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The Empty Net Hockey Podcast - Ep. 8 - Jonathan Willis and the NHL Draft

Matt Supert

I was able to catch up with Jonathan Willis of the Bleacher Report, Sportsnet, Oilers Nation, and the Edmonton Journal (when does this guy sleep?) just a few hours ahead of the NHL Draft. The Oilers are on the clock, what trades are in the works, and what will happen now that the league has opened the bidding process for expansion? IS MILWAUKEE IN THE MIX?

Find out in today's episode (Link below) 

The Empty Net Hockey Podcast Ep. 8 - Jonathan Willis and the NHL Draft 

Follow me on Twitter (Handle below) as I give my breakdown of the 1st round of the NHL Draft tonight, live and in real time. I promise no spoilers, only pick reactions.

Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
Twitter: @Mario_Tirabassi
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Pro Hoops Draft: What would Sparky do?

Hey guys!
It’s time for the NBA Draft on Thursday night at 6 and the Bucks have needs heading into the draft and free agency that begins on July 1st. The first need has to be to find a player that can play on the wing and hit a consistent jump shot that ranges out to three point land. Another need is to find a player or two that can bring a physical style of play inside when battling for baskets and rebounds. While this teams is long, it’s certainly not all that physical and the Bucks have had problems against more physical teams. The center position must be upgraded at some point in the next couple of years if there will ever be hope of an NBA Championship in Milwaukee.  I tend to believe this player will come to Milwaukee via free agency over the draft.

What Sparky would do in the draft
I’d explore trade options for Caron Butler, Tyler Ennis, OJ Mayo and Zaza Pachulia. If I could get draft pick compensation for any of these players, I’d move them.

The pick at number #17 for me would be either SG R.J. Hunter from Georgia State or SG Rashad Vaughn from UNLV.
In Hunter’s case, his outside shooting and ability to pass from the SG position fills needs for the Milwaukee Bucks. Hunter didn’t have a great year last year from beyond the arc and isn’t the most athletic player you’ll find at the SG position but I believe that outside shooting could be elite when given time to just focus on the game of basketball.
When talking about Rashad Vaughn all I can think of is 6th man of the year! He would be instant offense off the bench for a team that desperately needs scoring from its second unit.  Vaughn is very young having only played one year of college basketball but in my mind that makes him an even better fit when it comes to this roster that is very young.

What Sparky thinks the BUCKS WILL DO in the NBA Draft

I believe that they will draft a PF to replace Ersan who they traded to the Detroit Pistons. The stretch four has become a popular thing in the NBA and the Bucks now currently don’t have one. The player that they draft will be a bench player but will get a decent amount of minutes off the bench. I believe they will take the PF from Arkansas Bobby Portis at 17 if he’s still on the board. Portis plays hard all the time, plays with an attitude around the rim, and has shown he can step back and hit a jumper.
Hope you'll listen to the Pro Hoops Draft Show Tonight!  6pm-11pm from the Cue Club of Wisconsin, 2454 N. Grandview Blvd, Waukesha. Come on out and say hello and let me know what you think of this draft!
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The Empty Net Hockey Podcast Ep. 7 - Stanley Cup, NHL Awards, Rule Changes

Matt Supert

The Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions for the third time in six years. Are they a dynasty? Plus, the Lightning will be back, the NHL Awards and General Manager meetings are underway in Las Vegas, and there may be some new rule changes for the 2015-16 NHL season. We cover it all in the latest podcast. (Link Below) 

The Empty Net Hockey Podcast Ep. 7 - Stanley Cup Wrap-up, NHL Awards, Rule Change

Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
Twitter: @Mario_Tirabassi
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Stanley Cup Finals: Blackhawks take Game 6, hoist Stanley Cup in Chicago

Matt Supert

It took 60 full days for a Stanley Cup Champion to be crowned in the NHL, and when the dust settles the Chicago Blackhawks are the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Champions. It is the third time in the last six years that the Blackhawks have won the Cup, making their achievement in the salary cap era that much more impressive.

First, the Tampa Bay Lightning come up short in Game 6 after an incredible run through the Playoffs which saw them knockout the likes of the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers. Ben Bishop, after the Game 6 loss, disclosed that he suffered a torn groin in Game 2 on a save on Brad Richards. Bishop was visibly injured in Game 3, which the Lightning won, but missed Game 4 completely, yet still put up fantastic performances in both Game 5 and Game 6 in losing efforts. A tap of the stick to him for playing through such a painful injury, and playing well. Another injury hindered star for the Lightning was Tyler Johnson. Johnson was the leading point scorer throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs heading into the Finals and finished with 23 points, tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane. Johnson was moved from his center position to the wing early in the series, and after the Game 6 loss announced he had played the entire series with a broken right wrist. Taking Johnson out of the faceoff circle was a move to protect that wrist, in hind-sight, but moved Johnson from his natural position and he did not look the same. A hats off to the Tampa Bay squad, I foresee more chances at the Cup for this young Lightning core of players.

Real quick here, this is from the Finals Preview article -
Prediction: Chicago over Tampa Bay 4-2

For the Blackhawks, it's a familiar story; the core group of players stand tall when the lights are brightest and close the door when they have the chance. Under Head Coach Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks are 10-0 in a Game 6 when leading a series 3-2. That's called finishing. To start the NHL Playoffs this year, it looked as if Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford may not be the man in the net for Chicago as he was pulled from Game 1 in the opening round against Nashville, got shelled for six goals in Game 2, then sat the bench in Games 3, 4, and 5. But, as it seems fitting for the under-valued Crawford's career, he would get a second chance in net for Game 6 and would shut the door on the Predators and the Blackhawks would comeback for the win. Follow that series with a four game sweep of the Minnesota Wild, and then seven games against the Anaheim Ducks in which Crawford had to stand on his head many times to get the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final. He was fantastic in the final and, in my opinion, could have been the Conn Smythe winner for Playoffs MVP.

But the man who DID win the Conn Smythe, Duncan Keith, was far and wide the deserving winner. The amount of hockey Keith played during the playoffs was other worldly as he played the 4th most ice-time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, being on the ice for 48% of the total game time for the Blackhawks run all the way from Game 1 against Nashville to Game 6 of the Final in Chicago. Keith is the 9th defenseman to win the Conn Smythe, the last being Scott Niedermayer for the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Keith cements his place in the NHL Hall of Fame, in my eyes at least, as he is a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, a two-time Olympic Champion, and three-time Stanley Cup winner. The number 2 will never be worn again for the Blackhawks once Keith hangs up the skates.

Aside from the likes of Keith, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks got heroic moments from their role players and fresh faces throughout their championship run. For one, trade deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette scored four goals in the playoffs, three of which were game-winning goals. Andrew Desjardins, another trade deadline acquisition for Chicago, played on the fourth line with Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger in one of the most impressive performances by a fourth line that has been seen in recent years. I constantly found myself saying, "How is it that Kruger, Shaw, and Desjardins always have the better offensive chances?" It was the energy line for Chicago and played a big role in keeping the Lightning's triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat in-check. With Michal Rosival going down with a fractured ankle, the defense of the Blackhawks turned to young players like Kyle Cuminsky, David Rundblad, and Trevor van Riemsdyk who all played meaningful minutes alongside Kimmo Timonen, another deadline acquisition for Chicago, to help out the big four defenders on Chicago's blue-line. Timonen has played 17 NHL seasons, mostly in Philadelphia and Nashville, but will retire as a Stanley Cup Champion with the Blackhawks. Brad Richards signed a one year deal with the Blackhawks after being bought out of a huge contract with the New York Rangers, and played a major role both on the win and in the center for Chicago and is rewarded with lifting his second Stanley Cup, the first coming in 2004 when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

There is so, so much more I want to say about the Stanley Cup Finals, and Playoffs in general, so be on the lookout for the next installment of the Empty Net Hockey Podcast wrapping up the playoffs.

But I will leave you with this, Jonathan Toews is a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, two-time Olympic Champion, a Conn Smythe winner in 2010, and a Selke Trophy winner (Best Defensive Forward) in 2013 all happening before his 28th birthday. Can you think of another NHL player with that many accolades that fast? Incredible.

Congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
Twitter: @Mario_Tirabassi

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The Empty Net Hockey Podcast - Ep. 6 - Travis Hughes, Stanley Cup Finals

Matt Supert

Travis Hughes from SB Nation joins me to breakdown the Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, plus my analysis and predictions.

The Empty Net Hockey Podcast - Ep. 6 - Travis Hughes & Stanley Cup Finals Preview 

Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
Twitter: @Mario_Tirabassi
Email: mario.tirabassi@yahoo.com

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Stanley Cup Finals Preview: Blackhawks vs. Lightning

Matt Supert

After six and a half weeks of playoff hockey, the NHL has their final two teams set for the Stanley Cup Finals. The Chicago Blackhawks will face the Tampa Bay Lightning beginning on Wednesday, June 3rd in Tampa Bay. This is the third trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in six seasons for the Blackhawks and their 12th trip to the Finals in franchise history, having won five Cups total. For the Lightning, this is the second trip to the Finals in franchise history having won the Stanley Cup in their only other trip in 2004 defeating the Calgary Flames in seven games. This matchup could be split right down the middle when it comes down to it as these two teams mirror each other in almost all facets of the game and that has the makings of a GREAT series.

But first...
Third Round Predictions - How Did I Do? (Bold = Correct / Strike through = Wrong)

Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay over New York 4-2 (4-3)
Western Conference: Chicago over Anaheim 4-2 (4-3) 

Again, I hate to toot my own horn...But come on now...TOOT TOOT - 13/14 Picking the team to win the series and 5/14 picking the series length. Not bad. Ok, enough about me, LET'S PLAY SOME HOCKEY!

Stanley Cup Finals - Chicago Blackhawks vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are taking a page right out of the book of Randy Orton's early career when he took on the persona of the "Legend Killer." First they eliminate the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in round 1, then upset the Montreal Canadiens in round 2, and finally deny the New York Rangers back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Finals after a seven game series win. That's three powerhouses from the NHL's Original Six teams. Now they'll try to win their second Cup in team history by attempting to bring down their fourth "O6" team, the Chicago Blackhawks. (Not mentioned "O6" teams: Boston and Toronto) The Blackhawks on the other hand are coming into the Cup Finals after coming back from a 3-2 Western Conference Final series deficit, dispatching the likes of the Anaheim Ducks in seven games along with a sweep of the Minnesota Wild, and a thrilling opening round with the Nashville Predators. Chicago has faced three teams that match speed and physicality equally well and have persevered to their third Cup Final in six seasons.

The Lightning are riding their hot offensive talent through these playoffs with three of the top ten point scorers in the playoffs, and five of the top ten goal scorers through the playoffs. The Blackhawks have their share of scoring power as well, led by none other than their star duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, along with Conn Smythe dark-horse Duncan Keith. Between the pipes, Corey Crawford at one point in the playoffs didn't look like he would see the ice past Game 2 of the Nashville series, now he will start in net for his second Stanley Cup Final series. While in the crease for Tampa Bay is the towering Ben Bishop, who has the better stats of the remaining two goalies posting a 2.15 Goals Against Average and a 92% save percentage, as well as a playoff high three shutouts.

This series is almost too tight to call, let's split these very similar teams apart and find a winner.

Forwards - When it comes to scoring power, this series does not disappoint. As stated before, there are six of the top ten scorers ion the playoffs in this series and the stars couldn't be shining brighter coming into these final few days. For Tampa Bay, Tyler Johnson has become a star and a top scoring threat in the blink of an eye. When his opening round break out happened, I fully expected him to return to Earth and for Steven Stamkos to reclaim his spot as the top threat for the Lightning. I was wrong because not only has Johnson continued his impressive post-season, but Stamkos may not even be the second scoring threat on this Lightning team. Johnson is taking his linemates along with him on this scoring ride as Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have become household names in these playoffs. Facing a depleted Blackhawks blue-line, the Tampa Bay offense has the potential to out-chance Chicago at will. For the Blackhawks, what more do you have to say about this sentence: "Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane play on the same line." Usually the duo play in separate line pairings, but Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville made the change while searching for more offensive production trailing the Ducks 3-2 heading into Game 6 and it paid off nicely, they're in the Cup Finals. Outside of that you can rattle off the scoring threats for Chicago like a who's who of power players - Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, and Duncan Keith to name a few. Yes, I have a defenseman in the conversation for scoring forwards for Chicago because hehas been THAT important to their offense. If he continues to "Quarterback" the offensive push for Chicago, he may add a Conn Smythe to his mantle as well as another Cup.
EDGE: Slightly for Chicago

Defense - You don't have to be a hockey guru to understand that this is where the Blackhawks weakness lays. As much as Duncan Keith has been driving force for Chicago, he is only one man. Brent Seabrook's playing at a high level as well, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are playing defensively sound, but it's the fifth and sixth defenders that have been much of the talk as to why Chicago may not hoist the Cup. Michal Rosival and Kimmo Timmonen began these playoffs at the back-end of the blue-line, and now it will be David Rundblad and Kyle Cuminskey holding their own. Rosvial out with an ankle injury and Timmonen, god bless him, he gave all he could. But a 40-year old NHL player who had to miss a season and a half because of life-threatening blood clots could only do so much. As long as Rundblad and Cuminskey can eat minutes without making costly mistakes, the Blackhawks could be finding some defenders of the future. For Tampa Bay, defense is not a worry what-so-ever. Led by Viktor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the Lightning use seven defenders to balance minutes and balance their heavy-checking of Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn with their offensive attack from Hedman and Stralman. Rotating in Nikita Nesterov, Matthew Carle, and Andrej Sustr help the Lightning keep the minutes down and their top guys fresh, a problem the Blackhawks will have to face in the Cup Finals.
EDGE: Tampa Bay 

Goaltending - Another evenly matched category if you start watching the Playoffs from the second half of the Nashville-Chicago series up to now. Corey Crawford, who has a Stanley Cup to his name, has become the goat for man Blackhawks fans as he was almost benched for good infavor of backup Scott Darling. Since then, he has returned triumphantly to the chants of "Cor-ey! Cor-ey!" at the United Center, swept the Wild, and held strong enough in Games 6 and 7 to comeback and eliminate the Ducks. Crawford posts a 2.56 GAA and a save percentage of 91.9% heading into the Finals. If he can keep the form he has shown in the Minnesota series and in the final two games of the Western Conference Final, he could lift a second Cup. Standing in the way of that, and standing tall between the pipes for Tampa Bay is Ben Bishop. The man backstopping the Lightning's road to the Cup Finals is attempting to do something I think no other goalie has done before in knocking out four of the Original Six teams on the way to lifting a Stanley Cup. Bishop, as well as Crawford, have been susceptible to giving up big games in these playoffs, but both have shown the ability to bounce back. With the offensive power the Lightning have, Bishop may have to be just 'ok' to get his hands on the Cup.
EDGE: Slightly for Chicago

Special Teams - Tampa Bay has the fifth best power play in all of these Playoffs with a 22.2% success rate, while Chicago posts a 19.6% success rate, good for seventh best in the Playoffs. On the flip-side, Tampa Bay posts an 81.2% Penalty Kill percentage which ranks them eighth in the Playoffs and Chicago has a 75.5 % Penalty Kill percentage, good for 11th in the Playoffs. Chicago's best strategy for penalty killing will be to stay out of the penalty box all together. Tampa Bay's dangerous on the power play and a depleted defense may be too much for the Blackhawks penalty killers.
EDGE: Slightly for Tampa Bay

Coaching - Jon Cooper took the reigns from Guy Boucher in 2013's shortened season as the Lightning failed to reach the playoffs. In two seasons, Cooper has led Tampa Bay to two 100+ point regular seasons, two playoff appearances, and now a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Not a bad start for Cooper, who had no other prior head coaching experience. On the other side of the glass will be Joel Quenneville, who has been a head coach in the NHL since 1996. He has coached 198 Playoff games, so far, and has 111 career playoff wins, so far. Both are the highest marks among active Head Coaches in the NHL. Oh, and he has those two Stanley Cup rings to his name as well.
EDGE: Chicago

Experience Factor - As mentioned prior, this is Jon Cooper's first rodeo passed the first round of the NHL Playoffs as a coach and for much of this Tampa Bay Lightning team, this is their first taste of long, grueling playoff hockey. For Chicago... do I have to mention it again? Third Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last six seasons. Most of this Blackhawks roster has at least one, if not two Stanley Cup rings from the past six years as well, and Joel Quenneville is coaching them. It is possible for Tampa Bay to get caught up in the moment, Chicago has been here and done this before.
EDGE: Chicago

Prediction - Chicago has played A LOT of hockey these last few years and it bodes for them well when it comes to the mental part of the game. Physically, they may be beaten up from the prior three series', but now they face a Lightning team that likes to play a more open-ended game that fits the Blackhawks style. Tampa Bay will not be an easy out, no team that makes a Cup Final is. But these are the Blackhawks, a modern day dynasty, and they lift the Stanley Cup at home.  
Chicago over Tampa Bay 4-2

My Eight Conn Smythe Candidates -
1) Tyler Johnson, C - Tampa Bay
2) Jonathan Toews, C - Chicago
3) Patrick Kane, RW - Chicago
4) Steven Stamkos, C - Tampa Bay 
5) Duncan Keith, D - Chicago
6) Ben Bishop, G - Tampa Bay
7) Nikita Kucherov, RW - Tampa Bay
8) Corey Crawford, G - Chicago

Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
Twitter: @Mario_Tirabassi
Email: mario.tirabassi@yahoo.com


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2015 MLB Draft: Milwaukee Brewers

In eight days the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft will commence.  The MLB Draft doesn’t elicit the same fanfare generated by the other two major sports, but it is an extremely important event that has the potential to change the future of an organization for decades.
The Milwaukee Brewers have had great success in the draft previously, as it was responsible for their playoff appearance in 2008 - their first trip to the postseason in 26 years.  
But after that season they lost scouting director Jack Zduriencik to the Seattle Mariners, who became their new general manager. 
Bruce Seid was hired to fill the void left by Zduriencik, and unfortunately didn’t live up to the expectations that were set.   Year-after-year the Brewers continued to strike out on many of their draft choices. 
Since Seid’s first draft as the scouting director in 2009, they have not had a single one of their first round picks reach the big leagues. While some of that has to do with luck, they passed on numerous players who have had success in the big leagues already or are highly regarded prospects. 
Now with Ray Montgomery in charge of the draft, after the surprising and tragic death of Seid last year, it will be interesting to see what path the Brewers take in regards to their first round pick this year. 
In Montgomery’s four years as the scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he hit the mark selecting the best player available, all who possessed a great deal of potential. 
The Brewers have been linked to college arms since the spring, and if Missouri State right-hander Jon Harris is on the board, don’t be surprised if they selected the 6-foot-4, 190-pound hurler. 
Harris has an outstanding four-pitch mix featuring an above average fastball that consistently sits at 92-94 mph with sink. His fastball velocity has the potential to increase, especially once he adds more muscle to his frame. 
Since mid-spring, Harris has been regarded as one of the top pitchers in the draft class. If he is able to slide all the way down to the Brewers at pick No. 15, don’t be surprised if they snatch him up because he has a high ceiling and is a safer pick than other college arms.   
Talented prep left-hander Kolby Allard, prep outfielder Garrett Whitley and University of Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser, who the Brewers have scouted heavily and Montgomery has witnessed first-hand, are other players to keep your eyes on when it comes to the Brewers and their 15th overall selection.    
Also, don’t rule out last year’s No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken. The left-hander didn’t sign with the Astros after the contract fell apart due to concerns about his elbow.  He then underwent Tommy John surgery in early spring this year. 
If it wasn’t for the concerns about his elbow, he would be a top 10 pick due to the fact that he possesses the most potential out of any player in this draft.  However, those concerns could cause him to slide into the mid to late first round. 
It is hard to know what organizations think about Aiken, but don’t rule him out completely for the Brewers.  In the end, a team who selects Aiken will have to be comfortable with his elbow and feel like he is worth the risk to select him.
With the Brewers selecting in the middle of the first round, it is hard to give a definitive answer on who they will pick since the draft could play out in numerous ways on draft night. It will be interesting to see how Montgomery handles his first draft with the Brewers and they have been linked to collegiate hurlers.  Don’t be surprised if they travel down that path again.  

Find more of Dan Zielinski's MLB Draft coverage at The3rdManIn.com. Also follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski.  
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Brewers should target Funkhouser in the draft

With only two weeks until Major League Baseball Draft day, general managers and scouting directors are making their final trips around the country to scout potential picks.
This year’s draft is extremely important for the Milwaukee Brewers with a potential rebuild on the horizon.  Drafting has not been a strong area for the Brewers in recent memory, so they need to play it safe in this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. 
Usually in the first round teams select the best player available, and while the Brewers should do that, selecting a solid college pitcher would be wise. 
There are numerous pitchers who will be on the board when the Brewers are on the clock, and if they were smart they would take a pitcher who has proven success and will be a starter at the big league level.  Louisville right-hander Kyle Funkhouser fits that bill. 
Funkhouser’s 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame is built for durability, and he possesses a four-pitch arsenal, that is headlined by his excellent 92-96 mph fastball. There is also some sink to his fastball, which causes him to get many of ground balls. 
He also throws a slider, changeup and curveball, with his best off-speed pitch being his slider. However, his command and consistency came into question last season after he struggled to throw his secondary pitches for strikes, while also walking 65 batters in 120.1 innings.
During a one-on-one sit-down session with Funkhouser earlier in the year he mentioned that he spent this past offseason devoting a lot of time to working on improving his command and consistency.
However, despite putting up solid numbers overall this season, he once again has struggled with his command, surrendering 42 walks in 98.1 innings of work. 
Funkhouser, an All-American his sophomore season, posted solid numbers this year, but scouts were underwhelmed as they were hoping to see more improvement.
His lack of consistency and command have caused him to go from being a consensus top 10 pick, or even a possible top five selection, to now likely falling into the middle of the first round. 
Obviously, teams should be slightly concerned with the lack of command Funkhouser has demonstrated, but he has excellent stuff, a great work ethic and an outstanding drive to win – three great qualities for a potential top of the rotation pitcher.
It will be interesting to see how Funkhouser finishes his season in the NCAA Tournament, and that could play a significant part in where he is selected in less than three weeks. 
However, if he is still sitting on the board when the Brewers pick they should select him in a heartbeat. He has the ability to be a solid big league starting pitcher in the future and should move quickly through the minor leagues. Sure there are question marks about his command and consistency, but those challenges can be conquered with more coaching and hard work. 
Funkhouser has the potential to be a top of the line starter if he demonstrates the ability to command his off-speed pitches. 

For more MLB Draft coverage check out The3rdManIn.com 
Follow Dan Zielinski on Twitter @DanZielinski3

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The Empty Net Hockey Podcast - Ep.5 Eddie Garcia

Two Games into both the Western and Eastern Conferene Finals in the NHL Playoffs, I am happy to be joined by Eddie Garcia, NHL Reporter for Fox Sports Radio, to discuss the opening storylines of the NHL Playoffs 'Final Four.' Also, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock has been made a few offers, where will he coach next? 

The Empty Net Hockey Podcast - Ep. 5 - Eddie Garcia

Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
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Email: mario.tirabassi@yahoo.com
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NHL Playoff Primer: Round 3 - The NHL Final Four is set

The NHL Playoffs are down to their own version of the "Final Four" as the Conference Final round begins this weekend. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers make returns to the Conference Finals as Chicago is in its fifth Conference Finals appearance in seven years, 21st in franchise history and New York makes its 15th appearance in history and its third in four years. Tampa Bay makes it's third appearance in franchise history, first since 2011 and the Anaheim Ducks make their first appearance in the Conference Final round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007, their fourth overall appearance.

Second Round Predictions - How Did I Do? (Bold = Correct / Strike through = Wrong)

Eastern Conference -
Washington over New York  4-3
Tampa Bay over Montreal

Western Conference -
Anaheim over Calgary 4-3 (4-1)
Chicago over Minnesota 4-2 (4-0)

Eastern Conference Final - Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Rangers

How many one-goal games would you say the average team would face on their way to the Stanley Cup? Let's say if a team plays four rounds of six games each, that's 24 games and maybe half are decided by one goal. For the New York Rangers, they have played 12 games to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, and EVERY GAME has been decided by one goal. That is absolutely amazing. Being 8-4 in those 12 one-goal games is incredible as well, because when it comes to the NHL Playoffs, one-goal games usually come down to a lucky bounce one way or the other and for the Rangers to be on the better side of those breaks and bounces eight times already in these playoffs is nothing short of incredible. Obviously, it's not all luck. The Rangers have plenty of talent that is led by arguably the best goaltender in the world in Henrik Lundqvist and a defensive core of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi. Those four players are key to the Rangers grind it out, wear you down style of hockey that, as we see again in these playoffs, usually leads to tight-checking one-goal games where New York thrives. A statement I heard recently said that the Rangers have no offensive stars, and that Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash are longer big-time players. Nash, I disagree with because the guy led the NHL in goals for a while this season and ended up with 42 tallies in 79 games. But to the point of having no offensive stars, it makes sense because the Rangers have a bunch of offensive threats. Who do you cover - Nash? St. Louis? Brassard? Not to mention the emergence of rookie Kevin Hayes. Good luck with stretching your defense along the Rangers four-line attack.

Now they face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been able to light up the lamp offensively and take down Cup favorite Montreal on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. The matchup will be, pardon the pun, the electric offense of the Lightning led by Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and a revived Steven Stamkos against the defensive wall that is the Rangers blue-line. Defensively, Tampa Bay has been streaky against teams with balanced offensive attacks. They are prone to giving up the big games (6-2 loss to Montreal in Game 4, 4-0 loss to Detroit in Game 5), so it will be a big key in the series that guys like Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman (facing his old club) step up the pressure and force the Rangers to out-score them. If the Lightning can continue to give goal support to Ben Bishop, who has been a 6'7" wall of his own in these playoffs (1.81 GAA / .931 SV%), the Lightning may be able to skate past the grinding Rangers. But, most of the time it's proved foolish to bet against "King" Henrik.

Eastern Conference Final Schedule -

Game 1 Saturday, May 16 New York
Game 2 Monday, May 18 New York
Game 3 Wednesday, May 20 Tampa Bay
Game 4 Friday, May 22 Tampa Bay
Game 5 (if necessary) Sunday, May 24 New York
Game 6 (if necessary) Tuesday, May 26 Tampa Bay
Game 7 (if necessary) Friday, May 29 New York

Western Conference Final - Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks

What's a Western Conference Final without the Blackhawks playing a team from California? In the last seven seasons, Chicago will have played in five Western Conference Finals and four will be against teams from the "Golden State." (2010 - San Jose, 2013 - Los Angeles, 2014 - Los Angeles, 2015 - Anaheim) It goes to show what the standard is in the NHL when you want to measure success, the Stanley Cup will go through Chicago and will have to go through somewhere in California. These teams are on another level when it comes to NHL Playoffs time with proven winners on both sides of this series. The Ducks have played just nine games to get to this point, the least amount of the four teams remaining. They swept the Winnipeg Jets in Round one and made quick work of the young Calgary Flames in just five games in their Semi-Final matchup. Impressive? Yes, very. But look at what they had to face in those matchups against the Jets and Flames a little closer and you might think, "We'll duh, of course the Ducks are in the Conference Finals." Against Winnipeg, the Ducks faced a team who were back in the post-season for the first time 19 years and had a devastating grind to get into the playoff picture. The Jets seemed to get ahead of themselves in the series and made mistakes that a team in it's first post season with their core of players would be making, and not to mention it would be difficult not to get caught up in the hype that surrounded the city of Winnipeg. With Calgary, again the Ducks faced an inexperienced playoff team. This time around, the Ducks had to deal with a fast team rather than a physical team, but the Ducks are fast, too. They were able to match the Flames speed and out-muscle them to a 4-1 series win. Plus, facing Ondrej Pavalec and Jonas Hiller/Karri Ramo is nice.

For Chicago, what more can you say? Everything the Ducks do, Chicago can do. In some facets, they do better. Corey Perry can be countered with Patrick Kane. Ryan Getzlaf countered by Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks are battle tested and have played A LOT of playoff hockey in the past seven seasons with their core group of guys. This matchup comes down to depth, and experience. Chicago's blue-line will be tested hard as guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson have played big minutes and that doesn't look to change as Michal Rosival is out for the remainder of the playoffs with an ankle fracture and will be replaced with David Rundblad. Between the pipes, Corey Crawford looked every bit the player who was robbed of a Conn Smythe in 2013, if that continues, so will the Blackhawks. Frederick Andersen has been solid for the Ducks so far. He now faces his toughest test of his young NHL Playoff career with the waves of attack from the Chicago offense.

Western Conference Final Schedule -
Game 1 Sunday, May 17 Anaheim
Game 2 Tuesday, May 19 Anaheim
Game 3 Thursday, May 21 Chicago
Game 4 Saturday, May 23 Chicago
Game 5 (if necessary) Monday, May 25 Anaheim
Game 6 (if necessary) Wednesday, May 27 Chicago
Game 7 (if necessary) Saturday, May 30 Anaheim

Predictions -

Eastern Conference:
Tampa Bay over New York 4-2
Western Conference: Chicago over Anaheim 4-2

 Contact for Mario Tirabassi, WSSP Producer/Hockey Writer:
Twitter: @Mario_Tirabassi
Email: mario.tirabassi@yahoo.com
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