Friday, January 30, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers Tribute - Historic Highlights

Pens need Crosby out of his comfort zones

Sidney Crosby is the best player in hockey. But if Crosby’s statistics are going to catch up to that notion -- and if the Penguins are going to win -- some changes need made.
Crosby needs to play on a line with David Perron and Patric Hornqvist. No debate. No Chris Kunitz, either.

RELATED: Despite lackluster play lately, Penguins aren't starting to panic yet


Kunitz has 14 goals, but that belies his level of play. Kunitz has lost a step. He’s not rotten, but he’s not the best choice to play left wing on Crosby’s line. Perron is. Perron can play left or right, but is better at left. Hornqvist drives to the net with frequency and efficiency. That clears space for Crosby and Perron to skate.
This shouldn’t be a debate. If it is, Crosby shouldn’t be part of it.
It’s about producing, not comfort level. Kunitz has hit his sell-by date. Perron-Crosby-Hornqvist is best for the Penguins, and for Crosby.
Crosby also needs to play down low on the power play. Again, no debate.
Crosby prefers the right circle. But he doesn’t have the patience to play there. Crosby plays the game in a hurry. He’s not a reset point. His shot isn’t a cannon.
Crosby is brilliant in front of the net. He gets more greasy goals than any superstar ever. He works down low better than any superstar ever. Put Crosby down low. Put him on the left side so he can’t keep rotating into the right circle.
Crosby is at his best near the goal line. He’s tireless, gritty and exhausts the opposition. He needs to play to his strengths, whether 5-on-5 or on the power play.
I don’t believe Crosby is hurt or that past injuries make him shy away from contact. He’s just not being put in optimum position to succeed.
The necessary adjustments are obvious to most, but maybe not Crosby. Coach Mike Johnston has to make them and make Crosby buy in.
Evidence is plentiful. Crosby has zero points in eight of his last 16 games. His points per game average is 1.15, lowest in his career. He’s six points off the scoring lead. Crosby can’t be happy with his play or production.
So fix it.
Without Crosby, the power play was 2 for 3 against Winnipeg Tuesday, driving to the net continuously. Perron and Brandon Sutter both bundled in pucks from close range. With Crosby, the power play was 0 for 4 at Washington, probing from the perimeter with no success. The difference was clear.
So fix it.
The Penguins are hardly in a dire situation. Entering last night’s games, the Penguins were 12 points ahead of Florida, the first team currently out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. They were just three points off the lead in both the conference and Metropolitan Division.
If any team knows it’s meaningless to be kings of January, it’s the Penguins.
But Wednesday’s 4-0 loss at Washington seemed a watershed. The Penguins were non-competitive. The Capitals won by submission, not knockout. Crosby was badly outplayed by rival Alex Ovechkin. All that happened in front of a national TV audience. Pride should kick in. It didn’t. Not for any Penguin.
The Penguins have won just six of 19 games against divisional foes. Crosby has 12 points in 18 games against Metro teams and is minus-6.
That’s a wake-up call. Maybe it’s time to quit punching the snooze button.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Three Thoughts: Snider trade mean balancing the present with the future

1. A leftist move
The trade the Pirates made with the Orioles seemed to make little sense, at least on the surface.
On Tuesday night, the Pirates dealt away Travis Snider, who figured to be their default option in right field in the event right fielder Gregory Polanco shows in spring training that he is in need of more developmental time at Class AAA Indianapolis.
In return, the Pirates received two minor league left-handed pitchers who have yet to pitch above the Class A level -- Jake Tarpley and Steven Brault (who will be the player to be named).
Neither pitcher was ranked among the top 10 prospects in a nondescript Orioles farm system by Baseball America. The key, though, is that Tarpley and Brault both throw with their left hands.
The biggest weakness in the Pirates farm system is left-handed pitching. The only lefty who can stake a legitimate claim to being a prospect is Cody Dickson, who also hasn’t pitched above Class A.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington always talks about balancing the present with the future, and that is exactly what he did in this trade. It will be a successful deal, though, only if the Pirates get paid off later for a move that could burn them now.
2. A home for Kang?
The first two names mentioned as possible options in right field behind Polanco are Andrew Lambo and Jose Tabata. Don’t believe it.
Lambo fell out of favor with manager Clint Hurdle last spring when he failed to win the starting first baseman’s job that was all but handed to him. Tabata is still in the organization only because he is owed a little more than $8.8 million over the next two seasons.
Instead, if Polanco falters in the spring, it will open the door for Korean rookie infielder Jung Ho Kang to become the regular third baseman, with Josh Harrison moving to right field.
3. Good guy gone
Though the lines constantly become more blurred, media members are supposed to be objective and not root. However, sometimes it is hard not to pull for certain individuals to do well.
Snider falls in that group. He became a personal favorite during his two-plus years with the Pirates because of his friendly demeanor and good humor.
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Monday, January 26, 2015

Crosby's debt to NHL paid in full


Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 10:42 p.m.
 
(Photo: David Manning, USA TODAY Sports)
COLUMBUS, Ohio
Sidney Crosby's first decade in the NHL is almost over. And here is what he needs to know: Being Sidney Crosby isn't his job anymore.
Just being Sidney is all any of us should ask of “The Next One” who became “The One.”
Being Sidney Crosby meant breathing life into hockey after the NHL attempted to suffocate the game at its highest level. Being Sidney Crosby meant resuscitating a Penguins franchise that was on life support while calling a decaying Igloo home.
As Crosby became the world's finest player, Being Sidney Crosby came to mean raising the NHL and Penguins from their respective deathbeds. Either feat should have exhausted Crosby. Both tasks were too much to ask of any “Kid.”
Now a man at 27, Crosby can take the deep breath he is long overdue. His Penguins are perennial contenders. More importantly, they're financially sound, with 360 consecutive home sellouts and supreme regional TV ratings. His league is thriving, topping $4 billion in revenue, and working peacefully with its players' union to finally bring promise of tangible growth.
Being Sidney Crosby wasn't necessary here this weekend. Crosby missed the All-Star festivities because of an injury, and the good people of Columbus, Ohio, hardly seemed to notice. There were a few fans donning Crosby jerseys among the thousands who turned Nationwide Boulevard into an outdoor hockey carnival over the weekend. There also were a lot of people supporting Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and Montreal's Carey Price.
None of those players is on Crosby's level outside of hockey. Within it, however, those three players are stars in their own regard.
That's important. That's crucial, actually.
For too long, the NHL was all about Crosby and the player destined to become his historical rival, Washington's Alex Ovechkin. Coming back from the 2004-05 lockout, the league quickly became the Sid and Ovi Show.
It was awesome: Bird versus Magic on a smaller scale.
No matter where they finish among the all-time scorers, Crosby and Ovechkin each deserve the everlasting gratitude of all hockey fans for being willing to carry the flag for the NHL when nobody else could.
They were the best and most marketable players at a time when hockey needed superstars. Their duels for individual awards and team success became the narrative upon which the NHL constructed a story of recovery from a nearly disastrous lost season.
However, Crosby always faced more pressure than Ovechkin. He faced it for the Penguins, who needed a new arena to avoid ruin or extinction. He faced it for the NHL, which needed a North American to sell to North American sports consumers.
Crosby closed that sale by scoring the two most important goals of the past 30 years, markers that made the NHL a big deal again.
His shootout winner at the first Winter Classic provided a snow-globe moment that transformed a one-off gimmick into an NHL staple. On Saturday, the NHL announced three outdoor games for 2016, bringing the total since the first Classic to 16.
A World Cup also is coming in 2016. A Ryder Cup-like competition will happen in 2018. Each of those are slated to happen every four years, possibly driving the NHL out of the Olympics — ironic, considering neither event would be possible without Crosby's iconic Golden Goal at the 2010 Winter Games.
The NHL returned from those Games with Crosby established as a legend in his own time and an understanding that international competitions generated giant TV audiences.
Know what else draws a big number on TV? Being Sidney Crosby. That's why Root Sports Pittsburgh dominates regional hockey ratings. That's why the Penguins play so often on national TV.
Even if commissioner Gary Bettman always resisted committing to Crosby being the face of hockey, instead insisting Crosby was “one of our biggest stars,” it was always true that the NHL benefited as much from Crosby as did the Penguins.
It's also always been true that Crosby had to serve two masters: his franchise, and its league. Crosby needs to serve himself. He's certainly given enough of himself to fulfill a handful of careers.
There is a risk to all parties in Crosby continuing to be “The Man.” For the Penguins, it is relying on his (slightly) diminishing skill to elevate lesser players instead of reloading around him. For the NHL, it is not developing a torchbearer to serve as the guiding light of the next generation.
There is a danger for Crosby, too.
“Sometimes when you have attention, you can be lost,” Ovechkin said. “You just want to not think about the game. You want to think about doing some different stuff.
“Me and Sidney, and all the guys who had that attention (and) been in this position, think, ‘What do I have to say, what do I have to do off the ice?' ”
The answer is not as much as before. Crosby and Ovechkin have already done their part. They were the vitamins C and A for league that needed nourishment.
The NHL is now strong. So are the Penguins.
Sidney, in your next decade, just be you.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Penguins Midseason Report: The highs and lows of a topsy-turvy first half

Pittsburgh Penguins' David Perron (39) celebrates his goal with teammates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Penguins went through a big transition during the off-season, replacing their general manager, head coach and a number of players. Those changes had them under a microscope through the first half of the season, as everyone waited anxiously to see how they would fare under their new regime.
Well, so far so good as they hit the All-Star break sitting in second place in the Metropolitan Division just three points behind the Islanders. They sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference just four points behind the Lightning and they have been competitive with all of the best teams in the league.
The full story of this group of Penguins will not be told for a few months, but there has been plenty to be satisfied with through their first 46 games. There were also plenty of pitfalls, as the team went through the typical ups and downs of the NHL season.
Today we’ll take a look at three of the biggest “ups” and three of the biggest “downs” of the first half.
Three Up
The Flower Blooms
No player on the Penguins roster seems to get scrutinized more than Marc-Ande Fleury. He never seems to get enough credit when the team wins and is always taking the brunt of the blame when they lose. His narrative is that of an average goaltender, who hitched a ride to a Stanley Cup Championship and has since been unable to do anything in the playoffs. Well, the second part of that narrative will linger until he changes it this spring, but he has shown the hockey world that he is far beyond average in his first 37 starts.
Fleury has been among the best goaltenders in the league all season long. He has posted a 22-9-5 record, a 2.31 goals against average, and a .921 save percentage. His six shutouts lead the league and he is currently taking part in his second career All-Star Game.
He has been removed from a game just two times on the season and has held opponents to two or less goals on 19 occasions.
The Replacements
The Penguins traded James Neal to the Predators back in June for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. They also added Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, Thomas Griess and Christian Ehrhoff via free agency. All six of those players have made an impact on the team this season.
Hornqvist, Comeau, Downie, Spaling and Ehrhoff are all in the top 10 scorers on the roster; have played in a variety of roles and have helped the team to their place in the standings.
It is also worth noting that the team has gotten great results from some internal replacements such as Bryan Rust, Bobby Farnham, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot and Andrew Ebbett, who have all had to fill in for injured players this season.
Even after having to use 33 different players this season, the Penguins boast 13 players with at least 10 points, nine with at least 15 points and 11 players with at least 5 goals.
Pens Strike Oil
General manager Jim Rutherford traded Neal at the NHL draft in June and might have grafted a replacement for him onto his roster on Jan. 2.
Rutherford sent his 2015 first round draft pick and forward Rob Klinkhammer to the Oilers in exchange for sniping forward David Perron. Perron is a three time 20 goal scorer, notching a career high 28 last a season ago for the Oilers. He has broken the 40-point plateau four times and the 50-point plateau twice.
He has been a great fit so far, skating in eight games alongside Sidney Crosby and rolling up five goals, two assists, 37 shots on goal and two power play points. He is also one of the most physical forwards on the roster rolling up 25 hits over that span.
Three Down
Injury Bug Rides Again
The Penguins are no strangers to losing players, particularly impact players, to injury and that has again been the case this season. They have been hit with their share of conventional injuries this season, but were again hit with a number of injuries that most teams simply aren’t equipped to deal with.
Pascal Dupuis was lost for the season with a blood clot in his lung. Olli Maatta, who has since been lost for the season with a shoulder injury, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his thyroid gland, and of course a number of players, including Sidney Crosby, were diagnosed with the mumps.
All told, the Penguins have lost 205 man games to injury through their first 46 games and have now lost 1,525 man games to injury since the opening of Consol Energy Center back in 2010, which is the most in the league.
Losing lots during a winning season
The Penguins hot start though their first 32 games, a span that saw them roll up a 22-6-4 record, helped them weather an ugly 14 game stretch leading into the All-Star break.
The team went just 4-6-4 over their last 14 games, something that can be directly tied to the fact that they have had to deal with so many injuries. The silver lining of that span is that they still managed to collect points in eight of those games.
Lack of offense also played a hand in the losing stretch; they were averaging 3.13 goals per game over those first 32 games, but have averaged just 2.57 goals per game over the past 14.
Crosby’s December
Sidney Crosby hasn’t always looked like himself this season and that has had many asking questions about what might be wrong with the Penguins’ captain. That situation was magnified as he went through one of the worst months of his career in Dec.
Crosby, who rolled up 33 points over his first 23 games played in Oct and Nov, picked up just five points over the course of 11 games in the month of Dec. He also battled a case of the mumps that month, which could have played a role in those struggles.
It is worth noting that even during a perceived “off-year” for the 27-year-old, he currently ranks third line the league’s scoring race with 51 points (15 goals). Those December games aside, Crosby has scored at a rate of 1.43 points per game.
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Crosby, Malkin dazzle fellow All-Stars


Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby - Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs
 
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins skate against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on November 14, 2014 in Toronto, Canada.
(Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)


COLUMBUS, Ohio
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin might be absent, but they're not forgotten. Not even close, those gathered at Nationwide Arena for the NHL All-Star Game insisted.
Other elite scoring duos have emerged across the league. Few, however, possess the same pedigree and success as the Penguins' franchise centers.
With 51 points apiece at the All-Star break — tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane for third overall — Crosby and Malkin remain as relevant as ever to their peers.
Even if they're currently not healthy enough to compete against them.
“It would be hard to say they're not at the top,” Kane said. “That's a pretty special duo right there.”
Despite playing on a team with Jonathan Toews — among a league-high five Blackhawks who were selected for the All-Star Game — Kane said Malkin is his favorite player in the league to watch.
“I love watching Pittsburgh play because I know that, throughout the whole game, I'm going to have a chance to watch one of them,” Kane said. “They play a lot of minutes. They play on different lines, and they're both very fun to watch. You can learn a lot from both of those guys.”
Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau, however, prefers Crosby to Malkin. It's the passing ability that does it for him.
And in a sign of how far Crosby and Malkin have come, the baby-faced Gaudreau, only 21 years old, grew up watching Crosby and Malkin rise to prominence as an elite duo.
“Crosby is so fun to watch, so skilled with the puck,” Gaudreau said. “He's definitely a big part of the Penguins. I think he's one of the best players in the world.”
Crosby and Malkin, who missed the All-Star Game with lower-body injuries, have combined for 102 of the Penguins' 378 points through 46 games this season (27 percent).
That's more points than any duo except for Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek (107). Their percentage of team points ranks third behind Giroux and Voracek (29.4) and Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno (27.9) of Columbus.
None of those four players, of course, have the reputations of Crosby and Malkin.
Or have hoisted the Stanley Cup.
“They're two of the best players in the league,” Voracek said. “It's too bad they're not here.”
Voracek refused to rank the league's elite scoring duos, perhaps smartly realizing his previous high-water mark for points in a season is 62.
Crosby and Malkin together have eight 100-plus-point seasons.
“It's hard for me to answer that question,” Voracek said. “I've been (among the league's leading scorers) for 45 games. They've been there for years. If (Giroux and I) are going to play like that for the next three or four years, then we can start talking about it.”
Ryan Getzlaf, whose partnership with Corey Perry has produced 80 points — 22.2 percent of Anaheim's total — also ducked the question about where Crosby and Malkin rank.
But at least his was done in a humorous way.
“That's your job, not mine,” Getzlaf said. “I don't fit those guys in. Those guys are great players. They've been great players for a long time and have done some great things. We have a lot of respect for those guys around the league.”
A healthy respect for Crosby and Malkin, sure. That's not saying much.
But it's doubtful Getzlaf and the rest of the NHL's top players are all that intimidated by some of Crosby and Malkin's linemates this season.
Or know them at all.
Crosby and Malkin have played with a combined 24 different sets of linemates, a group that includes three players — Jayson Megna, Bryan Rust and Andrew Ebbett — who started the season in the American Hockey League. Two more, Mark Arcobello and Rob Klinkhammer, were/are fourth-liners in Edmonton.
Help, suffice it to say, has not always been on the way.
“It makes it that much more impressive, but I'm not surprised because guys like Crosby and Malkin can elevate other people around them, help them improve and help them become better players,” NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes said. “Look at (Pascal Dupuis) or Chris Kunitz. Those guys are good players in their own right. Chris Kunitz had won a Cup in Anaheim. But I really think that those guys elevated their games after playing with (Crosby and Malkin).”
Weekes then thought back to his playing career, how he played with Rod Brind'Amour, Ron Francis, Kirk Muller, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr and Patrick Elias.
And how they didn't always have elite wingers to pass to yet still scored. A lot.
“One of the things about a lot of those guys is they make people better,” Weekes said. “With Geno, he's so good, so big, fast, strong, explosive and skilled that you don't really recognize it until you play against him or you get to see him play in person so you can really appreciate his greatness.
“Guys get better just by practicing with (Crosby and Malkin). How can you not? It's like playing street hockey against your older brother. You're going to get better.”
Which the Penguins can only hope their franchise centers do: Get better, so they can help with a playoff push over the final 36 games of the season.
“When they're on the ice together, even if it's only a couple times a game, the sparks fly pretty quickly,” Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin said. “They're great players on the power play, executing those cross-ice passes, back and forth. They're obviously one of the top duos in the league.”
Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.


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Friday, January 23, 2015

Polamalu finalist for NFL's inaugural Rooney Award


Fifty-one years after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and 27 years after his death, Art Rooney is being honored again. The Steelers founder is the namesake of a new league-wide award recognizing outstanding on-field sportsmanship.  
The inaugural Art Rooney Award, for which Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is a finalist, will be presented during the "NFL Honors" show on Jan. 31, the night before Super Bowl XLIX.  The winner, which is determined by a vote of players, will receive $25,000 to be donated to a charity of his choice.   
 “The Art Rooney Award is a special tribute to my father, who always believed in sportsmanship and fairness to everyone,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said in a statement. “This award is one our entire family will be proud to see, and we are grateful the NFL made this choice.” 
In addition to Polamalu, the other finalists are Carolina LB Thomas David, Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald, Minnesota LB Chad Greenway, Detroit WR Calvin Johnson, New England WR Matthew Slater, Kansas City QB Alex Smith and Denver DE DeMarcus Ware.  
Since 1988, the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association has presented "The Chief Award" to a Steelers player who best exemplifies a spirit of cooperation with the media.  
“I think my grandfather would be a little uncomfortable with the idea of an award being named for him,” said Steelers president Art Rooney II. “But I think he would appreciate that it is an award recognizing sportsmanship in the game of football, and that it honors a player who displays respect for the game and respect for the other players of the game."
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