Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Jameson Taillon's turn to be Pirates' ace

By Kevin Gorman
February 20, 2018
Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon throws during spring training Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
(Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — Jameson Taillon has always been projected to pitch at the top of the rotation and has embraced those expectations since becoming the No. 2 overall pick of the 2010 MLB Draft.
“I've always enjoyed expectations, and I've dealt with it since I was in high school, so I feel like I'm pretty well-suited for it,” Taillon said. “Every time I got pushed up a level in the minor leagues, I performed well. Every time people were looking at me to save the bullpen in a game or pitch deep into a game, I enjoy that kind of pressure. It brings out the best in me.”
The Pirates are counting on Taillon's ascension to staff ace to do the same, and his wait is almost over.
Taillon's timing was sidetracked by surgeries, first for Tommy John and then for testicular cancer. They were obstacles he couldn't control, so he treated them as learning experiences in his maturation that made him mentally tougher.
Now, with Gerrit Cole gone in a trade to the Houston Astros, it's Taillon's turn to anchor the pitching staff in the way both “Jamo” and the Pirates always envisioned.
“The buttons on my shirt want to pop off because I'm proud of him and what he's gone through,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said.
“That's been Jamo's M.O., but the service time prevented him from doing that, and he knew that. He was well aware of it. Now that he sees how things are and how things are going right now, it's good.”
Quietly, Taillon is going about his business to prepare himself — but he's doing it in a way so he's not all alone.
Taillon is taking on a leadership role on a young but talented pitching staff that is bonding by eating breakfast together every morning at Pirate City.
“I don't see myself above anybody or below. We're all on the same page,” Taillon said. “Part of me is excited to step up and take the reins, but another part of me is like, ‘I better not get ahead of myself, keep working and establish myself more.'
“I'd be honored to step up and take on that role, but I need to perform well and do what I'm capable of — and I'm confident I will.”
Taillon is borrowing a page from his predecessor after serving an apprenticeship of sorts under Cole the past two seasons. They would play catch and stretch together every day, and Taillon watched how Cole took care of his body to throw a 200-inning season.
That's Taillon's primary goal, to prove that he can be a 30-game starter and workhorse whose durability matches his talent.
“Watching Gerrit pitch, it was like every time he took the mound he was so prepared,” Taillon said. “A fiery competitor, but every time he went out there you knew he was the most prepared guy on the field that day. ...
“I feel ready to do what I'm asked. I'll go about it in my own way, but I learned a lot from him.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sees “opportunities for growth” in Taillon, seeing someone who followed a structured routine that involves drinking green smoothies, taking turmeric shots and using wearable technology but also creativity.
“There were times when it was just about, you make the calls back there and I'm just going to follow the game plan,” Hurdle said. “Then there were times during the season where he started getting more creative as he started to gain more experience to use the ability to pitch without his best stuff, the ability to pitch with a pitch removed for whatever reason. He's shown all of those things going forward.
“We like him a lot,” Hurdle added, “and there's a ton of reasons to like him a lot.”
So the Pirates refuse to put a ceiling on Taillon, who was 8-7 with a 4.44 ERA last season in 25 starts and 133 23 innings despite undergoing testicular cancer surgery May 8 and not being reinstated until June 12.
That's why Taillon is focused not on statistical goals but rather making all of his starts.
“As a starting pitcher, your biggest goal would be to make your starts, post up every time your name is called for your team,” Taillon said. “That's No. 1 for me, but I've learned to be careful with setting numerical goals. Last year, my goal would have been to make all my starts, but that wasn't really under my control.
“I'm not going to write anything on paper.”
But the Bucs can pencil Taillon in as ace.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.comor via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Filling the Ryan Shazier void at ILB begins with free agency for Steelers

By Jeremy Fowler
February 20, 2018
Image result for avery williamson titans
Avery Williamson (USA Today Sports)
PITTSBURGH -- That the Steelers' need to improve the teeth of their defense is no secret. The team was left scrambling late in the season when linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a severe spinal injury Dec. 4. Pittsburgh signed veteran Sean Spence for run defense and brought in L.J. Fort for passing downs.
This is not a sustainable model for a team that gave up 801 rushing yards in its final six games.
To be sure, the Steelers can't adequately replace Shazier, whose range sideline-to-sideline is among the league's best from the inside linebacker spot. But the team can formulate a plan to aid starter Vince Williams, the only proven commodity on the inside.
The draft is the best option to find a player who fits today's linebacking style of chasing down ball carriers with elite speed; think Atlanta's Deion Jones, Tampa Bay's Kwon Alexander and others. A pair of projected first-rounders from the SEC, Alabama's Rashaan Evans and Georgia's Roquan Smith, have the lateral quickness necessary for this role.
But inside linebacker is an easy position to rebuild in the short term because free-agency options are largely affordable. There will be plenty of available players who aren't game-changers but would mark improvement.
Among recent free-agent ILB signings for modest prices:
Kevin Minter: $4.25 million in 2017 ($2.1 million guaranteed)
Zach Brown: $2.3 million in 2017 ($700,000 guaranteed)
NaVorro Bowman: $2.6 million in 2017 ($120,000 guaranteed, via Oakland after the 49ers released him)
Demario Davis: $2.25 million in 2017 ($100,000 guaranteed)
Those final three players combined for 389 tackles last season -- or $18,380 per tackle. All four are free agents once again.
The Steelers can find good players who shouldn't stretch them financially. Tennessee's Avery Williamson is 25 and recorded three sacks with 92 tackles last season. Buffalo's Preston Brown led the league in tackles and hasn't missed a game in four seasons. Denver's Todd Davis, who played on a $2.746 million restricted tender, was considered one of the leaders of the Broncos' defense.
The Steelers won't likely get a major star at this position, but they can certainly get production. Even a Pittsburgh team that prefers drafting and extending most of its key players is bracing for a potential addition.
"Obviously with Ryan [Shazier]'s injury and his situation, we understand that," general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We knew we would have to deal with it after the season. Tyler [Matakevich]'s certainly in the mix. That gives you an option. And again, we will continue to look at other options in free agency and the draft as well."
If the Miami Dolphins want to save $5.475 million against the cap by cuttingLawrence Timmons, perhaps a Steelers reunion is in order.

Pirates' Josh Bell shoots toward stardom

By Kevin Gorman
February 19, 2018
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell takes a throw during the first full squad workout of spring training Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
(Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)
BRADENTON, Fla. — By the time the Pirates officially opened spring training Monday, Josh Bell already was well into his daily routine at Pirate City.
Bell has been here for weeks, long before other veteran positions reported and even before the pitchers and catchers arrived.
Quietly, Bell is going about his business with the intention to improve upon a season in which he set an NL record for most home runs (26) by a switch-hitting rookie and finished third in NL rookie of the year voting.
"To each their own," Bell said. "A lot of guys have more comfortability in their late-slated slot than I have in years past, so I try to shake the cobwebs off early. Some guys don't need that. Some guys can roll out of bed and be ready for games. I just want to make sure."
Don't think for a second that Bell's work ethic has gone unnoticed by the Pirates' front office and coaching staff, who are as impressed by his dedication and drive as they are by his immense talent.
"Josh is one of the young, potential leaders of this group," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "He had a great rookie season, and instead of taking a deep breath and saying, 'I've got this thing figure out,' he wants to go to the next level.
"He wants to get that much better defensively at first base and wants to become that much more of a dangerous hitter in the batter's box. We've worked to get him back to the hitter that he's capable of being with the power that he has, and he's got a chance to be a really good player for a long time."
Perhaps the Pirates' best since a guy they called Pops.
Bell, 25, is a candidate to become the Pirates' first All-Star first baseman since Jason Thompson, who hit 31 home runs with 101 RBIs in 1982. But Bell has the potential to be the club's best first baseman/cleanup hitter since the late, great Willie Stargell.
That would have been a stretch to say at this time last year. Bell underwent surgery on his left knee last February, and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the club "had to pump the air brakes a couple times" on Bell during spring training.
"It was a challenge," Hurdle said.
Bell still wasn't 100 percent at the start of the season, and it showed at the plate: He hit .138 through the first 10 games, didn't cross the Mendoza Line until the 14th game but finished with a .255 average and 90 RBIs.
That motivated Bell to get a head start this spring, so he attended mini-camp last month and has been working out at Pirate City since Feb. 4. He has adjusted to the team's schedule and got a head start his routine.
"Especially the start I had last year, it's not something I'm proud of," Bell said. "Getting on the field and getting comfortable hopefully lays the foundation for a good start."
Where Bell went into last season as an unproven player in the field and in the batting order, the Pirates now know they are set at both first base and the cleanup spot.
They are counting on him to be a cornerstone in the foundation of their future, possibly the next face of their franchise now that Andrew McCutchen is gone.
That Bell is avoiding such hyperbole is a sign of his maturity. So is his early arrival and understanding of how to prepare. Bell has shown leadership by bonding with third baseman Colin Moran, prompting Huntington to say, "If we get those two to do what they're capable of, we're going to have a chance to have a lot of fun on those corners for years."
The best part? Bell is a work in progress.
"There's still room for growth," All-Star second baseman Josh Harrison said. "You can definitely see the promise there, as long as he keeps at it. And, knowing him, I know he will."
Like someone shooting toward stardom.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Clint Hurdle's return to Pirates motivated by title

By Kevin Gorman
February 14, 2018
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks with catcher Francisco Cervelli during practice Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
(Chris Horner/Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — Clint Hurdle declared a new era for the Pirates on Wednesday, promising to own the present and create a future that will include a World Series championship.
Seriously.
The Pirates manager maintains unbridled optimism — or, as he calls it, unwavering belief — despite the franchise dealing away its ace (Gerrit Cole) and face (Andrew McCutchen) last month.
"Yeah, there's always going to be churn in the game and turnover," Hurdle said. "Fortunate to have been here for seven years, know the organization, know the players, know the city, know the fan base, humble to be a part of it.
"The place is going to explode when we win it all. The place is going to explode. I still believe that. I look forward to the opportunity to stand and be a part of that."
That was Hurdle's motivation to return for an eighth season, and why he signed a four-year contract extension through 2022.
From the outside looking in, it seems like self-inflicted torture, one that requires not unwavering belief but rather the willing suspension of disbelief.
Hurdle must crazy, right?
But he has the sense of purpose and pedigree to tackle a major makeover: Hurdle led the Colorado Rockies from 67 wins in 2005 to the '07 World Series. He took over the Pirates following a 57-win season in 2010 and led them to postseason berths from 2013-15.
"I love my job," Hurdle said. "So, to stay and be able to be a small part of this thing, which I believe is going to move forward and we're going to push through it and we're going to win and we're going to head further than we did in the past.
"A world championship is why you tee this thing up every spring. And the belief in that clubhouse also excites me, and the belief in the conversations I had over the winter excites me. That's why I chose to stay."
Pirates veteran Sean Rodriguez called Hurdle "one of the key pieces of the foundation in bringing this organization to that winning atmosphere again," and believes his return was important because of his winning philosophy and the sense of continuity it creates.
"It would have been a pretty big blow if he would have gone, too," Rodriguez said. "The fact that we've still got the same captain pointing the ship in the direction we need to go definitely helps tremendously."
Hurdle still speaks with the confidence of the manager who averaged 93 wins over three seasons, not the one who followed it with 78- and 75-win seasons the past two years.
"When you come in here and talk about winning, you get more eye rolls than you do people that lock into you," he said. "It excites me. I know the organization, and I know the fan base. The fan base is real and it's significant. I love the opportunity our men have to play on the North Shore in front of that fan base in that ballpark, and to watch the men continue to grow."
So, Hurdle wants to stop talking about Cutch and Cole but instead Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco and pitchers Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova and Felipe Rivero.
"I get excited from their excitement. I pick up energy from their energy," Hurdle said. "My job is to walk in the door and be a thermostat, not a thermometer, to help establish the climate in the room and not just report on it."
If that sounds like a hard sell to fans who feel betrayed by ownership and the front office for trading Cutch and Cole, Hurdle knows the only thing he can do to convince them otherwise is win.
He's promising not just a competitive team or a playoff- caliber team but delivering the first World Series championship since 1979.
"Our fans need to feel what our fans need to feel. They're human beings, and they'll work through it in their own time and their own way," Hurdle said. "I honor our fans. I will tell them how excited I am to manage this club and the excitement in this room is real and the skill set is real and we're going to go out and do everything we can to represent the name on the front of the jersey to bring a World Series championship to the city of Pittsburgh. That's what I will tell them."
What Hurdle can't tell them is a delivery date, as the Pirates' present appears focused on the future.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

CROSBY SCORES NO. 400, BUT IT’S HIS CLIMB UP THE ALL-TIME POINTS LIST WE SHOULD KEEP AN EYE ON

February 12, 2018
Image result for sidney crosby 400
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
Sidney Crosby scored his 400th NHL goal on Sunday and snapped a 10-game drought in the process. But it's his rise up the all-time scoring list, not his milestone goal, that we should be focused on.
Well, it took a while, but Sidney Crosby finally has goal No. 400. After notching is 399th goal nearly one month ago in a Jan. 14 contest against the New York Rangers, Crosby was mired in a 10-game goal drought that finally came to a close on Sunday afternoon against the Blues. In the second period, 21 seconds after Kyle Brodziak gave St. Louis the lead, Crosby struck, sneaking a shot by goaltender Jake Allen.
With the tally, Crosby became only the 95th player in the 100-year history of the NHL to register 400 goals. He also became one of only three Penguins skaters to hit the 400-goal mark with the franchise. The others, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, scored 690 and 439 goals in Pittsburgh, respectively. Chances are that by season’s end Crosby will close the gap between he and Jagr on the Penguins’ all-time goals list while also moving his way up the NHL's goals register. 
In fact, with two more goals Crosby can surpass three players on the all-time list: Shane Doan, Paul Kariya and John Ogrodnick. His next goal after that will also see him shoot by Marian Gaborik. That is, if Gaborik himself fails to score before Crosby picks up his next three goals. And if he maintains the pace that he has this season and fires home another eight goals before the campaign concludes, Crosby should also pass the likes of Rod Gilbert, John LeClair, Ray Ferraro, Patrik Elias and Ray Bourque on the all-time list. Realistically, Crosby could end the season with the 84th-most goals in NHL history.
But the number to watch shouldn’t be Crosby’s goal total, because even for as prolific a goal-scorer as he has become over the past several seasons, it's his overall point total that continues to impress.
Consider that earlier this season, Crosby was having what some would've called a statistical down year. Remember that heading into the all-star break, Crosby didn’t even consider himself worthy of an all-star nod. There wouldn't have been much disagreement with that, either. Phil Kessel was far outpacing Crosby, who had managed six goals and 16 points through the first 22 games of the season. Crosby has been remarkable since, however, registering 13 goals and 46 points over his past 35 games to put him on pace for another near 90-point season. And by the time the campaign ends, Crosby, who is already 63rd on the all-time points list, could rise to as high as 59th, surpassing Glenn Anderson, Frank Mahovlich and potentially squeaking by Patrick Marleau and Alex Ovechkin. If Crosby does indeed eclipse all four, he will have moved 20 places over the course of one campaign.
From here on out, however, Crosby's charge up the all-time list will get much more difficult. There will be no more moving more than a dozen spots in a single season, and working his way into the upper echelon of the NHL's great scorers will take him several seasons, if not as much as a decade. What could that climb look like, though? 
It’s by no means a perfect science, but by looking at a list of 15 players who finished their careers in the post-lockout NHL, each of whom rank among the top 50 all-time scorers in league history, we can try to understand the type of statistical decline a player goes through in the post-30-year-old stage of their career. The list of players utilized to get some sort of gauge include Jaromir Jagr, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, Joe Thornton, Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov and Daniel Alfredsson, among others. And what we can glean from the points per game totals of these Hall of Famers is that the decline per season is somewhere in the .08 to .05 points-per-game range with each passing campaign after players turn 30. 
However, for a player such as Crosby, genuinely one of the great talents the league has seen, it’s a safe bet to suggest he’d be on the low end of the scale, likely closest to a Thornton or Fedorov-esque decline in the .03 points-per-game range. Thus, currently scoring at 1.09 points per game, Crosby could realistically be expected to score 1.06 points per game next season, 1.03 the season after, an even 1.00 point per game by his age 33 campaign and so on and so forth. That can help us chart Crosby's potential climb up the all-time scoring list, particularly given he has seven years remaining on his current contract.
Maintaining his pace this season would see Crosby end the campaign with 1,116 career points. Under the assumption that he plays at least 78 games per season for the remainder of his contract, which is his average across the past five seasons, Crosby would then have an 83-point season in 2018-19, bringing his career total to 1,199 points and put him into 48th all-time. An 80-point season the year after would move him all the way to 36th with 1,279 points. And in subsequent years he could move to 26th with 1,357 points and 16th with 1,433 points before his ascent begins to flatten. By the time he reaches the end of his contract, when he will be playing his age 37 season, Crosby stands be into the top 10 as one of 10 players in NHL history to score 1,600 points, but there’s no guarantee he surpasses Sakic’s 1,641 points for ninth all-time.
From there, though, it's all up to Crosby. Should he continue playing, he could pass Sakic and begin his pursuit of Mario Lemieux, who sits top the Penguins’ all-time scoring list and eighth in league history with 1,723 points. But given the decline rate of other top scorers, chances are Crosby wouldn’t surpass ‘Super Mario’ — which would then allow him to possibly slip by Steve Yzerman and Marcel Dionne, as well — unless he continued playing until he was months from his 40th birthday. We can't assume Crosby will continue at that point, either. Sure, Jagr continued to dazzle us into his mid-40s, but Wayne Gretzky hung up his skates at 37, coincidentally the same age Crosby will be when his current contract comes to an end.
For the next several seasons, though, Crosby will continue his climb. And with each passing point, we'll continue to witness what will almost assuredly be one of the 10-greatest statistical careers in NHL history.
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Related:

Crosby continues writing his legacy with recent milestones-

https://www.nhl.com/penguins/news/crosby-continues-writing-his-legacy-with-recent-milestones/c-295881530

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sidney Crosby scores 400th goal as Penguins beat Blues

The Associated Press
https://www.usatoday.com/
February 11, 2018



ST. LOUIS (AP) — Sidney Crosby got another milestone goal on Sunday. The puck went right to his dad.

Crosby scored twice, including his 400th career goal, and the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled away from the St. Louis Blues for a 4-1 victory.

Bryan Rust broke a tie with a third-period tally and Riley Sheahan also scored for the Penguins, who have won 12 of their past 17. Matt Murray made 33 saves.

Crosby had not scored in his previous 10 games dating to Jan. 14. The captain stopped the drought in the second period in front of his father Troy, who was on the two-game fathers' trip that began Friday in Dallas.

"It's tough when you're waiting that long to get it, but it's definitely worth the wait to have my dad here," Crosby said. "So many early mornings and sacrifices so I could play hockey. It's special to have him here."

Troy Crosby got the puck after the game along with a big hug.

"It's just so nice to be here," Troy Crosby said. "To be able to share it with him, there are just no words to describe it."

Kyle Brodziak scored for St. Louis, which had won two in a row. Jake Allen had 19 stops.

Crosby jammed a shot under Allen's pad from the side of the net at 3:31, tying it at 1 with his 18th of the season. He becomes the 95th player in NHL history to reach the 400-goal mark.

"I still don't know how it trickled in, it seemed like it took forever," Crosby said. "You're trying to put it in that area, short side. Somehow it kind of found its way in."

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan marveled as Crosby's skills.

"He scores more goals from below the goal line than anybody I've ever seen and he's one of the few guys that thinks the game at such a high level," Sullivan said. "It was a typical Crosby goal."

Allen couldn't believe Crosby was able to find such a small opening.

"That's why he's the best player in the world," Allen said. "I would never play that any differently. He's one hell of a smart player."

The goal came 21 seconds after Brodziak converted from close range off a pass from Chris Thorburn.

Rust scored on a breakaway at 1:05 of the third period to give his team a 2-1 lead.

"It was kind of a shot of adrenaline," Rust said.

Crosby added an empty-net goal with 2:48 left.

It looked as if Paul Stastny had scored for St. Louis just 34 seconds before Rust got his eighth of the season, but video replay showed the puck was hit with a high stick.

"It wasn't our worst game we've played," St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "I thought we battled hard."

Pittsburgh's sixth win in eight games also marked the return of Ryan Reaves to St. Louis after he was traded to the Penguins in June. Reaves, who spent seven season as the Blues' enforcer, was given a loud ovation when he came onto the ice for the first time.

"I saw a lot of signs, a lot of love," Reaves said. "It was a fun day."

NOTES: Stastny played in his 800th NHL game. ... Allen started back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 27-29. ... Pittsburgh has gone four games without a power-play goal, tying a season-high four-game drought from Dec. 11-18. ... St. Louis coach Mike Yeo was an assistant for the Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

UP NEXT

Penguins: Host Ottawa on Tuesday.

Blues: Travel to Nashville on Tuesday.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Play of Penguins' big 3 will determine postseason success


By Mark Madden
February 10, 2018

Image result for kessel malkin crosby
Phil Kessel #81 reacts to his goal with Evgeni Malkin #71 and Sidney Crosby #87 to trail 4-2 to the Anaheim Ducks during the third period at Honda Center on January 17, 2018 in Anaheim, California.
(Harry How/Getty Images North America) 

In 2016, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup because they had the best team. The result was occasionally in doubt, but not often.
In 2017, the Penguins were the last team standing. They used their depth and experience to squeak out a few critical victories against the run of play.
This season, as they search for the NHL's first three-peat since 1982, the Penguins' depth and experience have dissipated. Riley Sheahan, Matt Hunwick and Dominik Simon aren't Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Chris Kunitz.
So if the Penguins are going to do it again, the likeliest method is the way they're winning right now: with their stars ripping foes to shreds.
Evgeni Malkin has 16 goals and 11 assists in the 16 games played since the New Year. Sidney Crosby has three goals and 22 assists. Phil Kessel has eight goals and 15 assists. The Penguins are 11-4-1 in 2018.
Kessel, Malkin and Crosby rank second, fifth and 11th among NHL scorers. Kessel is just three points off the lead. Rarely have all three of the Penguins' offensive stars been on the boil simultaneously.
It has to continue. Simon, Zach Aston-Reese and their ilk won't pick up the slack, and the Penguins won't let Daniel Sprong.
The power play is No. 1 in the league, converting 26.6 percent of its chances. That also has to continue. That could be difficult presently with Patric Hornqvist injured. His net-front presence looms as large as anyone's skill.
Fewer penalties are usually called in the playoffs. That lessens the power play's impact.
Malkin, Crosby and Kessel were extremely effective in last year's playoffs, finishing 1-2-3 in points. It is unfair to ask for more?
Sure it is. But that's what's going to be required. Jake Guentzel probably won't score 13 postseason goals again.
Since the Penguins will be relying on their superstar circus to burn brightly come springtime, two more need to join the high-wire act.
Defenseman Kris Letang has lacked consistency and shown a penchant for the odd horrific mistake. He's minus-14. second-worst on the team. That stat can be misleading, but it's not meaningless.
Letang had major neck surgery in the offseason and probably rushed his return. He's playing better, but not yet at his accustomed level. Letang needs to understand less can be more. He can try too hard.
For the Penguins to make a playoff run, Letang has to come good. He is a rare combination of skating, skill, fitness and physicality. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup without Letang last year. That was the flukiest thing about it.
Goaltender Matt Murray has been beset by injury and troubled by the death of his father. His goals-against average is up, his save percentage down.
But the Penguins push forward with numbers so much, they can be a difficult team to play behind. Murray is about wins and big saves, and both have been coming with more frequency.
Murray is 3-0-1 since returning from bereavement leave. That's all that matters.
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26. The defense corps has stabilized nicely thanks to Ian Cole's reinsertion and fine play. Hunwick is a good spare on the left side. Chad Ruhwedel provides the same on the right.
Third-line center remains a talking point. But GM Jim Rutherford shouldn't sacrifice Sprong, Tristan Jarry or Conor Sheary if the result is a minimal upgrade like Ottawa's Jean-Gabriel Pageau or Edmonton's Mark Letestu. The new Nick Bonino isn't available, although the old Matt Cullen is.
But any additions, however needed, will be small potatoes. The Penguins' hopes for a three-peat rely on the stars running roughshod and not much else.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 105.9 FM.