Wednesday, February 27, 2008

#87: So Much to Say

-- Penguins trade for Cup run.

-- Panthers in big trouble.

-- (Long overdue) Steelers and NFL post-mortem.

-- Are you ready for some (Pirates) baseball?

---All the Right Moves?---

Hi. It's me. I'm back again. For a bit. This is the Sidney Crosby post, but just because it's my 87th installment in the blog.

Well, how 'bout them Penguins? Since my last blog entry addressing anything Penguins, they've gone a stellar 17-5-5 (11-4-4 without Crosby...), and sit just a point back of division rival New Jersey for the division (and conference) lead.

While Evgeni Malkin has surged to take the lead in the scoring race (how cool would it be to have two different Penguins win the Art Ross Trophy in consecutive years? Oh, wait. Mario Lemeiux and Jaromir Jagr won the award for seven consecutive seasons between 1995 and 2001.

I digress. Actually, I've been digressing the whole time.

General Manager Ray Shero, recipient of much initial criticism last season for trading away Noah Welch at the deadline for the aging Gary Roberts, seems to be getting some shaky marks once again from media outlets. Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis and Hal Gill will wear Black and Gold as we say goodbye to fan favorite Colby Armstrong and Shootout Wizard Erik Christensen. We also will be left wondering what-could-have-been as Angelo Esposito, the Pens' top draft pick this past offseason, was sent to Atlanta.

Adding Hossa gives the Penguins another top scoring threat. They'll have either the best top line in hockey once Crosby returns, or they'll be a solid 3 lines deep, however head coach Michel Therrien chooses to play it. Pascal Dupuis hasn't been a scoring force this year (15 points in 62 games), but it's only a slight dropoff from the production of either Armstrong or Christensen. And Dupuis played for Atlanta, one of the lighter scoring teams in the conference, and one of the most pourous defenses. Despite that, his plus/minus is still a workable -4.

Hal Gill is the big question mark. An even 0 in the +/- game in Toronto, will the 6'7", 250 pound defenseman be that big, Zdeno Charra-type presense the Penguins need?

Begin transition from good to potential bad...

Ty Conklin has a .933 save percentage. He made 50 saves, on the road, against the New York Islanders and their 10 power play attempts. This is called "peaking".

The Penguins, as a team, despite their awesome surge the past two months, have watched their Shots-on-Goal differential drop from -1.1 at the end of December, to -3 after last night. While the Penguins seem likely to appear in the postseason for the second year in a row, in best-of-7 series, teams with a negative differential face a daunting task. Looking at last year's playoff teams and their SOGDs, 6 teams with a negative differential made the postseason. Five, including the Penguins, lost in the first round. The sixth, Buffalo, won. But they beat another team with a negative (and worse) differential.

What has helped the Penguins compensate is that, over the same period of time, the team's save percentage (mainly courtesy of Conklin, has improved from 90.2% to 91.5%, tied for 3rd best in the league. Their scoring efficiency has also jumped from the league median 9.65% to 10.32%.

In laymen's terms, Pittsburgh is seeing the puck in their zone a lot, but they're getting gutsy efforts from the netminder. And, when they get the puck, they're scoring on more than 10% of their shots.

Hopefully, Hossa's presence and Crosby's return will mean more time spent in the offensive zone, and having a big man in Gill playing back will help with checking in the defensive zone and take pressure of Conklin.

Shero has once again met the team's needs at the trade deadline. While I think the Penguins are still a year away, they may now be able to get past the first round if the SOGD for the next month-plus can swing the other way.


And speaking of goalies, does anyone else get the impression that Marc-Andre Fleury may disrupt the mojo of the team now that he's back? No way do the Penguins beat the Islanders last night if he's in goal with the defensive performance and the number of penalties they had to kill. I'm not sure he's ready to face a barrage of NHL-calibur shots. Conklin has to remain the man until he has a couple of rough games.

And with a coach who likes to change lines frequently, he may not wait too long to try to re-indoctrinate Fleury to the top post.

---The Downward Spiral---

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon must hate his life right now.

He's watched his team get decimated by injuries, he's watched his team fall into the bottom quarter of the Big East in 3-point shooting effieciency. He's seen them fall halfway down the standings in the conference, and out of the Top 25 for the first time in over 2 years.

While the Panthers are really in no danger of missing the NCAA Tournament (their RPI has still been among the league's most difficult), they are once again setting themselves up for an earlier-than-fan-accepted exit. They have consistently been a team that's gone to the Sweet 16, only to fall to some mid-major or otherwise unheard-of basketball program. Kent State, Pacific, Bradley...

I'm a believer in the law of averages in sports, but I don't think this is a case of Pitt having a slowdown now before the tournament season begins. I don't think they'll even make the Big East semi-finals at Madison Square Garden, and, right now, I don't think they'll get out of the Round of 32. Depending on the seedings, a first-round exit is conceivable.

Pitt is grooming talented freshman DeJuan Blair to be their inside presence, and it's starting to work, but this team has never missed Aaron Gray as much as now. Mike Cook was no substitute, either, but he did have experience. Missing Levance Fields for half the season hasn't helped, either. He's only now starting to get his game legs back.

Sam Young has been having a solid year, but even Michael Jordan needed players around him to be successful.

The Panthers could catch fire, win their last four games and put up a respectable 23 wins this season and be a team nobody wants to play when the Big East Tournament starts, but a lot of would have to go right.

Pitt does not seem like they're playing hard right now. They're taking bad shots, playing poor defense (for Pitt standards...allowing 8 out of their last 10 opponents to score more than 60), losing leads, and giving too many fouls.

Yes, coach Dixon has his work cut out for him over the next two weeks. One would hope that Sam Young chooses to stay at Pitt for his senior year, since it seems like it's already time to start looking forward to 2008-2009.

---(Quick) NFL Wrap---

Holey Offensive Line, Batman!

Ben Roethlisberger didn't stand a chance against Jacksonville. Not with his line play (especially that), and not with the conservative play-calling at the end...when it was the aggressive stuff that got the Steelers back into the game to begin with.

Now, the Steelers and their salary cap are choked up with Kendall Simmons and Max Starks, where their best player, Alan Faneca, will probably traipse off to Arizona in the offseason to rejoin coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. Sean Mahan is currently still in line to be the starting center, whom reportedly ranked as 31st in the league (only one worse...and I'm not sure who that is).

I've also been told that this year's draft is not going to be heavy for either guards or centers. That means that Pittsburgh is going to have to invest in another free agent. Refer to salary cap comment. And Ben figures to make bank in his new contract. The signs are not good. Pittsburgh may have to arrange a rarely-done trade to get what they need. Ben cannot take another almost-50 sack season. Willie Parker cannot run behind a line as shoddy as the one he's had. (Yes, he was the league's leading rusher when he got hurt, but he also had a LOT more attempts than the next nearest guy).

Things aren't looking so good on that front, and the front 7 on the other side of the ball isn't getting any younger. Still, offensive line has to be the top priority. Personnel director Kevin Colbert has let it slip for too long.


The sweetest thing about being wrong about the Patriots going 19-0 like I'd said since...October, I think?

It's not that they blew it in the final game of the year. It's that they blew it in the final 35 seconds of the year. Yeah, I'm no fan of New York teams, but seriously, Bill Belicheck was about to be the 2nd coach ever to win 4 Superbowl rings, Chuck Noll being the only other one.

And for the record, I don't think Tom Brady was ever hurt prior to the game.

Does anyone have a video of Bob Kraft's reaction to losing XLII? Like, when Plaxico Burress was never more open in his life? I might pay you for such a vid. Might. Be careful. I'm broke.

So, to frequent commenter (and Steeltown Angel) karri, I say, with pride, "Yes. I was wrong about New England."

And, finally: Yoi and Double Yoi! Rest in Peace, Myron Cope. (January 23, 1929 - February 27, 2008)

---Ready or Not...(Part 1)---

The Pirates are, as of this writing, probably wrapping up their annual exhibition against the Lancers of Manatee Community College in Bradenton, Florida. Tomorrow, they'll play the Philadelphia Phillies for the first "official" Spring Training game. Just a little over a month until the season opens in Atlanta, Georgia.

So much is going on. But just not with the Pirates.

All offseason, we've heard that there weren't going to be a lot of major moves made. That the front office was planning to come back with the same team that brought up the rear of the National League central.

That makes some sense, since you've: a) done a major front-office overhaul; and b) really can't trade anybody high right now. Best for the new head men, with their own eyes and their own interests invested, see what they have at the beginning and move from there.

It's going to take time, and more than a little luck to get the Pirates turned around. We know that.

I just wish the Pirate brass would say that. The way they're trying to spin it makes it seem like they think we have a contender, or that we're only a few pieces shy of that the point where Bob Nutting and Company are not opposed to boosting the payroll to a whopping $50 million if things fall into place.

Come on. We know the drill. The Bucs are so set up to fail this season there will be no reason to bump the payroll. Just the way they like it. Just the way they want it. And we'll still be going through the turnstiles. Heck, I'll be at the home opener, hating against the Cubs, with frequent commenter (and Steeltown Angel) Emma, and, supposedly, some others from the tight-knit Pittsburgh blogosphere.

I'm feeding the pig.

Still, Nutting has been doing more talking this offseason than I think any of us thought he'd ever do at any time. I detect a smokescreen. And that's pretty easy to do when you're really not allowed to see what's happening underneath the surface.

That paragraph made no sense, but I'm too lazy to delete it.

Just like I've been remiss in updating my little corner of Al Gore's Internet.

More to come...hopefully sooner rather than later... I've got oodles of opinions on various facets of the Pirates.


I am ashamed to say that I did not update my blog when this happened...

On the day of January 8, 2008, my boss at the radio station and I went to Pittsburgh Pirates Radio Network Affiliate Day at 7 Springs Mountain Resort. We packed up the skis and gear and headed out. It was friggin 65 degrees on the mountain. Ridiculous.

Anyway, we got free skiing, free bowling, free mini-golf...and free something else. Then, later, there was a free dinner for the attendees in one of the various conference rooms. I met Lanny Frattere for the first time, as well as Steve Blass. I ate dinner at a table with Greg Brown and the Program Director of the Pirates Radio Network's flagship station. Good times. Brown is probably the nicest guy I've ever met in the industry. This allows me to forgive some of the times I get irritated by tangent-filled game-calling.

Anyway, while I'm enjoying something called "Seafood Orzo" or something like that, I am introduced to one more person.

I shook hands with Bob Nutting.

The professional in me allowed a nod, a half-smile, a firm shake, and a polite, "Mr. Nutting." That still didn't keep the Pirate fan within me from railing against my consciousness, screaming, "It's the Devil!"

I can only imagine the legal trouble I'd be in had the Pirate fan prevailed. There wasn't ample time for any kind of discussion, as he had come in to greet the assembled radio folks, then go do whatever penny-saving thing was next on the agenda. That didn't stop me from trying to coerce folks at that table with me to say something, anything that was derogatory toward the top man.

I'll leave you with this thought, which I found to be pretty true. Greg Brown told me that folks are telling him that the Pirates are going to be worse this year than last year. He said, "It's the same team". He said that he doesn't expect them to be world-beaters, but another 3-5 wins with the experience of the younger players and a return to form from Jason Bay, an earlier start from Adam Laroche is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

I didn't have it in me to talk about the potential for injuries to our starting pitchers that might make it possible to stay in games to the later frames.

Until next time...