Trading Kovalchuk not the answer for NHL Thrashers

December 15, 2008 by Tom Ferda · Leave a Comment 

Published in The Examiner  and Inside Hockey Magazine – Dec. 15, 2008

Originally from Detroit, Tom is a Los Angeles based writer covering the NHL. His NHL material has been published in several national magazines including The Hockey News (Canada) and USA Hockey Magazine as well as the New York Daily News, Washington Times, Men’s Book and 360 Thrashers Magazine. Contact Tom at tom@tomferda.com

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ATLANTA – There has been a buzz around the NHL about the possibility of the Atlanta Thrashers trading their Russian star Ilya Kovalchuk before this year’s trade deadline.

Kovalchuk who scored 52 goals last season is one of a few gifted players in the NHL who has the ability to control the flow of a shift and demands attention every time he steps on the ice. Trading him away would create a huge void, near impossible to fill.

The talented winger currently leads his team in total points (11G-19A-30Pts) and is 19th in the NHL in that category. His closest teammates, Slava Kozlov and Todd White trail far behind, tied at the 50th spot.

One of the Thrashers’ main inconsistencies this season has been their power play where they have tallied a total of 22 goals. Kovalchuk has been involved in 13 of those (2G-11A-13Pts) so imagine how the numbers for the PP would drop without him in the line-up.

There is an obvious need to shake things up on the roster but trading Kovelchuk is not the answer for this roster that is short on talent and experience. A move like that could set back the team’s rebuilding process for years to come.

During last season’s UFA bidding wars, GM Don Waddell’s strong effort to sign some of the top available players came up short when his huge offers to defenseman Brian Campbell and Brian Rolston were turned down and the players opted to play in markets other than Atlanta.

During that same period, Tampa Bay defenseman, Dan Boyle refused to wave his no-trade clause in his contract until he was threatened with being put on waivers and ending up in Atlanta.

The challenge of getting high-caliber players to commit to Blueland has been a difficult chore for Waddell even with Kovalchuk on the roster. Imagine the uphill climb trying to sway players here without the Russian star on the team.

Rebuilding a roster isn’t as easy as placing the highest bid for UFAs each year; it’s not a simple auction. Many of these high profile UFA’s have been joining rosters with a strong nucleus to build around. Brian Campbell and Rolston are perfect examples of that.

Kovalchuk who has spent his entire career at Blueland is clearly the nucleus of this team. Trading away their hugest asset may is not fix this club’s problem, it may add to it.

Falcons and Hawks offer healthy ‘fix’ for Atlanta

November 13, 2008 by Tom Ferda · Leave a Comment 

Published in The Sunday Paper, Atlanta on November 16, 2008.

There’s a buzz around the ATL that is gaining momentum by the week.

The buzz is about the new ‘fix’ in town that provides relief to the stress of multi-billion dollar wars, historical home foreclosure numbers and it eliminates the foul stench of national recession that is in the air.

It works like potent medication but with no side effects. Be forewarned though, it can become addictive.

This ‘fix’ comes in the form of two birds . . . Hawks and Falcons.

The Atlanta Falcons, (6-3 overall and 4-0 at the Georgia Dome) and Atlanta Hawks (6-0) both sprinted out the gate with ferocious starts in 2008 and are putting the ATL back on the sport’s map. It is the Hawks best start since 1997 and after underachieving seasons by both the Braves and Thrashers, the timing couldn’t be better.

For years, sports fans have leaned on their teams to provide an escape from life’s stresses and when those teams are winning, it helps pull the city and fans out of their funks.

Detroit is a great example of that. The Motor City holds the crown for most troubling economy and severe collapse in real estate values but when their Red Wings or Pistons take home a crown, millions take to the streets to celebrate, leaving their troubles locked up at home (if it hadn’t been taken back by the bank yet).

The spirit of Atlantans is being lifted. Sports chatter is picking up steam at the local coffee houses and on the streets.

Vinings resident Megan Harpring is no stranger to sports. Her brother plays for the NBA Utah Jazz and she played basketball at Georgia Tech.

When asked about the current Falcons and Hawks run she said, “The sports bars have been packed with local fans. It’s filling everyone’s lives with something positive, something exciting. The success of the Falcons . . . it’s a motivator. We’re getting excited about the next game, the next weekend.”

Lawrenceville resident Derek Wheeler, another avid sports fan who played baseball for UGA attended the Falcons miraculous last-second comeback against the Bears this year at the Dome and last year’s Hawks Game 6 win against the Celtics. He is thrilled with his local teams, “It’s unbelievable isn’t it! Ryan is unbelievable. I never would have thought the Falcons would have a year like this. And the Hawks–last year wasn’t a fluke at all.”

This excitement and attitude is quite different from the aura that hovered over the city in recent past.

When Atlanta’s All-Pro, hometown favorite, Michael Vick was sent off to live behind bars, doom and gloom set in for the sports fans in this city.

Their star player was in shackles, their head coach Bobby Petrino like the ‘Cowardly Lion’ snuck out of town with his tail between his legs and many of the Falcons’ star players abandoned ship or were traded away for pennies on the dollar.

A lot has changed since then. Sundays suddenly have a new meaning and Atlanta’s sports have injected new life into the city and its people.

The Falcons, under the leadership of rookie head coach Mike Smith and rookie-of-the-year candidate QB Matt Ryan, continue to find ways to overcome the underdog role and win.

New questions on the street are Michael who? Bobby who?

The NFL is certainly taking notice of the new Falcons. The league pushed the November 23 Falcons/Panthers kickoff to 4:15 and upgraded the matchup to a national game. Coach Smith commented on that compliment from the league, “I think that it is confirmation that we are doing things right. It’s an honor for our football team for that to take place.”

The 23-year-old Ryan out of Boston College replaced Vick who is still listed as ‘Suspended’ on the Falcon’s team roster. After Ryan’s hot start, most expect Vick to be released soon after he swaps his prison garb for civilian clothes sometime during 2009.

At the Falcons’ side are the over-achieving Atlanta Hawks led by All-Star Joe Johnson who always manages to shine while coasting under the NBA radar.

The Hawks’ performance in last year’s NBA playoff series against the heavily favored Boston Celtics brought life back to the lackluster franchise. Those young inexperienced Hawks were expected to be swept off the planet in four merciless games but refused to go down without a fight, taking the NBA Champion Celtics to seven games.

Six games into this 2008-09 season the Hawks are continuing where they left off and were the only unbeaten team in the entire Eastern Conference, that’s right, a hotter start than the Celtics, Pistons and Cavaliers.

The 2009 NBA All-Star Ballot includes five of our Hawks; Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Mike Bibby, Al Horford and Marvin Williams. Callers into popular radio shows on 680 The Fan are sharing in the excitement with recent comments about the Hawks like, “They’re playing with passion” and “It’s awesome to watch.”

The hosts of some of the shows on 680 The Fan shared their thoughts. Christopher Rude of “The Rude Awakening” show believes, “Sports fans in Atlanta are guardedly optimistic.”

His afternoon counterparts Buck and Kincade said, “The black cloud that was hanging over the Falcons the last few years with Vick and Petrino is gone. There’s an attitude change in the locker room. Joe Horn was griping. Horn, Crumpler and DeAngelo Hall all moved on. The old stuff was washed out and new leaders like Matt Ryan have stepped up. There has been a locker room purge.”

Marc Stein’s week two NBA power rankings on ESPN.com had the Hawks ranked 5 out of 30 teams in the league and wrote this about our Hawks, “Atlanta has deservedly gate-crashed the top five with its first 5-0 start in a decade.”

It’s incredible how these overachieving teams whose rosters recently contained unknowns and rookies considered fortunate to be wearing a pro uniform, have stepped up and are quickly making names for themselves while bringing pride back to the city of Atlanta.

I was at Ryan’s first game against the Detroit Lions and witnessed his first NFL pass in front of his hometown fans. The pass was snatched up by Michael Jenkins who galloped 62 yards into the end zone.

Last week against the New Orleans Saints, 22-year-old
rookie, Chevis Jackson intercepted a Drew Brees pass and raced 95 yards for a TD with 1:17 left to play to seal another victory for the Falcons at the Dome.

Plays like these are like paper shredders. They take those heart-wrenching, negative headlines we’ve been force-fed all week and shred them to dust at least for that moment.

We all need heroes.

The heroes in the summer blockbuster films sweep us away from the doldrums of our current world. Young enthusiastic athletes like Matt Ryan and Al Horford and men like Joe Johnson and John Abraham who show up every day playing their hearts out, determined to overcome the adversities they face do the same.

Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB

July 30, 2008 by Tom Ferda · Leave a Comment 

Published in Baseball Digest Daily July 15, 2008

Originally from Detroit, Tom is a Los Angeles based sportswriter. His material has been published in several newspapers including The New York Daily News, Detroit Free Press and Washington Times. Magazines that have published his features include Men’s Book, The Hockey News (Canada), USA Hockey Mag, 360 Hawks and 360 Thrashers. For clippings or inquiries contact him at tom@tomferda.com

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Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB

Written by TOM FERDA

ARIZONA – It’s the bottom of the 6th inning with two outs and a man  on base for the Arizona Diamondbacks who trail the visiting Houston Astros 7-5. Diamondback’s Manager Bob Melvin decides to call on a right-handed pinch hitter. Houston manager Cecil Cooper makes a trip to the mound and counters Melvin’s move by making a pitching change, bringing in reliever Dave Borkowski to come in to get the important final out of the inning.

The raucous crowd of Diamondback fans at Chase Field rise to their feet as the pinch hitter digs in, staring through Borkowski awaiting the delivery. Borkowski, confident, rears back and fires the ball, challenging the hitter.

The ball is greeted with a solid crack of the bat and the crowd erupts as the ball sails into the right field seats for a two-run pinch hit homer to tie the game.

In a matter of seconds, one pitch, one crack of the bat. . . and two runs on the board for the Diamondbacks.

Unusual? This time it was.

The pinch hitter was Micah Owings, a member of the Diamondback’s starting rotation. A pitcher who many believe may be the purest hitting pitcher ever to play the game.

Last year while playing in front of friends and family at Turner Field in his home state, Owings had a record-breaking night at the plate going 4 for 5 with 2 home runs, 6 RBI’s and 4 runs scored while earning the win against the Atlanta Braves. His 11 total bases for a pitcher is a feat that had not been accomplished in nearly 50 years. Those are numbers A Rod would call home about.

Owings went on to hit .333 last season with 20 hits, including 4 home runs, 15 RBI’s and a .683 slugging percentage in 60 at bats. It’s no wonder Bob Melvin felt confident to give Owings the call at a crucial time in that tight game against the Astros earlier this season.

In addition to Owings, baseball fans expect a solid at bat whenever Chicago Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano steps to the plate. At the time this article was written, Zambrano was hitting an astounding .362 this season with 17 hits including a home run, two doubles and a triple. Zambrano exhibited a solid swing throughout the 2006 season when he belted 6 home runs escalating his major league career total to 13.

Zambrano and Owings have both compiled impressive stats and have proven they are not automatic outs like most other pitchers. When these great hitting pitchers step up to the plate, it seems to turn up the volume of the hometown fans and create uncommon pressure for the guy on the mound, adding a unique element to the game.

Before being traded to the American League where the DH is used, Dontrelle Willis ran up some great numbers at the plate for the Florida Marlins while being placed as high up as 7th in the batting order. Like Owings, he once hit two home runs in the same game. He did it in 2006, the same year he connected for a grand slam in another contest. During the 2007 season, his final year on the Marlins, he hit .286 with an on-base percentage of .348.

Rick Wise is another member of this elite group. In 1971, the Phillies starter pitched a 4-0 no-hitter against the Reds while hitting two over the fence at Riverfront Stadium. Again in the same year, he added a second two home run game to his record.

Throughout baseball’s long history, other pitchers have evolved into serious threats at the plate. The Los Angeles Dodgers have had a few, like Orel Hershiser who batted .356 in 1993 and Don Drysdale who hit .300 and connected on 7 long balls in 1965.

In recent history, Jason Marquis now pitching for the Cubs accrued some real impressive numbers when he batted .292 in 2004 followed by .310 in 2005; both seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals while winning 28 games as a starter during that same span.

When these great hitting pitchers are in a game, opposing pitchers have the task of studying an additional hitter in the line-up. Today, pitchers have learned not to throw three quick fastballs over the plate to Owings or Zambrano or they may end up on the bad end of an ESPN highlight reel.

When these starters get the call, NL managers Melvin and Lou Piniella have the luxury of having the additional bat in the lineup; like having a DH. In fact, during spring training Melvin used Owings in the DH slot during some inter-league games.

These athletes are MLB’s rare breed of hitters. A strong hitting pitcher adds an exciting element to the game and pumps up the volume when they step to the plate in front of their hometown fans.

Makes some baseball fans wonder, how great is the DH rule?

Braves Need Early Win Streak To Save Teixeira

July 16, 2008 by Tom Ferda · Leave a Comment 

Published in Baseball Digest July 16, 2008

Originally from Detroit, Tom is a Los Angeles based sportswriter. His material has been published in several newspapers including The New York Daily News, Detroit Free Press and Washington Times. Magazines that have published his features include Men’s Book, The Hockey News (Canada), USA Hockey Mag, 360 Hawks and 360 Thrashers. For clippings or inquiries contact him at tom@tomferda.com

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Atlanta Need Early Win Streak to Save Teixeira

Written by TOM FERDA

ATLANTA- Now that we’ve taken a few days to come down from the adrenaline rush furnished by the longest game in All-Star history that included appearances from Atlanta Braves Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, it’s time to take a look at the importance of a strong Braves start to begin the second half.

As the Braves come out rested after the break, two issues seem to be of interest. One, closing the gap on the NL East leaders and two, GM Frank Wren seems to need a reason to keep clean-up hitter Mark Teixeira past the July 31 trade deadline. These issues seem to go hand-in-hand. In a recent interview, when asked about the possibility of trading the Georgia Tech grad, Wren responded, “A lot depends on how our club is performing.”

Teixeira said in an earlier interview that he is taking it one game at a time and knows it’s just part of the business. Maybe so, but this part of the business may be taking a toll on the player. After hitting .287 with nine HR’s and a slugging percentage of .617 for a productive month of June, his numbers have dropped considerably in July. Through 13 games this month, his average was .250 and he had one HR and a slugging percentage of .438.

After many picked the Braves to be the front runners in the NL East, they experienced an underachieving first half going 45-50 which included a dismal 5-22 record in one-run games. The Braves began the second half 6.5 games behind the division leading Philadelphia Phillies and NY Mets who shared the top spot. But with the upcoming schedule for all these teams, things could change drastically.

The first three series after the All-Star break offers an incredible opportunity for the Braves to get right back into the race. They opened against the last place Washington Nationals at Turner Field on July 18. The Braves pitchers own the second best ERA in the NL going up against the Nationals who have one of the softest line-ups in MLB. The Nats are last in the majors with a team batting average of .239 and their lackluster roster does not have a single player with double digits in HRs.

This appears to be a dream second-half opening series for Atlanta who is expected to win the series on their home field.

Tim Hudson (10-7) did come out and get the win in the first game of that series, a one-run 7-6 victory, but Jair Jurrjens (9-5) struggled in game two, giving up five earned runs and taking the loss, 8-2.

With the game two loss, the Braves squandered an opportunity to move closer to the Phillies who lost to the Marlins that same night. But Atlanta can still salvage the Washington series with a win in game three on Sunday before they go on the road.

While the Braves host the Nats, the Phillies are in hot, humid Florida against the Marlins before going to New York for a three game series against the Mets. Those two match-ups are sure to restructure the top three spots in the NL East.

After this weekend’s Nats series, the Braves visit the Marlins for three games and then head north to play the Phillies in what could be the most important series of their season. In this cluster of division rival games, something has got to give.

With the top three teams in the NL East going head-to-head all week, every Braves victory would gain a full game on one of those rivals, moving them closer to a playoff position and right back in the race. If they are able to close the gap prior to next weekend’s Philly series, their performance in the City of Brotherly Love could define their season. After being swept at home by the Phillies earlier in the year, returning the favor would put the Braves in contention and probably keep Teixeira in Atlanta.

It’s no secret that Teixeira has become a hot topic of trade rumors throughout the league. It’s pretty obvious the Braves need to step it up a notch and find a way to win to get back in it by the end of next weekend’s Phillies series or they will likely be playing the rest of the season without Teixeira.

It’s crunch time for the Braves.

If they respond and come out of the gate with a flurry, the NL East may suddenly find itself in a tight four way race for first, The Fat Lady may not be singing for quite some time and the Jimi Hendrix hit, “All Along The Watchtower” will continue to fill the air at Turner Field after July 31 when Teixeira steps to the plate.

Thrashers Roster Has Huge Void To Fill

June 26, 2008 by Tom Ferda · Leave a Comment 

Published in Inside Hockey Magazine and The Examiner

Originally from Detroit, Tom is a Los Angeles based writer covering the NHL. His NHL material has been published in several national magazines including The Hockey News (Canada) and USA Hockey Magazine as well as the New York Daily News, Washington Times, Men’s Book and 360 Thrashers Magazine. Contact Tom at tom@tomferda.com

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ATLANTA – It seems like an eternity ago when the Atlanta Thrashers’ roster was overflowing with high-profile, star-caliber players, won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Philips Arena was rocking with wall-to-wall fans in blue with dreams of their team orchestrating a long playoff run . . . a run that could possibly lead to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals.

It may feel like distant history but that was actually April 2007, only fifteen months ago and that dream ended abruptly when that star-studded roster was easily swept by the New York Rangers 4-0.

Just like that, four games and out! Barely a week into the playoffs and the high-salaried, underachievers from Blueland had an early exit onto the golf course.

GM Don Waddell carefully built that roster around proven veterans with tons of playoff experience and leaders who had been on Stanley Cup winning teams. The main acquisitions were Bobby Holik who signed for 4.25 million per year and Marian Hossa, one of the brightest NHL stars, who went on to tally a club record 100 points that season.

In addition to Holik and Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov, Alexei Zhitnik, Keith Tkachuk and captain Scott Melanby wore Thrashers blue that year but a lot has changed in Blueland since then.

After under-achieving again last season and unable to make the playoffs, this year’s 2008-2009 roster is looking quite different. When the Thrashers take the ice at Phillips Arena this October, all the above-mentioned stars have exited through trades or free agency except for Kovalchuk and Kozlov.

Last year’s Thrashers Mark Recchi and Pascal Dupuis have also moved on and fan-favorite Eric Boulton (127 PIM) is currently testing the free agent market. The only transaction worthy of mentioning this off-season thus far is the signing of Columbus Blue Jackets puck-carrying defenseman, Ron Hainsey.

Hainsey, a former first-round pick is expected to add much needed help on the blue line but this current roster is packed with young and lesser-known players than the team that won the division in ‘07. A successful year depends on some of these prospects having break-out seasons and that is too big a gamble.

There is talent on this roster but much of it is still developing and the locker room is in need of established leaders. That is why Waddell made an aggressive attempt to sign premiere veteran free agents like Brian Campbell and Brian Rolston before they decided to sign in NHL cities where it snows several times a year.

Approximately 60 goals departed with Hossa, Dupuis and Holik and in today’s low-scoring NHL that’s a huge void to fill . . . rather than void, you may call it an abyss if the Thrashers are unable to land a few proven goal scorers.

Kovalchuk is one of the most talented players in the league but he will be forced to carry a majority of the load, game in and game out, and with a grueling 82 game schedule, it may wear him down to the point of inefficiency.

With this current roster, an injury sidelining Kovalchuk could put an immediate end to any hopes of the Thrashers having a productive season. Successful teams are built with a combination of youth and experience. Waddell had the right idea with the roster of the ’06-’07 season but the chemistry was missing, maybe due to coaching or not having the right foundation of players in place.

Time is running out as many of the quality free agents have signed elsewhere but there is still plenty of talent out there looking for new contracts. These remaining players may be available at a more affordable price allowing Waddell to add a handful of players to the roster as opposed to spending the bank on a single UFA like Campbell or Rolston.

Either way the Thrashers organization desperately needs to make a few moves to spice up their current roster and they need to make them soon. Working against them may be Atlanta being perceived as one of the least desirable places to play in the NHL.

The Lightning’s Dan Boyle who loved it in Tampa finally agreed to waive his “no trade clause” when he was threatened with being placed on waivers and landing on the Thrashers. He was then traded to the San Jose Sharks.

With a new man behind the bench, John Anderson, who has never coached at the NHL level, it may be more challenging to get established veterans to commit.

Atlanta as a city and organization have a lot to offer NHL players, including money, and Waddell has proven he is not afraid to spend it but the clock is ticking fast. It’s time to sign a few veterans who can put the puck in the net . . . and that group should include a leader . . . a leader capable of donning the Thrashers “C”.

Tom Ferda is an Atlanta-based sportswriter and full-time columnist for Inside Hockey. Contact Tom at his email: tom@tomferda.com