Saturday, March 31, 2012

#248: Don't Forget to Start

---SSL Broadcast #87---


Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has made that word the unofficial motto for the upcoming 2012 Major League Baseball season.

On the surface, of course, it makes sense. The Bucs were in first place at one point in July, playing pretty competitive baseball until melting down completely after the All Star Break. So, in order to make this season better, the team must focus on finishing.

Hurdle elucidated by saying, "Finish the play, finish the at-bat, finish the inning, finish your thought, finish the game. Finish!"

Again, as media talk is concerned, the message makes sense, seems to have its heart in the right place, and is something that players and fans alike can rally behind.

Practically speaking, though, the Pirates won't take anyone by surprise this year. The starting rotation was completely exhausted, and, to some extent, exposed by season's end. The offense similarly sputtered.

The game of baseball is about adjustments, from series to series, game to game, at-bat to at-bat, pitch to pitch. My overall opinion is tha the league will adapt to the Bucs faster than the reverse. The problem this Pirate squad will face this year is getting started.

Simply put, if the team can't start, it can't finish, and Hurdle's preseason message won't have a chance to get any traction.

On the latest episode:

- Tim Neverett joins in for a segment on the 2012 Pirates as Spring Training nears its end.

- Pitt basketball makes the most of an undesireable situation

- Power needs a jolt.

- Penguins and Flyers in the cards for round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Who will get the extra home game?


Saturday, March 24, 2012

#247: Another Gear

---SSL Broadcast #86---

What happens when an unstoppable force is the immovable object?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are finally healthy, and they have not lost a game in regulation in over a month. They may not lose again until the playoffs.

The return of superstar captain Sidney Crosby has only made a very dangerous team extremely dangerous. The fact that his comeback has completely eclipsed Kris Letang's contributions only helps the team, because the eyes aren't on him.

Finally, that event I've been waiting for over the last four years - for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to become a consistent goaltender - appears to be coming to pass. His save percentage since the turn of the calendar year is almost 91.9%, half a percent better than league average.

The Penguins continue to lead the league in Shots-on-Goal Differential, which is very important when trending how a best-of-seven series is going to go. Couple that with above-average to excellent goaltending, this Penguins team (health pending) should be the favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

As of this writing, some sportsbooks have them as the favorite at about 5-to-1. Others have the Penguins toward the top. But their competition is the same - Detroit, New York Rangers, Vancouver, and St. Louis.

The pieces are in place and are all coming into their primes together. If General Manager Ray Shero can make the right signings and keep this core together somehow under salary cap restrictions, the next sports dynasty not seen since the Chicago Bulls circa 1990 (I don't count the New England Patriots) is nigh.

The scariest part (for the rest of the league), is that this hockey team isn't peaking. It's cresting. And it has another gear it can still hit.

On the latest episode:

- Wide receiver Hines Ward decides to retire, after all.

- Pitt basketball in position to win a postseason tournament.

- Power falls flat in 4th against Philly.

- Pirates must think outside the box to compete with big market teams.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

#246: Feast-to-Famine at Wideout

---SSL Broadcast #85---

The Steelers have a bit of a conundrum at wide receiver.

Deep threat Mike Wallace was tendered an offer by the team earlier this week. It wasn't disclosed what the offer was, but since the team made offers to five other restricted free agents, it was probably just a matter of course.

As a restricted free agent, Wallace can test the market and any team can make an offer. However, the Steelers would have the right to match the other team's offer in order to retain his services.

Wallace has made some public comments that he would be more than willing to follow the money should it come his way. If I'm in the Pittsburgh front office, that would concern me for a couple of reasons.

First, it means that there is the potential, should the Steelers retain Wallace by matching an offer, that he may bring a less-than-enthusiastic attitude to the field and the locker room in the seasons to come. We've seen what happens when premiere receivers in the league get disgruntled (e.g. Terrell Owens).

Second, if the Steelers choose to make him an offer to keep him off the roster of, say, the New England Patriots, much of the cap space the team has freed up in recent weeks will be filled again.

That said, should another team other than the Patriots (or another AFC contender) make an offer, especially if that team is in the NFC, Pittsburgh should consider letting Wallace go to avoid the problems mentioned above.

The downside of such inaction, though, would mean that the Steelers will have gone from a wide receiver-rich team to one that could be facing a bit of a dearth in that department. The departure of Hines Ward, the free agency of Jericho Cotchery, and the hypothetical exit of Wallace (even the release of Arnaz Battle), would leave the team with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as the likely starters (and a bit undersized), Heath Miller at tight end, and then a patchwork of pass catchers behind them.

If that's how the roster shapes up, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may have a harder time spreading the ball around than he's been able to do the last two or three seasons.

On the latest episode:

- Penguins in a 10-game winning streak during critical stretch of the schedule.

- Pitt basketball is in a postseason tournament. Is that good or bad?

- The Power makes amends with all but two of its players after a brief strike.

- Mike sucks at NCAA picks. Surprised?


Saturday, March 10, 2012

#245: Shuffling the Deck

---SSL Broadcast #84---

Some worry that the return of Sidney Crosby would actually disrupt the Pittsburgh Penguins' mojo.

Others contend that nothing bad at all could come from the face of the Penguins (and the NHL) returning to action.

Crosby, while cleared for contact (again), is not a lock to play tomorrow against the Boston Bruins - the same team against whom he was re-injured.

Some concern among fans has been that if and when Crosby returns, he'll steal Chris Kunitz off the wildly successful Evgeni Malkin/James Neal line, and potentially unravel the chemistry that the trio has had for much of the year. The broadcasters, meanwhile, particularly Bob Grove and Phil Bourque of the Penguins Radio Network, believe that Crosby's return cannot be a negative in any way.

Fortunately, the team finds itself in a perfect position to have Crosby come back and meddle with the lines.

The Malkin/Neal/Kunitz line has come back to earth for the time being, replaced by the Jordan Staal/Pascal Dupuis/Steve Sullivan line has begun to shine. With that being the case, should Crosby return this week, this would be the time to go ahead and pair Crosby and Kunitz. I'd throw Matt Cooke on the Crosby line (because he would be inclined to stand up for his captain if he's disrespected) and maybe Tyler Kennedy on the top line - the goal being to keep Staal/Dupuis/Sullivan together while they're still producing. Then, do a little bit of swapping once they come back to Earth.

Oh, and did I mention that Crosby's line would be the second line in my little world? Yup. The Captain on Line 2. At least to start.

With the Penguins as of this writing being only 4 points back to within the New York Rangers, Malkin must continue to lead the charge for the time being.

On the latest episode:

- The Pittsburgh Power win the season debut under the shadow of an AFL strike.

- Pitt loses its final chance to make the NCAA tourney, but will likely receive an invite to the NIT.

- Pirate outfielder Starling Marte should make club if he continues to perform and Nate McClouth does not.

- Peyton Manning sweepstakes and New Orleans Saints' "bounty-gate."


Saturday, March 03, 2012

#244: Leap Week

---SSL Broadcast #82 & #83---

I didn't have time for an update last week, but I did archive last week's show. I had to head out to a high school basketball playoff doubleheader. The show was nothing spectacular (shocking), but it's at the very bottom of this post to demonstrate that I polluted the airwaves for another week.

A lot of folks are a bit put out by the recent decisions by the Pittsburgh Steelers to part with some long-time staples. In the business of the NFL, though, sometimes a team has to make a clean break. And when salary cap is an issue, it is very necessary.

Hines Ward: The release of the leading receiver in Steelers history is being viewed as a betrayal of some sort. Would Steeler fans prefer to keep him (and his salary cap hit) until he dies a slow death? Ward has been on the decline for the last two or three years with periodic injuries. And if it's between keeping either Ward or Mike Wallace ("both" not being an option), how can a rational fan choose the former? All good things...

Aaron Smith: A stalwart at Left End for a decade, this one is kind of tough to swallow. But he hasn't played a full season since the Super Bowl XLIII season. Ziggy Hood, while not nearly as dominant, has become a capable starter with room to improve. Smith will very likely retire.

James Farrior: This is the player I think the Steelers will miss most. As someone who advocates drafting an offensive lineman with the first pick this year, it also makes me fear that Pittsburgh has its sights set on ILB Dont'a Hightower of Alabama. Farrior probably has a couple good years in him as he's been relatively healthy, but his drop in speed has been evident.

Chris Kemoeatu: A walking 15-yard penalty waiting to happen. Not sorry to see him go. He was being paid too much for what he offered. And I'm not a big fan of anyone on the offensive line outside of Marquis Pouncey, though Gilbert can still prove himself and I have an odd tolerance for Ramon Foster. Which is why I fear drafting Hightower instead of an offensive lineman to help protect the franchise quarterback. And another positive - we won't have to hear Phil Simms murder his last name anymore.

We love football, but it can be an ugly business that plays with our heartstrings. Right now, though, the Steelers need to work on getting younger, and getting cheaper so that the Steelers can continue to be an elite team for years to come.

And then, maybe, we'll find out of Tomlin won with "Bill Cowher's team," or if Tomlin is a formidable coach in his own right.

On the latest episode:

- Penguins continue to lead league in THE key statistic.

- Pitt basketball likely destined for the 12/13 game in the Big East Tournament.

- Bucs can't catch a break, though they don't really put themselves in a position to do so.

- Pittsburgh Power begin their second season this coming Friday.

On last week's program:

- Hines Ward and Frank Coonelly's DUI cases.

- A little bit of NFL Draft talk.

- Fleury fastest to 27 shutouts (tied for most by Pens goalie).

- Casey McGehee to platoon at first. *facepalm*