Penguins

Kovacevic: JuJu’s now Steelers’ best player?

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CHICAGO — A guy takes one day away from the grind — I had a business meeting back in L.A. — and, of course, the Pittsburgh sports world pumps out storyline upon storyline from all three of our teams.

Seems like this calls for some Takes, even if it’s no longer Tuesday. And since I’m all wound up in the Windy City to cover hockey, let’s start with that:

• The Penguins will bust out with a bunch of goals here tonight.

Yeah, I know, everyone hates predictions like this. Heck, I hate all predictions. But these Blackhawks are so putrid on so many levels — eight losses in a row, 19 losses in their past 22 games — that anything less would be almost as much of a disappointment from the local perspective as that last sporting event I covered.

Oh, and while the Penguins enjoyed a free day and night here, the Hawks spent last night getting pummeled in Winnipeg, 6-3, and didn’t register a solitary shot until after the Jets had taken 14, and scored on three of them.

This isn’t a prediction as much as it is science.

Watch for yourself:

• Besides, the Penguins have been better. I mean, look, no one likes to leave Ottawa with one point, but Craig Anderson’s brilliance — some will recall he’s capable of that — is all that’s keeping the team from a possible perfect trip. And, if widening the scope, a 6-2-3 run in the past 11 games. Annoying hiccups aside, that’s acceptable hockey.

As Mike Sullivan worded it after practice here yesterday, "I think we're a much more confident team. We're moving in the right direction. We're becoming more of a team in how we play collectively. We're becoming a harder team to play against. We've made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas. And when you get results, I think that helps confidence in and of itself. I think our team, from a mindset standpoint, is in a very different place."

• It matters almost not at all, given that the Penguins have played two fewer games than most in the East, but they're currently ninth in the conference, just outside the playoff bubble.

Just for fun, though, I looked over the field and tried to envision which teams currently above the Penguins have virtually zero chance of staying in the top eight and instantly came up with the Canadiens and the Islanders, and I'm still, stubbornly not ruling out that the Sabres are phony. To boot, the team directly behind the Penguins, the Red Wings, have the least chance of any of these to qualify.

So, who will rise up in their stead?

Hurricanes and Panthers.

Don't write these down, by the way. I genuinely hate predictions. Particularly when they wind up wrong.

• The ideal wingers for Sidney Crosby remain Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist. Everything else is patchwork. Phil Kessel wasn’t going to last one full game there — ahem! — and didn't. Derick Brassard is there now to keep him a bit more upbeat and, ideally, enhance his trade value, but he’s not a fit, either, except against opponents that permit endless perimeter cycling.

At some point in the offensive process — and trust me, Sullivan shares this stance — Sid benefits most from having a straight-line presence to detract defensive attention and, above all, to take out the trash.

One guy fits that bill.

• Imagine if Matt Murray performs well in his return this weekend. Then imagine if he takes off the way he did this past January and picks up the Penguins as a whole. Then imagine the city getting behind him again.

Sure beats what everyone’s probably thinking right now, doesn’t it?

Juuso Riikola needs to be sent to Wilkes-Barre right after this trip. It’s not fair to stick him in press boxes and stunt his progress. Too good a talent. Still only 24 and a rookie to North American hockey at any level.

Chris Boswell might be free to do the driving for Riikola, but he’d wind up in Schenectady.

• Why do we fret so much over kickers’ feelings?

Really, how is their failure worth so much more empathy than other failure in the realm of sports?

If Ramon Foster misses a block that results in a game-ending sack, no one will be sending him cards and flowers. He’d be a guy who didn’t do his job, nothing more.

I cite Foster only because he was the one Sunday in Oakland who glanced across the room at Boswell and said to me, “Poor guy.”

There are a lot of terms I'd use to describe a guy fresh off a $6 million signing bonus. "Poor" wouldn't be among them.

He's just another athlete who loses at something. Nothing makes him or his position special.

• I completely buy the Ben Roethlisberger explanation for the Oakland weirdness. In fact, I’ll bet that X-ray machine in the Coliseum was so outdated it was actually a set of those old paper glasses one would pull from a cereal box, with each lens marked by a big X.

No, seriously, nothing would surprise me in a place where the windows were sealed with Saran Wrap and a custodian’s walkie-talkie could be heard near the press box exclaiming that a couple dead mice had been found inside the Coke dispensers.

I’d share my stance that the NFL — and Major League Baseball — should abandon that dump, but that’d be even more outdated than Ben’s X-ray machine.

• For real, I do accept the explanations given. They make perfect sense.

Still, I’ll ask for the millionth time: Why is it that, when Ben is asked these things in a stadium setting, he can’t answer?

Here were my questions in Oakland:

But as soon as he’s doing his weekly radio show, the answers suddenly flow like Niagara Falls?

That’s an odd priority to keep on an NFL Sunday.

• When will it become acceptable to call JuJu Smith-Schuster the Steelers' best wide receiver?

Or even their best player?

OK, I guess I'll start it, then.

Say what one will about JuJu benefiting from Antonio Brown getting extra attention -- the kid himself brings it up on his own -- but JuJu currently has 91 catches to AB's 86, he's got 1,234 yards to AB's 1,063, and he's got seven 100-yard games to AB's four. Moreover, no less an authority than the franchise quarterback has spoken -- and demonstrated -- that No. 19 is now the target when it matters most.

Don't think he isn't feeling it, either. This was on his own Twitter account last night:

Let's at least agree on this much: No one associated with the Steelers has been better over the past month. He's been the most athletic, the most dependable, the most clutch and, through all that, the most improved. It'll be a blast watching what's ahead.

• Also, for the record, JuJu was Ryan Reaves on Tom Wilson before that became a thing:

Ivan Nova being traded for a pitching prospect is a solid concept for three reasons:

1. He was going to be the fifth starter for the Pirates. No huge loss in that context.

2. He was going to make $8.5 million, which is out of sync with that slot. I applauded the extension at the time. It didn’t work out.

3. Getting a pitching prospect from another organization is vital for a team that can’t draft and/or develop its own.

Similarly, I’ve got three worries:

1. They won’t replace him. They’ll hand the fifth spot to Steven Brault.

2. They won’t spend the money they just saved.

3. They’ll ruin the pitching prospect before Ray Searage can ever get his hands on him.

[caption id="attachment_737285" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Francisco Cervelli. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

Francisco Cervelli shouldn’t go.

I heard late last night that the Red Sox are richly interested in him, and our John Perrotto heard about other suitors at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, too.

Here’s hoping for the Pirates’ sake that doesn’t materialize. This team needs, more than anything, stability for a still-young rotation, and as much offense as it can get. Cervelli offers a ton on both fronts.

Yeah, I get it. He costs a lot. But the Nova trade slashes payroll all the way down to the $70 million mark, so not even this front office could feel the need to ... eh, never mind.

• Cervelli wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s passionate about the Pirates and Pittsburgh. He’s got zero wish to go anywhere else. Trust me on that.

Neal Huntington spoke this sentence last night in Vegas: “My job is to maximize payroll dollars for all facets of baseball operations."

Unwittingly or not, he's probably never spoken truer words.

• That’s all for now. I’ll let you know how Evgeni Malkin, Mr. 101 himself, fares tonight against Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and those high-flying Hawks.

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