By Mike Burvee
You can count me in the mix with the hundreds of thousands of fans who are now counting down the days until baseball is back in the Windy City. After all, what’s there to look forward to with hockey and basketball collapsing once again this season?
The Chicago Bears made improvements this past year, and as they did, the fans’expectations rapidly grew. Who knew Mitch Trubisky would grow as much as he didthis season and a fairly stagnant offense could produce the likes of a teamconstantly in flux under the direction of Matt Nagy? In just one season, Nagy certainly exceeded expectations and brought a hunger back to the Bears franchise, a team that won’t settle for anything less than postseason appearances in thefuture. Bulls and Blackhawks fans aren’t so lucky with their interim coaches at the helm. Then again, those two programs have been all about sustainability atthe head coaching spot up until Thibs was fired.
Following Thibs departing and joining the Timberwolves, the Bulls turned to Fred Hoiberg fora fresh start. I can say I’m a little biased when it comes to Hoiberg gettingthe job, considering I watched him coach some stellar teams at Iowa State while I was a student in the stands. He was loved by Cyclone Nation, whom gave him the name “The Mayor” after growing up in the Ames area, playing high school ball for the Little Cyclones and then playing for the bigger Cyclones at Iowa State. When he returned, this time as head coach, Hoiberg turned around a .500 team into a perennial NCAA team in a matter of two seasons. What I’m trying to get at is he proved his method worked, at least at the college level.
Hoiberg looked like a great hire his first couple seasons in Chicago, finishing fourth in the conference and made the playoffs once, back in 2016-17. Originally signed for a 5-year contract, Hoiberg made it up until early December this season when he was fired. Jim Boylen took over for him and hasn’t done much better. In 19 games, Boylen has won five against the likes of Orlando, Cleveland, Washington, San Antonio and OKC with the latter being the only “big” win among the five.
Healthy stars return
One factor that didn’t help Hoiberg was the fact he needed to work with the pieces he had available which didn’t include Kris Dunn or Lauri Markkanen but did have Zach LaVineon the court and a group of semi-decent players. They cobbled together a 5-19 record before Hoiberg was fired with nine of those losses by less than 10 points. Having Dunn and Markkanen could’ve easily made a difference and could’ve resulted in another handful of wins to start the year. It’s so much easier to defend against a team when they’re playing more one-dimensional with only one or two go-to players as opposed to four or five.
The Bulls have pulled out four wins in a span of seven games from mid to late December with big production from the two. Markkanen returned the game after Hoiberg was fired and in those 19 games since is averaging 17 points, seven rebounds, one assist, one steal and just under one block per game. Dunn didn’t getback to full strength until December 13, scoring in double digits all but threeof those games. Dunn is averaging 14 points, just over four rebounds, seven assists and two steals per game. While the two aren’t the only scorers on the team, they are big parts of the future success of the team.
While the Bulls have shown glimmers of hope this season, things didn’t get much better once Hoiberg left his post and Boylen took over. A much stricter approach to the game, Boylen demanded more from his players, starting with practice.That’s when things got dicey, with several of the players made out to believe they didn’t need to put in as much work in practice, yet their record in the League stated otherwise. Boylen, acting as the temporary head coach for what looked to be the rest of the season, recently signed a contract extension to keep him around through the remainder of this season and all next season.
Even more recently, Dunn and Robin Lopez got into a verbal argument at their team practice on January 14. Lopez is one of the more veteran players on the team while Dunn is still fairly young, drafted in 2016 by the Timberwolves and was part of the trade that shipped Jimmy Butler away. Lopez was playing aggressive in practice and made a play at Dunn, which he didn’t appreciate, and the two got into a verbal exchange. Things are finally boiling over in a lack-luster season for the Bulls who are set to miss the playoffs for a third straight year. The one silver lining in all of this, and most fans have pointed it outand even encouraged it, is the fact Chicago will have one of the top picks inthe draft later this year. If things don’t turn around then, it should be interesting to see how much longer GarPax and the rest of their management last in turnover that NEEDS to happen eventually.
Another Franchise inthe dark
Just like the ice caps in the Arctic are dissipating/melting, so too is the ice in Chicago’s Madhouse on Madison. OK, not literally melting, but the season up to this point has gone down the drain and with it, hopes of making the playoffs.You know things have hit a low point when they fire their coach whose beenthere for over a decade. “Coach Q” first arrived in the 2009-09 season and already paid off the following year, winning a Stanley Cup. The following two years, they were ousted in the quarter finals but bounced back by making the finals the next three years, winning the Cup two more times. At that point, the Blackhawks were labeled as a Dynasty. In the last three years they’ve made the playoffs twice, losing in the first round each time and didn’t even make the playoffs in 2017-18 for the first time under Joel Quenneville.
Things hit a tipping point in early November when he was fired by the Blackhawks, achieving a 452-249-96 record in the regular season and 76-52 in the postseason. He holds the second most wins (890) as a coach in NHL history.
The Blackhawks are off to a dismal season with their current record sitting at 16-23-9, the bottom feeder of the Central Division, meaning they’re even worse than the equally bad St. Louis Blues this season. Since “Q” left, over two months ago, the Blackhawks have won 10 games and currently are on a four gamelosing skid. They appeared to be righting the ship in late December, winning five of six then (out-scoring opponents 20-14) including wins over Nashville and Colorado. They brought in the new year with a couple closes losses, then upset the Penguins on the road and haven’t won since. In fact, they must be some type of kryptonite against the Pens (one of the best teams in the League), having beat them both times they’ve faced off by a score of 11-6. There is no advantagethese days for playing at home, having won eight of their 15 home games.
The Blackhawks aren’t necessarily in deep trouble in terms of their future salary cap, and Kaner and Toews have produced in year’s past and continue to, but that committed money has gotten the Hawks in trouble before. At least two of their younger players were traded (Panarin and Teravainen) due to not being able to spend the needed money to keep them long term. The Hawks have gotten steady production out of same of their younger guys, namely Alex DeBrincat, otherwise known as “the Cat.” For the results they’ve gotten from him, paying under one million per season is almost like a steal, considering the more reliable skaters are getting paid between $5-10 million per year. The Hawks have to hope they can make some trades or get some immediate production from one of the highest draft picks they’ve had in years, if the season continues along the same path.
The good news is, as of now, the cap space will grow from around $18 million next season to $30 million the following season and then $42 million the following year (CapFriendly). Other than Kane and Toews, signed through 2022-23, only two other players have as long a current contract with Brent Seabrook (top defenderand clutch in the playoffs) is signed through 2023-24 and Duncan Keith (one ofthe oldest players in the League yet still producing every night) is signed through 2022-23.
A much more obvious issue is who’s between the pipes and for how long. Corey Crawford has been the fan favorite for years but has recently been dealing with on going issues landing him on IR the past couple seasons. Cam Ward has primarily been filling in Crawford and is getting paid half as much ($3 million) but will become a free agent at the conclusion of this season. I’d have to hope the Hawks draft a goalie early or hope to find a reliable one on the market to helpre-stabilize the position.
Seasons to forget
Thegood news? Both the Bulls and Blackhawks can try and turn things around with justover half their respective seasons remaining. Will either make the playoffs? No.They can end things with some hope going forward and do better the second half ofthe season, knowing they’ll most likely get a high draft choice to hopefullyaddress each teams’ needs.
That being said, most of the MLB have their Pitchers and Catchers reporting in about a month, signaling the start of preseason is on the way, but not soon enough for a city that lives and breathes franchise sports. A city that finally got to celebrate their football team hosting a playoff game for the first time in years, let alone make it into the postseason. You just have to stick it out a couple more months when the Cubs open their season at the Rangers on March 28 and kickoff their first homestand of 2019 on April 8 against the Pirates.