Bulls

Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

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Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

Thursdays NHL announcement that the salary cap is -- at least temporarily -- going up about 6 million dollars to 70.2 million leaves the Blackhawks with roughly 8 million to spend when free agency begins Sunday at 11 a.m., if Stan Bowman so chooses.

He can exceed it for the time being and worry about shaving money off with trades as the offseason progresses. The other concerns involve what that cap number will be once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, and how teams will react once the initial wave of free agency is over as labor negotiations get underway. Its anyones guess, but most surmise if the cap does go back down, it wouldnt be a significant amount for this season in the event talks drag into mid-September and beyond.

We heard rumors heading into last weekends draft about the availability of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador -- and their combined 6.25 million cap hit. Something could still happen with them or anyone else on what is a full roster the vice president and general manager can deal from, along with a fully loaded system of prospects. So, the start of free agency may give a more clear indication on how much movement there will be for the club the rest of the summer.

As we check around the league at this new cap number, the Hawks have the second-least amount to spend, slightly less than San Jose. Boston is currently tapped-out. Elsewhere around the West, Los Angeles has just below 12 million it can spend, Calgary about 13.5 million and Vancouver 14.5 million. Everyone else in the conference has even more.

Dennis Widemans contract with Calgary was great news for the defenseman likely to get the second-richest contract from free agency. The Flames signed Wideman for an average of 5.5 million, a significant bump from the 3.9 million he made for a Washington team for which he provided 11 goals -- two shy of his career-high.

Florida will allow Jason Garrison on the market, and likely lose him after the 27-year-old with the booming shot scored nine of his 16 goals on the power play. Thats certainly a Hawks need in their quest to improve that unit, but he might get 6 million or more now for a team believing he can consistently duplicate those numbers after doing it once, getting set up by Brian Campbell. Another veteran blueliner with a Stanley Cup ring went off the market when Nashville re-signed Hal Gill Thursday.

It remains unclear how much interest Bowman has in those types of defensemen, and how far its shrunk his pool of options, if at all. The current roster composition, and allowing himself some salary cap wiggle room, would seem to indicate trades would have to be made in order to create change. But in recent interviews, hes spoken more about growth from within from players on that roster.

Improvement from Corey Crawford. Improvement on special teams. Perhaps counting on the next step taken from home-grown products like Dylan Olsen, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Bryan Bickell, Jimmy Hayes and perhaps Brandon Saad all factor into Bowman's thinking. But no GM reveals his hand through the media. Theres also plenty of time to make any moves he may want to, at the right price, and with the right return. Blind change just for the sake of change often doesnt work out.

Lets say Hjalmarsson is dealt. For all the criticisms he has received in the wake of his post-Cup, four-year contract, one element he provides that would be missing is his shot-blocking an area where many feel the Hawks can improve. While Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya are also among the league leaders in that category others would need to pick up that slack, or the Hawks would ideally get a player or two to fill that void. And it wasnt necessarily the numbers, but the timing, and whos doing it.

There could be some sacrifice from forwards out front. And while you can find just one member of the Coyotes on the first page of blocked shots leaders from last season they were suffocating their share of shots in the first-round playoff series. The same goes for other successful playoff teams this spring like the Rangers, Capitals and Devils. Thats some of the sacrifice Joel Quenneville seemed to allude to when he spoke with reporters last Friday in Pittsburgh.

When I asked Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland about their Coach Q's comment about needing greater competitiveness at a golf outing Monday, they didnt disagree.

Listening to an interview with Kings GM Dean Lombardi the other day, hes already going with the little bit of improvement from within line when asked about roster changes and his team's chances of repeating. It might be easier with Jonathan Quick, but its also more difficult after just reaching the top of the mountain. Just ask the Hawks from two years ago. Im thinking that will be a tough sell in L.A. next season as we head into a 15th year without a repeat champ.

Quenneville also spoke of the fine line between teams throughout the league these days, especially down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. Think about it: The Hawks led the NHL in mid-January. The first five games of their playoff series went into overtime despite inconsistent goaltending and poor special teams.

But well get a better idea, starting Sunday morning, about how much the Hawks decision-makers feel the need for change, heading into a crucial and perhaps crossroads year for the organization.

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

With college teams heading into conference play, momentum is starting to build for Arizona center Deandre Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick in next June's draft.

Ayton already has an NBA body at 7-foot-1, 250 pounds and he's a lot more agile than most young big men. Watching his recent game against Texas A&M, Ayton showed the kind of footwork and explosiveness that will impress scouts and general managers. He doesn't have the Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves of a Joel Embiid, but he's already got the basic NBA post move skill set, including a jump hook and up-and-under package. Ayton exploded for 29 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Alabama on December 9, making 12 of 18 shots.

Ayton is already a force on the defensive end with his quick leaping ability allowing him to alter shots in the paint, and he has a nice touch from the outside, hitting just under 70 percent of his free throws while also venturing out to the 3-point line to attempt a couple shots.

Where does he fit for the Bulls? Robin Lopez is under contract for another season and the Bulls also have three more guaranteed years of seldom-used Cristiano Felicio. Still, all that could change by season's end, with Lopez a potential trade candidate for a contending team looking to add another quality big man. Ayton's size and athleticism could be attractive to a Bulls’ team that's already identified three young starters going forward in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, especially since the power forward position is overloaded right now with Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic. 

At this point early in the college season, Marvin Bagley and Ayton probably rank first and second on most teams’ draft boards, followed by Slovenian guard Luka Doncic and Missouri forward Michael Porter, who's out for the season because of a back injury. 

Bagley is the hot name among NBA scouts, but don't be surprised if Ayton gets consideration for the No. 1 overall pick next June. The NBA might be a point guard league right now, but the influx of quality young centers like Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic suggests the big man is still a valuable commodity.

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

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USA TODAY

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

John Fox has mentioned Mitch Trubisky’s third-down passing on more than one occasion, and not simply as a stroke of what his staff has done in the way of player development as a coaching decision of tectonic-plate degree looms. The fact is that third-down passing is a defining measure of an NFL quarterback; as Loggains stated, it’s where quarterbacks earn their money, and by extension, make it possible for a lot of other folks to earn theirs.

But it’s far bigger than only third downs. Case in point: Trubisky completed 25 of his 32 passes at Cincinnati. All of those passes came during the Bears’ first nine (of 11) possessions. Significantly, the Bears had at least one first down on every one of those possessions, and more than one on seven of the nine.

Meaning: The offense sustained drives and the defense was able to recover on the sideline. That would comprise two-thirds of “complimentary football” the way it’s designed.

(It also did not hurt that every drive on which the Bears didn’t draw a penalty, with the exception of the one ended by halftime, the Bears scored a touchdown. Probably just coincidence…but…maybe not…)

Putting all of this in the broader context of Trubisky’s development, the self-professed gunslinger has thrown zero interceptions in six of his nine games, none in four of the last five. That points to the rookie being schooled hard in ball security, something that has been a hallmark of quarterbacks under coordinator Dowell Loggains’ auspices. Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in 2015 played with a level of ball security at or among the best of their careers.

Trubisky’s 1.8 percent interception rate overall is the larger point. As mentioned in this space and elsewhere previously, coaches aren’t going to “breed” Trubisky’s core aggressiveness out of him by drilling “ball security” into his head.

And while the concept is simple enough, implementing it isn’t. For all of his meteoric success before his season-ending knee injury, Deshaun Watson was being picked on 3.9 percent of his throws. Cutler has reverted to his career base course (3.2 percent) while Trubisky keeping his throws out of harm’s way percentage-wise better than all of Matthew Stafford (1.9), Russell Wilson (2.3), Matt Ryan (2.6) or Ben Roethlisberger (2.6).

Maybe it’s “generational:” Jared Goff (1.4) and Carson Wentz (1.6) seem to have been schooled the same direction. And how’s that working for them?

Marcus Mariota is having his worst (by his reckoning) NFL season, with 14 interceptions making him so testy that his Mom yelled at him for being grumpy to reporters while discussing his play.

Key to Bears defeating Detroit

The obvious is how well the offense and Trubisky control the football without turning the football over and without self-destructing with penalties that put them behind the sticks. It’s not a sure-fire formula; the Bears didn’t turn the ball over vs. San Francisco and had half the number of penalties assessed as the 49ers and still took incompetence to epic levels. But it is a foundation starting point.

Actually, it’s more than that where the Detroit Lions are concerned.

Detroit has lost three of the four games in which its opponents didn’t give them at least one turnover.    

Stopping the run is a standard “key,” but in the Lions case, they don’t run the ball much anyway. They are last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.3). Nine different individuals, including Jordan Howard, average more per game than the Lions. They did win the only two games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards (but those were against the Giants and Browns, so those don’t count).

But Detroit is 7-6 overall without any appreciable rushing offense. So stopping the run, while always a factor, isn’t necessarily a game-changer vs. the Lions.

Ball security is. Keeping Matthew Stafford off the field, as it is with most elite quarterbacks, is everything. Stafford is tied for second for taking sacks (39) and is even taking them at a concerning rate of one every 13 pass plays – statistically significantly higher than nearly every other top passer – and he is still passing to a rating of 97.9, good enough for No. 8 in the NFL.

So getting after Stafford helps. Stopping the run helps. Forcing takeaways helps. But the only element that directly correlates to upending the Lions is not so much creating turnovers as avoiding ones of your own.