Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Antonio Brown's big-money deal won't cripple Steelers

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writerhttp://www.espn.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers/February 28, 2017

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PITTSBURGH -- Now that Antonio Brown’s business plans -- reminiscent of a loud, deep, resonant sound -- are complete, thanks to a massive four-year extension, both Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers should feel confident in this deal.
Forget the Facebook Live fiasco. The team zoned in on a Brown deal as soon as the season ended, knowing his over-the-top work ethic and his deep-rooted love for receptions would offset the antics. The Steelers met with agent Drew Rosenhaus several times over the past six weeks.
Brown's $68 million of new money, first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, includes a $19 million signing bonus that will be spread over five years to potentially assuage cap space. He'll also get the $4.71 million of 2017 salary from his previous deal, followed by the remaining $49 million or so over the final four years, for a total of $72.71 million.
The Steelers will cover themselves here. They know this contract could have some dead money attached if Brown's play declines. But the small initial salary gives Brown incentive to play well into his 30s.
Brown, who turns 29 in July, has a few things working for him in this area. His game is built on speed and quickness, with a strong base supporting his 5-foot-10 frame. This isn't a tall and lanky body that breaks down easily. Assuming he avoids knee injuries, which he has throughout his career, there's no reason he can't stay productive. He has chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, his footwork and hands are among the league's most reliable and, hey, Larry Fitzgerald just won the receptions crown at age 33. Brown would be 33 by the time he plays out all five years, if he gets that far.
He might not, of course. But the Steelers can reassess that in two or three years, as is the case with any megadeal in the NFL. The escape door usually hits after Year 2. The Steelers were expected to have more than $30 million in cap space entering free agency on March 9. Brown's cap hit was already $13-plus-million, so the new deal should increase that slightly but not by much, depending how they account for the old signing-bonus money.
Keep in mind: For as great as Le'Veon Bell is, a few scouts told me this week they would still build an offense around Brown over Bell because of the nature of the wide receiver position in a pass-first game. While receivers are earning more, running backs generally are earning less -- and Brown's deal reflects that trend. Bell got the exclusive franchise tag on Monday, giving him and the Steelers all offseason to hash out a deal or decide if he will play on a one-year rental at $12.4 million.
The best problem for the Steelers is that they won't have to choose between the two players. And they look poised to keep their big three together for the next few years. Bell will likely get his megadeal, and Roethlisberger has another three good years left, maybe more.
Brown's distractions in the locker room or on the field have been minor in nature. His overall impact is far bigger. He is the team's biggest star -- in part because he embraces the attention, while Roethlisberger generally avoids the spotlight -- but he sells more Steelers jerseys than anyone else. And with several receivers around the league making about $15 million, the Steelers couldn't disrespect Brown by going under that.
I sensed optimism around this deal for weeks, but it got done quicker than most expected.
Brown said he's all about winning Super Bowls at this stage of his career. He'll have 68 million reasons to deliver.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Mike Sullivan should use what's left of the regular season as a test for playoffs

By Mark Madden
February 27, 2017

Image result for penguins flyers stadium series

The Penguins aren’t likely to catch Washington in the standings. Dropping lower than fourth place in the Metro Division (and the top wild card in the Eastern Conference) looks impossible. Getting that wild card actually seems favorable: The Atlantic Division winner would be a lesser foe than either the New York Rangers or Columbus.
So, the Penguins basically have 22 exhibition games left. Coach Mike Sullivan can test every combination and consider every decision.
His biggest decision may be whether to use the HBK line in the playoffs.
Based on last year’s Stanley Cup run, it’s a no-brainer: Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel totaled 20 goals and 56 points in 24 playoff games.
But will Hagelin and Bonino produce like that again? Probably not.
Hagelin has six goals and 14 assists in 55 games this season. That’s .36 points per game. That’s below Hagelin’s career average of .47 points. Bonino has nine goals and 14 assists in 59 games this season. That’s .39 points per game. That’s below Bonino’s career average of .45 points.
Hagelin and Bonino are still valuable assets. Hagelin’s speed and forecheck are unparalleled. Bonino is a solid third-line center.
But is it worth gambling that HBK can again combust come playoff time?
It might be.
The value of HBK is in the matchups. When Sullivan puts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kessel on separate lines, one gets a favorable matchup, one gets a tolerable matchup and only one gets a difficult matchup. Crosby always gets the difficult matchup, which poses minimal problem because he’s Crosby.
When Kessel skates on a line with, say, Malkin, the opposing coach doesn’t have to pick his poison.
But Malkin and Kessel playing together is a dynamic combination, and the two have ignited when united.
Injury, of course, always dictates.
Kessel seems a sure thing no matter who he’s on a line with. He has 21 goals and 35 assists in 59 games.
Twenty-six of Kessel’s points have come on the power play: A high percentage, but that’s OK. The Penguins have 44 power-play goals, second-most in the NHL. A man-advantage unit that clicks is vital to postseason success, and Kessel is an effective reset point and playmaker on the left half-wall.
Kessel’s style is odd. He doesn’t dodge contact, but certainly doesn’t seek it: Witness just nine hits to his name this season. He rarely shoots one-timers or slap shots, and his wrong-footed release is among hockey’s strangest.
But Kessel does what’s needed. Sullivan mused that Kessel needed to score more, and Kessel responded with seven goals in nine games.
Pittsburgh is perfect for Kessel: The team and town have embraced his quirks, and he’s responded with productivity. Sullivan doesn’t try to make Kessel do what he doesn’t. He emphasizes Kessel maximizing what he does.
Plenty of factors will figure into the line combinations for the playoffs. Can rookie Jake Guentzel handle a top-six role? If not, can Chris Kunitz do so at 37? Patric Hornqvist with Crosby works, but will Crosby ever think so?
Regarding HBK, it’s all about Kessel. Kessel must produce 5-on-5. Can he do so skating with Hagelin and Bonino? Somebody has to be on the other end of Kessel’s goals and assists. If Malkin centers Kessel, does the Penguins’ bottom-six scoring disappear?
Sullivan needs to find some answers. He has 22 games to do it.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Crosby gets his goal at Heinz

February 26, 2017
Image result for penguins flyers february 25 2017
(Getty Images)
There was something familiar about seeing the captain, wearing eye black, smiling as he lifted his arms to the heavens in celebration of a score as the crowd went wild at Heinz Field.
There was something foreign about it being Sidney Crosby instead of Ben Roethlisberger, the Penguins center having a memorable moment on the ice atop the home turf of the Steelers quarterback.
“I think being able to do it here — where I probably didn't have great memories of the last time playing here — I think it was just special at any point to play outside and score, but especially here and given what happened before,” Crosby said. “You're a little bit far away (from the fans), but you try to soak it up as much as you can and enjoy it. I've played in a few, and it hasn't worked out so when you finally get one, you try to soak it in.”
This was six years coming, Crosby scoring the first goal of the Stadium Series game in a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. It was only the first period, but this beginning sure beat the ending of his previous performance inside this stadium.
That game, the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals, saw Crosby skate off with a concussion after a blindside hit by David Steckel. It cost him 101 games in the prime of his career, at least one scoring title and, possibly, the Penguins a Stanley Cup championship.
The NHL brought outdoor hockey back to Pittsburgh on Saturday night, drawing a crowd of 67,318 that endured 36-degree weather at the opening faceoff, swirling winds and even snow flurries just 24 hours after an 111-year-old February record was broken with a 76-degree day.
“Anytime you play outside, there's something that brings you back. You play so many games outside as a kid on a pond or a lake. To be able to do it in the NHL, especially at home a couple of times, I think is pretty special,” Crosby said. “We definitely came in with the right mindset. You're trying to balance enjoying the moment and taking it all in and playing a game and being ready, so for guys who've gone through this before I think it helps.”
It wasn't quite the scene of the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo, where Crosby scored the winner in a shootout amid snowflakes. That was the storybook setting befitting of Crosby's early career. This one perfectly captured the second chapter of his career, the post-concussion Crosby who leads the league in goals.
From the high slot, rookie winger Jake Guentzel drew defenders in by feigning a shot. Guentzel slid a pass to Crosby, who was drifting backward toward the goal line to the right of the net.
Crosby caught Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth down and wristed a shot past him for his 34th goal and 67th point of the season, a 1-0 lead at 11 minutes, 18 seconds of the first period.
“Jake does a great job of just keeping the puck alive. I'm in and around the net, and he kind of sells shot and puts it over,” Crosby said. “I just had to put it in the net. He kind of made the play. Great to get one outside here at home. It was a great feeling.”
Crosby nearly scored again with 51 seconds left in the second period, but it was waved off when Neuvirth backed into the net and knocked it off its moorings. Instead, a holding penalty was called on Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning.
“I think Sid played very well, and we followed him and we tried to play the same,” Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said. “It's a good win for us.”
A good win for the Penguins and a good game for Crosby, one that put distance between his darkest hour in hockey, one that allowed the Penguins captain to hear cheers in the Steelers' stadium.
“We're thrilled for him,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Playing here again probably brought back some memories that he'd like to forget. To have a night like tonight and have an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did and score a goal for us, I'm sure probably helped him put that experience behind him and just move forward.
“I thought he had a solid game. I thought he played really well. His line was good all night long, and obviously he scores a huge goal for us.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.comor via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Great night in the great outdoors for Penguins, NHL

By Chris Bradford
February 26, 2017
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Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) blocks a shot by Philadelphia Flyers' Chris VandeVelde (76) in the second period of an NHL Stadium Series hockey game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH – Truth be told, I came to Heinz Field for the Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers Stadium Series game with the idea of ripping the league for yet another one of these inane outdoor games in an oversized baseball or, as the case Saturday night, football stadium.
Wrong venue (it should have been played on a neutral site at Happy Valley, if not PNC Park) had been my argument. Better opponent (Penguins-Flyers would have been so much better a few years ago when Philadelphia could score goals or barring that, fight. But, hey, at least the Chicago Blackhawks weren’t involved for the umpteenth time). There was no buzz (where were the HBO cameras to chronicle the weeks leading up to the game)?
All of these arguments are valid, by the way, but you know what? It was still awesome.
You had me at pyrotechnics and giant American flag, NHL.
Don’t believe me, ask any of the 67,318 who filled the home of the Steelers on Saturday night.
“Anytime you play outside, I think there’s something that brings you back,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the game’s No. 2 star. “You play so many games as a kid outside on a pond or on a lake, to be able to do it in the NHL, especially at home a couple times, is pretty special.”
No, the hockey itself wasn’t great, the play was a little sloppy as passes missed their mark, but those nuances are to be expected in any outdoor game no matter how far ice-making technology has improved. Clearly it’s come a long way since that New Year’s Day game in snowy Buffalo nine years ago. Given the circumstances, like unseasonable 78-degree temperatures on Friday, the ice was remarkably good. The game-time temperature of a blustery 35 degrees and occasional flurries made it seem like, you know, a normal February in Pittsburgh.
Compared to the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field, this was all the league could have possibly hoped for. This time, there was no seven-hour delay, no rain puddles forming on the ice, no glass cleanings at TV timeouts.
And perhaps, most importantly -- even more than the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Flyers -- there was no injury to Crosby. Couldn’t say so the last time, could you?
Crosby opened the scoring at 11:18 of the first period, but the Penguins star captain wasn’t even the best player on the ice. That would have been goalie Matt Murray, who made 36 saves as the Penguins survived an onslaught from a desperate Flyers team, or perhaps rookie winger Jake Guentzel, who assisted on Pittsburgh’s first two goals.
“I felt privileged to be part of it,” Murray said.
Of course, the real star of the game was the NHL.
It takes a certain business expertise to get away with charging top dollar for poor sightlines, $60 parking (you’re welcome the Rivers) and not draw too many complaints.
Take these outdoor games for what they are: A spectacle.
The NHL gets knocked for a lot of reasons, most of them justified, but the idea of an outdoor game, a celebration of the sport, is a tremendous concept and marketing tool.
The problem for the NHL is the sheer volume of these games. Obviously, the goal of any business is to make money but you can have too much of a good thing. Since Crosby shoveled a shootout attempt past Ryan Miller in 2009, there have been 20 of these outdoor games in their various – Stadium Series, Winter, Centennial and Heritage Classic – incarnations. Saturday’s game was the fourth one of these this year.
How about one game a year? Maybe once every other year?
Saturday night at Heinz Field was special. Just as it was special six years ago here or nine years ago in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Outdoor games aren’t going away anytime soon, nor should they. Listening to the Penguins players after their win, they certainly haven’t tired of it.
“You won’t hear that from me, to be honest,” said Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, an unlikely goal scorer Saturday, and a San Diego native who didn’t grow up playing on a lake or pond. “It’s cool if you get the chance to experience it. Obviously everyone in the league would want to experience this. I don’t see that (outdoor game fatigue). If we had 68,000 people here, it seemed they liked it too.”
Count me as one of them.

Crosby scores 34th, Penguins top Flyers 4-2 at Heinz Field

By Will Graves, Associated Press
February 26, 2017
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Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) gets a shot past Philadelphia Flyers' Michal Neuvirth (30) for a goal during the first period of an NHL Stadium Series hockey game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH -- The pomp. The circumstance. The spectacle. Sidney Crosby's used to all of it. So the message the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and the rest of the veterans sent to their teammates making their first appearances in an NHL Stadium Series game was pretty simple.
Yeah, this is pretty cool. Just don't forget to do your job.
"You need to understand as much as you want to take it all, (these are) important points and playing Philadelphia, it's going to be an intense game," Crosby said.
One that allowed Crosby to close one chapter in his career while inching closer to first-place Washington in the process. Crosby picked up his league-leading 34th goal in the same venue where his career took an abrupt turn five years ago as the Penguins pulled away late for a 4-2 victory Saturday night at blustery Heinz Field.
The two-time MVP was at the peak of his powers and the league's leading scorer heading into the 2011 Winter Classic when a hit to the head by Washington's Dave Steckel changed the arc of Crosby's career. He spent the better part of two calendar years recovering, though he hardly wanted to talk about it in his return to Heinz Field, saying he simply hoped for a better ending this time around.
"I think it was just special at any point to be able to play outside and score, but especially here and given what happened before," Crosby said.
Matt CullenNick Bonino and Chad Ruhwedel also scored for Pittsburgh, which thrilled the capacity crowd at the home of the NFL's Steelers by capitalizing on some shaky goaltending by Michal NeuvirthJake Guentzel picked up two assists while Matt Murray made 35 saves as the Penguins drew within five points of Metropolitan Division-leading Washington.
Jakub Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere scored for Philadelphia, but Neuvirth stopped just 25 of 29 shots as the Flyers dropped to 0-3 in outdoor games. Even worse, Philadelphia failed to pick up any ground as it tries to stay within shouting distance of one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference.
"Obviously that stretch we're on right now, it's very difficult," Flyers defenseman Mark Streit said. "We've got to turn the corner here, move forward and win hockey games. There's no time left."
Despite a downright tropical week that saw temperatures soar into the mid-70s by Friday afternoon -- more suitable for some pickup street hockey than a sheet of ice in the middle of an NFL stadium -- Mother Nature dished out a pretty timely assist to league organizers hours before the puck dropped. A cold front fueled arrived late Saturday afternoon, and by the time Crosby and Claude Giroux stood across from one another for the opening faceoff, it was a seasonable 36 degrees with a hint of snow.
The lone complication didn't come from warmth but the wind. Gusts at ice level became so disruptive the NHL decided to have the teams switch sides midway through the third period in an effort to even out the amount of time the teams shot in each direction.
"The first period was tough, not going to lie," Voracek said. "A little bit wind in your face. But in the end it evened out, 30 minutes each way. It was fun."
While appreciative of the chance to play on such a unique stage -- particularly one framed by a replica of one of the famous "Three Sister" bridges that span the adjacent Allegheny River -- the teams stressed the need to focus on the stakes and not the festival-like atmosphere.
It was, thanks in no small part to Crosby's brilliance. He helped the Penguins shake off a slow start by working himself free at the right circle and taking a slick feed from Guentzel and firing it into the open net 11:18 into the first to give Pittsburgh the lead. Bonino doubled the advantage 6:44 into the second when he drilled a slap shot by Neuvirth on the power play.
The Flyers drew within one just past the midway point when Voracek muscled his way from the corner to the front net and slipped it by Murray.
No matter. Cullen picked up his 10th of the season when he stuffed his own rebound by Neuvirth 1:50 into the third and while Gostisbehere's slap shot from the point 6:48 into the third gave Philadelphia life, Ruhwedel's shot from the point threaded its way through a sea of bodies to give the Penguins all the breathing room they'd need.
Game notes
Pittsburgh went 1 for 5 on the power play. The Flyers were 1 for 4. ... Pittsburgh D Ron Hainsey, acquired in a trade with Carolina on Thursday, played 21:08 minutes in his debut. ... Penguins D Kris Letang did not play due to an upper-body injury. ... Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown served as the pregame emcee, introducing the Penguins to the capacity crowd. ... The Penguins also played a video montage of team highlights set to the song "Renegade" by Styx, a staple at Steeler games. ... Attendance was 67,318.
Flyers: Host Colorado on Tuesday. Philadelphia beat the Avalanche 4-3 in the first meeting on Dec. 14.
Penguins: Begin a road-heavy portion of their schedule in Dallas on Tuesday. Pittsburgh plays seven of its next nine away from PPG Paints Arena.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Ron Hainsey is an upgrade over the Penguins' three minor-league defensemen

By Mark Madden
February 23, 2017

Penguins Hurricanes Hockey
Ron Hainsey (65) defends against Sidney Crosby during the Penguins' 7-1 win in Raleigh on January 20, 2017. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Defenseman Ron Hainsey has played 891 NHL games over 14 seasons, but has never played a Stanley Cup playoff game. If a movie is ever made about Hainsey’s career, Steve Carell should get the lead.
Stanley Cup playoff experience is generally drooled over upon acquisition. Cup wins, even more so.
So, shouldn’t a defending champ have trepidation about a player who hasn’t even seen the road his new team hopes to travel?
No matter. Hainsey is small potatoes. Competent, certainly. Average at just about everything, which makes him a better option than Cameron Gaunce, Steve Oleksy and Chad Ruhwedel, three minor-league defensemen who have proven themselves exactly that during their Pittsburgh stint.
It’s incredible that a 35-year-old who has never played a Stanley Cup playoff game and is minus-81 on his career is a clear upgrade. But Hainsey is.
Hainsey shoots left and is left-sided. The Penguins could do with a right-sided version of Hainsey, too. It would be rash to think that Penguins defensemen will stop getting hurt come playoff time. The more, the merrier. But getting Hainsey helps most if Hainsey doesn’t have to play.
Overanalyzing the value of low-impact players is the business I’ve chosen. So is parsing fanboy trade proposals that could never occur. Yinzer Nation wants to deal for Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson every year.
But the reality of winning a second straight Stanley Cup doesn’t depend on such issues. It depends on:
*The Penguins must get healthy – as opposed to the corner of the locker room where the defensemen dress resembling a triage unit. Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have proven their value as Sidney Crosby’s linemates in absentia.
*Matt Murray must keep proving himself. Murray has already won a Cup, and has solid stats this season (technically his rookie campaign). But goaltender is the most important position, and 22 is an awkward age for a goalie.
*Secondary scoring. The HBK line is unlikely to repeat the pyrotechnics of last year’s postseason. But it will probably play together because Coach Mike Sullivan wants a big-time threat on each of his top three lines.
*Crosby, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin have to play up to their capabilities. If they don’t, Hainsey won’t pick up the slack. The Penguins are a team built on star power. The quartet mentioned must excel.
If the Penguins don’t win a second straight Cup, it won’t be because they’re not good enough, or because GM Jim Rutherford didn’t make a revelatory trade. It will be because of fatigue: 106 games last season, followed by a World Cup of Hockey for the stars, followed by a tightly-packed 2016-17 schedule.
No team has won consecutive Cups since 1998. That’s not random.
The Penguins may have a secret weapon in reserve: Yesterday, Mario Lemieux was seen skating with Jay Caufield, his fitness guru, at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
That could be because Lemieux is preparing for his annual fantasy camp, which runs Saturday-Wednesday.
Or it could be because he’s planning a mind-boggling comeback at 51. I’m told he’s in the best shape of his life.
Either way, it’s got to feel amazing when you skate at a $70 million complex that bears your name.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Penguins get Ron Hainsey but lose Trevor Daley to surgery

Pierre LeBrunESPN Senior Writerhttp://www.espn.com/nhl/February 23, 2017

Carolina Hurricanes v Anaheim Ducks
Ron Hainsey #65 of the Carolina Hurricanes fights Ryan Getzlaf #15 of the Anaheim Ducks during the second period of a game at Honda Center on December 11, 2015 in Anaheim, California.
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America)

The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey from the Carolina Hurricanes on the same day they announced that defenseman Trevor Daley will miss six weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick this year and prospect Danny Kristo to Carolina in the trade.
Daley injured his knee during the first period of Pittsburgh's 3-1 win over Carolina on Tuesday and required arthroscopic surgery. The 33-year-old Daley has 19 points and is a plus-9 this season.
Carolina will retain 50 percent of Hainsey's salary. Hainsey becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.
Hainsey, 35, is in his 14th season in the league and fourth with the Hurricanes. The Connecticut native has 14 points but is a minus-14 on the season.
The 6-foot-3 left-handed defenseman led the Hurricanes with 79 hits, was third in ice time and third in blocked shots. He has missed only three games since the 2012-13 season.
The Penguins made some shrewd blueline moves last season on the way to winning the Stanley Cup. They brought in Daley from Chicago and Justin Schultz from Edmonton. Both were struggling with their respective teams but made a solid impact with the Penguins.