Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pirates' Polanco confident he has nothing to prove this season

Gregory Polanco
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesExpectations are high for the 23-year-old Gregory Polanco, who played in 89 games for the Pirates last season.


BRADENTON, Fla. — Gregory Polanco says he doesn’t feel he has anything to prove this season.
Still …
“I know I am a better player than I showed last year,” the Pirates right fielder said. “People are going to see that this year.”
The 23-year-old did not say that with arrogance. It comes from a quiet confidence of having logged nearly four months in the major leagues last season and undergoing an offseason conditioning program that enabled him to add 15 pounds to his long and sinewy frame.
Polanco arrived in the major leagues last June to quite a bit of fanfare as he was considered the Pirates’ top prospect and one of the best in the game. However, he fizzled after a hot start in which he began his career by hitting in 11 straight games.
By the end of the season, Polanco’s batting average had fallen to .235. However, he showed flickering flashes of potential stardom by hitting seven home runs and stealing 14 bases.
Polanco was nothing more than a bit player during the homestretch as the Pirates rallied to make the postseason for a second straight year. Travis Snider made the majority of starts in right field.
However, the Pirates gave Polanco a vote of confidence three weeks before the start of spring training when they traded Snider to the Baltimore Orioles for left-handed pitching prospects Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault.
While disappointed to be traded, Snider understood the Pirates’ rationale.
“He has so much potential that he hasn’t even tapped yet,” Snider said of Polanco. “He has a chance to be something special because he’s really talented.”
Polanco got caught up in the trappings of being in the big leagues last year, and some of his teammates were turned off because he did a TV commercial for a Pittsburgh-area jeweler less than one month after making his major league debut.
However, Polanco says he learned a lot from his rookie year.
“I know the pitchers now,” he said. “I’m used to playing in the big stadiums in front of a lot of fans. I learned that I needed to get stronger so I wouldn’t tire out during a long season.
“I wouldn’t say anything that happened last year really surprised me. It was just a good learning experience, and now I’m excited to get started on this season because I understand things better.”
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Monday, March 30, 2015

While the roster overhaul is nice, it started too late

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 29: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks to pass against the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on March 29, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

General Manager Jim Rutherford did a decent job reconstructing the Penguins. The jury is still out on coach Mike Johnston. Hopefully, the Penguins won’t continue their descent into chip-and-chase jabroni hockey hell.
But Rutherford and Johnston inherited a situation that was difficult to fix, all the more so because fixing it should have started much longer ago than this past off-season.
Go back to spring 2013. The Penguins got humiliated in the Eastern Conference final, losing four straight to Boston. The most damning development of the past five years, by the way, is not having done so much as win a game in a conference final.
To disappoint is one thing. But, given the Penguins’ talent, not coming even remotely close to another Stanley Cup final is inexcusable.
The aftermath of that loss to Boston was the time to make major changes. It was a fourth-straight postseason failure, each of a different variety.
Losing in the second round to Montreal in 2010 was understandable: The Penguins were exhausted after reaching two straight finals, and five Penguins (all key players) participated in that year’s Olympics.
But, after that, the Penguins blew a three-games-to-one lead against Tampa Bay in 2011. They totally imploded against arch-rival Philadelphia in 2012. They scored just two goals during the sweep at Boston’s hands in 2013.
The case could have been made for firing coach Dan Bylsma in 2012, after the Philadelphia debacle. Bylsma should have surely been toast in 2013.
Instead, on the heels of a string of epic fails, Bylsma inexplicably got a two-year contract extension. Unless Bylsma gets another coaching job, the Penguins are obligated to pay him through next season.
That same off-season, GM Ray Shero gave a three-year contract extension to Chris Kunitz and a four-year contract to Pascal Dupuis. Both wingers are tied to the Penguins through 2016-17. Kunitz was 33 when he signed his deal. Dupuis was 34. Kunitz carries an annual salary cap figure of $3.85 million. Dupuis’ cap hit is $3.75M.
Dupuis and Kunitz are exactly the kind of players that should be treated as disposable under a cap system. Aging and likely to fade. Let another team overpay them.
Signing one would have been debatable, but OK. Keeping both was insane.
Proof, meet pudding: Injury and illness have limited Dupuis to just 54 games since signing, and his career is in jeopardy. Going into Sunday's contest versus San Jose, Kunitz had just one goal in his past 26 games. Either could resurrect. But how would you bet?
Shero kept going back to the future that summer, signing free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi to a four-year contract with a cap hit of $3.375M.
Shero said that the Penguins had never replaced Scuderi after Scuderi left Pittsburgh following the 2009 Stanley Cup. They still haven’t. The current Scuderi is nothing like the Scuderi that departed. His stick strength has vanished. His puck-moving capabilities are negligible. He’s a high-priced no. 5 defenseman, at best.
Too long. Too much. Too old. The Penguins are stuck with Dupuis, Kunitz and Scuderi. Those contracts kill the Penguins’ cap, not those belonging to legit stars.
The Penguins terminated Shero and Bylsma after blowing a three-games-to-one lead to the New York Rangers in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
By the time the Penguins were eliminated, Nashville had already hired Peter Laviolette as its new coach. By the time Bylsma was fired, Washington had already hired Barry Trotz as its new coach. The Penguins settled for Johnston, a Jr. A coach. Not their top choice.
Then, perhaps to prove that he, too, is capable of making a bad signing, Rutherford inked defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4m deal. Injuries have changed circumstances, but the Penguins have lots of defensemen. They didn’t need Ehrhoff.
The Penguins need wings. Did then, do now. Just not Dupuis and Kunitz.
The Penguins may surprise in the post-season. They may disappoint yet again.
But any of this season’s problems, whether past or yet to come, should hardly be seen as shocking. It took time and effort to dig this hole. And it's deep.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Penguins score 3 goals in third period, beat Coyotes 3-2


By Dan Scifo
http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/teams/pit/
March 28, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Penguins struggled the past two weeks while playing without two of their leading scorers.

Three Stars

  1. Sidney Crosby
    #87, Pittsburgh
    G:1
    A:2
    Pts:3
    +/-:1
    PPP:2
    SOG:6
  2. Steve Downie
    #23, Pittsburgh
    G:1
    Pts:1
    +/-:-1
    PPP:1
    SOG:2
  3. Mike Smith
    #41, Arizona
    L:1
    GAA:3.10
    SV:43
    SV%:.935
The Penguins took a step in the right direction on Saturday, welcoming Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist back to the lineup, but they later lost star defenseman Kris Letang on a scary hit that required a trip to the hospital.
Then, they needed a rally to win as Daniel Winnik,Steve Downie and Sidney Crosby scored in a 4-minute, 8-second stretch of the third period, leading the Penguins to a 3-2 victory against the Arizona Coyotes.
''With (Arizona) scoring first, it would've been easy to get a little frustrated, but we stuck with it,'' Crosby said.
Crosby's 25th goal stood as the game-winner and he also had two assists to increase his league-leading scoring total to 78 points.
Malkin tallied two assists and Thomas Greiss stopped 22 shots against his former team to help the Penguins end a two-game skid overall, and a three-game winless stretch at home. The Penguins, 1-5-1 in their previous seven games, moved into a tie with the New York Islanders for second place in the crowded Metropolitan Division.
Things took a scary turn for the Penguins late in the second period.
Letang, third among NHL defensemen in scoring with 54 points, left with 4:45 to play in the period after a hit from Coyotes captain Shane Doan. Letang, in the corner behind his net, was shoved backward by Doan after flipping the puck out of the zone.
''I just went to make sure I got a piece of him so he couldn't jump by me and he obviously went into the boards awkward,'' Doan said. ''You never ever want to see anyone like that, especially a guy with his caliber and everything he's went through in the past couple years.
''You feel awful as a player when something like that happens.''
Penguins' coach Mike Johnston said Letang was evaluated at a local hospital.
''We'll get an evaluation as to where everybody thinks he's at in the morning,'' Johnston said. ''Kris Letang is a premier player in the league and he's had a phenomenal season for us.
''I saw Kris lying on the ice and when I saw him come off, it didn't look good.''
Letang, who has a history of concussions and suffered a stroke last year, fell awkwardly with the back of his head hitting the end boards. He remained on the ice for several minutes with the trainer and team doctor before he left the ice with help from teammates Downie and Rob Scuderi. Downie stuck up for his downed teammate when he and Doan fought soon after.
''I have nothing but respect for (Doan),'' Downie said. ''That's hockey right there.
''(Doan) is not like that. I don't think that was dirty. I think (Letang) fell the wrong way and the distance from the boards and everything. We talked about it and I said 'hey, it's kind of got to be done,' and he's not going to shy away from that.''
Downie provided perhaps the biggest lift in the third period, teaming with Crosby for power-play goals 2:05 apart to give the Penguins the lead for good.
''A lot of adversity, but it's a good thing and we got the win,'' Downie said.
Malkin missed six games with a lower-body injury and Hornqvist five with an undisclosed ailment before returning on Saturday.
The Penguins struggled without the former NHL MVP and Hornqvist, dropping five of six games and producing just nine goals in those six contests. The lone win during that span came last Saturday at Arizona.
Malkin, second on the team in scoring and Hornqvist, the Penguins' third-leading goal scorer, have combined for 51 goals and 64 assists points, as Pittsburgh is 33-13-6 with both in the lineup.
Now, they may be without another star player in Letang.
''It's tough because we finally get two key players back and we lose another,'' Downie said.
Tye McGinn scored his second and Tobias Rieder provided a late goal - his 13th - for the Coyotes, and Mike Smith made 43 saves.
''We hung around, but unfortunately we couldn't do enough to get the win,'' Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said.
The Coyotes opened their three-game road trip with wins against Detroit and Buffalo after dropping 18 of 19, and 20 of their previous 22 games.
The overtime win against Buffalo on Thursday kept Arizona ahead of the league-worst Sabres for the lowest point total in the league. Arizona returns home Monday to face Buffalo for the second time in four days.
NOTES: Penguins' F Blake Comeau was assessed a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for boarding Coyotes D Andrew Campbell in the first period. Campbell returned in the second period. ... Penguins D Christian Ehrhoff sat out his second straight game with an upper body injury. He has missed 26 games this season. ... Penguins F David Perron missed the game because of an illness. ... Arizona scratched F Lauri Korpikoski and D Brandon Gormley.

NFL coaches weigh in on Polamalu's legacy

Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
 
The Steelers are done talking about Troy Polamalu.
The rest of the league? That's another story.
Five times in the span of six days last week, Steelers team officials — from president Art Rooney II to general manager Kevin Colbert to coach Mike Tomlin — declined to speak about Polamalu's future, other than saying there's no timetable for when a decision needs to be made.
That didn't prevent NFL coaches from weighing in on Polamalu's likely departure from the Steelers, his possible retirement, and what he has meant to the league at last week's NFL meetings in Phoenix.
“One of the all-time greats, without question,” said Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, who coached against Polamalu when he was with the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. “The way he is, just how physical he is as a player and how passionate he is. Those are the things, when he decides to hang it up, fans are going to miss.”
The Steelers and Polamalu, who will turn 34 in April, are expected to part ways after 12 seasons.
When? No one knows. The Steelers are waiting to hear from Polamalu about whether he wants to continue to play elsewhere or retire.
While Polamalu's days with the Steelers appeared to be numbered, the league meetings provided a platform for coaches to pay homage to the certain future Hall of Famer — and one of the best safeties in NFL history.
Browns coach Mike Pettine was an assistant with the Ravens during the early part of Polamalu's career.
Pettine, who had to prepare for Polamalu 12 times while a Ravens' assistant, twice last year as Browns coach and one time each when he was defensive coordinator with the Jets and Buffalo Bills, was always impressed with Polamalu's style of play.
“He looked like he was undisciplined, but a lot of the decisions he made were very smart and intelligent,” Pettine said. “He always knew where the ball was going on the information he gathered, and he knew how to make plays. To me, that was his trademark.”
One of the biggest plays of Polamalu's career came against the Ravens. His interception of Joe Flacco late in the AFC championship game sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII.
Then, late in the 2010 season and with the Steelers down 10-6 against the Ravens with three minutes left in a regular-season game, Polamalu's strip sack of Flacco led to a game-winning touchdown.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh still can't get that one out of his mind.
“You had to account for him at all times,” Harbaugh said. “We had times when we didn't account for him, and I was like, ‘He is wearing No. 43 and he has hair down to his shoulders. There's no way we should miss the guy, right? Block him. Block him, please.' ”
Polamalu, who started 142 of 158 career games, was the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He made eight Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pros four times.
Even though he hasn't made as many big plays recently as his speed deteriorated, Polamalu played every snap in 26 consecutive games until injuring his knee in November against the Ravens.
That run of consecutive games included a span during which Polamalu was asked to play a pseudo-linebacker role out of necessity.
“He is such an unusual guy and a unique player on how he moves around … his timing, it was as good as anybody's,” Ryan said. “That set him apart.”
Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former Steelers offensive coordinator, watched Polamalu every day in practice for four years. There wasn't a day he wasn't impressed with what he saw.
“He saw things on the football field that very few guys could see,” Whisenhunt said. “He processed things at a speed that was incredible. He had that explosive burst that he could get there and makes those plays. He had such a great feel for the game. Probably one of the best players I've been around from that standpoint.”
Harbaugh added: “I love Troy Polamalu, and every time I've talked to him he has been nothing but gracious. A wonderful guy and a great player. Wow, what a great player.”
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.ccom or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Time for Penguins to move Downie up to top six

The Penguins' Steve Downie (23) celebrates with teammates as he returns to the bench after scoring in the third period of Thursday's game against the Oilers in Pittsburgh. (Gene Puskar/AP)

Chris Kunitz is done. At least, that’s what evidence dictates: Zero goals in his last 12 games, one in his last 24. He can’t get from Point A to Point B, and he’s got the touch of a blacksmith. Kunitz can’t even catch a pass.
Kunitz is hurting more than he’s not helping. He’s a liability.
When it comes to top-six wings, coach Mike Johnston has tried just about everything. Blake Comeau has worked, kind of. Beau Bennett has the tools, but not the toolbox, not currently. Options are very limited.
So, give Steve Downie a shot.
Johnston would do so very reluctantly. When Johnston discusses Downie, disregard fairly drips from his words.

RELATED: The Pens are in for a fight to the finish


Downie leads the NHL in penalties. Some of those have been dumb. He loses his head occasionally. Downie can make a bad situation worse.
But right now, Downie is a better hockey player than Kunitz.
Kunitz and Downie have each played 65 games. Kunitz has very rarely played outside the top six and is on the first power play. Downie has played bottom six, period. Almost zero PP time.
Kunitz has 16 goals and 23 assists. Downie has 13 goals and 14 assists. Kunitz’s centers have been Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Downie’s have been Brandon Sutter and Maxim Lapierre.

RELATED: Robert Morris' all-time leading scorer signs with Penguins' ECHL affiliate


The difference between the stats is negligible, especially given the circumstances. Downie has three goals in his last 11 games, including a nifty pirouette to his forehand to tally against St. Louis on Tuesday.
Downie has skated with elite players before. He spent 2009-10 with Tampa Bay, playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. That’s better than any center-wing combination he could currently have in Pittsburgh. Downie produced, tallying 22 goals and 24 assists.
If trouble befell either star, Downie was there to handle it instantly.
If Downie played with Crosby, Downie’s penchant for mayhem could theoretically put Crosby in more danger. But Crosby couldn’t be in any more danger than he was during last year’s playoffs when Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky and the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal never missed a chance to hit him in the head.
If Downie is on the ice, that doesn’t happen to Crosby. Built-in protection.
What other options are there? Use Kunitz until he totally disintegrates?
Downie skates. He hits. He shoots. Decent skill. He hasn’t yet proven he stinks in a top-six role. The latter might be Downie’s biggest qualification.
Johnston should consider every option. If Dan Bylsma doesn’t get another coaching job, the Penguins are obligated to pay him through next season. The club wouldn’t want two ex-coaches lingering on the payroll.
But Johnston’s credibility is already on the line, even if his employment isn’t. Johnston said after Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to visiting St. Louis that “four or five guys need to pick up their compete level.”
Who does Johnston think that reflects upon?
Downie may not be the answer. But Johnston needs to start addressing some questions differently, and trying Downie in the top six is a good place to start.
Winning a bunch of games before the playoffs isn’t crucial. But finding some form and reestablishing the team’s identity is.
Right now, the Penguins aren’t close to doing either.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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