This is Ross Atkins’ sixth season as general manager of the Blue Jays — and probably his best.
If he’s not a candidate for baseball’s executive of the year, he should be.
Atkins went on an off-season spending spree that landed Robbie Ray, Marcus Semien and George Springer in free agency. Ray has been among the best starting pitchers in the American League and Semien has been among the best players.
And the big signing, Springer, is just starting to show what he can be capable of as a franchise player.
The sometimes curious Atkins has surrounded his young gems — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette — with players who have enhanced the Blue Jays roster and made this club look like the club should be a contender — not just now, but well into the future.
All of that was before the trade deadline hit on Friday, when Atkins left his mark. The Blue Jays are fighting to get into wild-card contention and will likely get squeezed out by too many teams ahead of them. But knowing all that, Atkins was surprisingly bold with his acquisitions.
He wasn’t afraid to give up his best-hitting prospect, Austin Martin, in the deal for dependable starting pitcher Jose Berrios.
That’s the kind of deal Atkins would not have considered in the past.
He also brought in veteran relief pitchers Brad Hand and Joakim Soria to deepen a struggling bullpen.
Should the Blue Jays get to the wild-card game and beyond, they could offer a playoff rotation of Ray, Hyun-jin Ryu, Berrios, and Alek Manoah — or whatever order you would choose, which is impressive.
Atkins has done what he’s had to do: This is the deepest, strongest Jays team since the veteran club he inherited in 2016. The difference now? This is his team. It’s also his time.
THIS AND THAT
When the Maple Leafs lost to the Montreal Canadiens, they discovered they didn’t have a Phillip Danault. They didn’t have a defensive centre to match up against an offensive line. So they signed David Kampf as a free agent, who is not a household name in his own home. But one NHL coach I talked to, not associated with the Leafs, called it the signing of the day: “He’s an excellent checking centre, great on penalty kill, above-average and getting better on faceoffs.” What he can’t do at all is score. But it’s clear the next step in the Leafs’ development is to find a third line that is a pure shutdown unit while finding a way below the salary cap … If Twitter was making draft picks, the Raptors would have selected Jalen Suggs with their first pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday instead of choosing Scottie Barnes. But, frankly, I’ll trust Masai Ujiri, Dan Tolzman and Bobby Webster and their history ahead of screaming social media when it comes to identifying basketball needs for the Raptors … This is it for Kyle Lowry in Toronto, isn’t it? It sure feels that way. Zach Hyman is already gone and soon, it seems, Lowry, too, in either free agency or a sign-and-trade of some kind. That’s a lot of heart heading out of town. That’s not easy to recover from — for teams or fans … The Leafs will likely enter training camp with one of Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase or Michael Bunting playing alongside Auston Matthews or John Tavares. And that’s actually an upgrade over training camp of a year ago. When camp began last season, Joe Thornton was the first-line left winger and Jimmy Vesey was on the second line … The Zach Bogosian story hasn’t been told in full since he left the Leafs. He didn’t necessarily enjoy his only season in Toronto. The COVID-19 protocols made it difficult for his wife and children, who left Toronto halfway through the season. He didn’t want anything to do with another year in Canada. He left for Tampa where he said “they just get it.”
HEAR AND THERE
My Canadian MVPs of the first week of the Summer Olympics: Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse, Maggie Mac Neil, weightlifter Maude Charron and swimming broadcaster Byron MacDonald, who is the absolute best in the business … If Katie Ledecky had a twin brother, he might look a little bit like hockey’s Colby Armstrong … Summer McIntosh will be 17 for the next Olympics in Paris and Oleksiak will only be 24 if she continues on … Why is it I love watching swimming so much during the Olympics and never watch it at any other time, any other year? … When Canada won bronze in softball, all I could think about was Lauren Bay — sister of former big-leaguer Jason Bay and now sporting the last name Regula — and how well she pitched for so many seasons for Team Canada and now, finally, has an Olympic medal … I haven’t been home for an Olympics since 1992. I’m surprised at how few people seem to be talking about it. At least the ones that I’m talking to … The signature event at any Summer Olympics is the men’s 100-metre dash. You can see it Sunday morning live at 8:50 am … I get nostalgic around Olympics: I’m missing Brian Williams hosting, missing the late pair of Don Wittman and Geoff Gowan doing track and field, missing being around the track and the pool with Cecil Smith and Nick Thierry, missing Russ Anber at boxing, and even competing against the late Randy Starkman, who had no patience for interlopers who only bothered with Olympic sports during the Games … Very happy to hear Steve Armitage call a gold-medal rowing race. He was born for this … Stick tap to Michael Landsberg, who spent 37 years at TSN — a Day 1 guy — and packed it in on Friday. He won’t be doing the morning radio show on TSN1050 anymore. With his passion for mental-health issues, sports became almost secondary for Landsberg, who did it all for TSN. The easy thing to do now: Take producer Aaron Korolnek and pair him with Carlo Colaiacovo in the morning. They have natural chemistry already. Why not invest in your own?
SCENE AND HEARD
Hyman keeps talking about how much he loves Edmonton. I guess if you say it often enough, you will start believing it. What he will love, though, is playing with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the NHL’s top two scorers. The arena is beautiful, the team is on the rise — the city, well, it’s Edmonton … At least three NHL teams, maybe more, were fully prepared to draft Logan Mailloux in the second round last Saturday if Montreal hadn’t picked the disgraced junior in the first round … Don’t know what was worse: Montreal picking Mailloux in the first round or how they handled the choice or how owner Geoff Molson then called a news conference to explain the situation, but excluded all kinds of media in doing so. How amateurish was that? … An outside thought on Mailloux: He was too young to go to Europe on his own without supervision. He needed structure. It led to horrible circumstances … A question asked by many hockey people the past few days: Why didn’t the Leafs sign Corey Perry? … Department of strange: The Carolina Hurricanes want to win the Stanley Cup and wanted Frederik Andersen in goal as their starter, not Petr Mrazek or Alex Nedeljkovic in goal … The Leafs weren’t sorry to see Andersen go, no matter what they might say publicly. They were ready to say goodbye to Andersen and didn’t necessarily part on good terms … I’m a huge Ken Holland fan, but I don’t understand building a defence around Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie with the Oilers … Brayden Point and Mitch Marner were free agents at the same time in 2019. The Leafs signed Marner for six years and $65 million US. Over the same six years, Tampa will pay Point, who has 28 playoff goals the past two Stanley Cup seasons, $48.75 million. The bridge contract, I think it works … What I wonder about Bunting: Is he for real or is he Lonny Bohonos? … Is the NHL draft over yet?
AND ANOTHER THING
It happened on Friday night. I heard OK Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre and I kind of liked it. For the first time in years, I wasn’t embarrassed by it. Weird … Strange to walk by the ballpark and see all the ticket windows closed. All the business is online … The Jays have so much offence they should consider keeping Santiago Espinal at third base all the time. He’s their best defensive third baseman and if he hits just a little, so what? … Guerrero Jr. has slipped all the way to third in batting in the American League, but is second in home runs, first in RBIs, first in OPS, first in OBP and, get this, tied for first in WAR with Semien … Bichette leads the AL in homers among shortstops, and also leads all shortstops in RBIs, runs scored and batting average, and is third in on-base percentage and second in OPS. Still hard to believe he’s just 23 … How cool is this? CFL football returns Thursday night after a season gone missing. It kicks off with a Grey Cup rematch: Hamilton at Winnipeg … Sad to learn of the passing of Sidney Spiegel, the Toronto businessman who bought the Montreal Alouettes along with son-in-law Gary Stern, prior to the pandemic. The Als never played a game under Spiegel’s ownership … Just a thought: Someone is going to pay Lowry around $30 million a year and that someone is going to regret it … The Leafs haven’t confirmed it, but there is no room for Joe Thornton on the payroll next season. And no place for him on the ice … Happy birthday to Sherry Bassin (82), Dale Hunter (61), Evgeni Malkin (35), Tom McCarthy (61), Madison Bumgarner (32), Beckie Scott (47) Edgerrin James (43), Andre Ware (53) and A.J. Green (33) … And hey, whatever became of Casey Janssen?
A CASE FOR SECOND CHANCES
Craig MacTavish has long been a shining example of making the most of a second opportunity in life.
He won four Stanley Cups as a player during his time with the Edmonton Oilers and, later, the New York Rangers. He had a remarkable NHL career and a strong impact on every team he played with. He went on to coach the Oilers for eight seasons and later became the club’s general manager. He remains in hockey today.
I can’t help but wonder — knowing today’s climate of media volatility — if MacTavish would have had a career of any kind had he come around now? If the NHL and a sometimes mob-mentality media would have easily welcomed back MacTavish to the league after he spent a year in prison for vehicular homicide?
A young woman died in the MacTavish drunk-driving incident. He has lived with that his entire life. But MacTavish came out of prison and, when he signed with the Oilers, there was next-to-no controversy about his return to professional hockey.
Not the way there is controversy now over Tony DeAngelo’s signing with Carolina Hurricanes. The way there is controversy now over the Montreal Canadiens’ drafting of Logan Mailloux. The way there was controversy a year ago when the Arizona Coyotes drafted Mitchell Miller.
Miller is — or was — a bully. DeAngelo used racist language and was more than difficult to get along with in New York. Mailloux immaturely circulated compromising photos of a teenage girl in Europe.
All of them are now pariahs in the hockey world.
The MacTavish story, frankly, far worse than anything done by Miller, DeAngelo or Mailloux, should serve as an example of what can happen when a young man gets the right kind of help, at the right time, and is given the opportunity to rebuild his life.
WITH KREJCI EXIT, IS BRUINS’ WINDOW CLOSING?
In David Krejci’s 14 seasons with the Boston Bruins, almost nothing stands out more than this: The leading playoff scorers in his time in the NHL are, in order: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov — all of them heading to the Hall of Fame one day.
Sixth on that list, just behind Kucherov, is Krejci, who won’t be going to the Hall of Fame and never finished higher than 28th in NHL scoring in any single season.
What he did do, on two occasions, was lead the entire playoffs in scoring. The last time he did it, in 2013, he finished 56th in regular-season scoring. When hockey mattered most in Boston, Krejci found a way to matter deeply.
Now, at the age of 35, he’s decided to go home to the Czech Republic, to finish his hockey career in front of his family and his children and those he grew up around. He will miss the Bruins, but far more than that, in the days after signing wingers Nick Foligno and Taylor Hall, whom he might have played with in Boston, the Bruins will miss him.
You can’t replace a Krejci, that rare kind of player who elevates his game at playoff time. You can’t replace his power-play sense, his on-ice vision, his puck management, his understanding of how to be the near-perfect second-line centre. The Bruins don’t have anyone like him to take his spot. Patrice Bergeron, their first-line centre, is 36 years old. Without Krejci, and with an aging Bergeron, Boston is running out of time as an NHL contender.
RITCHIE GETS BIG OPPORTUNITY
Nick Ritchie was supposed to be a big deal when the Anaheim Ducks drafted him just behind William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers in the 2014 NHL draft.
He has size and strength and a naturally physical nature to go along with a goal-scorer’s shot. In truth, he has everything any team would want in a power forward — and more natural skills than Zach Hyman, for example.
But then the games begin and you watch Ritchie and you wonder how interested he is or how competitive he is and, really, how much he cares or how little he is like Hyman.
The Maple Leafs gambled in signing Ritchie on Saturday, hoping they can find something in the 25-year-old that other teams couldn’t the past six NHL seasons. Like the winger Ondrej Kase, signed the day before by Toronto, there is promise and possibility in his game, but no sign yet that either can be consistent or productive NHL players.
Maybe coming home — Ritchie is from Orangeville — will make a difference. Maybe the hockey spotlight of Toronto, which won’t look the other way like Anaheim might have, will force him to find and further develop his natural talents. Or maybe the opportunity to play alongside Auston Matthews or John Tavares could be career-changing for him.
It’s an inexpensive gamble for the Leafs, with a potentially large payoff. Really, it’s up to Nick Ritchie now. He needs to condition himself. He needs to take his career more seriously.
He won’t get a better opportunity than this to hit it big.