Blackhawks

Aramis, Pena & Big Z: Moving on with mixed results

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Aramis, Pena & Big Z: Moving on with mixed results

Remember when things seemed so daunting for the St. Louis Cardinals?

They had just lost out on the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, as the perennial MVP candidate put his faith in the Angels and went West. Tony La Russa was not going to return as manager and Dave Duncan, arguably the best pitching coach in the game, was slated to miss the entire season for personal issues.

That was just 10 short months ago. Now, the Cards are only one victory away from a second-straight NL pennant.

A lot can change in a year.

Take a look at the Cubs. They finished the 2011 season packed with valuable veterans -- Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena and Carlos Zambrano -- and promising youngsters -- Tyler Colvin, D.J. LeMahieu, Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter.

All seven of those guys were gone before spring training even started. While the Cubs struggled to a 101-loss season, let's check in on how this group fared.

Aramis Ramirez

Ramirez and the Cubs were synonymous since that fateful 2003 season. He was a staple at third base, bringing consistency to the position for the first time since the Ron Santo days. At age 33, he didn't fit in the Cubs' rebuilding plan and wound up signing with the Brewers, where he almost made Milwaukee forget about Prince Fielder.

Ramirez put together a very solid season, leading the league in doubles (50) and tied for first in extra-base hits (80) with teammate Ryan Braun, whom Ramirez protected in the lineup all year. The Brewers didn't end up making the playoffs, but Ramirez helped key a strong run towards the end of the year and finished with 27 homers, 105 RBI (his first 100 RBI season since 2008), a .300 average and a .901 OPS.

Carlos Zambrano

Big Z was the longest tenured Cub on the roster last year and after a blow-up in Atlanta last August, the soap opera that is Carlos Zambrano came to an end in the Cubs clubhouse. He racked up 125 victories and 1,542 strikeouts in more than 300 games (282 starts) over an 11-year span.

He was dealt to Miami this winter, teaming up with friend and manager Ozzie Guillen, and was deemed as a potential sleeper for the NL Cy Young by former teammate Matt Garza. Zambrano had no such luck, as, after a hot start, he struggled and wound up in the bullpen to finish the season with a 7-10 record, 4.49 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

Carlos Pena

Pena was only a one-year rental and had a very solid 2011 season, walking 101 times and slugging 28 homers while playing very good defense at first base and bringing a positive attitude in the clubhouse.

But his age (33 this winter) and the arrivalemergence of Anthony Rizzo and Bryan LaHair made Pena expendable this winter and he was not re-signed, instead opting to go back to Tampa Bay. There, Pena hit 19 homers and drove in 61 runs, but managed just a .197 average and .684 OPS, a far cry from his career numbers (.234 and .822, respectively). 2012 marked the second season in the last three in which Pena failed to hit even .200.

Tyler ColvinD.J. LeMahieu

Anybody who's followed the Cubs over the past year has likely heard the much-publicized deal that sent Colvin and LeMahieu to Colorado for Ian Stewart and minor-league pitcher Casey Weathers. Neither Colvin (a former first-round pick) nor LeMahieu (a former second-round pick) was guaranteed to have a place to play in 2012 and the Cubs needed a third baseman, so they took a gamble on a low-risk guy in Stewart. It was Theo Epstein's first trade in the Cubs' front office and hasn't worked out in his favor to date, as Stewart struggled to find consistency at the plate before being shut down with a wrist injury halfway through the season.

Both young players wound up having fairly productive seasons for the Rockies, but they combined for just 34 walks in 699 plate appearances. That kind of aggressiveness doesn't fit in Theo's vision for the Cubs, despite the fact they both hit close to .300  (Colvin -- .290; LeMahieu -- .297) and Colvin added some power, with 55 extra-base hits, including 18 homers.

Andrew Cashner

Cashner was considered to be a major piece for the future when Theo and Co. took over as a flame-throwing right-hander who had as high upside as anybody in the Cubs' system. But after arm issues sidelined Cashner for most of the 2011 season, the new front office was hesitant to put Cashner in the taxing position of a starting pitcher, and traded him to the Padres for Rizzo.

The 26-year-old right-hander had a solid year for San Diego, hurling a 4.27 ERA and 1.32 WHIP while striking out 52 in 46.1 innings. But most of that was as a reliever -- he started just five games -- and he spent time on the disabled list, while Rizzo emerged as a franchise cornerstone for the Cubs.

Chris Carpenter

The rest of the players on this list either had significant playing time in 2011 or figured to be a big part of 2012 and beyond, but Carpenter was a 25-year-old middle reliever with upside for more if he could harness his 100 mph fastball. His claim to fame, of course, was as the compensation for Theo Epstein, making the trek to Boston.

An elbow injury derailed most of Carpenter's 2012, but he came back strong, posting a 1.15 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 15.2 innings in Triple-A Pawtucket before appearing in eight games for the big-league Red Sox, struggling to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and 2.83 WHIP.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.