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Wednesday, September 20

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Airbags

Pucks in Five

Over and Out
by Jeremy Piniak

One: It's official. Finally.
After saying since the January swoon that the Hawks were all but eliminated from the postseason, the math caught up Tuesday with a 5-2 loss to Columbus, knocking Chicago out of postseason contention for the fourth straight year and the eighth time in nine seasons. To add insult to injury, the defeat by the Bluejackets pushed the Blackhawks into the Central Division cellar, and subsequent losses to San Jose, Los Angeles and Calgary left the team in last place of the Western Conference and in the midst of a five-game losing streak. With only seven games left in the season, and all but two against playoff-bound teams fighting for positioning, it's entirely possible the Hawks won't win another game, though they'll probably luck into one or two victories. Either way, chalk up a disappointing season that can't end soon enough.

Two: Hawks' AHL Affiliation Moves In-state
In the only positive news out of the Hawks organization the past week, the rumored move of the team's AHL affiliate from Norfolk to Rockford was officially announced this past week. Having their minor leaguers close to home will enable team officials to follow their top prospects' progress much more easily. Also, with Rockford only 90 miles from the city, call-ups to the parent Hawks will be more efficient, and with the added scouting ability, hopefully will lead to fewer of the yo-yo recalls of seasons past, allowing players to make a bigger impact and stay with the Blackhawks for more than a game or two, depending on team needs. For Rockford, it enables the IceHogs franchise to move into a higher-quality league with more skilled players than the current UHL team, and the fan base that has already been established will hopefully continue to grow and pick up the addition of Hawks fans in the far-reaching suburbs and the city who want a chance to see the future NHL talent. Rockford is expected to move into the Western Conference of the AHL, which will also be a boon to teams in the area who can develop rivalries with the Icehogs. Nowhere is this more true then in Rosemont, where the Wolves and the Icehogs figure to be bitter rivals fighting for the fans of Chicagoland.

Three: Wolves Howl at Missed Opportunities
With a full week off ahead of three games this past weekend, the Wolves had an opportunity to relax and focus on the task at hand: namely, picking up some victories against teams they have dominated the majority of the season and gain some space in the race for the seed in the Western Conference playoff race. Unfortunately, too much time can lead to rustiness, as Chicago demonstrated by dropping two of their three games to Iowa and Peoria this weekend. Friday night against the Stars saw the Wolves post their lowest shot total of the season, putting only 19 pucks on net in a 3-2 loss to Iowa. After rallying from a two-goal deficit Saturday, Chicago managed to pick up a point, but lost in a shootout at Peoria. Sunday afternoon, the Wolves exacted a measure of revenge against Peoria in the second game of the home-and-home, notching six goals from different players in a 6-1 blowout, keeping them in the top spot of the division, though by the slimmest of margins. Combined with Omaha's three wins this week, Chicago's lead in the division was left at just one point, and the Wolves are now three points behind Manitoba for the top seed in the West.

This week sees the Wolves playing host to the Moose Wednesday, followed by the always pesky Milwaukee Admirals Friday and a trip to Grand Rapids to face the Griffins Saturday. The Manitoba game gives the Wolves a great chance to gain some ground back, and Milwaukee and Grand Rapids are both fighting for postseason spots. With only eight games left, the Wolves are all but assured of a playoff berth, but their seeding will be related to how well the team can close.

Four: Super Stats
In Sunday's 6-1 win over Peoria, the Wolves set a new franchise scoring record with 303 goals. With eight games still to play, Chicago figures to add to that amount, though will fall short of the AHL record of 392 set by the Binghamton Rangers in 1992-3. Regardless, averaging over four goals a game means even in an off night on the defensive end, the team has the firepower to pull out some extra victories, which can come in handy in a tight playoff series.

The Wolves' offense has been record-setting all season long, with Darren Haydar and Brett Sterling leading the charge. Haydar continued his scoring prowess this week, with two more multi-point games Friday and Saturday before being kept of the scoresheet Sunday. The point burst brought his total to 12 points in five games and 108 on the season — tops in the AHL. Rookie Sterling is second with 90 points, though his 51 goals places him as the top goal scorer in the league. Cory Larose has done his fair share as well, currently standing in sixth with 74 points. Center Jason Krog was at the top of the scoring pile for the first half of the year, until a month-long call-up to the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers left him trailing behind. He's since returned to the Wolves and his points are still good enough for 11th with 68.

It's conceivable that the Wolves can finish the year with four players in the top 10 in scoring, no small feat to accomplish. Of course, all of the personal accomplishments will mean nothing without a run to the Calder Cup, but the team will need continued production to make that a reality.

Five: Tip of the hat to the State Champs
After winning semifinal games earlier in the week, the Glenbrook North Spartans and the Fenwich Friars faced off for the Blackhawk Cup Saturday afternoon at the United Center. The Friars are familiar faces in the tourney, making their second appearance in three years, while the Spartans made it to their first final in more than two decades. Led by a highlight reel goal by Jayson Megna, Glenbrook North earned its first state championship since 1985 with the 4-1 victory. The championship game drew more than 5,713 fans to the United Center, which could easily be confused for a regular Blackhawks crowd, except for the greater enthusiasm shown for the teams on the ice.

Congratulations go out to the Spartans, but more importantly, it's great to see high school hockey thriving in Illinois. While there haven't been many NHL players from Chicago or the rest of the state, continued growth at the grassroots level can make players from the Land of Lincoln more competitive and build stronger skills to compete with players from around the country, and world.

Hoops in Five

...is on vacation.
by Jason Maslanka

Sox in Five

Lessons From Spring Training
by Steve Gozdecki

Well, your Chicago White Sox are looking like a bag of crap this spring, no? The pitchers can't pitch, the backup catcher can't play a few innings at first base without suffering a torn labrum and forfeiting his job to a man named Wiki, our potential lefty masher off the bench managed to hurt himself while hitting a home run and had to be pinch run for, and the team is losing two exhibitions for every one it wins.

Fortunately, come Monday our record goes back to 0-0 as we return to the grind or whatever the new marketing slogan is. For today, let's just look back on the last month or so and see what we know now that we maybe didn't know coming into spring training. Or just look back and hope that only some of what we've seen will continue into the regular season.

One: Our Big Three Are Ready to Play
For the veterans, spring training is all about getting' through without getting' hurt. And if you wanna hit .300 and hit a few big flies along the way, no one's going to complain. For our big three aging sluggers — Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye — this spring has been a success according to the above criteria. And our number four, third baseman Joe Crede, has been looking mighty good as well.

Two: Our Pitching? Maybe Not So Good
While spring training in Arizona tends to favor the hitters over the pitchers, that's not registering as an adequate excuse for the way most of the White Sox hurlers have sucked over the past month. Lemme put it this way: when the only member of the rotation posting an ERA below 5 is the rookie fifth starter who is known to have "adjustment issues" at each new level of ball, you might be a little nervous. But young John Danks has been the class of the rotation over Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez (ranked in order of their spring suckiness). But for what little it's worth, the departed Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy have also kept their new pitching coaches up nights this spring, with Garcia struggling to hit the mid-80s on his fastball and McCarthy serving up home runs at the kind of pace that led to his trade in the first place.

Three: But We've Got Some Pitchers on the Way
While it's for good reason that the stat heads will tell you that there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, it's hard not to be a bit excited about the future of the White Sox rotation, which looks poised to bring a range of looks to the Cell in coming years. I've touched upon John Danks above, the youngster with the sweet left arm who is said to have the mental makeup of a Buehrle along with a fastball that actually lives up to its description. Like crazy slow balls that give both the batter and the catcher fits? Then meet Charlie Haeger, who is poised to become the first impact knuckleballer the majors have seen since Tim Wakefield debuted last decade. How about a giant righty who brings mid-90s heat and a wicked slider? Adam Russell is your man. Into nice curveballs and control for the back of your rotation? Lance Broadway, come on down! And because tiny, hard-throwing lefties are all the rage in this era of Billy Wagner and Scott Kazmir, here comes Gio Gonzalez, back in the White Sox system after a year spent as a Philadelphia property and still poised to become an ace some year soon. And then there's Gavin Floyd with the plus pitches and the minus head, hanging around to remind us that, indeed, there's no such thing as a pitching prospect.

Four: Putting the "Outs" in the Outfield
Last year, I wrote at least 1,437 words condemning leftfielder Scott Podsednik and felt a sense of relief when October came around, visions of no more Pods on the Sox dancing in my head. Instead, Kenny went out and resigned him, then compounded the crappiness by signing Darin Erstad, one of the few outfielders in baseball who is as useless as Pods is in the batter's box. Erstad, who Kenny has had a hard-on for ever since the Angels turned down a straight swap of him for Garland back in the Mesozoic era, brings a weak bat and quickly diminishing range to centerfield, and has apparently ousted Brian "Rookie Bust" Anderson from the centerfield picture, as if the known suckiness of Erstad is somehow better for the team than the awesome defense and potential plus bat that Anderson brings. (The always brilliant Carl Skanberg encapsulates the situation perfectly in this Palehose 7 strip.) While everyone remembers Erstad for his crazy 2000 season, in which he hit .355 with 25 homers and 28 steals, that year was a ridiculous outlier in the context of his full career. Two of his last four seasons have seen him miss more than 60 percent of his team's games due to injuries, while his two healthy years over that span have brought a meh-ish .285 with seven home runs and 13 steals and an uninspiring .333-ish on-base percentage. If Anderson is ultimately sent down to the minors, the White Sox will be a mere Jermaine Dye injury away from being in a situation where the AAA outfield will be superior to its major league counterpart.

Five: The New Marketing Campaigns Are Dopey
Take your pick (and no, death is not an option): the stupid "Back to the Grind" campaign, or the "South Side of Chicago Board of Tourism" ads the team is running. While the former is just more tired dreck akin to that late '90s bollocks about how "the kids can play," the latter threatens to reach depths of non-funniness that haven't been seen since the last time I tried to crack wise. While I generally commend the work of White Sox Marketing Honcho Brooks Boyer and his crew, they've laid a pair of duds with the selling of the 2007 team. And if marketing drives the club's results, we're in for a long, long season.

Cubs in Five

...is out of the country at the moment. Back in a week or two.
by Jeff Webber

Fire in Five

Offseason Shenanigans
Steve Gillies

In case you haven't heard, Major League Soccer made a pretty big splash in the offseason by signing former England captain David Beckham to play for the LA Galaxy. In order to be able to afford Beckham's massive salary, the league has revised its salary cap so that each team can bring in one "Designated Player," a high priced, high profile player who is exempt from any salary cap restrictions other than the $400,000 that the league will contribute to his salary. Also, the league added a new team to the league, Toronto FC, and let them draft players from each of the other teams. This has led to a pretty hectic offseason, with a lot of departures and tons of wild speculation about who the Fire's Designated Player would be. With the season starting in less than two weeks, now is a pretty good time to try to make sense of it all.

One: Who's Gone?
This is going to take a while even without mentioning guys like Leonard Griffin and Greg Capano, so bear with me:

Zach Thornton. When Matt Pickens won the starting job last year Zach Thornton became the highest paid backup in the league. Obviously that wasn't going to last too long and Zach's been sent packing to Colorado. He reportedly acted with a great deal of professionalism throughout the whole process, and Pickens often gives him a great deal of credit for mentoring in interviews. As a Fire original, he'll always be remembered fondly by fans, but it was definitely time for a change. Plus, now with Clint Mathis on his team he has someone that looks like he can give him some real competition in those hot dog eating contests. Sorry Zach, had to get one in there for the road.

Tony Sanneh and the Fire couldn't come to terms on a contract. Despite his fantastic play at the end of last season this didn't come as a shock. His previous contract had been the highest on the team, and it was just too much to pay for an injury prone 36-year-old, especially with Jim Curtin in line to serve as an adequate replacement.

Toronto drafted Nate Jaqua. His contract was due to run out and he expressed a desire to try his hand overseas. Knowing this, the Fire left him unprotected in the expansion draft and Toronto took the bait. Then they pulled kind of a fast one on us, as Nate decided that instead of wanting to go overseas he really wanted to play on the West Coast, so Toronto traded him to the LA Galaxy, where he'll be lining up with Landon Donovan and David Beckham. It poses the question: Did Nate really want to leave the league or did he just want to leave Chicago? Either way, my ladyfriend, who was rather fond of looking at Nate, is pretty devastated.

All of those moves, while major, were pretty straightforward. However, when the Fire traded its leading scorer, Andy Herron, to the Columbus Crew for a guy who immediately retired from the league, a lot of people started scratching their heads. Sure, Herron was never my favorite player and I don't think he was the guy to form a successful partnership with Chris Rolfe, who the Fire look to be building into a franchise player. Chad Barrett is ready for more playing time, but with Jaqua gone, losing Herron leaves the forward line paper-thin. Not to mention inexperienced--add up the grand total of seasons played and you get a whopping five years experience between the entire strike force.

So what gives? Well, the first thing you notice is they've cut their salaries drastically. Three of those guys made six figures (a lot by MLS standards). Now the Fire definitely have enough room to fit a $400,000 designated player into the lineup, and possibly enough to trade for the rights to another one. It's a big price, having lost their leading scorer, their goalkeeper for life, their best defender, and their tallest guy, but it's got to be all worth it. The Fire must have some amazing designated player ready to come in and make a huge splash, right?

Two: So Who Did They Get?
Nobody. At least not yet. To be fair, the Fire isn't alone in this predicament. A lot of clubs have spent the offseason in pursuit of that one big signing, while a few teams, notably DC United, have worked on strengthening their overall squad and look to be in a much better shape for it.

Three: Yeah, But Who Did We Try to Get?
One thing you can't accuse the Fire of in the offseason is a failure of ambition or imagination. Pick an aging name in world soccer or any pro with a remotely Polish sounding last name and it came up. But the Fire made worldwide headlines with an attempt to bring Zinedine Zidane, known in this country mostly as "that headbutt guy," out of retirement and into the Fire lineup. Zinedine freaking Zidane! If it had happened... I don't really want to dwell on it that much. For about a week I couldn't sleep or eat just thinking about it. Of course, it was too good to be true. The craziest thing was that Zidane legitimately considered it, and reportedly the deal just broke down over money. I would have thought that for all the reasons Zidane would or would not want to play again after going out the way he did in the World Cup Final, the price tag wouldn't have been the sticking point.

Four: Who They'll Probably End Up Getting
As of press time, The Fire are in negotiations with 34-year-old Mexican superstar, Cuauhtemoc Blanco. It's a controversial move if it happens. Because of his role in the US-Mexico rivalry of the past decade, a lot of current Fire fans who also cheer for the US National Team on a regular basis are less than pleased. On the other hand, he's a massive hero to fans of Mexican Club America and he would bring a lot of new fans to Toyota Park. He'd also sell a lot of t-shirts, replica jerseys and raise the sponsorship price on jerseys (which clubs are allowed to earn money from starting this year). That, more than anything else, has been what this Designated Player thing seems to be about so far. However, once all the hype of his signing and arrival wear down (and this part holds true for a certain well-known metrosexual in LA as well*), the real issue is how he will perform on the field. Would he raise the standard of his team, or the standard of the league as a whole? Or will the yank fans just see another overrated prima donna loafing his way through semi-retirement, while the Mexicans that show up see a bunch of gringos too busy running around like headless chickens to give their hero a decent pass?

Five: Where You Can See Games This Season
One thing that definitely improved over the offseason is the TV deal. Between Telefutura picking up some games and Comcast SportsNet extending their coverage, a majority of games will be available locally. The national television situation has gotten better too with HDNET and Fox Soccer Channel airing games, and ESPN2 reserving Thursday nights for a featured game of the week. The way it works out, all but two games will be on TV somewhere other than MLS's Direct Kick package. Also, as a thank you to the fans that had to wait half a season to see their team play last season, for the first time in quite a while, this year the Fire's first game will be played at home. April 7 kicks off year two in Bridgeview. Let's hope it's still warm out by then and that someone has figured out that parking situation during the offseason. If not, there's always the drunk bus leaving from the Globe. You won't get out of the parking lot any quicker, but you'll have enough Pabst Blue Ribbon in you not to care. I highly recommend it.

*For the record, I'm not talking about Nate Jaqua.

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Comments

jpb / March 27, 2007 11:29 AM

Nate Jaqua: you are dead to me. But if you asked me to take you back, I would in a millisecond.

jpb / March 27, 2007 11:32 AM

Nate Jaqua: you are dead to me. But if you asked me to take you back, I would in a millisecond.

james / March 27, 2007 3:47 PM

the worst part about those southside of chicago board of tourism ads are that every single one somehow works in us cellular. still, i find them pretty amusing.

 

About the Author(s)

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks veniently cofan who, inexplicably, still has hope that Bill Wirtz will once again provide Chicago with a championship hockey team and broadcast home games on TV, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium. Every week he'll bring you five talking points on the state of hockey in Chicago (including, when possible, the minor-league Wolves and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com.

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