Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Kid Stays in the Picture

Breaking down the risk of Sidney Crosby's new 12-year deal with the help of science.

On Sunday, Sidney Crosby will put his signature on a $104 million contract extension that will keep him in black and gold through the dystopian future of 2025, when the seats of CONSOL Energy Center will surely be equipped with Coors Light I.V. drips and the skating Penguin on the team’s jerseys will be swaddled in a brand-synergized American Eagle cardigan.

Crosby's mega-deal will count just $8.7 million against the salary cap for those years, which is exactly the same average salary that he earns now. Somewhat startingly, some fans had expected the NHL’s only truly marketable superstar to take a pay cut due to the two years he lost in the post-concussion wilderness. Is a decade-plus contract too much of a risk for a player who looked a shadow of his former self when faced with playoff-caliber contact against the Flyers?

This assumes that it's Crosby who owes the Penguins a debt and not the other way around. History begs to differ. In 2004, a year before Crosby came to the Penguins, the franchise was dead-last in league attendance and playing in the NHL’s most dilapidated barn. Forbes had the Penguins valued 29th in the NHL during the 2004 lockout with a total franchise value of $101 million, an amount less than the value of Crosby’s new deal. The Penguins took in gate receipts of just $20 million that year, $4 million less than the Atlanta Thrashers.

So how did we get here — the Stanley Cup, the Winter Classic, the NHL Draft? The narrative says that Mario Lemieux saved the franchise. But that’s only partly true. The cause would’ve been hopeless without the electricity that Crosby brought to the city. He made hockey relevant again in a football town. According to Forbes, from 2006 to 2009, the value of the Penguins' brand grew by an NHL-best 88 percent. You know the rest. Mario finally got his new arena, the corporate sponsors started barging down the door, and free agents began to leave millions on the table to come play for a franchise that not long ago had one foot out the door to Kansas City.

Perhaps three years of post-Cup brand management, Nickelback Cover Band promos, and the installation of gourmet burger stands in the clogged arteries of the CONSOL have made it seem like Kansas City was a long, long time ago. But make no mistake, despite two years trapped in the dark woods of post-concussion syndrome, Crosby is still the NHL’s most valuable asset and when completely healthy, the game’s undisputed best player. He's what keeps the dollars rolling in to Pittsburgh.

And yet many fans and media members think the Penguins committed $104 million to a ticking time bomb. This week, I talked to former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter, who was forced into retirement in 2003 after sustaining a combination skull fracture and concussion. Richter’s post-concussion symptoms lasted for years (he could barely walk for 10 minutes before keeling over in exhaustion) and he admitted that every time he watched Crosby play after his return last season, he was nervous. “You couldn’t help but hold your breath when there was any contact,” he admitted.

Penguins fans can relate to the anxiety Richter describes, whether they want to admit it or not. But is Crosby, at just 24 years old, really damaged goods? Is he one hit away from returning to the wilderness?

The truth is that the prudence of Crosby’s deal hangs on a medical conundrum that still remains unsettled: If an athlete suffers a major concussion, does it make him or her significantly more susceptible to sustaining additional concussions?

Using Twitter as a barometer for public opinion, it seems that most fans believe that yes, indeed, Crosby is at an extremely high risk to suffer another major injury.

However, the prevailing opinion of neurosurgeons and neuropsychologists is actually quite different. This week, at a concussion roundtable in New York City hosted by l (Protection Athletes Through Concussion Education), Dr. Mark Lovell, an international concussion expert and founding director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, reaffirmed his belief that once an athlete is 100-percent symptom free and neurological tests have stabilized back to the baseline, the risk of sustaining a new concussion is the same as it was before the athlete suffered the initial brain injury.

Lovell’s assertion echoed what Crosby’s own physician, Micky Collins, told me last summer.

“If you manage this correctly, the potassium will go back into the cell, the calcium will go back out of the cell and that membrane will go back to normal,” he said of the brain’s energy crisis. “The great majority of the time, you can hit the reset button on these athletes, if you make sure, again, that the cows are back in the barn. You have to do the right evaluation to make sure that’s happened."

The problem is that since symptoms can be fleeting and vague, it’s still very difficult for physicians to determine when an athlete is “100-percent” healed, or when the brain’s energy crisis has subsided. The increased risk factor comes into play when a player is not fully healed from the initial concussion.

"When brain cells are in this energy crisis, there’s two things that you do not want to do,” Collins says. “Number one is get hit in the head again. Because if you get hit in the head again when this problem starts, a lot less biomechanical force is going to cause what some people think is another injury, but which is actually an extension of the first injury. It doesn’t take much of a blow to cause that energy crisis to become worse and worse and worse.”

Back in 2002, Richter had tried to return to the ice just four days after taking a puck to the ear. At the time, he told reporters that he was starting to feel better and wanted to play in the upcoming playoff games. Only when a precautionary CAT scan revealed a skull fracture did he hang up his skates for the season. Two years later, long after he’d retired to the couch, he was still suffering from dizziness, exhaustion and an inability to fall asleep.

“I still have a lot of headaches,” Richter told me, a full decade after his retirement. “I get lightheaded when I lift weights. I have gotten my life back, but there are still symptoms.”

But Richter stressed that those were very different times. A comprehensive study released in April by the University of Calgary revealed that one in five NHL players who sustained a concussion during the 1997-2004 seasons went back on the ice that same game. While Crosby unknowingly did the same thing during the Winter Classic, he's fortunate to be living through a revolution in concussion research and education. And according to those on the cutting edge of the science, the brain’s defenses can return to normal if given proper rest and, most importantly, time to mend.

If you think about the biomechanics of the brain, this makes sense. A concussion is an event whereby the brain moves inside the skull by rotational forces. The brain is shaken because it is encased in fluid. No one has stronger or weaker brain fluid. Saying an athlete is “concussion-prone” is a bit of a lie. It's like saying someone is prone to car accidents. The real difference is how athletes react to post-concussion symptoms. Some have crippling headaches that last months. Some don’t have headaches at all. Some suffer from suffocating anxiety. Some don’t. Some are fine after a few weeks, while others, like Richter, exhibit symptoms for years.

The key isn’t the concussion itself, but rather how the brain is managed after the fact. Many have pointed to the past 18 months as proof that Crosby will never be the same, but Richter believes that it's just the opposite. "The Penguins have been absolutely fantastic in their handling of the injury with the incredible patience they've show," he said, "And I think Crosby has shown a lot of courage keeping himself off the ice to recover."

With post-concussion syndrome, the only way to escape the woods is to keep walking through the darkness until you come out the other side. Some saw two lost seasons as a death sentence. Others, like Richter, saw the layoff as hopeful.

This is crucial to understanding why the Penguins felt comfortable committing to their captain for 12 more years. For every Eric Lindros, who badly mismanaged countless (literally, they weren’t counted) concussions, there is a Patrice Bergeron, who has overcome multiple concussions with patience. How many Penguins fans thought Kris Letang was done for the season after taking a shoulder to the chin just a few months after returning from a concussion? And yet after experiencing some mild symptoms, he was concussion-free and played the rest of the season. Because the first injury was handled properly (a rare event before 2010), Letang walked away from a car crash.

Science still hasn’t cracked the nut of post-concussion syndrome, but that’s entirely irrelevant to the risk assessment of Crosby’s contract extension — as long as he’s symptom free and his neurons are completely nourished with energy when he puts pen to paper on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that he’ll never sustain another concussion, nor does it guarantee that his symptoms won’t be severe if that does occur. But that’s a risk inherent in any contract in today’s NHL. Every player is just one instant, one elbow away from two years of oblivion.

The real curiosity is fans’ mixed reaction to a sweetheart deal that not only gives the Penguins the financial wiggle room to pursue high-priced free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter this off-season, but opens the franchise’s Cup window for the next decade. If lightning strikes thrice and Crosby is relegated to the press box for another two years, or even for his entire career, fans should remember that it was #87 who built that press box and the entire barn that houses it. Crosby took millions less than market value to stay with the very team that he saved from the U-Haul trucks.

Only Sidney Crosby knows if his head is in the right place, but everyone should know that his heart is.

Pirates rate better than a 50-50 chance of breaking even this year

By Stan McNeal
The Sporting News
June 30, 2012

Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates crosses the plate after hitting a three-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on June 29, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America)
ST. LOUIS—Just like last year, the Pirates are hearing one question as the season’s halfway point approaches: Is this the year they finally end the longest streak of losing seasons in U.S. sports history?

The easy answer is the same as last year, too: Are you serious?

After 19 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates need more than two winning months to convince anyone that 2012 will be the year.

Just look at their roster. Their No. 1 starter is a guy who practically was given to them by the Yankees. The rest of the rotation is composed of journeymen and unproven youngsters. Then there's the lineup. The Pirates have one regular hitting .336 and everyone else hitting under .270. A mere plus-3 run differential doesn't scream long-term success, either.

And don't forget how their season fell apart last year. The Pirates were seven games over .500 on July 19 and on top of the N.L. Central. From there, they went 19-46 and clinched their losing season with two weeks to spare.

So you can be excused for thinking their winning ways in 2012 will last about as long as this heat wave stifling much of the country.

Or you can be like me. Perhaps the 100-degree heat has fried the part of my brain responsible for rational thinking but I'm here to tell you the Pirates will contend for the long haul. OK, maybe that's a bit extreme.

I'm not quite ready to bet the air conditioner on a winning season but I can offer four reasons why the Pirates should be able to win at least 40 more games in the next three months, which is what they need to finish .500. And I'm not basing this on what the Pirates did to the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night, as impressive as was their 14-5 thrashing of Adam Wainwright and a beleaguered bullpen.

1. Andrew McCutchen has grown up. The 25-year-old Floridian became an All-Star with a sparkling first half in 2011 but struggled as much as his teammates in the second half. He hit just .216 and struck out more and walked less even though he played in 18 fewer games. He was not injured, either, unless you count his back being figuratively worn down from shouldering such a load.

"He tried to ratchet up his game and really tried to bring eight other guys on his back and change the game every time he went to the plate," manager Clint Hurdle said Friday. "He learned that he's not served best by doing that and we're not served best by him trying to do that."

This year McCutchen leads the Pirates in average, homers, RBIs, runs, stolen bases and highlight defensive plays. He is hitting .344 after a 4-for-5 Friday that included his 15th homer. By not trying to carry the team on his back, he has done exactly that.

"Last year taught me a valuable lesson," McCutchen said.

It's time baseball fans learned a lesson, too. That is, McCutchen might not be the game's best center fielder but there's none better under 6-4, the listed height of Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp.

2. Their offense isn't as bad as its first-half numbers. The Pirates began Friday as the NL's second-lowest scoring team, averaging less than four runs a game. But that's changing in a hurry.

In June, the Pirates lead the NL in runs and homers while producing their best scoring month since July 2008.

It hasn't been only McCuthen, either. Pedro Alvarez has been on an upswing and Garrett Jones has done enough in the cleanup spot to make pitchers have to think about someone besides McCutchen in the three-hole.

The Pirates still lack the lineup depth of the Reds and Cardinals but this month has given their pitchers reason to believe they don't have to dominate every night.

3. That pitching has been strong, too. Yes, when your rotation is led by the erratic A.J. Burnett and oft-injured Erik Bedard, success can be fleeting. Burnett has won eight straight starts and is due to come back to earth at some point. Bedard, however, has yet to give them much, with four wins in 15 starts to go with a 4.27 ERA.

The Pirates have at least one starter with the stuff to sustain a strong start, right-hander James McDonald, 7-3 with a 2.44 ERA. Stuff never has been the issue for the 27-year-old. This year he has been taken in by, of all people, Burnett and has become, shall we say, more professional about his craft.

"His preparation has been a heck of a lot better this year," closer Joel Hanrahan said. "He pays attention to the games. He does his work in between starts. A.J. has really taken him under his wing and that's helped out for both of them."

The Hanrahan-led bullpen that was last year's strength has been ever better in 2012. It ranks second in the NL and completely outclassed the Cardinals' pen Friday night. Over the final four innings, Pirates relievers allowed one single while Cardinals relievers were knocked around for 11 hits and seven runs.

A key to the Pirates' pen this year has been veteran right-hander Jason Grilli settling into the eighth-inning role. Out of baseball two years ago because of a horrific knee injury, Grilli joined the Pirates last July and this year has taken off. He is averaging 14 strikeouts per nine innings and has posted a 2.05 ERA in 32 outings.

"I don't think anybody expected Grilli to be as good as he is right now," Hanrahan said. "It's sure helped me."

4. They learned plenty from last year. At this point a year ago, the Pirates were finding out that if they win, people in and out of Pittsburgh will notice. The spotlight didn't last long but at least they felt its warmth.

"Even that little experience is going to help us," Hanrahan said. "We got a taste. We all want to get past that."

Ask Hurdle what his club learned from 2011 and he focuses on the first half. It was his first season managing the Pirates and his primary objective was to get his players to forget about all the losing years. He wasn't around for that, as he pointed out more than once, and the players weren't there for a much of it.

"A lot of lessons were learned in the first four months, too, when we played very well," Hurdle said. "The experience of getting through that 162-game experience has helped them all. They know they add to their mental toughness, to their physical conditioning, to being a part of something greater than themselves."

Now here they are again. If the Pirates are fretting over another second-half collapse, they aren't letting on.

"Second half isn't here yet," McCutchen said. "We're focusing on the Cardinals, and not really on anything else."

It will be here soon enough, though, and everyone around baseball will be waiting for the losing ways to take over.

But don't be surprised if the wait is a lot longer this time around.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Payback for Crosby? Pay Parise

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
June 29, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) carries the puck chased by New Jersey Devils left wing Zach Parise (9) in the first period of their NHL hockey game in Newark, New Jersey, March 17, 2012.
Photograph by: Ray Stubblebine , REUTERS

The most misguided myth tailing the Penguins in recent years is that Sidney Crosby has never had a big-time winger. Not true. He's skated alongside Mark Recchi, Marian Hossa and Bill Guerin, even shared a few shifts with the greatest player in NHL history.

Go ahead, look it up: On Dec. 16, 2005, Mario Lemieux's final game was on Crosby's left wing.

The Kid's had plenty of help.

But then, that's been the problem. There have been too many wingers, too many changes and not enough elite talent.

It's time to change that. And by time I mean this weekend.

Sign Zach Parise.

Get it done, Ray Shero.

Clear the ledger for the noon Sunday start of free agency, trade Paul Martin to create another $5 million in cap space, have a new No. 9 sweater stitched up (he and Pascal Dupuis can drop the gloves over it later), double-check that Martin's really gone, then book that nonstop out of Newark.

Preferably with a 12:01 p.m. takeoff.

Think of it as the fitting sequel to the seismic news Thursday that Crosby became, really, a Penguin for life by agreeing to a 12-year, $104.4 million extension.

The deal itself wasn't a surprise, but the terms were in that Crosby's average salary will work out to - what else? - $8.7 million, the same he's making now and way below next season's NHL individual maximum of $14.03 million.

Has the No. 1 star of any sport ever settled for that much less?

Shero wasn't stretching it when he said "the team is very happy, very comfortable with the deal," even with concerns about Crosby's concussion history.

The Penguins did the right thing, and so did their captain.

Crosby made his concession, in part, because he's "really emotionally attached" to the Penguins and Pittsburgh, as agent Pat Brisson put it. No one should ever doubt that.

But be sure Crosby also took less to help lure Parise. And be very sure this all came to light yesterday for a reason.

Think the Penguins planned to limit coverage of this huge an event to a mere conference call with Shero and Brisson?

Think they wouldn't usually wait for Crosby to be in town?

This was all a giant Bat Signal sent over the New Jersey skies.

And that's fine. Whatever it takes, get it done.

For all we know, it already is done. There's cause to believe more than a seed has been planted.
Crosby and Parise have been friends going back to prep school in Minnesota, and they're still tight enough that, when Parise and the Devils were in the Stanley Cup Final just now, Crosby shared a Staples Center suite with Parise's family.

Conversations happen. Ask the Staals.

Moreover, Parise sounds as if he has every intention of hitting the open market, telling the Newark Star-Ledger earlier this week: "If that does happen, my agents have done a really good job to prepare me for it."

But let's assume Parise isn't already Pittsburgh bound.

The Penguins have to pony up regardless. Parise is in his prime at 27. He's coming off 31 goals, a Cup run and a $6 million salary. To get him, it'll take multiple years and about $8 million per. The Penguins do have $15 million in cap room thanks to the trades last week, but that burns up quickly.
Have I mentioned Martin's got to go?

Shero does have other targets, notably defenseman Ryan Suter of the Predators. But the Penguins are blessed with young defensemen. There's no need there. Forget other forwards, too, unless you're excited by the Islanders' PA Parenteau or the Coyotes' aging Shane Doan.

Shero wasn't offering clues yesterday, other than to say, "We know who the free agents are out there, and we're certainly in a different spot cap-wise than we were a week ago."

Good. Put it all into Parise.

The potential benefits are immeasurable. The Evgeni Malkin-James Neal-Chris Kunitz line would have a legit alternate threat. The infusion of 30-plus goals to the roster makes a fine fail-safe if Crosby gets hurt. And the power play ... well, that's a puzzle for another day.

Listen to how Dan Bylsma last week described his ideal winger for Crosby: "You look for the speed, the aggressiveness, the attack on the puck, someone who likes to work down low, the confidence to play with a star. ... You're not necessarily looking for an All-Star guy, though that would be a good thing."

If Bylsma wasn't talking about Parise - we're assuming this isn't a done deal - then it's his precise profile.

Wayne Gretzky found his Jari Kurri early on.

Lemieux eventually found his Kevin Stevens.

Malkin has his Neal.

Crosby just gave at the office to get one of his own.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In the end, it's Staal good for Pens

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times Sports Columnist | 1 comment                  
June 26, 2012

Refreshing Penguins notes: Because the ice never melts in Hockeytahn.
* Ray Shero handled the Jordan Staal situation by the book. The Penguins general manager offered Staal a 10-year deal worth $60 million. When Staal declined, Shero moved him. Luck figured in. The lure of playing with his brother made Carolina a team Staal might consider signing with before reaching free agency in 2013. The Hurricanes thus provided greater return than Staal would have fetched anywhere else.
* Penguins fans shouldn’t hate Staal for wanting better, or for wanting to be his brother’s teammate. Staal would have been the Penguins’ third-line center forever. Skating on the third line isn’t what Staal dreamed of as a kid in Thunder Bay, and his talent and performance merit an opportunity of higher pedigree. Remember Staal fondly. He raised his game every time the bell rang for the playoffs. He’ll be difficult to replace.
* Brandon Sutter, 23, will give replacing Staal one hellacious try. He’s a prototypical third-line center, plenty of grit, and he’ll embrace that role. Sutter will net just shy of 20 most seasons and is affordable at $2.066 million per (two years remaining). In terms of complementing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Sutter is perfect.

* You can’t go wrong having a Staal, and you can’t go wrong having a Sutter: Six Sutter brothers played in the NHL from 1976-2001, two progeny are now in the league (Brandon is Brent’s son) and two more are on the way. One ominous note: Rich Sutter washed out in Pittsburgh. The Penguins drafted him 10th overall in 1982, but he played just nine games with the team before bouncing around the NHL until 1995.

* The main goal of dealing Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix was to open cap space. But Michalek just didn’t fit. He was a shutdown defenseman who never got a chance to shut down anybody. Coach Dan Bylsma wants his D to hit the deck by way of blocking shots and passes, but Michalek wasn’t good at that. So he’s gone. System uber alles.

* Defenseman Simon Despres, the Pens’ first-round pick in 2009, is a lock to make the team, maybe play top four. Defenseman Joe Morrow, their top choice in ’11, has a shot at sticking. Can you win a Stanley Cup with kids on defense? Expect the Pens to sign a veteran defenseman with leadership capabilities if the price is right.

* More than anything, Shero made bold moves because the Penguins had stagnated. No matter how good they looked on paper, the Penguins lost three consecutive playoff series to lower-seeded opponents. That merits a shakeup.

* The Penguins will take legit runs at signing defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Zach Parise when free agency hits Sunday. Parise should be their first choice because of the potential fit on Sidney Crosby’s line. Crosby and Parise are alumni of Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep in Minnesota. That connection is a plus. But would Parise take a bit less to come to Pittsburgh? He would have to. Crosby and Malkin take less. That means everyone else must do so, too.

* Paul Martin’s fate depends on what the Penguins do in free agency. You have to be under the cap by season’s start. If the Penguins make an impact signing, Martin goes. Despite Martin’s subpar performance in Pittsburgh, there’s decent interest in him.

* The Penguins now have seven defensemen who are all under 22, all first- or second-round draft picks. Can’t go wrong with that. Could Despres be trade bait? Why not? You got six more like him. Morrow is considered a better prospect in the long term.

* Congratulations to Malkin for winning the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, but it was anticlimactic. A foregone conclusion for months. More surprising and just as impressive: Winger James Neal joins Malkin as first-team NHL All-Star. Neal has been everything hoped for, perhaps even more. Neal is a true finisher, a stone-cold sharpshooter.

* Crosby will walk home with a bunch of hardware at next year’s NHL awards soiree. Crosby averaged a league-best 1.68 points in 22 games last season, but remember: Crosby not only missed lots of game time after being concussed on Jan. 1, 2011, he missed lots of training time, too. Crosby, a workout king, has been back to his old regimen for quite some time. When you least expect it, Crosby always finds another gear.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Brandon Sutter checks-in with Penguins

By John Wawrow
Associated Press
The Globe and Mail
June 25, 2012

MONTREAL- NOVEMBER 13: Brandon Sutter #16 of the Carolina Hurricanes stick handles the puck while being defended by Benoit Pouliot #57 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on November 13, 2010 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Canadiens defeated the Hurricanes 7-2. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

Brandon Sutter realizes his role as a checking-line centre won’t be changing with his new team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. He does have reason to believe it’s a job that might have become a little easier.

After spending the past four seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes having to defend against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Sutter now counts both as teammates.

“I can remember coming into Pittsburgh having to play against Crosby or Malkin, which wasn’t always a ton of fun,” Sutter said o n a teleconference call Monday, three days after being acquired by Pittsburgh in a deal that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina. “I’m looking forward to being on the other side of that now.”

Another benefit in joining the prolific Penguins is the potential of a trickle-down effect Crosby and Malkin can provide in helping Sutter add a little more offence — something he found to be missing in his game Carolina.

“I felt there were times where I almost felt like I was stuck,” Sutter said, referring to how the Hurricanes regarded him mostly for his defence.

“I don’t want to be looked at as just a defensive player. I want to score goals and do things, too,” Sutter said. “Obviously, I don’t know who I’ll be playing with yet, but in terms of roster, their roster’s obviously deeper than what we’re used to in Carolina. And a chance to play with more talented players, too, can help.”

Though it took a few days for the shock of being traded for the first time in his career to wear off, Sutter is finding himself more excited about the opportunity to join a proven winner.

“I’ve still yet to play in a playoff game. For me, I’m a point now where it’s about winning,” he said. “And obviously, playing with two big guys down the middle, playing behind them, is going to be a great opportunity for me.”

Sutter was the key piece of the deal for the Penguins in finding a player who could immediately step in and fill Staal’s role. At 23, Sutter is a 2007 first-round draft pick who has spent the past four seasons establishing himself as a capable third-line centre.

Sutter had 17 goals and 15 assists in 82 games last year, with his best season coming in 2009-10, when he had 21 goals and 40 points in 72 games.

As part of the deal, the Penguins also acquired defenceman Brian Dumoulin and Carolina’s No. 8 pick, which they used to draft defenceman Derrick Pouliot.

Staal’s long-term future in Pittsburgh had become uncertain after the player rejected the Penguins’ offer of a long-term contract extension. Staal was looking for a chance to expand his role from beyond the shadow of Crosby and Malkin, and also interested in joining his older brother, Eric Staal, in Carolina.

Though they play the same role, Sutter wasn’t interested in drawing comparisons between him and Staal,

“I’m my own player. I don’t feel like I’m here to replace anyone,” Sutter said. “I feel like the Penguins had to make a deal. I’m glad they picked me. I’m going to a winning team where there’s opportunity.”

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jordan Staal Career Highlights

Sutter could be perfect fit on Penguins’ 3rd line

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
June 24, 2012

Brandon Sutter #16 of the Carolina Hurricanes scores a shorthanded goal on Ryan Miller #30 of the Buffalo Sabres during their NHL game at First Niagara Center October 14, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images North America)
Brandon Sutter won’t speak with the local media about his trade to the Penguins until today.
His new coach did enough talking for him Saturday.

Although Dan Bylsma admitted there is “no replacing Jordan Staal,” he also spoke in strikingly glowing terms of his new third-line center. This is not merely an adequate replacement for arguably the league’s best third-line center, Bylsma said.

Rather, the Penguins expect Sutter — who is said to be upset about the trade — to become an impact player.

“He is going to fit in with our team and do a lot of great things,” Bylsma said.

Sutter comes from a famous hockey family. His father, Brent Sutter, and uncles were known for tenacious play and their rugged physicality.

The next generation is no different.

Bylsma’s description of his newest center is that of the Sutters who came before him.

“A lot of grit,” Bylsma said. “A lot of character. He’s going to play an extremely important role on our team defensively, faceoff-wise, penalty killing. That character and that grit, the way he plays the game on both ends of the rink, is a big plus for our team.”

Sutter scored three short-handed goals last season and is regarded as one of the NHL’s premier defensive forwards. He is also one of the best faceoff men.

He doesn’t possess Staal’s offensive upside but has produced between 15 and 20 goals in each of the past three seasons.

He is just 23 years old.

He was named an alternate captain at 22, a hint that his leadership requires no time to mature.

“He’s not maybe totally gifted offensively,” Bylsma said, “but he’s a hard-nosed, drive-the-net kind of guy. He is capable of scoring and of scoring big goals.”

Sutter’s game is that of a classic third-liner. He doesn’t attempt to beat defenders with great frequency but rather plays a simple game, often chipping pucks deep and using his above-average speed to create havoc on the forecheck. He is one of the league’s harder-hitting forwards.

Ron Sutter, Brandon’s uncle and a physical center who played most of his career with the Flyers, reminds Bylsma of his new center.

“I spoke with Ron,” Bylsma said. “Spoke with him yesterday and today. He’s got a lot of Ron in his game. A little bigger body than Ron was. That grit. Just such a smart hockey player.”

Bylsma wasn’t the only person praising the younger Sutter. One of his old teammates is going to miss him, too. Eric Staal, the Carolina captain, is going to miss Sutter even though Staal now will be playing with his brother.

“I told (Sutter) he was like my brother without blood,” Eric Staal told the Raleigh Observer.

Sutter is popular in the Raleigh community and among his teammates. He has been nominated in each of the past three years for the media “good-guy” award in Carolina.

According to a Carolina team official, Sutter was so “shocked” about the trade that he was unable to speak with the media the past two days.

Bylsma and the Penguins hope he’ll adjust quickly to life with the Penguins.

Although players like James Neal and Matt Niskanen struggled at first when attempting to play Bylsma’s system, the coach believes having an entire summer to adjust will ease Sutter’s transition.

Ultimately, Bylsma thinks Sutter will do a lot more than survive.

“This is a very good hockey player,” Bylsma said.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or
412-664-9161, Ext. 1975.

McCutchen among best

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 24, 2012

Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run against the Detroit Tigers in the 4th inning during the game on June 23, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America)
When he played for the Pirates and the San Francisco Giants, Barry Bonds was known as a player who could do whatever he wanted on a ball field. You needed average? Bonds won the batting title in 2002 and '04. A great catch in the outfield? Bonds could run down just about anything. A stolen base? Bonds swiped 52 bases in 1990 and, even at age 33 in '97, had 37 stolen bases. Power? You know how that worked out for Bonds.

After watching the Pirates beat the Detroit Tigers, 4-1, Saturday to move a season-best six games over .500, it was hard not to think in the same terms about Andrew McCutchen. You want average? McCutchen is hitting .345, fifth best in the National League. A great catch? McCutchen went a long way to routinely grab a fly ball at the left-center field wall hit by the Tigers' Jhonny Peralta with a runner on third and two outs in the seventh inning. A stolen base? McCutchen has been successful on nine of his past 10 stolen-base attempts and has 14 steals for the season. Power? McCutchen hit his 13th home run Saturday in the fourth, a three-run beauty that gave the Pirates a 3-0 lead.

Yes, McCutchen is a young player, only 25, in just his third full big-league season. But it's not too soon to suggest he has a real chance to be the Pirates' best player since Bonds.

"He's a superstar -- for me -- already," Tigers manager Jim Leyland was saying Saturday night.
Leyland managed Bonds with the Pirates from 1986-92. He seemed like the right guy to ask if there's any way McCutchen's name belongs in the same sentence with Bonds. Leyland wasn't interested in comparisons. He won't compare anyone to Bonds, whom he has called the best player of his lifetime. But he readily agreed there is nothing McCutchen can't do on a ball field.

"I don't know [McCutchen], but it seems to me like he has a more steady approach than Barry," Leyland said. "Barry would go a few games without a home run and think, 'I've got to hit some.' So he would change approach and hit some home runs, but his average would go from .320 to .280. I always told him, 'The home runs aren't going to come when you try to hit home runs. They'll come when you try to get hits. You'll square the ball enough that the home runs will come.'

"It looks to me as if [McCutchen's] presence and approach doesn't change. I never see him act differently, whether he hits a home run or strikes out. I don't see a lot of wasted emotion there. I think that's real good for a young player."

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hurricanes pay stiff price for second Staal

By Luke DeCock
The News & Observer
June 23, 2012

RALEIGH -- If we’ve learned anything about the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s that Jim Rutherford always gets his man, one way or another.

He waited a decade to land Brian Boucher and Cory Stillman, among others, but he wasn’t willing to wait a year to get Jordan Staal for nothing.

Jordan Staal would have been a free agent in one year and nine days. To move up that clock, the Hurricanes gave up the No. 8 pick in the draft, Brandon Sutter and defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin.

So the Hurricanes paid a hefty ransom Friday night to add a second Staal brother, one who is unquestionably an elite player but doesn’t directly answer the question they went into the summer asking: Who is going to play on the wing with Eric Staal?

With Friday’s trade, the answer to that question may be Eric Staal, who may move outside to make room for his brother at No. 1 center, although Rutherford said that decision would fall to Kirk Muller.

The Hurricanes had heretofore been unwilling to part with Sutter, or Justin Faulk, or Jeff Skinner, but Rutherford finally accepted Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero’s demand for Sutter, Carolina’s first-round pick in 2007, late Friday afternoon. To seal the deal, he had to give up Dumoulin, a second-round pick in 2009, as well.

“(Shero) was talking to two other teams at the same time,” Rutherford said. “I just felt that when you have a chance to get a player like this, you don’t wait around. Somebody else could have acquired him, or they could have talked him into staying between now and next July, so that’s the reason we moved on it and made the deal we did.”

And that’s the flip side: When you’re a team like the Hurricanes, and you have the chance to get a 23-year-old star like Jordan Staal, you pull the trigger now and worry about the consequences later.

Especially when it was an off-ice power play by Staal that made the trade possible.

Staal’s rejection Thursday of a 10-year contract extension worth $60 million made it all but certain the Penguins would trade him, while making it clear the only team he would negotiate a new contract with right now is the Hurricanes.

When’s the last time a player pulled the strings to force a trade to the Hurricanes?

The Hurricanes may not be done yet, either. They still have top prospect Ryan Murphy to offer and may have money to spend in free agency if they want to keep trying to bring in a winger for Eric and go Staal-Staal down the middle. What a coup that would be for the Hurricanes.

Rutherford said he asked owner Peter Karmanos for new budgetary guidelines given the trade and the need to sign Jordan Staal to an extension, but left the door open to another move.

“It’s something that we’ll still take a look at,” Rutherford said. “As far as where our budget is at, I’ve got to take a look at the revisions to see how much more money we may have. … Prices are high because there’s a lot of teams involved looking at these players, but that’s not to say we couldn’t make another trade here. As hard as it is to make a trade, I think that it would be easier to acquire a player than it would be one of these top-level free agents.”

The Hurricanes made a huge talent upgrade when they added a second Staal on Friday, albeit at a stiff price. They may not be done yet. They shouldn’t be.

DeCock:, (919) 829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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Disrespect the Penguins? See ya

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
June 23, 2012

Eric Staal #12 of the Carolina Hurricanes checks Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Championship Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Mellon Arena on May 21, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Hurricanes 7-4. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It’s rare in the sports world to trade a star in his prime such as Jordan Staal, rarer still for the general manager making that trade to hear approval.


On a super-sized, spotlighted stage in front of thousands of standing, screaming fans.

That’s exactly how it played out for the Penguins’ Ray Shero on this bizarre, breathtaking Friday night at an NHL Draft no one inside Consol Energy Center will soon forget.

At 8:08 p.m., commissioner Gary Bettman captivated the crowd by announcing there had been a trade “that all of you might be interested in,” then broke the word: Staal to Carolina for 23-year-old two-way center Brandon Sutter, defense prospect Brian Dumoulin and the Hurricanes’ No. 8 overall pick that the Penguins invested in defenseman Derrick Pouliot.

The way the building erupted, you’d think Evgeni Malkin had just buried a top-shelf blast.

And you know what?

The fans got it right.

Shero got it right.

The Penguins got it right.

The clear message: Disrespect us, and there’s the door.

Shero is far too classy to confess anything of the sort, as he proved when he took the podium for that No. 8 pick and opened by saying, “I’d like to thank Jordan Staal for six great years here in Pittsburgh and a Stanley Cup.”

The crowd cheered that, too. Good for them. Staal deserved it. He was a from-the-heart performer and model citizen.

Of all the images I have of the young man, none will resonate more than how he was the last one in the locker room after each of these past two first-round playoff losses. Some do that for show. He was devastated.

But understand that neither the timing nor the intent of what happened yesterday was coincidence.
Not after Staal rebuked the Penguins’ astounding 10-year extension offer, likely worth $60 million. Not after Staal’s agent, Paul Krepelka, publicly stated Staal didn’t wish to negotiate any extension.
And especially not when the Penguins knew that stance had one huge exception: Staal would be all too happy to talk extension if traded to Carolina, where he could join brothers Eric and Jared.

No wonder Shero was known to have been furious. He had to have felt used. Worse, he had to have felt as if Staal willfully lowered his value to the NHL’s other 28 teams to force Shero’s hand with the Hurricanes.

But if that anger was lingering by the time Shero finally met with reporters around midnight, it didn’t show. He spoke softly of leaving a phone message for Staal — who was getting married yesterday — and the closest he came to any kind of assessment of Staal’s Carolina preference was this: “It’s time for Jordan to take the next step in his development.”

I’ll say it again: Shero got it right.

Even after the news of Staal’s rejection broke Thursday, some in these parts still naively hoped the Penguins could keep Staal for the final year of his current contract for another Cup run, after which he could become an unrestricted free agent.

Sorry, doesn’t work like that.

This team’s locker room didn’t deserve the yearlong distraction of Staal as a rental player. And the franchise, the fans and Mario Lemieux — highly visible on the draft floor as this went down — didn’t deserve being second in a key player’s eyes.

Shero made the move he had to make when he had to make it. The longer he waited, the longer this situation would fester and the less value he’d find for Staal.

Did he get enough?

Impossible to say until we see more of Sutter, a third-line center like Staal who had 17 goals for the Hurricanes this past season, as well as the two youngsters. I’ll settle for now that Shero called it “a good deal for us.” I’ll go with the guy who got James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski.
Shero said Sutter “had to be part of the deal.”

I liked the sound of that.

And bear in mind that more could spin off from this: Staal’s $4 million for next season is off the books. More was cleared much later in the night when Shero sent Zbynek Michalek and his $4 million back to the Coyotes. They have $14.6 million in cap space now. And yet another $5 million could be freed by sparing the citizenry another winter of Paul Martin.

If so …

Well, this is getting ahead of things, but the hottest free agent on July 1 will be Zach Parise, the Devils’ wonderful winger and longtime friend of Sidney Crosby. He’ll cost a pretty penny, but that’s a penny the Penguins didn’t have before all this.

Asked if he might have more excitement today, Shero replied: “We’re going to try.”

Think that might bring a few more cheers?

Don’t doubt this man.

And whatever you do, don’t disrespect him.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

Penguins' Staal married and divorced, all in one day

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 23, 2012

Jordan Staal will be skating with brother Eric in Carolina this fall.

You may now kiss the groom ... goodbye.

All right, maybe it didn't go down quite like that Friday for Jordan Staal of the Thunder Bay Staals on the occasion of the young man's nuptials.

Maybe it was closer to:

I now pronounce you Hurricane and wife.

Whatever the time line particulars, at a couple of minutes after 8 p.m. Friday, the splendid center who wore No. 11 on some of the most talented hockey teams to skate in Pittsburgh officially and almost certainly became the first Penguin ever to be married and divorced on the same day.

Faced with a glut of talent at center that was threatening to become affixed to a glut of monstrous cap-hostile contracts, Penguins general manager Ray Shero did what most everyone realized he had to do sooner or later.

He sent Staal to Carolina for center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and a much higher perch in the first round of the NHL draft that had begun just an hour before right down the hall from his office.

Within minutes of that swap, the Penguins used the eighth pick on Derrick Pouliot, who was roundly described as an offensive defenseman, probably as much because no one ever gets described as a defensive offenseman as anything else.

In either case, Pouliot now begins his flightless waterfowl odyssey, which will take him either to the storied pond of the Consol Energy Center at some length or forever into the annals of Penguins trivia.

But Pouliot's name could be forgotten, remembered and forgotten again 15 times before anyone around here forgets Staal, who launched his career with a burst of Mellon Arena offense at age 18 and blossomed across six winters into as reliable a two-way force as exists in the modern NHL.

His departure divorces the Penguins from one of the most talented penalty-killers in their history and simultaneously triggers nothing short of the necessary remaking of the club's on-ice persona.

Long a center-centric amalgamation of world-class offensive talent with Staal, newly branded NHL Most Valuable Player Evgeni Malkin, and the incomparable if recently fragile Sidney Crosby, the Penguins must now adopt a different profile, which is not at all a bad thing.

For all of their offensive resourcefulness, you might have noticed, they exited this playoff spring at the earliest convenience of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In just six games, the Penguins allowed the young Philadelphians 30 goals.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

It’s clear Staal Carolina dreamin’

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
June 22, 2012

Jordan Staal #12 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by his brother Eric Staal #12 of the Carolina Hurricanes after the Penguins 4-1 win in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Championship Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at RBC Center (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Funny how this plays out, but on the day the city’s hockey fans were to be celebrating which players are coming, all the buzz will be about the one who might be going.

Check that: Will be going.

So long, indeed, to Jordan Staal.

Maybe as soon as the NHL Draft this weekend at Consol Energy Center?

I’m not sure how else anyone could interpret the triply jarring news Thursday that:
1. The Penguins recently made Staal an overwhelming 10-year offer.

2. Staal rejected it so emphatically that his agent, Paul Krepelka, issued a blanket statement that Staal “is not prepared to enter into a contract extension at this time.”

3. The latter apparently isn’t even true, as Staal is known to have told the Penguins he is open to signing with Carolina, where he could join two brothers, All-Star Eric and prospect Jared.

Can you see some way this scenario results in the Penguins keeping Staal?

Not me.

Certainly not anymore.

I believed Staal when he told me minutes after the playoff loss in Philadelphia that he’d love to stay with the Penguins. I still believe that. But it’s becoming painfully obvious he’d stay only as a second option.

That’s not good enough. It’s not fair to the Penguins, not fair to his teammates or his coaches, not fair to the city’s fans who have embraced No. 11 like few others in franchise history.

It’s also not fair to paint Ray Shero into a corner by making his Carolina preference known. That hugely reduces his trade value.

Staal needs to man up and put an end to this.

Call the Penguins.

Stop tiptoeing and be clear and candid.

If Staal wants to go to Carolina, if he turns down wealth well beyond what any NHL forward could fathom without achieving a single 30-goal season, it means there’s at least one place he’d rather be than Pittsburgh. And it means he’s serious about it.

Fine. Say so.

At the same time, if Staal reconsiders — people do change their minds — and decides he’d like to stay with the Penguins, then he should show Shero the same willingness to discuss an extension he’s apparently intent on reserving for Carolina.

One way or the other, the waffling needs to end.

When it does, when Shero finally gets a firm answer ... well, it’s still a tough spot.

Shero’s a shrewd dealer, but this is the challenge of his career: Staal can be an unrestricted free agent after next season. The Penguins aren’t going to keep Staal around as a lame duck and devalue him further. Shero has said as much. That leaves a trade this summer as by far the best path to a reasonable return. But even then, any team acquiring Staal is guaranteed only one year.

Except Carolina, of course.

Shero could simply try to swing something with Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes’ GM, and cross his fingers for some good-faith bargaining. But Rutherford hasn’t lasted 18 years in his post by being a fool. He’ll play the cards he’s dealt.

Who really thinks that, under these circumstances, the Hurricanes would give up Jeff Skinner, one of the NHL’s top young forwards?

Or even their No. 8 overall draft pick tonight?

No chance.

It’s all shaping up to be a real shame that this marriage — between the Penguins and Staal, not the one Staal actually will have today with his fiancee — appears destined to end like this.

But it sure does.

Need more?

First word of this Staal news yesterday was broken by Bob McKenzie, the renowned hockey reporter for Canada’s TSN. And I’m here to tell you that word didn’t originate from Staal’s side. It came from the Penguins.

The team wanted this extension offer known.

The team wanted fans to know they put forth an appropriate effort.

The team wanted the public to know as much as possible before trading a popular player.
Maybe Shero will wrap it as a wedding gift.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

Incredible magic show keeps Pirates in contention

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 22, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (22) hits a pitch for a double with the bases loaded against the Minnesota Twins, driving in three runs in the second inning of the baseball game on Thursday, June 21, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Anyone who scoffs at the fearful notion among baseball's so-called purists that instant replay will eventually cannibalize the game needs to reference the Pirates-Twins tussle Wednesday night at PNC Park for the final, dramatic, smoking gun evidence.

It was then and there, let the portentous history show, that a rogue replay episode played the key role in deciding not merely a home run or a fair-or-foul boundary call, but an actual result.

Replay viewers were, in fact, the first to know that in the nightly pierogi race, the photo finish between Jalapeno Hannah and the very intelligent Oliver Onion, Hannah had indeed won by less than the length of her purse.

There was indisputable visual evidence, and all grumbling immediately ceased, save for that which continues to burble from the people who still wonder why the Jalapeno dame gets to carry a purse in the first place.

But, look, the point is to get it right, and they got it right.

Before long, available technology will absorb everyone and everything in its path, sometime after swallowing everything in baseball within the range of a lens.

Someone like Joel Peralta, in that not-very-distant era, will never be able to carry a glove adorned with a foreign substance to the pitchers mound, because as soon as he crosses the foul line, 15 digitized infrared sensors will instantly alert the authorities, at which point six representatives of the commissioner's office in ill-fitting suits will sprint toward the mound and beat an eight-game suspension out of him.

No appeals.

But there is a phenomenon presenting itself to baseball right now, this summer, right here in river city, that no technology known to man nor to the CIA nor to NASA nor possibly even to CMU (possibly, I said) can validate, and it is perhaps best framed by this question:

How do these 2012 Pirates, who came into play Thursday night with only three batters hitting so much as a modest .250, whose 230 runs scored was still the fewest in baseball after 67 games, find themselves only two games out of first place on June 22?

It's a magic show.

This latest episode looked perfectly conventional, a 9-1 thumping in the Pirates' grand Lumber Company tradition, with doubles and triples and homers flying all over the North Shore, but is that elongated portion of our program when nine runs represented a decent week officially over?

"Nothing is official in this game," Andrew McCutchen rightly pointed out. "But we are doing a lot better job as hitters than we had been doing, with a lot more consistency. Now we have to keep it up."

Not one has really so much as approached the consistent excellence of McCutchen, who Thursday night tripled, doubled, went 3 for 4 and drove in three runs in a game he polished his batting averaged to .339. In fact, when popular utility man Josh Harrison singled in the second, he vaulted onto the Pirates' little Mount Rushmore of .250-plus hitters with McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Garrett Jones.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Evgeni Malkin: 2011-2012 Highlights

Evgeni Malkin's MVP season might be the first of many

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
June 20, 2012

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 20: Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins poses after winning the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award during the 2012 NHL Awards at the Encore Theater at the Wynn Las Vegas on June 20, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS – Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin won his first Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player Wednesday night.

Yes, first.

Because even on a team with Sidney Crosby, Malkin has the ability to stand out. Even in a league with Crosby and Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux and so many other stars, Malkin could win the Hart again – maybe even should win the Hart again. The way he's training, the way he's talking, he seems more committed, confident and comfortable than ever before, and that has already made a great player even greater.

"I hope it's not last one," said Malkin after the NHL Awards, standing behind a table packed with hardware – the Hart, the MVP chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association; the Ted Lindsay Award, the most outstanding player chosen by the NHL Players' Association; and the Art Ross Trophy, which goes to the NHL scoring champion.

At another point, he added: "I love this sport. I like my team. I want to be best next 10 years."

That ought to make the rest of the NHL shudder. The Penguins lost in the first round of the playoffs this spring, and this is a salary-capped league of parity in which an eighth seed just won the Stanley Cup for the first time. But the Penguins were the favorites heading into the playoffs for a reason, and they are the favorites heading into next season. The sports book at the Wynn Resort and Casino has them at 7-1 odds, best in the league.

No team is a sure bet, but no team is a better bet than Pittsburgh.

"Every year it's different," said Malkin, who turns 26 at the end of July. "Sometimes Crosby have injury. It's tough. But if all players healthy, we have great chance to win."

Crosby came back late in the season, but he had missed most of the previous year-and-a-half with concussion and neck problems. He wasn't totally himself. His teammates had to adjust to his return. They opened up defensively in a goals-galore series with the potent Philadelphia Flyers, and instead of covering up for their mistakes as he did in the regular season, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury exacerbated them.

[Related: Complete NHL Awards voting breakdown]

The Penguins need to improve their defense. They need to solve their cap crunch, with Crosby and Jordan Staal scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next July 1, and Malkin the following year.
But Crosby is likely to sign a cap-friendly long-term deal. General manager Ray Shero has said he wants to sign Staal, not trade him. And Malkin wants to stay, not go somewhere he can hog the spotlight. He doesn't just want to be the best for the next decade. He wants to be the best in Pittsburgh.

"I hope they sign me, too," he said.

Imagine if the Penguins have their three elite centermen – Crosby, Malkin, Staal – all healthy and ready in training camp for the first time in forever. The Penguins can be better defensively than they were against the Flyers, especially if they don't have to adjust to a Crosby comeback. Fleury can be better than he was against the Flyers, especially now that he has a backup, Tomas Vokoun, who can assume some of the workload in the regular season.

Now imagine if Malkin continues to play at an MVP level. Good luck. In a league where talent is so evenly distributed, it is an incredible advantage to have arguably the game's two best players along with Staal, Kris Letang and company. Listen to Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.

"My job is to play against [Malkin] when we play Pittsburgh …"

Bergeron laughed.

"Well, or Sid."

One theory is that Malkin rose to the fore because of Crosby's absence, and there is truth to that. Malkin's numbers historically have been better when he has had the responsibility and opportunity to be the No. 1 guy. But the key here really wasn't Crosby's absence. It was Malkin's.

"It wasn't necessarily that we didn't have Sidney Crosby," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "It was, I think, that [Malkin] was really motivated to come back and help our team, and he knows, feels, that him at an elite level is a big part of the success of our team."

Malkin missed most of the second half of the 2010-11 season and the playoffs because of torn knee ligaments, with Crosby already out. Malkin rehabbed and wanted to come back in the playoffs. Bylsma said he had never seen him more motivated. But the Penguins lost in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Malkin went home for the summer.

This was a player who had won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, who had won a scoring title, a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, a Stanley Cup, and who had been a runner-up for the Hart – twice. But he admitted to himself, as he did to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that he was "lazy before."

And he decided not to be lazy anymore and to reach an even higher level. Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar traveled to Moscow and worked with Malkin for two weeks in the off-season. He came to camp in top shape. He dominated the league much of the 2011-12 season.

Though he wasn't his best in the playoffs – trying too hard at times and taking penalties, not making enough of an impact at others – he still produced three goals and eight points in six games. Then he went to the world championships and dominated again, winning the tournament MVP award as Russia went 10-0 and claimed gold.

The best part: He's still hungry. Bylsma said Malkin is doing even more this summer. Kadar is working with him in Moscow for a full month.

"He's a bully on the ice," Bylsma said. "He does it with speed. He does it with finesse and hands. But he also does it with power. He goes through and around, and I think he's motivated by a lot of things. He wants to be a great player. He wants to help our team. And I think that motivation right now, it's going to be there for a long time."

Don't discount Malkin's comfort, either. He came from Magnitogorsk, Russia, unable to speak much English. He lived with teammate Sergei Gonchar as a rookie. He learned the language watching TV with Gonchar's daughter, Natalie, and Gonchar translated for him.

Malkin is still low-key by nature, still shy in front of cameras, still no orator in English. He spent most of his wild Vegas days relaxing by the pool and hanging out with friends. When he accepted the Lindsay Award, he read from a prepared card and stumbled over his words.

[Related: NHL Awards photo gallery]

But he has a better grasp of English now. He even has a Twitter account. He is more at ease in a starring role. And when he accepted the Hart at the end of the evening, he joked that he had lost his prepared card and spoke from the heart. He seemed much more natural as he dedicated the trophy to Gonchar, with whom he has remained close, even though Gonchar moved on to the Ottawa Senators two years ago.

After the show, he laughed about how far he had come – and hinted again about how much farther he expects to go. He remembered how bad his speech was when he accepted his first Art Ross in 2009.
"I think this year a little bit better," he said with a laugh. "Maybe next year a little bit better, too."
He said "next year" casually, as if there were no doubt.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Trade the league MVP? Be serious

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
June 20, 2012

LAS VEGAS — The Sunset Strip is set to shine the brightest of spotlights on one Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin: By the time dusk blankets the Nevada desert Wednesday, barring some collective brain seizure among voters in the Professional Hockey Writers Association, the Penguins’ megastar will be the runaway winner of his first Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.

Could be quite the gala, especially in a grand setting, no?

“I don’t know. Very hot. I don’t like this,” No. 71 was saying yesterday inside the extravagant Wynn hotel, where the NHL Awards will be held tonight at 7. Outside, it was 106 degrees. “In here, it’s OK, I guess.”

And what of that trophy, on display nearby?

“Of course, I think everyone wants to win. I know the other guys want to win, too. But if I don’t win, it’s all right.”

Malkin was playing it cool, I’d have to guess, respectful of the other finalists, the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.

But be sure this will mean plenty. Neither Malkin nor anyone with a sliver of competitive spirit enjoys spending his or her life considered No. 2, whether it’s being selected right behind lifelong rival Alexander Ovechkin atop the 2004 draft, or even, yes, riding eternal shotgun with Sidney Crosby.

I brought those up, and it was as close as Malkin came to confessing anticipation.

“You know, it’s good for me. Always second,” he said with a smile. “Maybe this time, it’s my first chance to be No. 1.”

Validation or not, nothing about Malkin is No. 2 anymore, nor a 1A or 1B or whatever other designations were assigned to him over the years. Certainly not when compared to Ovechkin, who can’t sniff Malkin’s vapor trails anymore. Maybe not even when compared to Crosby.

(Stops typing and ducks for cover.)

Fact is, Malkin wasn’t anyone’s No. 2 in 2011-12, even after Crosby returned. He raised his game to a fresh level with a career-best 50 goals and a league-best 109 points, this despite the slow start caused by a surgically repaired knee, plus incessantly facing opponents’ checking lines. His skating, stickhandling and shooting were at top-shelf form. He saw the ice and passed better than ever, having finally found chemistry mates in James Neal and Chris Kunitz. He even led the Penguins in defensive takeaways.

And it followed, in no coincidence, Malkin’s most diligent offseason of conditioning.

As he put it yesterday, “I had a good season, but I worked at it. I didn’t want to stay at the same level. I wanted to be better.”

He added that he’ll be engaged in intensive workouts again this summer in Russia with Mike Kadar, the Penguins’ strength coach. It’s not unthinkable he could come back even better.

And some hockey fans in Pittsburgh are debating whether or not Ray Shero should trade this extraordinary player?


Over one playoff series?

Let me step back here and state clearly my preference for the Penguins related to their big three centers: Keep all of them. Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal. I know it’s easier said than done, but it was good to hear Shero tell reporters yesterday that his only priority related to Staal right now is re-signing him. Let’s hope Staal feels the same way. I believe he does. All he wants is more power-play time and to be paid his worth. Both look to be workable.

Malkin’s stance: “I hope we keep him. Jordan Staal’s a great player.”

But if they can’t, there is no way you move Malkin instead. It’s stunning that this gets suggested even in jest.

Yes, Staal was better in the playoffs, but not nearly as much as some think. Staal had six goals and three assists in the six games against the Flyers. Malkin had one fewer point on three goals and five assists, but he also outshot Staal, 26-12.

Most complaints I hear are about the boneheaded penalties Malkin took. It’s a valid criticism. I get that it lingers.

It still bugs him, too.

“I learn something from every season,” Malkin said. “I didn’t play in the last playoffs, and I was nervous for this one. It’s not like the regular season.”

So big deal. Turn the page.

This franchise holds the rights to the player about to be honored as the best in the world. He’s 25, he wants to play “in Pittsburgh for a long time” as he reiterated yesterday, and he’s only getting better.

Good luck sifting through sports history and finding examples where trading guys like that worked out for the sellers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pedro powers Pirates

The Altoona Mirror
June 18, 2012

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 17: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run during the third inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on June 17, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND - Pedro Alvarez had one of his best games yet. Still, it was a win by the Pittsburgh Pirates that had him really excited.

Alvarez drove in a career-high six runs with his second two-homer game in two days, powering Pittsburgh past the Cleveland Indians 9-5 Sunday.

"I'm just glad to help us win the series," Alvarez said as music blared in the clubhouse following the Pirates' second victory in three games, giving them a sixth series win in their last seven matchups.

Alvarez seemed unfazed by his own accomplishment - hitting three-run homers in the fourth and fifth innings for his fourth career multihomer game. He also doubled, for his first game of three extra-base hits.

His previous two multi-homer games also came in consecutive games, July 20-21 against Milwaukee.

"It's just coincidence," Alvarez said of homering twice in consecutive games once again.

Manager Clint Hurdle said Alvarez has worked hard to lift his average to .207 with a team-high 12 homers and 34 RBIs, three behind team leader Andrew McCutchen. Alvarez has 10 RBIs in four games after going 10 games without any.

"He's worked hard to get to a better place," Hurdle said. "He drove one ball to right, then took advantage of a mistake and hit another."

Tony Watson (4-0), the second of five Pirates pitchers, worked 1 2/3 innings of relief for the win.
Jeanmar Gomez (4-6) allowed eight runs - four earned - over 4 1/3 innings for Cleveland, which lost for the fifth time in six games. Eight runs came directly after three errors by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

"It was a bad day for me," Cabrera said. "We lost the game right there on the errors I made."

Pittsburgh scored nine runs for the second straight game after totaling 13 runs during a four-game losing streak.

Alvarez became the first Pirates player with six RBIs in a game since Andy LaRoche did it Sept. 28, 2009, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cleveland's Jason Kipnis had three hits and scored twice. He put the Indians ahead with two outs in the first inning by hitting his team-leading 11th homer, off Pirates starter Brad Lincoln. Casey Kotchman's run-scoring single made it 2-0 in the second.

Alvarez put the Pirates up 3-2 in the fourth. His line drive into the right field seats came after Cabrera fielded a two-out grounder by Casey McGehee, but threw it away.

Shin-Soo Choo sent Cleveland back in front with a two-run double in the bottom half. Hurdle thought left fielder Alex Presley should have caught line drive hit just over his head.

"We gave them a gift run," Hurdle said. "It should have been a sacrifice fly. That ball needs to be caught."

Presley came back in the fifth with his fifth homer, and second in two days to tie it at 4.

Later in the inning, Cabrera made two errors on a potential inning-ending double play grounder by McGehee with the bases loaded. Cabrera ranged near second base and lifted his glove too soon on the play. The ball trickled away as one run scored. Cabrera then tried to scoop it to Kipnis at second for a forceout, but rolled it past him instead, as another Pirate crossed the plate.

"That was a perfect groundball for a double play," Cabrera said. "I missed the ball so I tried to get it to Kipnis."

Esmil Rogers then replaced Gomez and Alvarez hit a 1-1 pitch over the wall in right for his 12th homer and 9-4 lead.

"That made me feel bad, too, but there's nothing I can do," Cabrera said. "It (the errors) already happened. You have to finish the game."

Cabrera had only three errors in his first 55 games and had not made a miscue in 33 games since May 7.

"You are not going to see that team make three errors in a game often," Hurdle said. "We made them pay. We were able to add on and that's usually a difference maker."

With one out in the ninth, Cabrera lined a ball off the wall in right, but wasn't running full speed around first base. He tried to hustle to second for a double, but was thrown out by right fielder Garrett Jones.

Cabrera said he thought the ball was going to be caught.

Michael Brantley, whose 22-game hitting streak was snapped Saturday, doubled home Kipnis in the seventh.

Game notes: Pittsburgh won a series for only the second time in their last 21 road interleague matchups. ... Pirates RHP Daniel McCutchen (strained oblique) had his rehab assignment moved to Triple-A Indianapolis from Class A Bradenton. ... Kipnis has a streak of 15 consecutive stolen base attempts. He is 17 for 18 overall. ... The last Cleveland player with three errors in a game was 3B Andy Marte, June 10, 2010.