On the Burning Questions for 2023-24
Much to ponder in Year 2 of the quad...
Well, well, well. We’re back. I hope you all had a wonderful summer. I did! I moved to Calgary, Alberta just a few weeks ago and look forward to being in a province that’s a little more curling crazy than the one I left. Curl BC, don’t worry…I’ll never forget you and I will always be biased towards you (don’t tell any “professional journalism” outlets).
Some exciting news before we move ahead with the newsletter: this year, I’m going to be offering paid subscriptions to the newsletter. For those of you who don’t wish to pay, but still subscribe, don’t worry: literally nothing will change for you. Every newsletter I write will still arrive in your inbox the second it’s finished, and there will be very, very little writing that ever ends up behind a paywall.
So why paid subscriptions? Well, I put a lot of work into this. Last year, I was actually blown away by the number of people who pledged to support me if I did add paid subscriptions, and most who did commented on how much they appreciated the work I put into curling journalism. It’s not my full-time job, obviously—hell, curling journalism is NO ONE’s full-time gig—but the sport means a lot to me and I love covering it, and I’d love to make it my full-time gig. This is another step in that direction.
If you do subscribe, what you’ll get is a special video newsletter. Every time I publish a newsletter, I’ll release a link to me doing the newsletter in video format. Obviously that format will allow me to add a bunch of additional stuff that won’t be in the newsletters, answer more mailbag questions I can’t get to in the writing, and look, it’s 2023: who doesn’t love watching something instead of reading it? Who knows, I might even do some videos that don’t correspond to a newsletter, but just something I really wanna talk about. It’s gonna be fun!
Questions from subscribers will also get preference in my mailbag newsletters, and I’ll probably do some other fun stuff throughout the year for my paid subscribers. And! You’ll also be able to email me. Got a burning question? I’ll be happy to answer it for ya. Think of it like an exclusive club. A curling club, if you will. The Cullen on Curling Curling Club. It’s got a…well, a ring to it. Not sure if it’s nice.
It’s $5 USD/month (Substack won’t let me charge less), or $50/year (two months free!). I’d love your support, but I also appreciate anyone who still reads and subscribes for free. If you want to subscribe, either paid or free, please click the “subscribe” button in the top right-hand corner. All the details are there. Thanks for reading this pitch, you won’t hear it described to you in such detail ever again. And now…let’s get down to business.
New Year, New Us
As we have seen, most of the world’s competitive curling teams are back in action, whether it was overseas for some early Japanese or Swiss or Scottish action, or in the Stu Sells event this weekend, or the Saville Shoot-Out, or the Leduc event a few weeks ago…look, we’ve all just accepted curling kinda starts in late August/early September now. But without digging too deep into the year’s opening events, here are the 3 biggest questions on my mind for the 2023-24 season for the men and women:
Is this the year Bruce Mouat becomes truly dominant?
Obviously the Scottish lads and defending World Champions are a great team. Silver at the Olympics, 2nd on the WCT rankings last year…no one doesn’t think they’re a great team. But last year, we saw their winning percentage dip a bit. In the Olympic year, they ran at a 79% clip. Last year, despite winning Worlds, they sat at about a 71% winning rate. Which is very good. Great, even. I’d love to win 71% of anything. But Brad Gushue was sitting at 78%. So was Niklas Edin. Even Brendan Bottcher, who people tripped over themselves to say had a bad year last year, came in at 75%. Dunstone? Also 75. All this is to say…I think Team Mouat probably has another level. Which should be very scary to everyone. They’re young and still developing, and it feels like they’ve got an 80%+ season in them. Is this the year we see it? They’re off to a good start with two wins and a 13-1 record…good for 93%. We just might be.
Who is Canada’s Top 5? Or more specifically, who is 4 and 5?
Last year, we saw a very clear triumvirate at the top of the Canadian standings: Brad Gushue, Matt Dunstone, and Brendan Bottcher. Top 3 at the Brier, top 3 in points, and quite frankly…fourth place felt distant. It was Kevin Koe, but his uncharacteristically poor Brier result and offseason lineup change makes you feel like there could be some wiggle room there. Reid Carruthers has also undergone major lineup surgery and Brad Jacobs is making his debut in the 3-hole. Mike McEwen has a brand-new team. Karsten Sturmay had an amazing finish to last season, but that’s the best we’ve ever seen him look. Is that the new normal? It really feels like it’s going to take a big year for a team to make the Top 3 into a Top 4 or a Top 5, and I’m curious if we’ll see it.
What happens in the Top 3?
This season will also be very interesting for that top 3 as we enter Year 2 of the quad. I think you can safely say Brad Gushue has played the best curling of his life over the last 5 years. Can he keep that going as he continues to age along with his team? At an average age of 41, Gushue has the oldest team in the current top 10. He’s had injury troubles and they play one of the lightest schedules on tour. I don’t think the wheels are falling off by any means, but after being the clear #1 last year, does he fall to the pack?
Gushue was likely helped by the fact that they didn’t change their mix much last year, bringing EJ Harnden—one of the best-ever seconds to do it—into a very long-established program. Now that we are in Year 2, does that help Bottcher and Dunstone close that gap? Watching last year, even towards the year’s end, Team Bottcher’s communication was a bit languorous, lingering on shot calls and having moments of still seeming like they were trying to fit the last pieces of a Starry Night jigsaw puzzle together (damn all this blue sky). You have to think that’s ironed out this year. Plus, Brendan is entering his prime as a skip. It’s dangerous. Also entering skip prime? Matt Dunstone. Can they enter a year with expectations and leave it having delivered on them? With two teams having room to go and Brad Gushue trying to maintain his grip on the peak, I’m fascinated to watch the race play out over the season.
Tap-Backs: Over in the States, is John Shuster’s reign of terror almost over? I don’t know if he has clear eyes or a full heart, but at the US nationals, he definitely can’t lose. Does Korey Dropkin finally get there? Is the young Ghostman, Daniel Casper, ready to put in a challenge? You have to imagine John is at least thinking about it….who wins Alberta? Kevin Koe, Karsten Sturmay or Aaron Sluchinski? That’s one provincial race that the pre-year Wild Cards has put a flame to. Sturmay and Sluchinski might not have liked their chances of a running a Bottcher/Koe gauntlet, but if I’m them and you’re telling me I just gotta win one game, I feel a lot better about it…what the hell is gonna happen in BC? As I predicted at the end of last year, nearly every top team changed their lineup. Jim Cotter (likely) won’t be back. Preseason favourites are certainly the new Team Schneider, with 3/4 of the defending champions involved, but it’s been a while since Catlin skipped. The race feels open, but could also be one massive disaster…was Joel Retornaz for real? Seems to be no evidence he wasn’t, and they already have a Baden Masters win under their belt to kick off 23-24. But as they say, show it to me again so I know it’s serious…do Ross Whyte or Cameron Bryce have a chance to beat Bruce Mouat at the Scottish Nationals? They’re both getting closer…is there a Cinderella run at the Brier in the cards? It’s been a while since we’ve seen a deep run from an under-favoured team, but Felix Asselin, Tanner Horgan, Mike McEwen, or any Alberta winner not named Kevin Koe probably have the horses to do it…and finally, will this be the year a team takes me to the Brier as their fifth? I’m going to be curling in a superleague this fall to prepare. My phone lines are open…
Can Kerri Einarson make it five? And can they win the Worlds?
It’s bizarre to be speaking about a Canadian team in the preseason’s potential World results, but when you win 4 Scotties in a row, these are the missives that are awarded you. As for the first question, 5 in a row feels downright doable. Not even at their best at last year’s Scotties, they were pretty dominant in their run and never felt like losing. We’re at the point where if we are making betting odds, it’s them vs. the field. Jennifer Jones lost Mackenzie Zacharias, Casey Scheidegger’s team blew up, Rachel Homan’s team is undergoing another lineup and coaching change, and Kaitlyn Lawes’ Year 1 almost didn’t count with juggling team pregnancies all season. So if they win Canada, can they finally break through and win that damn Worlds? It’ll be the question on everyone’s mind, and I am very curious if it’s part of Einarson’s preparation this season. Much harder for Canadian teams to prepare for Worlds because they know they have to win an equally-hard tournament first.
Will the real _______ please stand up?
I’m being a bit facetious with this question, but last year saw a lot of change both due to the quad, but also due to some, quite frankly, shocking performances. And I mean shocking in a good way. Clancy Grandy bullied her way into the top 10 on the back of a very aggressive strategic game plan. Isabella Wranå won her first Slam. Eun-ji Gim emerged as not only the best team from South Korea, but one of the best teams in the world. Kayla Skrlik had her best season ever, capped off with a screaming win at the Alberta Scotties. Stefania Constantini began proving Italy is an up-and-coming World power on both sides of the sheet. Christina Black had a Scotties run for the ages. So the question begs…for which of these teams was it real? And look, I’m not trying to be negative. This could be the new normal. But chances are good that at least a few of these emerging teams were charmed last season, and it’ll be interesting to see whom they were, and which teams might emerge to take their place.
How good are the Homan and Lawes rinks?
It’s a huge question, both for the balance of power in Manitoba (and to a lesser extent, Ontario, though Homan won’t be at provincials this year) and in Canada as a whole. Rachel Homan seemed to get the same media treatment that Brendan Bottcher did last year on the men’s side, in that it seemed like no matter how good their results were (pretty darn good!), there were questions about how the team was gelling. And I get it, the Scotties weren’t great, Tracy, Emma, and Sarah were all in new positions, and it’s fun to ask the questions (I’m doing it! Right now!). Now that Rachel is back behind the tee-head, we will get to see just how good they are, and if they’ll be a true challenge to Kerri Einarson. Or conversely, we may get to see that this mix isn’t right at all. We know Rachel wouldn’t put up with another Scotties playoffs miss.
As for Kaitlyn Lawes, that story is pretty obvious. Three team members were pregnant throughout last season, with Selena missing significant time due to hers. Now that Myla, Hudson, and Luke have all entered the world, we’ll get a true chance to see what this team looks like now that all four members are constant and it’s not just Kristin MacCuish holding down the fort at every event. It had to be hard for Kaitlyn to not only transition back to skipping, but playing half the season quite pregnant, and also not being able to look at a steady lineup in front of her. Manitoba won’t be an easy win, and in many ways, they’re a little behind the 8-ball. Curious to see if they can pot it (the 8-ball, I mean. I don’t know if that reference worked. Whatever.)
Tap-backs: I started the men’s side with the USA, why not the women’s side too? I think Tab Peterson is the clear favourite but here’s my two questions: 1) is this the year Tab Peterson becomes a true top team? No Slam wins, only a single bronze on the World/Olympic stage. The talent is there for sure, and I think this could be a year they make some noise but 2) what about Delaney Strouse? They feel a year or two away, but much like the Ghostman, they have an awful lot of potential…just how many games does Silvana Tirinzoni add to her undefeated at Worlds streak? 36 and counting…speaking of contested national championships, is Anna Hasselborg’s run of 7 straight Swedish titles in jeopardy? Isabella Wranå looks very, very dangerous…just how competitive is the Manitoba ladies’ provincials going to be? Jones and Einarson are out, which makes Lawes the prohibitive favourite, but there’s a lot of sneaky, sneaky teams in there. Kate Cameron’s team up with Meghan Walter looks very good so far, as they’re off to a 10-2 start, but you’ve also got Beth Peterson’s team up with Kelsey Rocque, Jolene Campbell moving a province over to team up with Abby Ackland, and the young Kristy Watling doing a bit of offseason retooling and looking good. That’s a provincial that could be very entertaining to watch…who the hell wins Ontario? This almost feels like the first time Brad Gushue won Newfoundland and all bets were off. There’s absolutely no clear favourite in my mind, with a solid handful of teams you could all imagine laying their hands on the trophy in January. To me, the Ontario ladies’ provincials is the truest example of what the “Wild Card before the year” rule was designed to do…how does Andrea Kelly look with Team McCarville? The last time Andrea ventured away from the Maritimes—to play with Val Sweeting—they didn’t even make it to the team’s Secret Santa. Will this 5-person team pay off for both Andrea and Krista? I assumed the 5-person team would mean a busier schedule, but they released theirs today and it hasn’t…how fun will potentially having Marie-France Larouche back at the Scotties be? Actually, I can answer that one. Very fun. One of my favourite curlers ever.
There it is. The first newsletter of the 2023-24 season. Wow. Feels nice to be back in the groove. As I said off the top, please consider supporting me with a paid subscription. Or, you can also support me with a free one! Building subscriber numbers really helps me, so feel free to put your email in and you’ll get every single newsletter delivered straight to your inbox…for free! One hell of a deal. Follow me on Twitter at @cullenoncurling, and I got a fancy new domain too, so if you’re telling your friends about my newsletter, it can be reached at cullenoncurling.com. Snazzy! Thanks as always for reading.