Blackhawks

What does Soler signing do to Cubs' system?

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What does Soler signing do to Cubs' system?

Now that the Cubs have signed Jorge Soler, things are about to change for the franchise, right?

Well, not so fast, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. Just ask Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who tweeted Monday: "Cubs system is getting better. Throw in potential returns for Dempster, Garza and a big pick in 2013 and it could be a HUGE step forward."

Talk about unbridled optimism for Cubs fans, eh? The big-league club may be on pace to lose a franchise record of games, but the future gets brighter seemingly every day.

Last week, the Cubs selected high school outfielder Albert Almora with the sixth overall pick in the MLB Draft, followed by a slew of pitchers.

In January, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer traded Andrew Cashner for slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has done nothing but mash in Triple-A since.

And then of course there was 2011 first-round draft pick Javier Baez, a pure hitter out of high school.

So where does Soler fit into all this?

"You could make a very good case that he's No. 1," Jim Callis of Baseball America said on WGN Radio Monday night. "You're talking about a 20-year old kid. To me, it'd be him and Baez. I like Almora a lot. Soler and Baez have a little bit more offensive upside than Almora. I think Almora is a better all-around player, but Soler and Baez are more explosive.

"You're talking about two guys who can do a ton of damage in the middle of the lineup. Soler's got great bat speed. You're looking at at least plus power and a solid runner. He just really fits that right-field profile. I would probably go Soler. I think Baez is going to wind up moving to third. It's Soler-Baez or Baez-Soler for me."

Baez, 19, was recently promoted to Low-A Peoria and carries a .277.370.468 line with five steals in 13 games.

With Almora, Rizzo, Baez and Soler in tow, joining Starlin Castro, Brett Jackson and Junior Lake, diehard Cubs fans like David Kaplan have something to get excited about.

On CTL Monday, Kap put together a graphic that showed what the Cubs' lineup could look like on Opening Day in 2015:

1. Brett Jackson LF
2. Starlin Castro SS
3. Albert Almora CF
4. Anthony Rizzo 1B
5. Jorge Soler RF
6. Javier Baez 3B
7. Junior Lake 2B
8. Steve Clevenger C
9. Jeff Samardzija P

"I can very much see that scenario," Callis said of Kap's projected 2015 lineup. "I think that's realistic. That's what the Cubs are building toward. The good news, too, is when I look long-term at this division, there's not a team that stands out.

"You look at the Rangers, where they have a great major-league team and a great farm system. Or the AL East where you have all these financial power houses and you have the Rays and you have the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays might have the best farm system in the game if the Rangers don't.

"There's nobody in the NL Central where I look at and say 'wow, that team's going to be tough to beat in three years.' Cubs fans are going to have to take their lumps for the next couple of years, but when you look long-term in that division, there's no one positioned to just ride roughshod over everybody else for the next five or 10 years."

So the offense looks pretty dang good. Again, if everybody fulfills their potential and sticks with the team.

But what about the pitching? Apart from Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza (who may very well wind up involved in a trade), the Cubs aren't sure what they have in the way of pitching prospects. But they set out to try to correct that problem in last week's draft.

"Almora got the bulk of the attention in this year's draft as the sixth overall pick, but the Cubs came back and got pitchers with the next six or seven picks," Callis said. "Supplemental pick Pierce Johnson is a guy who probably could have gone in the first round if he hadn't had a little forearm stiffness that cost him a couple weeks. That's a first-round talent.

"Supplemental pick Paul Blackburn is a good high school pitcher from California who's polished. Second-round pick Duane Underwood has a tremendous fastball. They have some guys there. The question is going to be what else the system can produce. Trey McNutt is a good arm, but probably more of a reliever than a starter in the long term. Dillon Maples -- we really haven't seen a whole lot of since he got 2.5 million. That's gonna be the focus now is finding some pitching to go with all this offensive talent."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

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USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."