Hawks won't relax with playoff spot nearly clinched

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Hawks won't relax with playoff spot nearly clinched

Last April, the Blackhawks walked out of the United Center after their regular-season finale loss to Detroit, figuring their playoff hopes were dashed.

A few hours later, a spoiler-playing Minnesota Wild squad rekindled those hopes. But for those few anxious hours and the days leading up to that final regular-season game the Blackhawks were sweating things.

Fast forward to the present. Its a much different season for the Blackhawks and, conversely, a different playoff situation. Thanks to the Blackhawks recent surge, theres not much doubt theyll make the postseason. Its just a matter of when. If the Edmonton Oilers had managed to beat the Los Angeles Kings on Friday night, the Blackhawks would be in. But the wait goes on at least one more day courtesy of LA's 4-1 victory.

But considering there are still points to be gathered and playoff placement to be decided, the Blackhawks are treating these final few regular-season games like they are fighting to make it.

The Blackhawks play the Nashville Predators on Saturday, as they look to assure themselves a fourth playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season. With the points race as tight as it is, the Blackhawks arent just planning on an easy-breezy finish to this regular season, even if theyre qualified for the playoffs.

I dont think it matters. We still want to be playing good hockey, not to coast through the end here, goaltender Corey Crawford said. We want to finish strong and go into the playoffs playing well.

The Blackhawks are making that push right now, finding ways to get points and victories despite missing starters Jonathan Toews (concussion), Steve Montador (suspected concussion) and Duncan Keith (suspension). Sans Toews, theyve now gone 11-5-2. But there are many Blackhawks who remember last season, last years angst, all too well. So taking it easy is not acceptable.

I think I was out eating; you dont want to watch the game but you do to see what happened, said Dave Bolland, referring to that Minnesota victory over Dallas that got the Blackhawks in last season. Wait and see; its never fun to see if youre in or out. We have to be ready for Nashville (tomorrow) and we have to be ready for any (playoff) matchup.

If the Blackhawks end up in sixth theyll face the winner of the Pacific Division, whose race may not be decided until this seasons final day. If they move up to fifth, it could be Detroit or Nashville. And so on. Thats how the Blackhawks are looking at their top-eight position right now: theyre happy to be in, but theyre vying for the best spot in it.

We want to keep moving ahead, keep pushing forward, coach Joel Quenneville said. Were still not comfortable with where were at.

White Sox: Justin Morneau continues to progress, could start rehab next week

White Sox: Justin Morneau continues to progress, could start rehab next week

Justin Morneau is pleased with his progress and if it continues he could be headed out on a rehab assignment next week.

With his former team in town Tuesday, the veteran said he would travel with the White Sox to Houston over the weekend and figure out the next step if all in his rehab goes well. Morneau, who had elbow surgery last December, said he felt good headed into Tuesday’s workout after he took two days of batting practice over the weekend. The ex-Minnesota Twins player doesn’t anticipate he’d return to the lineup until sometime after the All-Star break.

“As long as everything goes good through the rest of this homestand and then in Houston, I think we’ll kind of assess where we’re at there,” Morneau said. “Everything so far up to this point, every time we’ve increased the activity and increased the intensity of it, everything has reacted well. Hopefully, it continues to go that way.”

Morneau expects he’d need a lengthy rehab once he gets underway. Not only does he have to acclimate to game speed once again — “there’s only one way to really find out,” he said — but Morneau needs to build up his endurance. He actually has worked hard to be prepared for that, he said, knowing he won’t have a month like spring training. And, Morneau also has to get his swing back in order after a layoff since the end of last season.

“I don’t know how many days that’s going to take,” Morneau said. “Once I go on a rehab assignment, I can’t see it being less than 30 at-bats before I’ll be ready. But who knows, I could feel great after 20 or whatever. But to say less than that would probably be pushing it a little too much.”

Why the 2016 free agency period could be a quiet one for Bulls

Why the 2016 free agency period could be a quiet one for Bulls

With the start of NBA free agency coming at 11:01 Central time on Thursday, prepare to be bombarded with news about meetings and potential signings.

But when the dust clears sometime in mid-July, don't be surprised if the only free agent transaction involving the Bulls is the re-signing of veteran guard E'Twaun Moore.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, the Bulls really like Moore. General manager Gar Forman praised the former Purdue star during the news conference to introduce top draft pick Denzel Valentine, and head coach Fred Hoiberg is also a big fan of Moore's versatility and toughness. Second, with just about every team in the league having significant cap room, the bidding war for second- and third-tier players could get out of the Bulls’ comfort zone and they might choose to keep their powder dry for a much deeper free agent class next year.

If the Bulls are able to re-sign Moore at a starting salary of somewhere between $8-10 million, don't be surprised if he begins the season as the starting point guard. Moore would definitely be the best defensive option at the position, and his size would allow the Bulls to switch on ball screens, with both guards (Moore and Jimmy Butler) able to defend taller players.

The Bulls do like the potential of former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant, but at this point in his development a reserve role is probably best for the second year pro. Grant also has the ability to play off the ball at 6-foot-4, giving the Bulls another big guard with Butler and Valentine when Hoiberg wants to go to a small-ball line-up.

So, which external players might the Bulls be targeting in free agency? Remember, if they re-sign Moore at a starting salary of 8 million, that leaves them only about $16 million left to spend in what could turn out to be a crazy marketplace.

The Bulls could be looking to upgrade the small forward position, where Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott are the likely starting options. Kent Bazemore is an intriguing possibility, coming off his best season in Atlanta where he11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from the field. He’s also a tenacious defender with plenty of potential for growth at 27 years old.

But with every team looking to spend big dollars this summer, Bazemore's contract could approach the $20 million mark in Year 1, which might be too rich for the Bulls' taste.

Forman talked about a process of trying to make the roster younger and more athletic, which means the Bulls are unlikely to pursue free agents over the age of 30, unless they come on one year deals.

Several restricted free agent wings could be on the Bulls' radar, including Golden State's Harrison Barnes, who reportedly was seen visiting Chicago on Tuesday. Under normal circumstances, the Warriors would automatically match any offer for their talented young forward, but if Kevin Durant indicates he wants to team up with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the front office would willingly sacrifice Barnes and fellow restricted free agent Festus Ezeli, and trade away a veteran contract like Andrew Bogut or Andre Iguodala to create the cap room to make it happen.

You've probably heard about Barnes' connection with the Bulls. He was a high school teammate of Doug McDermott on a state championship team in Ames, Iowa. That's the same high school where Hoiberg starred, eventually picking up the nickname of the "Mayor" after an outstanding college career at Iowa State.

So, even though the Bulls are in the "re-tooling" process, Barnes has to sign an offer sheet somewhere to start the restricted free agent time clock. Why not Chicago?

As a Tier 1 free agent, a max offer to Barnes would start at $22.2 million, meaning the Bulls would have to move another contract (most likely Taj Gibson or Mike Dunleavy), or use the "stretch" provision to release Jose Calderon from the final year on his deal, which would save them about $5 million on next year's cap.

Golden State will have three days to match the offer sheet Barnes signs, which they will most certainly do if Durant stays in Oklahoma City or signs with a different team. But with none of the other contending teams expected to make a play for Barnes, it might be worth the Bulls tying up their cap room for a few days for a chance to acquire a 24-year-old who would fit perfectly in the offense Hoiberg wants to run. And yes, Barnes played poorly in the Finals, but his inclusion on the 12-man Team USA Olympic squad says a lot about what talent evaluators around the league think of his ability.

If not Barnes, keep an eye on a pair of Portland restricted free agents. 23-year-old Mo Harkless and 24-year-old Allen Crabbe both fit the profile of players Forman discussed - young and athletic with 3-point range. Portland made a big move in the standings to reach the playoffs last season, and their front office is looking at some of the top centers on the market such as Hassan Whiteside and Al Horford. The Blazers might not be willing to match a significant offer for one of their young wing players.

Other names to watch for the Bulls include restricted free agents Terrence Jones, Dion Waiters, Dwight Powell and Jared Sullinger, along with unrestricted wings like Evan Turner, Eric Gordon, Lance Stephenson, Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson, Solomon Hill, Brandon Bass, O.J. Mayo, P.J. Hairston and Derrick Williams.

The Bulls front office could also decide to just re-sign Moore and save the rest of their cap room for 2017, when the list of free agents includes Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Blake Griffin. Forman made it clear the "re-tooling" effort is likely a two-year process, with the Bulls hoping to add a pair of first-round picks next summer and also have enough cap room to be a significant player in free agency.

So, enjoy the whirlwind of information and rumors that will be flooding social media over the next couple weeks. Just don't expect any franchise-transforming moves from the Bulls this summer.

White Sox prospect Carson Fulmer to pitch in Futures Game

White Sox prospect Carson Fulmer to pitch in Futures Game

Two days after the best start of his young career, Carson Fulmer earned an invitation to the All-Star Futures Game.

The club’s top prospect will play for the U.S. team in the July 10 contest at Petco Park, the White Sox announced on Tuesday. Fulmer, who pitches at Double-A Birmingham, struck out seven in seven scoreless innings on Sunday night.

The 2015 first-round pick has struggled with command this season and has a 5.88 ERA and 44 walks in 75 innings. But Fulmer --- who has 75 strikeouts in 2016 --- has improved those figures of late, striking out 39 and walking 10 in his last 29 innings. He has a 4.34 ERA in that span, which accounts for his last five starts.

The White Sox selected Fulmer with the eighth overall pick of the 2015 draft. He had a 1.96 ERA in 23 innings between the franchise’s Rookie League team and Single-A Winston-Salem.