A Pictorial Look at Pens’ Wednesday Practice

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Pens coach Mike Sullivan was in a good mood during Wednesday’s practice. Smiling seemed to be the theme of the day.

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Sidney Crosby smiled a lot, even though he was one of the few Penguin forwards who failed to record a point against the Avalanche on Tuesday.

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Evgeni Malkin was in good spirits, too. Looked relaxed.

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Sullivan consulting with coach Jacque Martin. Martin is an under-appreciated part of the team.

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Despite the happy atmosphere, Crosby is all business when it comes to honing his craft.

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Crosby, with Jake Guentzel and fill-in linemate Bryan Rust, taking a breather.

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Constants on the team since 2006. Not many teammates can make that claim.

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Why shouldn’t Patric Hornqvist be smiling like a Butcher’s Dog after potting a natural hat trick Tuesday?

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It’s only a matter of time before Malkin and Phil Kessel reunite on the same line. Kessel’s name was reportedly mentioned in potential trade talks Wednesday, somewhat surprisingly (though that didn’t stop him from having some fun).

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More smiles from Malkin — a good sign for the Pens and a bad sign for every other team.

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More smiles from Sid.

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Crosby working on his one-timer with good results.

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Goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry handled the nets Tuesday, though Matt Murray seems primed to return in the near future.

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Winning makes practice fun …

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… even for Derick Brassard (who scored on a nifty tip Tuesday).

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Pretty sure Crosby found the back of the net on this play.

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A little razzle-dazzle from the captain at the end of practice.

The Pens worked on a couple interesting scoring drills Wednesday.

One drill featured a defenseman at the center of the blue line, with one goalie standing 15 feet in front of the net and the other goalie tending the twine. Crosby would make two rushes to the net, one from the left side and one from the right. Olli Maatta, who was filling Kris Letang’s (maintenance day) role, would rifle a hard pass toward Crosby, who would then deflect the puck on goal. Brassard rotated with Crosby, working on his deflections, too.

The second drill saw a coach stand about 10 feet in front of the goal and throw a one-hopper at the goalie’s pads. Crosby or Brassard would then rush the net and attempt to beat the goalie with a rebound.

Pittsburgh looks to improve to 5-2-1 in its last eight games with a victory against the Islanders on Thursday.

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Pirates Notes: 2018 Batter Numbers Fun

The Pirates: Fun with Stats

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Using FanGraphs as a guide, let’s take a look at the 2018 Bucs, from the youngest player (Austin Meadows, 23) to the oldest (David Freese, 35).

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Josh Bell led the position players with 148 games played, while Felipe Rivero-Vazquez led all pitchers with 70 appearances. Jameson Taillon made the most starts (32) and quality starts (20).

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Starling Marte led the team in plate appearances (606), just ahead of Bell (583). Marte hit mostly second (58 games) or third (61) in the lineup, while Bell batted cleanup (65) or sixth (36).

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Gregory Polanco led with 23 homers, Marte hit his 20th homer in the season finale to become the third Pirates player ever (and the oldest aT age 29) to hit 20 home runs while stealing 30-plus bases.

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Francisco Cervelli finished with 12 homers, breaking his previous high of seven. Bell slumped to 12 dingers after hitting 26 in 2017.

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Elias Diaz (277 plate appearances) and Adam Frazier (352) surprisingly belted 10 homers apiece.

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Colin Moran collected 11 home runs in 465 plate appearances. Disappointing because of his home opener grand slam and vaunted launch angle improvement with Houston, yet reasonable for a first-year starter.

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Only three players stole more than four bases: Marte (33 SB in 47 attempts), Polanco (12 in 14) and Corey Dickerson (8 in 11). Frazier, who spoke of aggressiveness on the basepaths in spring training, swiped one bag in four tries.

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Bell led with a 13.2 percent walk rate, up from 10.6 percent in 2017. Marte walked at a 5.8 percent rate, but that upped his career mark to 5.0 percent. Dickerson had the lowest walk rate among regulars (3.9 percent). This was the lowest rate of Dickerson’s six MLB seasons, well below his career 5.8 percent rate.

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Ivan Nova went 1-for-53, striking out 30 times for a 53.6 strikeout rate. Interestingly, Nova has never walked in nine MLB seasons, compiling a 0:92 BB:K mark. Max Moroff’s 35.8 percent rate early in the season made the decision to skip over him for a September recall an easy one. Not surprisingly, Polanco put up a career-worst 21.9 percent strikeout rate. The Bucs will take that trade-off (his career rate is 19.1 percent) so long as his power stays up.

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If you guessed that Elias Diaz (14.4 percent) had the lowest strikeout rate among position players, raise your hand. Good job.

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Polanco’s .245 ISO (Slugging – Batting Average) bested his career mark of .169 ISO. The right fielder bested Marte (.182 ISO) by a wide margin. Josh Harrison (.113) and Bell (.150) were among the biggest disappointments. Bell had a .211 ISO in 2017.

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Dickerson’s .333 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) helped him hit exactly .300 in 2018. Marte recorded a .312 BABIP, which sounds good, but was actually 34 points below his career mark of .346. Anecdotally, it looked like Marte grounded out to third base more frequently than before. Maybe it’s just that his jogs to first base stood out. Jordan Luplow’s .197 BABIP has to get better in 2019 – the Pirates certainly have to hope so.

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Diaz’s .286 batting average really seems to fly under the radar. Impressive for any player, let alone a catcher. The low number of plate appearances (277) probably helped him hit so highly, but the Diaz-Cervelli combo was very good at the plate.

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Three regulars hit exactly .277, including Marte, Frazier and Moran.

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Cervelli’s frequent conversations with home plate umpires pay off for his on-base percentage. He led the team (.378 OBP), ahead of Bell (.357). Cervelli holds a career .362 OBP, one of the top marks among active catchers. Kevin Kramer had a .135 OPS in only 40 plate appearances. It might not be fair to mention that because of the small sample, but it’s hard to believe he struck out 21 times – that’s Ivan Nova territory! Can’t wait for the day the light turns on for Kramer, so much potential.

— Moran’s .407 slugging percentage mirrored that of the team average. Moran’s position, third base, pretty much demands a better mark, however. It will be interested to see the competition for third between Moran and Jung-Ho Kang in spring training and beyond.

— Keep in mind, Bell’s .411 slugging percentage at first base is also lackluster. Who knows how many more games the Pirates win in 2017 with better production at the corners.

— The Pirates’ team .312 wOBA is below the generally accepted mark of .320. The statistic is similar to OPS but better reflects run scoring. Cervelli led the team with a .355 w/OBA. Polanco, with a .353 mark, was close behind. Jordy Mercer (.296) and Harrison .285, were among the laggards.

— Similar to OPS+, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average after controlling for park effects. Not surprisingly, Cervelli (125 wRC+) and Polanco (123 wRC+) lead Pittsburgh. A mark of 100 represents the league average and 96 represented the team’s average in 2018.

— The following statistic, BsR, is sure to capture the imagination of Pirates followers. Base Running (BsR) is FanGraphs’ all encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays (taking extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, etc) into runs above and below average.

— League average BsR is zero: By comparison, the Pirates team average came out as minus-13.3. Harrison led the team with a 2.4 BsR, Marte – likely based on his stolen base total, came in second with a 2.1 BsR. Some may discount the validity of BsR, given Marte’s positive ranking and it would be hard to disagree.

— The worst BsR baserunner? Moran, with a minus-4.0 mark. Bell finished with a minus-3.3. Somewhat surprisingly, Dickerson ranked third-worst (minus-3.1).

— Polanco nearly pulled off a surprising feat of posting both the team’s best offensive WAR (14.3) and worst defensive WAR (minus-6.6). He finished with the best offensive mark, leading to an overall 2.5 WAR. Bell ignominiously won the team’s worst defensive WAR with at minus-14.8.

— For total WAR, Marte (3.7), Cervelli (3.3) and Dickerson (2.7)led the squad.

We’ll look at the pitchers’ numbers next time.

Thanks for reading, have a great day!
John

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Pirates Notes: Is Cutch Still a Catch?

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MLB Trade Rumors predicts Andrew McCutchen will land a three-year, $45 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. Along with past Cleveland outfielder, Michael Brantley, Cutch is thought to be cream of the free-agent, corner-outfield crop after Bryce Harper. What do you think?

To me, McCutchen was the best Pirates player since Barry Bonds. Let’s get that out of the way.

But he looked bad in left field for the post-season Yankees. He let an Andrew Benintendi pop-fly single down the left-field line plop down in front of him, allowing Mookie Betts go from first to third. The ball totally played Cutch, who waited for it to almost stop before picking it up. Benintendi advanced to second base on Cutch’s late throw to third.

At the plate, he didn’t show the bat speed that made him famous and he wasn’t pulling inside pitches. He might’ve had a strategy of taking everything opposite field, based on what the pitcher scouting reports said (and that’s not a bad thing with New York’s short right-field porch), but that plate aggressiveness just wasn’t there.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into things. Over the course of a long season, players find their levels. Plus, he never played in left field prior to his short stint with the Yankees. But a part of me wonders whether Cutch should simply ride off into the sunset at age 32 and raise the family he so loves.

Big market teams like the Cubs can afford to take on the risk of a three-year deal with a player in decline like Cutch. Heck, Yu Darvish is the team’s current $126 million noose; Alfonso Soriano ($136 million) was its old one. McCutchen has enjoyed plenty of success at Wrigley and wouldn’t be counted on to be The Man. His contract wouldn’t even come close to the albatross that is Jason Heyward ($184 million).

Maybe McCutchen has settled into a new norm. He’s averaged 24 homers with an .802 OPS over the last three seasons. That’s not so bad.

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The rookie tandem of Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer was pure comedic genius in 2018, and not in a good way. Newman has the backing of ESPN’s Keith Law, who has ranked him high on his prospect list because of his batting average potential. That didn’t play in September (.209/.247/.231), but he batted .268 in his final 56 at-bats.

Newman looked bad, defensively, which didn’t jive with his hype. He had trouble making routine throws to first base. According to FanGraphs, he compiled a minus-17.1 UZR/150 and minus-1.1 Defensive WAR.

Because Newman showed little indication that he’s ready to take over full-time shortstop duties, the team will likely look outside the organization for a quick fix.

Kramer’s case is even more confounding. The infielder struck out 20 times in 40 plate appearances, going 5-for-37 with zero extra-base hits. This from a player who slashed .311/.365/.492 with 15 homers and 13 steals at Triple-A.

Twenty strikeouts in 40 plate appearances! That’s hard to do. Former Bucco second baseman, Dave Cash, made 766 plate appearances for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1975. At a similar strikeout rate, Cash would’ve K’d 383 times!

Okay, back to reality.

The Pirates pigeonholed themselves at shortstop, taking Cole Tucker and Newman with first-round picks in back-to-back drafts.

At least one of these two players needs to pan out. Tucker is participating in the Arizona Fall League. He stroked a double in the Fall Stars Game on Saturday. He’s so lanky, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for him to mature into his body. It’s highly unlikely that transformation will take place in 2019 at PNC Park.

Newman and Kramer gained valuable experience coming up in September. Remember, Mike Trout hit .220 with a .672 OPS in 135 plate appearances as a rookie. They will both get better.

In the meantime, the Pirates will look to Jose Iglesias, Jordy Mercer or another bridge (yes, I just used that term) to Newman and/or Tucker.

**

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Congratulations to Corey Dickerson, 2018 National League Gold Glove Award winner in left field. Not only did the Pirates swing a trade for Dickerson after Tampa Bay designated him for assignment, but the team also moved the disappointing Daniel Hudson in the deal.

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Pirates Notes

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What are fans to make of Jung-Ho Kang? Does anyone really know what his value will be in 2019? There are so many questions. The Pirates boosted his perceived value by promoting him for the final regular-season weekend in Cincinnati. When he singled to left field in his first game back, it was as if he’d hit another tape-measure home run. The instant Twitter feedback was unmistakable. Sign him! Pick up his $5.5 million option! The funny thing is that the incumbent third baseman, Colin Moran (who only platooned during the team’s second-half hot stretch), started hitting for extra-base power in September. But that’s another story.

For all of the past history and hype surrounding Kang, he’s never played nearly a full season. He seems to be injury-prone. He hit 15 homers in 126 games as a rookie in 2015 and 21 homers in 103 games in 2016. Those numbers, extrapolated, would look pretty good for a full year. But it’s not reasonable to expect a full season from Kang, now that he’ll be 32 on April 5.

He doesn’t gave the range to play shortstop — the team has already stated he won’t play there, further limiting his versatility. Second base is still possible, but it’s be asking a lot from a player whose seen plenty of welcomed and unwelcomed adjustments over the last few years.

But Kang’s still got what the Pirates most covet.

Power.

The Pirates totaled 157 home runs in 2018. By comparison, the Los Angeles Dodgers led the National League with 235 homers, followed by Milwaukee (218) and Colorado (210).

Only two NL teams hit fewer dingers, including Miami (128) and San Francisco (133). We won’t get into park effects, but it’s evident the Bucs need more Lumber in their Company.

Which brings us back to the thrice-DUI driven Kang.

Does it matter whether he can stay healthy for a full season? Does it matter that he’s had a more-than-checkered past?

For $5.5 million, he seems like an extremely reasonable gamble. Other organizations might view him strictly as a backup and a bat off the bench and pay him that much or more.

As far as his past indiscretions, that ship already sailed once the team promoted him back to the big leagues.

The Pirates are playing Russian Roulette by allowing him to become a free agent. All it takes is one organization to take a chance on the power-hitting third baseman. Ideally, he comes back to the only North American franchise he’s ever known on an incentive-laden deal, but this is last money grab. Don’t be surprised if he sheds the Black & Gold.

**

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So David Freese re-upped with the Dodgers. Good for him. But don’t forget that the Pirates pulled him off the scrap heap when nobody else wanted him during spring training of 2016. Let’s not make him out to be peak Brooks Robinson or Travis Fryman. Perhaps his availability in spring training was a little contrived by MLB ownership changing its M.O., but Freese wasn’t great shakes with the Angels in 2015 (or 2014, for that matter). From different reports, he turned his life around off the field. Good for him. But it wasn’t professional for him to rip the Pirates after the team traded him to the Dodgers when the only team willing to pay him in 2016 was Pittsburgh. Even if what he said was correct.

**

Say what you want about Neal Huntington, but I still think he has good instincts. The Pirates were reportedly very interested in Red Sox pitcher, Rick Porcello, when he threw for Detroit. This isn’t one of those cases where the Pirates are in on every player and don’t get him. I have a feeling they were actually close to acquiring Porcello.

**

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Drafting and developing players remains a weakness, however. Pirates postgame analyst (and former MLB GM, Jack Zdurencik) said that an organization’s scouting director was it’s second most important position. He noted that a team must have talent, something along the lines of the saying “you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken poop” or something like that.

**

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Corey Dickerson has as much chance of beating out Christian Yelich for the Gold Glove in left field as Richie Zisk. Dickerson exceeded expectations playing in PNC Park’s spacious left field, but Yelich is likely the NL’s Most Valuable Player.

It’s good to have a Pirates player making positive news on defense.

Incidentally, the last Pirate infielder to win a Gold Glove was shortstop Jay Bell in 1993. The same Jay Bell who made 59 errors as a minor leaguer for the Minnesota and Cleveland organizations as a 19-year-old in 1985.

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The Pirates finished tied for 19th (with Washington), getting plunked by 59 pitches. What makes this interesting is that the team finished first or second in the major league HBPs ever season from 2013 to 2017. What changed?

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The Bucs ranked second in the majors with 52 sacrifice fly balls. The Yankees led with 59. What are the Yankees doing hitting sac flies when they play in that band box? Colin Moran and Gregory Polanco each hit seven sacrifice flies to lead the team.

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Pittsburgh hurlers threw 16 shutouts, third-most in the majors. Unfortunately, the team was also shut out 17 times.

Pirates pitchers led MLB with 95 wild pitches, one more than the Chicago White Sox. The New York Mets threw the fewest number of wild pitches (26). Reliever Richard Rodriguez threw a team-high 11 wild pitches in 69.1 innings despite delivering a remarkable rookie season and respectable 1.07 WHIP & 88:19 K:BB. Remarkably, Jameson Taillon was tagged with just two wild pitches in 191 innings and Trevor Williams had only two in 170.2 innings.

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Chad Kuhl tied Trevor Williams for the team lead in sacrifice hits (6) despite missing July, August and September.

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Pittsburgh pitchers picked off two baserunners, the fewest of any MLB team.

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Have a good day!
John

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When Sid was still a Kid: A brush with (more) history seven years ago tonight

On November 27, 2010, Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff surrendered a hat trick to the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby. Hard as it is to believe, it wasn’t so much the three goals he allowed as it was the penalty shot he stopped.

Entering the Saturday tilt at newly-opened Consol Energy Center, Crosby was in peak form. He’d already scored 15 goals and 37 points through 24 games. Crosby wouldn’t suffer the career-threatening, Winter Classic concussion for more than another month. UPMC concussion specialist Mickey Collins would later dub the centerman a “Ferrari” after David Steckel’s hit.

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Anyhow, at the 4:14 mark of the first period, Calgary’s Brendan Morrison was called for hooking on Crosby’s breakaway attempt. The Flames’ broadcast crew questioned the call, as you’ll hear during the replay below.

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Crosby brought out every trick in the book with his fakes, but Kiprusoff wouldn’t bite. In fact, it almost looked like Crosby back-handed the puck directly into the goalie’s glove on purpose. At the time, little did anyone watching the game realize the impact that save would have on hockey history.

Following a rare goal by the Pens’ Arron Asham to open scoring in the second period (I can’t recall whether Asham gave his Mario Lemieux glove-wiggle tribute after the goal), Crosby made it 2-0 with an even-strength goal from Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang.

The Penguins captain then collected his second goal of the game – a power-play marker — midway through the third. The goal represented Crosby’s 200th of his career. Paul Martin and Letang were credited with assists on the play.

Flames forward Rene Bourque ended any hopes of a Pittsburgh shutout, tallying his 11th goal with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation. So with a 3-1 lead late, goalie Brent Johnson was pretty much assured of a victory. But the fun wasn’t quite over.

When Letang was called for holding with less than two minutes left in the game, Calgary went on the power play. The Flames, naturally, pulled their goalie.

Then, with 37 ticks left, Crosby capped off his hat trick with a short-handed, empty-net goal.

Here are Crosby’s three goals.

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“The Kid” – he was still only 23 at the time, potted three goals four different ways: even strength, power play, short-handed and empty net. All that was missing was a penalty shot.

The NHL.com is holding a vote for the single greatest moment in the league’s 100-year history. The final two moments include Mario Lemieux scoring five goals five different ways and Bobby Orr floating away with a Stanley-Cup winning, overtime score.

Monday marks the seventh anniversary of Sidney Crosby’s dance, when he nearly did Le Magnifique one better, and nearly scored five different ways on only four goals.

As it stands, November 27, 2010 is little more than a footnote to Crosby’s illustrious career, but if Crosby had gone five-hole on Kiprusoff instead of backhand on his penalty shot attempt … one wonders. The NHL might well have had another “greatest moment” in its final round of voting.

Crosby would go on to notch 14 goals and add 13 helpers in his next 16 games before Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman would concuss him for a second time in as many games with an innocent-looking check behind the net, ending his season.

*****

https://www.nhl.com/news/bobby-orr-mario-lemieux-reach-greatest-nhl-moment-final/c-293237268?tid=282169076

https://www.hockey-reference.com/boxscores/201011270PIT.html

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The Legacy of Jordan Staal

Jordan Staal has made six visits to Pittsburgh since moving on to Carolina in 2012, scoring one goal and one assist. His career with the Penguins is now far enough in the rear view mirror to take a reflective look at one of the most anticipated careers in Pittsburgh history. He played six years with the Pens and is currently in his fifth season with the Hurricanes.

Staal netted a short-handed goal against Boston in his last game Dec. 24. The shortie was his first of the season. As an 18-year-old a decade ago, the Thunder Bay native cut his NHL teeth with his ability to excel on special teams. His 6-foot-4 size and wing span gave him supernatural pterodactyl skills, according to Pens announcer, Bob Errey. Staal potted seven shorties as a rookie with the Penguins in 2006-07.  His play brought up recollections of Mario Lemieux’s franchise record of 13 short-handed scores in 1988-89. Last week’s goal against the Bruins gives him eight short-handed scores in the last 10 NHL campaigns, or one more combined than his fairy tale rookie season.

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Penguins fans often think about the “what if’s” in the NHL entry draft. Staal was selected second overall in 2006. Jonathan Toews was taken third by the Chicago Blackhawks and Nicklas Backstrom fourth by Washington. Phil Kessel, for that matter, was drafted fifth by the Bruins — but he’s worked out okay with Pittsburgh.

Sure, it would have been nice if Toews played his Hall of Fame career at Mellon Arena, Consol Energy Center, PPG Paints Arena, etc. but then social media addicts wouldn’t be able to compare Toews to Sidney Crosby and tell the hockey world why No. 87 is sooo much better. But that’s a story for another day.

Things probably haven’t worked out the way Staal envisioned when he picked Carolina over Pittsburgh. Actually, he was traded to the ‘Canes, but only after he forced the issue at the 2012 draft with GM Ray Shero. Staal wanted reunited with older brother Eric, now of the Minnesota Wild. He got it, but things never really clicked. Staal also wanted to prove he was much more than a third line center. That hasn’t worked out either, though injuries forced him to miss nearly half a season in 2014-15.

Staal’s only significant injury in Pittsburgh was when Montreal’s PK Subban slashed his foot with his skate blade, resulting in a staff infection back in 2010-11.

That magical season of 2006-07 is one of the most memorable debuts in Penguins history. Staal finished the season with 29 goals and a 22.1 shooting percentage — marks he’s never approached again. We’ll forgive him for finishing third in the Calder Trophy Award voting, Evgeni Malkin won rookie of the year honors.

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He had other big moments for the Pens, like the time he completed a hat trick in the third period ALONE in Detroit on Nov. 11, 2008, then set up Ruslan Fedotenko for the OT game-winner. That was one of the greatest single-game efforts in Penguins lore.

His Game 4 goal (short-handed, no less) in the 2008-09 Stanley Cup Final helped Pittsburgh even the series against Detroit.

On a team with Crosby and Malkin, Staal was never going to be the go-to guy in Pittsburgh but he more than carved out a lasting legacy on a Stanley Cup winner. And after all, that’s what it’s all about.

Flags fly forever.

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Penguins Thoughts: Thanksgiving Break

 

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Sidney Crosby.

His David Steckel-induced concussion in the 2011 Winter Classic was bad, but it wasn’t what caused him to miss chunks of the next two seasons. What caused him to sit out was the second concussion he sustained four days later on a Victor Hedman check behind the net.

Two concussions in a short period of time ruined Crosby for two years.

As a result, Pittsburgh needs to be extra careful handling his return to action right now.

Following Wednesday’s practice, Crosby mindfully noted he’s looking to continue a progression from the brain injury. He was quick to remind reporters that even though he had a smile on his face, it didn’t mean there couldn’t be concussion symptoms later in the day.

Truly, the only sure way to prevent Crosby from suffering a second concussion is to sit him out. While his brain’s game has been compared to that of a Ferrari, the Pens’ medical staff needs to consider the player’s long-term future over its short-term desires.

Let’s face it. The pressure is enormous for Crosby to return from both inside and outside the organization. Crosby missing the Pens-Sharks reunion Nov. 5 in San Jose would be a shame.

Pittsburgh’s captain got hurt during Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend. It would be more than prudent to sit him out through the United States’ Thanksgiving, having him make his season debut Nov. 25 in Minnesota or Nov. 26 at home against New Jersey.

Will it happen? Probably not, but it should. It’s the only way to ensure he doesn’t suffer a pair of concussions in a short period of time and miss another Stanley Cup run.

 

Random Thoughts

Whatever became of Mario Lemieux’s intention of selling his shares in the Penguins? On one hand it could be considered a bad time to sell with the franchise coming off its fourth Stanley Cup championship. On the other hand, the adage “buy low, sell high” makes a lot of sense too.*David Morehouse stated Thursday morning the Pens aren’t for sale.

Watching Root Sport’s showing of 1992 Game 4 Pens-Rangers on Wednesday really showed how close to the action the seats were at the Civic/Mellon Arena. That’s something Consol/PPG Paints Arena doesn’t offer. I will also add that it’s good PPG Paints Arena finally has a championship banner of its own to hang from the rafters instead of banners mostly earned from the era of the old barn.

Enjoy Opening Night!

**

 

 

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An Ode to Neil Walker, Jamison Taillon & Dad

I suddenly got emotional Wednesday morning while watching a DVR of Tuesday’s Pirates-Mets game featuring the return of Neil Walker. Yes, I was there live Tuesday working both games, as I have for the last 15 years, but things have changed, for Walker and for me.

 

As part of my labor of love, I’ve written for Rotowire fantasy sports for more than a decade. This gives me an excuse to pay close attention to baseball, something I’d do for free. Tuesday brought into focus a player I’ve watched since he was in high school, a player my father and I travelled to see play in Peters Township in the spring of 2004, right before Pittsburgh selected him with its first-round pick in the 2004 draft.

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Fast forward to Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

 

Walker is at the plate, doffing his cap before thousands of empty PNC Park empty seats – thanks to a 4:00 PM start – and probably five thousand fans scattered throughout the park for the first of two games.

 

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle claps for Walker from the dugout, as does pitcher Jeff Locke among others. Of course nearly all of the fans clap, too. Personally, I can’t believe not everybody is standing – most are, but I feel like telling those who aren’t to get up.

 

Then it hit me. While watching the replay the camera scans the first level, first base side and catches a gentleman in faded blue jeans and an old top, holding a camera in front of his face to get a good photo of Walker.

 

That would be my dad. I mean, it would’ve been him if he were still alive. This is the kind of baseball moment he lived for. He loved getting pictures of Pirates players and he loved snapping photos of Walker. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I’d seen my dad’s ghost in the ROOT Sports Pittsburgh panning the crowd and capturing the older gentleman with the faded blue jeans.

 

Well, this story isn’t supposed to be about Walker, it just happened. What I meant to write about is the impending debut of Jameson Taillon.

 

Taillon will make his major league debut Wednesday, five long years after being drafted by the Bucs. He’ll face the unenviable task of matching up against Noah Syndergaard, better known as “Thor” for his flowing blond locks of hair and a 98-mph fastball.

 

Unsurprisingly, this brings me back to another memory of dad.

 

Traveling to spring training is something my dad and I (and a couple times my sister, Joy) enjoyed doing since 2003.

 

We discovered Pirate City, where the minor leaguers gain instruction, in 2009 and a couple trips later we (mostly me, but I’ll include my dad here) anticipated the first glimpse of the player the organization selected ahead of Manny Machado, Taillon.

 

It’s the spring of 2011 and my dad wouldn’t be diagnosed with Stage 4 Mantle Cell Lymphoma for another nine months. He’s still getting around fine, better than most 78-year-olds.

 

We stumble across one of my buddies, Bob, who was (and still is) a season-ticket holders right behind home plate where I ushered before I had my cerebellar stroke. Bob’s a great guy and even joined my fantasy baseball league.

 

Well anyhow, Taillon pops out from one of the four practice fields and is heading toward another one, but first stops to sign a couple autographs.

 

I yell to my dad to get his picture, get his picture. Dad always liked getting the perfect shot, but he didn’t know the prospects. I served as his “Director of shooting prospects with bright future” and wanted to make sure he snapped Taillon.

 

He got a nice shot of Bob with Taillon and I think he got one of me with the pitcher, too, but what I really wanted was just a shot of the pitcher. Some of his photos would actually be published in the annual Rotowire baseball magazine.

 

Taillon was ever gracious and along with fellow draft pick, Stetson Allie, posed for my father.

 

Dad took a couple pics but the lighting apparently wasn’t good, so he “told” the players to take their hats off. Yep, in the middle of drills, my dad asked a pair of professional baseball players to take their hats off to so he could see their faces.

 

Out of respect, they obliged. My dad had a way of getting things done that would embarrass me. But then looking back, I’d be glad he did what he did.

 

Here’s his shot.

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So when I watch Jameson Taillon throw out his first pitch Wednesday evening at approximately 7:08 PM, I won’t be thinking of the highly touted pitcher, I’ll be thinking of dad.

 

He was a season-ticket holder at PNC Park and you’d better be darn sure he’d have been there to witness both Walker and Taillon.

 

He loved the theater, he loved the countless friends he made at the park and he loved the energy he felt and shared with others around him.

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Miss you dad, but I know where you’ll be Wednesday night. See you then.

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Pirates Frustrations Runneth Over Against Cubs

Gerrit Cole has every right to do what he wants when he’s not on the clock, maybe blow off some steam after starting 2016 poorly. But to me, he’d be better off doing it a little more privately than banging on the glass at a Penguins playoff game, screaming at Capitals players and publicly getting reprimanded by Consol’s staff. He’s not Nick Mangold. Cole is the Pirates’ player union representative.

Maybe the bigger question is why is he the union representative? He complained about $3K when his agent figures to get him, what, $150 million-plus in a few years? How the Pirates didn’t name a more senior player to be union rep really surprises me. Chris Stewart would make for the perfect choice. He’s on the wrong side of 30, appears to be well-liked, and he’s signed for two seasons.

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Andrew McCutchen has earned the right to act the way he did Tuesday, when he called for the official scorer to be fired because he charged the center fielder with an error on a tough liner. Cutch was probably frustrated by a litany of things that didn’t go his team’s way – first and foremost, getting swept by the big, bad Cubs. Should he have handled things differently? Yes. Would he like a do-over? I’m certain he would. But you don’t wash out eight good years with one silly statement.

Here’s what I’m wondering. Has McCutchen gotten his vision checked lately? I would have the team trainer, Todd Tomczyk (who has become chief spokesman to the media this year, it seems), to set up an eye exam. Cutch is missing catchable fly balls and his swing-and-miss rates are above his career averages.

One last thing on McCutchen. With so many fly balls getting over his head, I would move him back the 17 feet he’s moved in from a center field positioning aspect. My own eyeball test hasn’t seen any great reduction in singles dropping in front of McCutchen to offset the seven or eight balls that have just gone over his glove for extra-base hits. I think Cutch may be frustrated with where he’s lining up in the outfield but is too much of a team player to say anything.

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I’m curious to see how the infield and outfield play out when Jung-Ho Kang returns. A number of outsiders believe Kang will play shortstop so David Freese can stick at third, but the team has said it doesn’t want added stress on Kang’s surgically-rebuilt knee. I agree. Freese played four innings at second base Tuesday. That’s really interesting. We all know Josh Harrison doesn’t have to stay at second to be effective. Would he like to play exclusively at one spot, sure, but that might not be best for the team. No one has more heart than Harrison. He gets more out of his actual skill – which is really average – than anybody else.

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Sean Rodriguez has knocked the ball off its cover for most of the first five-plus weeks. I remember when he was a young prospect with Los Angeles and he had 20-plus homer potential written all over him. He was highly touted. Alas, he’s settled into a decent big league career. Good for him.

Rodriguez is one of the more emotional players I’ve seen. That can be a great thing, or as water coolers know, it can be a bad thing too. Tuesday, he was playing tight. He missed a foul ball at first base, a pop up he took too long to get over to the railing for. The ball actually bounced off the playing field and not in the stands. Then he got picked off first base against Jon Lester. That’s hard to do. Catcher David Ross fired to first base after a Lester pitch and SeanRod was dead meat. He wants to win so badly and help his team, but he has to play within himself, play smart.

Later in the game, Rodriguez came to the plate with the bases loaded and no outs. He cracked a foul ball down the left-field line. The shot was about five feet foul and deflated the inning. Rodriguez struck out and the next two Pirates also made outs. The team was looking for that one big hit. It would have been interesting to see the Bucs play loose. Instead, they were as tight as a brick.

Finally with Rodriguez (I never realized he was such the topic of conversation) he batted against reliever Pedro Strop on Wednesday – and he let emotions get the best of him. Rodriguez felt Strop was quick pitching him. He was, as he had been doing throughout the series. Why did that affect Rodriguez? Why did he have words with the pitcher during his at-bat? He should have been ready for the quick pitches and the differing deliveries. All of the other batters saw it during the series. As it turns out, Rodriguez struck out.

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Penguins Notes: Crosby’s Point Drought, Fleury’s Shootout Woes, Rutherford’s Decision

By John Toperzer

GM Jim Rutherford specifically brought in goalie Thomas Greiss on a one-year, $1 million deal to back up Marc-Andre Fleury. It was preordained since before training camp that Greiss would take the reigns from Jeff Zatkoff, pretty much regardless of preseason performance, There’s little doubt the German is Rutherford’s baby, signed and sealed by the GM. The results have gotten progressively worse, however, after Greiss played fairly well in his first five starts (all on the road).

Greiss holds a 2.88 GAA and .906 save percentage. He’s allowed three or more goals in 10 of his 12 starts. Would you trust him in the playoffs? If not, would you trust Zatkoff? Twenty-year-old netminder, Matt Murray, has played well for the Baby Penguins but he’s not ready for the NHL. Tristan Jarry, 19, is in the midst of his third and statistically-worst season for the Edmonton Oil Kings (18-21-5, 2.70 GAA, .908 save percentage).

If the Pens don’t trust Greiss or Zatkoff – Fleury has started the same 78 percent of contests he did in 2013-14 – then a deadline deal for a goalie should be in order. Will Rutherford admit he made a mistake, or least admit things haven’t worked out the way he’d hoped?

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After a six-goal, 27-game stretch for Sidney Crosby, he’s scored two goals twice in the last four contests. From his play, it looks like he’s back. From a historical perspective, how does Crosby’s 2014-15 stack up against his other nine NHL seasons? Let’s take a look.

Below is a list showing the seasonal percentages Crosby has picked up at least one point in games played.

Season ** Games Played ** Gms Scoring Point ** % of Gms With Point

2005-06 — 81 — 59 — 73 percent
2006-07 — 79 — 60 — 76 percent
2007-08 — 53 — 43 — 81 percent
2008-09 — 77 — 55 — 71 percent
2009-10 — 81 — 56 — 69 percent
2010-11 — 41 — 35 — 85 percent
2011-12 — 22 — 15 — 68 percent
2012-13 — 36 — 28 — 78 percent
2013-14 — 80 — 60 — 75 percent
2014-15 — 51 — 30 — 59 percent

As you can see, Crosby has scored at least one point in only 59 percent of games played in 2014-15. That’s the lowest output of his 10-year career — from a percentage basis. His best season occurred in 2010-11, when he pointed in 85 percent of games played.

What does this mean? It probably means he hasn’t played consistently well, thus far, which isn’t shocking. Of course, the mumps have something to do with his numbers. So does the continual shifting of linemates due to injury. Fortunately for the Penguins and Crosby there are still 27 games remaining to get on a roll heading into the playoffs.

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A check of eBay showed two “Sindey Crosby” mistake programs sold for $125 apiece.

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Kris Letang has had picked up a point in over half of the Pens’ goals during the last 14 games. He’s got 19 points (2G, 17A) while Pittsburgh has totaled 37 goals.

In the preseason, new coach Mike Johnston’s system was supposed to help Letang as much or more than any other player. Mission accomplished.

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Hockey Buzz’s Ryan Wilson recently penned an article showing his love for Mario Lemieux entitled Valentine’s Love For My Personal Favorite.

In my opinion, “Le Magnifique” was the greatest. It’s funny, though. He did have more than his fair share of detractors. A lot of folks equated Lemieux with Michael Jordan as “individual” players who had great stats but no championships. That was circa 1988. We all know what happened in both cases after that. It had to be frustrating for Lemieux to play on a team with Warren Young while the Great One skated with so many Hall of Famers, especially since Lemieux was compared to the older Gretzky every step of the way. Gretzky “won” the head-to-head competition more times than not, but the sample size was so small and teammate skillsets differed so greatly between Edmonton’s and Pittsburgh’s rosters.

Here are three of my favorite Lemieux mentions.

3. In a two-season span from 1988 to 1990, Lemieux scored a total of 23 short-handed goals. That’s goals, not points.
2. When Lemieux retired from the “Garage League” in 1997, he led the NHL in career goals-scored per game (0.82). When he returned three and a half seasons, later, those numbers dipped to (0.45) for the rest of his career (which was still impressive considering the dead puck).
1. The most decorated coach in NHL history, Scottie Bowman, often said that Lemieux was the best penalty killer he saw.

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Rick Tocchet and Jaromir Jagr seemed to get along really well when the two played together. Tocchet called him “Jages” — rhymes with “Begs” — rather than “Jags” rhyming with Boggs.

Twitter celebrated Jagr’s 43rd birthday the moment the clock struck 12, reminding me of another time the clock struck 12 with Jagr. The Pittsburgh Sports Garden was a popular nightclub in Station Square. I happened to be hanging out there with my buddies and Jagr walked in. At midnight, someone got on the PA system and wished Jagr a happy 20th birthday. Yes, he was in a bar and underaged. He was also in the bar while serving a 10-game NHL suspension as I remember.

A quick Google search turned up a Lemieux-Stevens-Jagr suspension article.

Apparently Jagr invaded the personal space of a referee.

“I haven`t seen three guys get thrown out of a game like that since the Hansen brothers in ‘Slapshot,'” Penguins center Ron Francis noted.

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TSN’s Scott Cullen recently wrote and article entitled Change the Names, It’s the Stats that Matter.”

Here are some hockey stats I’d like to see published.

Odd-man rushes, for and against: List forwards on the ice as well as defensemen.

Posts hit: Use this number not only for goalies, but also for shooters.

Disallowed goals: Chris Kunitz likely led the league in this category several seasons.

Specific penalties called by individual referees: Almost like in baseball with what is the strike zone.

What statistics would you like to see listed?

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Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury leads the NHL with eight shutouts and has arguably been the Pens’ MVP in 2014-15. One area in which he typical excels in but has just been so-so is the shootout.

Season ** Shots Attempted ** Goals Allowed ** Save Percentage

2005-06 — 05 — 04 — .200
2006-07 — 39 — 09 — .769
2007-08 — 03 — 00 — 1.000
2008-09 — 22 — 06 — .727
2009-10 — 23 — 06 — .739
2010-11 — 38 — 06 — .842
2011-12 — 39 — 09 — .769
2012-13 — 08 — 02 — .750
2013-14 — 28 — 05 — .821
2014-15 — 19 — 07 — .632

The Flower’s shootout save percentage of .632 is the lowest since his rookie year.

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Pens Audio

Mike Johnston:

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Treasure Life!
JT

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