Bears

Blackhawks on brink of elimination after Game 4 loss

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Blackhawks on brink of elimination after Game 4 loss

The Blackhawks just can't help themselves. They apparently just love the late-regulation drama, that crazed hockey in the final minutes, sometimes seconds.

But once again, their late third-period push couldn't be capitalized upon in overtime.

Michael Frolik tied it with 1:26 remaining in regulation, but Mikkel Boedker scored his second game-winning overtime goal in as many games in the Phoenix Coyotes' 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks in their Western Conference quarterfinal series.

The Coyotes took both games at the United Center and now command a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Coyotes took a 2-0 lead in the third period, thanks to Shane Doan and Taylor Pyatt's goals, which came within 44 seconds of each other. But midway through the third, the Blackhawks got a break. Brendan Morrison, a late add in place of healthy scratch Jamal Mayers, fired one that deflected off Rostislav Klesla's stick and past Mike Smith to make it 2-1. And then Frolik, who had just five goals in the regular season, scored his second of this postseason to force the fourth overtime of this series.

The last NHL series in which the first four games all went to overtime, according to TSN, was the 1951 Stanley Cup Final between Toronto and Montreal.

The Blackhawks' six consecutive playoff overtimes is a new record.

Questions linger at running back, kicker as Bears arrive in Arizona for NFL meetings

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USA Today

Questions linger at running back, kicker as Bears arrive in Arizona for NFL meetings

PHOENIX — As the NFL annual meetings begin this week at the extravagant Arizona Biltmore, the storylines that’ll dominate the next few days won’t involve the Bears a whole lot. Robert Kraft’s solicitation charges, Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, instant replay for pass interference and guaranteeing both teams possess the ball in overtime: These are the topics that’ll drive the national conversation about the NFL this week. 

The Bears come to the warmth and sun of Arizona as one of the NFL’s most relevant teams, coming off a 12-4 season with a dynamic coach, elite defense and an under-construction quarterback. But there’s no drama surrounding the organization. They didn’t trade away one of the best receivers in the NFL or go on a spending spree. They’re not in the market for Kyler Murray. They’re not agitating for rule changes after getting wronged in the playoffs by anything other than the Soldier Field's north end zone upright and crossbar. 

But there still remain some unresolved questions surrounding the team beyond, of course, the biggest one (how good will Mitch Trubisky be in 2019?). A few important topics to note: 

What’s left to shake out at running back?

Jordan Howard is still on the Bears’ roster a few weeks after a report surfaced that the Bears were discussing trading the 24-year-old running back. That’s hardly surprising: The running back free agent market, after Le’Veon Bell signed that massive deal with the New York Jets, didn’t deliver any other large contracts. Only three other free agent running backs received more than $5 million in guaranteed money (Mark Ingram from Baltimore, Latavius Murray from New Orleans, Tevin Coleman from San Francisco). Guys like Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon and C.J. Anderson are all still available on the free agent market, too. 

The point: Why would a team give up a valuable draft pick for Howard right now, when there have been and still are options available for a more modest cost?

The Bears don’t have to trade Howard, hardly, given a healthy cap situation (more on that later) and the simple fact that they haven’t drafted a running back yet. It may seem like a safe assumption that Ryan Pace will select a running back with a third/fourth/fifth-round pick, but then again, it seemed like a safe assumption that Pace would take an outside linebacker before the sixth round in last year’s draft. 

Howard very well could have a role on the 2019 Bears if the running backs the team likes aren’t available, or aren’t among their “best available” options when they’re on the clock in April. Pace could move Howard during the draft to improve his draft position by a round or two, or in a given round, but it’s unlikely to be a drastic improvement. 

Still, the Bears need to improve their running game for the overall health of Matt Nagy's offense. Signing Mike Davis should help with those efforts, but that move may not be the entirety of the solution. There’s still plenty left to play out here. 

Will the kicking competition add more names?

So far, the Bears have two kickers on their roster: Chris Blewitt and Redford Jones. Neither have kicked in an NFL game despite last appearing at the college level since 2016 and 2017, respectively. 

Pace said at the NFL Combine last month he envisions a “major competition” to determine who the Bears’ kicker will be in 2019, and that could result in more than two kickers being a part of it. Blewitt and Jones both emerged out of tryouts earlier this year; it seems likely, though, that the Bears will bring in at least one more kicker who at the least played somewhere in 2018. 

The Bears do currently have the cap space to sign Stephen Gostkowski, though coupled with Cody Parkey’s dead money that could mean sinking upward of $8 million into a position on which teams usually don’t spend. It also may be telling that the 35-year-old Gostkowski is still available despite kicking for the New England Patriots for the last 13 years. 

Perhaps a more likely path is the Bears using one of their two seventh-round draft picks on a kicker, or signing an undrafted free agent. This “major competition,” too, also isn’t guaranteed to result in anything: The Bears, after all, could find their 2019 kicker on the waiver wire after cut-down day in September. 

Capping it off

Per the NFLPA’s public salary cap report, the Bears have $17,795,716 in available cap space. Even with that amount, the contract edge rusher Justin Houston signed with the Indianapolis Colts (two years, $24 million) was probably too rich, and it’s unlikely he would’ve wanted to come to the Bears anyway without a clear path to a prominent role. 

Cap space can roll over from year to year, so the Bears don’t have to spend all of that money. There was an assumption making the rounds on social media — after the team created a sizable chunk of cap space by converting some of Khalil Mack’s base salary to a signing bonus — that the Bears were lining up for a big-splash move, but Pace was keen on using it to make smaller acquisitions. The team could still use an edge rusher to slide into a rotational role behind Mack and Leonard Floyd, which Aaron Lynch (who's still a free agent) filled last year. 

The Bears’ cap situation in future years, though, is more interesting. Without any rollover cap, increase in the league’s cap space and roster moves, Spotrac estimates the Bears have a little under $3 million in cap space in 2020. That, though, will go up — but then also come down via Floyd’s fifth-year option salary and, potentially, a new contract for Cody Whitehair. 

2021 is when the Bears’ cap situation will be fascinating, too, with Mack’s cap hit checking in at $26.646 million, per Spotrac. A fifth-year option for Trubisky will be worth north of $20 million, meaning nearly $50 million in cap space could be tied up between those two players. Pace and his front office have managed the cap well during their time in Chicago, but building a competitive roster will become more of a challenge beginning in 2021 when Trubisky’s salary will escalate. 

Then again, it’ll be easier to build a competitive roster if Trubisky develops into the kind of quarterback who can make an entire team better. 

19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What can the Cubs expect from Yu Darvish?

Yu Darvish's inaugural season in Chicago obviously didn't go well. But despite a minor blister issue, Year 2 seems to be off to a much better start.

Darvish has been different this spring - from his physical shape (he's added more muscle) to his health to his confidence and comfortability.

He said he now feels like part of the family in the clubhouse and has been holding court with reporters without a translator, even cracking jokes on the regular. He was confident enough in his English skills last year to interact with teammates and understand the media questions he was asked without a translation, but he still responded in Japanese, which created some miscommunication at times.

The blister issue Darvish had a few days ago caused Cubdom to hold their breath momentarily, but it doesn't appear to be anything serious and he may not even miss a start because of it. The forearm bone bruise is completely gone and Darvish had a procedure to clean up his elbow right before the offseason started, so he should enter 2019 as close to 100 percent as somebody with a blister on their pitching hand can be.

He also doesn't have to answer any questions about his performance in the World Series or try to determine if he was tipping pitches - two issues he had to discuss last spring coming off a couple of nightmare outings in the 2017 Fall Classic.

On top of that, there's something to an increase in comfortability in Year 2 of a megadeal, which Jon Lester has talked about in detail the last few seasons. Lester admitted he was pressing in his first year with the Cubs, trying to live up to his big contract and the lofty expectations that came with it. But he also said he felt a lot more comfortable in the second year of his deal, especially during a season in which the Cubs had World Series expectations.

Maybe Darvish follows that same path. He doesn't have the same pressure or burden he had a year ago and the Cubs don't need him to be their ace - they already have a rotation filled with proven veterans.

Remember, this is still the same pitcher who has whiffed 11 batters per 9 innings over his 872.1-inning big-league career. Prior to 2018, Darvish had never posted an ERA over 3.86 or WHIP over 1.28 in a season (last year he was at 4.95 and 1.43, respectively).

Nobody can guarantee health for a full season, but if Darvish is able to throw even 120-150 quality innings, that would be a huge boon for the Cubs in 2019.

- Tony Andracki 

It feels like Darvish's decline has become a bit overstated at this point. He was bad last year, but also clearly hurt and only has a 40-inning sample size. He had gotten to at least 100 innings in each of his prior five seasons and was averaging 166 IPs per season until 2018. 

If he's healthy, there's no reason not to expect the Darvish that's a 4-time All Star and Cy Young runner-up. What looks like a dip in production during the 2017 season -- when he was traded from Texas to the Dodgers -- is actually somewhat misleading - Darvish's K-rate, BB-rate, and velocity all returned to career norms when he joined the Dodgers. Pitching in Texas can be a disaster, and all of Darvish's park-adjusted numbers suggest that the Globe Life Park wasn't doing him any favors. No one's confusing Wrigley for say, Safeco (or T-Mobile I guess), but it beats the launching pad in Dallas. 

Much of Darvish's value stems from the fact that he gives the Cubs' rotation something they don't otherwise have: a high-volume strikeout guy. No other starter comes close to piling up strikeouts the way that Darvish can - his K/9 rate is almost three batters more than any other starter on staff. 

A bounce back season from Darvish and he's probably in the conversation to be a hypothetical playoff Game 1 starter. Leaving Spring Training games is always a little bit concerning, but given Darvish's injury history, it could have been much worse. Overall, there are a lot of signs pointing towards a really good 2019 for Darvish, and the Cubs could use all the good pitching news they can get. 

- By Cam Ellis

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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