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Arkansas AD: John L. Smith won't return as coach

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Arkansas AD: John L. Smith won't return as coach

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long wasted little time in bringing the John L. Smith era to a close.

Long said in a statement released by the university Saturday that Smith will not return next season as the Razorbacks' coach. Long met with the interim coach a day after the Razorbacks' season-ending 20-13 loss to LSU and told him the school ``would be making a change in leadership within our program.''

The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was hired away from Weber State in April to replace the fired Bobby Petrino and signed to a 10-month contract. Long says that once a new coach is hired Smith will be reassigned as a consultant through the end of his deal on Feb. 23, 2013.

``I have great respect for coach Smith, and I thank him for the sincere commitment he has shown our program,'' Long said. ``He made a difficult decision in uncertain times to return from his alma mater to guide the young men in our football program, and I will always be grateful for his efforts.''

Arkansas (4-8, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) began the season ranked in the top 10, openly discussing the possibility of winning an SEC and national championship, but quickly fell out of the polls after a stunning loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 8. The Razorbacks were 21-5 the last two seasons under Petrino, but their injury-depleted roster was unable to recapture that magic under Smith.

Last week's loss at Mississippi State ensured Arkansas would not return to a bowl game this season for the first time since 2008, Petrino's first season as coach. The Razorbacks stayed close with the No. 8 Tigers in their season finale on Friday before losing - finishing with the school's lowest win total since 2005.

``It's very difficult for me to believe that is not a bowl-eligible football team,'' LSU coach Les Miles said following the win over Arkansas. ``Watching the talent there, (it's) very capable.''

Long said last month that Smith was still a candidate to remain with the Razorbacks, even after an early four-game losing streak crushed the Razorbacks' preseason championship hopes. Long added that it would be apparent at the end of the season whether Smith was his choice, a question he answered Saturday.

In likely anticipation of his ouster, Smith spent much of his time following the LSU loss handing out hugs to players and reporters.

``I have enjoyed guiding this group, and I am extremely proud of how everyone in our program stuck together and showed tremendous character by competing throughout the season,'' Smith said in a statement. ``Everyone on our staff has my appreciation as they all believed in our goals and stayed committed to the development of these young men.''

Smith said prior to the Mississippi State loss that he was optimistic of returning to Arkansas, where he was hired in April - just weeks after the scandal that erupted following Petrino's motorcycle accident that involved his mistress.

The 64-year-old Smith had left the Razorbacks, where he was an assistant coach under Petrino for three seasons, just months earlier to become the head coach at his alma mater, Weber State. His welcoming and upbeat personality was a stark contrast to the monotone Petrino and was praised by Arkansas players.

They said Smith was the perfect person to replace Petrino, who was fired after it was revealed he had hired his mistress for a position in the athletic department and initially lied about her presence during their motorcycle accident.

However, Smith's tenure got off to a rocky start following his revelation to The Associated Press in July that he would likely have to file for bankruptcy following land deals gone wrong in Kentucky. He filed in September - eventually revealing $40.7 million in debt - and came under fire from Arkansas fans for that and the mounting losses.

The Razorbacks, who led the SEC in total and scoring offense last season under Petrino, were 12th out of 14 SEC teams entering this week under Smith - averaging 24.5 points. The dropoff came despite the return of senior Tyler Wilson, who was the first-team All-SEC quarterback last season.

Wilson watched Smith's eyes fill with tears earlier this week when discussing the likely end to his tenure at Arkansas, and the quarterback admitted the last six months ``have been tough'' following Petrino's firing. Wilson praised Smith for helping to keep the team together.

``He's always got a smile,'' Wilson said. ``Whether he's feeling it deep down in there or not, it's the way he expresses himself. And, you know, it touches everybody.''

Long's next step becomes finding a new head coach to build on the recent success at the school. Long said all assistant coaches have the option to remain a part of the football staff pending the hiring of a new coach.

Whoever takes over will inherit a program that earned its first BCS berth two years ago in the Sugar Bowl. Arkansas also won the Cotton Bowl last season and finished ranked No. 5.

``Our new coach will be an individual who shares the passion for success our fans do, and who is willing to work relentlessly to achieve our goals,'' Long said.

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest  wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.

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