We can all agree that 2017 was bonkers, yes? So, what’s ahead for the sports world in 2018? More craziness? Let us look at that the stories that should grab our attention this year and make some predictions that I will almost certainly regret.
Not them again
If you are like me, you have watched this curious NFL season — in which the NFC has been dominated by upstarts Philadelphia, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Rams while Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay and Seattle have swooned — and come to the same conclusion: New England is going to win the Super Bowl again.
Can anyone honestly imagine a Tom Brady-Jared Goff matchup turning out otherwise? Or Bill Belichick versus Doug Pederson? If you are also like me and find this has all the appeal of sticking a hot poker in your eye, try to find some solace in the fact that Belichick and Brady are reportedly warring over Brady’s new-age woo salesman and health guru. When it comes to the Patriots, you have to take your schadenfreude where you can get it.
The reinvention of the Toronto Raptors seemed like a fine idea that would be tough to execute. The biggest hurdle: how would an offence that was almost entirely built around two ball-dominant veterans manage to open up? And how would DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry handle the change?
The answer so far is just fine, thanks. But will they be able to stick to the (new) plan in the playoffs, and will that be enough to get them back to the East final again? We’ll say yes, but it won’t quite get them past LeBron and the Cavaliers. Still, an early playoff series in which the Raptors do not struggle to defeat a much lower seed would be a marked improvement.
The Decision III
Whatever happens with LeBron and the Cavaliers in the post-season, the NBA will come to a complete stop next summer as the league waits to see whether he will again switch teams, a move that could this time throw both conferences for a loop.
I remain a LeBron-to-the-Lakers skeptic, in part because I can’t imagine him ripping Cleveland’s heart out again and in part because the Lakers are not good. Does he really want to drag that young team into a low playoff seed in the West and then get caved in by Golden State or Houston in the first round? It seems like a weird final act for his career.
The Other Decision
Erik Karlsson is under contract through the 2018-19 season, but if the Ottawa Senators decide they cannot afford a deal in the $10-million-per-year range, then Karlsson would immediately become the biggest trade chip in recent memory.
Aside from the seeming lunacy of trading Karlsson — why are you in the NHL business if your team cannot pay fair value for an elite player? — there is the complicating factor that the Senators are presently negotiating the potential terms for a new downtown arena. They will be expecting some degree of public contribution to the project, whether in land, tax breaks, or straight cash.
That will be a tough request, but it will be hilariously tough if it comes as the team is unloading its franchise player. Good thing owner Eugene Melnyk has all that public goodwill to fall back on.
The news that the NHL has set the expansion fee for a potential team in Seattle at US$650 million was treated in many corners as though it was almost a done deal. But the coming months will make clear whether the group headed by former MLSE boss Tim Leiweke is actually going to go through with it.
That organization has already committed $600 million to the renovation of KeyArena, and it has long been thought that the NBA was the main target for a tenant. Will they come up with all that cash for a secondary renter? At the least, the NHL might want the Seattle group to hold off on expansion so it can use their plans to try to blackmail more public money out of the Calgary Flames.
The red carpet
Russia will host the World Cup next summer, and if it is true that the one thing sports fans hate above all else is travel complaints on social media from writers, then watch out. Russia is, you know, huge. The soccer venues range from St. Petersburg to Sochi and from Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg. (Note: Actual places. The trip would take 39 hours by car.) At least they confined it to the European part of Russia, and didn’t include the Asian part.
Meanwhile, we will take Argentina to win in Lionel Messi’s farewell tournament, because that would be fun.
Roar or whimper?
Tiger Woods is, presumably, going to continue his latest comeback, and all he has to do is get through February without surgery to beat the length of his previous comeback. But will he actually contend? At a real tournament? Or even at a major?
Predictions on this one are pointless because of the uncertainty of his health, but there is also this: the Woods of old could scare opponents into mistakes just by whipping out his resume. No one fears him now. How will Tiger Woods compete when he is just a guy?
Return of El Shapo
Tennis tends to fall off the sporting map after the U.S. Open, and so it might surprise some to learn that after his stirring summer that included an appearance in the final in Montreal and three wins in New York, Denis Shapovalov was 2-6 through October and November. But the Canadian teen is still ranked 51st in the world and will return to the big stage at the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 15 in Melbourne.
Will he be able to regain the form that saw him upset multiple major champions late last season? And will he have found a cap that properly fits his head?
No bombs, please
The Olympics begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February, and there are several interesting storylines. How many Russians will compete for Team Generic? Will Team Canada be able to repeat its historic showing from Sochi and finish around the top of the medal table? Will anyone be able to identify more than three players on the Canadian men’s hockey roster? And will Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un stop taunting each other long enough to let the Games happen without incident?
Short answers to the above: Many, yes, no and I sure hope so.
Let us review the past quarter century of the Toronto Blue Jays: 22 seasons of such also-ran status that fans would say the phrase “meaningful September baseball” with a mixture of longing and wonder, then two seasons of glory, and then back to hopelessness again. The team either makes the ALCS or can’t even make it through August with anything approaching hope.
Management seems disinclined to tear anything down, so the hope for fans this time is that the veteran-laden team can avoid the disastrous April of last year and ride better health to something like the fringes of the AL wild-card race. It could happen, but they really need to sign some guys first.
Meanwhile, ownership is either fixing to sell the team or is maybe considering it, or is totally not planning to, depending on the report. We do know they want to “surface value” for the Blue Jays on their balance sheet, which would make for a pretty lousy hashtag, frankly.
Johnny Come Lately
Aside from the usual CFL questions — Can Calgary avoid the three-choke? Will Toronto finally embrace the Argos, even a little? — the biggest storyline looms in Hamilton, where it is believed that Johnny Manziel will come to play quarterback. Coach June Jones wants him and Manziel is apparently of a like mind.
If the former Johnny Football does play at Tim Hortons Field, it will immediately become the very rare time that CFL practice footage is shown on ESPN. Jones, meanwhile, has merely said that Manziel, if he comes, will be the greatest CFL player ever. No pressure, kid.
2017 ended with reports that Vince McMahon, successful wrestling mogul and failed football mogul, is considering another crack at the football thing.
The XFL was infamously promoted as an extra-brutal version of football, which would seem like an insane thing to recreate today, but it is nonetheless fascinating that, after what was a very strange year for the NFL, someone might think it is vulnerable to a challenge. There are reasons to wonder about the long-term viability of the NFL, but the threat of a crazy upstart is not one of them.
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