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After Re-signing Nola, the Phillies’ Focus Should Now Shift to Upgrading the Bullpen

By |November 30th, 2023|

Seattle Mariners v San Diego Padres / Sean M. Haffey/GettyImages

Although the Phillies appear to be interested in inking another star pitcher like the 25-year-old Japanese international sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto despite having just closed on a deal to bring back Aaron Nola to the tune of $172 million over the next seven years, I would advise against it.

Hear me out! The Phills tried to do that last off-season when they paid SP Taijuan Walker $72 Million to leave the Mets. Still, I think most of us would agree that while he did win 15 games this past season, his production still wasn’t enough to warrant the team being stuck paying him $18 million until the end of the 2026 season. Besides, I don’t know about you, but Ranger Suarez impressed me a lot this postseason. So much so that if I were manager Rob Thompson, I would already have him slotted in as my number three guy for next season.

I think a better idea would be to wait and revisit upgrading the starting rotation until later in the season, like Dealing Dave Dombrowski did last year when he acquired the impending All-Star free agent SP Michael Lorenzen from the Tigers at the trade deadline.

This way, Philadelphia could instead go out in the coming days and throw money at a much more glaring hole right now: the bullpen! While the team managed to get great production from guys like Seranthony Dominguez, Matt Strahm, and Jose Alvarado last year. Others failed to live up to their expectations.

A key example of this was their free agent acquisition of closer Craig Kimbrel last offseason. But I’ll give Dombrowski some credit here: even though he tried to cheap out on a closer Kimbrel (who now has 417 career saves) did seem like a good idea at the time when the team was able to sign the now 35-year-old free agent to a one-year deal for the significantly discounted price of just $10 million. But the team should have known better because, just like when they brought in veteran closers Jonathan Papelbon and Billy Wagner, who were at the tail end of their careers. Craig, too, turned out to be a shell of his former 50-saves-a-year self.

In fact, he even ended the regular season well below his career average of 29.7 saves a year when he finished the 22-23 campaign with just 23 for the Phills. Kimbrel also saw his E.R.A. jump from a career 2.40 to a 3.26 last season. And we won’t even mention the beach balls he was tossing up in the postseason that easily cost the team a couple of games- if not the series- versus the Diamondbacks.

So, it should go without saying that Kimbrel won’t be back next season, but what about the production (or lack thereof) that the team received from lefty reliever Gregory Soto, whom they acquired from the Tigers last January? He, too, was not as lights-out as the team had hoped he would be this past season. Greg averaged a 4.62 E.R.A. during the regular season but ended up getting rocked in the postseason, where his E.R.A. proved to elevate about as fast as the balls that the opposition was able to hit off of him, with his postseason E.R.A. reaching an embarrassing 6.00.

Who, then, should their options be in free agency, you ask? Well, to start, I wouldn’t mess around anymore. I would go out and acquire an elite-level closer who is young enough that management could feel comfortable signing him for approximately five years. The reason behind this being so they won’t have to revisit this problem on an annual basis. And to me, that player would be none other than 29-year-old Josh Hader from the San Diego Padres. Hader, who finished last year with an E.R.A. of just 1.28, collected 33 saves and 85 strikeouts, which proved him to be one of the best at his position last year.

But signing him will not come cheap, considering his current market value is estimated to be around $17.5 million a year. However, with the Phillies’ payroll reaching new heights and their production beginning to level off, their window to win now is starting to close. That’s why I feel it’s high time Dombrowski tried solidifying this position for the first time since maybe Brad Lidge last grabbed a rosin bag and was still lining them up and sitting them down.

I know many teams out there are currently vying for Hader’s services. Still, one thing that may be on Philadelphia’s side is that signing with the Phillies may serve as a homecoming of sorts for this Millersville, MD native who has bounced around the country a lot over the last few years.

If the Phillies can get Hader, they will no doubt be in an excellent position to make a run yet again, but if they wish to compete for a World Series title, then I suggest they sign another relief pitcher in addition to Hader; one that can truly bring the heat. And for that, I would recommend 27-year-old right-hand reliever Jordan Hicks. Hicks, who came up throwing absolute gas that registered 105 m.p.h. on the gun with the St. Louis Cardinals some five years ago, has managed to develop over the years into a more complete pitcher. For example, Hicks finished the season with the Blue Jays last year where he was able to showcase his newfound ability of not just going up there trying to blow the hitter away every pitch (like he did in the past) but instead mix in a slider every now and again to keep the opposition guessing.

If acquired, this still relatively young pitcher who averaged a 3.29 E.R.A. last season might just be the piece that allows this team to reach the summit. What’s surprising, though, is that it may not cost the Phillies as much as you may think because his current market value is just $3.5 million a year.

Although some may view this article as nothing more than a blueprint for what I feel could lead this team to future success, let’s face it: while the Phillies could still use an upgraded multi-positional player to fill in when the occasional injury occurs, overall, the team already has the bats needed to drive in the runs; they just need the arms that will be able to prevent runs from being scored on them late in a game.

Some 2023 NHL Draft Picks who are Proving to be Steals

By |November 27th, 2023|

(Photo: Matt Hiscox Photography).

Now, with the 2023 NHL Draft only taking place four months ago on Jun 28th and 29th, this article may seem a little premature to some, given the fact that such a short amount of time has elapsed. But I assure you, after you read just what kind of production these prospects have been turning out this season, you, too, will be a believer.

To start, we could easily talk about a player like Matvei Michkov, who fell to the Flyers at seventh overall and is playing at almost a points-per-game pace in the KHL right now. Or perhaps Gabe Perreault, who is currently Boston College’s leading scorer despite them having multiple top ten picks on the roster like Will Smith, Cutter Gauthier, and Ryan Leonard. This, of course, came after Gabe had to wait until the Rangers practically ran to the podium to take him 23rd overall this summer. However, teams are supposed to hit on their first and second-round picks. Where you can begin to decipher the good from the great general managers is the talent they are able to acquire in the mid to later rounds.

Yegor Sidorov

Like the Anaheim Ducks did when they selected Yegor Sidorov (an 18-year-old from Belarus) in the third round this summer, 85th overall. Yegor, or as he is more commonly referred to as Egor, is a 6’0 183 pound winger who can play both sides of the center. The Ducks found Egor playing in the Western Hockey League (WHL) for the Saskatoon Blades. Where last season this elusively creative player somehow managed to score 40 goals and 36 assists for 76 points in just 53 games. Now, why so many teams chose to pass on a player operating at a rate of 1.43 points per game in his draft year is beyond me, but I’m sure Anaheim was elated to add this offensive threat to their arsenal.

But as good as Egor was last season, I wouldn’t mention him in this article if he wasn’t producing at a higher rate this year. Now, at 19 years old, Sidorov finds himself back with the Blades for perhaps his third and final season because so far this year, in 23 games played, Egor has managed to score in bunches totaling 21 goals (thanks to his excellent one-timer) and nine assists for 30 points to date. An average that, if he can maintain, projects him to finish the season with 60 goals and 26 assists for 86 points.

A player with this type of creativity and goal-scoring ability won’t remain unsigned for long. Expect the Ducks to be waiting in the Blades locker room after their final game this season so they can ink this player to his first of many professional contracts.

Denver Barkey

The next player worth mentioning is the Flyers’ 95th overall pick from this past summer, Denver Barkey. This diminutive center, who stands at just 5’9, must have reminded general manager Danny Briere a lot of himself, seeing that he was able to generate nearly a point per game last season while playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). This plus player has an innate ability to put defenders in some sort of state of hypnosis, as they all just seem to forget about the man they are supposed to be covering and focus on him. This allows Denver to create space for his teammates so they can set themselves up to put home a perfect pass that he somehow manages to place right on the blade of their stick. While Barkey finished last season with 59 points in 61 games, he is currently on pace to blow those totals right out of the water, seeing that he is projected to score 37 goals and 57 assists for 94 points this season. All of this, mind you, comes with him also maintaining a +14 rating right now that projects to him finishing the season a +40!

Denver’s game will prove to translate well at any level simply because when he is on the ice, he makes everyone on the line with him better! He even proved this recently when he made multiple highlight reel passes to current Flyers players in their preseason games. So please don’t sleep on this player, as I’m predicting many more great things will come from him soon enough.

Luca Pinelli

Moving on now to a player who was taken still later in the draft and is currently paying the team that drafted him dividends, we find Luca Pinelli. Another undersized center that the Columbus Blue Jackets took in the fourth round this summer with the 114th overall pick. Like Barkey, Pinelli never seems to take a shift off. Leaving it all out on the ice, Luca has become known as a duel threat. He is a player who is equally as dangerous in the offensive zone as in his defensive zone. So much so that he was able to finish last year a +30, but while being defensively responsible is great and will undoubtedly help you get to the next level. You have to be capable of a bit of offense, too. And Luca is proving this season that he can do just that. In 22 games played thus far, Pinelli has been able to drive the play to the toll of 17 goals and eight assists for 25 points. A feat that, if he continues along this pace, will see him end the season with 53 goals and 25 assists for 78 points.

While his lack of size may hinder or delay Pinelli’s quest to the NHL, his ability to make plays and put the puck in the back of the net will not.

Hampton Slukynsky

As we all know, building a team is not all about scoring goals. You also need someone who can prevent them. So, it was with this thought in mind that the Los Angeles Kings decided to draft USA-born goaltender Hampton Slukynsky in the 4th round with the 118th overall pick. Hampton is a 6’1 190, pound netminder who plays with some flair. He plays so aggressively that you rarely see him inside the blue paint when the opposition is in on a rush. Hampton is always out-challenging the shooter.

Nevertheless, once his team is pinned down inside their zone, Slukynsky manages to deny opponents with his lightning-quick reflexes and stretch arm strong like elasticity. Using these traits to his advantage, Hampton recently won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championships in 2022-2023 and is currently playing for the Fargo Force, where he is undefeated with a 9-0-0 record while more impressive yet maintaining a league-best 1.53 goals-against-average and stopping a league-leading .927% of the shots he has faced to this point. However, that’s not all. Slukynsky also leads the league with three shutouts to his credit.

Hampton has accomplished all this while equally splitting time in the net with his older goaltending partner, Anton Castro. So, you can just imagine what his numbers could be if he had the net all to himself. A chance (if he keeps up this kind of play) that he will have next season when he is due to play for the Northern Michigan University Wildcats.

Many teams and scouts over the years have slept on this guardian of the blue paint, but that’s ok. Because the Kings did not, now they can just sit back and watch their young netminder continue to develop. With any luck one day, they may just see Hampton turn pro and get a chance to don their classic black and silver jersey.

Aiden Fink

The last player we will discuss in this article is a former Prospect Watch guest that the Nashville Predators took in the seventh round 218 overall this past summer. Aiden, who now plays for the Penn State Nitty Lions, is having a fantastic freshman campaign, scoring nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points in just 15 games played thus far. To put his production to this point into some perspective, that’s a seventh round prospect who is currently just one point off the pace of Macklin Celebrini, who most NHL scouts have listed as the first player due off the board this summer. I know Fink is a year or so older than Celebrini, but to even be considered in the same company as a player like Macklin proves Aiden is on the right track.

I don’t know about you, but I think Nashville may have just put other teams on notice with this one. Many people have been sleeping on players coming out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) for some time now. And honestly, I don’t know why, seeing that last season, all Aiden did was score 41 goals and 56 assists for 97 points in just 54 regular season games played for the Brooks Bandits and then managed to continue to win both back-to-back AJHL Championships and back to back Centennial Cups.

Fink is for sure a player to continue watch grow playing in the NCAA, for he can do it all offensively, especially in big games. Yes, I do believe Barry Trots and the Preds got some good value out of this pick, and he should continue to excel once he reaches Music City.

While these are a few of many promising prospects to come out of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, I believe these are the ones that have offered their respective teams the most bang for their buck. (I.E., draft stock used on them) to this point. Who knows, in a few years, if their early production since being drafted continues to pay off, they just may find themselves earning a chance to turn pro by signing an entry-level contract.

Like Father Like Son? Two 2024 Draft Eligible Prospects who are hoping to step out from their Father’s Shadow

By |November 17th, 2023|

Kelowna Rockets forward Tij Iginla (left) celebrates his second period goal with Andrew Cristall (middle) and Gabriel Szturc (right) in the team’s 6-3 win against Swift Current on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at Prospera Place. (@Kelowna_Rockets/X)

Every year, come draft day, you’ll notice a couple of prospects being taken by a team with some familiar surnames who turn out to be the offspring of hockey royalty. Sadly, despite having the same blood coursing through their veins, most fail to ever live up to their fathers’ accolades.

This year may be a different story, though. In the 2024 NHL Draft, there will be two prospects with profound NHL lineage that will be worth keeping an eye on.

The first goes by the name Tij Iginla, who you may have guessed is the son of the former Calgary Flames Hall of Fame winger Jarome Iginla. Over the course of his 20 year NHL career, Jarome was able to tally 625 goals and 675 assists for a total of 1,300 regular season points. Additionally, it was Jarome’s gritty style of play (that saw him come to be respected by everybody who did not live in Edmonton) that helped him collect every offensive award over the years that the NHL could dream up. Whether it be the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award, or the NHL Foundation Player Award, Jarome managed to collect them all. And that isn’t even mentioning the multiple Olympic Gold medals he won that are probably sitting on his mantle right now.

So it should go without saying that Tij will have some pretty big skates to fill once an NHL club selects him this summer. But, it is a task he seems up for, given that he has already won a Western Hockey League Championship with the Seattle Thunderbirds last year and is currently scoring at a rate of 1.15 points per game for the Kelowna Rockets this season. That’s right, through just 20 games played so far this year, Tij has totaled 15 goals and eight assists for 23 points. If that wasn’t impressive enough, I’ll have you know that if he continues on this pace, Tij is projected to finish this season with a very respectable 51 goals and 27 assists for 78 points!

Now, while you may see a lot of similarities to their games, make no mistake about it: Tij is his own man. And in saying that, I’m sure he is looking forward to being drafted to prove just that. Currently, most mock drafts have Tij going somewhere in the second round, but with his stock surging right now, the sky is the limit, so we will just have to wait and see where he ends up.

Next up is another player from a noble bloodline. And that is Aatos Koivu, the son of former NHL’er Saku Koivu. Like Jarome Iginla, Saku saw his career span much longer than most, playing in 18 NHL seasons and totaling over 1,100 games. During that time, Saku compiled 255 goals and 577 assists for 832 regular season points.

Since it’s been ten years since Saku last laced up the skates, his son, who is also a center, now finds himself of age to be drafted and is hoping for an NHL team to come calling, much like they did for his dad did back in the first round of the 1993 Entry Draft.

Only Aatos appears to be facing an uphill battle, seeing that he is currently being overlooked because of the immense amount of talent coming out of Finland this year. But, I assure you this is a gross oversight by the masses because Aatos has been gifted Saku’s handle and finishing ability. To prove this, all you have to do is look at the numbers he has been able to put up this season. While playing for the famed TPS’s U18 Team, Aatos did not appear challenged, scoring 15 points in 15 games. So, the franchise recently moved him up to their U20 Team, where in five games played, Aatos has improved upon his previous one-point-per-game average to the toll of him now netting five goals and three assists for eight points which brings his average to 1.6 points per game versus what was supposed to be more challenging competition.

If Aatos can continue with his recent success, I believe he will not only have his name called this summer by an NHL team but very well could be considered a steal of this draft class.

That’s why, with all this being said, I believe both Iginla and Koivu 2.0 will have all the means necessary to step out of their father’s shadow and embark on their own journey to greatness.

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