Preps Talk

Obey the Kings: 5 ways the Hawks differ from the champs

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Obey the Kings: 5 ways the Hawks differ from the champs

When you're one of the 29 teams watching another NHL franchise hoist the Stanley Cup, you can also be learning what you need to close the gap with the new champions. Here are a few areas the 2012-13 Blackhawks are currently different from the Hollywood story in LA.

1) Between the pipes: The numbers say everything as Corey Crawford posted a .903 save percentage and 2.72 goals-against average in the regular season while Jonathan Quick had a .929 save percentage and 1.95 GAA. In the playoffs, Crawford went 2-4 with a .893 save percentage and 2.58 GAA against the Phoenix Coyotes. Quick, the Conn Smythe winner, went 16-4 with a .946 save percentage and 1.41 GAA against the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, Coyotes and New Jersey Devils.

2) Size: Having skill and speed is important, but size helps win battles in the corners and create havoc in front of an opposing goalie. The Kings had plenty of it. LA regularly dressed eight players standing 6-foot-3 or taller including Jeff Carter, Dwight King, Azne Kopitar, Jordan Nolan, Dustin Penner, Kevin Westgarth, Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell. The Blackhawks only list five players that size: Bryan Bickell, Jimmy Hayes, Viktor Stalberg, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

3) Strength down the middle: By acquiring Mike Richards in the offseason, the Kings gave themselves a solid 1-2 center punch with Kopitar. They have an effective checking-line center in Jarret Stoll and rookie Jordan Nolan gave more than enough for a fourth-line center. While Jonathan Toews ranks among the best centers in the entire NHL, the second-line center was a void all season for the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane's growth at that position could make this area a lot closer next season, while Dave Bolland remains a terrific checking-line center and Marcus Kruger or Jamal Mayers take fourth-line center duties. This might be the quickest way the Hawks make up ground on the champs, but it all hinges on Kane's adjustment.

4) Quality depth: Colin Fraser, a fourth-liner, scored the first goal of the Stanley Cup Final. King, a rookie, had five playoff goals. Trevor Lewis, another fourth-line regular, had nine playoff points. Penner came alive with three goals and eight assists. This depth helped supplement the Kings core all the way to the Cup. While Bickell and Michael Frolik had a few nice games in the playoffs, secondary scoring on the Hawks was hard to come by all season. Andrew Shaw provided a nice spark, but that was about it. If it wasn't the core putting the puck in the net, it usually wasn't anybody. Contrast that with the 2010 Stanley Cup winners when Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien helped contribute consistently. Even Ben Eager scored a goal in the Cup Final.

5) Defensive pairings: Each of the Kings defensive duos combined one puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman with one physical, solid, minimal-mistake defenseman. Drew Doughty (offense) paired with Rob Scuderi (defense), Slava Voynov (offense) paired with Mitchell (defense) and Alec Martinez (offense) paired with Greene (defense). This type of balance can only truly be found in one of the Blackhawks pairings -- Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Finding two combinations among the rest of the Hawks defense that achieve this balance is difficult with Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya, Steve Montador, Dylan Olsen and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

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.