If we had told you last year that in the first two months of the 2023 season, the Rangers and Orioles would be in the top five of our Power Rankings while the Yankees and Astros sat on the outside looking in, would you have believed us? Welcome to Week 8!
Now, New York and Houston have hit their stride of late and are by no means not top-five teams, but it’s still quite a sight to behold. The question becomes: How long can Baltimore and Texas keep it up? Will they be able to hold their respective divisional positions over New York and Houston?
Our expert panel has combined to rank every team in baseball based on a combination of what we’ve seen so far and what we already knew going into the 162-game marathon that is a full baseball season. We also asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Jesse Rogers, Alden Gonzalez and Joon Lee to weigh in with an observation for all 30 teams.
Previous ranking: 1
With their series win against the Brewers, the Rays improved to a ridiculous 21-4 record at home. The group has come back down to earth a bit, but the team still ranks second in all of baseball in run differential at +111, trailing just the Rangers after dropping a 20-1 game to Toronto on Tuesday. Watch out for Yandy Diaz, who’s having the best start to a season of his career with 2.1 Baseball Reference WAR through 42 games, which would be the second-highest bWAR total in his career for a single season. He has hit .322/.425/.599 with 11 dingers so far. — Joon Lee
Previous ranking: 2
Bobby Miller was called up for his major league debut out of necessity Tuesday, a product of Dustin May (forearm) and Julio Urias (hamstring) residing on the injured list. And he impressed against one of the best teams in the sport, effectively using his secondary pitches to hold the Braves to one run in five innings and outduel Spencer Strider in the process. Miller is one of three Dodgers pitching prospects, along with Ryan Pepiot and Gavin Stone, who entered this season looking to prove they deserve an extended look in the major leagues. Pepiot is nursing an oblique strain, but Miller and Stone will continue to get starts while Urias and May recover. Their development will be vital. — Alden Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 3
Is it time to start worrying about Michael Harris II? After his stellar rookie season in 2022, he has struggled in 2023. After a sixth consecutive hitless game, the Braves benched Harris on Tuesday with his average sitting at .163 with just one home run in 86 at-bats (he missed 19 games in April with a back strain and two more after jamming his knee upon his return, but he says he’s feeling fine now).
The good news: It hasn’t been a contact issue. His strikeout rate is actually lower than last season while his walk rate has ticked up slightly. On the other hand, although he’s not striking out more, his contact rate on pitches in the zone has dropped. He hit .375 and slugged .708 against four-seam fastballs last season but is hitting just .105 against them in 23 PAs. The Braves hope a session with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer and team consultant Chipper Jones will get Harris back on track. — David Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 4
While the champion Astros are rolling, the Rangers are still hanging on at the top of the American League West. A weekend sweep of the Rockies helped, as Texas and Houston took top offensive honors for the last week (ending on Tuesday). Five players compiled an OPS over 1.000 during that time frame, led by Josh Jung, who produced a 1.447 mark. Corey Seager has also driven in 10 runs in seven games since he returned. Meanwhile, the starting staff has made up for the loss of Jacob deGrom, as Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, Dane Dunning and Jon Gray all spun good outings. It might be late enough in the season to say the Rangers are for real. — Jesse Rogers
Previous ranking: 6
Baltimore continues to further legitimize itself week by week. The rotation remains a point of concern, but the Orioles continue to put up strong performances against some of the best teams in baseball, leading to a +43 run differential. Although Adley Rutschman gets a lot of the national recognition for the O’s, Cedric Mullins is having a bounce-back season, hitting .275/.359/.505 with 8 homers, 13 stolen bases and 1.8 bWAR. Another 30/30 seems plausible for the dynamic outfielder. — Lee
Previous ranking: 8
The Astros welcomed franchise face Jose Altuve back to the lineup over the past week, and he hit the ground running, reaching base in his first four games with a robust .438 OBP over those contests. Then he got sick in Milwaukee. He left the game early with an undisclosed illness Tuesday and was out of the lineup Wednesday. Still, with Altuve back in action and Houston streaking of late, the champs have been looking a lot more champ-like.
With the Astros reaffirming their perpetual contender status and the Rangers leading the AL West in the standings and all of baseball in run differential, the division race is taking on a distinctly Texas-centric character. It should be a banner summer in the Lone Star State. — Bradford Doolittle
Previous ranking: 7
New York keeps rolling when its best players are at the top of their game. Slugger Aaron Judge is raking when healthy, hitting .353/.493/.882 with eight homers since returning from the IL. The rotation has kept cruising behind Gerrit Cole, who ranks among the best pitchers in baseball so far this season, posting a 2.5 bWAR. Reinforcements appear to be on the way, too, as Carlos Rodon rejoined the team in New York and began a throwing program, a precursor to a rehab assignment. — Lee
Previous ranking: 5
Toronto has looked like two different teams this season. At points, the Blue Jays have looked like a legitimate World Series contender, such as when they swept the Braves, while at other times, they’ve looked like a team that could finish in last place in their division, like when they went 1-6 against division rivals New York and Baltimore this past week. Something that could affect Toronto’s season in the second half: Hyun-Jin Ryu is hopeful to return to the mound after the All-Star break following last year’s Tommy John surgery. Ryu is in the final season of a four-year, $80 million contract and last pitched on June 1, 2022. — Lee
Previous ranking: 11
The Diamondbacks seemed to fall back down to Earth at the start of May but are red-hot once again, winning nine of their past 12 games to somehow put themselves within striking distance of the Dodgers in the National League West. Wednesday’s late loss aside, the best sign from that stretch might be coming from their bullpen. D-backs relievers had the sixth-highest ERA in the majors last year, but they sport a 3.83 ERA over the team’s past dozen games. Andrew Chafin, Miguel Castro and Scott McGough, who make up the back end of the bullpen, have combined to give up only one run in 19⅓ innings during that stretch. Small sample size, sure, but the D-backs will gladly take it. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 12
Boston strung together series wins against the Mariners and Padres last week while ace Chris Sale strung together four straight quality starts after a rough start to the season. The Red Sox, however, have had to make changes to their rotation, especially after the return of James Paxton from the IL. After moving righty Nick Pivetta to the bullpen last week, Boston did the same with two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber on Wednesday. In nine starts this season, Kluber had a 6.26 ERA. — Lee
Previous ranking: 9
The Twins continue to slide toward .500, more or less keeping a division stocked full of sub-.500 teams in the chase as Memorial Day approaches. While their division brethren have earned their poor records with demonstrably poor play, the Twins have been an enigma. Through Tuesday, the Twins were on pace to win 83 games despite a run differential that would translate to a 95-win level of play if we project it out over 162 games. That 12-win gap is the largest in the AL, and it has prevented Minnesota from gaining a cushion in the division chase. So what gives? Part of it, though not all, is a poor record in one-run games, as the Twins fell to 4-10 in those contests with their loss to the Giants on Tuesday. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 17
It’s not exactly accurate to say the Mets saved their season with a five-game winning streak — the final two against the Rays and then a weekend sweep of Cleveland — but it at least temporarily stopped a bad skid that saw the team fall under .500. The most dramatic moment from that span was Pete Alonso‘s three-run, 10th-inning walk-off home run to beat a tough reliever in Pete Fairbanks. Then, the Mets beat another tough closer in Emmanuel Clase with another three-run bottom of the 10th, as Francisco Alvarez, Brandon Nimmo and Francisco Lindor all delivered two-out base hits to win it.
Although the Mets are unbeaten in games they lead heading into the ninth, the pitching has otherwise remained problematic, with the Mets ranking in the bottom third of the majors in ERA. If that doesn’t improve, it’s going to be a .500 season. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 10
Milwaukee is in the midst of a brutal stretch of its schedule, winning just enough games to stay on pace with Pittsburgh at the top of the division. Series losses to St. Louis and Tampa Bay were mostly close games — besides an 18-1 drubbing by the Cardinals early last week. The Brewers’ offense continues to be its Achilles’ heel — and is especially awful against left-handed pitching. Rowdy Tellez is about the only reliable threat, as he belted two home runs while compiling an OPS over 1.200 over the past week. He needs some help. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 15
For a while, the Angels struggled to get much value from young players with affordable contracts. This year, though, has shown that the organization continues to take positive steps in that department.
Logan O’Hoppe, acquired from the Phillies for Brandon Marsh last August, was looking like a cornerstone catcher before suffering a torn labrum. Zach Neto, a first-round draft pick just last year, is playing shortstop on an every-day basis. And Mickey Moniak, the left-handed-hitting outfielder who came over in another August trade with the Phillies (this one for Noah Syndergaard), has been red-hot since rejoining the majors. Moniak, 25, is slashing .419/.438/.935 through his first 10 games, providing a major lift for an offense that is still waiting on some veteran players to produce. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 13
The Mariners appeared to avoid a big injury when Ty France left Tuesday’s game after getting hit on the wrist with a pitch (after earlier hitting the go-ahead home run). They’re hoping he’ll miss just a game or two, as they don’t have another good first-base option on the roster. Utility man Sam Haggerty isn’t hitting well, so if France needs an IL stint, they might need to make a move (Mike Ford is raking at Triple-A Tacoma, but he’s not on the 40-man roster — plus he’s mostly just a DH).
Meanwhile, second baseman Jose Caballero continues to play well and earn more playing time over struggling Kolten Wong. He has hit a couple of home runs, has drawn some walks and is 6-for-6 stealing bases. Wong has been a complete nonfactor — par for the course for the Mariners, who last year brought in Adam Frazier to play second base only to see him hit poorly. Seattle understandably doesn’t want to give up on Wong, but he’s looking more and more like deadweight. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 14
The Padres began this week’s three-city road trip with nine losses in their previous 11 games and somehow possessed the seventh-lowest OPS in the major leagues. They are underperforming throughout their lineup, but nowhere more so than at catcher, where Aaron Nola, Luis Campusano and Brett Sullivan have combined to slash just .169/.248/.270 entering the road trip. The Padres’ OPS from behind the plate ranks higher than only that of the Marlins and Guardians. This is a position the team will desperately need to address before the trade deadline, but it’s hard to figure out where to turn. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 20
It’s not too early to declare that the Cardinals are back — and are once again major players in the division. St. Louis hasn’t lost a series since the beginning of the month, as the team bounced back from a 5-0 loss to the Dodgers last Friday to outscore them 16-10 over the next two games. Paul DeJong has gone off, hitting four home runs last week, while Nolan Gorman took home player of the week honors. Miles Mikolas has looked better on the mound, providing hope that there will be some stability near the top of the Cards’ rotation. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 16
Bryce Harper‘s return was supposed to spark the lineup, and although he has hit well since he returned (albeit with just two home runs), the Phillies continue to scuffle on offense. In Harper’s first 19 games since he came back May 2, the Phillies went 8-11. Brandon Marsh and Bryson Stott have cooled off after their hot starts (at least Marsh has maintained a high walk rate), and Trea Turner, in his own words, has “sucked.” He’s hitting .250/.295/.392 with five home runs — including a homer in the ninth inning to tie the score in Philly’s walk-off win Wednesday night — for an 89 OPS+, well below a league-average hitter. With six steals, he’s hardly on pace to steal 50, let alone the 70 some predicted. It’s a mess. And this week’s series against the Braves is the first of the season (Philly hasn’t played the Mets yet, either). — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 19
Pittsburgh wasn’t remarkable over the past week — it was midpack in offense and defense — but it has stayed afloat in the division simply playing solid baseball. The Pirates have kept losing streaks, besides a longer one earlier this month, to a minimum as they work through a tough schedule. Baltimore, Arizona and Texas weren’t considered hugely dominant teams back in January, but they’re as good as anyone these days. Pittsburgh went 3-5 over the span of eight games against them — an OK record considering the NL Central has been brutal this year. Shortstop Rodolfo Castro had a good week, producing the Pirates’ lone OPS over 1.000 for a seven-day span ending Tuesday. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 23
The Giants reached .500 for the first time since the first week of the season Tuesday, riding a dominant start from Alex Cobb and a big home run from Michael Conforto to defeat the first-place Twins in Minneapolis. The victory marked the Giants’ seventh in a span of eight games and improved their record to 13-8 in May, a month that has seen them struggle offensively but pitch well enough to consistently win games. Cobb and Logan Webb, their top two starters, have combined for a 1.38 ERA in 32⅔ innings in May. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 18
After winning four of their first five to start the season, the Guardians haven’t been able to string together more than two straight wins at any point since then. Thus it’s been a campaign of two steps forward and, let’s say, 2½ steps back, with Cleveland slipping gradually below the break-even line. After a rough recent road trip, manager Terry Francona reportedly called a team meeting to reassure his clubhouse. That may or may not help, but Francona, by now, certainly has a feel for when these things are needed.
What the Guardians really need, though, are home runs from their home run hitters — they’re barely on pace to clear the 100-homer barrier this year. By contrast, and this is an extreme example because Tampa Bay is on a historic pace, the Rays are on pace to pass 300 dingers. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 21
Chicago ranks so poorly in clutch ratings — worst on offense and third worst in pitching — that positive regression is bound to happen. But will it do so before the season slips away? A weak NL Central has provided the Cubs some room, while the team rides the hot bat of Christopher Morel. He hit eight home runs in his first 11 games, providing some energy while the team lost seven of nine on the road. Right fielder Seiya Suzuki is also quietly heating up. He hit over .400 with an OPS hovering around 1.500 OPS — second only to Morel — during a seven-day span ending Tuesday. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 22
Look, we know why the Marlins are hanging around .500: They’re still 15-3 in one-run games. Maybe they’ll keep that up, maybe they won’t, but the bigger issue is this team has to start winning more of the other games. Miami is in the bottom third of the majors in ERA and dead last in runs per game on offense, so while there’s still hope the pitching will come around, it’s difficult to envision this suddenly turning into a playoff-caliber lineup.
Although the Marlins are middle of the pack in batting average (thank you, Luis Arraez), they’re next to last in walk rate, so they simply don’t get on base enough and don’t hit enough home runs. And it’s not even a young lineup: Only the Mets and Dodgers have an older group of position players. Old and unproductive is a bad combination. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 25
The Tigers’ flirtation with not-terribleness has been bolstered by a solid bullpen performance. It’s not a new story: For all their struggles the past couple of years, they have gotten quality work from a number of firemen. Leading the charge from the relief staff is closer Alex Lange. If you don’t play fantasy baseball or follow the Tigers, you might not have noticed this, but Lange has emerged as one of baseball’s best relievers. Lange was a solid setup reliever last season, but he has earned nine of his 10 career saves in the opening weeks of the 2023 campaign. And he has done it with dominance, posting a 1.27 ERA over his first 21 appearances, with a sub-1.00 WHIP and a strikeout rate of 11.8 per nine innings. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 28
Strange as it might be to say this about a team that’s been on pace for 55-65 wins for most of the season, the White Sox could crawl back into contention for the division title. The White Sox are playing better and have won eight of their past 11 games, results that qualify them as the AL Central’s “hottest” team. The Twins have a strong run differential, yet they haven’t been able to separate themselves from the division, which is a boost to the underachieving ChiSox.
Perhaps most importantly, the White Sox are on the verge of being as close to whole in terms of health as they have been all season. This should be most apparent in the bullpen, where Liam Hendriks is close to returning, Garrett Crochet just made his return from Tommy John surgery, and Joe Kelly has reemerged as a high-leverage option. With a soft upcoming schedule, the time for Chicago to make something of a depressing campaign is now. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 24
Not surprisingly, the Reds are playing their way into the NL Central cellar. A sweep at the hands of the Yankees over the weekend didn’t help matters, as Cincinnati had awful outings from Hunter Greene and Graham Ashcraft. Ashcraft gave up a whopping 20 hits over the course of two starts while pitching only 10 innings total. Luke Weaver wasn’t much better. As a team, the Reds ranked close to dead last in the majors in ERA over the past week. That tells their whole story right now. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 26
One of the bigger surprises of the season is that the Nationals’ rotation has actually been respectable, with their ERA ranking middle-of-the-pack in the majors. That won’t win any awards, but that’s a lower ERA than rotations of several hopeful playoff contenders, including the Orioles, Phillies, Cardinals and Mets. Whether even that moderate success is sustainable is another question, however. The rotation is near the bottom in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Patrick Corbin has reeled off six straight starts allowing three or fewer runs despite modest strikeout totals, and Josiah Gray continues to limit runs despite giving up too many walks. Take his most recent start: six walks in five innings against Detroit, but only one run. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 27
Let’s focus this week on one of few Rockies bright sides this week: Elias Diaz, the 32-year-old catcher who was signed to a three-year, $14.5 million extension at the end of the 2021 season. Diaz is slashing a remarkable .343/.396/.517 for the season, providing production at a premium position for a team that is underperforming practically everywhere else in the lineup. Only Sean Murphy, Jonah Heim and Will Smith have produced more FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) than Diaz as catchers this season. The Rockies have mostly struck out while trying to build a core around extensions for C.J. Cron, Ryan McMahon, Kris Bryant, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Daniel Bard. But Diaz’s deal, at least, looks like a bargain. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 29
Even in a division as bad as the AL Central — in which the Royals, Tigers and White Sox are a combined 6-30 against the AL East this season — eyes in KC ought to be fixed on the seasons to come. This makes the Royals’ center-field situation hard to understand. Since Kyle Isbel was injured, the Royals have given the bulk of the playing time in center to veteran Jackie Bradley Jr., who has a .437 OPS. In fact, the Royals’ overall OPS from center fielders (Bradley, Isbel and Nate Eaton) is easily the worst in baseball.
Meanwhile, Drew Waters has been mashing for Triple-A Omaha since he returned to action May 9, after having gone down with an oblique injury late in spring training. Since he was the Royals’ projected starter at the position in the first place, it seems as if putting him in center sooner rather than later would be the right play — not for this season but for those to come. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 30
On Tuesday, the Athletics dropped to 10-40, the worst start to a season for a team since the 1932 Red Sox. That figure puts them on pace for a 32-130 record, which would be the most losses for a team in a season since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders went 20-134. Meanwhile, the A’s reached a tentative agreement with Nevada state and local officials on a stadium funding plan, with a funding bill to be introduced in the coming weeks to see how much public funding will be provided to build the new home of the team. — Lee
Canadian fires force MLB, WNBA postponements
Major League Baseball has announced it is postponing games in New York and Philadelphia on Wednesday night because of poor air quality caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires.
A National Women’s Soccer League game in New Jersey and an indoor WNBA game set for Brooklyn were also called off Wednesday amid hazy conditions that have raised alarms from health authorities.
The New York Yankees‘ game against the Chicago White Sox was rescheduled as part of a doubleheader starting at 4:05 p.m. on Thursday, and the Philadelphia Phillies‘ game against the Detroit Tigers was reset for 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, originally an off day for both teams.
What Yankee Stadium normally looks like vs. what it look like today pic.twitter.com/uutCu4Znqh
— Joon Lee (@joonlee) June 7, 2023
“These postponements were determined following conversations throughout the day with medical and weather experts and all of the impacted clubs regarding clearly hazardous air quality conditions in both cities,” MLB said in a statement.
The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for New York City, saying: “the New York State Department of Health recommends that individuals consider limiting strenuous outdoor physical activity to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.” In Philadelphia, the NWS issued a Code Red.
The Yankees and White Sox played through a lesser haze on Tuesday night.
The WNBA said a game between the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty would not be played Wednesday, saying the decision was made to “protect the health and safety of our fans, teams and community.” A makeup date wasn’t immediately announced.
The NWSL postponed Orlando’s match at Gotham in Harrison, New Jersey, from Wednesday night to Aug. 9.
“The match could not be safely conducted based on the projected air quality index,” the NWSL said.
At nearby Belmont Park, The New York Racing Association said training went on as planned ahead of Saturday’s Triple Crown horse race.
“NYRA utilizes external weather services and advanced on-site equipment to monitor weather conditions and air quality in and around Belmont Park,” spokesman Patrick McKenna said Wednesday. “Training was conducted normally today, and NYRA will continue to assess the overall environment to ensure the safety of training and racing throughout the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.”
New York’s NFL teams, the Giants and Jets, both had Wednesday off from offseason workouts. The Giants had been planning to practice inside Thursday, and the Jets say they are also likely to work out indoors Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Yankees place Judge on 10-day IL with toe injury
NEW YORK — For the second time this season, the New York Yankees will need to play without Aaron Judge.
New York placed its superstar slugger on the injured list with a contusion and a ligament sprain in his right big toe, it was announced Wednesday.
Judge does not have a fracture or break in his toe, according to team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad.
“The biggest thing now is trying to get the swelling out of there,” manager Aaron Boone said Tuesday. “He had some improvements today, but now we’ll see where he is in the coming days and then week. But the biggest thing is getting the swelling out of there.”
“I think it definitely could have been worse. Hopefully it’s on the shorter side of things.”
Judge was hurt while making a running catch and crashing into the outfield fence Saturday against the Dodgers and hadn’t played since.
He also spent time on the injured list earlier this season because of a right hamstring strain. When he’s been healthy, Judge has put up MVP-type numbers again, hitting .291/.404/.674 with 19 homers and 2.2 bWAR in 49 games.
New York’s pitching depth also is getting tested.
Nestor Cortes will be placed on the injured list due to a left shoulder injury. Boone mentioned Cortes has struggled to bounce back between starts. He’s expected to miss at least two starts.
Cortes has a 5.16 ERA in 11 starts, striking out 59 batters in 59⅓ innings.
To replace Cortes, New York called up Randy Vasquez from Triple-A. The righty made his major league debut on May 26 against the San Diego Padres, allowing two runs in 4⅔ innings pitched.
Also, pitcher Ryan Weber was diagnosed with a UCL strain and has been placed on the 60-day injured list. The 32-year-old righty has pitched in eight games this season, posting a 3.14 ERA in 14⅓ innings.
In a related roster move, the Yankees recalled outfielder Billy McKinney.
Why this Stanley Cup is so important to Indigenous players Brandon Montour and Zach Whitecloud
LAS VEGAS — For the Florida Panthers‘ Brandon Montour and the Vegas Golden Knights‘ Zach Whitecloud, this year’s Stanley Cup Final carries a significance that goes well beyond both of them trying to help their teams win what would be each franchise’s first championship.
They are also part of the conversation about representation in hockey.
While records have not been meticulously kept, Montour and Whitecloud appear to be the first pair of players who identify as Indigenous to play against each other in a Stanley Cup Final in more than 30 years, based on data compiled by Hockey Indigenous, a Canadian nonprofit organization that promotes the sport among Indigenous people.
“I think it’s obviously pretty crazy. I don’t know the exact number of Indigenous players on the Stanley Cup, but just the league in general, to have that is huge,” said Montour, who is in his third season with the Panthers. “To support not just my reserve and his reserve, but the whole countries of Canada and the [United States] will be watching. The support will be huge for both of us.”
Both Montour and Whitecloud, who did not know each other before the Cup Final, are among 10 players on current NHL rosters who identify as Indigenous. The list also features Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, Ottawa Senators defenseman Travis Hamonic and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ethan Bear.
A New York Times story from 2018 suggests that Tony Gingras along with brothers, Magnus and Rod Flett, might have been the first Indigenous players to win a Stanley Cup in 1901 and 1902, when they played for the Winnipeg Victorias. Gingras along with both Flett brothers were Métis, according to The Times.
Since then, there have been numerous Indigenous players who have won a Stanley Cup. They include four members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: George Armstrong, Theo Fleury, Grant Fuhr and Bryan Trottier. Other Indigenous players to win a Cup include Dwight King, Jamie Leach, Reggie Leach, Jordan Nolan and Chris Simon.
Oshie is the most recent Indigenous player to win a Stanley Cup when he helped the Capitals beat the Golden Knights to win the first title in franchise history during the 2017-18 season.
The meeting between Montour and Whitecloud appears to be at least the fourth time two Indigenous players have faced each other in a Cup Final since 1980.
That year, Trottier and the New York Islanders defeated Leach and the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. In 1983, Trottier and the Islanders faced Fuhr and the Edmonton Oilers, but Fuhr did not play in the Final, which the Isles won. A year later, Fuhr did play as he and the Oilers beat Trottier and the Islanders for the title.
Based on information on HockeyIndigenous.com, the most recent meeting between Indigenous players on opposite teams in the Cup Final came in 1989, when the Calgary Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens. Fleury, who is Métis, played against Shayne Corson, who is also reported to be Métis. ESPN contacted an event management firm that represents Corson to seek clarification but did not receive a response.
“It’s a cool experience for a lot of our youth in our communities. … It’s about sending a message to a lot of those kids that this is possible,” said Whitecloud, who is in his third full season with the Golden Knights. “Dreaming and going after your dreams are attainable. That’s the most important part for me. It’s being able to get to this point but also, being a role model in terms of saying this is possible with hard work, dedication and that doesn’t stem from just hockey. … Whatever your passion is in life, go get it.”
Montour, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River, has been one of the Panthers’ best players this season. He finished the regular season with 16 goals and 73 points, shattering his previous career highs of 11 goals and 37 points in 2021-22.
In the postseason, Montour is leading the Panthers and third in the NHL in average ice time at 27:29 per game. His six goals are tied for third on the Panthers, while his nine points are the most for a Panthers defenseman.
“You see players like myself come from the same town as you or little towns where all of us came from, it just gives that sense of hope,” said Montour, who grew up in Oshweken, Ontario. “When I was a kid, I was in the same situation trying to watch and follow the footsteps of my heroes and guys I looked up to. To be in that spot, obviously, is huge and you take that in a full serious note and enjoy playing for all of them.”
Whitecloud, who grew up in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, about 30 miles west of Brandon, Manitoba, expressed a similar sentiment. Growing up close to Brandon, he saw players who reached the NHL, both those who were from there or who played for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
Keegan Kolesar, Whitecloud’s Vegas teammate, is from Brandon, and Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon played for the Wheat Kings before becoming their coach, GM and owner prior to reaching the NHL.
But Whitecloud said there were no hockey players who came from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation who went further than juniors. He said his dad was among them, but the numbers were few from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, which has a population of 2,500.
Whitecloud said his dad has always been his hockey role model and continues to have a passion for the game. It’s what led to Whitecloud working his way to the Golden Knights, signing as an undrafted free agent after two seasons at Bemidji State University. He spent two seasons playing for Vegas’ AHL affiliate before he became a full-time NHL player during the 2020-21 season.
Jennifer Bone, who is chief of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, told ESPN there is an immense sense of pride in that community watching Whitecloud. She said there is a sign that welcomes people when they enter the community that reads, “Home of NHL player Zach Whitecloud of the Vegas Golden Knights.”
“When we had a watch party last week, we gave away T-shirts at the school and there are cars driving around with flags on their window and people have flags outside their homes,” Bone said. “They are really supportive and people are being fans of Zach. … It’s like, ‘Wow, he is in the Stanley Cup playoffs’ and the success he has had over the past few seasons and the limited number of First Nation who have achieved that in hockey makes it more inspiring for our community members.
“Just having that and having him and Brandon Montour in the Stanley Cup Final just shows the representation of Indigenous people and showcases the talent that they have.”
Like Montour, Whitecloud has made significant contributions to the Golden Knights’ playoff run. The biggest came in Game 1 of the Cup Final, when he had the winning goal in a 5-2 Vegas victory. Whitecloud is averaging just under 19 minutes per game but has paired with Nicolas Hague to create a defensive partnership that has logged the most 5-on-5 ice time of any Golden Knights pairing in the playoffs.
Bone said the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation will continue to have watch parties. The nation’s website features a graphic that includes a picture of Whitecloud and words such as “Ambassador,” “Role Model,” “Trail Blazer” and “Warrior.”
The Six Nations of the Grand River also will host watch parties for every game of the Stanley Cup Final, according to the community’s official website, with Chief Mark B. Hill issuing a news release that said Montour “represents Six Nations of the Grand River with pride.”
Bone said she received a phone call from Hill days before the Cup Final in which they talked about the significance of seeing two members of their communities represent what it means to be Indigenous on hockey’s biggest stage.
“Jordin Tootoo was one of the role models for me, and Micheal Ferland and some of those guys,” Whitecloud said. “People that look like me that got to those levels. That was always cool, but I was never the player that was first picked for teams or was always praised for being that person. I was fine with that. I think that’s a big part of why I am where I am today. I genuinely played the game because I love it.”
Bone was not able to attend the Game 1 watch party but said more than 100 people did, which she said is a strong number for their community events.
While she was talking about the watch parties, Bone said she had thought about what would happen if the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup and what it would mean for Whitecloud to have his day with the Cup in their community.
“It would be a huge event for us and a huge celebration,” Bone said. “Zach returns to the community during the summer months, and he was here for an annual power celebration. Him visiting and spending a few hours with people is a big deal. There was a line of people wanting photographs, autographs or have him sign whatever memorabilia and meet with him and have a chat with him. It’s definitely going to be a huge event if that happens.”
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