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Dejan Kovacevic's Blog

Pittsburgh sports talk with the Trib columnist

Wakeup Call: Cooke’s big welcome home

Some sporting thoughts before sunrise …

>> My Wednesday column stresses that these Penguins are much more about their strategy than their stars. Doesn’t mean the stars aren’t hugely important. Just means that the team still functions the same way without them.

I hope you enjoy the breakdown of Matt Cooke’s goal, in particular. I love bouncing around the locker room to get background on stuff like that.

>> Cooke was quite the sight afterward. Not many have sympathy for him after some of the stupid things he did last year, but it was easy to get the sense that the crowd was in an immensely forgiving mood in his first home game since the long suspension. The roar for Cooke during pregame introductions was dwarfed only by those for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s pretty special,” Cooke replied when asked how he felt. “I was overwhelmed.”

>> I’m not inclined to get into much more analysis of the Penguins’ performance last night, if only because it was their fourth game in six days, and this across three time zones. There were times last night when you could see the Panthers — who are awful but were playing just their second game — h ad the fresher legs, and that makes for poor comparison points.

That said, Joe Vitale continues to get things done at both ends. I was hearing a little bit from readers after the weekend games in Alberta that maybe he was being overused. Maybe he isn’t.

>> If you haven’t seen this yet, from Jeremy Roenick on Versus late last night …


>> Mike Tomlin buried Bryant McFadden deeper than Jimmy Hoffa in his news conference yesterday, at least in terms of McFadden’s place on the Steelers’ depth chart. It’s very clear right now that he’s behind William Gay and Keenan Lewis.

Remember that one the next time someone cites a “lack of accountability.” This same coach yanked James Farrior, the team’s unquestioned leader, off the field in the season opener.

>> Charlie Morton’s injury absolutely, unequivocally will affect the Pirates’ offseason pitching plans, no matter Neal Huntington’s firm denial on that count to our Rob Biertempfel last night.

How could it not?

In fairness to the GM, there’s really not much else he can do but deny that. He’s not going to come out and say, “Well, yeah, we’re more inclined now to give Paul Maholm $10 million.” There goes any semblance of a bargaining position for the team.

But be sure that losing Morton, who had a nice, full season, will impact the plans. None of Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke or anyone else at the Class AAA level is ready to push for a fifth-starter job with this team. There simply must be another starter added, especially if Maholm’s option is bought out.

>> That said, best of health wishes to Morton, one of the better humans one could possibly hope to encounter on this trail.

(Internet hed) Kovacevic: Penguins lean on strategy, not stars


<*L>@body-dropcap:<@body-dropcap>E<@$p>vgeni Malkin was shaking his head and smacking his stick on the ice as he pulled out of one of the Penguins’ drills Tuesday morning at Consol Energy Center. A leg injury would keep him out of the home opener last night, and he was visibly deflated.
Funny, but no one else looked that way.
To hear the rest of the players fresh off that skate, I was wondering if anyone even noticed.
“You know, we’ve still got to go out there and play and do our jobs,” right winger Arron Asham said, a few hours before the Penguins did exactly that in flattening the Florida Panthers, 4-2. “And honestly, I’m not sure what’s all going on with Sid and Geno.”
Hey, who can keep up?
Sidney Crosby told reporters yesterday that he’ll see his concussion team later in the week, but there is no plan to discuss being cleared for contact. Malkin was slew-footed Saturday in Calgary by the Flames’ Curtis Glencross, and the prognosis there, too, remained vague.
Yeah, sounds like Asham has it right: The Penguins need to approach this season as if every game they get from Crosby or Malkin is a bonus.
And that, to their credit, is exactly how they handled it again last night.
Kris Letang pinched deep to spark a Pascal Dupuis goal. Joe Vitale had the primary assist on that one and the next by Matt Cooke. Craig Adams’ sweetly timed forecheck led to Richard Park’s short-handed goal. The defense held the Panthers shot-less for extended stretches.
It was all much more methodical than magical, but that’s fine. What most people still don’t seem to understand about these Penguins is that they, unlike so many of their predecessors, feed off strategy rather than their stars.
“We’d love to have Sid and Geno, obviously,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “But we play a style that’s difficult to play against no matter who’s in the lineup. We’re going to play a dogged style in the offensive zone, grind you down and win a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games with the same system.”
Let’s take a look at Cooke’s goal on the chalkboard:
1. Cooke began the play after getting the puck in the high slot of the defensive zone. That’s where he’s supposed to be. The Penguins break out through the middle maybe more than any team in the NHL. Most still go up the boards.
“I’m just looking ahead there,” Cooke said. “Duper is the stretch guy.”
2. Cooke fired a pass all the way to the opposite blue line, where Dupuis waited on the left side, his back to the Florida goal. This, too, is a set play. Dupuis is supposed to touch the puck across to a forward coming through the middle with speed. This was Vitale, and Dupuis found him in stride, but only after Vitale shouted two commands.
The first: “Time!”
(Dupuis was uncovered.)
The second: “Middle!”
(Vitale was ready for the pass.)
“Joe has to be my eyes there,” Dupuis said. “If he doesn’t yell, I just chip it down the boards.”
Vitale is a rookie, but the Penguins run the same system in Wilkes-Barre.
“That helps so much,” Vitale said. “When you come up to the NHL, you just play.”
3. Cooke, in a show of fierce hustle, burst up ice to join Vitale for what became a two-on-one after Florida’s defense failed to react.
“We’re looking to create our own odd-man break,” Dupuis said. “And we did.”
Vitale backhanded a pass that Cooke slammed home.
“No missing that one,” Cooke said.
None of those three players is a star, but the play was. And ordinary players can do extraordinary things when there’s harmony like that.
Dan Bylsma and his staff have installed a complex system that’s somehow aggressive and disciplined at the same time, and they’ve had years to teach it to the same core group. The key is support. Anytime a defenseman pinches, one forward – designated “F3” by Bylsma – must cycle back to cover for him.
As Lovejoy said with a straight face, “We have confidence in F3.”
Things were made easier last night in that the Panthers came with a new coach, 14 new players and a decade-long string of being seriously lousy. But that only underscores the value of the Penguins’ consistency in instruction and personnel.
Someday, when Crosby and Malkin return, I’m guessing they’ll make a fine F1 and F2.


  1. Drew71 says:

    I sure HOPE than Neal’s denial was just positioning for bargaining. And since I had hoped for Maholm’s option to be exercised BEFORE Morton’s injury, you can guess how much I am pulling for that now.

    And I haven’t changed my view of preferring the one year $9.75MM option to a longer, more expensive extension.

    But let’s not get all tender about Morton’s injury. Meaning do NOT tender Ohlendorf. No desperation moves. They need a pitcher. That leaves Ohlie out.

    Good luck, Charlie. Get well soon. You were and I hope will continue to be a great story, a nice kid, and, for my sake, don’t make me watch Locke or Owens pitch for too long.

  2. Drew71 says:

    PS…I think Lincoln IS on the cusp of readiness, at least. But still a bit of an unknown. So with Morton down, Maholm a big ?, and the staff as a whole unproven about being to make it a full season together, Lincoln is not the solution by himself rather just a piece of the puzzle.

  3. Jandy says:

    It’s good to see Cookie playing so well…and so far, within the rules. Let’s hope it stays that way. The system the Pens Organization uses definitely keeps the Pens winning without their stars. i can’t wait till Geno, Sid, and Brooksie are all back in the line-up. Problem is, who do you sit? Nice problem to have.

  4. JAL says:

    JAL’s You Keep it All In Morning Links


    1- MLB Transactions

    2-MLB Trade Rumors-Pirates

    3- 2011-12 Pirates Prospects Off-Season Calendar

  5. JAL says:

    11 Boston Globe

    Inside the collapse

    12 Detroit Free Press

    Drew Sharp: Tigers must keep fighting through mounting injuries

    Michael Rosenberg: Tigers right to go with Porcello today, then Verlander

    13 Fort Worth Star Telegram

    Fister outduels Lewis as Tigers take Game 3

    Rangers’ pulse starts to race as Tigers come back to life>/b>

  6. JAL says:


    14Yahoo Sports

    Fan’s take: Should Pittsburgh Pirates pick up team option on Paul Maholm?

    15 Bleacher Report

    MLB: Hal Smith Started His “Revenge” Against the New York Yankees in 1955

    16 PBC Site

    Morton undergoes successful hip surgery

  7. JAL says:

    Steelers Blogs

    -Behind the Steel Curtain

    Steelers’ Receiver Hines Ward has Always been a Great Athlete

    5 Burning Questions: Now That’s More Like It Edition

    -Steeler Depot

    Tomlin Has Legitimate Beef With Unnecessary Roughness Penalty

  8. diehard says:

    Do you think maybe Roenick took one too many shots to the head? Honestly, I get tired of the “nothing new” updates too, but I’m not going to say “Just get him out there” when he’s not medically cleared for contact.
    And prayers for a speedy recovery Charlie.

  9. leefoo says:

    “Wide receiver Antonio Brown is fourth in the NFL in kickoff returns (31.6 yards) and fifth in punt returns (14.6). ”

    Most years, those stats would have you at or near #1. Lots of folks having great retun years!!


    Saw the headline and thought Steve Cooke was coming back to the ‘burgh. :)

    I hope the Steelers don’t take the Jags for granted. If so, it could be another Indy game vs a lesser opponent.


  10. Arriba Wilver says:

    I was at the game last night and agree about the reception for Cooke. Park got a nice welcome back reception, too, although nothing like Cooke’s. I’m no hockey expert, but Neal seemed to play a nice game.

  11. Milo Hamilton says:


    Don’t you think it’s funny that the NFL changes its rules to basically eliminate kickoff returns & it’s had almost the exact opposite effect.

    Roger Goodell – Remaking the NFL in his own image, One rule change at a time.

  12. Dan says:

    Roenick is off his rocker. Crosby has given hardly any updates. The media and fans have demanded them all the time, but he has largely been quiet, so he is just flat out wrong about that. Then the rant to just get on the ice and get hitting… yoi.

  13. JAL says:

    That is an enjoyable read breaking down Cooke’s goal, shows the importance of on-ice communication.

  14. Baywatch says:

    Drew71 … Locke we’ve seen, but not Owens yet. I know he had an off year at AAA but who knows – maybe he gets all rehabbed and shows up in spring training as the next Candelaria we’ve all been waiting for.

  15. Jandy says:

    “Saw the headline and thought Steve Cooke was coming back to the ‘burgh.”


  16. Jandy says:

    RE: Roenick, he’s just jealous because no one ever paid this much attention to him, even when he was ON the ice ;)

  17. Arriba Wilver says:

    Is it any real surprise Pittsburgh has taken to Cooke? We loved Ulf Samuelsson and Darius Kasparaitis, who were hated before they played for the Pens.

  18. TheSaltyRogue says:

    How can you say Brad Lincoln isn’t ready to push for a fifth-starter job?

  19. Bizrow says:

    5th starter? We got Correia, McDonald, Kartsens, McDonald and Kartsens are coming off career high innings pitched.

    We’d best do a lot of dumpster diving this coming off season. Hopefully Neal does not choose a McDonalds or Taco Bell dumster this year.

  20. MrB says:

    I’m sick and tired of Jeremy Roenick…and that clip is the first that I’ve watched of him since sometime last season.

  21. tmp444 says:

    Saw the Roenick clip live last night watching the post-game stuff on VS/NBC Sports. Even casual hockey fans would know that his blowup last night was a joke, but the reaction by Edzo was priceless. He looked like he wanted to give JR his own concussion….

  22. Great read and great breakdown on Cooke’s goal, DK. I think the absence of Crosby and Malkin for the second half of last season was one of the better things that could have happened. Aside from giving guys like Kennedy a chance to step into a bigger role, it proved that they can be competitive if they rely more on the system than superstars.

    The system, though, is not without it’s shortcomings. Bylsma really is platooning a “live by the sword, die by the sword” approach by using the defense so aggressively. Granted this does allow the defense to make up for deficiencies on offense, but it does leave the Pens with weaknesses defensively. The Pens goaltenders thus far have been exceptional, but they’ve faced a ton of rubber. Even with Florida’s modest firepower, the Panthers still managed 34 shots on Fleury. By taking a bit more conservative approach defensively, Bylsma can still utilize players like Letang to drive the offense while limiting the opportunities the other way.

    While the Pens may still be able to get it done without Malkin and Crosby, they still haven’t proven that they can do it without at least one superstar performance… between the pipes.

    DK: Thanks, RF.

  23. Milo Hamilton says:


    What last year proved was that the Pens can’t get it done without Crosby & Malkin.


  24. Jandy says:

    @ Milo

    you forgot Cooke… just sayin =)

  25. Milo Hamilton says:


    You’re right, I did. What do you think ? I think Cooke could have helped get them through the Tampa series, but not much further than that.

  26. @Milo

    I didn’t say the Pens could win the Stanley Cup without Malkin and Crosby, just that they could be competitive. Case and point, the Pens made the playoffs without either in the lineup.

    As for the Tampa series, I think the difference there was goaltending. The Pens needed Marc Andre Fleury to be their best player and he wasn’t.

  27. Milo Hamilton says:


    I’m good with competitive. I just can’t call them successful.

    As for the Tampa series, they were 1-35 on the power play and lost the 7th game 1-0.
    Yep, Fleury’s fault.

  28. JAL says:

    Meanwhile we have boy-wonder Theo Epstein off to Cubs to se he can move back to 1908 from 1918.

  29. Jandy says:

    @ Milo, I say Cookie would have gotten them past the Lightning…then Malkin would have come back. How much of a difference he would have made? Who knows for sure. He may have spurred them into the finals. But honestly, I’m glad he had the down time, because he needed it.

  30. Arriba Wilver says:

    The mention of Bylsma reminds me. He got a HUGE ovation, also, probably rivaling Cooke’s. Nice to see.

    “Boy wonder ” Epstein? I thought that was Neal’s moniker. Heck, Neal gets a 3 year + an option contract extension for presiding over the 19th (only 4th in his tenure) losing season, and Theo’s looking for new a job. I think Neal’s the “boy wonder.”

  31. JAL says:


    Epstein was the youngest GM ever hired by an MLB team, hired in 2002 and team won the Series in 2004, hence “boy wonder”

  32. Bizrow says:


    Why can’t we get one of them??

  33. TJA says:

    I see KDKA will once again be the Pirates flagship station…

    Welcome home Bucs!

  34. Milo Hamilton says:


    We would get Juan Epstein & he would bring a note from his mother.

  35. Milo Hamilton says:

    Rob Biertempfel is reporting that the Pirates have told Paul Maholm that they will NOT pick up his option for next season. Another shocking spectacle.

  36. Dejan Kovacevic says:

    @Milo: I’ll wait for the Pirates’ side first, but this is lousy on its surface. Goes against everything they preach, actually, in terms of wanting to have good pitching without long-term commitments. This was one year with a highly motivated athlete going into free agency. A no-brainer.

  37. Milo Hamilton says:


    I came to this one late. I liken it to when the Steelers franchised Max Starks. On the surface it seemed like a lot of money for one year, but that’s exactly the point. It’s only one year. If the Pirates aren’t contending next summer, then you’ve turned back the clock a year & you can trade him. This way, you have nothing in return.

    Until they actually pay someone $9.75 million, I don’t believe that they will.

  38. JAL says:

    Not surprised on Maholm but $9 million for 1 year not that much, especially when considering he could be part of trade next season or leave as FA with possible compensation.

  39. JAL says:


    Not quite $9 but they paid Jason Kendall $8,5 million in 2004

  40. Milo Hamilton says:

    Thanks JAL, wondered what the high water mark was. That’s a lot of money for a malcontent singles hitter.

  41. David Custer says:


    They paid Matt Morris $10,037,283 for 22.1 innings of work in 2008. And yet you don’t think they will pay a player 9.75 million?

  42. Bizrow says:

    Cheap, cheap, cheap

    Who let that bird in?

    Seriously, that call was dumb

    At the major league level, the BMTIB just doesn’t get it

    We go year after year after year (4 now) with the draft mantra, pitching, pitching, pitching

    You got a stable guy and a chip at a reasonable price (by monopoly money Major League standards), you got most of your starting staff with career innings pitched and/or shut down, and you make a decision like this

    They are still not ready to draw the line and say this year (2012) we are going to try

    I’m just sayin

    Hope but pretty much expect

  43. CWalton_67 says:

    Enjoyed the column on the Pens system. And I’m enjoying seeing Matt Cooke successful and embraced by the fans. I’m not a Cooke apologist, but I am a fan. He’s seems quite genuine in his remorse for his actions. Will he make a mistake? Probably. But I think he’s honestly trying to channel his aggression into better play.

    I like the look of Vitale. I think some will have a tendency to try to compare him to Letestu’s start last year, but I think they are different players. Vitale seems to have a much higher compete level. They jury is still out, but he’s a good fit with Cooke and Dupuis.

    Would be interested in your thoughts on who wears a suit when people start to get healthy, DK.

  44. Milo Hamilton says:

    Some research with dinner (Cot’s Baseball Contracts Site). This season alone, 88 players in MLB made at least $9.75 million. That’s nearly 12% of the league.

    The Pirates have NEVER paid anyone that much. Not even once.

  45. Dave G in Mason, OH says:

    Not many comments about them, but Neal, Sullivan, and even Park have infused a little energy into this team themselves.

    The Pens are improved this year even without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup.

  46. David says:

    Hate to tell you but that is not accurate. Pirates paid Matt Morris over 10 million in 2008.

  47. Milo Hamilton says:


    Not Matt Morris flashbacks. My therapist and I had worked long & hard to wipe that from my memory.

    OK, once.

  48. Milo Hamilton says:

    Jen Langosch has this nugget on the Pirates site. The Pirates have not officially rejected the Maholm option yet. They are going to wait until a trade partner emerges.

    So if you are one of the other 29 teams, here’s what you do. Call the Pirates, give them a player or 2 & get Maholm for next year only for $9.75 million. Why wait a month when he’s a free agent and all you have to do is write a check and maybe you get him for multiple years.

    Neal Huntington is a genius.

  49. Eric Bowser says:

    Let’s see, Pirates have publicly admitted Maholm won’t be back in Pittsburgh, Morton had hip surgery – a condition I don’t recall hearing about all season, and the team doesn’t think they need to add another starter or two.

    Of course they don’t.

    Ownership wants their $15-20 million in profits.

    A rotation of Karstens – McDonald – Correia – Lincoln – Locke virtually guarantees another 90-100 loss season and even if they dip into free agency, it probably nets someone like Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, or Dontrelle Willis.

    2012 is going to end up worse than 2011, even if Alvarez takes a huge step forward as a power hitter, McCutchen hits .300 with his other numbers from ’11, Tabata and Presley return to health and continue to be productive OBP guys, and Walker improves his average.

    The team still needs a catcher, first baseman, and shortstop to go along with the huge holes of a number one and two starting pitcher to anchor the rotation.

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