Well, I was planning to wait until next week for my next column, but there’s simply too much news in Pittsburgh to keep me quiet – the Pens have made some major moves, and as usual it seems baseball is ignoring the Pirates. Let’s look at the Penguins first.
When I saw a report that the Pens had offered Jordan Staal a 10-year, $60 million contract, I was shocked – I have a lot of respect for Staal, but I consider him a ‘good-not-great’ player and I think any contract over five years should be reserved for true greatness. I was even MORE shocked when he turned it down – I figured he’d just missed his best shot at a huge payday. I was not shocked, however, that he was almost immediately traded – he was public with his desire to play with his brother in Carolina, and GM Ray Shero had to send a message after being publicly rejected by Staal.
The situation could have been a distraction for most of the season, and I thought Shero got great value under the circumstances – Brandon Sutter is a poor man’s Staal, a great penalty killer who can score 15-20 goals per season as a 3rd-line center. They also received the #8 overall draft pick and used it on Derrick Pouliot, a defenseman with elite offensive skills. They picked another defenseman with the 22nd pick, which may seem strange but I agree with taking the best available player regardless of position – defensemen are ALWAYS in demand in the NHL, and as Shero showed when he traded Goligoski for James Neal, you can acquire top forwards via trade as well.
As for Jordan Staal, he got his payday over the weekend – Carolina signed him to the same 10-year, $60 million contract Pittsburgh had offered. He was a fine player for the Pens and I wish him well – but I think Carolina may regret spending that much cash on him.
Pittsburgh’s moves didn’t end with Staal, however – Thursday, the team announced that Sidney Crosby had agreed to a 12-year, $104.4 million contract extension. The average salary/cap hit is $8.7 million – exactly what he’s making now and far less than he would command on the open market. I think it’s important to realize that while $100+ million is hardly a TRUE sacrifice, how many other top athletes have gone out of their way to take significantly less money to help the team? Yes, there’s risk – I’m not a fan of any contract of this length because of injury risk – but there was never much doubt that this contract would happen. Crosby is the face of the franchise, as good off the ice as he is on the ice, and by all accounts he loves Pittsburgh and had no desire to leave (which he proved by taking the lower average salary). Shero said two years ago that these negotiations would be easy – “Sid will tell us how much he wants, and we’ll pay it”, he said. Some thought that the concussion issues might change that thinking, but clearly the Pens’ brass feels Crosby will be healthy long-term. Either way, despite the risk I’m glad that #87 will almost certainly be a Penguin for life.
Shero had one more move up his sleeve, however – dissatisfied with the defensive collapse against the Flyers and wanting to free up cap space, Shero traded Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix for a mid-round pick and two middling prospects. This was a straight salary dump – Michalek had a poor season, and while I’d rather they had moved Paul Martin, my guess is that Martin is almost untradeable at this point. The fact is, Pittsburgh has TONS of young defensive talent and at least one veteran defenseman had to go – plus, the additional cap space allows Shero to aggressively pursue free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. As of Monday morning the Pens were among the favorites to land Parise, the top forward on the market and a close friend of Sidney Crosby. There are a lot of teams throwing a LOT of cash at Parise – I’ve heard 10 years, $80 million as a possibility – but I agree with Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on this issue: he said that as payback for Crosby taking less average salary to help the team, the Pens MUST sign Parise and give him the scoring winger he’s almost never had. I’m hoping that Crosby can talk his old friend into donning the black and gold.
Interestingly, Suter might be a more pressing need but he’s much more of a longshot to sign. Suter is a brilliant two-way defenseman – more offensively skilled than Michalek and much tougher than Martin, he’d be an instant upgrade and a strong candidate to pair with Kris Letang. If Parise signs elsewhere, look for the Pens to make a serious push for Suter – and then try to trade some of their defense prospects for a scoring forward.
A brief note about the Pirates – they sit a game out of the Central division lead and tied for the (new) second wild-card slot – and in June their much-maligned offense caught fire, they led ALL OF BASEBALL in runs last month! You’d think they would be creating some buzz nationally, especially with the great seasons Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, and A.J. Burnett are having – but it seems no one is taking this team seriously yet. ‘Cutch’ made the All-Star team, but somehow McDonald got snubbed – check out his numbers compared to those of Cardinals’ starter Lance Lynn, who was pounded by the Pirates Saturday:
Lynn 97 innings 87 hits 34 walks 98 strikeouts 1.24 WHIP 3.62 ERA
McDonald 96 innings 68 hits 26 walks 86 strikeouts 0.98 WHIP 2.44 ERA
McDonald has been superior in every way, yet Lynn was picked. I understand that the Pirates were a joke for 20 years, but it’s time for the baseball world to take notice – this Pirate team is the most competitive group in 20 years and they aren’t going away.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.