Represent: Flyers All-Stars Set to Rock in Ottawa at 4

Represent: Flyers All-Stars Set to Rock in Ottawa at 4

I don't know if it's my age or something going on in the sports themselves, but it feels like all-star games have taken a sharp downturn in terms of importance to fans in recent years. The NFL's Pro Bowl has long been somewhat laughable. The NBA All-Star Game is more spectacle than sport. Major League Baseball's Midsummer Classic attempted to inject relevance and competition by tying its outcome to a significant postseason element, and in so doing, pissed off the purists in its ranks.

Like the sport itself, the NHL's All-Star Game is something seemingly strictly for its own diehard fans, with little attention from outside media outlets or casual fans. Adding the element of a pair of captains choosing the sides gave it some new life last season though, and new media have also shown us more of how much the players enjoy the weekend. The league and the team have done a great job of posting videos and first-hand accounts to their own sites, which is fitting because the All-Star Game is a celebration of the simple fact that there is a league at all. No score is settled, no permanent rivalry revisited. Just players playing the game.

This season's game is a pretty special one for Flyers fans though, with three veterans and a pair of rookies representing Philadelphia up in Ottawa. So far, it's been a perfect representation, too.

Claude Giroux's presence is that of one of the league's truly elite forwards. The Flyers have had scoring depth in season after season, but it's been a long time since they had this kind of star power at the top. Scott Hartnell's All-Star story may trump G's though.

Philly loves an underdog, and to say Hartnell was a long shot for playing in this weekend when the season started is a bit of an understatement. But I think just about everyone would agree that since that time, he's flat out earned the opportunity to be recognized among the league's best players in the first half. And it certainly seems like he's enjoying it.

Harts has, unsurprisingly, had a life-of-the-party presence in Ottawa, tweeting his self-deprecation and appreciation throughout the weekend. And, in the skills competition, he showed that he's here because he is in fact skilled, not just a skilled pest. He and Giroux made sure to salute the linemate that helped them both get to Ottawa (see that, plus Hartnell's skill on the one-timers and a sweet breakway move by Sean Couturier in the video below).

Earlier this season, ESPN's Pierre LeBrun called Kimmo Timonen underappreciated. I'm not sure I'd agree with that being the case in Philly. It's nearly impossible to find a fan who has anything but appreciation for the Finnish veteran. We all know how much trouble the team would be in without him, and we're proud to see him still among the league's elite. Most of the All-Stars are pretty young, and Kimmo can still skate with them in any game.

After old man Timonen, the veteran Hartnell, and rising star Giroux, there are two very talented rookies showing the league that the future is bright in Philly. Couturier has played his ass off as a rookie, filling every role asked of him from checking line and PK duties to high lining and power plays. Matt Read finally found an NHL home, and a bunch of other franchises are kicking themselves for passing him up both in the draft and a handful of training camps.

SOME WTF IN THE LINES
At 4PM today, Giroux and Hartnell will be on one side, with Timonen on another, a fun if somewhat awkward twist. G's line will be centering Logan Couture and Steven Stamkos. Hartnell will skate with the Sedin twins. Goalies will rotate every period. Defense will lay off to the degree that "checks" should be listed in drinking games.

A LITTLE MAGIC LEFT IN THE TANK
Growing up, I loved All-Star weekend. I was a big NHL fan, loving the Flyers first and foremost, but having plenty of favorites in other cities as well. The Winter Classic and 24/7 have been a good reminder of the fact that their guys are human too, and Hartnell acknowledged the same effect hitting him as he had a blast with some rival Rangers up in Ottawa.

The score won't matter today, but we'll still be rooting for the Flyers to show 'em well. And for a #hartnelldown or two...

Gonzo: Examining possible Jahlil Okafor trade destinations

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Gonzo: Examining possible Jahlil Okafor trade destinations

The lottery is over. The NBA Draft is still roughly a month away. The playoffs are funneling toward the finals. Free agency hasn’t begun. That means it’s trade speculation season for hoop heads.

Not surprisingly, the 76ers have been mentioned as potential trade partners for sundry teams. That’s what happens when you have the first overall pick in the upcoming draft, a bunch of picks in subsequent seasons, and a clogged frontcourt with too many ill-fitting but tradable pieces. The Sixers are said to “covet” an additional high pick in this year’s draft. Add that to the belief that the Sixers are high on Nerlens Noel for assorted reasons, and it’s easy to understand why Jahlil Okafor’s name keeps popping up these days.

Okafor was second among all rookies in scoring and he led the Sixers in that category. He was also a liability on defense and, too often, a ball-movement killer on offense. Still, he’s worth something on the trade market. He’s the rare expendable frontcourt redundancy that could return real value. In theory. The potential problem is identifying a team that wants Okafor and has something the Sixers desire in exchange.

Let’s go through the NBA. We can eliminate some teams right away for various reasons: because they’re at the top of the NBA food chain and wouldn’t want a young guy when they’re trying to win now; because they already have a big man or big men; because they don’t play a style suited to Okafor’s game; because they don’t have much to give the Sixers in return. You could apply one or several of those to the following organizations: Cleveland, Toronto, Miami, Charlotte, Washington, Indiana, Detroit, New York, Brooklyn, Golden State, OKC, San Antonio, Clippers, Memphis, Houston, Utah, Sacramento, New Orleans and Minnesota.

Anything is possible. This isn’t scientific. Crazy/unexpected/lopsided trades happen. (Shouts to Vlade and Vivek.) Perhaps a trade materializes with one of those teams, it’s just that those destinations don’t seem likely. Moving on.

In the maybe category, we have teams that are rebuilding, teams that need a shakeup, teams that are still on the rise, teams that love to tinker and teams that are wholly unpredictable. They include Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, Milwaukee, Portland, and Dallas. We’ll take them in order.

The Hawks are in danger of losing Al Horford in free agency this summer, and Paul Millsap is a free agent next year. Maybe there’s a deal variation that lands the Sixers Jeff Teague (UFA in 2017) or Dennis Schroder (RFA in 2017). Chicago is a mess. The Bulls really need a makeover, but beyond Jimmy Butler, who would be tough (if not impossible to pry away), not sure what they have that might make the Sixers weak in the knees. Orlando has potential in its backcourt, which the Sixers need. Victor Oladipo or Mario Hezonja would look excellent in a Sixers uniform, but would Okafor fit with Nikola Vucevic? Probably not. Not sure Okafor fits in Milwaukee, either. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the guy there, and they have Jabari Parker. Plus adding Okafor means somehow getting rid of Greg Monroe (he’s not a free agent until next offseason). Portland made the playoffs this year in surprising fashion. They’re on the rise again. They could use an upgrade in the paint for sure, but it doesn’t appear they have the picks/players to offer in return. (No, they’re not giving up CJ McCollum.) Dallas is a wild card. Mark Cuban is unknowable.

That leaves four teams that might be the best bets: Boston, Lakers, Phoenix and Denver. According to excellent long-time NBA reporter David Aldridge, who wrote the piece about the Sixers' coveting thy neighbor’s high first-rounder, “trading Okafor would be the easiest and best way for Philly to get another high first-round pick.” He’s right about that. The Lakers pick second. Boston picks third (along with 16 and 23). Phoenix is fourth (along with 13 and 28). Denver is seventh (along with 15 and 19).

As Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak admitted in the aforementioned Aldridge piece, the Lakers “need a player in the frontcourt.” Meanwhile, they have Jordan Clarkson (RFA) in the backcourt, along with D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams. Would they be willing to flip Russell for Okafor? Or the second pick for Okafor? Those deals make sense for the Sixers. They make somewhat less sense for the Lakers considering the L.A. could just stay put at two and plug in whichever player the Sixers don’t take. Much simpler for them. Smarter, too.

Denver and Phoenix both have multiple first-round picks in this draft and rosters that need alteration. But both also have big men in place that might make those maneuvers complicated. Like Okafor, Nikola Jokic was named All-Rookie first team for the Nuggets. Alex Len hasn’t been nearly as good for Phoenix, but he was a first-round pick a few years ago. Okafor wouldn’t fit very well with either of them, which probably means getting creative to work with those teams.

That brings us to the most popular theory: Okafor to Boston. There were rumors that the Celtics wanted him at the trade deadline. Even without additional parts, the third pick might be enough for the Sixers to do a deal. Boston also has a cache of other current and future picks to work with, along with some players they could throw in as sweeteners. I get why dealing with Boston makes sense for the Sixers, but does Okafor make the Celtics legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference? He’s not a rim protector or a monster rebounder, he needs the ball on offense to make an impact, and his defense would probably make Brad Steven’s head explode. I’m not so sure it’s as obvious from Boston’s end as it is from Philly’s view. And yet the Celtics have to do something. Maybe they talk themselves into Okafor.

Admittedly, that’s a super-simplified, cursory look at the situation. The Sixers only need to find one taker. With the draft and free agency approaching and the salary cap set to jump significantly, it’s about to be NBA silly season. There’s always lots of movement. The guess here is that the Sixers unload Okafor during the pending madness. It makes too much sense from their perspective, though maybe there aren’t as many clear-cut potential trade partners as it seemed.

Last night's Union game against Orlando was pretty crazy

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Last night's Union game against Orlando was pretty crazy

When the Union played in Orlando last year, the game was a relatively dull scoreless draw.

And for most of Wednesday’s game between the two teams in the same venue, it looked like history was going to repeat itself.

That’s when the Kaká hit the fan.

Here’s a quick recap of all the craziness that happened in the second half of the if-you-turned-away-you-probably-missed-something2-2 draw:

  • Tranquillo Barnetta, inspired by a story I wrote about him a day earlier, scored his second goal this season -- both of which have come against Orlando

  • Warren Creavalle was taken down from behind in the box but no penalty kick was given and no red card was shown, leading head coach Jim Curtin to call the sequence “embarrassing”

  • Orlando City responded with two rapid-fire semi-controversial goals, scoring the first after Philly goalie Andre Blake was wiped out and the second on a shot Blake appeared to make the save on but the ref ruled was in (where’s goal-line technology when you need it??)

  • Ken Tribbett, the pride of Drexel, scored his first MLS goal after early collecting his first MLS assist -- after only being called into the game because of an injury to Josh Yaro

  • Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute but Barnetta couldn’t convert a close-range free kick to win it

  • Fabinho killed a guy with a trident

To think all but one of those things happened in one half is pretty wild -- and that doesn’t even factor in several other cards, calls, no-calls and a pretty cool set piece the Union ran.


Oh, and almost lost in all the commotion, was the fact that Andre Blake gave us another memorable moment in a season full of them when he saved a first-half penalty kick from freaking Kaká.


In the end, Curtin couldn’t get over some of the refereeing decisions, particularly the no-call on Creavalle -- which, as you can see, was in fact quite bad.


Still, the fact that the Union escaped a tough place like Orlando despite the ref and while playing without three of their top playmakers (Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueria and Ilsinho) is quite a nice achievement that you would never have seen with past Philly teams.

It also moved their unbeaten streak to six heading into Saturday’s showdown between the first-place team in the East (your Philadelphia Union) and the first-place team in the West (the Colorado Rapids) -- who you might recall were two of the worst teams in MLS last season.

See ya in the rockies.

Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

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Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

Kenjon Barner is hungry, literally and figuratively.

After spending 2014 on the Eagles' practice squad and getting just 37 offensive touches in a crowded backfield last season, the running back is looking to carve out a bigger role with the Birds in 2016. DeMarco Murray is gone, and with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles away from the team earlier this week at practice, it was Barner getting the first-team reps. 

Mathews missed Tuesday's practice with an illness, and Sproles hasn't reported to the Eagles' voluntary workouts, which become mandatory from June 7-9.

So Barner, the 27-year-old RB Chip Kelly coached in college and traded for prior to the 2014 season, has had some opportunities to impress new head coach Doug Pederson. And Barner wants to make clear that despite his Oregon ties — he's one of three remaining players from Oregon that Kelly brought to the Eagles, along with Josh Huff and Taylor Hart — he's not only here because of the coach he outlasted.

"It's a great opportunity," Barner said, "just a fresh start. Go out there and continue to show what you can do, continue to make plays and constantly have your name in the coaches' minds.

"For anybody who says, 'Oh, that's Chip Kelly's guy,' no, I'm a football player. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a football player. I wouldn't have gotten drafted if I wasn't a football player.

"It's not a chip on my shoulder. Yes I went to Oregon, yes I played under Chip, I love Chip to death, but I'm a football player. I create my own lane. I'm not gonna let anybody place me in a box and tell me what I am."

At 5-9/195, Barner doesn't fit perfectly into the box of a classic bell cow back. He's more of a Sproles-lite, a shifty back who can catch passes out of the backfield. He showed that last preseason, when he rushed 13 times for 91 yards and a touchdown and also caught four passes for 72 yards, including a 50-yarder.

That kind of backfield versatility is necessary in the offense Pederson brings over from the Chiefs, the offense Andy Reid ran for many years here. In Kansas City, Pederson and Reid utilized their running backs often in the passing game, just as they did with the Eagles. Even when Jamaal Charles went down for the year after five games last season, that trend continued with Charcandrick West catching 20 passes and DeAnthony Thomas getting some grabs out of the backfield.

"I fit whatever role they want me to fit," Barner said. "Whether it's catching balls out of the backfield or whatever it is. Jamaal Charles is a great back and if I can do half of what he's done throughout his career I'd be lucky."

Barner has patiently waited three years for this kind of opportunity. Mathews and Sproles are expected to be the Eagles' top-two ball-carriers, but both are getting older and neither is an every-down back, Mathews because of all the injuries and Sproles because he's more of a situational matchup nightmare. So even with the addition of fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, there should be some opportunities for Barner, who has done all he can to further his own development.

"Just older, more mature, more professional than I've been in the past," Barner said. "Understanding the offense, really going home and studying, really knowing what my responsibility is.

"For me, man, it's just about being mature, growing. I feel like if you're not growing, what are you doing? You constantly have to grow, have to evolve, not only physically but mentally. That's kind of where I'm at.

"I did take it seriously last year, but having the opportunity to go through what I've been through, go home and be with my family, have guys like (Chris) Maragos, I talk to him on a daily basis about football, about life. Sproles constantly being in my ear still — he may not be here but he's still in my ear. It's a lot of things coming together."

One change Barner made this offseason was to his diet. It came from a conversation with the NFL's best all-around running back, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.

"I had a talk with Le'Veon Bell back in January," Barner said. "I spoke with him and we were just talking about eating. I'm the type of guy that if I see somebody and I see a change in them and I see it's positive, I have no problem telling you, 'I like what you're doing, tell me how you did it.' I reached out to him because I've been seeing pictures of him and I've seen his body change. We came in the draft together and he's always been a big guy, but he hasn't been that cut, that ripped. So I reached out to him like, 'Yo, what did you do, what's your diet, what have you been taking, what are you doing and what are you not doing?' Just really trying to pick his brain. 

"I'm trying to be great. And if I see you doing something that's pushing you to the next level I'm gonna ask you how you did it. 

"I'm not gonna say I've been perfect. I'm just really big on sweets, I have a sweet tooth like no other and I can thank my dad for that — growing up he always had candy and snacks by his bed so I would always sneak in his room and eat them. That's the hardest thing, that's like my kryptonite."

Sweets weren't a part of the Chip Kelly regimen, that's for sure. But with the coach who brought Barner to the Eagles now in San Francisco, it's more on the players to keep themselves on track, both in the kitchen and with their sleep schedule.

"It's different, a lot slower, obviously," Barner said of practices under Pederson. "Is that good? I mean, you don't get as tired. But you're not in as good of shape as you were in Chip's offense. Chip's offense, you have to be in tip-top shape. So we're still getting there, still certain times when we're tired, times when you shouldn't be tired. So you have to do a lot of the conditioning on your own outside of here.

"Today, [Pederson] asked us who's getting eight hours of sleep. Everybody cares about it because you want your players to be at their best and you can't be at your best if you're not getting enough sleep, (but they're) two completely different people."