Friday, February 28, 2014

Penguins need some forward thinking

Matt Niskanen leads the NHL with a plus-minus mark of 30.

The Penguins have NHL-caliber defensemen playing for their American Hockey League affiliate at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Penguins have AHL-caliber forwards playing in the NHL.
What’s wrong with that picture?
You can never have too many defensemen, or so they say. The Penguins are without Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand). They played a good portion of their campaign without one, some or all of their top four. Eleven defensemen have played for the Penguins so far. None have been terrible.
But the Penguins don’t have nearly enough good forwards. They need a right wing for Sidney Crosby’s line. They need one or two bottom-six forwards. Three wouldn’t hurt. The more, the better. Grit is lacking.
When Brian Gibbons skates on Crosby’s right wing, no one feels better knowing Brian Dumoulin patrols the blue line in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, or knowing that the Penguins are covered if disease, famine or pestilence strikes down half their defensive corps.
Deryk Engelland, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik can all become unrestricted free agents at season’s end. The Penguins should let them all walk.
Orpik has been a key cog for a decade. He's the conscience of the dressing room. Niskanen is having a career year. Engelland fills a need.
But Letang, Martin, Robert Bortuzzo, Olli Maatta and Rob Scuderi all return. Simon Despres will be a restricted free agent but can be retained inexpensively. That’s a very good NHL defensive corps, and you have cap room to add forwards.
Martin’s contract expires after the 2014-15 season. Replace him then with power-play whiz Derrick Pouliot, the eighth pick in the 2012 NHL draft.
If somebody gets hurt, you still got Dumoulin, Scott Harrington and Philip Samuelsson in reserve. More than enough depth.
That’s how roster turnover is supposed to work under a salary cap. You don’t spend on replaceable players. Out with the old and expensive, in with the young and cheap. Don’t get too attached to anyone. Life in the cap lane.
The coaches love Niskanen. What’s not to love? He leads the NHL in plus/minus and does everything the Penguins need him to do.
But Niskanen will likely never have a season like this again. He’s going to command too much money. You have several who can replace him. Niskanen is a fifth defenseman. Useful and capable. But he’s a fifth defenseman.
The Penguins’ surplus of defensemen is insane. It helped earlier this year when so many defensemen were hurt. But it won’t help come spring.
The Penguins could go into the playoffs with a skeleton crew up front.
When the Penguins assembled their excess of defensemen, the idea was to make trades for forward help if necessary. Well, it’s necessary. Really necessary.
If Engelland, Niskanen and Orpik all depart, the Penguins will still have 10 defensemen of NHL capability at their next training camp. You only roster seven.
GM Ray Shero can probably come up with lots of good reasons to hold onto any or all of his young defensemen. Here’s a good reason to swap a few: No Stanley Cups since 2009. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in their primes.
Less defensemen, more wings. Less future, more present.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Crosby relieved to return with Olympic gold

By Dan Scifo
February 26, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- - Sidney Crosby's second Olympic experience was less dramatic and just as rewarding.
Crosby returned from Sochi, Russia, with his second Olympic gold medal, this one as the captain of the Canadian team. Leading a national team certainly brings a different sense of responsibility, but the same expectation.
''I think everybody feels a sense of pride, but also a sense of relief knowing you were able to do what everybody expected,'' Crosby said Wednesday. ''It's not easy to win, but to be able to go in there with the goal of winning and achieve it is a great feeling.''
Now, Crosby and fellow Canadian gold medalist Chris Kunitz are ready for a return to normalcy in the NHL, joining head coach Dan Bylsma and five Olympic teammates, including Russia's Evgeni Malkin, as the first-place Penguins prepare for a stretch run that features 24 games in 46 days.
''It's good to get into a routine again,'' Crosby said. ''Managing rest is something we definitely have to keep in mind.''
Canada steamrolled through Sochi, allowing three goals in six games for its third gold medal in the last four Olympics and record ninth overall.
''Everybody talks about our defense, but I think we were able to control the puck a lot in the offensive zone and when you do that teams don't get a lot of time or energy to come against you,'' Crosby said.
The Canadians, who became the first team to go unbeaten through the Olympic tournament in 30 years, never trailed, a dominating effort that culminated in back-to-back shutouts of the United States and Sweden in the semifinals and gold medal game.
''The last three games, especially, we were at our best, but I think we got better as it went on,'' Crosby said. ''The scores were close, but we felt like we controlled the last three games and played the way we wanted to.''
Once again, Crosby's shining moment came in the gold medal game, this time during the second period against Sweden when he deked goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to the ice before depositing a backhander across the line.
''We hadn't had a two-goal lead that often up to that point and with the way we had been playing to get a two-goal lead was nice,'' Crosby said. ''I think that was going through my mind more than the fact that I hadn't scored yet.''
It didn't carry the weight of his Golden Goal, the 2010 overtime game-winner against the Americans, but Crosby's first goal of the tournament effectively clinched the gold medal for the defensive-minded Canadians.
''It was a great experience,'' Crosby said. ''Obviously, winning makes it better.''
It was a different experience for Malkin, who came up empty at the Olympics after the host Russians were eliminated on their home soil in the quarterfinal round by Finland.
''It's not easy, it's always tough,'' Malkin said. ''I remember in Vancouver we lost and now it's worse.
''Of course it's pressure, we played at home. I know everyone played hard, 100 percent, we played together and I think it's tough to have lost.''
Bylsma understands Malkin's disappointment and challenged his star forward to channel the emotion and try to help the Penguins to a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
''They had the Olympics at their venue,'' Bylsma said. ''This was their gold medal to win. There's disappointment. I talked to Evgeni and probably the third thing out of his mouth (was) Stanley Cup. We need to come back here and focus on that.''

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Penguins have a blueprint

By Joe Starkey
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma outlines a drill during an NHL hockey practice at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File, 1/14/14)

Minutes after receiving his gold medal, Sidney Crosby found himself one-on-one with NBC's Pierre McGuire.

These would be Crosby's first public words after a landmark victory in which he scored a spectacular breakaway goal. As always, he chose them carefully. This is how he characterized Team Canada's ruthless ride through Sochi:

“We played great defensive hockey.”

Great defensive hockey. That, ladies and gentlemen, should be the Penguins' mantra for the final 24 games of the regular season. Somebody should find all those signs at the arena — including the one in the locker room — and add a word to make them read like this: It's a Great Day for (defensive) Hockey.

That is not the same as passive hockey. It's not about skating backward all game (an aggressive forecheck is often your best defense). It's no time drop into the Guy Boucher 1-3-1 or pack 10 guys around the goalie, either.
No, this is about adopting a mindset. It's about committing to the singular purpose of goal-prevention. It's about getting comfortable winning 2-1 games, insulating your goaltender and protecting a 3-0 lead instead of trying to make it 8-0. It's about making smart, unselfish decisions with the puck.

You know, like Team Canada.

If a cast of wildly talented All-Stars can embrace such a philosophy, why can't the Penguins? They're headed in that direction anyway. The change started last season, coming off the Flyers debacle, but the Penguins still got lured into a first-round track meet against the Islanders.

Marc-Andre Fleury says this is the best defensive team he has played on. Jacques Martin was brought in to monitor the defensive side of the puck. Rob Scuderi returned. Coach Dan Bylsma installed a left-wing lock to add layers, or “lanes,” of defense. The penalty kill has been phenomenal. Patience has become a watch word.

All of it has added up to a 40-15-3 record and a goals-against average of 2.36, which, if it holds, would be the team's lowest since Kevin Constantine's first season of 1997-98 (2.11).

But the Penguins still have relapses. They are offense addicts trying to kick the habit (“Hi, I'm Evgeni, and I'm a goal-a-holic.”). They must learn to trust their system in the crucible of playoff hockey, and it has to start with their two best players, Crosby and Malkin.

You'll learn to forgive those two real quick if they don't score and the Penguins still win. Remember the narrative coming off Game 5 of the 2009 Cup Final? It went like this: The Penguins had no chance if their superstars didn't start finding the net.

Except that their superstars combined for zero goals in Games 6 and 7, and the Penguins won the Cup.
Why? Because they played great defensive hockey. Crosby and Malkin were demons on the back check and dominant deep in the defensive zone.

The Penguins' GAA that year was lower in the playoffs than the regular season. The opposite has been true every year since, sometimes reaching catastrophic proportions (see: 5.00 vs. Flyers). Part of that is Fleury's fault, of course, but, like all goalies, he is largely a product of his team's approach.

The Penguins are seventh in the NHL in GAA. Why not shoot for first? Bylsma spoke Tuesday of how allowing two or fewer goals per game pretty much guarantees victory. He agrees there is another level to reach.

“I think we can be better defensively,” he said.

Scuderi is like a good A.A. sponsor. When he spots signs of a relapse, he points it out. He did so last month when he said the Penguins were turning into the “Harlem Globetrotters.”

Hey, buddy, what's wrong with a 6-5 game?

“As a fan, I absolutely see it's entertaining,” Scuderi said. “I've been in those situations, watching, saying, ‘Wow, this is great.' But as a player, you know a lot of mistakes are happening, and when it comes down to crunch time in the postseason, those games just don't happen. The teams that clamp down are the ones that win.”

Clamping down like never before should be the Penguins' goal, their mission, their singular purpose beginning Thursday against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens.

This team, injuries and all, has been playing quite well defensively for much of the season.

Now it's time to play great.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Crosby, Kunitz win 1 for chemistry

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, 7:21 p.m.
From left, Canada forward Chris Kunitz, forward Sidney Crosby and forward Patrice Bergeron pose with their gold medals for a team photographer after beating Sweden 3-0 in the men's gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

From left, Canada forward Chris Kunitz, forward Sidney Crosby and forward Patrice Bergeron pose with their gold medals for a team photographer after beating Sweden 3-0 in the men's gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
SOCHI, Russia — Chris Kunitz's nose was rammed into the relentless wood of Bolshoy Ice Dome's boards with such force that it bent 45 degrees. He'd been butchered from behind by Sweden's Patrik Berglund, and it looked bad. Even once finding his way up off the ice to all fours, he was dazed, glassy-eyed. Dripping blood, too.
He took his next shift.
And when he took possession in the defensive zone and looked up ice to see Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron with blades down for a breakout pass, he faked once, kept the puck, coolly skated a couple of strides … and dumped it in.
That's chemistry, Canada.
Crosby's gold in Canada's 3-0 technical devastation of Sweden in the Olympic final was his second victorious Games in a row, following up on the iconic finish in Vancouver, but also his first as captain.
It was hard to tell which of those was responsible for his being more mellow in his joy this time than I remember from four years ago, but there's no question — from his boyish smile when bowing his head for the medal to the lap around the ice with the maple leaf — the Kid in him was plenty satisfied.
“It's an amazing feeling, obviously,” he said. “It's a great accomplishment for us as a team, and I'm happy for everyone celebrating back home right now.”
What he was happiest about, though, unmistakably wasn't the breakaway beauty he backhanded by Henrik Lundqvist, one that finally erased his zero in the G column. It might not even have been the outcome.
Ask me, and it was the how.
Canada finished the tournament with consecutive shutouts, no goals allowed in the final eight periods and — get this — a total of three goals over all six games. Best in Olympic history.
Crosby lit up every time the topic was raised.
“We had to work for this,” he said. “We had to come here and make real adjustments, to the bigger ice, to what other teams were doing. I think our work ethic, our desperation, our defense and our goaltending made the difference. Everyone was committed as a group.”
Might explain why Kunitz, who also scored his first goal on a rising wrister to finish a fine individual — repeat, individual — effort, had a similar view of his first gold.
“It's a great feeling. I can't even describe it,” he said. “And the best part, really, is that we came here with a plan and a goal and put our trust in each other. We did this together.”
That concept was understood all along by Crosby, Kunitz, their 23 teammates and pretty much everyone else associated with the program.
It also was understood by Steve Yzerman, the GM, when he added Kunitz because he valued not only what Crosby and Kunitz bring separately but also together.
And by Mike Babcock, the coach, when he stuck by Kunitz after a nervous, ineffective round robin.
But be very sure that it wasn't understood in the slightest by the all-out anti-Kunitz revolt burgeoning among fans back in Canada or the considerable Canadian media doing the grilling here. Seven Canadian forwards had gone goal-less through the first five games, including Crosby, but it was Kunitz — and largely as a result, Crosby — who became scapegoats.
In print alone …
“Crosby's caddie or not, he looks lost out there.”
“Kunitz is a moon orbiting a planet. Stars might be better.”
“A lot of people give Canada grief for bringing Kunitz here, but seriously, you should see how neatly Sid's shirts are pressed.”
The dual implication, of course, was not only that Kunitz didn't belong but also that it was sad Crosby had him dragged along.
Wrong and wrong.
Funny, but it's almost unfortunate toward this end that Crosby and Kunitz scored against the Swedes. Because now, the theme might be that they finally contributed.
They did more than just contribute the entire tournament. They might well have led the way.
When Babcock was asked early in the tournament about Crosby's scoring drought, he elegantly replied: “I don't measure Sidney Crosby by goals. I measure Sidney Crosby by wins.”
Tellingly, when Babcock was asked Sunday about Jonathan Toews, who scored the game's first goal, he replied out of nowhere: “I thought Sidney Crosby was so dominant.”
Be sure he wasn't measuring by Crosby's goal.
What Babcock understood better than anyone was that he couldn't win the tournament without his best player. Yes, that undoubtedly did factor in the Kunitz addition, even if Kunitz deserved far more respect for his selection. But it also was why the coach applauded both Crosby and Kunitz in the early going for their two-way play. He stressed it as much as anything, actually.
As a result, it was easy to detect a comfort level from both that, candidly, you wouldn't see in Pittsburgh if either were slumping. Crosby would just laugh off questions about not scoring. And Kunitz, in an ironic turn, actually became less uptight than upon arrival.
Those two had found their thing: They'd set the tone defensively.
“Everyone knows how those two play together,” Jeff Carter said. “What we got to see was how they do it at both ends.”
That's real chemistry, real trust.
Crosby and Kunitz both had their parents in the stands here, and both had welcome company for roommates, Crosby with good acquaintance Shea Weber, and Kunitz with two former Anaheim mates Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. But the history between these two has been that they communicate with each other first and foremost. So, even though both were adamant they weren't privy to any criticism of their work, both had to know from the questioning that eyes were increasingly on them.
They talked, then, as they always do. And not just amongst themselves.
“You always want to lead by example,” Crosby said. “I don't think it was just me and Kuny because Patrice was a big part of it, too. Our whole team talked about playing a certain way, and it obviously paid off in the end. We're proud of this.”
A little defiant, too.
I asked Kunitz if, in light of all the fuss over him, it felt good to score.
He grinned just a little and replied: “It felt really good … ” before regaining his footing and adding, “to contribute for my teammates.”
No one was more delightfully defiant than Babcock, who ended his news conference with a classic mic-drop moment after being asked yet again about the team's lack of offense.
“Does anyone know who won the scoring race? Does anyone care?” he snapped back. “Does anybody know who won the gold medal?”
He stood up to leave.
“See you guys.”
Yes, sir. In four years. Korea. May the best team win.

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Canada’s Sidney Crosby delivers dagger with breakaway goal

By Neil Davidson
February 23, 2014

Crosby move
Canada's Sidney Crosby puts a move on Swedish goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist to score the second goal in a 3-0 win in the gold medal final Sunday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

SOCHI, Russia — Stripping Jonathan Ericsson of the puck at the Canadian blue-line, Sidney Crosby took off with seemingly all of Sweden chasing him.

They never caught him.

Crosby froze Henrik Lundqvist with a move then took the puck to his right, sweeping in a backhand as the desperate goalie tried to slide a leg over. He was too late, with the puck bouncing in off his skate.

“It was great,” said Canadian forward Matt Duchene. “When he got that breakaway, I don’t think there was any doubt that he was going to miss there. He’s a big-time player, big-game player. He’s our leader. Best player in the world.

“We had full confidence he was going to bury it there.”

The goal, at 15:43 of the second period, made it 2-0 and took the wind out of the Swedish sails. Linemate Chris Kunitz made it 3-0 midway through the third Sunday in the Olympic hockey final.

“When they got that second goal, I think it kind of took the air out of us a little bit,” said Swedish forward Gabriel Landeskog.

Added Swedish coach Par Marts: “I think the second goal let us down the most. If you were 1-0 down and one period left, you could handle that but two goals down and 20 minutes left against a team that doesn’t let a goal in, that’s really tough.”

Canada allowed just three goals in the whole tournament and got stingier as the competition wore on, with shutouts against the U.S. in the semifinal and Sweden in the final.
“With each game we seemed to build more and more confidence,” said Crosby.

For Crosby, the breakaway brought back memories of the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver when he missed on a similar play in the third period against the U.S. Zach Parise then scored for the Americans to send the game into overtime, when Crosby scored his golden goal.

“To get a chance like that late in the second (period), to know you can go up (by) two, you want to make sure that you make the most of it,” said Crosby. “I remember in Vancouver (four years ago) I missed one with a couple of minutes left and they ended up tying it.

“So it’s nice to be able to get that one, get a bit of a cushion.”

Beating Lundqvist was also sweet.

“I haven’t scored on him that much to be honest with you,” Crosby said of the New York Rangers goalie. “So it was nice to finally score.”

The breakaway was Crosby’s only shot of the game and just his 11th in six games. But after some initial line tinkering by the Canadian braintrust, Crosby became a force as the tournament wore on, playing on an effective line with Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron.

“Sidney Crosby for me was so dominant these last two games,” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock.

The three checked tenaciously with Crosby taking advantage of the extra space behind the goal to help bottle up the Swedes in their own end.

A points machine in the NHL, Crosby’s numbers here were modest. But his contribution was immense. He finished with one goal and two assists and was a plus-four in 98 minutes 42 seconds on the Olympic ice.

“Everyone evaluates Sid on scoring, and I evaluate Sid on winning,” Babcock said after the preliminary-round game against Finland. “That’s what we came here for.”

On Sunday, Babcock returned to that topic.

Canada did not play defensively, he said. It played offensively, keeping the puck away from the opposition.

“We outchanced these teams big-time, we didn’t score. We were a great offensive team.”

“Does anybody know who wore the (Olympic tournament) scoring race?” he then asked. “Does anybody care?

“Does anybody know who won the gold medal? See you guys.”


It wasn't golden, but Sidney Crosby scored a beaut for Canada

February 23, 2014

Sidney Crosby skates past the net after scoring Canada’s second goal on Henrik Lundqvist. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

SOCHI, RUSSIA - There was no golden goal for Sidney Crosby this time and given all he does, no real need.
There was however, the most eye-catching and timely score of the tournament for Team Canada.
Not that it was necessary, but the hero from the 2010 Games struck a rather sensational stroke of validation for the team’s offence with his big unassisted goal late in the second period.
The best part of Crosby’s timely strike: It showed no less than three elements of the sublime skill set that has elevated him to the status of the best player in the world.
Start with the steal at the Canadian blueline as he snagged the puck from Swedish defenceman Jonathan Ericsson. File that under that under smart (or stupid for Ericsson for trying to make a deke on Crosby at the blue-line with no help behind him.)
Then, from a near-standing start, the Canadian captain easily outsprinted Alex Steen and roared free on a breakaway. That’s the brute speed of Crosby, perhaps an underestimated part of his game but testament to his incredible lower-body strength.
And finally, the finish. A swift, deft deke to the backhand fooled Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist just enough to rebound the puck in off the Swedish star’s skate.
“First that was a good stick on the blueline,” Canadian defenceman Duncan Keith said. “We were kind of standing still then a great burst of speed from him.
“Obviously he’s beating a world-class goalie there. It was a nice play by Sid. I’ve seen that before. We all have.”
If you watched Crosby closely in this tournament, you watched a superstar at the top of his game. Defensively he was stellar. Offensively he was flying. And in one unassisted beauty that took fewer than 10 seconds to finish, Crosby clinched the gold.
“You get a big chance like that, you know it’s a 1-0 game, you want to make the most of those,” Crosby said. “I remember having a breakaway in Vancouver with a couple of minutes left, missing that one and (the U.S.) tie it up.
“It ended up working out OK, but you remember those things. So whenever you get those opportunities, you want to put them in.”
How clutch was the play? It gave Canada it’s first multi-goal lead since its second game of the tournament against weakling Austria. And it all but guaranteed the gold.
If there was a more dominant period between legitimate contenders in this tournament than Canada’s stranglehold in the second, these eyes didn’t see it. The Swedes had no answer for the strength and speed that came in waves. After Crosby’s goal, the life was sucked out of the Swedes and they may as well have headed for their charter at the second intermission ... When you first saw Marty St. Louis on the ice in the first period, your first reaction was that someone was injured. Turns out coach Mike Babcock was looking for a spark to counter the strong Swedish start. “That gave us a boost and changed the course of the game,” Team Canada’s general manager, Steve Yzerman, said. “I’m really happy for Marty.” ... The win was thick with historical accomplishments, including: 1. Canada becoming the team to repeat as Olympic champs since the Soviet Union did so in 1988. 2. First team to go undefeated in an Olympic tournament. 3. First time winning an Olympic gold outside of North American since 1952 ... Perhaps never before has there been a team that has better shown what team defence is. Forwards possessing the puck and forcing opponents into mistakes. Defence in shut-down mode and at the last line, stellar goaltending to back it up. But give Carey Price his due — in the last 164 minutes and 19 seconds of the tournament, he did not allow a goal. “Price was great, too,” defenceman Duncan Keith said. “He never bobbled any pucks. Every time it was a clean save, it just settles things down.” ... All the talk about finding a winger for Crosby? Who needs one when he can break free for an unassisted goal? That said, Patrice Bergeron had three excellent opportunities in the first period alone, including one that rang off the post.
Classic end to Babcock’s final press conference of the Games. Addressing the overdone theme of Canada’s struggles to score, the coach offered the following: “Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal? See ya guys.” And with that, Babcock dashed off to join several of the players marching in the closing ceremony ... Same medal, perhaps, but a different setting and different circumstances. Forward Rick Nash, who had a strong tournament, summed it up rather well. “Vancouver was relief,” the big New York Rangers forward said. “Playing on home soil was such a big deal to win gold and we did. This time, we came into one of the most hostile environments for a Canadian — into Russia. And to win a gold medal in Russia is pretty special for Canadians.” ... So Canada allows three goals in the entire six-game tournament — two on tip-in deflections and the other on a breakaway that was the result of a defensive breakdown. And the latter was to Latvia, of all teams ... The Swedes were certainly down some men with the loss of Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin, Johan Franzen and then the scratch Sunday of Nicklas Backstrom for the positive drug test. Keith wasn’t buying it, however: “Yeah, well we lost a couple good players too in Stamkos and Tavares, don’t forget. Those two are pretty much top-five players back home and we weren’t playing with them. Both teams had a lot of depth ... Turns out the Swedes had a pretty good idea what they were in for, given the depth of the Canadians. “We thought that if we played a perfect game, we’d have a chance,” Swedish captain Niklas Kronwall said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t play a perfect game.” Not even close, actually.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cutch's mass appeal continues to grow

By Bob Cohn
Published: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 8:52 p.m.

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen signs memorbilia outside the clubhouse after a workout Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

As usual, Andrew McCutchen showed up at 7 a.m. for his daily, early-spring training workout at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. After about five hours under the Florida sun and a lunch break, he made the short drive to McKechnie Field for what became a nearly four-hour video and photo shoot for the New Era hat company.
This happened one day last week, and McCutchen's days have been getting longer, his calendar increasingly filled. At 27 years old, the Pirates All-Star center fielder and reigning National League MVP has vaulted past mere stardom and his stature as the so-called face of a small-market franchise. The electricity he generates on the field, the dreadlocks and his smile are known to millions. “Cutch” is likeable, marketable and saleable, good for business and not just the Pirates'. MVP is nice, but McCutchen has made it in another way: He is a brand.
“It's been an amazing rate of growth,” said John Fuller, whose New York-based Full Athlete Marketing firm represents McCutchen.
Braden Dahl, New Era's head of sports and entertainment marketing who coordinated last week's shoot, said, “We've seen the trajectory of his awareness. The McCutchen brand has definitely skyrocketed in the last two years. He's always been a great player, and now he's become a household name and an ambassador for the game of baseball.”
Joining the likes of Buster Posey, Manny Machado and David Ortiz, McCutchen is one of eight baseball players representing New Era, the official cap of Major League Baseball (and the NFL), during its 2014 marketing campaign. In Pittsburgh and its surroundings, “He is larger than life,” Dahl said.
But New Era has a national and international reach, as does McCutchen. Last year, fans voted him onto the cover of the video game “MLB '13: The Show.” Even with the game's a no-repeat rule — Miguel Cabrera is on the 2014 cover — McCutchen's likeness will appear on the new edition's back cover, and he again is part of the ad campaign surrounding the release.
McCutchen also has marketing agreements with Marucci bats and Hunt Auctions, and on Friday, he renewed his deal with T-Mobile.
“We were so pleased with Cutch, we re-signed him for the 2014 season and plan to use him more prominently in our marketing communications,” said Mike Belcher, T-Mobile's vice president of media and sponsorships.
McCutchen said he is enjoying the ride.
“It's good to have an image,” he said. “I have the hair, but eventually I'm gonna cut it. ... It's a lot of fun. I have a lot more opportunities at-hand to be able to do different things. I don't mind it. I don't have to say yes to everything.”
McCutchen proved that Friday when he said no to a planned project with MTV and MLB. He had been listed, along with Ortiz, as executive producer of a 30-episode weekly series combining baseball and pop culture scheduled to air on MTV2.
“It was a very time-consuming project,” McCutchen said. “I just couldn't see being able to pull it off.”
But MLB remains enamored with McCutchen, who was featured in the “I Play” promotional TV spots last season and likely is to be a key player again in the new campaign.
“Andrew is on every list of ours,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president for business. “It obviously begins with the fact that he can play. What first draws fans or marketers or anyone to a player is performance. So you start there, and then it's his public persona. He exudes confidence and personality and a certain joie de vivre. He takes the field with enthusiasm. He appears in public. He's got a magnetic smile.”
As the Pirates ended their 20-year streak of losing seasons and made the playoffs in 2013, McCutchen's profile ascended. McCutchen jerseys were the eighth-highest seller after the All-Star break. According to the Repucom Celebrity DBI, an index that quantifies consumers' opinions of celebrities, the general perception of McCutchen is racing up the charts. Repucom is a worldwide sports marketing agency.
“Eighty-eight percent of people report liking him to some degree,” said Kathy Gardner, the global head of DBI. “He is one of the most appealing players in Major League Baseball,” outscoring Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, among other familiar names.
“From an awareness standpoint, he's jumped a lot” from July through January, Gardner said. “He's refreshing and a good role model. He has this great personality that makes him relatable to the general public.”
In an email, Brian Chiera, the Pirates' senior director of marketing, summed up McCutchen's appeal this way: “Personality, likability, and he gets it. When we do things for us to market the team, he understands the importance of it and the goal of it.”
After a 13-0 loss to St. Louis in August, McCutchen “more than kept his word to appear” at an event called Faith Night, Chiera said. “He spoke at length about his faith, and when put on the spot to quote his personal Bible verse, he didn't hesitate and said it word for word. He wasn't just playing a part.”
All of this makes McCutchen a marketer's dream, the Pirates' first home-grown star — the first genuine, big-ticket star, period — since Barry Bonds more than two decades ago. But where Bonds was hauling considerable baggage even before he bulked up, McCutchen travels light. He is the anti-Bonds: approachable, upbeat and level-headed. Even with cameras and probing eyes everywhere, nothing tawdry or embarrassing surfaces. The only hiccup, barely, came in May 2011 when manager Clint Hurdle benched McCutchen for failing to run to first base on a dropped third strike. He was contrite, and the matter quickly faded.
McCutchen has embraced community service and charity work for the Pirates. He has a terrific back story, growing up in the tiny town of Fort Meade, Fla., the son of parents who were 17 when he was born and struggled financially yet managed to instill strong values. He scored additional points by accepting a six-year, $51 million contract extension in 2012 that delayed free agency and looks like a bargain for the Pirates. He said loyalty was more important than money. Imagine that.
In December, McCutchen proposed to girlfriend Maria Hanslovan on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” It was hokey but endearing, solidifying his appeal to an audience broader than any PNC Park crowd and sprinkling his persona with more humanity and even a touch of romance. Women loved it.
“He's got so many tangible and intangible assets, on the field and off,” Dahl said. “His personality, his professionalism, and this extends to on the field and off.”
McCutchen's involvement with T-Mobile is mainly through social media, which suits the company to a, well, T.
“Andrew has a very strong following in social (media), and I think that has a lot to do with who he is, the person he is, how he conducts himself off the field,” Belcher said.
In November, McCutchen turned up in Los Angeles at the American Music Awards, presenting Luke Bryan the trophy for best male country artist. He was the only sports presenter, selected not only for winning the MVP and his love of music but also his “incredibly charismatic personality,” AMA producer Larry Klein said. “It made perfect sense.”
Staff writer Rob Biertempfel contributed. Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Crosby, Kunitz focused on gold, not goals

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 8:00 p.m.

AFP/Getty Images
Canada's Sidney Crosby pushes the puck from the home goal during the Men's Ice Hockey Semifinals USA vs Canada at the Bolshoy Ice Dome during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 21, 2014.
SOCHI, Russia — Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz have combined for zero goals, have been criticized back in Canada more than any athletes here, and be very sure, they couldn't care less about either right now.
They're going for gold.
And so are the other seven forwards without a goal — Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, Martin St. Louis, Patrice Bergeron, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau and Matt Duchene — who instead contributed to a brilliant two-way effort in eliminating the United States, 1-0, in the Olympic semifinal Friday at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Next: Sweden on Sunday.
“I think guys trust that the puck's going to go in and, if it's not, they're going to do the right things away from it,” Crosby said. “You don't change the way you play. There's a right way to play the game.”
It's hard to imagine Canada could have done much more right, other than score. But it just might be that the captain's example of not pouting has set the tone for an entire collection of forwards who could be squeezing their sticks to sawdust right about now.
“Our focus is on one thing, and that's winning,” coach Mike Babcock said. “Would we like more goals? Yes. Do we believe they're going to come if we keep creating chances like this? Absolutely. In the meantime, you keep playing.”
The lone goal in this game came early in the second period from Jamie Benn, his second of the Olympics, on what essentially was a give-and-go with Jay Bouwmeester at the left point, followed by a Benn redirect past Jonathan Quick.
There could have been many others, including by Crosby, who had four shots, and Kunitz, who had two excellent chances, one shot wide, the other thwarted by an exceptional Quick save.
Most important, per Crosby, was that every minute of attacking-zone time – whether resulting in goals or not – contributed to the cause against this particular opponent.
“I think we had really good puck possession,” Crosby said. “We've got some big forwards, and we were able to hold the puck down low for 20 seconds at a time in shifts. That hopefully would take away some of their offensive energy.”
The line Crosby was singling out was Benn-Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf, a talented group of tall trees. But the Patrick Marleau-Jonathan Toews-Jeff Carter line also created offense and shut down the Americans' top threat, Phil Kessel.
Crosby's line remains “a work in progress,” as Kunitz described it, but progress was seen. Patrice Bergeron took care of most defensive duties, and Crosby and Kunitz looked more like their Pittsburgh selves in springing quick offense through the neutral zone.
That might help explain why Kunitz seemed more at ease during and after this game than at any point in the Olympics. At one point in the second period, he took advantage of the quiet crowd and screamed “Hey Sid!” to call for a pass.
Having fun yet?
“Yeah, I think so,” Kunitz said, offering a seldom-seen smile. “Things are starting to work out a little better for all of us right now. As long as we stick to taking care of business, we believe good things will happen.”
And the criticism?
“I don't worry about that. The only people whose opinions count for me are in our locker room.”

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