Blackhawks

Frankie O: Hocus Pocus!

Frankie O: Hocus Pocus!

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.comTheres always the struggle in life, at least from my perspective, for some to understand what they have and what they see. Thankfully, many who suffer from this affliction often frequent my workplaces and this leads to many interesting discussions. Giving an illusion often helps in misperceptions. Say youre an old, weight challenged bartender, (Im just saying!), if you wear all black and turn the lights down as far as possible when starting your shift, you all of the sudden look much thinner, younger and hipper! Of course, we all know that is NOT the reality. Its an illusion!For Chicago sports fans I could take this analogy in many different directions, but for now well focus on the Bears. The Bears are one of the premier franchises of the NFL. Their place in NFL history is as real as it gets. They are part of the fabric of Chicago. This is true of a lot of pro football teams, but even more so here.It is because of this that the populace longs for a team that attains its rightful glory. But for as long as Ive lived here, 1995, that glory has been elusive. The Bears have reached the playoffs in only 4 of those 17 seasons. I know for a fact that has driven the masses crazy. Each of those appearances ultimately led to an untimely demise. Or was it? Upon my arrival, and some would say not so coincidentally, the Bears went 35-61 in the nextsix seasons. This led to the arrival of GM Jerry Angelo prior to the 2001 season. From his history in Tampa Bay as a talent evaluator, we were led to believe he would build the foundation from which the Bears would succeed for years to come. The 13-3 regular season record in his first season only raised the expectations. But, in a sign of things to come, that team was smoked, at home, in the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles 33-19. I was among the naysayers that said while that season was fun, it wasnt real. That team was as lucky as any I had ever seen, and as happens often in sports, was found out when it mattered most. That team went 16-32 over the nextthree seasons so as to cement the point. The 2003 season also allowed Angelo to un-arrange his forced marriage to head coach Dick Jauron, which was unfortunately lengthened due to the 2001 fluke season and subsequent mandatory contract extension, and bring in his guy, Lovie Smith. (Quick aside: I had the pleasure, during a slow evening at the bar, to be invited to sit and chat at a table with Jauron and a childhood friend of his who was in to visit. He was as polite, nice and articulate as anyone I have ever met. Maybe a bit too nice to be an NFL coach, but he has held a position on a staff or as the head man for 27 straight years so maybe there is a place for nice guys. I always thought he got a bad rap here, but I guess thats personal. Ultimately, head coaches should be judged on results. Nothing else. Nothing personal.) This concluded a ten year stretch with a record of 64-96 and 1 meager short-lived playoff appearance. Monsters? No! Scary? Yes!Then in the first glory years since the 1985 team that we REPEATEDLY hear about, the Bears went 24-8 over the 05 and 06 seasons, winningtwo division titles and reaching the Super Bowl following the 06 season. These teams were largely built through the drafting of Angelo and some accentuation through free-agency. But twothings here: No. 1- They did not win the Super Bowl. Excuse make all you want, but that is, and always will be, the only thing that matters.No.2 - For all the talent on the defensive side, those teams were never taken seriously due to the quarterback, just YouTube Dennis Green to get that point. A matchup of Rex Grossman vs. Peyton Manning would be asking a lot of the great Ravens or Steeler defenses of the past, let alone the Bears, and proved their undoing. Good Rex- Bad Rex. The fall-off to mediocrity was not a huge surprise, but angered the faithful to no end. Their appetite had been whetted and they wanted more. At this point, Angelo made his boldest move, the trade for Jay Cutler. As I wrote at the time I saw the two sides of this move. Angelos understanding that he needed a franchise quarterback and to buy time and job security for himself. If you persuade ownership to pay a kings ransom to acquire a difference maker, they need to keep you around, at least for a while, to see it through, dont they? Smart move on both counts. I have supported the Cutler move here from the beginning. My contention is that he has NEVER been afforded any, or proper, support. The offensive talent around him, minus Matt Forte, is suspect at best. More importantly, the offensive system employed by Mike Martz never played to Cutler strengths. I would think this to be a fatal flaw and it was, for Angelo and Martz. The additional time afforded Angelo, and to Smith, turned into the ill-fated joy ride of 2010. Whereas I thought 2001 was a fluke, it had nothing on 2010. Playing 4 back-up QBs can go a long way to making your record look better than it should be. Having the rest of a mediocre NFC fall apart affording you a week off and a chance to play one of the worst playoff teams ever for a spot in the NFC championship game was a string of luck for the ages. The thing is, you have to take advantage of your luck as it occurs, not think of it as a harbinger for the future. The Caleb Hanie mirage in the title game turned out to be another nail in the Angelo coffin. Not that I, or almost anyone else that I have talked to or listened to, understood this at the time. But the point is, we were told that this was a team that could compete with any in the NFL. Really? An NFL season offers us many things to see if we want to watch. What has become apparent in this NFL, is that you need the ability to score from anywhere on the field at any time. Create fear in your opponent. Its Al Daviss dream run amok. But the only time the Bears strike this fear is when Devin Hester is lining up to receive a kick.As far as offensive weapons go, this team brings a knife to a gun fight almost every week. Every rule change made in this league over the last twenty years has favored the offense and offensive football. I like dominant defensive play as much as the next guy, but is that type of team going to exist again within these rules?Even Sandra Bullock knows you need a left tackle, so much so that she made a movie about it. But the one constant since Cutler got here, if not before, is the offensive line or lack of.
Angelos final foray into free agency brought the three Cowboys. Marion Barber: Played well then got hurt, big surprise. But not before mistakes that costtwo ballgames. Roy Williams: The big wideout to go with their smurfs. Has anyone else had a career where he had one good year, then did nothing since, for years, and still acts like hes all-pro? Awful! Sam Hurd: I dont blame Angelo completely for hiring a would-be drug kingpin, but didnt their security team know anything about this guy?The lack of offensive talent on this team, especially when compared to the rest of the division, is startling. Are we really to believe that bringing in Roy Williams would take the receiver talent on this team to the level of the Packers? The Lions? The Vikings?!! So that brings us to the events of this Tuesday. The reactions Ive heard at the bar or in the media, is the surprise at the fact that the move was actually made and the fact that Lovie survived. Im stunned that the move to fire Angelo was made with two years left on his current contract. But Im in total agreement that this team is regressing in the division, talent wise, under his watch.Lovie can only play the guys he has. As Ive also stated here recently, Lovie is starting to grow on me. (Stop that!) His demeanor is who he is. I like the even keel nature he displays, although, I wonder if his tight-to- the- vest manner would allow him to command an aggressive offense. This fallacy that you need to get off the bus running is not going to win this division, or a title. You eventually need to have the ability to throw. (Green Bay and New England arent exactly warm-weather cities and they both threw for well over 5000 yards. Why cant the Bears?) This means more talent on the offensive side of the ball. A large price was paid to bring in a quarterback of championship caliber. But it doesnt stop there. Angelo was right that he needed someone of Cutlers ability, but he didnt see it through and build the offense around him to let him flourish. Ultimately, that was his undoing. Its not like he couldnt have considering how far the team is under the salary cap. It didnt seem like there was a sense of urgency in the front office to provide the necessary talent to close the gap, on Green Bay especially.And lets not forget that the vaunted defense gave up 350 yards and over 21 points a game. That is not dominant.I applaud the ownership, now led by Chairman George McCaskey, at least publically, to make such a bold move. That most of the media is nit-picking is missing the point. This is a first act. It says that failure is not an option. I havent heard that out of the McCaskeys since Ive lived here, have you? A new path has been chosen. Of course this type of bold action being taken, being so foreign, may take some time to be completely done right. So be it. While Lovie may have gained power here as some suggest, I think he acquired a target squarely affixed to himself. Put up or shut up. The parameter put on a new GM was to keep Lovie for next year, not thetwo years left on his contract. The onus is on him to FINALLY accept responsibility for what happens on the offensive side of the ball, talent-wise and scheme-wise. He too needs to accept that the offense needs to be tailored to his franchise QB, not the other way around. The illusion for many was that this Bears team was the one that was 7-3 coming off of a NFC championship game defeat. The reality is that this team, even if Cutler and Forte stayed healthy, was not in the upper echelon of the NFL. All you need to do is watch the playoffs this year to realize that. What happened here is something larger. The easy thing to do would have been to let everyone come back and blame injuries for this seasons failure. That was not the case. Perhaps spurred on by the bold moves that accompanied Rocky Wirtz taking over the Blackhawks and the Ricketts familys ownership and change of status quo with the Cubs (even if it took a little longer than hoped), the McCaskey family had to give its blessing for the bloodletting that occurred this week. Lets hope they fully understand that they need to follow through. Not long after he became Chairman, I heard a lot of discussion on the radio about the time that George McCaskey spent working in the Bears ticket office, that the experience allowed him to connect with the fans that funded the team with their support. You hear this speculation and wonder if it would really make a difference. Well in the first time many of us saw or heard him talk about his vision for his team, his actions spoke louder than any of us could have imagined. Lets hope he has the will to go the distance. Lets hope we can believe what we are seeing.

Six thoughts on Blackhawks-Penguins trade involving Olli Maatta and what's next

Six thoughts on Blackhawks-Penguins trade involving Olli Maatta and what's next

Here are six thoughts on Saturday's trade that centered around the Blackhawks acquiring defenseman Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick:

1. What Maatta brings to the table

It's no secret that the Blackhawks' biggest weakness in 2018-19 was the defensive inefficiencies. They allowed the second-most goals per game (3.55) and and most high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (13.7), and the blue line group was a big reason for that.

So Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman tried getting out in front of the trade market by acquiring Maatta, who's a defensive-minded defenseman and logged more than 120 minutes on the penalty kill last season, which would've ranked third among Blackhawks defensemen. And he played in only 60 games. Expect Maatta to play a large role in that department for the Blackhawks, who finished tied for the worst penalty kill percentage in 30 years.

Maatta doesn't provide much on offense and skating is considered to be a real concern, but his defensive metrics are strong. According to The Point, Maatta ranked ninth among NHL defensemen in blocked shots per game (2.05), 26th in defensive zone puck battles won (2.45), 40th in blocked defense zone passes (3.77) and 47th in outlet passes (8.95). 

"There's a lot of things to like about Olli Maatta," Bowman said on a Sunday morning conference call. "Certainly his strength in the last few seasons has been his ability to be a good, reliable defender. He's got good size, he's not necessarily a bruising defenseman, but I like the fact he's got an active stick. He's good at using his body to shield the front of the net. And I think he's shown the ability to be used in several different situations over the past few years for Pittsburgh. They have some high-end offensive players there, so he didn't really get the power-play minutes. He was probably more used as a penalty killer and that's something that we certainly want to improve next year.

"There's a variety of ways to go about that, and certainly bringing in some players that have shown the ability to do that is one way to accomplish our goal. I just like his all-round game. Good instincts with the puck. He finds the open man. Can move it quick, move it up to the forwards. The biggest thing is just his ability to play a sound, defensive game and I think that's important. That's one aspect that we weren't strong in last year and I think he's going to give us that ability to match up against players. With his pedigree — he's a young guy, but to have already played over 300 games and almost 70 playoff games and a couple Stanley Cups — there's an experience level that he has at a young age and I think he's going to fit in real nicely with our group."

2. Injury history

The one other area of concern on Maatta is his inability to stay healthy. He just finished his sixth season in the NHL, but he's played a full 82 games in only one of them. His injury history includes concussion, hand, hip and most recently shoulder. He also had a health scare in 2014 when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid.

Whether or not the accumulation of those injuries has played a role in his overall progression is unclear, but the Blackhawks aren't worried about it. 

"I would say that’s part of being a hockey player, is it’s not that uncommon for guys to get hurt," Bowman said. "It’s a contact sport. And he’s missed some time, but I don’t think he’s had an unusual number of injuries. Pittsburgh was very forthright in everything, we certainly were able to check out all those things. There’s no long-term implications of the injuries. They healed up, he’s fine. From that perspective, it wasn’t a big issue. If it was the same injury year after year, I guess you might have a concern. But it wasn’t necessarily the case. As a result, that wasn’t a big stumbling block in the trade."

3. What went wrong last season?

One year after tying a career-high with 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) in 82 games, Maatta had a difficult time matching that production this past season. He scored only one goal and had 13 assists in 60 games. Obviously, a shoulder injury sidelined him for six weeks in February and March, but he struggled to find his groove upon returning.

Maatta played in Game 1 of the first round against the New York Islanders, but admitted he "had a bad Game 1" after having a minus-2 rating and found himself watching from the press box in the final three games as the Penguins were swept. Maatta took ownership of his play and hopes a fresh start in Chicago will benefit him.

"Obviously I wasn't happy," Maatta said. "I'm not going to say it was a terrible season, but I knew I can be way better than I played last season. I don't think I was able to do defensively as much as I wanted this year. I don't think it was a terrible season defensively or anything like that, but I expect way more from myself offensively than I had last season.

"I think [Chicago is] a new opportunity, that's how you have to look at it, and I'm just trying to better myself through that way."

4. Trading from a position of strength

Every team looking for a top-four defenseman has to explore the trade market to acquire one because there just aren't many available via free agency. And the ones that are unrestricted on July 1 will cost a lot, both in term and dollar value, which is fine, but there's no guarantee because bidding wars ensue on the open market and it's all about the players' preference.

With Dominik Kubalik and Swedish forward Anton Wedin signing entry-level contracts and expected to battle for an Opening Day roster spot, the Blackhawks knew they had a surplus of secondary forwards and used Dominik Kahun to fill a need elsewhere. And it was important for the Blackhawks not to subtract too much from the current roster or pipeline to do it.

"The strength of our team now is we got a lot of depth on the wing," Bowman said. "Looking at some of our young players that are getting ready to take on a bigger role, you can look at guys like Dylan Sikura. He didn't have the offensive success at the NHL level but I liked the way he played when he was with us last year in Chicago. It felt like his game was real effective other than the production part. Then when he was in Rockford I really liked the way he was able to score down there. So I think he's not far from being a guy and he's got sort of a similar skill set that Dominik (Kahun) has.

"We have a couple new players coming in from Europe in Anton Wedin and Dominik Kubalik. There's three young players that didn't play on our team last year very much and I think they're all ready to take a spot. So I feel like we had the ability to make a move there without damaging our team. ... We were sort of dealing from a position of strength which made it a very comfortable deal from our perspective. It's hard to acquire young defensemen. You look around the league and there's not a lot of them available and then when they are you usually got to pay a premium for somebody who's under contract or there's a manageable number. We like the way this played out for us."

5. Contract situation

Maatta agreed to a six-year, $24.5 million extension with the Penguins in 2016. He has three years left on that contract, which carries a $4.083 million cap hit. He's now the third-highest paid defenseman on the Blackhawks, surpassing Connor Murphy ($3.85 million cap hit) but staying under Duncan Keith ($5.538 million) and Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million).

When Maatta signed his contract, it included a modified no-trade clause in the final two years, according to Cap Friendly. Because he was traded prior to the NTC taking effect, the Blackhawks will have the option to either honor that clause or nullify it.

We saw a similiar situation play out when P.K. Subban was traded from Montreal to Nashville in 2016. Subban's eight-year deal with the Canadiens began during the 2014-15 season. He had a no-movement clause that was supposed to kick in on July 1 ahead of the 2016-17 season, but the Canadiens traded Subban on June 29 — two days before the start of the new calendar year. The Predators did not honor his NMC, respectfully.

6. What's next?

Before making the trade on Saturday, it was reported that the Blackhawks were interested in landing a top-four defenseman. Maatta has played top-four minutes in the past and did so, most notably, during the Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017, but he's probably better suited as the No. 4 or in a third-pairing role.

The question for the Blackhawks now is whether the Maatta acquisition is just the beginning of more moves to come or whether they're satisified that they've filled their big need on the back end. Bowman has been widely known to be a GM that constantly works the phones, so he certainly isn't done looking.

"We're going to keep looking for ways to improve our team, not just the defense but I'm not setting that aside either," Bowman said. "Right now we're focused more on the trade market just because the free-agent market doesn't open up for another week until you can start talking to agents. But I think we want to find some new players for our team — whether that's through trades or free agency, it doesn't matter too much. It's really important to look at both. But right now the trade chatter has been pretty active throughout the league.

"I've had a number of conversations and I expect that to continue over the next week. This is the time of year where there's a lot of player movement with the draft and July 1st on the horizon. We're going to continue to look into other ways to improve our team through trades, and if none of that comes to be, then we'll look at the free-agent market. We expect to be active. That's our job. My job is to make a lot of calls and find out what options we have to bring in some new players. So this is a great start. We're a week out from the draft here and we've already improved our defense in a big way. We're going to keep looking at other ways to improve our defense and the rest of our team. So from that perspective, I expect it to be active over the next couple weeks."

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75 Days to Kickoff: St. Ignatius

75 Days to Kickoff: St. Ignatius

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: St. Ignatius College Prep

Head coach: Matt Miller

Assistant coaches: Charlie Dowdl, Alex Carric, Dan Bunne, Mike Mille, David Hidalg, Michael Whela, Doug Bartlet, Bill Stritzel and Ben Wade

How they fared in 2018: 6-5 (3-1 CCL Red Conference). St. Ignatius made the Class 6A state playoff field and lost to Notre Dame in opening round action.

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 30 vs Lindblom
Sept. 6 @ Ridgewood
Sept. 13 @ Benet Academy
Sept. 20 @ Marmion Academy
Sept. 27 vs Loyola
Oct. 4 vs Joliet Catholic
Oct. 11 vs Marian Central Catholic
Oct. 18 @ Marian Catholic
Oct. 25 vs Fenwick

[MORE: 84 Days to Kickoff - Marmion Academy]

Biggest storyline: The schedule. Can the Wolfpack get back to the state playoffs? The upgraded/combined ESCC-CCL regular season schedule should be intriguing.

Names to watch this season: LB Declan Callahan (Sr.), OL/DL Mofolarin Walter-Johnson (Sr.), LB/DE Elijah Williams (Sr.)  

Biggest holes to fill: The Wolfpack graduated nine starters this past spring on the offensive side of the football. 

EDGY's Early Take: St. Ignatius has had a strong run of late, having made the IHSA state playoffs in the past four seasons. They won seven games in 2018, five via the shutout and they gave Loyola all they could handle. But the combination of the ESCC/CCL conferences has undoubtedly ramped up the Wolfpacks' schedule this fall. It features games with the likes of Benet, JCA, Loyola and Marian Central Catholic. If St. Ignatius can reload a bit (on offense in particular), they will have a good chance to compete for a fifth straight IHSA state playoff appearance.