Saturday, June 30, 2007

Pirates' Nady emerges as productive hitter

By Rob Biertempfel
Saturday, June 30, 2007

Xavier Nady was expected to play a supporting role in the Pirates' offense this season.

Instead, Nady is playing like a bona fide slugger -- and some might even say like an All-Star.

Without a lot of fanfare, Nady has moved among the team's leaders in practically every batting category. He is tops in home runs (13) and slugging percentage (.492), second in RBI (46) and fourth in on-base percentage (.337).

And yet, outside of Pittsburgh, Nady is probably best known as the answer to the trivia question, Who did the Pirates get in the Oliver Perez trade?

"I think he gets overlooked," Pirates outfielder Jason Bay said. "Teams come in, and they're looking at guys like myself or Freddy (Sanchez) or (Adam) LaRoche. But right now, he's the one doing all the damage, and I'm glad to see it.
"He's definitely capable. I don't think this is a one-time thing. This is him."

Nady went into Friday night's game against the Washington Nationals batting .283, 13 points better than his career average. He was riding a five-game hitting streak, going 9 for 22 with two homers, a double, four

RBI and five runs scored.

"His numbers right now correlate to being pretty good (for the season), especially for somebody projected to be in the six-hole in the lineup," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said.

"He's gotten big hits. Hits in tie games. Three-run home runs to open games up. Big base hits to extend innings, or to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. Big at-bats. That's what you love to see."

Nady's stats probably would be even better, if he had not missed about 14 total days with two hamstring strains. Those injuries have been the only thing that have kept him out of the lineup.

It's also important that Nady came into this season with peace of mind, knowing he would be a full-time right fielder -- no more splitting time between first base and the outfield.

"I think the biggest thing for him is just getting a chance to play every day here, regardless of who's pitching or what's going on," Bay said. "He's going out there every day, feeling comfortable and mostly staying healthy."

His attitude is relaxed and his production is on the rise. There is talk that Nady should be the Pirates' representative in the All-Star Game.

The All-Star rosters will be announced Sunday.

"There are a lot of guys on this team who have done their jobs -- they've played every day, like (Bay), or taken the ball every fifth day," Nady said. Just to be considered among them is nice.

"But this home stretch we've got now is more important than anything else. I'm worried about these next few days more than anything else. We'll see what happens."

Rob Biertempfel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Francis gets call from Hall

Ex-Penguins center joins Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis in a stellar class

Friday, June 29, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Ronnie left a lasting impact on the Penguins organization -- not only because of his exceptional talent and ability to play both ends of the ice, but because of his dedication, his professionalism and his dignity," Mario Lemieux said in a statement.
Click photo for larger image.

Play 23 seasons in the National Hockey League, the way Ron Francis did, and you accumulate memories.

You remember players and places and plays.

Hundreds of them. Thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

But, when Francis was asked yesterday, hours after being chosen for induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, to cite his most enduring recollection of the seven-plus seasons he spent with the Penguins, he didn't hesitate.

All but pinpointed it to the tenth of a second, for that matter. No surprise there, of course, because he was always a terrific details guy.

It was the night of May 25, 1991, and the Penguins had just wrapped up an 8-0 victory in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., to clinch the franchise's first league title.

"I remember jumping over the boards as we were racing to the goaltender ... and [teammate] Paul Coffey saying, 'As good as it seems now, it's only going to get better with each passing day,' " Francis said. "And that certainly has been true.

"Being able to accomplish that, and knowing how tough it is for a group of guys to pull together and have everything go your way and accomplish that feat, it's certainly probably still the most special hockey moment."

Francis was a key member of the Penguins' second Cup-winner a year later, too, and, by the time he went to Carolina as a free agent in 1998, had established himself as one of the most productive, popular and respected performers in franchise history.

In a statement released by the team, owner Mario Lemieux, Francis' friend and former teammate, characterized his induction as "very well deserved."

"He was a great player and leader for us in Pittsburgh from 1991-98, and was an essential member of both of our Stanley Cup championship teams and five division champions," Lemieux said.

"Ronnie left a lasting impact on the Penguins organization -- not only because of his exceptional talent and ability to play both ends of the ice, but because of his dedication, his professionalism and his dignity."

Francis ranks fourth in NHL history in regular-season points (1,798) second in assists (1,249) and third in games played (1,731), all pretty compelling credentials for a first-ballot induction.

It says something about the Class of 2007, though, that Francis isn't the undisputed headliner of the group. He is joined by former players Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis and longtime team and league executive Jim Gregory.

"I'm very honored to go in with a class like this," Francis said.

Because Hall bylaws put a four-player limit each year's group of inductees, viable candidates like Adam Oates, Claude Lemieux and Igor Larionov didn't make the cut yesterday.

"Obviously, it's a tough day for the committee, when you look at who they had to pick from," Francis said.

Francis, who took a job as the Carolina Hurricanes' director of player development last fall, was at home in Raleigh when he got the call from the Hall yesterday.

He immediately tried to contact his parents in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario -- he rather sheepishly acknowledged later that sharing the information with anyone violated a request from the Hall -- but failed because they were with his brother, Ricky, who was having minor surgery.

His father and mother got the word eventually, though. So did his former teammates with the Penguins, who reacted with predictable delight.

"He did a lot of things that we needed to win the Stanley Cup," said Kevin Stevens, now a pro scout with the Penguins. "He was a big part of it. He was a real smart player, a great leader. Just a good guy to have on your team."

Francis was added to the mix March 4, 1991 -- the Penguins acquired him, along with Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings, from Hartford for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker, in one of the most memorable deals in trade-deadline history -- and noted yesterday that several teammates beat him into the Hall.

Lemieux, Coffey, Larry Murphy, Bryan Trottier and Joe Mullen are on that list, and Francis said guys like Jaromir Jagr, Tom Barrasso and "potentially" Mark Recchi could follow in future years.

"I guess that's the reason we had that kind of success," he said. "We had a lot of good hockey players on that hockey club."

And one of the very best is headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

(Dave Molinari can be reached at

Thursday, June 28, 2007

One-on-one with Rocky Bleier

By Rick Starr
Thursday, June 28, 2007

As a motivational speaker, former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier shares personal experiences from both the football field and battlefield.

Bleier said he'll talk about a pair of related topics - sacrifice and courage - when he honors fallen Marine Albert Gettings of New Castle in a halftime speech Saturday night at Slippery Rock University's N. Kerr Thompson Stadium.

The minor-league football game between the New Castle Thunder and the Beaver County Warriors, which begins at 7 p.m., has been dedicated to Gettings.

A New Castle High School graduate who attended Slippery Rock, Gettings was 27 when he was killed last year in Fallujah, Iraq, while protecting a fellow Marine after both were wounded.

Bleier can speak to being wounded and under fire in combat.
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1968, Bleier first was drafted by the Steelers, and then by the army following his NFL rookie season.

Soon after arriving in Vietnam, his platoon was ambushed and Bleier was wounded in his left thigh. While he was down, a grenade sent shrapnel into his right leg.

His Steelers comeback was dramatized in a book, and the 1980 television movie "Fighting Back" starring Robert Urich as Bleier.

Bleier, who couldn't walk without being in pain, was released twice by the Steelers and played sparingly until an offseason training regimen in 1974 brought him back to 212 pounds.

He won the job as Franco Harris' lead blocker and drove himself to become an effective runner. Both Harris and Bleier rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1976.

Bleier played in four Super Bowl victories, catching a touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw that gave the Steelers the lead for good in Super Bowl XIII.

Bleier is a motivational speaker who talks to corporate clients about how ordinary people can become extraordinary achievers. He spoke to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this week.

Q: What will you say during your halftime speech on Saturday?

A: The first thing I hope to convey is how honored I am to be there. People are making great sacrifices every day for the freedom of this country and for the quality of life we take for granted in our communities. All of us, young or old, in the sports world or the real world, should appreciate our men and women in military service. They make this a better place to live. In the service, it can be a life or death situation, and sometimes we forget what some of them are going through. What I hope to say is that this Marine, Albert Gettings, like many other of our soldiers, had the courage to stand up for what we believe in. He gave up his life, and maybe his story, his sacrifice, may change someone else's life.

Q: You've been an inspirational speaker for over two decades. Is your theme, "Be the Best You Can Be," still relevant today?

A: It's universal. We all face obstacles and challenges in our lives. What remains relevant is that we all have the power to face those obstacles. I have a story. We all have a story. Every day there are new stories of people who overcome great odds to accomplish things. Those stories can change other people's lives. And when you tell those stories, you never know how they will affect someone else's life. It's very gratifying when people come up to you and tell you that you once said something that changed their life. When we make a difference, then we've done something.

Q: In May, the National Football Foundation announced you had won its Distinguished American Award. How does it feel to join previous winners such as Vince Lombardi, Bob Hope, Pete Rozelle and the late Pat Tillman?

A: When I was first notified, I thought it was a wonderful honor. As I learned more about the award, it has taken on a much deeper meaning than I first anticipated. The award isn't given out every year. I don't know if I'm deserving. It is a great honor and I'm very appreciative."

Q: The Distinguished American Award honors an individual who applied the lessons of football to life. Can you share a character-building lesson from your football days?

A: I don't want to give you a list of football cliches. But you know what? The ones about teamwork, they're all true. But I'd have to say the one lesson that stands out is that you can change perceptions. The game of football taught me it's more important how you see yourself, than how others see you. You CAN change the perception of what you can and cannot do. We all have our shortcomings. What matters is our contribution.

Q: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome when you returned to the Steelers after earning the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star in Vietnam? The severe leg injuries? Or the fact you were always considered too small to play in the NFL?

A: Both. When you see me, I'm not that big. I was 5-foot-9 and maybe 200 pounds when I came back. I didn't have great speed. I ran a 4.8 or 4.7 in the 40. So now, I came back to the Steelers and I'm damaged goods, and I'm still 5-9 and under 200 pounds. Everybody told me it just won't happen. That was the perception. You see, if you're 5-9 and 230 pounds, they tell you that you might be big enough to take the pounding. If you 5-9 and run a 4.3 in the 40, they tell you that you might be fast enough to make it. I had to change both perceptions.

Q: How did you convince a stubborn coach like Chuck Noll to change his perception?

A: This is what I tell young football players: If you are aggressive, if you are smart and don't make mistakes, and if you prove to your coach that he can count on you, they'll find a place for you to play. I had to bring all those qualities, because the Steelers' running game was built around Franco before I got there. Chuck was looking for someone to fit the system. I wasn't afraid to block and I was willing to complement what they were already doing.

Q: Noll released you twice. Did you ever thank him for giving you a third chance?

A: I thanked him several times over the years. He's not the easiest guy to talk to. It was like a father-son relationship he had with most of his players, and a very strict father at that.

Q: Have your Steelers teammates basically gone their separate ways? Do you ever dine with Harris, hunt with Terry Bradshaw, or golf with Jack Lambert?

A: Nobody retires at the same time, so suddenly you're no longer part of the team. Brad retired two years later, Franco three years after I moved on. Periodically, I'll get together for dinner with Franco and his wife, Dana, and Mike and Beverly Wagner. The Wagners and Hams are close. When we can, we'll have a lunch here, a game of golf there.

Q: You retired in 1980, just after winning your fourth Super Bowl ring. Glad you went out on top? Any regrets?

A: In all honesty, no regrets. I played 12 years and that's a nice, round number. I was beat up. The Steelers had young running backs coming in. I wasn't going to make the Pro Bowl next season. What else could I accomplish? My television work (for WPXI) helped me make the transition from the Steelers, because I was working on the sidelines at training camp the next summer.

Q: Speaking of Super Bowl rings, you had three of your four championship rings stolen by a burglar in 2004 during a motivational speaking trip to North Carolina. Were they ever recovered or replaced?

A: I got them replaced. I still wear them all the time. As much as I can, I like to share the rings with people and especially Steelers fans. That's what it's all about. Fans enjoy seeing them and talking about the rings.

Q: Plan to participate in the Steelers' 75th anniversary celebration this year?

A: I'll be involved in any way possible. Whatever they want. Whatever they need. (Laughs) Whatever it takes.

Rick Starr can be reached at or (724) 226-4691.

Bob Smizik: Walkout by Pirates fans gets blacked out

The good feelings from last year's All-Star Game and strong second half have largely dissipated in 2007.

FSN won't show live footage of planned protest at Pirates' game Saturday

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates are doing their best to downplay the fan walkout scheduled for after the third inning of the team's game Saturday night with the Washington Nationals.

They have asked their television announcing crew not to discuss the walkout with the media. They have removed all comments about the walkout from their message board at They have the support of their television rights holder, FSN Pittsburgh, which does not plan to show the protest as part of its game coverage.

A near-capacity crowd of 36,000 is expected for the game, where Bob Walk bobbleheads will be given as souvenirs to all ticket holders. Organizers of the protest have asked fans to leave their seats after the third inning and stand in the concourse -- without purchasing concessions -- or leave the stadium. The protest is an attempt to draw national attention to the lack of success of the team, which is in the midst of a 15th consecutive losing season.

That national attention might be difficult to obtain.

The only television cameras allowed to shoot the game are from rights holders FSN and MASN (Mid-Atlantic Sports Network), which carries the Nationals' games.

The walkout will occur when FSN is on a commercial break. There is no compelling reason for MASN, also on commercial break, to show it to a Washington audience that would have little interest.

Todd Webster, who handles public relations for MASN, said, "My guess would be we wouldn't show it."

There are, however, alternatives for the local stations.

KDKA-TV has a "Tower Cam" on the roof of Gateway No. 1, where its studios and offices are located, that would give it a good, but not total view, of PNC Park. It would provide a view of fans leaving their seats and an indication of how successful the protest is.

"I don't see why we wouldn't use it," said Anne Linaberger, the assistant news director at KDKA.

WPXI and WTAE could use their news helicopters, as could KDKA, to acquire footage of the protest.

Contacted about the protest, Greg Brown, who will do the play-by-play of the telecast along with Walk, said, "I have been asked by the Pirates not to comment and refer all calls to Brian Warecki."

Warecki, the team's senior director of communications, issued this statement via e-mail:

"We greatly appreciate the passion of all of our fans and their freedom to express that passion in any way they choose."

One of the ways they might choose has been blocked. According to Andy Chomos, one of the leaders of the protest, the Pirates have been removing content about the proposed walkout for weeks. E-mails from frustrated fans to the Post-Gazette back up what Chomos said.

Shawn McClintock, the executive producer at FSN, said the decision not to show the walkout was a difficult one. As rights holder, FSN has a strong partnership with the Pirates, as they do with the Penguins. The success of those teams greatly reflects the success of FSN.

"In a number of ways, what we do is different than local news," McClintock said. "It's a fine line and it has softened over the years, and we had to come to grips with that.

"It's a tough call. One side of you says, 'It's a story.' The other side says that 'we're in this for the long haul and our livelihood can be affected.' The bottom line is we want them to do well. We also understand the average fan's frustration. We're frustrated, too, as fans and business partners."

Away from the game broadcast, FSN has covered the story. It covered the news conference the protesters had Tuesday and had reports on it that night on "Savran on SportsBeat" at 6:30 p.m. and "Pittsburgh Sports Tonight" after the Pirates' game.

McClintock said FSN will report on the protest on Pittsburgh Sports Tonight after the game Saturday.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at

Pirates Notebook: Players' focus not on possible protest

Thursday, June 28, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MIAMI -- No one in the Pirates' front office is commenting on the protest planned for Saturday night at PNC Park, where, organizers are hoping, fans will walk out after the third inning to show displeasure with the team's ownership and management.

But two of the team's most-tenured players said yesterday that, no matter what happens that night, it will be business as usual on the field.

"I don't feel anything about it," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "I've got a job to do, and that's to play baseball. Fans have every right to react how they want. I mean, if they get up and leave ... whatever inning that is, we still have to play the game."

He was asked how the players might perceive such a reaction, even if it, as organizers have stated, is not aimed at the players.

"Whether it's aimed at us or management or whatever, it doesn't deter from the fact that we have to go out and play the game," Wilson said. "Our focus is going to be on winning that game, not on how many people are in the stands or what they're doing. Our No. 1 concern will be winning that game."

Only a few players seemed aware of the planned protest, no doubt because yesterday was their 10th consecutive day on the road. And those who were aware seemed to know little about the specifics.

"People can do whatever they want when they buy a ticket," left fielder Jason Bay said. "I don't really have much else to say about it. I don't really know what the purpose is or what anyone would be trying to change."

Told that it purportedly is not aimed at the players, Bay added, "That would be my guess. I guess we'll just have to see how big a deal it is. Whatever it is, you don't want to be in this situation where something like that becomes the focus and takes away what happens on the field."

Blasts by Nady, Doumit sink Marlins in 10th

Pirates overcome blown save, blunder for 7-5 victory

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Pirates' Xavier Nady tears into a Kevin Gregg fastball for his second home run of the night and the one that put his team ahead of Florida, 6-5, in the 10th inning.

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MIAMI -- Another blown save, another baserunning blunder, and the Pirates were well on their way to ...

Wait a minute.

They won?

On back-to-back home runs in the 10th inning?

Yes, there it unfolded on the rain-soaked field of Dolphin Stadium, a game that was unraveling in such familiar fashion when Xavier Nady and Ryan Doumit each took Florida closer Kevin Gregg deep to sink the Marlins, 7-5, last night.

Boom, boom, and on came the lights.

"It wears on you mentally, losing all these tight games like we have been," Nady would say shortly after the home run, his second of the game and team-high 13th of the year. "To have something like this happen, to see all that turn around ... hopefully, it's our turn to start feeling good."

The Pirates, clearly enjoying taking the first two games of this series after a 1-5 start to the road trip, had been feeling anything but good as this one was playing out.

It did start well, as they built a 5-2 lead through the top of the fifth.

Ryan Doumit congratulates Xavier Nady as he heads to the batter's box to send another Kevin Gregg pitch to the same part of the stadium.
Click photo for larger image.

Jose Bautista sent a Sergio Mitre changeup into the left-field seats for a two-run home run, his sixth. Nady pulled a Mitre slider to the same part of the park to open the fourth. And an Adam LaRoche RBI single and Jason Bay sacrifice fly brought a three-run lead, this despite starter John Van Benschoten getting him yanked after four innings.

But then ...

John Wasdin gave up a run in the bottom half.

Masumi Kuwata, seeing his rainbow curve struck with great force for the first time, gave up Hanley Ramirez's solo home run to start the seventh.

John Grabow gave up a leadoff single in the eighth, and Shawn Chacon followed one out later by giving up consecutive singles to Miguel Olivo and Alfredo Amezaga to tie the score at 5-5.

It was the bullpen's 11th blown save, a mind-numbing figure in many ways.

Even so, as Tracy would stress later, there were positives along the way: Wasdin stranded men at second and third with a strikeout and fine double play started by Sanchez. Kuwata retired his next two batters. Chacon stranded Olivo and Amezaga in the eighth, then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to force extra innings.

"They hung in there," Tracy said. "Every one of them got big outs against a very good lineup."

The latest lapse on the basepaths came in the ninth, and that had the feeling of a fatal blow.

Chris Duffy opened the inning with a single and was bunted to second. But, when Sanchez popped up to shallow left, Duffy inexplicably was caught off the bag and nailed for the final out.

"The whole play's in front of him," Tracy said, appearing to choose his words carefully. "That's what I have to say about it. The play's right there."

Duffy knew it.

"I just lost track of how far off the bag I was," he said, shaking his head. "It's ridiculous on my part."

Then, in seeming correlation with the mood of the clubhouse, he allowed himself a small joke.

"But hey, if that doesn't happen, we don't get those two bombs."

Gregg, outstanding for the Marlins in going 14 for 14 in saves, zipped through the ninth and quickly had two outs in the 10th when Nady stepped up.

Thinking another home run?

"I'm just trying to get something to drive," Nady said.

He found it right away with first-pitch 93-mph heat and, true to the natural path of his swing, uppercutted it the other way 404 feet.

"You know, he probably supplied most of the power," Nady said of Gregg.

"I'd throw the same pitch again," Gregg said. "He just went down and got it."

Gregg might have regretted the next gopher ball a bit more. That was a 1-2 hanging slider that Doumit, mired in an 0-for-16 tailspin, launched close to where Nady's landed.

With that, the Pirates' dugout erupted before it had a chance to settle from the first.

And Matt Capps' seventh save, with a perfect bottom half, made it count.

"This is huge," Doumit said. "Just what we needed."

Tracy, no doubt recalling the anguish of losing two extra-inning heartbreakers in Anaheim and the past four extra-inning games overall, saw it the same way.

"We've been involved in our fair share of these, obviously," Tracy said. "To come up with a couple of big hits has the opportunity to be a huge lift for several of these individuals and for our clubhouse as a whole."

Others stood out offensively, including Sanchez going 3 for 5 and Bautista adding three walks to his home run.

But the one who stood tallest has been common of late.

"Xavier Nady has been a very consistent offensive player for us," Tracy said. "You can see that in the statistics, and you can see that from watching our games and seeing the number of big hits he's gotten for us."

True in every way: Nady, batting .281 and on pace for 30 home runs, has 45 RBIs and a .338 average with runners in scoring position.

And that charge that he always would be a platoon player because he could only hit left-handers?

He now is hitting right-handers at a .264 clip with 11 home runs, including both last night.

The only significant downer was Van Benschoten's first shaky start: He gave up two runs on three hits and five walks and, most striking, misfired on 42 of his 81 pitches.

"Command was the issue," Tracy said. "He never got into a rhythm."

"Horrible," Van Benschoten called it. "I need to get back to challenging guys."

The Pirates today will go for just their fourth sweep of the season, the first since April, when Zach Duke faces Scott Olsen.

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Penguins happy to get a player like Esposito

By The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Penguins 2007 first-round pick Angelo Esposito speaks to the media at Mellon Arena, June 26, 2007.

The Pittsburgh Penguins supposedly couldn't get a possible impact player, not in this draft. Not drafting No. 20, a pick so low it usually yields a prospect who requires years of development.

So why was first-rounder Angelo Esposito talking Tuesday of possibly playing this season with these Penguins, who already have some of the NHL's best young scoring talent in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal?

The Penguins, bad enough for so many years to get a run of early and exceptional draft picks, perhaps got a little bit lucky this time when Esposito fell to them.

Esposito, who led his Quebec Remparts junior team to the Memorial Cup championship at age 17 in 2006, was the top-rated North American prospect by the NHL's scouting bureau as late as February. Going into the draft, he was No. 8.

But as the draft unfolded Friday night, Esposito became one of those players who keeps falling and falling, for no apparent reason — much like Brady Quinn in this NFL draft and Dan Marino in 1982. Finally, he tumbled to the one team that seemed to least need youthful skills like his.
"Falling in the draft was a little bit disappointing, but now that I'm here it's better than going somewhere else," Esposito said Tuesday. "I'm happy to be here and, at the same time, maybe prove a few people wrong."

Including his own beloved Montreal Canadiens, who passed on him at No. 12 to take American defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The Canadiens and 18 other teams apparently felt Esposito was a little too self centered, didn't progress as much as anticipated and didn't always play with passion last season.

"We lost a lot of good players, and maybe when the season started I was thinking too much about the draft and too much about myself," said Esposito, who is no relation to former NHL stars Phil and Tony Esposito. "But I learned throughout the season how to play on a team."

A team like this one, perhaps?

The Penguins already have three potential top-line natural centers in Crosby, the NHL player of the year; Malkin, the rookie of the year and Staal, an all-rookie forward at age 18.

But Esposito was too fast, too skilled, too tempting for Pittsburgh to pass up, even if coach Michel Therrien must be creative in figuring out how to play them all together. Not that general manager Ray Shero seems overly worried.

"Good players like to play with good players," he said.

Esposito, who turned 18 in February, was used on a wing at times by his junior coach, Patrick Roy. Being so heavily scouted made him feel as if everyone in the arena was watching only him, and it was a bit disconcerting at times.

"What I've learned is it's opinions, and whether the opinions are good or bad doesn't matter because it's what you do on the ice," Esposito said. "Something I've considered is that, now that I know what team I'm going to be on, I can just go out and play my game and not worry about the 2,000 eyes on you."

That might have benefited Staal last season. Rather than being the No. 2 draft pick, he was simply another good young forward on a team with a growing number of them.

"I think he'll, like a Jordan Staal, fly under the radar a bit and be able to settle in and be around some good young players," Shero said of Esposito. "I think it will be good for him."

That No. 7 Esposito wore in juniors may be available to Esposito sooner than later. Forward Michel Ouellet wore it last season, but the Penguins didn't tender him a contract offer.

Gary Roberts was No. 7 with Toronto, but wore No. 10 the last few seasons with Florida and Pittsburgh — something Esposito didn't realize.

"Maybe I'll get that number some day," he said.

Right now, another number is on his mind, and it's not the 66 goals or 177 points he has in 117 games in juniors.

"My goal is to play in the NHL at 18," said Esposito, who must play in Pittsburgh next season or go back to his junior team. "We'll see what happens. I want to work hard and try to make this team at 18."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ron Cook: Roberts' signing sends a signal

Roberts' return a positive sign for Penguins

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

We could examine the pitiful Pirates and general manager Dave Littlefield's ridiculous contentions that their fundamentals are better and that the team really isn't far off from being a contender, but where's the fun in that? Why waste precious time on the hopeless? On such a beautiful summer morning, why be negative when there's something so positive going on in our little corner of the sports world?

The Penguins.

The signing of Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, above, assure Penguins general manager Ray Shero of a successful offseason, although his work isn't finished.
Click photo for larger image.

Specifically, the Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi signings last week.

It's great that Recchi is coming back for another season, even if it will be in a diminished role. The man knows how to win. Remember how Bryan Trottier was an important part of the Penguins' Stanley Cup teams in the early '90s? He was a future hall of famer nearing the end of his career and served a valuable purpose as a third- or fourth-line player. That's Recchi on the Penguins next season. A championship team needs a Recchi.

Certainly, a championship club needs a Roberts.

That signing was significant in many ways, none more so than what it said about the Penguins and the direction they are going. Ottawa was expected to make a big push for Roberts when free agency begins Sunday. He decided to stay with the Penguins because he liked their chances of winning the Cup better. The Senators played in the final last season.

Roberts also agreed to a one-year deal even though he probably could have received two years from Ottawa or another team. At 41, he knows that second season isn't promised to him. He's worried about winning now. He thinks the Penguins give him the best opportunity.

If Roberts believes that strongly, it makes it a lot easier for the rest of us to believe. Remember, he is a guy who had to be talked into waiving his no-trade clause to come to Pittsburgh last season by Mario Lemieux. Now, they can't lure him away.

Everyone makes a big deal of the leadership Roberts provides to a young team, and rightfully so. Sidney Crosby thought so much of him and Recchi that he called both last month to make sure they were OK with him becoming, at 19, the youngest captain in NHL history. That's respect.

It's hard to imagine a better role model for young players than Roberts. His workout regime is legendary, to the degree that many of the Penguins made sure to get his cell phone number at the end of the season so they could make arrangements to join him this summer to train. Crosby spent a couple of days with him in Toronto earlier this month.

Gary Roberts is a guy who had to be talked into waiving his no-trade clause to come to Pittsburgh last season by Mario Lemieux. Now, they can't lure him away.
Click photo for larger image.

But it's not so much Crosby, who also is maniacal about his conditioning, whom Roberts will help the most. It's the Malkins and the Staals, the Whitneys and the Orpiks. Seeing how Roberts trains and what it has meant to his career has to rub off.

But don't underestimate Roberts' contributions on the ice. He won't score 40 goals again, but he still can get in front of the net and cause chaos and pick up deflection and rebound goals. He also remains one of the NHL's most punishing hitters. The lasting image of the Penguins' series playoff loss to the Senators last season was him drilling defenseman Anton Volchenkov into the boards late in Game 5. Not many players would have delivered that hit with not just the game out of hand, but the series and season only seconds from ending.

"Just sending a message for next year," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney noted that night, awe in his voice.

The Roberts and Recchi signings assure general manager Ray Shero of a successful offseason, although his work isn't finished. When free agency begins, he will be looking to get a goal-scoring winger to play with Crosby and to upgrade his defense.

Shero is expected to proceed as the Steelers do and avoid the big free-agent deals. He has said he expects most of the Penguins' improvement to come from within as their young players continue to grow. He also doesn't want to do a five- or six-year deal with a player and be wrong, and have it hurt the team's chances of keeping, say, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal down the road.

That doesn't mean Shero won't be able to find a 25-goal scorer whom Crosby can turn into a 35-goal man. But as much as that goal-scorer would be nice, a tough defenseman is a much greater need. The Penguins scored 277 goals last season, third-most in the league. They can live with that total again. But they need to do better than Josef Melichar and Rob Scuderi on defense. Young Kristopher Letang, who brings a much-needed right-handed shot, is expected to take one of those spots, but he hardly seems like enough.

Shero has plenty to offer free agents even if it isn't big dollars or a lot of years. He has Crosby and the team's other great young talent, first and foremost. And now, fortunately, he has Roberts and his strong belief that wondrous things are just ahead for the franchise.

(Ron Cook can be reached at

Saturday, June 23, 2007

NHL Draft: Penguins snag top prospect Esposito

Esposito falls from top prospect to No. 20 and into lap of Penguins, who make him their No. 1 pick

Saturday, June 23, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bruce Bennett, Getty Pictures

Angelo Esposito, shown here wearing his new team colors, was picked 20th overall by the Penguins in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio last night.
Click photo for larger image.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If they held this draft six months ago, Angelo Esposito might well have been the first player selected.

If they held it a year ago, he almost certainly would have been.

But Esposito's reputation -- and his rating -- picked up quite a few dents during the winter of 2006-07, and he still was available after 19 teams made their selections in the opening round of the NHL draft at Nationwide Arena last night.

The Penguins had no inkling Esposito would last so long -- "We had him very high on our list," general manager Ray Shero said. "So much so that we didn't have a name tag for him" -- but made sure he wasn't there for the club picking 21st.

Esposito, at this juncture, appears to be a classic high-risk, high-reward choice: If he lives up to his promise, he can be a difference-maker for years to come. If not, he'll go down as a underachieving bust.

Shortly before the draft began, the Penguins traded forward Chris Thorburn, who will be a restricted free agent July 1, to Atlanta for a third-round draft choice, the 78th overall.

Although no one had expected Esposito to drop so far in the draft order, he insisted that he was not bothered, even though he acknowledged that "it was a long wait there" before Shero announced that he was the Penguins' choice.

"It's not disappointing at all," Esposito said. "I've never been happier in my life, other than winning the Memorial Cup. Landing with a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, I couldn't be any happier."

Esposito had 27 goals and 52 assists in 60 games with Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. He is 6 foot 1, 180 pounds and was ranked No. 8 among North American forwards and defensemen by NHL Central Scouting in its final ratings after being first at midseason.

Shero said "we're not sure" and that "we don't really care" why Esposito's stock plummeted, although more than a few scouts questioned his commitment and apparent lack of passion at times.

Esposito said he also does not know why scouts soured on him, but insisted he does not plan to dwell on it.

"It's over now, and I'm looking forward to the future," he said.

That includes joining a team that is loaded with quality young centers like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, although Esposito said that the state of the Penguins' depth chart at his position of choice is "not at all" a concern.

"It's going to be a good challenge for me," he said. "We'll see what happens in training camp. I can't look too far ahead."

Actually, he does have a bit of experience on the wing, if the Penguins would opt to use him there at some point. Esposito pointed out that his junior coach, Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, used him on the wing for about six weeks last season "just to make sure that I adapted to learning to play" there.

Esposito said he hopes to contend for a spot on the Penguins' roster this fall, but acknowledged that it's far from certain that he'll be able to move into a job at that level.

"I'm working hard this summer," said Esposito, whose workout partners include Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier. "My goal is to play in the NHL next year.

"But, obviously, if it doesn't happen and I have to wait a year or so, I wouldn't be upset."

Going into the draft, there had been considerable speculation that Esposito's hometown team, Montreal, would claim him if he still was available at the 12th spot, but the Canadiens passed.

"I thought maybe I'd go there, but I wasn't expecting anything," Esposito said.

Esposito played on Quebec's Memorial Cup winning team in 2006, and was widely praised for his work with Alexander Radulov, now in Nashville.

Their play reinforced the belief that Esposito might be most effective in a non-starring role. If so, being with the Penguins -- where players like Crosby and Malkin, among others, command so much attention -- could be an ideal situation for him.

"I really believe that coming into the environment, with the team we have and a lot of guys to take that pressure off him ... he'll be like a Jordan Staal, able to fly under the radar a bit and be able to settle in," Shero said.

Certainly, Esposito seems to recognize that joining the Penguins could work to his long-term benefit.

"I couldn't say it before, but it was a team I'd love to play on," Esposito said. "And I'm happy I'm here."

Now, his challenge is to make the Penguins feel that way, too.

Roberts, Recchi won't be leaving

Both get 1-year deals to stay with Penguins

Saturday, June 23, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gary Roberts

Gary Roberts could have waited another 10 days or so, and maybe ended up with more money.

Perhaps an extra year on his contract, too.

He might even have gotten a bit closer to his family in Toronto.

But, when Roberts assessed all the possibilities -- the deal, role and potential the Penguins offered, and what another situation might have been like -- his decision to return to the Penguins was easy.

"After a couple of months of looking at possible options ... I really didn't see anything more appealing," he said last night, a few hours after agreeing to a one-year contract worth $2.5 million.

The Penguins re-signed right winger Mark Recchi to a one-year deal that, with bonuses, will be worth up to $2 million at the same time the Roberts contract was finalized.

Mark Recchi

The timing was no coincidence, given that both players are represented by agent Rick Curran. He and general manager Ray Shero reached the agreements during a face-to-face meeting yesterday, and it wasn't until that session that Shero was convinced that Roberts and Recchi would be returning.

"I'd say [I thought] it was 50-50, I guess," he said. "I wasn't sure. It's good. They came back for the right reasons. ... We're really excited that they're both coming back. That fills two big holes for us."

Roberts, 41, made $2.25 million last season, when he put up 20 goals and 22 assists in 69 games with Florida and the Penguins. His totals include seven goals and six assists in 19 games after being acquired from the Panthers for defenseman Noah Welch Feb. 27.

Recchi, 39, was paid $2.28 million in 2006-07. He was the Penguins' No. 3 scorer, with 24 goals and 44 assists in 82 games.

"I really believe they were a huge part of our team last year, on and off the ice," Shero said. "And I really think that with a 19-year-old captain [Sidney Crosby], it's very important to have that leadership group still around."

Although Ottawa, which made a futile bid to acquire Roberts before he was traded to the Penguins, was expected to pursue him if he went on the open market, Roberts said that joining the Senators to be closer to his daughter who attends school in Toronto wouldn't really have been that much more attractive, on a personal level.

Sidney Crosby helps Mark Recchi celebrate.

"That only place that really would have worked in that regard was Toronto," he said. "And I'd been there and done that."

Roberts' intangibles are an important part of his contribution, but the Penguins also will count on him for on-ice contributions. He remains a ferocious forechecker and hitter and has a decent touch around the net.

Asked if he anticipates that his role will remain essentially unchanged next season, Roberts said, "I sure hope so," and that "I want to continue to be counted on to produce."

It remains to be seen how aggressive the Penguins will be when free agency begins July 1, but the return of Recchi and Roberts means they won't be as active as they otherwise might have been.

"This really solidifies our group up front," Shero said. "Without those two players, you're really looking at chasing free agents or trades. So from that standpoint, we're in good shape."

While it's clear that the Penguins could use a winger or two with a scoring touch to take full advantage of the playmaking abilities of centers like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Roberts suggested that the team doesn't really need major changes up front.

"I really feel as though we had the right group of forwards in Pittsburgh," he said.

He apparently thinks the other parts of their lineup don't require significant overhauls, either.

Gary Roberts

"I have an opportunity to play with a team that has a chance to win the Cup," he said. "I think we're really close.

"When you look at how well we did against Ottawa [during Round 1 of the playoffs] compared to some of the other teams ... We have a really close team, and a team that might just need experience more than it needs to add any players."

It held onto a couple of established ones yesterday, at least for another year. And even though Roberts might have preferred a multi-year contract, he can live with getting a single season.

"I'm good with that," he said. "If I can stay healthy and have a good year, maybe I'll have an opportunity to come back to Pittsburgh for another year."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at

Ron Cook: Tough choices abound on Steelers' all-time team

Saturday, June 23, 2007
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dan Rooney, Art Rooney and Chuck Noll

Picked up the paper the other day and noticed the ballot for the Steelers' 75th anniversary all-time team. It seemed like a fun way to kill a few minutes and, better still, delay getting around to washing the car and trimming the bushes.

Ernie Stautner

An afternoon later ...

Hey, you have to research these things to do the job right.

It was going to rain, anyway.

Seriously, tell me it didn't take you 45 minutes just to sort through the defensive backs.

Sure, there are some easy choices. Terry Bradshaw has to be the quarterback. It's nice to think Ben Roethlisberger will make the 100th anniversary team, but he needs a few more Super Bowls and a few less 23-interception seasons to do it. John Stallworth and Lynn Swann are the wide receivers. Hines Ward would be the slot receiver, but, according to the rules, we're allowed to pick only two.

Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw

At the risk of angering Joey Porter and his dogs, Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and near-Hall of Famer Andy Russell are the linebackers. Ham is the choice here as the greatest player in Steelers' history. The kicker has to be Gary Anderson, the punter Pat Brady.

Young people, who think the Steelers began playing football about the time Antwaan Randle El threw that touchdown pass to Ward in Super Bowl XL, might not understand the choice for tight end. Elbie Nickel played from 1947-57, was a team captain and MVP and made three Pro Bowls. His 329 catches still rank fifth in franchise history and are all the more remarkable because he played a year for Jock Sutherland and four for John Michelosen, two coaches who didn't exactly love the pass. Team historians will tell you each of Nickel's catches should count for two.

Joe Greene in Super Bowl IX.

This generation-gap business also works the other way. Old-timers are convinced the younger players aren't as good as the stars from their era. They'll argue nose tackle Casey Hampton has no right to be on a defensive front with Hall of Famer and nine-time Pro Bowler Ernie Stautner or taking a spot from a member of the Steel Curtain, the greatest defensive line in NFL history. The old-timers are right about Stautner; he's on the 75th anniversary team. So are Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood from the Steel Curtain. But, sorry, Hampton makes it ahead of Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. Big Snack could play in any era.

Jerome Bettis

Running back is tough. Franco Harris is a lock for one of the two spots. The other is a hard call among John Henry Johnson, Jerome Bettis and Bill Dudley. It's too bad the ballot doesn't have a spot for a return specialist; Bullet Bill would be the easy choice there. When he was the NFL MVP in 1946, after his career was interrupted for two years while he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he led the league in rushing, interceptions and punt returns. It's hard to eliminate him, but the pick here comes down to Johnson, who's in the Hall of Fame, or Bettis, who will be. It goes to Bettis because he's the greatest team leader I've ever seen.

Alan Faneca

Mike Webster and Franco Harris

The offensive line isn't as difficult as it is tricky. The rules say to pick five without regard to position. The easy thing is to pick two centers -- Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson -- but I'm a traditionalist, so I'm going with one center, two guards and two tackles. That puts Webster in and, reluctantly, Dawson out. The guards are Sam Davis from the Super '70s teams and Alan Faneca, who might decline recognition in a pout because he's mad at the Rooneys about his contract. One tackle is Larry Brown, whom Chuck Noll, among many others, believes should be in the Hall of Fame. The other is a big name from the past, Frank Varrichione, a four-time Pro Bowler. Faintin' Frank might be best known for helping to change football's rules when he faked an injury to stop the clock during his days at Notre Dame.

Mel Blount

That leaves the blasted secondary, where there are five great players for four spots. The first to make my team is another rules-changer, Mel Blount, who forced the NFL to eliminate bump-and-run coverage because of the way he beat up wide receivers. He's the second-greatest player in franchise history. The second spot goes to Jack Butler, who, shamefully, is a Hall of Fame omission despite 52 interceptions in nine seasons. The third choice is Rod Woodson, who made the NFL's 75th anniversary team in 1994.

Rod Woodson (#26)

That leaves the final spot.

Donnie Shell or Troy Polamalu?

It's Polamalu, appropriately enough, by a hair.

(Ron Cook can be reached at

Thursday, June 21, 2007

New sheriff in Pittsburgh is laying down the law

New Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is just the team's third boss in 38 years. The 35-year-old inherits a team that followed up its win in Super Bowl XL with an 8-8 campaign that did not include a playoff trip. Says receiver Hines Ward of adjusting to the new coach, "It's a feeling-out process."

By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

June 17, 2007

PITTSBURGH — One by one they straggled off the field, sweaty and seemingly sapped as much by the intense practice session as by they were by the muggy, 85-degree heat.

It was just a "voluntary" OTA (uh, organized team activity) in mid- May without full pads.

Yet with the fast tempo and heavy dose of 11-on-11 team drills, in many ways for the Pittsburgh Steelers this has the feel of a two-a-day training camp outing in July or August.

"I've been watching minicamps and stuff on the NFL Network," linebacker Larry Foote said, wiping perspiration from his forehead. "The teams I've been watching, they don't go as hard as we go. We've been flying around. They sure got the right man to replace (Bill) Cowher. He's just as competitive.

"And I swear he's maxing out on the time. By rule, he's using all that he can."

A short time later in the cafeteria, new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin flashed a sly grin as he picked through his vegetable lasagna.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, new coaches can conduct two additional minicamps on top of the standard mandatory offseason minicamp. All coaches can also stage 14 voluntary OTAs, which can last no longer than two hours.

"We only used about 1:48 today," Tomlin said. "See, I'm a nice guy."

Maybe it was the intensity that made it seem longer for the players. Cowher surely worked the Steelers hard and had physical training camps. But this time of year, in the OTAs, he kept the tempo in a low gear and rarely had 11-on-11 drills.

Said Tomlin: "Ah, they'll get used it."

The winds of change surely are blowing through the Steelers' headquarters on the South Side as Tomlin, confident and collected, becomes just the team's third head coach in 38 years. Cowher, who stepped down in January after 15 seasons, was the only head coach many of the returning players ever knew.

Cowher was continuity. Tomlin represents conversion.

"You've done it one way for so many years," says veteran receiver Hines Ward. "There's just a sense of uncertainty. It's different. That's not good or bad. It's a feeling-out process."

Ward, an established locker-room leader, feels he has developed some rapport with the new coach. Tomlin impresses him as a straight shooter who won't sugarcoat his message. Yet change isn't always easy, which is why Ward's emotions this offseason have been so unlike the past.
"I was a little upset," Ward said of the transition, which has also seen the release of longtime linebacker Joey Porter amid a contract dispute and a simmering spat with perennial All-Pro guard Alan Faneca over his deal.

"In some ways," he added, "I feel like the Last Mohican."

Faneca showed up at a mandatory minicamp in May, but has skipped the voluntary sessions and vowed that this will be his last year in Pittsburgh.

"Sure, it's an issue," Tomlin told reporters during the minicamp. "But more than anything else, it's got to be a lesson for us as a football team in that the season is not without its ups and downs. Adversity is part of it; distractions are part of it."

Tomlin's handling of the Faneca flap might have provided a clue of how prepared he is for the nuances of the new job, despite his limited experience.

A day after Faneca publicly blasted the front office, he refused to participate in a morning practice. Tomlin talked with Faneca during the lunch break and convinced him to hit the field for the afternoon session. In speaking to reporters about the situation, he was delicate, saying how he at least understood Faneca's emotions.

Faneca is due to earn $4.375 million this year in salary and bonuses, but saw guards without a single Pro Bowl appearance on their resumes sign whopping free-agent contracts this offseason with more than $17 million guaranteed.

"I view this business like all businesses, as a people business," Tomlin, 35, said over lunch. "You've got to be able to interact, relate and communicate. You've got to understand to a degree, where people are coming from."

Players are already finding out about the substance and style behind Tomlin's meteoric rise through the coaching ranks. In film sessions, for instance, he points out mistakes or uninspired play before the entire team during what he terms "The News." He spares no one.

Ward and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have already been subjects on "The News" for practice-field issues.

"The way he sees it, if you end up in that, just take it as constructive criticism," says Ward. "Some guys like it, some guys don't like it. It is what it is. The main thing is, we can't fall into the type of thinking, 'This is how we used to do it.'."

Ben Roethlisberger must bounce back from the disappointment of 2006 with a new coaching regime, including new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

Tomlin, whose teaching abilities convinced Tony Dungy to hire him for his first pro job as a secondary coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached just six years as an NFL assistant. He was a defensive coordinator for just one year, with the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.

But as was the case with Cowher and, before him, Chuck Noll, Steelers owner Dan Rooney and his son, Art II, the team president, think they have caught a rising star at the right time.

Still, despite the history, Tomlin's hire was shocking because he was chosen over two prominent Cowher assistants that were candidates — former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and former offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

Whisenhunt became the Arizona Cardinals' coach and hired Grimm after the Steelers chose Tomlin.

"Every job I've gotten," Tomlin says, "I've kind of been the surprise selection."

He hardly sounds fazed. Tomlin played receiver at William & and Mary but thinks that growing up in Newport News, Va., — where his mother Julia worked in the shipyard and his stepfather, Leslie Copeland, worked the overnight shift at the post office — hardened him for the intense scrutiny that undoubtedly will come with his new job.

Go ahead, ask Tomlin if the Steelers' defense is still its traditional a 3-4 scheme (veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau remains on staff) or a 4-3 alignment featuring the Cover 2 philosophy Tomlin has employed so successfully in the past.

"I ain't answering that question," he shoots back. "You'll see on September 9th when we go to Cleveland. We're going to keep 'em guessing."

Then Tomlin breaks into a broad grin. Even with the 3-4 as the base defense, he explains how LeBeau used four linemen on about 40% of the snaps last season and that Cover 2 teams typically only play the scheme 33% of the time.

"People want to use a catch phrase and put you in a box," he says. "The reality is always more complex than that. The lines are gray."

Tomlin's mention of the Sept. 9 opener raises another issue. On that day, he figures, maybe he'll have that defining "I'm-a-head-coach" moment.

What to do on fourth-and-one?

"Go for it," he says. "That might be the moment."

To this point, even though he's in charge, it feels much like the other jobs. Long hours with lots of videotape study and strategizing X's and O's.

Surely Tomlin knows something is different when he ventures out in public. Steelers-crazed fans make him aware of his new responsibility at every turn. Yet at the first minicamp, there was no need for any big speech to lay out the theme or team objectives.

"There will be a time for that," Tomlin says, "when we get to training camp."

For a squad that followed its Super Bowl XL victory with an 8-8 finish last season, Tomlin won't have to say much about team goals. Noll won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. Cowher went to the playoffs 10 times, advanced to six AFC title games and went to two Super Bowls.

Each day, Tomlin passes a shrine near his second-floor office that displays the franchise's five Lombardi Trophies.

"It was going to be tough for whatever coach came in here," says Ward. "It was tough for Bill when he followed Chuck Noll. Expectations are high around here. We expect to be in the playoffs and compete for the Super Bowl every year.

"If you don't expect to win, then why are you playing?"


Quarterback: With a new coordinator in Bruce Arians and a new playbook, Ben Roethlisberger might be the player most affected by the offseason upheaval. He should enjoy the simpler terminology and will control line blocking adjustments, a subtle task intended to reduce mix-ups. He started his offseason program early, a good follow-up after an NFL-high 23 interceptions in 2006. Charlie Batch returns as the backup.

Running back: When Tomlin studied videotape of Willie Parker, he discovered a much better runner between the tackles than he previously thought. Still, there are no visions of wearing Parker down like a plow horse. Tomlin wants a 1-2 punch, which is why Kevan Barlow was signed to compete with Najeh Davenport for the supplemental work.

Wide receiver: Hines Ward struggled with a tender hamstring last season and missed two games after getting a knee scoped. He still caught 74 passes. Tomlin has also been impressed with the grittiness and big-play potential of last year's No. 1 pick, Santonio Holmes.

Tight end: Arians wants to create mismatches in the passing game and believes three-tight-end sets — and potential to split Heath Miller from such schemes — can be a means to that end.

Offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca is unhappy about his contract after earning six Pro Bowl trips. But the Steelers expect Faneca will be a pro between the lines. Sean Mahan, Kendall Simmons, Chris Kemoeatu, Willie Colon and Max Starks could be fighting for jobs on the right side.

Defensive line: Officially, the Steelers still employ a 3-4 defense. But with the Cover 2-schooled Tomlin and coordinator guru Dick LeBeau putting their heads together, on-the-fly adaptation will be in effect. Pittsburgh will line up in 3-4 and 4-3 looks, depending on the situation. The player to really watch will be right end Brett Keisel, who led the team with 23 pressures in 2006. Keisel is versatile enough to play end or linebacker and flip the switch on a dime. Also, second-round pick LaMarr Woodley looks like an athletic type with the potential to do likewise.

Linebacker: Joey Porter's gone, which means the Steelers lost a fiery competitor, locker room favorite and top-notch edge rusher. Lawrence Timmons was drafted as his eventual successor. Leading tackler James Farrior and Larry Foote man the inside, and underrated Clark Haggans flies from the left corner.

Secondary: Big passing plays dogged the defense last season, reflective of the risk that comes with heavy blitzing. The starters return, led by all-pro safety Troy Polamalu. Tomlin, whose first NFL job was coaching defensive backs with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has spent much time with his new secondary. It will be interesting to see how he meshes Cover 2 techniques — built on the principle of not allowing big plays — into the coverage.

Special teams: The Steelers drafted athletic punter Daniel Sepulveda, which led to the release of 16-year vet Chris Gardocki. With Gardocki gone, reliable kicker Jeff Reed will get a new holder — a job easily overlooked until games are on the line.

Coaching staff: Despite major defections to the Arizona Cardinals, Tomlin kept much of Bill Cowher's staff intact, including LeBeau. Arians was promoted from receivers coach and longs to make a mark after being unable to finish what he started in his previous chance at coordinating with the Cleveland Browns.

Outlook: For Tomlin, whatever pressure is attached to a job that is steeped in tradition is balanced by the thought this is no downtrodden program. It's been less than 18 months since the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. The culture of winning and expectation of competing are firmly entrenched, and there's enough talent in tow to allow the Steelers to remain a factor in the battle for the AFC North and make another push for the playoffs.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sidney Crosby completes rare triple in winning all the major NHL awards

Neil Stevens
Canadian Press
National Post

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby poses with the Hart for the NHL's most valuable player, (left to right) Lester B. Pearson for the most outstanding player as selected by the NHLPA and Art Ross, for the top point scorer in the NHL, trophies after winning them at the 2007 NHL awards. (CP PHOTO/Frank Gunn)

TORONTO (CP) - The NHL awards ceremonies turned into The Sidney Crosby Show as the 19-year-old superstar scored an impressive off-ice hat trick Thursday night.

The youngest player in league history to win the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion won the Hart Trophy from writers as most valuable player and the Pearson Award from his peers as most outstanding player. Crosby was recently named captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and after winning the most coveted individual awards in hockey he was asked if he'd just had the best two weeks of his life.

"I haven't won the Stanley Cup yet so ask me after that," he replied during the post-awards news conference. "But this has been a couple of memorable weeks."

The Cole Harbour, N.S., teen became the seventh player in league history to pull off the Ross-Hart-Pearson hat trick.

Crosby amassed 120 points last season and he did it while playing the last six weeks with a broken bone in a foot. He'd gone away with empty hands after losing the top rookie award to Alex Ovechkin one year ago. This time he went away with his hands full.

"That wasn't what drove me to play this year," he said. "I just wanted to be better than I was before."

He thanked his parents.

"The sacrifices of my parents, the early mornings, the practices . . . I owe a lot of thanks to them," he said.

There were four repeat winners.

Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings won the Norris Trophy for the second year in a row and fifth time overall, teammate Pavel Datsyuk won the Lady Byng Trophy as most gentlemanly player the second year in a row.

Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils won the Vezina Trophy as top goaltender for the third time, and Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour won his second straight Selke Trophy as top defensive forward.

The Vancouver Canucks' Alain Vigneault received the Adams Award as top coach, and Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin got the Calder Trophy as top rookie.

Vinny Lecavalier, a finalist for the Pearson, got the Maurice Richard Trophy for scoring a league-high 52 goals.

Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, who completed his rookie season after being diagnosed in December with testicular cancer, received the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for humanitarianism for his work with charities. Koivu battled and beat non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

The Hart was last in the order of presentation and Hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, a six-time winner, handed it to Crosby.

"To get that from him was obviously a huge honour," said Crosby. "Everyone knows the history and what he's done for the game."

Crosby is the second-youngest winner of the Hart since it was introduced in 1924. Wayne Gretzky was five months younger when he got it in 1980.

The Pearson Award had kicked things off and Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the presentation.

Brodeur lauded Crosby's achievements.

"The fans love him," said Brodeur. "Everybody seems to be on his wagon, and that's well deserved.

"He's going to be like Gretzky in making the NHL a better sport."

Crosby got 91 first-place votes and 1,225 points in Hart voting by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo was second with 25 first-place votes and 801 points, and Brodeur was third with 21 first-place votes and 763 votes.

On finishing his season hurt, Crosby said he would have done anything to get the trophy he wanted most.

"I've always had a passion to play so, if I can play, I'm going to try and play," he said. "It was just a matter of wanting to play.

"You dream of playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs and, hopefully, winning the Stanley Cup and you never want to let your team down. I gave it my all and laid it all out there."

Scoring champion Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who led the NHL with 120 points, is presented with the Art Ross Trophy by Montreal Canadiens legend Henri Richard, left, Saturday, June 2, 2007 in Ottawa. (AP Photo/Paul Chiasson, CP)

The Penguins' 47-point improvement last season was the fourth-best in league history.

Through it all, Crosby appears to have kept his ego in rein.

"I've got another year of experience but I don't think I've changed that much," he said. "That season and the five games in the playoffs has helped a lot.

"As a team, we learned a lot about ourselves and we learned what we need to improve on. That's the biggest thing - just gaining experience."

Voting details for the Pearson Award were not released by the NHLPA.

Lidstrom's plus-40 tied him for best plus-minus rating among all blue-liners. A PHWA poll gave him 87 first-place votes and 1,217 points. Runner-up was Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer, who led all defencemen in scoring with career highs in assists (54) and points (69). He got 46 first-place votes and 1,024 points.

Lidstrom is the fourth D-man in league history with as many as five Norris wins. Bobby Orr (eight), Doug Harvey (seven) and Ray Bourque (five) are the others.

"It feels almost unbelievable," Lidstrom said of tying Bourque, a former opponent he admired. "To be tied with him is a great feeling."

Brodeur posted an NHL-record 48 wins and had 12 shutouts last season. Luongo won 47 games and his stats on goals-against average and save percentage left him only slightly behind Brodeur.

The 30 GMs voted on the Vezina, and it was close. Brodeur got 16 first-place votes and 122 points, while Luongo got 14 first-place votes and 116 points.

"I'm hanging in there with the young guy so it's good," said a smiling Brodeur. "I love playing this game and I try to play as hard as I can every game and every year."

It was interesting to note that Luongo was ahead of Brodeur for the Hart but behind him on the Vezina count. Different voters, different views.

Brind'Amour had mixed emotions about getting the Selke again.

"I like to be thought of as a good two-way player but I'll take it," he said. "To not have had a good year as a team, it's nice to have something to hang your hat on."

The PHWA tally was close: Brind'Amour got 16 first-and 21 second-place votes and amassed 420 points, while Anaheim's Sammy Pahlsson got 24 first-and eight second-place votes and had a total of 405 points.

Members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association voted for coach of the year and Vigneault got 18 first-place votes and 134 points. Buffalo's Lindy Ruff, who won the Adams Award last year, was second with 126 points, Pittsburgh's Michel Therrien was third with 91 and Nashville's Barry Trotz was fourth with 89. Ruff, Therrien and Trotz each got 11 first-place votes.

Vancouver had the best record in the league after Christmas and finished with a franchise-record 49 wins.

"There wasn't one turning point," said Vigneault. "It was a combination of Roberto playing really well and our guys finally scoring some goals."

Malkin, who led all rookies in goals (33), power-play goals (16), assists (52) and points (85), got a clear-cut Calder decision in another PHWA-decided trophy. The Russian speedster got 120 of 143 first-place votes for 1,357 points. Second was Colorado's Paul Stastny with 16 first-place votes and 965 points.

Datsyuk led Detroit in scoring with 87 points while serving only 20 penalty minutes.

© The Canadian Press 2007

It's all about Sid and Marty


Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby poses with the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP, the Lester B. Pearson Award and Art Ross Trophy during last night's annual awards ceremony. (Frank Gunn, CP)

The March of the Penguins and Martin Brodeur dominated the National Hockey League awards last night, trampling Roberto Luongo's trophy hopes in the process.

Pittsburgh's newly minted captain Sidney Crosby was a double MVP winner, Evgeni Malkin was rookie of the year and Jordan Staal made the all-rookie team as the Pens celebrated a return to the playoffs and the team staying in Steeltown.

"It has been an incredible couple of weeks," said the 19-year-old Crosby, the youngest scoring champion in pro sports history. "It looks like a very bright future for our team, but we're all hungry to take the next step. I haven't won a Stanley Cup."

Crosby won the Hart as the writers' MVP and the Pearson as the players' pick, while cameras caught his father Troy getting teary in the seats at the Elgin Theatre with his mother Trina.

"The sacrifices they made each morning, the road trips ... they went out of their way to make me happy," Crosby said. "They had no idea it would turn out like this."

The comparisons to Wayne Gretzky will heat up, though Crosby trails 9-1 in Harts.

"Like Gretzky, he'll make the NHL a better sport," said the New Jersey Devils' Brodeur, after copping his third Vezina Trophy. "He's the obvious choice, he's exciting, the fans love him and everyone's on his bandwagon."

Luongo, who turned around the Vancouver Canucks, presumably was the runner-up for the Pearson and was barely edged out by Brodeur for the Vezina, even though he had more Hart votes in coming second to Crosby. But Brodeur hinted that as he finally ended Dominik Hasek's hold on the awards table, Luongo would have his day now that he has escaped the weaker Florida Panthers.

"He's right there and he's trying to dethrone me with another team," Brodeur said.

What was expected to be a tight rookie race was a runaway win for Malkin, who had 120 first place votes to a combined 22 by Staal and Colorado's Paul Stastny. Crosby had lost the Calder to Washington's Alex Ovechkin last year, with both winding up as first-team all-stars with Ottawa's Dany Heatley this time.

NHL general mangers made Brodeur the Vezina winner, getting him two more first-place votes than Luongo. Despite Luongo's role in getting the Canucks back in the playoffs, the GMs judged Brodeur's NHL record 48 wins on a defensively weakened New Jersey team as a bigger feat.

Testicular cancer survivor Phil Kessel of the Bruins, who won the Bill Masterton Trophy, gave a touching speech. Two weeks after returning to the ice from treatment and recuperation, he had a hat trick during the young guns all-star game.

"At 19, you don't expect to hear the words 'you have cancer,' " Kessel said, in thanking the Bruins and the staff at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In another hair-splitter, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault denied Lindy Ruff consecutive Jack Adams Awards and picked up his first Adams after a nomination with the Canadiens, who promptly fired him 18 games into the next season. He worked his way back to the NHL and patched a fractured dressing room.

Nicklas Lidstrom had revenge on Anaheim Ducks' Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, beating them both for his fifth Norris Trophy after the three nominees duelled in the Western final. Rod Brind'Amour used his moment on the podium for his second straight Selke Trophy to congratulate the Ducks on the Cup.

"We want it back, just so you know," the 2006 champion with the Hurricanes said.

It was Brind'Amour's second straight Selke as top defensive forward, but he admitted it's not a prize he sought as a young scorer.

"It's the only way I'm going to get to this show," Brind'Amour said.

Pavel Datsyuk of the Red Wings, who has not yet reached 100 penalty minutes in his career, became the first repeat winning of the Lady Byng Trophy since Paul Kariya 10 years ago. Tomas Kaberle of the Maple Leafs was eighth.

Sid the kid wins respect


Sidney Crosby will need a light truck to haul the Hart, Pearson and Art Ross trophies home. He said he was happiest about getting the respect of his peers.

Crosby picked by his peers as the NHL's most outstanding player; wins two other top awards

Jun 15, 2007 04:30 AM
Paul Hunter

It's difficult to pinpoint precisely when Sidney Crosby became a bona fide NHL superstar.

Perhaps it was that six-point night against Philadelphia in December that catapulted him to the top of the scoring race, a lead he would never relinquish; maybe it was when he gave it his all in the playoffs despite a broken foot; or it was when an 11-inch vinyl action figure of the teenager hit the toy shelves; or when he became the youngest captain in league history; or when the drop of a ping-pong ball saved a franchise.

Crosby had secured his place in Canada's hockey landscape before he had a team. But the moment he had acceptance arrived last night.

Crosby, criticized in his rookie year and dogged by his fellow NHL players for being a yappy, uppity, whining diver who didn't know his place, stepped up at the Elgin Theatre to accept the only award voted on by those same players.

Only 19 and incapable of growing a decent playoff beard, the Pittsburgh Penguins' sophomore centre was handed the Lester B. Pearson Award, presented by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as the best player in the NHL in a vote of his peers.

Crosby also picked up the Hart Trophy after the media voted him most valuable to his team to add to the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer. He was only the seventh player to pick up that impressive hat trick and the youngest in league history.

Sid the Kid, although he qualified it by saying there's "no right answer" as to which he was more honoured to receive, conceded the vote from the players had special meaning.

"Getting that respect, I guess you could say, from the guys you play against each night. That's probably one of the ultimate compliments you could get," Crosby said. "I'm not downplaying the media's opinion by any means, but it's certainly a huge honour to get that respect."

It wasn't given easily. Crosby had to work for it, reigning in some the exuberance that riled opponents in his rookie season.

"I tried to channel my emotion a little bit more to what I can control," he said. "I'm not going to stand here and say one day I'll be up for the Lady Byng because I know I won't be. But I think if guys see that you come to play hard every night, if they see you're out there doing your best and doing it in a good nature, that's the way to earn it. That just comes with experience as well."

Don Cherry gave voice to criticism of Crosby during his freshman season, when he said he was a hot dog who wasn't worthy of the "A" on his jersey. Players lobbed grenades as well, including Peter Forsberg calling the native of Cole Harbour, N.S., a "diver."

"His first year, Sidney faced a lot of adversity," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said.

"But I really believe this year, Sidney Crosby got a lot of respect, not only from the players in Pittsburgh but from his peers in the NHL ... with the way he acted on the ice, the way he handled himself off the ice. I think this was a huge step in his career. He earned a lot of respect."

Therrien said it wasn't easy for Crosby to achieve the balance of playing hard every night while keeping his emotions in check.

"He got criticized sometimes because he had too much passion. I remember his first year after getting criticized a few times by his peers, he just tried to play the game, but that was not him. I say, hey get back, show me those Rocket Richard eyes. That's the way you're going to be able to perform."

He did and, as Joe Sakic put it last night, "He's the face of the league now. He earns everything he gets."

And, last night, that was a trophy case full of hardware.

Sidney Crosby, C
Dany Heatley, RW
Alex Ovechkin, LW
Nicklas Lidstrom, D
Scott Niedermayer, D
Martin Brodeur, G

Evgeni Malkin, F
Paul Stastny, F
Jordan Staal, C
Matt Carle, D
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D
Mike Smith, G