Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 Pittsburgh Athlete of the Year

With a New Year now upon us, I thought I'd take a look back at the past year in Pittsburgh sports with a few different angles, the first of which is the 2008 Pittsburgh Athlete of the Year. I used only games that took place in 2008, so that meant having to cut in half the seasons of the Penguins and Pitt basketball. We're gonna count this puppy down, 10 to 1, with a few honorable mentions at the end. I measured it on a sort of MVP basis, factoring a hybrid of the team's success and the player's performance and importance to that team's success. So here we go:

10 Scott McKillop
I was torn between McKillop and James Farrior for the final spot in my top ten, but decided he earned it after earning Big East Defensive Player of the Year Honors, All-American status, a Day 1 draft spot, and being the defensive leader for the most successful Pitt team of the last quarter century. Despite a loss in the Sun Bowl to Oregon State, McKillop's defense was nothing short of spectacular for the final day of 2008. That cemented this spot for the hard-nosed tackling machine.

9 DeJuan Blair
The best basketball player from the 4-1-2 area code in ages had a freshman season to remember, and has stormed back to start his sophomore season with even bigger and better results. He was a huge key to the Big East championship season last season for Pitt, and his work on Roy Hibbert in the title game was wildly impressive. If Pitt could just make it past the second or third round of the NCAAs Blair would become a Pitt legend. Let's hope 2009 sees a jump up these standings for Blair.

8 Marc-Andre Fleury
Fleury was essential to the Penguins' run of success during last year's Stanley Cup final run, and I would argue he was actually the MVP during that stretch. Unfortunately for him, he has been injured for two long stretches, missing just about 3 months of hockey during the 08 calendar. Otherwise he would have been a serious contender for that top spot.

7 LeSean McCoy
The debate over whether LeSean McCoy will stay at Pitt for what figures to be a sensational 2009 Big East season or become a First Round pick in April will rage on until after the deadline for that passes. As a Pitt fan, you have to hope he comes back, but at the same time, it could be tough for him to pass up the guaranteed millions, and surely no Panther fan would blame him for going pro if that's his decision.

6 Sam Young
Sam I Am put together a record-setting scoring pace in the 2007/08 season for the Pitt basketball team, and has continued on that tear to start this season. Young has seamlessly shifted to the small forward position and is poised to make a serious run at a future in the NBA. Young was the star in leading Pitt to the Big East Tournament Championship and remains the most important player for third ranked Panthers. This is a big season for Pitt and for Young, as both need to show they are of high enough caliber to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, and anything less than an Elite Eight or Final Four bid will be considered something of a disappointment. For his part, Young is showing more ability as a leader than ever before, and is certainly much more outspoken on and off the court.
5 Troy Polamalu
For the first time in ages, Troy Polamalu spent an entire season healthy, and the difference in him was shocking. He was an absolute force of nature for the Steelers, and I believe he will eventually single-handedly re-define the safety position as we know it. He demonstrated ball hawk skills that only Ed Reed possesses, and is a terror for any QB to see shifting around across the line of scrimmage.

4 Ben Roethlisberger
Yeah the numbers aren't really there like they were a year ago, but there's no denying Ben Roethlisberger's incredible importance to the Steelers. The guy just flat out wins ball games, and that continues to be a trend even while naysayers the nationwide question just how good he is. His fourth quarter comebacks have become near certainties in the postseason. He was disappointing in the lone postseason game of the calendar year, all the way back last January 5th, but he'll be getting another shot in 10 days at Heinz Field, and his reputation as a budding big-game superstar will be on the line as always. The offensive talent and the offensive playcalling that are provided to assist Roethlisberger deserve no part of a 12-4 season and a division title, but Big Ben has lifted this unit to where they are now, even if the defense is really the most important and most feared part of this team.

3 Sidney Crosby
Sid was nothing short of magical in last season's playoff push. He and Geno combined to be a force of nature that no team could match. He has been quite good this season as well, but like teammate Fleury, Sid's candidacy is knocked down a bit due to injury. He has also clearly been the second best player on his own team this season, so its hard to place him a whole lot higher than this. I will be interested to see how Sid plays in the coming months down the stretch run for a Pens team that is having a bit of an identity crisis these days. Another magical playoff stretch would also do a lot to enhance his legacy, so stay tuned folks.

2 James Harrison
It was a tough call to put Harrison at the number 2 spot here, but with little postseason success it's hard to make him number 1. Still, Harrison put up a new sack record for one of the most legendary defensive franchises in NFL History. He's one of the top 2 or 3 favorites for the Defensive Player of the Year award, has back-to-back team MVP awards, and is a lock for another All-Pro selection. Few guys are also as dominant as Harrison can be when he is on a hot streak. He is a little on the streaky side, though, and there are those who will argue that he isn't even the biggest difference maker on his own unit, and that Troy Polamalu is really that guy. Still, Harrison's pass-rushing and athleticism and eye-popping stats make him a very hard figure to ignore.

1 Evgeni Malkin
There's little question that, for the most part, Evgeni Malkin has been better then Sidney Crosby for the 2008 calendar year. The points comparison, partially due to Sid's injury, isn't even close, but even when both are healthy, Geno has easily outscored Sid and everyone else this season. Malkin was huge for much of last season's Stanley Cup run as well, but some illness issues left him hindered and ineffective for parts of the Philly series and most of the Stanley Cup. It's also been a little concerning to see his goal-scoring drop off a little this season. But a year ago the debate over best hockey player in the world would have come down to Sid and Ovechkin and hardly anyone would have thought to even include Geno in that discussion. Now though, it's difficult to imagine anyone but him being the logical choice for that mantle. Much like Sid, it's going to be a very interesting few months for Geno as the Pens gear up for the playoffs and try to get out of the slump they find themselves mired in. If Geno stays healthy and consistent, he figures to put up 120+ points and nab his first Art Ross trophy and maybe even a Hart Trophy to accompany it. Let's hope he adds a ridiculously oversized Cup to that awards list.

Honorable Mention:
Petr Sykora- Petr Gunn has consistently been the third best scorer on the Penguins for the last calendar year, and gets bonus points for one of the most memorable moments in Penguins history with the winner in the 3OT thriller against Detroit.
Ronald Ramon- One of my all-time favorite Pitt b-ball players probably shouldn't make this list, but I just couldn't help myself. And he earned points for the winning shot in the best basketball game I've ever attended.
Hines Ward- One of the all-time great Steelers added to his legacy with a suprising 2008 campaign with over 1000 yards and 80 receptions, as well as picking up his 800th career reception.
Nate McLouth- I wanted to at least put a Pirate on the honorable mention list, and he is really the only acceptable option.
James Farrior- The Steelers' defensive captain started the season with a nice contract extension and had a great 2008 season to reward the Steelers for their loyalty, making it back to the Pro Bowl.


Jonathan Bryant said...

Good work on this one man. I think I'd personally put Harrison ahead of Geno because of the way the Pens are playing these days. I also would've definitely put James Farrior or even Nate McLouth on there ahead of Scott McKillop, but I know how your allegiances go.

The Prowler said...

Honorable mention also to CJ Davis for playing very well at center when he hadn't played center since high school. To Levance Fields for protecting the basketball better than any Pitt guard in the recent era. And to anyone on the Steelers' offense who has made a play in absence of any running game or any even remotely sound offensive line.

Great list. And I agree with you that Cavanaugh must go (from your previous post).

Ryan said...

Couldn't agree more about CJ Davis, one of the most underrated impact players on this Pitt team this season.

Not sure how I didn't remember to put Levance on the honorable mention, a definite oversight on my part.