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Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Sharks open training camp with healthy Joe Thornton

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Getting a healthy Joe Thornton back on the ice was supposed to be the biggest change when the San Jose Sharks began training camp this season.

That all changed when general manager Doug Wilson made a blockbuster trade to acquire two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, immediately turning the Sharks from a contender to one of the favorites in the Western Conference.

”Clearly we want to win now and I think everybody is excited in this room,” Thornton said. ”Our fans are very excited. I think it’s a real good time to be a Sharks fan. But we have to keep it day by day, keep the focus in on short periods of time and I think if we do that we have a good shot this year.”

The Sharks opened training camp Friday with a healthy Thornton on the ice after having recovered from a second major knee surgery in the past two years. Karlsson has not yet arrived from Ottawa as he works out visa issues that could keep him from joining his new team until next week.

But the trade is already providing an emotional boost to start the season.

”It definitely ramps up when you make a trade like that,” forward Logan Couture said. ”Obviously you’re excited when you come back to start the season. It’s the same type of energy every year. But things get shaken up when you make a big deal.”

Karlsson joins a defensive group that includes another Norris Trophy winner in Brent Burns and shut-down defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks also have Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and Joakim Ryan as well and coach Peter DeBoer is still figuring out pairings.

Karlsson and Burns are the two highest-scoring defensemen in the NHL since the 2008-09 season and the first pair of Norris winners to play together since Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom did it in Detroit and Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger in Anaheim in 2008-09.

”We were good to begin with and now we’re even better,” Vlasic said.

Some of the success will depend on the play of Thornton at age 39. He signed a one-year, $5 million contract in July, taking a $3 million pay cut from the previous year to help make sure the Sharks have the room to add other top players. That happened Thursday with the deal for Karlsson from Ottawa.

The Sharks didn’t have to give up any top-end NHL talent in the trade but did lose third-line center Chris Tierney. That leaves Logan Couture and Thornton as the only proven centers on the roster, putting perhaps an even bigger load on Thornton.

Thornton went down with a season-ending right knee injury Jan. 23. Thornton had torn the ACL and MCL in his left knee late in the previous season but the earlier timing of this injury has him in better shape to start the season.

”Night and day,” DeBoer said. ”And that’s good. That’s just time. If you asked me where he is today compared to a year ago, his first day at camp, there’s no comparison to that. Again, we’ve got to be cautiously optimistic because he’s had two surgeries, but he looks real good.”

Thornton started slowly last season as he worked his way back but was near his top form by the end of November. He had 11 goals and 15 assists in his final 28 games before the injury.

Thornton has been the face of the franchise in San Jose since arriving in 2005, helping the team reach three Western Conference finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016.

He ranks 12th in NHL history with 1,030 assists and is 16th with 1,427 points. With seven more games, Thornton will become the 19th player to reach the 1,500-game mark for a career.

Because of the injury, Thornton never got the chance to play with last year’s big acquisition in forward Evander Kane. Thornton began camp centering a line with Kane and captain Joe Pavelski in what likely will be a combination to start the season.

”Joe’s obviously a legend who’s actively playing, which is rare in this league,” Kane said. ”It’s great to see him back on the ice. Looking forward to continuing to kind of build throughout the course of the camp with our line and kind of gear and set a goal to be firing on all cylinders Oct. 3.”

MORE PHT SHARKS COVERAGE:
Karlsson trade gives Sharks NHL’s most explosive defense
Would a healthy Thornton make Sharks Pacific Division favorites?
Three questions facing the Sharks
PHT Time Machine: 1991 dispersal draft and birth of the Sharks

Karlsson trade caps dream summer of NHL moves

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This is the sort of off-season NHL fans dream about, if they even dare.

Chances are, if you’re reading about hockey right now, you’ve daydreamed about big moves before. Maybe it happened on a message board when you were younger (or now, no judging). Perhaps different scenarios popped in your head while scrolling through Cap Friendly, “Beautiful Mind” style.

Sadly, for fans of splashy moves and novelty in general, reality rarely competes with your imagination. At least, that’s been the case most times for NHL fans, who’ve been pressing up their faces at the storefront window while NBA fans get to revel in the latest whims of Lebron James.

Well, if you ever feel silly about spending such time picturing wild, league-changing scenarios, then take heart. For at least one offseason, NHL fans joined NBA devotees in enjoying the flashy new toys.

It almost makes too much sense that the Dallas Stars extending Tyler Seguin echoed the magic of unboxing an NES (even if, technically, Seguin’s extension falls into the more typical NHL pattern of killing drama before it really boils over):

Let’s review some of the biggest moves. When appropriate, we’ll recall how that sort of thing usually turns out.

John Tavares: In my eyes, Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs is the move that stands out the most. He left the team that drafted him (rare) by choice (also rare), with money not being lone factor, and joined his boyhood team despite the immense pressure that will come from playing in Toronto (again, rare).

Depending upon who you believe, plenty of other prominent players would much rather go to a sunny, tax-lenient market, rather than the most hockey-obsessed place on the planet.

Tavares broke the pattern set by Steven Stamkos, in particular. Stamkos was the Great Toronto Free Agent Hope before Tavares, going as far as to tease such passions by liking a Tweet about his possible departure from Tampa Bay. Naturally, that did not happen.

(It’s not a 1:1 thing as the Lightning are and were in a much better situation than the Islanders find themselves in, Lou’s bluster notwithstanding, but the parallels are pretty close.)

Most directly, the Tavares signing is a win for Maple Leafs fans. You can see it in how many Twitter accounts double as months-long victory laps.

It’s a lot of fun for anyone who isn’t preoccupied with worrying about the Maple Leafs too, though. The team will face a lot of pressure to win it all over the next few years, but either way, it’s wildly refreshing to see a scenario that usually only opens in EA NHL video games: a superstar free agent becomes available, and goes to an already-loaded team.

The Maple Leafs were already a lot of fun. Now they’re must-see TV.

Erik Karlsson: The Senators loaded up on quantity in trading away their all-world defenseman and captain, but time will tell if they can successfully complete a rebuild from the wreckage – er, Dumpster? – they find themselves in.

However that goes, the Sharks didn’t give up a ton in present-day value (apologies, Dylan DeMelo and Chris Tierney), considering that Karlsson is a Norris-level defenseman still in his prime.

The Sharks were formidable last season even without Karlsson and with Joe Thornton on the shelf. Adding those two in the mix should make them a serious contender.

But more than that, they’ll be so much fun to watch. As this post details, making this defense corps fit together in the best possible way could be a challenge for head coach Peter DeBoer, yet it’s also a chance for him to engage his inner mad scientist.

It could be highly entertaining even if it doesn’t always work out as well on the ice as it does on paper.

Karlsson finally being traded feels like a relief, and is a reminder of all of those times when a move didn’t happen. There was no swap during the trade deadline or draft weekend, to the point that it almost felt like a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” situation. Until the wolf showed up, and now the Sharks should be outrageously fun.

Marc Bergevin continues to entertain, for better or worse: During the more barren times, hockey fans could thank – if not exactly respect – Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin for at least one thing: he kept things interesting.

Granted, Bergevin’s version of keeping things interesting is a lot like starting a fire and then gleefully running away, but it’s been quite the spectacle to behold.

The Max Pacioretty trade could very well maintain the Vegas Golden Knights as at least a playoff-viable team, and if more Vegas in your life isn’t exciting, then you’re probably an extremely grumpy person. (Or you just really dislike Imagine Dragons and “Medieval Times.”)

Thanks to the past week’s trades involving Pacioretty and Karlsson, the Pacific Division goes from being the weak link division to an arms race. The hapless drama surrounding Montreal trying to save face while moving Patches was just gravy on top, really.

Actually, the Patches situation was so overwhelming, you kind of forget that the Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade happened during this same offseason. Bergevin is the gift that keeps giving … except if you’re a Habs fan.

(Sorry gang.)

Plenty of other teams making big changes

Karlsson, Pacioretty, and Tavares are grabbing a lot of the headlines, yet this summer saw some big changes in plenty of spots, which should make things really interesting for plenty of teams.

  • Winds of change: The Hurricanes changed their GM, head coach, and saw some big personnel alterations. Dougie Hamilton‘s now free to visit museums around Raleigh, while Jeff Skinner is gone. Andrei Svechnikov could make an immediate impact. Carolina’s a team to watch in 2018-19.
  • Going in with a roar without ROR: Buffalo enjoyed a fascinating summer, too. They landed Skinner, while trading away Ryan O'Reilly in the first big trade of the summer. Carter Hutton is the new guy in net, while they added some interesting pieces such as Conor Sheary. Of course, the biggest addition is landing top pick Rasmus Dahlin; for all we know, he could be worth the price of admission right off the bat.
  • Deep Blues: The Blues may enjoy a serious rebound after adding O’Reilly, particularly if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy and Robert Thomas proves to be a tuneful call-up. Bringing back David Perron opens the door for this to be a versatile Blues attack after St. Louis was too top-heavy last season.
  • He’s back: It feels like an afterthought, yet the Kings could be a lot more fun to watch late at night if Ilya Kovalchuk ends up being, well, Ilya Kovalchuk. Los Angeles would also enjoy a big boost in watchability if Jeff Carter‘s healthy.

(Also under the “he’s back” heading: James van Riemsdyk returning to the Flyers, giving that team a boost in the “fun” category, as well.)

***

This post brings about some fun questions, yet one lingers: is this the beginning of a trend of more regular, impactful offseason movement in the NHL? That remains to be seen, particularly in a league where the CBA makes it relatively easy for teams to keep their core players together.

On that note, Taylor Hall wonders if the next CBA might open the door for more excitement and less stability, as he told The Athletic’s Craig Custance (sub required) a week ago:

“It’s becoming more accepted in basketball for players to just pick teams,” Hall said. “I have a feeling in the next CBA that the owners are going to push for shorter contracts and I think if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to cause players to do whatever they want with contracts.”

With Seguin, Drew Doughty, Ryan Ellis, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson ranking among the outstanding players who’ve already hashed out extensions instead of playing through contract years, it’s possible that this summer might be an aberration. At least as far as the current CBA goes.

(One would assume that Karlsson’s likely to sign an extension with the Sharks, possibly very soon.)

Still, that doesn’t mean there is no room for drama. Just look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, who need to figure out what to do with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Either way, the true excitement will come when the action starts for the 2018-19 season. If we’re lucky, these new combinations of star players will make plays we couldn’t even dream of.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Karlsson trade gives Sharks NHL’s most explosive defense

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A little more than a decade ago, the San Jose Sharks’ high-end teams were short-circuited by the Ducks almost-unfair defensive combination of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. In landing Erik Karlsson in a momentous trade on Thursday, San Jose now has an answer to that duo … and going further, one of the best defensive trios we’ve seen in ages.

Since the last lockout in 2012-13, Karlsson and Brent Burns won three of the past seven Norris Trophies (two to Karlsson, one to Burns). They’ve essentially gone toe-to-toe in fantasy leagues as the top defensemen, too, thanks to their tendency to fire buckets of pucks on net and score in ways you’d expect from forwards.

Consider that, since 2012-13, Karlsson (369) and Burns (346) easily lead all NHL defensemen in points. In fact, P.K. Subban is the only other defenseman who cracked 300, with 301. They also comprise two of the top three in goals for blueliners, with Burns being the only one with at least 100 (116).

The third member of the trio doesn’t enjoy the same level of glory, yet Marc-Edouard Vlasic might just be the glue that makes this stick together in a way that works on a triumphant level.

[Read up on the landmark trade here.]

In the most obvious terms, Vlasic is a left-handed defenseman, while Karlsson and Burns are both right-handed shots. More deeply, Vlasic and Burns have been used in massively opposed ways under head coach Peter DeBoer; “Pickles” has been jarred up in almost brutally defensive-minded matchups, while Burns is leveraged for offense in almost extreme ways. (The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow did a deep dive on this [sub required] about a year ago.)

The beauty of this addition is that Karlsson makes the Sharks more exciting in a combination of ways:

Fireworks: For casual fans – and everyone, too, honestly – San Jose will just be a blast to watch, from Burns’ blasts from all over the ice to Karlsson’s ability to impact virtually every aspect of their transition game.

At times with the Sharks and plenty of other top-heavy teams, there’s a feeling of mild boredom whenever the big dogs are on the bench. Depending upon how they’re deployed, it’s plausible that there won’t be many moments without one of Burns or Karlsson patrolling the Sharks blueline (and delightfully looking for opportunities to attack).

How it all works: Circling back to that point about deployment, hockey nerds get to geek out about how DeBoer mixes Karlsson, Burns, Vlasic, and other Sharks defensemen such as Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon.

One cannot help but wonder if the common coaching leaning toward handedness (accidentally summons Adam Oates) will play into this. How often will DeBoer put Burns and Karlsson on the ice at the same time, particularly at even strength?

You’ll really want to get your popcorn for Sharks power plays.

A ton of data suggests that NHL teams are almost always better off rolling with a power play that features four forwards and one defenseman (Matt Cane explains why at Hockey Graphs). One would figure that there are plenty of situations where all five forwards being out there would be a bold-yet-brilliant plan.

Personnel and context matter a lot, however, and DeBoer would almost certainly be foolish not to put both Burns and Karlsson out there on a top unit.

One of the many bright sides to this idea is that Burns sometimes operates like a borderliner forward (or “rover”) anyway, and Burns was even drafted as a forward. Consider his huge body and distracting beard, Burns could be a nightmare if he occasionally tried to screen goalies, although it might be foolish to put him in the line of fire too often.

Overall, there are some challenges to making this all work, at least in the most optimal way possible. Don’t expect opposing coaches to hand Peter DeBoer any Kleenex for his troubles, though.

The best defense in the NHL?: I don’t think you’d get much of an argument about the Sharks now boasting the most explosive defense from a scoring standpoint. Does the addition of Karlsson make San Jose’s defense the best in the NHL?

That’s a tough call, as the Nashville Predators boast a younger group, but San Jose’s terrifying from the top-end.

Perhaps the best-in-the-business debate boils down to how well you view Braun, Dillon, and other supporting cast members? Personally, I’d probably give San Jose the slight edge over the Predators and Jets of the world, as great as those groups are.

After all, considering the minutes that can be covered by Karlsson, Burns, and Vlasic, there will only be scarce opportunities for opponents to attack any perceived weaknesses in San Jose’s group.

***

With word surfacing that Joe Thornton seems healthy, the Sharks appeared to be the runaway favorites to win the Pacific (if not more). Then the Vegas Golden Knights made things interesting, again, by landing Max Pacioretty. Now the Sharks have upped the ante – finally, after missing out on the likes of John Tavares – by acquiring Karlsson.

Burns is 33, Vlasic is 31, and Karlsson’s even 28, so a Debbie Downer might worry about this group having a limited window for true domination. That’s plausible, if fun-killing, but the Sharks once again rise up as a daunting opponent for 2018-19.

It should be breathtaking to watch, although for opponents, that shortness for air would probably result from fear.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson dealt to Sharks as Senators continue roster teardown

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The long-awaited Erik Karlsson traded has finally been completed and the talented defenseman and prospect Francis Perron are heading to the San Jose Sharks. In return, the Ottawa Senators will receive Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers, plus two conditional picks.

Here are the details on those picks:

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson went hard after John Tavares in free agency, but struck out and moved on to extending key pieces in Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane. He wanted a “difference-maker” and certainly achieved that goal in acquiring the 28-year-old Karlsson.

San Jose’s blue line will now feature Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a very solid trio, while their top power play unit will be something to watch with the newly-added Swede.

“It’s extremely rare that players of this caliber become available,” said Wilson. “The word ‘elite’ is often thrown around casually but Erik’s skillset and abilities fit that description like few other players in today’s game.”

Karlsson, who was the No. 15 overall selection in the 2008 NHL draft, spent nine years with the Senators, suiting up for 627 games, scoring 126 goals and recording 518 points. He quickly developed into an all-around blue liner, capable of hitting double digits in goals and being strong defensively. His play would help earn him two Norris Trophies and second-place finishes in 2016 and 2017.

Since 2013, Karlsson is one of only three defensemen — Burns and P.K. Subban being the others — to record at least 300 points. Karlsson is third in goals (89) over that stretch with Burns leading the way (116) comfortably.

The key now for Wilson and the Sharks is to sign Karlsson to an extension. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and will command a max deal, whether he reaches UFA status or not. The Sharks are perennial contenders out west and this move certainly keeps them in the conversation for 2018-19 in a crowded field of Western Conference field favorites.

[Karlsson trade gives Sharks NHL’s most explosive defense]

For the Senators, the trade is one of the final parts of the complete teardown of a roster that was a goal away from reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. After moving Karlsson and dealing Mike Hoffman, the big pieces that remain are Bobby Ryan, who still has four years left carrying a $7.25M cap hit; Mark Stone, who signed a one-year, $7.35M deal over the summer; and Matt Duchene, who was acquired last October and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Goaltender Craig Anderson probably could be had if the right offer came along.

It’s all about stockpiling assets to go with a prospect cupboard that features Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Logan Brown, Colin White and Alex Formenton. (And let’s not forget Ottawa’s 2019 first-rounder belongs to the Colorado Avalanche.)

How deep are the Senators entrenched in this rebuild? The headline for the trade press release reads: “Ottawa Senators complete most important trade in rebuild” and the messaging inside keeps on the theme that the future is bright — they just need to keep dealing away their best players.

“This is the right moment for us to rebuild our team, and shape our future with a faster, younger and more competitive team on the ice,” says Senators GM Pierre Dorion in a statement. “We are going to build a culture of consistency which will allow this team to sustain better performance over the long term.”

If you’re wondering, the Sharks visit Ottawa on Saturday, Dec. 1.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.