Tuesday, June 19, 2018

If Neal Huntington was sincere about adding to Pirates, he'd do it now

By Tim Benz
June 18, 2018
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We hear it all the time. “The Pirates are run like a business.”
Sometimes that turn of phrase is used as a defense of their payroll strategies. Sometimes it's used as the ultimate indictment of them.
Either way, it's true. The Pirates clearly prioritize profit over performance. Otherwise, why would they have traded Gerrit Cole as he was approaching a major payday? Why would they have dealt team legend Andrew McCutchen with one year remaining on a contract that would be deemed affordable by most other organizations?
Those were just two personnel subtractions that were made — along with numerous other “keeps” and additions that failed to occur — that suggested the bottom line in the bank statement is more important than the bottom line of the win-loss record.
Well, now more than ever, Bob Nutting and his deputies — namely president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington — need to run the Pirates like a business.
A new business. One that just moved into the neighborhood. One that hasn't built up a consumer base or name cachet yet.
So when Huntington says, as he did Sunday, that the Pirates will “continue to look to add to this club if we can,” then they better do it.
When Huntington doubled down by claiming the organization has “had more conversations about adding players, at this point in time, than subtracting players,” then he better add before this 36-36 club comes off the rails.
It needs the help. Frankly, it probably has exceeded expectations to this point anyway.
If these alleged plans to improve the roster don't materialize, and players are subtracted once the wild card becomes out of reach, the chasm of distrust between the fan base and the front office will become even more vast.
If the Pirates are going to add, add quickly. Don't give time an opportunity to change your mind.
New businesses that don't deliver on promises turn off potential customers. And let's face facts. Based on how attendance has dropped this year, the Pirates basically are starting off as a new business. They are starting from scratch with this fan base.
Many loyal, die-hards have tuned out thanks to disinterest or actively are staying away out of anger. The goodwill established thanks to that three-year wild-card run has evaporated. Plus, for as beautiful as PNC Park still is, it's 17 years old. There's no one left in Pittsburgh saying, “Gee, I'd like to see that new stadium someday. I just haven't gotten 'round to it n'at.”
So “Team Nutting” not only needs to reconstruct its batting order, starting rotation and bullpen, it needs to reconstruct its fan base.
Manager Clint Hurdle was fond of using the phrase “rebonding with the fan base” when he got hired in 2011. Huntington was loath to use the word “rebuild” this winter. Whatever “re”-tasking this business is facing with its customers is something larger than both of those.
How about “resurrecting?” Is that a dramatic enough picture to paint? Honestly, at this point, it still may be an understatement.
If Huntington doesn't pay off on those quotes, the Pirates' bad reputation as a business that doesn't give its consumers what it claims only gets further entrenched.
Let's say there is a tavern in your neighborhood. It's a dive. You stopped going years ago.
The owner shuts it down for two-and-a-half years, then reopens it with a new name. He claims you'll like it better this time because they've got a few new taps, and they serve pizza now.
But when you walk back in, the floor sticks worse than it did, that old stale beer stench is even stronger, the popcorn machine still doesn't work and that weird old guy at the end of the bar hasn't left his stool near the video poker machine.
You probably aren't going to go back in again, are you?
Well, that's what this management team has turned PNC Park into. The local watering hole that went from a hip tavern to a nuisance bar overnight.
So here's a little advice for Huntington: don't tell your patrons about exciting new additions, then just deliver with a new welcome mat and a fresh coat of paint.
You did that already recently. You called him Drew Hutchison. That didn't work out so well.
And definitely don't sell off the dartboards and the pool table to make it worse.
For the record, I didn't believe the sales jobs of the past. I'm not buying this one, either.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter@TimBenzPGH.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Brown's words, actions don't align in media controversy

He scolded the media for making his life difficult after a minicamp practice Tuesday. He said he skipped the last eight organized team activities to go home to Florida with his five kids and get his mind right.
It was a pretty good advertisement for eliminating OTAs, but could it be a sign Brown just wants to play football and being the best wide receiver in the NFL is enough?
You can thank social media for players developing less patience for the standard media every day. Brown can produce his own story. Why does he need a reporter to to put a negative spin on it?
When Brown did his 17-minute Facebook Live appearance after the Steelers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in a playoff game in January 2017, he bragged that 40,000 people were watching.
The Steelers had advanced to the AFC Championship against the Patriots the following week and his head coach, Mike Tomlin, was heard giving an explicit message to the team.
It didn’t go over well.
For a while now, players in all sports have had the ability to produce their own stories about themselves. They can reach over a million followers in 10 seconds on Twitter and all they need is a cell phone.
The President of the United States has shown them you can reach all the people needed without bowing to the media.
Brown likes attention. Scoring a touchdown in an NFL game doesn’t get him quite enough so he throws in a game of hide-and-seek with his teammates.
Brown would be perfectly within his rights to politely tell the media he’s going to take a season off from doing interviews and will only do what’s absolutely required by the league.
Limit all of his postgame comments to Twitter or Facebook or keep all of his thoughts to himself. Media covering the team probably wouldn’t like it, but it’s not his job to write the stories for them.
Declare a media blackout, Antonio. You won’t last a week.
  • The idiots who run baseball are worried about attendance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said so after the owners meetings last week.
They should be.
As various media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine pointed out, attendance is down 6.6 percent from this time last year and 8.6 percent overall. This could be the first season since 2003 with an average below 30,000 fans per game.
Averaging over 30,000 per game over a 162 game season is still pretty impressive, especially when you consider the average ticket price is $31, but it’s never good when your league is threatening to set records for poor attendance.
Nobody should be surprised the attendance numbers for the Pirates plummeted 29 percent after the offseason they had.
There are lots of teams worse than the Pirates, including six that are playing below .400. As Fortune Magazine points out, there have never been more than five teams that finished below that number.
The games are boring and they are long. There are way too many strikeouts. The Cardinals recently used five pitchers in a 5-0 win over the Pirates. One-inning pitching specialists may help against the hitters, but they’re not putting anybody in the seats.
Other sources of revenue have made filling the seats a little less important, but if people aren’t interested in going to the games, the other revenue streams are eventually going to suffer.
  • Baseball was once, by far, my favorite sport. But even if I hadn’t been turned off by the economic stupidity, analytics might have chased me away by now. Going by the stat book may help a team win, but a steady diet of the numbers is enough to put an incurable insomniac to sleep. Analytics may help a team win, but making it harder for the average fan to evaluate and appreciate a player’s talent won’t get anybody to buy a ticket. The baseball media may like WAR, which stands for wins above replacement, but the average fan is much more likely to relate to home runs, runs batted in and batting average.
Do fans really need a stat for how many times a hitter has swing and miss strikes or how many ground ball outs a pitcher gets? Baseball media geeks slobber all over these stats and player personnel directors may love them but it’s way too much work for the average fan.
Fans still know a good hitter when they see one.
  • Joe DeNardo died Friday at 87 years old. Lots of young people are probably wondering why so much attention has been given to the death of a guy who did the weather on TV. You had to be there. Trust us.
John Steigerwald writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hockey needs better messengers than Nick Boynton, Daniel Carcillo

By Mark Madden
June 16, 2018
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Buffalo Sabres' Craig Rivet, left, and Philadelphia Flyers' Daniel Carcillo fight in 2009

Nick Boynton is a retired NHL goon. Daniel Carcillo also skated in the NHL. He was a dirty, sadistic hack. Carcillo played like a criminal.
Boynton recently wrote a piece for The Players' Tribune web site. Carcillo did a video. Each talked about issues that stem from head trauma. Each decried the NHL's laissez-faire attitude in dealing with that problem.
The message is correct.
The problem just needs better messengers.
Tom Wilson's path of rage through the NHL playoffs ultimately led him and his Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup. Wilson handed out head shots like candy on Halloween and only got suspended once.
Too many “old-school” TV types said it was just “playoff hockey,” and the NHL nodded in silent agreement.
Every shot to the head should be penalized. Intent should be taken out of the equation. If that isn't always 100 percent fair, live with it. Err on the side of caution, not on the side of brain damage.
The NHL should ban fighting. We keep hearing horror stories about those who specialize in fisticuffs. There's a body count. So get rid of it.
There aren't many complaints about the NHL's current concussion protocol. Continue to refine it. Make sure it's followed to the letter.
The NHL should acknowledge every inch of this problem, especially the link between hockey and head trauma. That will be proven in the inevitable lawsuit.
Then get Paul Kariya to talk about it. Or Pat LaFontaine. Or Marc Savard. Or Sidney Crosby. Legitimate players whose careers were marred by head trauma.
Hire Kariya or LaFontaine to be in charge of the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Employing an ex-goon, Washington County native George Parros, in that job is one of the dumbest things NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has done. Parros couldn't play a lick, and his brief track record suggests he's going to look after his own kind. Same goes with Colin Campbell, the dinosaur in charge of hockey ops.
Kariya and Lafontaine are people we need to hear from regarding this mess.
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Panthers defenseman Nick Boynton, right, throws a punch during a fight with Boston Bruins left wing Milan Lucic in Boston, Friday Nov. 21, 2008.(AP/Charles Krupa)

Not Boynton and Carcillo.
As Boynton readily admits at The Players' Tribune, “I tried to hurt people.”
It's likely some of those people are going through the same problems as Boynton, and it's at least partly because of Boynton. Boynton appears to be navigating a wide range of emotions. Guilt should be one of them.
No one wants Boynton and Carcillo to suffer.
But they are merely reaping what they sowed.
They are not victims, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Had hockey not embraced the violence they practiced, Boynton and Carcillo would have spent very little time in the NHL, if any. Hockey is a dangerous game at least partly because players like Boynton and Carcillo made it so.
If Boynton and Carcillo had it do over again, they would. That's regardless of what they claim now.
When the devil comes knocking to collect, everyone wants to undo their Faustian bargain. But, going back to the salad days of their serious hockey, Boynton and Carcillo would still do whatever was required to play in the NHL.
Boynton and Carcillo deserve zero sympathy for their respective plights. They played in predatory fashion and shouldn't be taken seriously when they babble about a problem they helped promulgate.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Projections help clear up Sidney Crosby-Alexander Ovechkin debate

By Mark Madden
June 12, 2018

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Some media are again attempting to put Alex Ovechkin in the same class as Sidney Crosby. That's because Ovechkin is currently very visible as a Stanley Cup champion and playoff MVP after having a great postseason.
Ovechkin knows how to party, too.
But Crosby has two more Cups than Ovechkin and one more playoff MVP. Ovechkin is a better goal-scorer. Crosby is better at everything else, including productive physicality. Ovechkin plays wing. Crosby plays center, a position which carries far more responsibility and significance. Crosby excels at playmaking, defense and working down low. Ovechkin dabbles.
Ovechkin vs. Evgeni Malkin is a more valid comparison. Malkin's body of work gets the nod, for many of the same reasons that Crosby's does.
But Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin aren't done playing.
If all three maintain some semblance of their usual production for several more seasons, the perception of Ovechkin would certainly surpass Malkin and perhaps even Crosby.
That's because goals are hockey's most valuable currency, even more so in an era when it's tougher than ever to score.
Ovechkin has 607 regular-season goals. It's easy to envision him topping 800. Scoring 802 puts him second all-time to Wayne Gretzky.
Who would argue with 802 goals? It's one heck of a highlight reel.
Statistically, points are Crosby's bread and butter. He's got 1,116. It's easy to envision him topping 1,700, which puts him in the top 10.
At that point, it's Ovechkin's 802 goals (second all-time) against Crosby's 1,700 points (top 10). Like I said, goals are a valuable currency.
Crosby could top 1,800 points. That puts him top five. For the purposes of this debate, that's a recommended insurance policy. Getting 1,851 points would pass Gordie Howe. That's a useful headline.
Perception-wise, Crosby has other things going for him. He's Canadian. He's also not Russian. (I don't make the rules. I just identify them.)
Some push Crosby's points-per-game advantage. Crosby is at 1.292, Malkin 1.186, Ovechkin 1.119.
What means more, raw numbers or per-game averages? Crosby and Ovechkin started their careers in 2005, Malkin in 2006. Ovechkin has played 219 more games than Malkin, 139 more than Crosby.
Does Ovechkin's relative durability diminish the numbers he put on the scoreboard? Isn't that the agenda of the per-game argument?
Crosby's biggest edge is having won two more Cups.
He has also won two Olympic gold medals and one World Cup of Hockey. Ovechkin has none of the above.
If Crosby's edge in Cups remains at 3-1, he will almost certainly be thought of as better than Ovechkin in perpetuity.
If Crosby wins a fourth Cup, his superiority will be further cemented.
If Ovechkin wins another Cup and gets to 802 goals, the issue will be further clouded.
Like Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux, it will be debated forever.
Why can't Ovechkin just be considered the best scorer and Crosby the best all-around player? Why does one have to be declared better?
Because I do a radio talk show, that's why.
Crosby and Ovechkin will each be recognized as one of the top 10 players ever, perhaps even top five.
Ovechkin will be remembered as being better than Malkin, BTW. As the greatest Russian NHLer. That's a lock. Malkin is the sacrificial lamb in this argument.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Penguins aren't planning for future, but present looks bright

By Mark Madden
June 8, 2018

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With a few exceptions, the Penguins' main core is 30-something.
It's about time to re-load.
But the Penguins won't. Not like they would if they hadn't won Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and '17 (or even in just one of those years).
If not for that optimum circumstance, chances are good the Penguins would be trying to trade Evgeni Malkin, with the return generated helping to lay a big portion of groundwork for the future.
But, given what's happened, Malkin is untouchable. (Also, owner Mario Lemieux never wants to repeat the Jaromir Jagr trade of 2001.)
Sidney Crosby was always going to be untouchable given his status as hockey's best player and (more important) the guy that sells all the tickets.
Matt Murray will not be traded. Kris Letang will almost certainly stay. Phil Kessel may depart, but probably not. GM Jim Rutherford didn't sign Patric Hornqvist through 2023 just so he could immediately trade him.
The Penguins figure to mostly keep the current core together and let it take a run at another Stanley Cup title by way of a lifetime achievement award. Not because it's the right thing for the franchise's long-term interest. It's not.
Then again, occasionally finishing last has served the Penguins well.
When Murray nears 30 (hitting his theoretical prime), he will be counted on to keep the Penguins respectable after the stars retire.
Or he might get traded.
Finish middle, draft middle, stay middle: just ask the Philadelphia Flyers.
But currently, the window is open.
Everything will be done to serve right now. That's easier to pursue with two Cup championships still visible in the rear-view mirror because Rutherford knows this combination (or some semblance) can achieve.
One thing the Penguins may lack is the shot of adrenaline from young players that served them so well in the last two Cup runs.
In 2016 it was Tom Kuhnhackl, Murray, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. In 2017, it was Jake Guentzel and Scott Wilson.
But during this postseason, Zach Aston-Reese made little impact beyond what sadly incurred with Washington's Tom Wilson. Dominik Simon was wretched.
The Penguins haven't had a first-round draft pick since 2014 (Kasperi Kapanen, traded to Toronto in the Kessel deal). Their first-round picks from 2009-11 washed out and departed: Simon Despres, Beau Bennett and Joe Morrow. Derrick Pouliot (2012) also stiffed and got dealt.
Olli Maatta (also in 2012) is the only first-round pick of significance made by the Penguins since Jordan Staal in 2006.
That's no criticism. When you finish high, you draft late. When immediate opportunity beckons, you trade first-round picks.
For whatever reason, the pipeline isn't spitting out impact prospects.
Right wing Daniel Sprong was a second-round pick in 2015. Rutherford says he'll be a regular in 2018-19. He said that about Pouliot before this past season. Right before Pouliot got traded. Coach Mike Sullivan is not a Sprong fan, so Sprong's role for next season is far from assured.
It's an interesting summer. Rutherford paints in broad strokes, so the possibility of a big deal can't be dismissed.
Rust's rights could be traded because of the glut at right wing. (Rust is a restricted free agent.) Maatta might be dealt if Rutherford wants to shake up the Penguins' defensive corps.
Given Washington's success after beating the Penguins, perhaps being eliminated by the Capitals isn't the embarrassment some made out.
Matt Murray had a 2.66 goals-against average in the second-round series vs. Washington. That's better than any other goalie did against the Capitals in these playoffs, including Vegas' Marc-Andre Fleury (4.10). That debate has certainly been walked back.
Evgeny Kuznetsov had 32 points on the postseason. His low output for a series was six against the Penguins.
The Penguins were close and still are.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Off-Season Game Plan: Pittsburgh Penguins

By Scott Cullen
June 6, 2018
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While it’s fine to be introspective and figure out what went wrong to prevent them from winning a third straight Stanley Cup, the Penguins also don’t need to overreact to the situation. They have a really strong team, led by two of the best centres in the world, and if they get good goaltending, the results could very easily be different.
Knowing that they don’t need to make changes doesn’t mean that the Penguins won’t shake things up. GM Jim Rutherford doesn’t like to stand pat and has plenty of assets to move if he feels like giving the team a different look for next season.
Jim Rutherford/Mike Sullivan
Evgeni Malkin – The 31-year-old centre had his best season since 2011-2012, leading the team with 42 goals and 98 points. Amazing what can happen when he’s healthy – he played 78 games, his most since 2008-2009 and only the second time in that span that he played more than 70 games.
Phil Kessel – The veteran winger has played in every game over the past eight seasons, and went for a career-high 92 points in 2017-2018.
Sidney Crosby – Even if an 89-point season doesn’t necessarily stand out on the superstar’s career record, that he did it with a career-low 6.1% on-ice shooting percentage indicates that his season was more dominant than the point total would suggest.
Matt Murray – After a couple of nearly perfect seasons, both culminating in Stanley Cup victories, the 24-year-old goaltender hit a bump in the road, with a below-average save percentage, last season.
Matt Hunwick – Effectively brought in as an inexpensive replacement for Ron Hainsey, the veteran defenceman struggled and managed to dress for only 42 games.
Kris Letang – Truth be told, Letang had solid possession stats (55.1 CF%, +4.4 CFRel%) and put up 51 points in 79 games, but he was outscored 77-54 during 5-on-5 play and even landed in trade rumours during the season.
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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Steelers defense the problem

By Mark Madden
June 5, 2018

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Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns and the Jaguars defense forced two turnovers en route to a 45-42 victory over the Steelers in last year's AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field.(Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

The Steelers would do well to minimize turmoil in 2018.
Then again, they navigated through choppy waters so often in 2016 and '17 that doing otherwise might disrupt their routine.
The media doesn't need to invent problems when it comes to Steelers silliness. They will crop up regularly. It's organic now. It's in the Steelers' DNA.
When Reggie Bush said on NFL Network that coach Mike Tomlin needs to “implement some sort of a culture shift,” I laughed out loud.
Tomlin doesn't feel the Steelers culture is even remotely a problem. If you don't believe Tomlin, just ask outside linebackers “coach” Joey Porter.
Le'Veon Bell blew off most of a walkthrough the day before the playoff loss to Jacksonville. James Harrison slept during meetings. Tomlin didn't flinch.
That said, the current “controversies” are anything but.
Bell playing the victim via yet another putrid rap song inspires eye-rolling at an injurious level. The NFL's draconian CBA keeps free agency from being free via the franchise tag.
But Bell made $12.1 million last season and will earn $14.5 million this season. He can't possibly be characterized as oppressed.
Bell's rhyming, by the way, is unspeakably bad. To suggest he could make a career out of it seems insane.
But Bell is not currently a Steelers employee, so he has no obligation to be at organized team activities, minicamp or training camp. Despite the unrealistic nature of his demands given the abundance of adequate running backs and the NFL's state as a passing league, Bell has every right to try to maximize his income.
Bell's only sin is making himself more unlikable every time he opens his mouth or gets on social media.
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown skipped most of OTAs. That got some knickers in a twist. It shouldn't have.
OTAs are optional. Anybody who no-shows is within his rights. For lesser lights, that would certainly be ill-advised.
For Roethlisberger and Brown, it doesn't matter one bit.
There's no criticizing the performance of either. Throwing/catching a few less passes in springtime won't hinder them at all.
Roethlisberger is 36, Brown 29. Each is at the point of his career (especially Roethlisberger) where rest might help more than toil. Brown never stops working, anyway. If Brown thinks it's beneath him to catch passes from the backup quarterback, maybe it is.
These non-issues have obscured what might not be obvious from OTAs but should be looking at a depth chart: The Steelers have zero chance to win a championship with their defense as constructed.
The depth chart further confirms it's unthinkable the Steelers didn't do anything in the draft or free agency to better patch the gaping hole left by the injury to Ryan Shazier.
Start Jon Bostic or Tyler Matakevich? That's a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Play more safeties and fewer linebackers? Uh, Troy Polamalu retired. It's not like the Steelers are overflowing with quality safeties.
The only way scheme can overcome the cataclysmic deficiencies on that defense is if coordinator Keith Butler comes up with some revolutionary new packages for second-and-2. The Steelers may face that plenty.
The Steelers offense might be able to outscore every team. But it can't do so every game.
The Steelers defense might be able to patchwork some level of competence. But it can't do so every game.
Given the variables, there's a playoff loss in there somewhere or perhaps a critical regular-season defeat. It's difficult to win postseason games with a subpar defense.
Cleveland just signed linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who helped Philadelphia win last season's Super Bowl. The Browns have a good offensive line, a growing cache of weapons and better linebackers than the Steelers.
What the Browns don't have is Roethlisberger, the all-time winningest quarterback in the history of Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium. But the Browns may nonetheless be a tricky opponent Week 1 at Cleveland.
Breaking news: Brown took shots at Tomlin and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians on social media. Uh, maybe. It's hard to decipher. Brown is a much better receiver than he is a wordsmith.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).