Blackhawks

Cubs clearing the path for Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs clearing the path for Anthony Rizzo

Theo Epstein has scouted Anthony Rizzo in person several times this season, and watched just about every one of his at-bats at Triple-A Iowa on video.

Like every prospect in the Cubs system, Rizzo received an individual player plan for improvement this season, and almost all of Epsteins boxes are checked.

The Cubs sent another clear signal that Rizzo is coming soon by moving first baseman Bryan LaHair to right field for Mondays 12-3 win over the White Sox.

What you saw at U.S. Cellular Field Alfonso Soriano in left, David DeJesus in center and LaHair in right is what it should look like once Rizzos stationed at first base.

Rizzo is hitting .364 with 23 homers and 59 RBI in 63 games at Iowa, where hes drawn rave reviews for his potential Gold Glove defense and professional approach.

He was destroying down there, said catcher Geovany Soto, who just got back from a rehab assignment with Iowa. Hes got some pop. Hes doing it right. Hes coming on pretty good.

Rizzo, 22, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and flipped to the Cubs last winter in the Andrew Cashner trade.

The three executives in charge at Clark and Addison Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were involved in all three deals and are banking on Rizzo being a foundation piece. Theyve so far resisted bringing up Rizzo to give the team a jolt.

You have to look at what happened last year, Epstein said. He put up great numbers and then was rushed to the big leagues and struggled. So its important to always put players in a position to succeed.

The Cubs believe Rizzo learned from his experience last season in San Diego, where he hit .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats. They say lowering his hands has been a key mechanical adjustment to his swing.

The minor leagues arent just some holding pattern, Epstein said. Its a place for a lot of teaching and learning. Its where adjustments are made, not only fundamentally a players swing (or) physically getting stronger, learning how to stay healthy, learning their body. But (its) also mentally, your routine that you develop to get you through tough days.

His approach has always been pretty solid. I think he got into some bad habits with his swing last year when he was trying to do too much at the big-league level.

Hes someone who kind of toys with his hand position quite a bit. Hes got a little bit of rhythm with his setup. (Now) hes ready to hit the fastball and adjusting well on off-speed pitches. Hes an aggressive hitter. Hes not someone whos overly selective at the plate, but hes got a real plan. Its worked for him so far.

LaHair began the day tied for the lead in homers among National League first basemen, and then launched his 13th shot 404 feet beyond the wall in right-center field.

That morning, LaHair received a phone call from manager Dale Sveum letting him know that hed be in the outfield that night. There is less ground to cover at U.S. Cellular Field, but the winds were gusting up to 41 mph at first pitch.

LaHair passed his first test by making a nice running catch onto the warning track in the first inning to rob Gordon Beckham.

Ive played in the outfield quite a bit throughout my life, so it should be a pretty minor adjustment, LaHair said. In the back of my mind, there was always the thought of me moving to the outfield at some point, so its not a complete surprise.

This will be a new challenge.

The Cubs are getting very close to the point where restarting the meter on Rizzos major-league service time will make more financial sense. The fans cant wait to see the face of the future at Wrigley Field, and its almost time to give in to the hype.

Hes one that you go to the computer every day to see what he did, Sveum said. But we had a plan to start with, so there was no early arrival or anything like that. We knew he had to develop and we had a gameplan and we were going to stick to it.

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.