Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

804658.png

Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

Thursdays NHL announcement that the salary cap is -- at least temporarily -- going up about 6 million dollars to 70.2 million leaves the Blackhawks with roughly 8 million to spend when free agency begins Sunday at 11 a.m., if Stan Bowman so chooses.

He can exceed it for the time being and worry about shaving money off with trades as the offseason progresses. The other concerns involve what that cap number will be once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, and how teams will react once the initial wave of free agency is over as labor negotiations get underway. Its anyones guess, but most surmise if the cap does go back down, it wouldnt be a significant amount for this season in the event talks drag into mid-September and beyond.

We heard rumors heading into last weekends draft about the availability of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador -- and their combined 6.25 million cap hit. Something could still happen with them or anyone else on what is a full roster the vice president and general manager can deal from, along with a fully loaded system of prospects. So, the start of free agency may give a more clear indication on how much movement there will be for the club the rest of the summer.

As we check around the league at this new cap number, the Hawks have the second-least amount to spend, slightly less than San Jose. Boston is currently tapped-out. Elsewhere around the West, Los Angeles has just below 12 million it can spend, Calgary about 13.5 million and Vancouver 14.5 million. Everyone else in the conference has even more.

Dennis Widemans contract with Calgary was great news for the defenseman likely to get the second-richest contract from free agency. The Flames signed Wideman for an average of 5.5 million, a significant bump from the 3.9 million he made for a Washington team for which he provided 11 goals -- two shy of his career-high.

Florida will allow Jason Garrison on the market, and likely lose him after the 27-year-old with the booming shot scored nine of his 16 goals on the power play. Thats certainly a Hawks need in their quest to improve that unit, but he might get 6 million or more now for a team believing he can consistently duplicate those numbers after doing it once, getting set up by Brian Campbell. Another veteran blueliner with a Stanley Cup ring went off the market when Nashville re-signed Hal Gill Thursday.

It remains unclear how much interest Bowman has in those types of defensemen, and how far its shrunk his pool of options, if at all. The current roster composition, and allowing himself some salary cap wiggle room, would seem to indicate trades would have to be made in order to create change. But in recent interviews, hes spoken more about growth from within from players on that roster.

Improvement from Corey Crawford. Improvement on special teams. Perhaps counting on the next step taken from home-grown products like Dylan Olsen, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Bryan Bickell, Jimmy Hayes and perhaps Brandon Saad all factor into Bowman's thinking. But no GM reveals his hand through the media. Theres also plenty of time to make any moves he may want to, at the right price, and with the right return. Blind change just for the sake of change often doesnt work out.

Lets say Hjalmarsson is dealt. For all the criticisms he has received in the wake of his post-Cup, four-year contract, one element he provides that would be missing is his shot-blocking an area where many feel the Hawks can improve. While Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya are also among the league leaders in that category others would need to pick up that slack, or the Hawks would ideally get a player or two to fill that void. And it wasnt necessarily the numbers, but the timing, and whos doing it.

There could be some sacrifice from forwards out front. And while you can find just one member of the Coyotes on the first page of blocked shots leaders from last season they were suffocating their share of shots in the first-round playoff series. The same goes for other successful playoff teams this spring like the Rangers, Capitals and Devils. Thats some of the sacrifice Joel Quenneville seemed to allude to when he spoke with reporters last Friday in Pittsburgh.

When I asked Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland about their Coach Q's comment about needing greater competitiveness at a golf outing Monday, they didnt disagree.

Listening to an interview with Kings GM Dean Lombardi the other day, hes already going with the little bit of improvement from within line when asked about roster changes and his team's chances of repeating. It might be easier with Jonathan Quick, but its also more difficult after just reaching the top of the mountain. Just ask the Hawks from two years ago. Im thinking that will be a tough sell in L.A. next season as we head into a 15th year without a repeat champ.

Quenneville also spoke of the fine line between teams throughout the league these days, especially down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. Think about it: The Hawks led the NHL in mid-January. The first five games of their playoff series went into overtime despite inconsistent goaltending and poor special teams.

But well get a better idea, starting Sunday morning, about how much the Hawks decision-makers feel the need for change, heading into a crucial and perhaps crossroads year for the organization.

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

No doubt, there are doubts about the makeup of this 2017 Bears wide receiver corps. But as the departed Alshon Jeffery created doubts, health-wise, the past two years about whether he could stay on the field to prove himself worthy of a big payday (which he didn’t even get from the Eagles), Ryan Pace brought in a handful of replacements who’ve flashed in this league before. But recent history’s shown each of them has something to prove as well.

From Rueben Randle to fellow former Giant Victor Cruz. From former first rounders Kendall Wright to Kevin White, taking a third swing at making it though an entire NFL season.

Then there’s Markus Wheaton, the only free agent signee at the position this season to receive a two-year deal ($11 million total, with $6 million guaranteed). Like the rest of the group, though, he’s at a career crossroads. Following seasons with 53 and 44 catches in Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015 (with a 17-yard average in the latter), the quick-twitch former Steeler was limited to three games a year ago before eventually undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in January.

“Everyone’s new, so we don’t know what it’s gonna be,” he said of the group at the team’s recent minicamp in Lake Forest. “In Pittsburgh you kind of have a clue `cause they’ve done it for so long. Everybody’s new, everybody’s trying to find their niche, so we’ll see how it goes. Anything’s possible. We’ve got a lot of guys who are looking for opportunity. A lot of guys that are hungry and have something to prove. Anything’s possible. Anyone can come out on top. The ultimate goal is to win games and I’m sure the coaches will put us in position to do that.”

The former third-round pick out of Oregon State (where he’s the Beavers’ all-time career leader in receptions, one ahead of Brandin Cooks) played all three receiver positions in Pittsburgh at various times, and while he seems most natural in the slot, is working to make himself as versatile as possible here. But that comes with some risk as a quarterback room that’s also gone through its share of turnover tries to get on the same page with all the targets. But Wheaton is more than confident the results will come from within this group.

“I think we definitely are underrated," Wheaton said. "We’ve come in and worked to get to where we wanna be. We will get there, and it’ll show up on the field.”

The incumbents in the room include Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman, Cam Meredith, and, of course, White. Wheaton can see the potential in the ex-seventh overall draft pick.

“I couldn’t imagine all the stuff he’s been through, all the pressure that’s been put on him," Wheaton said. "But he’s a down-to-earth guy who works extremely hard, so I think he’s gonna get his. He’s a big-time playmaker, so I’m excited to see him play.

“They welcomed me with open arms. Everybody’s down to earth, been easy to talk to so when I have questions, I’ve been getting answers, so it’s been real easy for me.”

That surgically-repaired shoulder was cleared for full participation just in time for minicamp two weeks ago. And Wheaton won’t allow himself to become hesitant physically as he aims to conquer what hesitation he could have within the offense, working with quarterbacks not named Ben Roethlisberger.

“I really don’t think there’s time for that. When you’re ready to go, you just go,” Wheaton told us. “You come in, you work, you rehab. And for me personally I had to rehab a lot to get back to where I wanted to be. There’s a level I want to be at. I’ve been just working to get there, so there’s no time for that.”

That last statement comes even if some observers hesitate to call Wheaton and these wideouts “underrated.” They’ll start attempting to prove that when the Bears report to Bourbonnais exactly one month from Monday.

Derek Holland not satisfied despite strong outing in White Sox loss

Derek Holland not satisfied despite strong outing in White Sox loss

Derek Holland turned in one of his best starts of the season on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, the White Sox had nothing to show for it after a 5-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics on Sunday afternoon.

In six innings, Holland allowed four hits, one earned run, and two walks while recording six strikeouts. He was charged with his only run in the seventh, when he allowed a single to Yonder Alonso, who came around to score after Holland had been pulled from the game.

Despite his confidence in the bullpen, which has been one of the White Sox biggest strengths this season, Holland would like to see himself go deeper into the games.

“I should be getting into the 7th and not having 110 pitches,” Holland said. “The bullpen's done a great job of picking us up in the seventh, eighth and ninth. The starters, and really pointing more to myself, we need to...I need to go out there and go longer."

Entering Sunday, three of Holland’s last four starts had been the worst outings of the season – allowing 22 earned runs over those four games. Despite the team’s 5-3 loss, Holland felt his outing was a step in the right direction.

“I felt good about everything out there,” Holland said. “(Omar Narvaez) and I were right on the same page. There were just a couple of things that got away from us. Just one of those things. Defense made the plays for us when they needed to, unfortunately we just didn't come out on top."

Manager Rick Renteria also had high praise for the 30-year-old southpaw, who bounced back from one of his shortest outings of the season.

“I thought Holland, hopefully what's not lost is Holland's outing today was really, really good,” Renteria said. “He kept us in the ballgame. They've got some kids that can swing the bat. They were putting things together. All we were trying to do at the end was minimize any damage they could produce. We weren't able to.”