The Conn Smythe Trophy winner is one of the most forgotten about awards throughout the four major sports. In fact, many intelligent sports fans (outside of hockey diehards) don’t even know what the Conn Smythe Trophy is – I’ve heard it being mistaken as an alias for the Stanley Cup and the league’s best goaltender, amongst other dumb things – which is quite sad. What exactly is it, you ask? Why, it’s the MVP of the NHL Playoffs, hombre. Time to get yourself out from underneath that rock you’ve been living under pronto.
If some douche bag were to hold a gun to your head and force you to name the past three NBA Finals MVPs and Super Bowl MVPs, could name ‘em? You’re damn right you could (I hope). Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Lebron James, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco. See how easy that was? You just saved your own life. But if that same douche bag were to hold a gun to your head and force you to name the past three Conn Smythe Trophy winners? Unless you’re able to spew out “Jonathan Toews, Tim Thomas, and Jonathan Quick” without hesitation, you’ve got a bullet through your skull before you even get a chance to ask “What’s a Conn Smythe?”
With that, it’s time to show a little appreciation for the most sought after award (in my humble opinion) outside of the Stanley Cup. Let’s break down the frontrunners, trailers and long shots, by team, for the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy Award.
Frontrunner: Corey Crawford, G
Corey Crawford has been nothing short of sensational between the pipes this postseason. The man came into the Cup with a hot hand, and he kept that hand aflame after his performance in the triple overtime thriller against Boston on Wednesday night. After the 51 saves (in 54 chances), albeit in 112 minutes, that he recorded in Game 1, his playoff-leading goals against average (GAA) improved to an astonishing 1.73, and his save percentage (SV%) now stands at .936. This has been a coming-of-age season for Double C Cup (a nickname I totally just made up), and he contains all the makeup and talent necessary to become one of the best goaltenders in all of hockey. If Crawford continues to stonewall Boston the way he did in those three overtimes and leads Chicago to its second Cup in four years, the 2013 Conn Smythe will be his for the rest of eternity.
Trailer: Marian Hossa, RW
As expected, 34-year-old Marian Hossa has been a model of consistency for this young Blackhawks team. His presence alone has made him as valuable as any over the past four years, and without his four combined points in elimination Games 5-7 against Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals, who really knows where this team would be? Quietly, behind all the Kane/Toews/Bickell talk, Hossa currently leads the team with 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) this postseason, leads all Chicago forwards and centers with a +8 +/- rating, ranks second on the team in shot percentage (.121) for anyone with over 40 shots on goal, and ranks first on the team in game winning goals (tied with three others) with two. Interestingly enough, the Hawks are 11-1 thus far when Hossa records a point and 2-4 when he fails to do so. That’s how valuable he has been. If the Hawks win the Cup behind an unexpected pedestrian performance from Crawford, the Conn Smythe crown should be Hossa’s to claim.
Longshot: Bryan Bickell, LW
Late-bloomer Bryan Bickell has taken over Dustin Byfuglien’s role as the enforcer of the Hawks offense throughout this playoff run. After spending his first few seasons as a benchwarmer, Bickell finally came into his own as a legitimate left wing in this league. During the 2010 Stanley Cup run, he played four games total; during this one, he hasn’t missed a game, leading the team with 64 hits and a .222 shooting percentage (only 36 shots on goal, but still). He has been extremely physical and enormously clutch, scoring game winning goals in Game 1 against Minnesota, Game 2 against Los Angeles, as well as goal in Games 5 and 6 against Detroit and Game 4 against Los Angeles again. It seems that every season, one player from the Stanley Cup winning team comes out from the mediocrity closet and busts right onto the scene when the playoffs begin. Bickell has been that guy this year, and he’s earned himself the generous pay day that will surely come to him. Unfortunately, his chances of winning the Conn Smythe are remote, but you can never say never, I guess.
Frontrunner: Tuuka Rask, G
Tuuka Rask, like Crawford, came into the Cup scorching hot – so hot that it was almost frightening to think about. The Hawks got to Rask late in Game 1, but he still managed to save 59 out of 63 shots from going into his net. The four goals he gave up, though, are twice the amount he gave up against Pittsburgh during their four-game sweep. Outside of a few other four goal games earlier against Toronto and New York, Rask has been an absolute wall while recording a 1.78 GAA and .942 SV%. Tim Thomas posted a 1.98 GAA and .940 SV% en route to his MVP award in 2011; Jonathan Quick posted a 1.41 GAA and .946 SV% en route to his MVP award in 2012. If Rask continues at this pace, and the Bruins win the Cup, he should win the award when it’s all said and done.
Trailer: David Krejci, C
David Krejci continues to be one of the best players for the Boston Bruins, and one of the most underrated players in the league. A true winner, Krejci tends to save his best for big moments, as evidenced by his hat tricks in Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 4 against Toronto in the opening round this season. As he did in the 2011 playoffs, Krejci leads the Bruins with 23 points (including a team-leading nine goals and 14 assists), and he ranks second in +/- (+15) and shooting percentage (.191). He has two game-winning goals thus far and has proven to be Boston’s most valuable offensive player at this moment in time. The race to win the Conn Smythe should be neck and neck between Rask and Krejci for the rest of the way.
Longshot: Nathan Horton, RW
This spot is a complete toss-up between Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, not because the former had to leave Game 1 with a reported “chronic left shoulder subluxation,” but because they both bring very positive characteristics to the table in different ways. Lucic is much more physical (72 hits to Horton’s 22), but Horton gets the edge because he leads the team, by a wide margin, with a +22 +/- rating, ranks second in points (18) and goals (7), and has been the most accurate shooter on the team (.221). There’s a very slim chance, if any, that Horton wins this award, especially if he has to miss any time with that banged up shoulder, but that’s more of a testament to Rask and Krejci than anything else.
I picked the Hawks in 6 and I’m sticking with that, so I’ll take Corey Crawford in this little race for the MVP prize.
Two Original Six teams. Two of the four biggest sports markets in America. Two of the deepest teams in the NHL with two of the hottest goaltenders to date. The 2013 Stanley Cup finals has all the makings of something truly historical, containing two teams who know a thing or two about winning a championship. This will be the first playoff meeting between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins since 1978 and the first time they even share the ice together since October 2011. The roller coaster ride to get to this point has been a hell of a lot bumpier than your typical fan would prefer. There have been flashes of dominance: Boston’s shocking sweep of The Golden Boy and his Penguins, Chicago’s comfortable 4-1 series win over the former champs; there have been flashes of desperation: Boston’s unforgettable come-from-behind Game 7 win to stun the Toronto Maple Leafs after suffering a 4-1 deficit in the third period, Chicago’s ability to win three straight elimination games over the Detroit Red Wings. But in another 35 years, most hockey fans will look back on the 2013 season and only remember the best-of-seven ride that lies ahead – a ride that will inevitably end in thrill for one team and nausea for the other.
Nearly every major contributor on this Bruins team was a part of their 2011 Stanley Cup run. David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton make up one of the, if not the, strongest first line in all of hockey. Krejci recorded 23 points 12 goals, 11 assists) en rout to the Cup two years ago; he already has 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) this postseason. Him, Lucic and Horton lead all playoff qualifiers with a +/- of +14, +13 and +21, respectively. The chemistry between those three is as good as chemistry can possibly get (somewhere Carmelo Anthony is shrugging upon hearing such a word), so one can only hope that the Blackhawk defense can find a way to slow the trio down. Patrice Bergeron (two game-winning goals in OT) and his little bitch side kick, Brad Marchand, the 5’9 pest who opposing players and fans looove to hate, round out a very formidable and threatening offfense. 87-year-old Jaromir Jagr is playing in his first Stanley Cup since 1992 but has probably had somewhat of an affect on Boston’s improvement from 2.65 GF/G during the regular season (13th) to 3.13 GF/G during the postseason (2nd).
As for the Hawks, we all know the story by now: incredible depth and star power. Patrick Kane, whose head was being called for by many irrational fans for not scoring a goal in seven consecutive playoff games, came through in a monstrous way with a goal in Game 4 against LA and a hat trick in Game 5 to punch Chicago’s ticket to the Cup. But while Jonathan Toews has struggled mightily and has yet to score his second playoff goal, it’s been the play of unsung heroes that can’t be overshadowed. Bryan Bickell has officially earned himself a massive pay day come July with his unpredicatble eight playoff goals; veteran center Michal Handzus has chipped in nine points in 17 playoff games; and lightning rod Andrew Shaw has provided an emotional and physical spark that this team has seemed to lack at various points throughout the postseason. Overall, 12 different Blackhawks have scored goals during this playoff run. Hopefully, those very unsung heroes can rise to the occasion for one last series.
The Bruin defense is headlined by the three-headed monster of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. Chara, who stands at a relatively large 6’9 255 pounds, is a straight-up behemoth. He is literally 7’0 tall on skates, which would make shit seep through the pants and leak down the inner thigh of most normal people were he to ever come at anyone at full speed on ice. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would drop dead immediately after receiving a forecheck from a man of that size – I would probably suffer a heart attack just from the sight of his approach – which makes me think that breaking an opponent’s bone or two from a simple check into the boards isn’t all that uncommon for Chara.
All joking aside, given his size, Chara is as good a defenseman as there is in this league. As expected, he leads all Bruin defensemen with 53 hits to go along with 11 points and a +/- rating of +12. He makes a huge impact on the power play as well with his deadly slap shot, his knack for effectively screening the opposing goaltender with his girthy frame, and his ability to successfully move the puck from the point.
Boychuk comes into the Cup with a league-leading 55 blocked shots (it’s not even close), and his 48 hits ranks him third amongst defensemen (behind Seabrook and Chara). 6’5 Adam McQuaid, fresh off his game-winning goal in Boston’s Game 4 shutout of Pittsburgh, has been solid as well with 36 hits and 27 blocked shots.
The Niklas Hjalmarsson/Johnny Oduya blue-line combo has been arguably as good as, if not better than, the more popular Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook combo. The former two quietly lead the team in both +/- rating at +10 and +9, respectively, and blocked shots with 32 apiece. Keith is undoubtedly the best defenseman on the roster, and the fact that Chicago was able to steal Game 4 in LA without him will forever be beyond my comprehension. But given the second line’s current level of play, I shouldn’t have been as worried heading into that game. Hjalmarsson and Oduya may not be as big and physical as the Boston blue-liners (leave that to Seabrook and his 58 hits), but their under-appreciated chemistry and finesse have made them as valuable as a second defensive line can be. The extreme difference in style of play between these two opposing defenses is one of the more intriguing story lines out there.
Two summers ago, it was difficult to imagine a goaltender performing at a higher level than the one that Tim Thomas displayed for Boston during their Stanley Cup run. Thomas recorded an astounding 1.98 goals against average (GAA) and .940 save percentage (SV%) and earned himself the Conn Smythe Trophy award. Outside of the shockingly mortal Jonathan Quick (who blew those numbers away last year), no net-minder in recent memory has risen to that level… until Tuuka Rask came along this spring. Behind his 1.75 GAA and .943 SV%, Rask is coming off a series in which he completely stonewalled the Beasts of the East, allowing just two goals in four games and turning in an outrageous 53 saves in Boston’s thrilling double overtime win in Game 3. He’s got the hot hand, and it’s downright scary.
Corey Crawford, however, comes in with a hot hand of his own. After a couple of fairly mediocre postseasons between the pipes (2.21 GAA, .927 SV% against Vancouver in ’11; 2.58 GAA, .893 SV% against Phoenix in ’12), he leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.74 GAA and ranks second behind Rask with a .935 SV%. The former second-round draft pick has come into his own and become the man we all hoped to see him become – a man we can finally feel comfortable riding for many springs to come – and has yet to ride even a sliver of pine (save for empty net situations) throughout this entire postseason run. If Crawford can improve upon his weakness of occasionally allowing a soft goal slip through the pipes and figure out a way to corral more pucks to avoid second-chance opportunities for the opponent, he will surely come to be known as one of best goalies in the league. Period.
At this juncture of the season, all hope for Chicago’s power play is pretty much lost. After a 1-for-14 showing against LA, the Hawks are now chillin’ at a 13.7% conversion rate on the PP. Boston’s penalty killing unit, on the other hand, has gone from middle of the pack amongst playoff teams to more lethal than one could’ve imagined, holding Pittsburgh and their godly PP unit (28.3% before the series) scoreless (yes – scoreless) in 15 tries during their four-game sweep. Boston and its PK unit are playing some inspired hockey at the most opportune time. Needless to say, this clash does not bode well for Chicago.
The good news, though? Boston’s power play is nearly just as bad, having gone 7-for-45 (15.6%) in one-man advantages thus far. Chicago may have given up two surprising power play goals in the conference finals, but their PK unit, as always, remains deadlier than “The Night Stalker” (too soon?) with a league-leading 94.8% PK%. In a series where both teams simply refuse to give in during shorthanded situations, one measly power play goal could be the overriding difference in a game which, in turn, could end up being the difference in the series as a whole. Let’s just hope that one measly puck finds a way to scoot past Tuuka Rask’s crease and not that of Corey Crawford.
I picked the Hawks in five over Detroit; they won in seven. I picked the Hawks in seven over LA; they won in five. What’s the median between the two? Six.
Your 2013 Stanley Cup Champion? The Chicago Blackhawks. In 6.
Few Chicago athletes of this generation have ever had me at “Hello.” Brian Urlacher, Derrick Rose, Anthony Rizzo – they qualify. But Luol Deng? He certainly did not. Although I hated Duke, he was a great talent out of college, and in all honesty, I was quite satisfied when the Phoenix Suns agreed to draft him with the 7th pick and then trade him to Chicago.
During the first three seasons of his career, Deng continued to get better and transformed himself from a somewhat raw offensive talent into a very reliable, very productive NBA small forward, improving his field goal percentage from 43.4% to 51.7% over that span. But once the 2007-08 season came around, I started to lose trust in Deng, as he rejected a pretty generous contract extension, missed 19 games because of a lingering Achilles injury and saw a dip in his numbers across the board, including minutes (37 mpg in 06-07 to 33 mpg in 07-08).
By the end of the 2008-09 season, I began to genuinely dislike Deng. He had signed a major six-year contract extension worth $71 million before the season started, yet ended up missing 33 games plus the playoffs due to some mysterious injury. At that point, I self-proclaimed myself as the conductor of the “Luol Deng is a Straight Up Pussy” bandwagon, and many people started hopping aboard. I personally felt that Luol had no interest in trying or caring, and I looked at him as another one of those athletes that got his money and just said “fuck it.” I wanted him out of Chicago, and I wanted him out fast.
The 2009-10 season proved to be a decent turnaround for Lu, but it wasn’t until the 2010-11 season, after the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, that I did a complete 180. Deng has been a different player since then. He’s led the NBA in minutes per game two of the past three seasons (and finished fourth in the other), he made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012 as well as the last two all-star teams, and he’s battled through literally every injury he’s been plagued with. Now a premiere small forward in the league, Deng is considered the ultimate glue guy. His work ethic is one in which you cannot teach, he’s as tough, mentally and physically, as they come, and he has made himself invaluable to the success of the Chicago Bulls. Call me crazy, but there are few athletes, if any, that I currently love more than Luol Deng, and I can’t imagine him in another uniform – it’d be devastating.
But let’s be honest – the Bulls cap situation going into next season is nothing short of horrendous, as evidenced by this fantastic cap breakdown. Since you’re probably too lazy to click on that link and read what’s within, allow me to sum it up: the Bulls are already into the luxury tax with just eight players (Rose, Boozer, Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, Butler, Teague) plus the likely Rip Hamilton buyout. Eight players, as you know, isn’t going to cut it, since each NBA team kinda needs at least 13 players on its roster. The 20th overall pick is going to cost $1.472 million by itself, and minimum salary players will cost another $884K each. By now, you hopefully get the point – there is basically no flexibility and no hope for any significant free agent signings this summer. Nate Robinson ain’t coming back, and the chances of a Marco Belinelli re-signing are slim to none. If Cheap Ass Reinsdorf can’t stomach this already uncomfortable salary cap situation, what in god’s name can be done to relieve it?
Insert the Cleveland Cavaliers. They happen to have the first overall pick in one of the worst drafts (stardom-wise) in recent memory. There’s a lot of depth, but to even the most casual of basketball fans, no one screams potential superstar. Cleveland is as open as any organization will ever be to trading that pick away, and what they desperately need is a scoring small forward with veteran experience and the ability to anchor a defense. Luol Deng fits that bill perfectly. However, a two-time all-star isn’t going to be enough to covet the first overall pick. Throw in an asset like Marquis Teague to back up Kyrie Irving and the 20th overall pick? Now we’re talking.
If I’m Chris Grant (Cleveland’s GM), I’m thinking long and hard about this deal. My team just invested the fourth overall pick last year on a shooting guard in Dion Waiters, so why would I want to make that situation even more complicated by drafting Ben McLemore? Sure, I could draft Nerlens Noel and stash him for a year while he recovers from ACL surgery, but what good will that do? We have Anderson Varejao locked up through 2015, plus we’ll be atrocious again next season yet have no chance at winning another lottery (you know, because it’s rigged and all), meaning Andrew Wiggins will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
If I’m Gar Forman, I’m not even thinking about this deal – I’m ready to sign some papers. Not because I don’t want Deng anymore – it would be heartbreaking at first to see him go – but because it’ll make Jerry Reinsdorf get down on his hands and knees thanking me for coming up with a genius way to save him money, and because of two words that every basketball fan will likely be muttering in their dreams in a few years: Victor Oladipo.
Call me biased towards my precious Hoosiers – I don’t care. Victor Oladipo will be the best player to come out of this draft when it’s all said and done for three reasons, and nothing anyone can say or do before June 27th will convince me otherwise:
- His unfathomable work ethic and energy Before Oladipo took the college basketball world by storm last season, he wasn’t what one would consider a household name. In three short years, he went from an under-recruited player in high school known for throwing down hellacious dunks in the backyard of my fraternity house (in jeans, mind you) and failing to crack ESPN’s top 100 recruiting rankings to National Player of the Year candidate and potential top-three draft pick. He is the epitome of a gym rat, having spent hours and hours upon end working on his game and improving upon his significant weaknesses. His first two seasons at IU saw him combine for 18/74 from three; in his junior season, he made 30 of 68 threes, good for 44.1%. He led all guards, not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, with a 60% field goal percentage. He won Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, leading the Big Ten in steals per game (2.2). Oladipo is always hungry, constantly trying to raise his game and making the players around him better. He’s the full package, and that much can’t be said about most of the players in this draft.
- Nothing phases him
When the lights are on and the drunken fans are screaming, Oladipo rises to the occasion. Check out these stat lines:
vs. MSU: 21 points on 8/12 shooting, 7 rebounds, 6 steals, 3 blocks (WIN)
@OSU: 26 points on 8/10 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals (WIN)
@MSU: 19 points on 7/11 shooting, 9 rebounds, 5 steals with the go-ahead put back, dunk and free throws in the final minute, albeit on a sprained left ankle (WIN)
@Michigan for the Big Ten title: 14 points, 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive (WIN)
vs. Temple in Round of 32: 16 points, 8 rebounds and the heroic game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left (WIN)
I can keep going, but you get the picture: Oladipo thrives in big moments, a characteristic that almost always translates well at the professional level.
- The writing is on the wall
A number of GMs have said that Oladipo is hands down their favorite player in the draft. As one GM said, “I know he’s the one guy in this draft that my head coach would love to have right now. He’s an impressive young man on and off the court.” Chad Ford noted that GMs are impressed by his mixture of candor and intensity in interviews. Another GM stated, “Athletically he’s so gifted. And he combines that with hard work both in the game and in practice. He keeps working on his game and getting better. His attitude was just special in the interview we had. He’s humble, but confident. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but when he speaks he sounds like a leader.” And the best quote of all from Will Perdue (added to this post on 6/7):
“If you’re talking about the guy who is going to come in and be the most effective player from day one, it’s Oladipo. He’s got that ‘It’ Factor,” that it takes to be successful in the league. A lot of guys in this draft don’t have that. There’s no doubt he plays with an edge. Watching him play defense this season, I wouldn’t have any hesitation putting him into an NBA game and letting him guard Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant from day one. I think he’s that good defensively.”
Honestly, what more needs to be said?
Turning Deng, Teague and the 20th pick into Oladipo will do two things for the Bulls:
- It will save them a little over $12 million in cap space for the 2013-14 season (Deng’s $14.125M + Teague’s $1.075M + 20th pick’s $1.135M minus Oladipo’s $4.287M), getting them to roughly $10 million under the projected luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million (Cleveland is roughly $15 million under that threshold at this point in time). What does this mean? They can potentially make a run at the highly sought after shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, and fill the rest of the roster out with minimum salary players, giving them, if all goes as planned, a projected starting lineup of Rose, Oladipo, Butler, Boozer, and Noah, with Mayo, Hinrich, and Gibson to round out a fantastic eight-man rotation. How realistic a scenario like this is, I’m not sure. But it does make sense for both the Bulls and Cavs, and if the Bulls aren’t able to sign an impactful free agent this summer, they’ll have all the flexibility in the world next summer, with Carlos Boozer likely to be amnestied just in time for the arrival of Nikola Mirotic and an extremely deep 2014 free agent class.
- That very class, plus the resurgence of Deng’s protegé, Jimmy Butler, has suddenly made Deng expendable. A deal like this will free up Butler and allow him to take over as the small forward of the future, all while replacing Lu with Luol Deng 2.0 in Victor Oladipo, a relentless defender with the versatility to guard multiple positions and enormous upside. Although his offensive game lacks a true foundation at this point, his shooting has still improved tremendously, he’s one of the best finishers around the rim due to his unparalleled athleticism and body control, and he’s a fantastic rebounder for his position.
Heading into the season with the current roster plus a healthy Derrick Rose should hopefully be enough to beat Miami next year, but the end of Luol Deng’s contract is very near, and given Chicago’s terrible cap situation, either trading him or letting him walk in free agency may be inevitable. Trading Deng is something that would really hit Bulls fans where it hurts, but if we can replace him with Tom Thibodeau’s ideal type of player in Oladipo as the first overall pick in the draft AND give them major cap room flexiblity, it’s something that management should at least consider bringing up to Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert over the next few weeks.
No team in NHL history had ever gone 24 consecutive games without losing in regulation… until this season. Only 20 times in NHL history, in 229 chances, no less, had a team come back from a 3-1 defecit to win a playoff series… until this season. The Chicago Blackhawks have now imprinted their name in the record books not once, but twice in the past two and a half months, yet the season as a whole doesn’t feel completely accomplished – not yet at least. There is still one minor milestone to check off on this memorable 2013 season – a second Stanley Cup in four years, and it’s officially in reach. The reigning champion Los Angeles Kings have yet to be dethroned, and as big of a challenge as the Red Wings posed these past two weeks, the Kings will make life for our Hawks that much more difficult. Get ready for one of the most exciting, gut-wrenching and emotional playoff series you will ever witness between two of the best teams in all of hockey. The Kings aren’t ready to give up the crown just yet, but the Blackhawks will do everything in their power to scalp them if need be.
It was only one short year ago that the Kings claimed the throne, for the first time ever, in purely dominant fashion. They set a NHL record by winning 10 consecutive games on the road in one playoff tournament and cruised to a 16-4 postseason record, something completely unheralded for an eighth seed. This year? They’re off to a 1-5 start on the road so far. If they’re going to have a chance to beat Chicago, they damn well better steal one in the Madhouse this weekend… and it all starts with something easier than done in these high-octane playoff series: scoring goals.
The Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews/Marian Hossa ménage à trois has combined for a pedestrian eight goals in 12 playoff games thus far (five from Hossa), while the Dustin Brown/Jeff Carter/Mike Richards ménage has combined for 10 goals in 13 games. These two teams are loaded with star power, and the numbers above are more of a testament to the unique depth and underratedness of their respective rosters than a knock on any of their top players. Patrick Sharp may have disappeared throughout most of the Detroit series, but he came through when it mattered most by scoring a huge goal in Game 7 to get us off the schneid. Brian Bickell (goals in Games 5 and 6), Michael Frolik (penalty shot in Game 6) and Andrew Shaw (two goals in Game 5) all also played monstrous roles in helping Chicago complete the three-game closeout. And although Kane and Toews have struggled to put the puck through the net, they’ve contributed positively (for the most part) in other ways, if not through timely passing (15 combined assists in the postseason), then by just simply being out on the ice (both lead Chicago non-defensemen in TOI/G). You’ve gotta believe that they’ll pick it up soon. Like, real soon. They’re too good not to.
As for LA, they’re not nearly as deep as Chicago, but they have great experience and great leadership. Brown and Carter are fantastic – Brown being the captain of the ship and Carter being the team’s bona-fide goal scorer, as he finished fourth in the NHL in goals scored this season (26). Both Carter and Richards played on the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers team that lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup, and both got totally shut down, combining for four total points and a -13 +/- rating in that series. Needless to say, those two will be out for blood come Saturday. Brown and fellow wing, Dustin Penner, will surely enter the series with similar mentalities, as they both enjoy physical styles of hockey and lead the team in hits (57 and 38, respectively).
Two other names to know: Anze Kopitar and potential x-factor Justin Williams. Kopitar led the Kings in points during the regular season with 42, and Williams, who scored just 11 goals all season, scored two big ones in Game 7 against San Jose.
Drew Doughty vs. Duncan Keith – that’s the main story-line here. After manning the blue line for Team Canada together in the 2010 Olympics, they come in as two of the premiere defensemen in the league. As expected, they lead their respective teams in ice time per game, something that will surely not change during the conference finals. Keith’s nine points ranks him fourth this postseason, and Doughty’s 24 blocked shots ranks him ninth, right behind LA’s own Rob Scuderi (31 BS) and right in front of Chicago’s Johnny Oduya (23 BS). As ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun put it, “…the game plan from each team will include targeting each star blueliner: pound them every time you have a chance on the forecheck, and wear them down as much as possible.” That’s how important these two are to their teams. If Brent Seabrook can just pick up where he left off after that overtime goal to clinch a trip to the conference finals, then advantage: Chicago.
Not much needs to be said here. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, then it’s time to move the fuck out, because the enigma that is Jonathan Quick has taken his giant wooden goalie stick and shoved it up the asses of the past six playoff opponents he has faced. We can talk all we want about offense, defense, special teams, etc., but when it comes to playing the Kings, none of that has seemed to matter whatsoever. Quick has stopped 362 of 382 shots this postseason for a .948 save percentage – somehow better than the .946 he posted last year en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s inexplicably unstoppable at this time of the year (he ranked 34th in the regular season in save percentage) and, quite frankly, it’s downright scary. Expect the Hawks to crash the net every chance they get and put a big body directly in front of Quick whenever the puck is in the LA zone. It almost worked for San Jose; I’d like to think it’ll be more effective for Chicago.
Corey Crawford has been pretty unbelievable too, saving 316 out of 337 shots, good for a .938 save percentage and ranking second amongst full-time goaltenders. Fans tend to be hard on him at times because he may allow a soft goal here or there, but after the way he has played all season long and his performances in three elimination games (saved 25 of 26 shots in Game 5; 35 of 38 shots in Game 6; 26 of 27 in Game 7), it’s time for everyone to believe in him.
Nothing has changed since my last series preview: the Hawks’ power play sucks, and their penalty kill does not. To be fair, they did convert three power plays into goals during Games 5 and 6 against Detroit, but for the most part, it wasn’t pretty. There were times that the Hawks struggled to even get one shot on goal due to their inability to either win a face-off (something they struggled to do in Detroit’s zone for most of the series, not just on power plays) or set up their four corners, allowing Detroit to clear the puck whenever they got a stick on it. It was borderline embarrassing to watch at times, but as always, they came through when it mattered. That being said, their power play ranks last amongst the remaining teams (and 10th overall) at 16.2% (6-for-37), something that must be improved upon in order to win this upcoming series. LA’s PK unit has been very solid, killing 86.7% of all power plays this postseason (6-for-43) and ranking fifth amongst all playoff contenders. Given those numbers, plus a goaltender like Jonathan Quick camping out between the pipes, I don’t like our chances for improvement.
Thank god for the Chicago penalty kill, though – the deadliest in hockey. The PK unit has given up one – I repeat: ONE – shorthanded goal out of 41 tries in the playoffs thus far. That’s good for 97.6% which is, if you think about it, just absolutely ridiculous. Detroit was able to convert only one power play out of 24 last series. If that greatness can continue, then hopefully a phenomenal PK unit can offset a weak PP unit. Statistically, LA’s power play unit has been very similar to Detroit’s all season (19.9% to Detroit’s 18.4% during regular season). Because of that, I expect the PK greatness to, indeed, continue.
Chile please. Hawks in 7.
It was April 15, 2000. I had recently turned 11-years-old and, as always, my entire life revolved around sports. I loved the Bulls, but Michael Jordan had already been retired for almost two years. They were truly atrocious, having combined for 45 wins in three seasons. Quite frankly, they were unwatchable.
I loved the Cubs, but they only won 67 games the previous season and would go on to win 65 the next. Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood were the only two players an 11-year-old could actually look up to.
I loved the Blackhawks, but they hadn’t made the playoffs in four years. Hockey may have been my favorite sport at the time, but any Blackhawks fan could tell you that Tony Almonte was the only Blackhawk even worth talking about during those dark days.
That left me with the Bears, a team that had made the playoffs once in seven years and gave young kids no good reason to believe in them. The two Bears jerseys I had growing up: Chris Zorich and Rashaan Salaam. The former was out of the league after 5.5 seasons, and the latter is considered one of the biggest busts in Bears history. That’s how terrible it was. No one, not even my own father or uncle, could convince me to like them. The Bears weren’t cool to talk about during lunch and recess, because when you’re just a kid, all you really want to do is root for the good teams.
The Denver Broncos were my team back then, and Terrell Davis was my favorite football player in the world. I swore I’d never forget watching Super Bowl XXXII with my dad in 1998, when Davis came out of the locker room at half time after puking from excruciating migraine headaches, just to score the game-winning 1-yard touchdown with only 1:45 remaining. Even at such a young age, these were the moments that I lived for, that taught me what it was like to be a fighter, to never back down, and to appreciate sports.
When the Chicago Bears took some converted safety-turned-linebacker named Brian Urlacher on that gloomy April day, I didn’t really think anything of it. They were coming off a typical 6-10 season under first-year head coach Dick Jauron, and I knew nothing about the All-American out of New Mexico. As the end of training camp neared, I remember hearing about how big and fast Urlacher was – how he wasn’t your prototypical NFL linebacker because of his unique size and athletic ability. He knew how to lead, and he was apparently always in the right place on the field at the right time. Maybe, just maybe, this kid would actually live up to the hype, something that nearly every former first-round pick of the Bears over the past decade (Cade McNown, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam, John Thierry, and Alonzo Spellman) had failed to do.
And live up to hype he did. After losing his starting job after Week 1 of his rookie season, then re-gaining it back Week 4 after a Barry Minter injury, Urlacher led the team in both tackles (123) and sacks (8.0). He was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and was Chicago’s lone representative in the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, the Bears finished that season 5-11. Urlacher certainly had my attention, but the Bears still sucked. I needed something, anything, to convince me that being a Bears fan would be cool again.
Then the 2001 season rolled around, and the tide began to turn. Urlacher catapulted their defense from 20th in the league to first overall. Like every single Bears team that we can remember, the offense was mediocre at best, led by Jim Miller, Anthony “A-Train” Thomas, and Marty Booker; it was the defense that got everyone talking. In Week 3, Urlacher held some highly touted rookie quarterback named Michael Vick to 18 rushing yards in the second half and returned one of Vick’s fumbles 90 yards to the house. Three weeks later, the Bears completed one of the most memorable come-from-behind wins in franchise history, when San Francisco receiver Terrell Owens dropped the ball in overtime on a slant in an attempt to elude Urlacher. The ball fell into the hands of Mike Brown, who ran it back 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a 37-31 win.
The Bears ended that season with a 13-3 record, clinching themselves the division for the first time since 1990, as well as a first-round bye. Because of their relatively weak offense, they weren’t expected to make much noise in the playoffs, especially with the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show On Turf” lingering in the NFC field. Chicago eventually lost to Philadelphia in the second round, but that magical 2001 season was much bigger than a disappointing playoff appearance – it marked my first season as a true Chicago Bears fan, and Brian Urlacher was the sole reason why. He made his first of five All-Pro teams, his second of eight Pro Bowls and, along with Marshall Faulk, he led the entire league in pro-football-reference.com‘s Approximate Value statistic, which puts a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position. He was becoming an unstoppable force at the linebacker position, and kids of all ages began to look up to him as the savior of Chicago Bears football.
Of course, the Bears didn’t make the playoffs for another four years, but as a fan, I never looked back. They had finally become my team, my Denver Broncos, and Brian Urlacher had become my favorite football player ever. It’s impossible to pinpoint one moment in Urlacher’s career as his greatest, as the list is never-ending, but his most memorable season in the NFL does happen to coincide with one of the greatest years in my life: 2006-07, the year the Bears made an unfathomable run to the Super Bowl – the year I graduated high school.
It wasn’t necessarily because I was graduating that made that year so great for me; it was because, as a senior, I knew it may be my last chance to spend countless hours with the guys I grew up with talking sports on a daily basis. So every Sunday (or Monday), we took extra advantage, watching as many Bears games together as possible, cherishing every moment that we could. The night the Bears went into Arizona, trailed 23-3 late in the third quarter and won 24-23 remains, to this day, my most memorable Bears moment. Sure, everyone remembers Rex Grossman’s six turnovers, the Mike Brown fumble recovery, the Charles Tillman fumble recovery, the Devin Hester punt return and infamous Dennis Green “crown their ass” post-game tirade. But, to me, as my friends and I huddled around the TV with our arms around each other, it was Urlacher’s second half performance on that crazy, miracle night that will always stick out. As Peter King explained it, in the last 16 minutes, “Urlacher choreographed the Bears D into a scheme that led to one touchdown, had 10 tackles and two passes defensed and a forced fumble. He had five tackles of [Edgerrin] James after a one-yard gain or less.” He single-handedly took over that game, imploring as much will and as much determination as he could to carry us to an impossible comeback victory. That game, above all else, epitomized Brian Urlacher as a football player.
Urlacher may not have accomplished his one main goal of bringing a championship to Chicago, but his impact on football fans all over can never be understated. A likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, he will go down as one of the greatest linebackers to ever live. He set a Bears single season-record with 151 tackles in 2002, won AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2011, holds the crown for most tackles in Bears history (1,358 combined tackles) and made the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Urlacher was an extremely rare breed of a football player and will always be known by Bears fans for the fear he instilled in opposing quarterbacks, the leadership he displayed on and off the field, his unteachable work ethic, and his utmost loyalty to his teammates, coaches and fans.
The fairytale 2006 season was one of the greatest times in my life, but had Brian Urlacher never been drafted by Chicago, or had he spurned the city at any point in his career for a better chance to win, who knows where my allegiance would stand. I owe my Bears fanhood to him, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Next season will be strange without no. 54 roaming the middle and calling the plays, knowing he will never put on the blue and orange again. Like everyone in that locker room, we will miss him. But we will never forget him.
**This article was written by
The Chicago Cubs made a lot of positive headlines last week when they locked up rising star Anthony Rizzo with a seven-year, $41 million deal. At just 23 years old and with less than a year of service time at the MLB level, some old school thinkers might be shaking their heads at this type of deal. However, this is the new norm not only with the Cubs, but with baseball in general.
With teams looking to reduce payroll and be smarter overall with their money, the game of baseball is getting younger. A lot of this is due to the stricter drug testing, which is reducing not only power numbers, but longevity as well. Baseball is back to stressing speed and defense just as much as the long ball.
Rizzo brings it all at this point, but the fact that he is just 23 years old and still somewhat unproven is a concern for people. Considering how much free agents receive on the open market in the prime of their careers though, seven years for just $41 million could end up being a steal.
There is always risk involved with a deal like this, both for the player and the club. Rizzo could explode and become one of the best players in baseball and daily fantasy sports, like Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki. Both players are underpaid at the moment, and they still have quite a bit of time left on their contracts.
Then you look at a guy like Grady Sizemore. The Cleveland Indians locked him up early in his career, and he of course had all the signs of a future star. Injuries got the best of him, and it seems unlikely that he will ever fully get back to his old self.
After being a part of two trades before settling into the majors, Rizzo doesn’t fit the bill of these other stars in farm systems. He is, by all accounts, a hard worker, a great club house guy and obviously someone the Cubs want to have as a face of the franchise to go along with Starlin Castro. This is a deal more and more teams are willing to make with young talent, and now the must Cubs wait and see if this way of spending can help them turn the franchise around.
Four short years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings met for the 15th time ever in the NHL Playoffs. It was a battle between two very different teams: one with a vast amount of youth and inexperience for an organization that had made one playoff appearance in 10 years, and one with a stupid amount of experience and leadership for an organization that hadn’t missed the playoffs in 20 years (and counting). Jonathan Toews had just turned 21; Patrick Kane wasn’t even 21. The older, savvier Red Wings unsurprisingly took it to the baby Blackhawks in five games en route to their fourth Stanley Cup trophy in 11 years.
A lot has happened since then. The Bears made the playoffs once and failed to reach the Super Bowl; the Bulls made the Eastern Conference Finals once and have been plagued with devastating injuries ever since; the Cubs and Sox have absolutely sucked; but the Blackhawks have been a model of consistency, having won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years the very next season and set an incredible 24-game point record just two months ago. Tomorrow night, the Blackhawks and Red Wings will take the ice together for Game 1 of arguably the greatest rivalry in professional hockey. However, unless these two teams cross paths some day in the Stanley Cup, they will never play each other again in the postseason, as Detroit makes its move to the Eastern Conference starting next October. So with that, let’s dive right into the nitty-gritty of what’s sure to be a physical and emotional second round playoff series.
If you were to tell me that the Blackhawks could win their first round playoff series, with ease, without both Jonathan Toews AND Patrick Kane scoring a single goal, I probably would’ve… well, I probably would’ve agreed, albeit very hesitantly, but that’s exactly what happened against Minnesota. The Blackhawks just have so much depth at forward and so many options that it’s nearly impossible for anyone in the Western Conference to match up with them. From Patrick Sharp to Marian Hossa to Brandon Saad to Andrew Shaw to Bryan Bickell to Michael Frolik, the list almost never ends. There is so much firepower and so much talent that opposing teams can’t choose to pick their poison with anyone – every single player on this team contributes. Sharp, Hossa and Bickell combined for 11 goals against the Wild, and Shaw, Frolik and Marcus Kruger all chipped in a goal. It’s no coincidence that Chicago swept the four game season series against Detroit this season – they’re simply over-matched. Hopefully, that success will continue starting tomorrow. And oh, by the way, some center named Dave Bolland, who happened to score eight goals and had 16 points during the 2010 run to the Stanley Cup, will be back from an injury and ready to go for Game 1.
The Bash Brother duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have displayed nothing but consistency over the past decade for Detroit. They may be older (34 and 32, respectively), and they may be slower, but one thing’s for damn sure: they know how to win. Neither one has ever missed the playoffs (both have been with Detroit for their entire careers), and they’ve only lost in the first round once in the last seven years. This season was obviously no different. Datsyuk and Zetterberg dominated the Ducks to the tune of 15 combined points and stepped up like the leaders that they are when it mattered most: Datysuk racked up three points in Game 6, and Zetterberg combined for three goals and five points in elimination Games 6 and 7. These two, along with the younger Justin Abdelkader, will man the first line. Look for veterans Johan Franzen, Valtteri Fillpula and Daniel Cleary to improve upon their combined +/- rating of -7 last series, as their performances will be crucial for a Detroit team that lacks some serious front-line depth in comparison to Chicago.
It’s no secret that the Blackhawks rely on talent, instincts and perfection, as opposed to physicality and strength, like the Boston Bruins, in order to win games. Their blue line is anchored by iron man and former James Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who led all Chicago defensemen with five points (a goal and four assists) and a +5 +/- rating against Minnesota in round one. Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson bring an abundance of recent playoff experience to the table and a Stanley Cup championship under their belts as well. 34-year-old Michal Roszival and 31-year-old Johnny Oduya have been playing sound, physical hockey, as Roszival leads the team with 11 hits (Oduya has five), while Oduya leads with 11 blocked shots (trailed by Roszival’s 10) thus far in the postseason. Each one of these players, as well as Nick Leddy, at least bring something positive to the table, which is why this unit ranks second in the playoffs in shots allowed per game (27.8) and first in goals allowed per game (1.40). The longer they keep this up, the deeper their playoff run probably goes.
The Red Wings may have played eight defensemen in round one, but only one of them is truly worth noting: Niklas Kronwall. He, like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, has been with Detroit his whole career and is the sole leader of their defensive unit. During the regular season, he led Detroit defensemen in blocked shots with 83 and ranked sixth amongst NHL defensemen in points with 29 . In seven games against Anaheim, he led the Wings roster in minutes per game (25:20 – nearly four minutes ahead of their next best defenseman, Jonathan Ericsson) and their defensive unit in hits (16) and blocked shots (15). The keys for Detroit’s defense will be to limit mistakes and turnovers in their zone (this proved costly against Anaheim), obstruct shooting lanes and not allow Chicago to get behind them in transition. They simply have to play flawless hockey.
Ray Emery should be healthy enough to suit up for Game 1, and that should be a huge plus. But Corey Crawford has been nothing short of spectacular so far this postseason. His .950 save percentage and 1.32 goals against average both rank first for full-time playoff goalies (Kevin Poulin and Tomas Vokoun only played two games each). He has proven to be cool, calm and collected under pressure and has improved upon his ability to control rebounds.
Jimmy Howard hasn’t been nearly as good in net for the Red Wings as Crawford, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get hot. He’s coming off a fantastic performance in Game 7 against Anaheim, where he saved 31 of 33 shots in front of a hostile Ducks crowd. Nevertheless, he has yet to develop any consistency and gain a win against Chicago this season. Until that changes, I’ll remain skeptical.
Let’s just cut to the chase: the Hawks have the best penalty kill in hockey right now. Minnesota had 17 power plays against them last series. How many power play goals did they score? Not a one. Detroit’s power play unit is considered middle of the pack, but they did rank fourth in the first round in power play percentage at 24% (6-for-25). Regardless, a good penalty kill should make fans feel comfortable; a great penalty kill, like Chicago’s, should make fans feel invincible.
On the other had, the Hawks’ power play unit has been mediocre all season long, and that didn’t change against Minnesota. They ranked 19th in the regular season at 16.6% and 10th in the postseason at 15.4% (2-for-13). The good news, though, is that Detroit’s penalty kill is mediocre as well, if not worse. It fared relatively well in the regular season (81.7%), but it gave up seven power play goals against Anaheim in 25 chances (72%), good for 14th out of 16 playoff teams. The Hawks’ power play certainly isn’t anything to write home about, but given the strength of their penalty kill, I’ll give them the edge in the special teams department.
Hawks in 5.
They fight through adversity. They never back down. They play for each other. And they have no fear. The 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are one of the greatest sports stories in recent memory whose fairy tale may end when LeBron James decides he’s had enough. But until then, what we are witnessing is a team of warriors who will give anything and everything to win basketball games, playing with an attitude and a swagger that most sports fans would die to see their teams adopt.
After Game 7 of the Brooklyn series, I couldn’t recall a prouder Chicago sports moment in my life. Jordan’s Bulls and the 2010 Blackhawks teams obviously brought joy to everyone – but those teams were great. Those teams were expected to win. This team? Forget about it. Winning just one playoff series with this roster despite Derrick Rose’s ailing ACL, Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis, Kirk Hinrich’s mysteriously strained calf, Nate Robinson’s and Taj Gibson’s flu and Luol Deng’s meningitis scare was an enormous accomplishment in and of itself. ”Next man up” has been the recurring theme of this team, and it all starts up top. Since day one, Tom Thibodeau has brainwashed these guys into thinking that, no matter what happens, they have enough to win.
Jimmy Butler, who I felt would be something very special for our team this season, has all but earned his spot as the Bulls’ future 2 guard, playing all 48 minutes (ALL 48 MINUTES!) in each of the last three playoff games. He has been nothing short of magnificent this postseason, averaging 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, nearly five trips to the free throw line and almost never turning the ball over in round one (0.7 TOs/game), all while guarding the Deron Williams/Joe Johnson combo AND never committing more than three fouls in a game. On top of that, he took on the impossible task of guarding LeBron James the entire game last night (only committed three fouls too) and was still able to post a 21-14-3 stat line, hitting 9/10 from the free throw line and 2/4 from beyond the arc (Butler’s 3% during 2012-13 season and postseason: 38.1% and 40.9% respectively; 3% during 2011-12 season: 18.2%). No moment is too big for this kid. In only his second year in the NBA, Luol Deng’s protegé has proved once and for all that hard work and a heavy heart can take you a long way in just a short amount of time in this league – and trust me, he’s not gonna slow down any time soon.
Nathaniel Robinson has been, quite frankly, Jordanesque this postseason. He may only be 5’9, but Lil’ Nate has a ridiculous amount of confidence and a monstrous sack of nuts. He’s never seen a shot he didn’t like, and although players like that can typically hurt your team more than help it, Robinson has been as clutch as I’ve ever seen anyone in a Bulls uniform since ’98. Whether it’s him putting up 34 points (23 in the 4th quarter) on 14-for-23 shooting in Game 4 against Brooklyn, 18 points in Game 6 while puking in between timeouts, or 27 points and 9 assists last night in Miami (11 of those points and 5 of those assists came in the 4th quarter as well) with 10 stitches in his upper lip, Robinson continues to thrive in big moments and show the Knicks, Celtics, and Thunder what could have been had they decided not to let the little Energizer Bunny walk for nothing.
Carlos Boozer has, well, disappointed again. Yes, he actually played well against Brooklyn, and I really do applaud him for that. But we’ve grown accustomed to Boozer laying postseason eggs the past few years, and last night was no different: 6 points on 3/11 shooting, 7 rebounds and 3 turnovers. He watched, cheered and yelled from the bench the final 16 minutes of the game, when the Bulls just so happened to outscore Miami 44-31. Coincidence? I think not. It won’t happen this summer, but until 2014, “‘Tis the season to be amnestied…”
Marco Belinelli has been freakin’ awesome the past few games, not just for his “Sam Cassell dance” in Game 7, but also for his ability to hit huge threes and get to the rim late in games. Belinelli has shot 50% from three (3-for-6), 3-for-3 from the free throw line and has a +/- of plus-15 in 12 “clutch time” minutes (last five minutes of the game and leading or trailing by five points or less) of playoff basketball. To give you some perspective on how huge he has been, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were a combined 0-for-10 from three, 7-for-25 from the field and a minus-16 each in 54 clutch time minutes last round (on the other hand, Robinson, Boozer and Noah have +/- of plus-28, plus-24 and plus-20 respectively in clutch time minutes, but they’ve all played much more during those moments). I couldn’t be happier with what Belinelli has given us, as he’s effectively replaced Kyle Korver as our Chicago Hotsauce – he’s just uglier, but at least he can create for himself once in a while.
Not enough can be said about Joakim Noah. In fact, nothing anyone can say will do that man justice. It’s clear that he has become our bona-fide leader, emotionally and physically, and Bulls fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The way he has led this depleted team on essentially one foot, dominating the likes of another all-star center in Brook Lopez and doing everything he can possibly do to help us win has been truly inspiring. Noah is the epitome of a professional athlete. He’s the kind of player that I would have idolized as a kid, and even idolize now, giving 150% night in and night out and fighting til death’s end. It’s admirable, and I feel that all athletes around the country should strive to be as tough and as passionate as he is. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching him play basketball, and I have no doubt that one day he, along with a fully healthy Derrick Rose, will lead the Bulls to a NBA championship.
If you follow the NBA like I do, you know damn well that these kinds of things never happen. To predict that a team led by the guys above, along with Taj Gibson, Nazr Mohammed and even Marquis Teague, can go into Miami in front of their pathetic home crowd, steal game one and shock the basketball world? Unthinkable. But here we are, in the wake of Miami’s third loss since February 2 (yes, third loss – they’re 41-3 since then), and we, as fans, aren’t just happy to be here anymore – we’re starting to “bullieve.”
Does this mean Chicago will win this series? No, but every game will be an absolute dogfight. I don’t think the Bulls can truly win this series, but I sure as hell know they’ll leave everything they have on that court each night. Like I said, this is not a great team - Derrick Rose ain’t coming back, Kirk Hinrich is battling through a painful injury, and Luol Deng is still bedridden after a spinal tap. All we can do is pray that the latter two come back soon. But whether we realize it or not, we are all witnessing something great – something inspiring. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Bulls fan right now, and what happens from here on out will just be the cherry on top of an already accomplished and memorable season.
Stop me if this sounds all too familiar: the Bears are on the clock, and there’s a plethora of value out there. Experts and fans get fired up, discussing perfect fits and can’t miss talents. For what seems like a lifetime, Roger Goodell finally makes his way to the podium and gets booed, per usual. He announces the pick, the cameras pan to a bunch of random Bears fans with their arms out, shaking their heads, and within minutes, everyone starts calling, texting and tweeting each other to ask something around the lines of, “Who the hell is that?! What the fuck are they thinking?!”
If that chain of events does, in fact, sound familiar to you, then you’ve had the ability to follow or tune in to the first round of the last two NFL drafts (or any Jerry Angelo-led draft for that matter). And both times, you’ve more than likely ended the night with a bitter Bear taste in your mouth. I hated the Shea McClellin pick last year, and I hate the Kyle Long pick even more this year. McClellin was considered a project going into the 2012 season, a guy NO ONE in their right minds predicted the Bears to draft in the first round. He wasn’t a projected first rounder on any mock draft boards, and he sure as hell wasn’t a projected starter for that Bears defense. The Bears passed on two stud defensive ends, Chandler Jones (drafted 21st by New England, two spots after McClellin) and Whitney Mercilus (drafted 26th by Houston) to select the undersized, still-a-work-in-progress Shea McClellin. Here’s how their rookies seasons fared:
- Shea McClellin: 14 games, 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 0 forced turnovers, 0 pass deflections
- Chandler Jones: 14 games, 45 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 5 pass deflections
- Whitney Mercilus: 16 games, 20 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass deflection
Now does this mean that I’m not a McClellin believer, that I think he’ll end up a bust when it’s all said and done? Absolutely not. The sky is the limit for this kid, and anything can happen as he continues to get stronger and improve his game. However, the numbers speak for themselves and prove that Phil Emery decided to place a premium on a project-type prospect in the first round of the draft as opposed to an instant-impact player, which Jones and Mercilus clearly were last season. And that is exactly what he did again last night.
Before we dive into the prospect overview, here’s the baggage that Kyle Long brings with him to Chicago: DUIs, drug rehab, flunked out of Florida State, converted from a defensive lineman to an offensive lineman just two years ago, and started a whopping five games during his final season of college football at Oregon. Emery claims Long has rebounded from the issues and is “not concerned about Long’s character.” That’s fine – maybe Emery’s right. To be quite honest, I don’t even really care about the baggage. Everyone makes mistakes – flunking out of college not typically one of them – but I care about getting pancakes and hammers out from my offensive lineman, not getting F’s in The Art of Basketweaving. It’s mainly the last two points above, the draft profile, and the absurd amount of talent we passed up for Long that are concerning.
The athletic ability that Long possesses is undeniable. He’s a 6’6, 313 pound offensive lineman with great reach and excellent mobility. He has great physical gifts, and he’s the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of former second overall pick Chris Long. The issue, however, is not his athleticism – it’s his football inexperience, especially on the offensive line, as well as his tag by many experts, including Bill Polian, as a “developmental player” (and he’s already 24 years old). This is a huge risk/mediocre reward pick if I’ve ever seen one, as Long doesn’t seem to be possess the instant-impact characteristics that Phil Emery claims he does. Apparently, just playing well in the Senior Bowl and doing well in the Combine are the key determinants for future NFL success. It doesn’t make any sense at all, as the Bears need to win NOW, not later. And the only way to do that at this point is to load this team up with as many instant-impact players as it can through the draft.
The Bears could have drafted a defensive tackle like Sharrif Floyd, the man-child out of Florida whom the Vikings potentially stole with the 23rd pick and was scouted as a top-10 talent (plausible nightmare scenario here). Or Tyler Eifert, the tight end out of Notre Dame who some experts have compared to Rob Gronkowski (his playmaking ability, NOT his partying) and drafted immediately after our pick by the Bengals. Or Alec Ogletree, the freakish linebacker out of Georgia who could’ve ended up being an excellent weak side linebacker in the Bears’ 4-3 defense (though if the Bears are able to snag a linebacker like Arthur Brown in the second round, then I won’t care). Or Xavier Rhodes, the 6’1 cornerback out of Florida State who has drawn comparisons to, and has a higher ceiling than, pro-bowler Brandon Browner from the Seahawks. Or, better yet, they could have traded down to acquire more picks and possibly select Long or another capable lineman later since a) the Bears have the least amount of picks of any team in the draft with 5, and b) Long would have absolutely lasted past round one (even he was surprised), plus there are plenty of other good linemen still out there. Instead, Emery went with the player whom many are deeming as a “project” once again, one who will certainly take time to develop and whose “still new to the game of football, and his play is still a bit unrefined.”
What you might consider pessimism, I consider realism. I may regret all my doubts a year from now, as Long’s play on the field may actually shock me more than the pick itself, and I truly hope that’s the case. Maybe Aaron Kromer has something up his sleeve and sees something in this kid that other football people do not. I want to be wrong about this. But after last year’s first round doubts proved to be valid for one season, I’m entitled to have my doubts now for similar reasons. The next two days of the draft may go better than we’re hoping. But until I see Kyle Long actually starting on the offensive line when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town on September 8th until December 29th against Green Bay, I will remain a skeptic.
Phil Emery, please prove me wrong.
Wait, what? Did I really just ask that question? Charles Tillman, a Hall of Famer? Am I out of my mind? Maybe. Maybe not. As of today, I will admit that there is probably zero chance, given how extremely difficult it is to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that Charles Tillman will be inducted into Canton. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be the homer than I am and make the case anyways.
Peanut is arguably the most under-appreciated cornerback of our generation, having been to one Pro Bowl his entire career and never making it onto an All-Pro team, and he will continue to be for the rest of eternity. Whether the lack of appreciation or career accomplishments will be his kryptonite, I’m not sure. Only true Bears fans, like ourselves, and Tillman’s teammates can acknowledge all the little things he has done on a weekly basis since the day stepped onto Soldier Field for the first time in 2003. Whether it be punching the football out of a receiver’s grip with Ivan Drago-like strength or exemplifying himself as a role model of inspiration, sportsmanship and courage on and off the field (recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award in 2009; finalist for Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2011), there is nothing that Charles Tillman has done to disappoint me in his 10+ year career. Sure, he’s had some bad games over the years, such as the 2006 NFC Divisional Game against Carolina (to Tillman’s defense, it was a poor collective effort from both him and Nathan Vasher; Steve Smith led the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns that season – he was simply unstoppable), but what cornerback hasn’t? Like the rest of this ageless Bears defense, Tillman refuses to regress and has shown that, at 31 years of age, he is more than capable of playing another three, four or even five years in the NFL.
So, where does this whole Hall of Fame argument come from, you ask? Well, I decided to put together the statistics of every cornerback currently in the Hall (there are only 15 of them) and compare them to Tillman’s, which I pro-rated through the 2015 season (assuming the Bears re-sign him or give him an a two-year extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent after next year). In other words, forget Pro Bowl appearances and all that bullshit: if Tillman continues to record the same number of interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, tackles, passes defended and total touchdowns that he has averaged throughout his career for the next 3.5 seasons, how will his numbers measure up to those of the greats? Let’s dive in.
As you can see, tackles and forced fumbles did not become recorded statistics until relatively recently, so it’s more difficult to compare Tillman’s potential statistics at career’s end than anticipated. Nevertheless, we’ll compare anyways.
Clearly, the interceptions aren’t as high most of the studs on this list, but interceptions have never really been Tillman’s staple. He has never been the shut-down corner that you’d expect out of a Hall of Famer. Instead, he has made his living by forcing an incredible amount of turnovers and limiting his counterpart’s yards after the catch. What Tillman lacks in speed, he makes up for in strength. He has forced more fumbles at this point in his career than ANY defensive back in the history of the NFL, including Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, and Ronnie Lott (also tied for 5th in forced fumbles among all positions). He is the second player since 1991 (the other being Brian Dawkins) to record 30 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles. He is the ONLY player since 2005 to record 25+ interceptions and 25+ forced fumbles. He is tied with Donnell Wolford for third in Bears’ history with 32 interceptions (Gary Fencik is the leader with 38), and he ranks first in Bears’ history with seven defensive touchdowns. You get the point.
Tillman also ranks third amongst these Hall of Famers in total defensive touchdowns and can easily tie or surpass Deion Sanders by career’s end, and his 10 fumble recoveries is equal to, or more than, seven of the players on the list. Pretty amazing.
In order to give ourselves another perspective, I figured it might be beneficial to compare Tillman’s numbers to those of two cornerbacks that are still currently playing and are considered to be instant Hall of Famers by a majority of fans and nearly everyone within the NFL circle: Ronde Barber and Charles Woodson.
There are a couple important things to keep in mind when looking at these numbers: 1) Barber is more than likely going to retire after this season, so his career statistics (besides tackles) shouldn’t change that much going forward, and 2) Charles Woodson has another two years remaining on his contract after this season, so his numbers will certainly improve. That being said, he’s a banged up 36-year-old cornerback-converted-safety, so exactly how much those numbers will improve is really difficult to project. He will also have played a lot more NFL seasons than I have projected Tillman to play. Analyze his statistics however you see fit.
Based on these projections, Tillman should have nearly the same amount of tackles and interceptions as Barber by career’s end. The lack of passes defended compared to these two should be completely negated by the absurd amount of forced fumbles that Tillman may potentially end up with, as well as the ten or so total defensive touchdowns. You’ve got to remember now: Barber and Woodson are locks for the Hall of Fame. If all goes according to plan, Tillman’s numbers will be right up there with the likes of those two, so who’s to say that he doesn’t belong in the same breath as them?
Peanut Tillman’s production as the Bears’ top cornerback for the past ten years and counting can’t be understated. He’s as underrated as any player you’ll ever find, and he’s a major reason why the Bears defense has had so much success implementing the unpopular Cover 2. He does all the little things necessary to win football games, and he’s as smart as anyone on the field. Most importantly, his numbers will be right up there with some of the all-time greats at his position. Tillman likely won’t make the Hall of Fame when it’s all said and done, but he sure as hell should never be an afterthought.