Blackhawks

Cubs in position to be dealmakers

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Cubs in position to be dealmakers

MESA, Ariz. The front office must be prepared for disaster. So while it seems like a surplus, just remember the mood 12 months ago, long before sweeping changes hit Clark and Addison.

Last year the Cubs felt pretty good about the rotation at this point, general manager Jed Hoyer said this week during a session with beat writers. It kind of blew up.

The Cubs were toast once Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner were injured during the first week of last season. Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer and Carlos Silva (blah, blah, blah) turned out to be nonfactors.

So you can analyze what the Cubs might do at the crossroads with Matt Garza trade him or extend him and wonder if Wells or Chris Volstad will be a long man making around 2.7 million.

Travis Wood appears ticketed for Triple-A Iowa, and Rodrigo Lopez has quietly put together a nice spring that has kept him in the picture. It doesnt necessarily mean the Cubs will make a deal.

I feel like whenever you think you have pitching depth dont ever really talk about it out loud, because you dont, Hoyer said. So, yeah, in theory, on paper (thats) right. But things usually have a way of working out.

Nothings guaranteed two weeks from Opening Day. But Jeff Samardzija looks like a lock for the rotation. In Hoyers words, hes grabbed that competition by the throat.

Decision time is coming soon, particularly for the final spots in the bullpen, and things will begin to come into focus after Wednesdays off-day. The Cubs will have to listen and see whats out there.

For the most part, GMs dont call around too much until the end, because they realize everyones assessing, Hoyer said. There will be a lot of phone calls made around the next 10 days or so, because I think everyone has an area or two theyd look to improve or a guy (who) they liked in the offseason (now becomes) available.

I wouldnt be surprised if we made a move, but I also think we have the pieces in place that we wouldnt need to. But, yes, well certainly be active in those conversations and I dont think wed be doing our job if we werent.

The Cubs have room in the budget to add an impact player or two, and Theo Epstein has said that he hopes to be buyers, not sellers, at the trade deadline.

The president scaled back spending on the on-field product and invested in technology and expanding what had been perhaps the smallest front office in baseball. The baseball operations department has gone from around 90 employees to more than 120.

Our total major-league payroll will be a little under where it was last year, Hoyer acknowledged. But we sort of left some flexibility so we can make some moves over the course of the season if we need to.

The bill for the big-league team will be around 112 million, according to sources, and include the roughly 15 million the Cubs are paying the Miami Marlins to take on Carlos Zambrano, the 5 million payment on Carlos Penas pillow contract and Silvas 2 million buyout.

The projected Opening Day roster will cost around 90 million, a relatively modest amount for a franchise that Forbes found has risen 14 percent in value during the past year to 879 million.

In its annual Major League Baseball survey released on Wednesday, Forbes ranked only the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox ahead of the Cubs in terms of overall worth.

Epsteins explicit goal is to build a sustainable team that will be playing deep into October every year. So the Cubs arent going to rush top prospects Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson to Wrigley Field. They will take the long view and place a high value on years of club control.

But the Arizona sunshine fuels optimism, and Hoyers anything can happen attitude can be traced back to rotation depth. At the moment, the Cubs dont seem to be inclined to take away from this strength and be exposed to a potentially huge weakness.

Were going to throw a good starting pitcher at the other team every night, Hoyer said. When you break camp every year, you want to win the World Series. Obviously, thats your goal. But I dont see any reason why we cant be incredibly competitive this year.

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.