Friday, December 31, 2011
It's amazing how much things have changed in the Boston sports scene in the past year. The Bruins have gone from being New England's lovable losers to a Stanley Cup Champion squad dominating the league. Meanwhile, the Celtics have gone from legitimate title contenders to "NBA purgatory" where they are not good enough to compete for a championship but too good to wind up with a high lottery pick in the 2012 draft. At this time last year, none of us could have imagined that the Red Sox, fresh off the Gonzalez and Crawford acquisitions, would fail to make the playoffs. The Patriots, on the other hand, are exactly where they were a year ago. The path to the Superbowl runs through Foxborough but a shaky defense once again threatens their quest for a fourth championship. What will 2012 - and beyond - have in store for our local teams? I attempt to answer those questions in the the State of the Teams Report.
ESPN Power Ranking: 1
Online Odds to Win the 2012 Stanley Cup: 13/2
Boston's weakest team on January 1, 2011 will be its strongest on January 1, 2012. The Bruins won the lone Boston championship in 2012. In fact, they were the only team to reach its league's "Final Four" in 2012. The Bruins were a pretty solid team in the regular season last year. They were tied for 7th in the NHL with 103 points and had the second best goal differential behind Vancouver. Still, no one could have predicted their run to a Stanley Cup championship, especially after seeing them blow a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia in the conference semis the year before. Sports are loaded with "turning points" where the fortunes of one team can change very quicky, either in a positive or negative direction. Almost every game has at least one major turning point. In hockey, for example, it might be a great save that leads to a goal on the other end of the ice. In football, it's usually a turnover. Seasons often have turning points. This could be a dramatic win or a heartbreaking loss. More often, it's a key injury that turns a contender into a pretender. Jay Cutler's injury absolutely destroyed the Chicago Bears who went from a Superbowl contender to a below average team in the blink of an eye.
Last April, the Bruins experienced a turning point not just for the season, but for the franchise. The Bruins lost both Games 1 and 2 at home to Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs. Chara was banged up and they were headed to Montreal for the next two games. A first round sweep was a very real possibility. Fortunately, David Krejci scored three minutes into Game 3 (a turning point) and the Bruins held on to win the game and eventually the series in seven games. They came back from 3-1 and 4-3 deficits to win Game 4. They won three games in overtime, including Game 7. They walked the tightrope but survived. Winning that series against Montreal not only led to an eventual championship but brought the fans back in full force and gave the team an extra six to seven weeks playing together. Battling adversity together. Winning together. That confidence has spilled over into this season. They have been the best team in the NHL this season by a wide margin. I doubt that would be happening if the Bruins had been knocked off by the Canadiens last April.
After a slow start (3-7-0), the Bruins are an incredible 21-2-1. More impressive is their +57 goal differential (goals scored minus goals allowed). That puts them on pace for a +137 this season. To put that in perspective, only two teams (the 2005-06 Senators at +103 and the 2000-01 Devils at +100) have had a positive goal differential of 100 or more since the 1995-96 Red Wings dominated the NHL with a +144. The Bruins lead the NHL in goals scored per game and fewest goals allowed. If they can stay healthy, they should be the favorites to win the East. I expect the main contenders to be the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins. At the beginning of the year, I would have put Washington and Tampa Bay in that category but those teams look awful right now. The Flyers continue to have a terrible time keeping the puck out of their own net and Pittsburgh is not the same team without Crosby. The Rangers are probably the second best team in the East right now (I'd love to see to see a Boston-New York Eastern Conference final). The West is strong once again. The top four in that conference are probably Vancouver, Chicago, San Jose and Detroit. The Bruins have already proven that they are a better team than the Canucks. Unfortunately, they can't seem to beat Detroit. It should be another fun Spring with the Bruins.
The future is also very bright. Boston's top two scorers, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin, are 23 and 19 years old. Seguin has the talent to become a franchise player. Milan Lucic is only 23 and David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton are all in their prime (25 to 26). At 37, Tim Thomas is playing the best hockey of his life and appears to have at least a couple more good years in him. Tuukka Rask is having a great season (leading the NHL in goals against average) and is only 24. Defenseman Johnny Boychuk (27) has a bright future as well. If Jeremy Jacobs doesn't start pinching pennies again, the Bruins should be Cup contenders for years to come.
Preseason ESPN Power Ranking: 11
Online Odds to Win the 2012 NBA Title: 20/1
The Celtics experienced a turning point of their own in 2010, but unlike the Bruins, the Celtic turning point was transformative in a very negative way. In June of 2010, the Celtics were one win away from their 18th championship. They needed to win either Game 6 or Game 7 in Los Angeles to capture the title. The Celtics suffered a blowout loss in Game 6 but the bigger issue was the season-ending knee injury to center Kendrick Perkins. In Game 7 the Celtics led the Lakers by 13 points four minutes into the second half but they eventually lost the game, 83-79. The loss was all about Perkins' absence as the Lakers had 23 offensive rebounds and took 20 more free throws. Not only did the Perkins injury cost the Celtics the 2010 title but it led to Perkins being traded last season. The widely criticized trade blew up in Danny Ainge's face when Shaq was, for all intents and purposes, lost for the playoffs with a calf injury. The Celtics may have been able to beat the Heat in last season's conference semis with Perkins in the lineup. The key piece the Celtics received in the Perkins trade was Jeff Green, who will miss the entire season with a heart problem. The Perkins injury in Game 6 is the gift that keeps on giving.
It's highly unlikely that the Celtics will compete for a title or even make a deep run in the playoffs this season. They made a nice move getting Brandon Bass for Glen Davis but their inability to sign David West has left them short on big men and Green's health problems have left them without much scoring punch off the bench. Of course, the Big Three is a year older. Ray Allen is in great shape for this age but 36 is 36. Pierce is hobbled and Garnett already looks gassed. Brandon Bass is a legitimate sixth man but no one else on the Boston bench would be getting minutes on the 2007-08 Celtics. It wouldn't shock me if the Celtics wound up third in the East in the regular season though I expect them to be closer to sixth. The Knicks don't appear to be anything special (they needed a ridiculous call to beat the Pierce-less Celtics at home) but it's early. Orlando will compete for the 4th seed provided that they don't trade Dwight Howard. Indiana is improving and has a great chance to get in the top six. Finishing in the top six in the East is crucial because it means you avoid the Heat and the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Miami and Chicago appear to be head and shoulders above the rest of the Eastern teams. If the Celtics finish with a 3-6 seed and remain relatively healthy they would have a decent chance to win in the first round, but I can't imagine them beating either the Heat or the Bulls in a seven game series.
As for the future ... Rajon Rondo continues to establish his credentials as one of the best point guards in the NBA but he's the only young building block the Celtics have right now. Sure, JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore could surprise us but typically you aren't going to get All Stars that deep in the draft. As I mentioned above, the Celtics are in a tough position because they aren't good enough to compete for a title (and it's all about titles in Boston) and probably won't fall far enough in the standings to land a potential top ten pick in the draft. They also don't have the right pieces to trade for a high draft pick or an impact player. Any contending team could use Ray Allen and KG would be a nice fit in some places (hello, Clippers), but the Celtics probably wouldn't get much for them. That leaves free agency. The Celtics will have a lot of money to spend in the next offseason as most of their big contracts expire (the exceptions are Pierce who is signed through 2014 and Rondo whose contract runs through 2015). Unfortunately, it may not be a great year for free agents. Dwight Howard may be available but he doesn't appear to have any interest in the Celtics. If they can't sign Howard, there wouldn't be much chance of convincing second tier free agents to come to a team that features Rajon Rondo, an aging Paul Pierce and not much else.
At present, the Celtics have by far the bleakest forecast for 2012 among Boston's four major sports teams. They also have the dimmest prospects for the future. However, it only takes one or two players to completely transform an NBA team so anything is possible for the Celtics over the next few years.
New England Patriots
ESPN Power Ranking: 4 (1st in AFC)
Online Odds to Win the 2012 Superbowl: 4/1
The Patriots are in familiar territory. They have already locked up their ninth division title in the past eleven years (they finished tied for first and lost tiebreakers in the other two seasons). They will have a first round bye in the AFC playoffs for the sixth time in eleven years and beating the Bills will give them a #1 seed for the fourth time in nine years. With a win over Buffalo, New England will have won an astounding 134 games since the 2001 season (an average of 12.2 per year). A win over the Bills would also give them their fifth season of 13 or more victories in nine years. It's actually amazing that they have gone six years without winning a Superbowl. The Patriots actually have the longest championship "drought" among the four local pro sports teams. Go figure.
Taking care of the Bills and wrapping up that #1 seed is extremely critical for the Patriots. They will host a Divisional Round playoff game in two weeks no matter what happens tomorrow but a loss to the Bills could put them in a position to play an AFC Championship Game in either Baltimore of Pittsburgh. The Patriots have lost their last two home playoff games but the home field advantage still means a lot to this team. Since 2007, they are 31-1 at home in regular season in games started by Tom Brady. Baltimore is a shaky road team and they are slightly more likely than Pittsburgh to grab the #1 seed if New England loses tomorrow.
We all know that the Patriot defense cannot be trusted. They were in bad shape even before they lost their best pass rusher, Andre Carter, for the season with a quad injury. The defense will need to continue to force turnovers to win in the playoffs. The concerns on the offensive side of the ball are more injury-related. The offensive line is banged up. Both Mankins and Vollmer will miss the season finale. The good news is that two weeks off should really help those guys. Tom Brady is having problems with his non-throwing shoulder. We're being told that he's fine but clearly this will be a concern heading into the playoffs. The Patriot chances for success will depend a lot on the playoff matchups. Their first round opponent could be any one of the following teams: Denver, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Houston or the Jets. None of those opponents are particularly scary, other than the Steelers and Ravens. The rest of the potential AFC playoff opponents are led by quarterbacks that are either inexperienced (Tebow, Dalton, Yates), way past their prime (Hasselbeck) or just plain lousy more often than not (Palmer, Sanchez). In fact, Joe Flacco is having a subpar season and hasn't had much success in the playoffs. The Steelers are definitely the team to avoid. If the Patriots can get back to the Superbowl, they would likely be sizable underdogs against either the Saints or the Packers. The New England defense would struggle to keep those offenses under 40 points. However, I think Brady and Company would put up a lot of points against either of those defenses, particularly the Packers. The Green Bay defense ranks second to last (the Patriots are last) in the NFL. The Superbowl would probably be a tossup against the less likely NFC contenders (San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas and the Giants). Bottom line: the Pats have a shot but it's hard to imagine the defense making enough plays to win three in a row in the playoffs.
The Patriots immedidate future should be fairly bright. Tom Brady will be 35 when next season begins but there is no reason why he can't give them two or three more good years. The same goes for Welker who turns 31 next year. The have two of the best young tight ends in the game. Rookie Stevan Ridley has shown some promise. The offensive line should continue to be solid. Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are still in their prime and Nate Solder should continue to develop and become a reliable starter. The Patriots desperately need another receiver, preferably a big one. The offense should be in good shape for the next several years. The defense, on the other hand, is a disaster. The good news is that it can only get better. The Patriots have three legitimate NFL-quality starters on defense - Mayo, McCourty and Wilfork. Andre Carter and Pat Chung would be on that list if they were healthy. The rest of the defense includes some nice role players but these are probably not guys you want playing every down. The Pats have two first rounders (one from New Orleans) and two second rounders (one from Oakland) in the 2012 NFL Draft. Hopefully, between the draft and free agency, they can rebuild the defense. Even a mediocre defense paired with the great offense will keep the Patriots on the Superbowl favorites short list.
Boston Red Sox
ESPN Power Ranking: 8 (2011 season)
Online Odds to Win the 2012 World Series: Not available
The best way I can describe the 2011 Red Sox is schizophrenic. They started the season 2-10, then went on an 81-42 rampage before ending the season on a 7-20 swoon. I've never seen anything quite like it. Injuries certainly played a role in the collapse but unlike 2010, the 2011 Red Sox were more than healthy enough to reach the playoffs. I am not saying that the team quit in September but they didn't seem to be playing with any sense of urgency. They may have believed that they could coast into the playoffs. Once that switch was flipped to the "Off" position, it was difficult to switch it back on. Terry Francona did an excellent job in his tenure as Red Sox manager but he was negligent last season. A team with that much talent should never go 7-20 down the stretch. It struck me that the collapse never would have happened had Curt Schilling been on the team. That kind of veteran leadership was obviously missing.
The Red Sox are one of many teams that should compete for a World Series title in 2012. The Yankees, Rays, Tigers, Rangers and Angels can all make a case that they are the team to beat in the American League. The Phillies and Cardinals will be strong in the NL. The Braves and D-backs should be competitive. The Brewers should contend with or without Prince Fielder and the Washington Nationals are making some huge moves that could legitimately put them in the World Series discussion.
if they can stay healthy, offense should not be a problem for the 2012 Red Sox. I expect that Carl Crawford will have a bounce-back season and if he's doing what he did for Tampa Bay from the #6 spot in the lineup, the Red Sox are going to score a ton of runs. Saltalamaccia (16 HR and 56 RBI in only 358 at bats in 2011) and Scutaro (.329 after the All Star break) should be productive for bottom-of-the-lineup guys. The weak spot is right field. The Red Sox would surely love to add a veteran right handed bat to play right field and bat in the #7 spot behind Crawford (or potentially bat sixth ahead of Crawford). The rotation is still in flux. We know Lester and Beckett will be there and we hope that Clay Buchholz will be healthy. I'd love too see the Red Sox pick up a veteran (Kuroda, Oswalt, Saunders) to round out the top four. It looks like the Sox are going to try to turn Daniel Bard into a starter. The potential is there for a great starting five. I like how the Red Sox have been rebuilding the bullpen. After losing Papelbon, they traded for two closers from sub-.500 teams. Mark Melancon saved 20 of 25 with a 2.78 ERA for the Astros and Andrew Bailey saved 24 of 26 with a 3.27 ERA for the A's. Both pitchers will be 27 when the season starts (though it must be noted that Bailey has had injury issues). If Bard does stick in the starting rotation, Melancon and Bailey will probably fill the set-up/closer roles with Bobby Jenks and/or Alfredo Aceves filling the 7th inning role. Aceves has also been mentioned as a possible starter. The talent to win their third World Series in nine seasons is definitely there. They just need to stay healthy and stay focused.
Because of the large disparity between the big and small market clubs, organizations like the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels will always have a bright future. It takes a lot of screwing up to spend that kind of money and still be terrible (Hello, Mets). Nothing is ever certain, but the Red Sox should be competitive for years to come. Barring injuries, Lester and Buchholz (perhaps Bard) will keep the rotation strong. Pedroia, Gonzalez and Crawford will be around for a while. Ellsbury, a Scott Boras client, will probably be playing somewhere other than Boston in a year or two but you never know. Youkilis, presumably, will become the Red Sox designated hitter in a year or two. The Red Sox will of course have the resources to add free agents. The minor league system is a little depleted right now. They gave up a lot in the Gonzalez deal and a couple more decent prospects went to Oakland for Andrew Bailey. They are very high on a minor league third basemen named Will Middlebrooks who hit 27 homers and drove in 105 runs last season (mostly in AA). He may someday play at Fenway next to smooth-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias. The 21 year-old batted only .235 at Pawtucket last year and clearly needs to develop his offensive skills but he is still considered a great prospect. The Red Sox have some interesting players in the farm system but there are no clear-cut superstars in the making.