Monday, March 2, 2009

Top 10 Stories in The Burgh

Well I was gone for the weekend, and it was a pretty interesting weekend to miss, wasn't it? As far as actual games go, I didn't miss anything earth-shattering, but there were lots of little stories going around. I'm always looking for some kind of new gimmick for this site, so let's give this one a shot, and see how it plays out. We're going to count down the top 10 stories that are being talked about in the Pittsburgh sports scene these days:

1. The Pens Are Quickly Making Up Points In The Eastern ConferenceThat's a thing of beauty isn't it? Don't look now folks, but all of a sudden the Pens are in 8th place in the East. Granted they have played more games than the 9th place Sabres, but at least this is a baby step. It is still debatable whether Michel Therrien deserved to be fired, but I'd say it is no longer debatable whether firing him was the right move. Dan Bylsma's up-tempo style and emphasis on fore-checking has reversed the Pens' fortunes, and the players seem to really want to play their asses off for him. Geno has been by far the best player in hockey since Bylsma came on board. Obviously the Pens aren't going to keep on this hot streak for the rest of the regular season, and that is when the real test of Bylsma's coaching will come, but for now the Pens are suddenly back to playing very good hockey and will at least make this regular season stretch run interesting.

2. Pens trade Ryan Whitney for Chris Kunitz and a prospect
For weeks Whitney has been the subject of a tremendous amount of trade speculation, and then Thursday, with very little in the way of serious rumors floating around previously, Whitney was dealt. I had hoped for a bit more of a return on Whitney, but then again, he's been pretty brutal this season and never reached anywhere near the heights most people thought he would. Kunitz had an excellent game against Chicago the other night and is instantly probably the second best winger on the squad behind Petr Sykora. He isn't a force of nature capable of turning around a season by himself, like Hossa a year ago, but he's still pretty good. I was a little surprised they took on as much salary as they did in Kunitz, as he is only slightly cheaper than Whitney, and this also could mean there isn't enough money to bring Sykora back next season.

3. Steelers Sign Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon on the first day of free agency
After much speculation about turnover on the offensive line this off-season, the Steelers demonstrated strong confidence in two of their starters, signing Kemo to a 5 year 20 million dollar deal and giving Willie Colon a restricted free agent tender offer that just about assures that he will be back next season. Kemo got extra attention because he reportedly turned down a bit more money from the Jets to stay in Pittsburgh. That's the kind of stuff that gets you fan favorite status around these parts, even if that 4 million/ year seemed a tad high to me at first.

4. Sidney Crosby sits out 3 in a row
Certainly it hasn't been a blow to the Pens that Crosby has been sitting out due to injury, so that is at least one positive aspect of this injury to our Captain. However, it is also obvious that Sid's groin injury is a bit more serious than the Pens originally let on. There is hope that he will be back for the game Tuesday night against Tampa Bay.

5. Pirates Spring Training Games Are Under Way
There isn't exactly one specific topic that has the city as a whole buzzing, but just the general knowledge that the Bucs are starting to play some spring training games is interesting enough for many people. The general buzz may not equal the Pens in-season games or the Steelers' off-season maneuvers, but many Pittsburghers still have a special place in their hearts for the Pirates.

6. Pitt Is Coming Down The Stretch Run In The Big East Season
Believe it or not, the Panthers have just two regular season games remaining. Is it just me, or has this college hoops season absolutely flown by? The last two games will be very important ones for Pitt. Right now, the Panthers could finish anywhere from 1st to 5th in the Big East, and that is a huge difference considering the top 4 finishers in the conference get one of the coveted "double byes" in the truly bizarre Big East Tournament. If they win against either Marquette or UConn (both home games) they lock one up. Or, they have to hope that Villanova loses to either Notre Dame or Providence, and they would also get a double bye in that case. Pitt finishing up with 2 wins against that impressive combo would be a great way to end the season, but we've seen in past Pitt seasons how irrelevant momentum can be when it comes to the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

7. The NHL Trade Deadline Is Looming
The odds are good that the Pens biggest move was the Whitney trade, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are done for good. Ray Shero made a series of minor moves two seasons ago, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him act similarly this season. The Pens appear to be gelling a bit right now, so I suppose there is something to be said for not wanting to shake things up too much, but at the same time, Shero has shown a tendency to always be listening to trade offers and I don't think he'll hesitate to pull the trigger to add a player just because the Pens have a won a few. One surprising rumor that trickled out yesterday involved Martin St. Louis nixing a trade to the Pens. Everyone involved denied that, though, so who knows?

8. Steelers Cut Kendall Simmons
One of the most surprising stories of the week in my opinion. This wasn't even so much as a rumor as far as I could tell. It was perhaps most interesting because it seems to symbolize that the Steelers have faith in Darnell Stapleton to start again in 2009 if necessary. Stapleton has some talent and could turn into a solid starter, but he clearly wasn't fully ready yet. Still, he did start most of the season for the Super Bowl champs. I guess that counts for something, and because he is young you have to figure he'll only get better.

9. The Steelers Other Potential Free Agent Moves
Like I said, the Kemo/Colon/Starks signings likely mean that the Steelers won't be going hard after any starter-quality offensive linemen and that the Steelers will more than likely have the same 5 starters on the O-Line that they had in Super Bowl XLIII. However, I still wouldn't be surprised to see them add an insurance policy. It is a virtual certainty that one of the team's first two picks will be a lineman, but typically only the upper echelon linemen are ready to start as rookies, and I doubt we'll even sniff those types. So it is tough to get too excited about a rookie prospect helping out the defending champs. However, I think the Steelers need to find someone to at least challenge Darnell Stapleton, even if they have every intention of sticking with him. And with Trai Essex potentially leaving town, I think a veteran swingman-type (guy who can play guard or center) with some starting experience and a price tag under 2 million could be on the Steelers' wish list. Not that I have anyone in particular in mind, but I think that type of player would be ideal.

10. What Is DeJuan Blair's Injury Status?
It was pretty damn terrifying to see DeJuan Blair initially collapse in a heap on the court Saturday night against Seton Hall. The replays appeared to indicate that it was just a knee-on-knee hit, which may be incredibly painful, but also is much easier to overcome than some of the injuries we've seen other Pitt players sustain in recent years. Thankfully, Blair did return to the game, but he was pretty tender on that knee and wasn't anywhere near 100%. The early reports are just that he has a hyperextended knee and should be able to play Wednesday's game against Marquette.

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