Blackhawks

Dempster, Wells & what it means to be a big-leaguer

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Dempster, Wells & what it means to be a big-leaguer

One morning in 2004, Randy Wells and his roommate pulled into a McDonalds drive-thru on their way to the ballpark to get some breakfast.

Wells was a 38th-round pick, a converted catcher pitching for Class-A Lansing. Wrigley Field might as well have been on another planet.

There was a car in front of us that was taking forever and we were running a little late, Wells recalled. Im like: What the hell is going on, man? The car pulled out, we got our Egg McMuffins or whatever and rolled to the field and followed the same car all the way.

It pulls into the lot and we get out of our car and as were walking in this guy rolls down the window and says, Hey, can you guys carry this? He drops a huge box of Egg McMuffins on us and says, Hey, can you take care of my dogs?

We all walk in the clubhouse and everybody looks at us like: What the hell?

And here comes (this guy) in his oh-so-funny (voice saying): Hey, dont feed my dogs, they might (bleep) in your locker. It was just the start of whats to come for Ryan Dempster over the next eight to nine years.

Wells still cracked up telling that story on Tuesday, sitting in the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, more than 200 miles from that drive-thru in Michigan.

Theres been so many ups and downs, and hes heard this question so many times before, that Wells laughed when asked what Wednesday nights start means against the White Sox: You guys dont have any tape in the archives?

Yes, Wells would like to start. And, of course, he has something to prove to this front office, which stashed him at Triple-A Iowa out of spring training.

But this isnt how Wells envisioned leaving the bullpen and getting his shot: Dempster went on the disabled list on Monday with a tight right lat muscle. And there is the sense that the end is near, once Dempster (2.11 ERA) shows the market hes healthy before the July 31 trade deadline.

So Wells thought back to the beginning, before Dempster was a face of the franchise, to when this was just another guy recovering from Tommy John surgery.

It was funny, too, because Mark Prior had just rehabbed (there), Wells said. They made a huge deal out of it. The paper had full-size Prior pictures and they were hanging up everywhere.

And then a week later, Demp rolls in. They dont have anything, so he made his own posters, drew some stick figures that said: Ryan Dempster will pitch at Oldsmobile Park tonight.

It gets lost in the shuffle now, but Wells won 12 games and posted a 3.05 ERA as a rookie in 2009. He accounted for 32 starts and almost 200 innings the next year. After a forearm strain wiped out almost two months last season, he went 6-3 with a 4.04 ERA in 14 second-half starts.

Remember what Dempster meant to Wells the next time you hear someone wondering why this veteran or that veteran is still around, demanding that Theo Epstein clean house and go all-in with the youth movement.

I dont think words could describe it, Wells said. As a young player who never even sniffed or thought about sniffing the major leagues the leadership that he (radiated was) immeasurable.

It was just how to be professional and go about your business. (We) never really had a talk about pitching in the sense of like: Hey, this is what you got to do. Because everybodys (mechanics are) different. His tutelage to me has always been mental approach: Hey, this is how you prepare. This is how you stay in the game a long time. This is how you act as a professional baseball player.

When Ryan comes into the clubhouse, the mood rises. And all these trade talks or whatever, you dont even want to think about it because its kind of like when (Ted) Lilly left and (Derrek) Lee left. Its not so much the production or what you get out of them in the lineup. Its what you get when you show up to the field every day. Its priceless.

Thats what a contender could get for the stretch run, a 35-year-old pitcher who will infuse the clubhouse with energy, set an example and wont be afraid of the big stage.

Even if he felt like the media blew it out of proportion last season, Wells credited his strong second half, in part, to a kick in the butt from Dempster that put him in the right frame of mind.

So remember this the next time someone quotes you VORP or WAR and lays out the rebuilding plan. Dont forget that the Cubs are going to need leaders in 2013 to bridge them to where they want to go in the future.

I can honestly say I dont know where my career would be without a guy like Ryan Dempster, Wells said. Its just stuff that the fans dont get to see. Fans only see what happens on the field. They only see production and results and the stuff that Ryan brings off the field is immeasurable.

Any team would be lucky to have him. (But) I definitely dont want to see him go and I think I speak for everyone else in there.

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."