.

Trevin Wade was thrust into a major role and, for the most part, played well. He has glaring weaknesses, which were amplified even to fans who lack profound football knowledge. This is the case with anyone who plays on the perimeter, because everyone can see it, unlike linemen. Considering his role in the slot and sometimes covering tight ends, he did about as well as could be expected. Same goes for Trumaine McBride.

Jayron Hosley has been a flat out bust (even allowing a mulligan for the season that he was injured). He hasn’t progressed at all since his rookie season, and it is apparent that he benefited from the relentless style favored by his college defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, as he doesn’t even excel at what he did well in college (press coverage) at this level. At his size, that is not entirely surprising, but when that is the only thing he apparently did well, to see him flat out stink in every other regard in playing the cornerback position makes him virtually useless.

SAFETIES
Strong Safety: B-.
Free Safety: F.
Landon Collins, a rookie, is the only player who played every game this season on defense. He played like a rookie. A rookie with skill, from a winning college program, but a rookie. Collins can eventually reach something close to what his idol, Sean Taylor would have eventually reached. It should be noted, the dearly departed Taylor played both safety positions with high acumen, and Collins does not run as well as Taylor. He hits like Taylor, however. Taylor excelled in pass coverage and run defense. Collins was proven as an in-the-box safety  in run defense, but he could not cover a tight end if the game depended on it (and it did, in a couple of instances, with him giving up big plays). You cannot kill him for that. It was a known shortcoming for those who watched him in college (and presumably, the Giants scouting department did, although you never know with some of the picks they’ve made in the draft in recent years), but he excelled at what he is good at and has room to grow in the areas where he has always been pedestrian. A rangy free safety alongside him would help immensely, however.

Speaking of which, the Giants dropped the ball this year by not addressing the huge hole at free safety heading into the season. Cooper Taylor should have gotten more reps than he did, especially with Craig Dahl being by far the worst safety in the NFL (and starting in several games). Brandon Meriweather played decently, but he has some shortcomings at this point in his career. None of this was suitable, considering that you knew that your starting strong safety is a liability in coverage at this point in his career. By the end of the season, due to injuries, some of the corners had to slide over to that slot in an emergency basis.
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KICKING
Place Kicker
Josh Brown: A-.
Brown had been perfect until the worst possible time (missing a kick in a game that the Giants eventually lost). The only issue was his ability to get touchbacks with more frequency.

Brad Wing: B+
Wing punted well for the most part, but again, like Brown, had a departure from the norm with a bad decision to punt directly to Willie Snead in New Orleans, on a play that (after the officials used the Superdome replay on the scoreboard to decide how to dole out penalties, illegally) eventually set the Saints up for a game-winning field goal. He was better early than late, but was still solid all year.

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Heading towards the Magical March 1 date, the Giants have well over $40 million in cap space to decide which among their own free agents that they want to keep, and which unrestricted free agents are available on the market from other teams.

Following the Indianapolis Combine and all the jockeying by teams’ personnel chiefs through the media, we will meander through the draft, where the Giants can address a few of their needs.

After reading the above season recap assessment, you can see where the Giants’ primary focus should be via free agency and the draft:

Weakside Linebacker.
Middle Linebacker.
Free Safety.
Defensive Tackle.
Cornerback (potentially).
Interior Offensive Lineman.
Wide Receiver.

Some of those players may currently be in-house. Some may be out there in free agency. Others may be available in the upcoming draft, which should be pretty deep through the first three and a half rounds.

In the coming weeks, once we see the combine numbers and pro days, a more focused draft worksheet will be put into place. We will also know who will be cut from other teams (some being cap casualties, and not just castoffs who can no longer play) during the week of March 1-9. Once we see who the Giants keep, cut, and who they may (not guaranteed to do so) sign from other teams during that period, we will address draft picks in more specific details, including particular players who would fit the bill with the #10 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Stay tuned.

— OMW.