Column as I see 'em:
There was one burning question after the Blues beat the Bruins in Game 7 to win their first Stanley Cup last Wednesday night in Boston: Would St. Louis award a winner’s share to Sabres general manager Jason Botterill?
Rarely has an executive played such a key role in another team’s historic championship run. Last July 1, Botterill traded Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues for Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a first-round pick this year and a second-round pick in 2021.
At the time, Botterill was given high grades for the move. He had insisted he would trade O’Reilly only for a king’s ransom. Pierre LeBrun called it a “major return.” Hey, the Blues even agreed to pick up a $7.5 million bonus that was due to O’Reilly that day.
So the Pegulas saved $7.5 million on the deal. Congratulations. It seems that’s a small benefit in a swap that could go down as the worst in NHL history — and for an owner who once said he’d just drill another well if he needed more money for his franchise.
King’s ransom? If so, O’Reilly wound up as the king of hockey. He scored the first goal in Game 7, making him the first player since Wayne Gretzky to score goals in four straight games in the Final. And he was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as Final MVP.
It’ll be awhile before Botterill and the Sabres live this one down.
Kawhi Leonard, who like O’Reilly was traded last offseason after falling out of favor with management, was a worthy Finals MVP after leading Toronto to its first NBA championship. Leonard averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists against the Warriors and played his typically swarming defense.
I would have voted for Leonard, the first player to win a Finals MVP in each conference. But I appreciated Hubie Brown for being the only one among 11 to vote for the award who didn’t choose Leonard. Brown, the Niagara University legend, went with Raptors backup guard Fred VanVleet.
In a way, Hubie was recognizing him as the unsung hero of the series. VanVleet took on a larger role as the playoffs went on and scored a career playoff-high 22 points in Game 6, sinking 5 of 11 3-pointers. After 14 games of this postseason, the Wichita State product was averaging 4.3 points. Over the last nine, he averaged 14.7 a game and was getting starter’s minutes.
VanVleet did a solid defensive job on the Steph Curry, who had 21 points and was 3 for 11 from 3 in the finale. In the biggest game of his life, VanVleet outplayed him.
The common refrain among Buffalo hockey media was that Botterill “had no choice” but to give Jeff Skinner an eight-year, $72 million contract, a deal that was met with widespread astonishment by the sport’s more objective observers at the Stanley Cup Final.
Botterill was certainly in a tough spot. It would have been a bad look if he’d lost Skinner for nothing in free agency after trading assets for him a year ago. He has said that trading O’Reilly gave him the salary room to sign Skinner. As O’Reilly drew closer to the Cup, the pressure intensified on Botterill, and I’m sure Skinner’s agent had all the leverage.
Now the pressure is on Skinner to justify giving $9 million a year to a limited winger. Skinner had a career-high 40 goals last season, but he has averaged 27 in his nine-year career. He has averaged 22 assists (49 points). He’s a weak defensive player, doesn’t kill penalties (zero career short-handed goals) and is suspect in three-on-three overtime.
Skinner has played in the most games of any NHL player without reaching the playoffs. If he doesn’t get there — or at least close — soon, Botterill’s job could be in jeopardy.
Here’s a recent five-day run in the MLB:
Last Saturday, the Angels had back-to-back-to-back home runs in a 12-3 win over Seattle; on Sunday, the Nationals topped it with four consecutive homers at San Diego; on Monday, the Diamondbacks and Phillies combined to hit a record 13 homers; on Tuesday, the Braves had four homers in a span of five at-bats in the second inning against Pittsburgh.
Every day, it seems, there’s some staggering event involving home runs. They’re well ahead of pace to shatter the MLB record for home runs in a season — and strikeouts. It’s all about homers and Ks nowadays, which might not be the best thing for the game.
Baker Mayfield and the Browns had private meetings after some players objected to his critical comments about Duke Johnson’s trade demands. Mayfield’s heavy-handed attempts at leadership aren’t going over so well in Cleveland. … Klay Thompson was brilliant before hurting his knee in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Warriors should pay him big money. If I had to win a series, I’d take Thompson over Russell Westbrook or James Harden. … So what if the U.S. women celebrated all their goals against Thailand in the World Cup opener. They get their due as athletes once every couple of years. They ought to make the most of the opportunity. … There will be a lot of pressure on coordinator Brian Daboll to get results with a radically refurbished Bills offense next season. The OC is the most criticized man in town when the offense isn’t functioning well. … Imagine how many endorsements golfer Rickie Fowler would get if he actually won more often.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.