Preps Talk

Hockey's biggest star returns to ice Monday night

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Hockey's biggest star returns to ice Monday night

From Comcast SportsNet

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The great wait is finally over for Sidney Crosby.

Crosby, the NHL's biggest name but an idled star for more than 10 months due to a serious concussion, will return to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup Monday night against the New York Islanders.

It was difficult Sunday to tell who was happier Crosby, who finally returns to the sport he was dominating at this time a year ago, the first-place Penguins themselves or the NHL's hierarchy, which has long awaited the comeback of its marquee talent.

This will likely be the NHL's most-anticipated comeback game since former Penguins star Mario Lemieux ended his 3 12-season retirement by playing against the Maple Leafs on Dec. 27, 2000.

"He's excited. He's anxious. He's been wanting to play hockey for a long time," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after talking with Crosby, who was cleared Sunday to play by his doctors. "Now that he is scheduled to play, the anticipation is coming to the forefront and he's excited."

He's not the only one.

Crosby's return figures to give a major lift to the Penguins, who, even without their best player, are 11-6-3 and are tied with Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference lead. Monday's game will be only the third in the last two seasons that the Penguins will have their top three centres Crosby, former scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal on the ice together.

No doubt the NHL is thrilled to get back its biggest attraction, a player who is only 24 yet one who already owns an MVP award, a scoring championship, a Stanley Cup victory and an Olympic gold medal.

"We're certainly going to enjoy No. 87 out there," Bylsma said.

Especially since there has been so much speculation and second guessing about when Crosby would play for the first time since Jan. 5, when a second hard hit in as many games resulted in the first concussion of his career.

The Penguins initially thought he would be back last season but Crosby never got close to doing so. He didn't practise again until March 31, and he was shut down for good in mid-April once concussion-related symptoms that included a sensitivity to bright light and loud noises, dizziness and fatigue returned.

Those symptoms persisted whenever he attempted to ratchet up his training regimen during the summer and, according to Crosby, they didn't disappear until shortly before training camp began Sept. 17.

Since then, the Penguins and Crosby's medical team have taken a slow, patient approach, trying to make sure that Crosby was symptom-free before he played again.

The Crosby-is-back speculation increased Nov. 7, when he refused to rule out playing later that week. Two days before, he unexpectedly left the Penguins in Los Angeles to return to Pittsburgh and meet with his doctors.

During the last two weeks, Crosby has declined to speak to reporters, another sign that his return appeared to be near.

Both Crosby and the Penguins insisted that no date or opponent was targeted once he was cleared by doctors, including his concussion specialists, he would return immediately.

His own teammates, at least publicly, kept insisting they had no idea when he would be back, saying they didn't want to pester him with questions about his health and playing status.

"Everybody knows how badly he wants to play," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said.

If Crosby had a bad practice in the two months, he was restricted to working out with his teammates, no one said so. He was frequently dazzling, showing off the moves, creativity and intensity that helped him accumulate 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games last season, putting him on pace for the highest-scoring season by an NHL player since Lemieux in 1995-96.

"We've seen him do some pretty crazy things, and we've seen him at a high pace," Bylsma said.

The Penguins, in a testament to their depth and resiliency, have gone 34-19-8 without Crosby the last two seasons. Even after losing to Tampa Bay and Florida on a two-game Florida road trip that ended Saturday, they are 11-6-3 and are tied with the Flyers for the Atlantic Division lead.

Now, the Penguins' goal is to be even better now that their signature star is back. Crosby was always certain he would be back shortly before training camp began he scoffed at rumours that the concussion threatened his career.

"We don't want to be in a situation where we just stand around and get caught up watching Sidney Crosby play," Bylsma said. "We have to engage and get to our game and be ready to play like our team can."

For now, Bylsma likely will reduce Crosby's playing time, cutting into his usual 20-plus minutes. According to his coach, Crosby will need some time to regain his game legs and get back to game speed.

Even if teammates such as James Neal and Steve Sullivan predict it won't take long.

"You get those guys in a game, they always want to go out one more shift," Bylsma said. "So we may have to tie him to the bench a bit."

What everyone across the NHL will be waiting to see is how Crosby absorbs hits, especially the first one that is levelled near his head. Brendan Shanahan, the new vice president for player safety, is intent on reducing the number of head shots, but even he knows they cannot be eliminated completely.

Since being cleared Oct. 13 for contact during practice, Crosby has absorbed some hitting during practice, but it has not approximated what occurs during a game.

Still, as Bylsma said, "He's a hard guy to hit. He's a hard guy to go after and hit hard. He's had a fair amount of that (hitting) and I know he's confident in those areas."

Bylsma initially plans on playing Crosby on a line with familiar linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. But Crosby also has practised at times with Malkin and with James Neal, the Penguins' top goal scorer to date with 12 goals.

"Sometimes Game 1 is on adrenaline, and it takes a few games for players to get that timing back, the speed of the game," Bylsma said. "It's easy to see in practice that he's the best player on the ice with his speed and the way he plays the game. He'll bring that to the game (Monday)."

And, along with it, the hopes and expectations of a team, a city and also a league that hasn't quite been the same since Crosby was sidelined by shots from the Capitals' David Steckel on Jan. 1 and the Lightning's Victor Hedman on Jan. 5.

After Monday, Crosby will continue his comeback at home Wednesday against the Blues and Friday against the Senators. His first road game and his first back in his native Canada will be Saturday night in Montreal.

Recruiting news and notes: Lincoln-Way East's AJ Henning piling up major offers

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HUDL

Recruiting news and notes: Lincoln-Way East's AJ Henning piling up major offers

Lincoln-Way East sophomore athlete recruit AJ Henning (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) continues to pile up the major Power 5 scholarship offers this winter including his latest from Stanford on Wednesday.

"Stanford offered me a scholarship today (Wednesday)," Henning said. "I have thirteen scholarship offers so far and it's pretty amazing to have opportunities from such great schools and football programs."

Henning, who was a key performer in leading the Griffins to the 2017 Class 8A state championship run has been taking all of the recruiting attention and offers in stride.

"My family and I talk about recruiting a little bit but it's not really that pressing for me," he said. "I still have two years left of high school so I'm really not in any rush."

Henning, who plans to visit Notre Dame on March 3 is now holding early scholarship offers from Central Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Miami of Ohio, Michigan State, Minnesota, Missouri, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State, Stanford, Syracuse and Western Michigan.

Oswego East junior defensive back recruit Justin Clark (6-foot, 180 pounds) has also seen a nice spike in his overall recruiting stock this winter. Clark has been able to add six scholarship offers along with recruiting attention from several Big Ten programs.

"I have offers now from NIU, Bowling Green, Miami of Ohio, Iowa State, Toledo and Ohio University," according to Clark. "I've also been staying in touch with Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue. Northwestern is waiting on my test score and they seem pretty interested. Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota all want me to come out and visit them on campus and the same goes for all the schools who have offered me."

Clark, who played quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety, cornerback as well as return kicks and punts and also punted for Oswego East being recruiting to play at what position in college so far?

"So far the majority of schools are recruiting me to play safety," Clark said. "I'm very open when it comes to position and I also love to return kicks and punts. I just like to be as versatile of a player as I can for my team."

Batavia junior linebacker Michael Jansey Jr. (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has continued to remain on several college recruiting radar screens this winter and Jansey Jr. has also seen his offers list grow.

"It seems like my recruiting is all starting to come together really well," Jansey Jr. said. "My latest offers from from Miami of Ohio, Kent State, Eastern Kentucky, Cornell and Wyoming."

Jansey Jr, has also remained in steady contact with several Big Ten schools this winter.

"I'm also in touch with Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska," he said. "Also some of the SEC schools are starting to follow me on Twitter. It's just pretty exciting and my recruiting is really starting to all coming together."

Jansey Jr. has early scholarship offers now from Central Michigan, Ball State, Toledo, Illinois State, Iowa State, Western Michigan, Princeton, Cornell, Kent State, Miami of Ohio, Wyoming, Illinois State and Eastern Kentucky.

One of the better stories in the Class of 2019 in Chicagoland has to be Jacobs junior offensive tackle Joacheim Price (6-foot-8, 310 pounds). Price, who has been a mainstay on the Golden Eagles basketball team since his freshman year had never played football until last June. Price is now holding early offers from the likes of Illinois, West Virginia, Iowa State and Northern Illinois this winter. 

"The first time in summer football workouts I didn't know how to get into a stance," Price said. "I had to stay over after every practice that summer just to work on getting into a stance. I also had to learn all of the plays and also learn technique. I just hung in there and kept working and started to gain more and more confidence."

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.