Blackhawks

Miller: Bears' offense may be better than you think

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Miller: Bears' offense may be better than you think

The 23-22 victory over the Panthers can be summed up pretty simply: Chicago had three turnovers in the first half which killed drives, then killed five more drives the rest of the game by simply dropping passes. Its hard to log yardage and score points when eight total drives were essentially wasted by nothing more than lack of execution. Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Matt Spaeth and Jay Cutler all played a role, but they also all turned on the offensive switch when the Bears needed to score.

As of right now, Chicago boasts a top ten rushing offense averaging 124 yards per game. The Bears will soon face two highly ranked teams in terms of rushing the football: No. 6 Houston (140.9 ypg) and No. 1 San Francisco (166.6 ypg). Both teams are similar to Chicago in that they aim for the early lead and pound opponents into oblivion running the football.

That wasnt the case for the Bears this past Sunday as the offense was forced to throw the ball to get back into the game. When a team is down two scores--as the Bears were 19-7 with only 5 minutes to go in the game--the running game is placed on the back burner.

It does hurt the Bears not having wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the lineup. Jeffery is still third on the team in receptions with 14 and two touchdowns while recovering from a hand injury. The Red Zone presence of Jefferys game is what is sorely missing.

As for explosive offense, the Bears are right where they need to be and it will only get better. The Bears have 22 explosive plays of plus-20 yards. San Francisco has 24 and Houston has less than the two teams with 18. Everyone thinks the Packers are an explosive offense, well guess what? The Packers offense is tied with the Bears with only 22 plays of plus 20 yards. The Bears only have one while San Francisco (4), Houston (3), and Green Bay (4) have all hit on some big passes. If Cutler leads Marshall on the deep first quarter post route against Carolina, its a touchdown and not an interception. Its a game of inches but the Bears are close to hitting on those plays and its encouraging seeing them attempted.

Yes, the Bears' schedule gets tougher moving forward, but so will their offense. They have proven they can come from behind throwing the football when down two scores, and Houston and San Francisco have not. How did Houstons two minute drill look in their 42 to 24 thrashing by Green Bay? How did San Francisco look coming from behind verse the Vikings (24-13) or the Giants who lambasted San Francisco 26-3? All three of them were losses when playing from behind and forced to throw the football.

The Bears have the advantage, along with their great defense.

Blackhawks mailbag: Goaltending situation and how draft could affect free agency

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks mailbag: Goaltending situation and how draft could affect free agency

Every Friday this offseason, Charlie Roumeliotis will look to answer your Blackhawks and hockey-related questions. Be sure to chime in using the hashtag #HawksMailbag on Twitter for a chance to have your question answered in the next edition.  

When are the Blackhawks going to announce their recent signings?

This question came on Wednesday and the Blackhawks officially announced the signing of 26-year-old Swedish forward Anton Wedin on Thursday. Wedin, who's a 5-foot-11, 194-pound winger, had a breakout season in the Swedish Hockey League and is expected to battle for a full-time roster spot for the Blackhawks in 2019-20.

The other one to watch for is Dominik Kubalik. He has reportedly agreed to an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks, but word is it won't be made official until the 2019 IIHF World Championship ends. He's currently representing the Czech Republic, which advanced to the semifinals on Thursday. Kubalik's rights were acquired by the Blackhawks from Los Angeles in January for a 2019 fifth-round pick.

Does Crawford get extended during the summer?

Corey Crawford has one year left on his six-year contract that carries a $6 million cap hit. The expectation is that he will be re-signed — and he should be. When that comes remains to be seen.

Given his health situation, the Blackhawks may prefer to see how the 2019-20 campaign plays out before diving into contract negotiations with their two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie. Or they could try ironing one out starting on July 1 so that it doesn't hang over his head all season long. 

Crawford will be 35 in December, but that should not be the primary concern. It's whether or not the Blackhawks can count on his availability. When healthy, he's still one of the best in the game and the importance of the goaltending position is at an all-time high. Term will be the thing to watch for when it comes to Crawford's next contract.

Outside of the number 3 pick, what players or positions should the Hawks target in the draft?

The Blackhawks' philosophy is to take the best available player, especially in the first round of the NHL Draft. In 2018, the hope for the organization was that they would come away with a forward and defenseman in Round 1 but instead landed two defensemen (Adam Boqvist at No. 8 and Nicolas Beaudin at No. 27). Same with 2017 when they ended up Henri Jokiharju (No. 29) and Ian Mitchell (second round, No. 57 overall).

The later rounds (4-7) are where that thinking gets trickier because there isn't as much separation between the best available players. At that point — if it's close — positional need might be the deciding factor. 

Given the surplus of high-end defensemen in the pipeline, it's easy to say the Blackhawks should focus more on forward depth and the goaltending position. And that's probably true. But you still want to take the player with the highest ceiling because there's value in developing players the right way and making them attractive trade pieces down the line if there's no room for them on the Blackhawks roster. 

Favorite UFA targets? How do those affect your draft, if at all?

This is an interesting question, and the cliché answer is that it shouldn't impact the draft at all. In fact, the draft may have more impact on what the Blackhawks do in free agency more than vice versa.

The top of the draft is loaded with centers (Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach, Jack Hughes, Peyton Krebs, Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras). The other name generating buzz is Bowen Byram, who's a defenseman. If the Blackhawks pick one of those centers at No. 3 overall, which is very possible, they'll be adding that player — whether he's NHL ready next season or not — to a center group that already includes Artem Anisimov, David Kampf, Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome. 

Toews is going to retire a Blackhawk. Strome is likely going to earn a long-term contract as well. And Kampf appears to be the perfect fourth-line center. Which leaves one center spot left. 

The odd man out may be Anisimov, but even so, there might be less of an inclination to sign a center to a long-term deal this summer if they draft a center at No. 3 because they will have filled that long-term need through the draft. If it's still an area they'd like to address in the short-term, then that could change the Blackhawks' way of thinking going into July 1.

Is Collin Delia the best option behind Crawford or are there other goalies in the system who are ready?

The Blackhawks are very much invested in Delia as Crawford's backup for the 2019-20 season. GM Stan Bowman said as much during exit interviews.

"I think Delia has taken a nice step as a pro this second year," Bowman said. "He didn't play a lot of NHL games, but certainly early on when he was playing a lot, he was really, really good. The hardest part for someone like Collin is trying to adjust to the NHL to not playing every night. I think when he came up and played in a few consecutive games, he was really good. And once we started rotation a bit, that's an adjustment for a young goalie. He wasn't sharp. But now he goes back to Rockford and I think he's the No. 1 or No. 2 in the American League in all his statistics. So he's doing all he can do to show that he's ready. That's nice knowing we have him signed for a couple of years and his best years are ahead of him." 

Kevin Lankinen is somebody that's quietly emerging as an intriguing prospect for the Blackhawks. He was put in tough spot this past season, starting with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL then rotating in and out with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, where he had a 2.50 goals against average and .910 save percentage in 19 appearances. 

At the 2019 IIHF World Championship, he's been a big bright spot for Finland. He has a 1.83 GAA and .916 save percentage in six games. The Blackhawks want to see him handle No. 1 responsibilities in Rockford before putting him into the conversation as a potential NHL backup.

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98 Days to Kickoff: Plainfield South

98 Days to Kickoff: Plainfield South

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: Plainfield South

Head coach: Bill Bicker

Assistant coaches: Adam Chavez (OC), Rob Szudarski (DC), Ben Delange (OL), Corey Carver (DL), Clint Reams (LB)

How they fared in 2018: 7-3 (7-2 Southwest Prairie). Plainfield South made the Class 8A state playoff field and lost to Naperville Central in opening round action. 

2019 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 30 @ West Aurora

Sept. 6 vs Minooka

Sept. 13 @ Oswego

Sept. 20 vs Oswego East

Sept. 27 @ Joliet Central

Oct. 4 vs Plainfield Central

Oct. 11 vs Plainfield East

Oct. 18 @ Joliet West

Oct. 25 vs Romeoville

Biggest storyline: Where will the Cougars place in the newly expanded Southwest Prairie Conference?

Names to watch this season: Senior RB Jaylin Eisen, junior QB Niko Schultz, junior OL Deuce Yates

Biggest holes to fill: The Cougars will need to replace eight graduated starters from last season’s defense, a unit that was one of the best in the Southwest Prairie.

EDGY's Early Take: Head coach Bill Bicker was able to put together a punishing ground game and a speedy defense to get into the state playoff field last season. 2019? Look for the Cougars to rely on an experienced offense led by junior QB Niko Schultz. If the defense can reload a bit, expect Plainfield South to challenge for another state playoff spot this fall.