Blackhawks

Fire trigger option on Grazzini

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Fire trigger option on Grazzini

For the short term, at least, the Fire will be without Argentine midfielder Sebastian Grazzini for Friday night's road match against Sporting Kansas City.

"He won't make the trip to this one," Fire coach Frank Klopas said after Thursday's training session in Bridgeview. "He hasn't trained. Hopefully he'll be ready for the next one."

That would be Tuesday at Houston.

Grazzini's future with the Fire has been clouded the past few weeks, but Javier Leon, managing director of Andell Sports Group, cleared up some of the mystery on Thursday. Andell Sports Group operates the club for owner Andrew Hauptman.

The Fire signed Grazzini to a one-year contract midway through last season. That contract carried with it the club's option to keep him through the end of this season. In a weird series of developments, Grazzini told reporters two weeks ago that he wanted to stay with the team after his contract expires on Sunday but that he wanted a more lucrative deal. The Major League Soccer Players Association says he is being paid 50,000 for this season, which makes him one of the lowest-paid players on the club.

A week later, after discussions with Grazzini, his representatives and Andell staffers, Grazzini admitted that he didn't understand the terms of his contract. He played well in a 59-minute stint during the club's 2-1 win over Columbus on Saturday, then showed a t-shirt saying "Thanks, Chicago" as he left the field. Some took that to mean he was bidding the club a fond farewell.

That apparently wasn't the case. Grazzini practiced with the Fire on Thursday but cordially declined a media interview afterwards. Leon and Klopas did all the talking on the matter.

"The Grazzini option has been triggered," Leon said, "and we expect him to be with us at least until the end of the year - and hopefully further than that."

Leon and Klopas insisted that the Fire always planned to exercise the club's option on Grazzini's services, which was part of a contract proposed by the players' representatives.

No announcement was made until Thursday, however, and the Fire signed well-regarded Brazilian midfielder Alex a month ago - an indication that a replacement for Grazzini was in place. Alex joined the Fire for training two weeks ago and will be eligible to play for the first time at Kansas City. Klopas said Alex will make the trip and that "he's an option" to take Grazzini's role in the first XI.

Leon acknowledged that the Fire's failure to make an announcement on exercising the option on Grazzini created speculation but blamed that on Grazzini.

"A month ago he came to us and said there were family issues he wanted to address and maybe he could go back to Argentina," said Leon. "So, we have been working with him to make him understand the commitment he's made to us. In our minds (exercising the option) was a done deal, but he asked us to explore the possibilities. That's why we didn't make an announcement. It was more semantics than anything else. There never was an issue about us picking up his option."

He also admitted that there were talks about the terms of Grazzini's contract, but Leon said, "We explained that we never negotiate a contract during the season." The existing pact expires after this season.

Leon wouldn't elaborate on Grazzini's "family issues" but the player did miss two days of training this week - the reason Klopas cited for leaving him off the travel roster. Leon said the family issue is "evolving."

"When you're dealing with family situations, there's always some difficulties," Leon said. "We want a Grazzini that is 100 percent. We're hoping the issues will be resolved and he'll be a happy player. We explained to him that he has to be 100 percent in."

Meanwhile, the club trimmed its roster in anticipation of picking up a player or two now that the international transfer window has opened. Kheli Dube, a forward acquired from the New England Revolution in this year's re-entry draft, was released and defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe was traded to Real Salt Lake for a 2014 draft pick. Neither Dube nor Watson-Siriboe appeared in a first team match this season.

The new players brought in at the start of this season have been only mildly successful. There have been reports that Uruguayan forward Federico Puppo, who has also been slow in adjusting to a new team, is furthered hampered by an ankle problem now and that Rafael Robayo, a backup midfielder, wants to return to his Colombian club.

Leon disputed the latter report.

"Robayo is interesting," he said. "He had a tremendous career in Colombia and wants to play more here."

There is no indication that will happen any time soon, though Klopas has not named a replacement for Grazzini at Kansas City. Klopas is hoping another forward, or perhaps a midfielder, can be added to the roster soon. Two names that have been mentioned are Andriy Shevchenko, the 35-year old Ukrainian striker who is hoping to move to Major League Soccer, and Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald.

Leon is not expecting "major changes" and is leery about bringing in established stars after the bad experiences with Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo two seasons ago. Both were brought in as Designated Players, which allows MLS teams to sign international players that put the team over the salary cap; neither stayed with the Fire after that campaign ended.

"One of the lessons we learned from the past is that it's not about one player. It's about the team," Leon said. "But we'll evaluate everything."

"You're always hoping a guy can come in and have an immediate impact," Klopas said, "but you've got to be realistic. The history of our club shows that it takes some time. There's an adjustment period for players coming in."

In addition to Grazzini and the injured Puppo, the Fire will be without defender Gonzalo Segares on Friday. He will serve a one-game suspension for the red card he drew in the Columbus match.

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.