Blackhawks free agency plan remains a mystery

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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.

Fired-up Anthony Swarzak relishes pressure of first career save

Fired-up Anthony Swarzak relishes pressure of first career save

Willson Contreras wasn’t too thrilled with Anthony Swarzak’s final two pitches being called strikes, but for the White Sox reliever, that pair of perfectly-placed fastballs were the culmination of years of work. 

Swarzak earned his first career save in the White Sox 3-1 win over the Cubs in Monday’s Crosstown opener at Wrigley Field, retiring Javier Baez in the eighth and then pitching past Kris Bryant’s two-out infield single and Anthony Rizzo’s ensuing walk in the ninth. After home plate umpire Angel Hernandez rung up Contreras to end the game, Swarzak unleashed a yell that encapsulated the energy of the day — even though the White Sox, in snapping their nine-game losing streak, remain at the bottom of the American League. 

“I’ve been waiting for that opportunity for a long time,” Swarzak said. “It’s nice that I went in there and got it done. You think about that moment for years and then it finally happens. You just are trying to take a step back and reflect on what just happened, and I’ll be able to come in tomorrow and be ready to go.”

While both teams paid lip service to the “it’s just another game” approach to Crosstown matchups, the crowd of 40,849 was electric. Third baseman Matt Davidson — who slammed a 476-foot home run in the eighth inning — remarked that Monday afternoon was the closest atmosphere he’s felt to a playoff game. Swarzak felt that same energy, too. 

“When you work really hard on executing and in the biggest situation, runners on against the Cubs, Wrigley Field, to be able to execute, that means that you’re working on the right stuff and you’re headed in the right direction,” Swarzak said. 

With David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle shipped to the New York Yankees last week, and Nate Jones and Zach Putnam out for the rest of the season, Swarzak should get more high-leverage opportunities going forward — that is, unless he’s traded within the next week. The 31-year-old Swarzak, who lowered his ERA Monday to 2.23 with a tidy 2.34 FIP, is one of the White Sox few remaining trade chips, but his success this year makes him an attractive target for a team vying for a playoff spot. 

If Swarzak is traded to a contender, he’ll pitch in plenty more high-leverage spots in front of charged-up crowds. Playoff baseball may be in his future, and Monday afternoon could prove to be a preview of what he’ll be up against over the final few months of the season if he indeed is traded. 

“Pitching the ninth inning is different,” Swarzak said. “Guys are more patient, they know what you’re going to throw, they’re locked in a little more. And that was just one. There’s a long list of career saves and I’m on the bottom of it. Hopefully I can get a few more opportunities and we can win some more games.” 

'I'm a patient man': Lovie Smith takes the long view entering second season of Illini rebuilding effort

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USA TODAY

'I'm a patient man': Lovie Smith takes the long view entering second season of Illini rebuilding effort

Lovie Smith is selling himself as the future winner of Illinois’ waiting game.

“I’m a patient man,” he told reporters Monday during Big Ten Media Days at McCormick Place.

That patience will certainly be tested as Smith enters his second season as the Fighting Illini’s head coach.

He’s maybe the most buzzed-about Illinois head football coach ever after his lengthy and successful tenure with the Bears, but will that buzz ever pay off? That’s the question everyone’s asking about an Illinois program that has languished in the Big Ten’s basement for the vast majority of recent memory, and that’s the kind of question Smith was bombarded with Monday.

The famously cool-tempered Smith handled them all, certainly expecting what the line of questioning would be after winning just three games in his first season in Champaign. Though trumpets accompanied his arrival, Year 1 of the Lovie Era was scored almost entirely by an orchestra of sad trombones.

Hence Smith’s recurring theme Monday: patience.

“You have to have patience,” he said. “You’d like for it to snap a finger and it happens. Our sport’s a little bit harder than that. And in this conference there are a lot of good programs. Ours hadn’t been there. But in time you have a plan, it works. So when we say patient, we want to see marked improvement this year, and eventually we’ll be a team that people are talking about.”

Hiring Smith remains a great triumph by athletics director Josh Whitman, and Smith’s very presence makes Illinois’ future look far brighter than it would have with a head coach with a far less impressive resume. Getting recruits to listen becomes far easier when a former NFL head coach — one who’s been to a Super Bowl — strolls through the door.

But the obstacles to an Illinois rise remain high. The program was in a bad place when Smith arrived, the stain of Tim Beckman’s mistreatment of players still lingering. The conference it plays in provides Illinois with a tremendously tough schedule each and every season, even when the biggest boys from the Big Ten East aren’t on the docket.

One of the biggest challenges to making the Illini “a team that people are talking about” was the program’s facilities, hardly comparable to the best around the Big Ten and across the country. But the athletics department is taking ambitious and expensive steps to remedy that, recently announcing a facilities overhaul that Smith is optimistic will make his program a bigger hit with prospective recruits.

Smith applauded his incoming recruiting class — ranked in the top 50 nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, higher at least than in-state rival Northwestern — and the offseason work by his returning players to get stronger and faster and tougher than they were a season ago, and that is tangible improvement.

Unfortunately, it might not translate to more wins in 2017, which in the end is the only barometer that’s truly worth a damn in the cutthroat world of college football.

Smith is being realistic in talking about a patient approach to rebuilding a program that has won eight games or more just five times in the last 30 years. But there’s a difficult tightrope to walk in a sport that often sees fans, donors and media demand immediate success.

“When I say it takes time, I’m not talking about a whole lot of time,” Smith said, seeming to make sure his rebuilding plan didn’t sound like one that would span decades. “I’m just saying, the first year, it normally doesn’t happen right away unless you come in to a program — and some guys get an opportunity to go to a program — where they’ve won before. That’s a lot easier. But where we were, there were challenges.

“We say ‘take time,’ but we want to see improvement this year and we know behind the scenes we’ve made improvement. We’re in a whole different frame of mind right now. You’ve got to believe that you can win before you hit the field based on what you’ve been doing. We’re closer to that right now.”

Whitman, who is now overseeing a pair of rebuilding efforts in his two major programs after replacing men’s basketball coach John Groce with Brad Underwood earlier this year, is feeling the same way. He injected the football program with some genuine excitement when he hired Smith last year. Now he’s playing that waiting game, too.

“As they say, patience is a virtue, right?” Whitman said Monday. “Sure, do I want to go out and win 12 games this year? Of course I do. But I also am so committed to the process and in supporting coach Smith and our student-athletes as they go out every day because I know what we’re doing and I see the work that they’re putting in.

“I think the worst thing you can do right now is panic and say, ‘Oh, we won three games in the first year.’ That’s the way this works. And when we get there, when we build this thing, it will be that much sweeter because of where we’ve come from.”

Thing is, with all the excitement and all the confidence about the long-term future of the program shared by Smith and Whitman, Illinois still has 12 football games to play this fall. Once more the team is expected to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, hardly unexpected considering the annual strength of the conference.

As Smith and Whitman ask for patience, fans will have to sit through what is expected to be three months of losing football, which makes that ask a little bit tougher.

That’s where the players come in. They have faith in their team and their teammates and their head coach that builds that perennial sense of world-beating confidence that accompanies every team, no matter the predicted win total.

“Are we going to surprise people? Sure,” wide receiver Malik Turner said, not loving a question about outside expectations but still voicing his belief in his team’s capabilities. “It’s not really going to be a surprise to me because I’ve seen what we’ve been doing and I have a very positive feeling about this team.”

“It’s not going to be a surprise to ourselves, but I think we’re definitely going to surprise some people,” defensive back Jaylen Dunlap said. “If somebody thinks we’re only going to win two games, then we’re definitely going to surprise those guys.”

Voicing the opinion that you’re going to win every game isn’t exactly something new for a college football player, specifically the talkative ones who get invited to media days. But there was a glimmer of something that Smith has provided these players that has been a major achievement in the still-nascent rebuilding effort: stability.

Stability was in short supply as Beckman was accused of mistreatment, investigated for it and fired for it a week before the start of the 2015 season. Bill Cubit took over on an interim basis, was named the new permanent head coach on the morning of the regular-season finale, then fired a few months later. Enter Smith and his staff and a new system and approach on both sides of the ball, a head-spinning amount of change in a short period of time.

Well, the whirlwind has finally died down for these players and for the program in general. And that in itself is a big accomplishment in Champaign.

“It’s knowing what you’re getting now. You know you’ve got a coach like coach Smith that’s going to be here. There’s some stability around the program. That should feel good for everybody,” Dunlap said. “That should feel good for the recruits that are coming to sign here, the players that are here.

“Change is not always good, but it was good for us. I know that we’re not going to have a change soon because coach is a great coach.”

Smith knew a shocking jump wouldn’t come in his first year, and it doesn’t look like that jump will come in his second year, either. But he’s happy with the progress his program is making and was adamant that the quality of football should be evidently better this fall.

Is that going to mean more wins? Maybe. Maybe not. But this program is evolving, which is a positive development.

That’s the thing about evolution, though: It usually takes a long time.

“We weren’t good enough last year. But we’re going to be better this year,” Smith said. “You stay the course, and eventually you start seeing wins.”