PITTSBURGH -- Short of drafting an exceptionally fast linebacker who will become a franchise pillar, the Steelers were never going to truly replace Ryan Shazier, who will miss the 2018 season because of a severe spinal injury.
Without Shazier's rangy playmaking from sideline to sideline, the Steelers are forced to modify their identity a bit. The defense is built from the inside out, with anchor defensive ends Cam Hayward and Stephon Tuitt. Their contracts, worth up to a combined $120 million, say so. But Shazier's ability and a growing knack for creating interceptions improved the Steelers' pass coverage and streamlined their overall defensive attack in the back seven.
It's a rush-and-cover league, a style that suited Shazier perfectly.
Since finding that speed in free agency was not a possibility, the Steelers must adapt.
The last week has provided a glimpse into the team's plans:
Safety versatility: The signing of Morgan Burnett at three years for $14.5 million shows the Steelers are serious about improving a back end that had too many missed tackles and communication breakdowns late in the season. The team didn't enter free agency expecting to spend big but saw a sagging safety market and smartly attacked it.
Burnett is best suited as a strong safety but can play both spots, giving the team flexibility to move Sean Davis to free safety if that's the best route. The Burnett signing could affect J.J. Wilcox ($3.8 million cap hit), but the Steelers told Wilcox this offseason that he'd be in the mix to compete for a job.
With these three, the team can draft a safety but won't be forced to reach for one. Burnett was forced into helping out at corner for the Packers' depleted secondary in 2018, but he can play at slot corner in a bind or as a run-stopper.
The Steelers covet hybrid players.
“The more you can do, the longer you can stay around," Burnett told reporters after his signing Tuesday. "I have things in my toolbox that I'm capable to move around and play different positions if need be."
The succession plan: After signing a two-year, $4 million deal in the second wave of free agency, inside linebacker Jon Bostic is likely a stopgap option for the Steelers in the middle of the defense. But the Steelers were woefully thin at the spot opposite Vince Williams, and Bostic's signing represents progress. Even if he has lost a step, Bostic was a second-round pick in 2013 with a 4.61-second time in the 40. He should be able to help stop passes in the flat and in tight end coverage until a rookie linebacker is ready, which might be soon.
Cost-conscious improvement: The Steelers are seemingly always in need of more cap space, but they found a way to navigate the second wave of free agency by not overpaying based on the talent. Burnett at roughly $4.83 million per year is good business. He's a 29-year-old who started 102 games for a contender. According to a few scouts, Burnett has plenty of game left as a crafty veteran and opportunistic tackler.
Much was made of the Steelers' ability to replenish the defense while carrying Le'Veon Bell's $14.5-million franchise tag. Oh no, they have no cap space! Well, they just got two starters for less than $7 million per year -- likely less than that in 2018, depending on how signing bonuses and salaries are structured.
Still about the draft: The Steelers have spent their last five first-round picks on defense, and all five started significant games in their first seasons. The Steelers are unafraid to throw a young player into the mix. T.J. Watt was last year's unquestioned starter in training camp. That's why if an inside linebacker the Steelers like falls to late in the first round, the team will give him the chance to fill Shazier's void in earnest.
Enough needs are filled, so the Steelers can take the best-player-available approach. But even though they say that's their formula, all their recent top picks have filled positions of need.
The Steelers have a challenge to duplicate Shazier's athleticism in the first round, but a playmaker somewhere in the back seven might just help put them over the top.
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal against the Montreal Canadiens at PPG Paints Arena on March 21, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby doesn't really have an explanation for how he does what he does. He just does it.
So if you're looking for clarity on how the Pittsburgh Penguins star managed to knock a pass from Jake Guentzel out of the air , deflect it forward to the front of his stick before tapping it by one of the best goaltenders on the planet to spark his team to a 5-3 win over Montreal, look elsewhere.
"You try to finish plays out in practice," Crosby said after the 406th goal of his career, one unlike the 405 that came before it. "Sometimes it works out that you can do it in the game and sometimes it doesn't. Fortunately, it did today."
Montreal rallied from a two-goal deficit to take a 3-2 lead 14:24 into the third on Jacob de la Rose's fourth goal of the season. The advantage lasted less than a minute. Guentzel chipped a pass to Crosby and Crosby did the rest.
"Are you surprised, really?" said Price, who finished with 34 saves in his return after missing a month due to a concussion. "It was a great play. I tried to hit it and he got it first, then he batted it back in. That's pretty impressive."
And pretty necessary for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, who avoided dropping both games of a back-to-back against also-rans Montreal and the New York Islanders.
"It was a huge goal for us," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "It was an answer to the goal that they got to gain the lead to go in. To go in after two periods with a tie game was really important for us."
Derick Brassard put the Penguins in front to stay by beating Price 2:38 into the third period and Crosby became the third active player with 700 career assists when he set up Guentzel for an insurance goal with less than 2 minutes to play.
"It was a weird second period but I think after the second we knew it was a big two points for us," said Guentzel, who had a goal and two assists. "We needed to come out in the third and I think we did that tonight."
Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist also scored for the Penguins, who drew within two points of idle first-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division. Casey DeSmith finished with 27 saves and happened to have a pretty good view of Crosby treating the puck like a yo-yo.
"That was one of the cooler things I'll see," DeSmith said. "It was perfect timing, too, right at the end of the second, get it right back, I think that was a huge goal."
Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Scherbak and Jacob de la Rose scored for the Canadiens but Montreal lost for the ninth time in 10 games.
"It doesn't matter if you're young or old, it sucks to lose," Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher said. "I don't think anyone in here is happy with how it's been going lately. You come to the rink everyday with the expectation that you're going to win a hockey game and too many times, I think we've left disappointed. It's been tough."
The Penguins are in the midst of a sluggish stretch in which they've mixed performances where they look very much like a team capable of winning a third straight Cup with clunkers like their 4-1 loss to the fading New York Islanders on Tuesday night. Sullivan chastised his players afterward for yet another lethargic start and lacklustre play in the defensive end.
Barely 24 hours later, the start was better after Malkin and Hornqvist gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead, but the play in their defensive zone was iffy at best.
Drouin scored off the rush late in the first period to give the Canadiens momentum. Scherbak tied it 8:19 into the second with a gorgeous short-handed deke by DeSmith. Montreal briefly took the lead when de la Rose followed his own shot, skating by three guys in black sweaters to tap in his own rebound.
Crosby, however, responded in a way few of his peers can.
"You're really sure what he's going to do," Guentzel said. "I think he amazes you every night."
NOTES: The game featured a rarity: two penalty shots. Price easily stopped Pittsburgh's Derick Brassard in the first. DeSmith turned aside Gallagher in the second. ... Pittsburgh is 9-6-2 in the second night of back-to-backs. ... Montreal's 24 road losses are a franchise record. ... Linesman Steve Miller left late in the second period and missed several minutes after having his right hand gashed. Miller was back on the ice for the start of the third period.
Canadiens: At Buffalo on Friday night. Montreal is 3-0 against the Sabres this season.
Penguins: Host New Jersey on Friday night. The Devils have won the first two meetings this season.
The Penguins’ captain, Sidney Crosby, with the Stanley Cup after Game 6 of the 2017 Finals. It was the third Cup for Crosby, who also won his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy.CreditChristopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Despite some encouraging signs over the last couple of years (broadcasting the last World Cup of Hockey, hiring arguably the most groundbreaking hockey writer of the past decade in Greg "Puck Daddy" Wyshynski), ESPN is hardly viewed by NHL fans as friendly toward the highest level of the coolest game on Earth.
To be fair, were there more fans of the NHL in America, ESPN probably wouldn't mostly treat the NHL as simply a league to which it is obligated to pay a smattering of attention. Of course, if ESPN did pay more attention to the NHL, the league probably would draw in a bigger American audience.
Who cares, right?
Well, you should care. If you're a fan of the Penguins or Sidney Crosby or a Penguins fan because of Crosby, you should care at least a little.
Crosby has suffered from a fractured relationship between the NHL and ESPN. He had the bad luck of joining the NHL after its games stopped being broadcast on ESPN properties.
So even though Crosby has lived up to his "The Next One" expectations, he hasn't been propped up by ESPN — the One And Only for a majority of American sports fans.
Crosby deserves to be a national name in our national sports conversation. He isn't, and it isn't because he has failed to deliver since driving the NHL's comeback from the self-imposed exile that was the 2004-05 season lost to a lockout.
Were it not for parts of two seasons lost to a concussion and a chunk of one surrendered to a broken jaw, Crosby likely would be a four-time MVP with at least three championships. If you're wondering, that essentially would make him LeBron James, who rates second on ESPN The Magazine's list.
Is it safe to presume freak injuries prevented the Face of the NHL from making this list?
If so, why would that be the case?
Crosby is the NHL's sixth-leading scorer since ESPN The Magazine debuted, and his debut occurred eight years after the publication's first issue. He also leads the NHL in that time in points-per-game, playoff MVPs, Olympic golden goals and undefeated international runs.
And if we're talking about all athletes, let's talk, like, for real. Crosby successfully pulled his league from the brink of obscurity, pried his franchise from the edge of relocation and pushed a clueless hockey culture toward taking (somewhat) seriously the protection of players' brains.
Crosby is at least the best NHL player since Mario Lemieux, maybe since Wayne Gretzky and perhaps more influential in his sport than either of the two greatest hockey players the galaxy has known. Also, in his 13th season, he remains a consensus pick as the NHL's best player.
Is James in the NBA? Is Roger Federer in tennis?
Seems there is at least a debate about where each of those undeniably dominant athletes stands amongst peers. There really isn't a debate about Crosby , who is holding off the Oilers' Connor McDavid at least as well as Gretzky did Lemieux in the mid- to late-1980s.
Lists are always subjective. ESPN The Magazine claims "foolproof math" for its list, but the omission of Michael Phelps certainly suggests foolishness was worked into the equation.
Still, at least Phelps' absence was raised by ESPN's radio and television personalities during debates about ESPN The Magazine's list Tuesday. Crosby was not part of those debates.
It's as if the greatest hockey player of his generation isn't on the radar at the sports media giant. It's a shame but not a surprise.
Sidney Patrick Crosby is well into a second decade of dominance.
But his star isn't shining as bright it should in America because Crosby's dominance has coincided with the NHL and ESPN being worlds apart.
Rob Rossi is a contributing columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Real_RobRossi.
A lot of that disappointment, though, was rooted in the perception that the Steelers had also already decided against signing any one of the other top-flight free agent safeties who had been sitting idle on the open market for a week.
After all, they had just interviewed Miami's Michael Thomas, who appears to be more worthy of replacing Rob Golden as a backup than Mike Mitchell as a starter.
Plus some high-end projections at the start of free agency had the likes of Morgan Burnett and Eric Reid getting upwards of $8 million against the cap annually in a new contract.
So, with Mathieu heading to Houston, we were staring at the prospect of the Steelers having to convert Cam Sutton to safety or rely on the bargain basement of the free agent market or just pray that a first- or second-round draft pick at safety could start from Day 1 out of training camp.
Then Tuesday morning rolls around, and Burnett is a Steeler.
How did that happen?
The answer is: patience.
General manager Kevin Colbert may have just gotten the Steelers into a better spot than if they had signed Mathieu in the first place.
If you are someone who wanted to pay a higher cap hit for the younger, more splashy, perhaps bigger-play — but often injured — safety for just one year, then you wanted Mathieu.
If you wanted the more versatile, steady, veteran — but often injured — safety for multiple years at a lower rate, then you are happy the Steelers passed on Mathieu and wound up with Burnett.
The perfect world probably would've been getting Mathieu on Burnett's contract. Which was reported by NFL Network to be $14.5 million over three years, with $10 million guaranteed over the first two seasons.
That wasn't going to happen, though.
In fact, Mathieu coming on the market and signing the contract he did probably helped deflate Burnett's payout for the Steelers. Because whether he was worthy of it or not, if Mathieu had approached free agency traditionally like Burnett and the other safeties coming off expiring deals did, his reputation would've made him the most sought-after player on the board at the position.
So when Mathieu inked a one-year, $7 million “prove-it” deal, dreams of four- and five-year contracts exceeding $30 million went out the window for the likes of Burnett and Reid.
“I didn't get too wrapped up in it,” Burnett told reporters Tuesday after his signing was officially announced. “I'm confident in my skill sets, knowing that one day I would get a call.”
Colbert's patience paid off. If he had jumped to upgrade at safety during the legal tampering period to simply get a better player than Mitchell — such as Burnett — he would've had to pay more to get him.
He may have been bidding against himself, as it turns out.
Now, not only are the Steelers getting potentially a better player with less verbal baggage than Mitchell, but they are doing so at roughly the same cost of the savings of ditching him.
And, as opposed to Mathieu, you don't have to worry about filling the void next year or competing for Burnett's services on the open market if you want to keep him.
Well played. Especially because you got a guy who was perceived to be out of the Steelers' price range in February.
“In Green Bay, our defense was interchangeable,” Burnett said. “In the program it says ‘free' or ‘strong.' But technically if you are a safety, you've got to play both.”
Does Burnett bring the panache of the Honey Badger? No.
If, on March 12, you had told me the Steelers would've signed him to replace Mitchell, would I have been thrilled? Yes.
And if you told me it would've been at this price, I would've told you that you were insanely optimistic.
Then again, for months I've been telling tons of doubters that the Steelers wouldn't be barred from addressing inside linebacker and safety in free agency just because Le'Veon Bell was on the franchise tag.
They did both in the last two days.
So maybe seeing is believing for all of us.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.
Grade: B. The Steelers stayed away from the expensive linebackers in the $5 million- to $9 million-per year range and opted for a journeyman who capitalized on a starting chance in Indianapolis with 97 tackles and a sack. Bostic, who agreed to a two-year contract, will be viewed as a good stopgap to replaceRyan Shazier until a draft pick develops.
What it means: The Steelers' inside linebacker position opposite Vince Williams is wide open, and Bostic signed with the expectation that he'll compete for a starting job. The team was not planning to re-sign Sean Spence. Tyler Matakevich is primarily Williams' backup, though he can play both spots. Bostic is a former second-round pick who ran a 4.61 in the 40 at the combine. He's on his fourth team since 2015, so this is hardly a long-term option unless Bostic majorly builds off his 2017 campaign.
What’s the risk: Limited risk for a player who will probably command about $2 million per year. The Steelers entered the weekend with about $6.5 million in cap space, just enough to add linebacker depth and maybe special-teams help. This is a smart signing for a team that wasn't going to spend wildly. Shazier isn't playing in 2018, and the team couldn't sit idle after the run defense struggled late in the year, giving up at least 150 yards in three of the final six games.
The credibility of the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) died in 1989, when Wayne Gretzky was selected despite Mario Lemieux having 31 more points (all goals).
Gretzky's Los Angeles team had just four more points than Lemieux's Penguins, so that was no appreciable factor.
No good explanation was ever given for this blatant robbery, likely because none existed. Pro-Anglophone prejudice, perhaps, or maybe a reward for Gretzky (presumably) helping the NHL's profile by going to Los Angeles that season. It was Gretzky's last MVP.
“I judge myself by Stanley Cups and scoring titles, because nobody votes on those,” Lemieux famously said later.
Keeping that in mind is a good way to begin discussion of this season's Hart Trophy balloting.
There are three clear front-running candidates, with one dark horse. The dark horse could emerge further if his team makes the playoffs.
The three front-runners are:
• Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay winger. Kucherov leads the NHL in scoring, and the Lightning have the second-most points in hockey.
• Evgeni Malkin, Penguins center. Malkin is second in points and goals, and the Penguins sit second in the Metropolitan Division.
• Alex Ovechkin, Washington winger. Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals, and the Capitals lead the Metro Division. Ovechkin is propping up a fading Capitals team that lost several key players from last season and is suffering through a bad year by goaltender Braden Holtby.
The dark horse is:
• Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado center. MacKinnon is fourth in scoring. His Avalanche are tied for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. If Colorado makes the postseason, MacKinnon will be rightly perceived to have elevated the Avalanche after finishing last in the West last year.
The explanations are simplest for the candidacies of Kucherov and Malkin. That makes them the best choices. Each has strong individual stats. Each is part of a successful team and legit Stanley Cup contender. It's about how the player does and how his team does: Keep it concise.
Whenever explaining your choice for an award gets complicated, you're too often indulging personal preference. Finding a reason to pick the player you like (or not pick the player you don't).
That brings us to New Jersey's Taylor Hall.
Hall is being touted in many circles as a strong Hart candidate. The Devils winger is having a great season and looks the part. Speed and skill.
But Hall is just 12th in scoring, and his team sits precariously in the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot. How “valuable” is Hall if he's not among the top 10 scorers and New Jersey misses the postseason? To put Hall in a class with (especially) Kucherov and Malkin is letting the imagination run wild.
Hall has one big qualification: He's Canadian. So is MacKinnon. Kucherov, Malkin and Ovechkin are not.
Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association select the Hart Trophy winner. While just seven of the NHL's 31 teams are based in Canada, 55 per cent of those voting for the Hart Trophy are Canadian.
That shouldn't matter, but it might. We could pretend it's inconsequential. Like many pretended Gretzky was more valuable than Lemieux in 1989.
There are different descriptions of what the Hart Trophy represents. Does “most valuable” equate to “best player?” Should goalies or defensemen be considered, or do they have their own awards? How much does team success mean? Should a player from a non-playoff club be considered? Does it mean more to excel late in the season than early in the season?
If that last factor is heeded, Malkin has 26 goals and 27 assists in 32 games played since Jan. 1. He has been the NHL's top player over that span.
For me, it's down to Kucherov and Malkin.
If Malkin wins the scoring title, he's got a 50/50 chance. If Malkin finishes first in points and goals, he should be a lock.
But, while the memory of 1989's MVP debacle might not burn brightly for Malkin, being omitted from the NHL's official list of 100 greatest players could still sting. That was announced a little over a year ago and is no less absurd now. Duncan Keith, Mats Sundin, Jonathan Toews and at least a dozen others on that index couldn't carry Malkin's jock in a goalie's equipment bag.
Memo to Malkin: Judge yourself by Stanley Cups and scoring titles.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 14, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
I entered the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room after practice with a theory to test: Center Evgeni Malkin, who, as of Friday, sits two points (89) and two goals (40) away from the league lead in both categories, is the most underappreciated dominant player in the NHL today, and potentially of all time.
"In this locker room he's appreciated," the winger said, "but I don't know if you ask around the league if he is."
Well, let's look at the evidence, shall we?
Malkin is second among active players (to teammate Sidney Crosby) and 13th all time in points per game (1.189), despite having never played in the 1980s like seven of the players ahead of him did for a significant portion of their careers. Malkin is tied for third with Crosby among active players in goals per game, at 0.475, behind only Alex Ovechkinand Steven Stamkos. He's an unstoppable force when he's on, as the NHL has seen for the past several weeks.
"He's been dominant. He's found another level. Especially in the second half, we've needed points, and he found a way to elevate his game," Crosby said of Malkin, who has scored 53 points in 32 games since the start of 2018.
It's hard to imagine a player of his skill, his accomplishments -- three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe -- and his dominance being underappreciated, and yet here we are.
"As a hockey community, we need to recognize what he's doing. Geno is doing something special," said Phil Bourque, former Penguin and current Penguins Radio Network color analyst. "But it doesn't get as much notice because Sid's here and Phil [Kessel]'s doing what he's doing. And people look at Pittsburgh and they think they're fine. They think they won two Cups. They don't need a guy winning a Hart or a Rocket Richard because they're going to be fine, but he needs to be in the conversation more."
Hagelin agreed. "He's been so special for the last three months. This whole year has been outstanding," he said. "It's a fun ride to be a part of. He's a guy that wants to improve every day, and wants his linemates to improve every day. You just try to go out there every day and help him out. But he really doesn't need a ton of help."
So please join us in informally establishing the Evgeni Malkin Appreciation Society, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strap on an oxygen tank to the Penguins star's accomplishments when Crosby and Kessel suck all the air out of the room. A collective dedicated to keeping Malkin in the conversation, as Bourque said, when the inclination is to take his regular-season exploits for granted on a team seeking its third straight Stanley Cup.
This will be our mission, for Evgeni Malkin cares significantly less about the Hart, Art and Rocket.
"Geno doesn't play for those trophies. He plays for one other trophy," Bourque said. "That's not lip service, that's the truth, and that's incredibly admirable."