So now that we have had some time to let that Penguins loss settle, how do we feel about what the future holds for our hockey club? Especially with our core group all over the age of 34, how likely is it that they can return another Stanley Cup to the Burgh. Now if you are a little pessimistic about the Pens, how about the Steelers? You have a QB who is arguably on his last season, a coach who has left some fans with a sour taste in their mouths, and a young defensive core that has title winning potential. But QB is king in the NFL, so how much can fans really believe in this team? Then, you have the Pirates. What can you say about a franchise that has been more of a loser than a winner over the last 20+ years? The recipe says that when you lose, you get great, young talent to build around. So can the Pirates actually change the opinions of fans over these next couple years, and bring back winning baseball to the 412 area? Which franchise would you say has the brightest future? Could any of these teams bring home a title in a five year span?
Let’s start with arguably our most successful franchise over the last 10 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins. This franchise hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 05-06 season, which, if you didn’t know, was our first year with Sidney Crosby. So yes, this man has not only elevated us from worst to playoff contender, but has also helped us stay a contending force in the NHL. But as the years come and go, we see our great warrior aging. As fans, we stand-by holding our breaths with every injury because we know that the next incident could be the one that takes him out the entire year. What happens with the absence of Crosby? Malkin has shown to be even more brittle over the last couple years. He played in 156 games out of 207. Now that may only lead to about 25% games missed, but this trend doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop. Plus you also have to factor in that he is in the final year of his contract. So it’s completely plausible that this is the last year we see this two headed monster of Malkin/Crosby. That will be a hard pill for fans to swallow. These two gentlemen have been excellent pros for the city, but maybe we have another pair that can keep us as contenders.
Yeah, this team has old stars, but we also have a lot of young talent with promise. Jake Guentzel has been a stud with this team. He was second on the team in points, and at times looked like the team’s best goal scorer. Not to mention this man is only going to be 27 next year and should be hitting the prime of his career. Then you have a 24-year-old, named Kasperi Kapenin, that has taken the hearts of a lot of Pens fans this year. In just his first full-year with the Penguins, he proved to be worth the hefty price tag we gave up to acquire him. His speed was noticeable from the jump, his defense wasn’t as bad as advertised, as well as he rose up in big moments as well. Plus he is still just a kid with so much more room to grow. Not to mention you have guys like Rust, Blueger, Aston-Reese, and McCann who are all under 30 heading into next year. All of those men elevated their play from last year. Showing us that maybe life after Crosby won’t be as abysmal as it we all predict.
The clear issue with this team is their goaltending, though. You have a young 25-year-old, in Tristan Jarry, who folded in the playoffs, but was a decent goalie for us leading up to those moments. He finished top twelve in Save%, GAA, and Shutouts (minimum 35 games played) during the regular season. I will not disagree with anyone that says, “Jarry is the sole reason the Pens lost in the playoffs,” but maybe the moment was too big for him. We are talking about arguably the most difficult gauntlet in sports, the NHL playoffs. In his first time being in command of the team, he froze but that doesn’t mean he can’t bounce back and learn from that experience. But the one major problem against Jarry is that he wasn’t best goalie on the team. Casey DeSmith was better in pretty much every statistic despite playing fewer games for the squad. DeSmith was also the goalie supposed to start Game 1, but was unfortunately injured in warmups and was unable to return for the series. DeSmith will be 30 this year so that might play a role in how they select a net minder going into next year. Do they let a young talent, that has shown promise, gain more experience and be better suited for the future, or do they ride an older guy who hasn’t proven a lot in his own right, but just might be the better goaltender?
Either way, this team to me has a perfect mix of savvy veterans and promising young talent. You need that recipe in order to win. Older guys being able to coach in the moment is crucial. Having men in the locker room who know what it takes to win might be the biggest asset to a championship team. The mental aspect of the game can be taken for granted at times, but this team knows what it takes. It has proven winners with hungry, young talent ready to take charge.
Now what about the team that is arguably set up for the best future? The Pittsburgh Pirates. Now I know, this team has done nothing but let you down for the last five years. We have had multiple pitchers leave our team and have had CY young quality numbers almost immediately. Especially with one of those players (Tyler Glassnow), being featured in one of the WORST TRADES IN MLB HISTORY. This team has mismanaged talent for what feels like centuries, so why should the future be any different. Why should the fans of Pittsburgh believe in this squad?
Well one simple reason is Ke’Bryan Hayes. This kid is an electric ball player who has captured the attention of a lot of people nationwide. A lot of national media baseball guys have even selected him to win the NL rookie of the year award this year. He has a great baseball IQ, pure raw power, solid speed, and some have even said he is has “Gold Glove potential” at the cornerstone. Yeah it’s just 150 at bats in the majors, but he has a .999 OPS, and .329 BA. Not to mention in his first taste of the big leagues this year, where some say the moment can be “too big,” he goes yard to show he is ready. Pair him with a 26 year old in Bryan Reynolds, who can win the batting title one day, and you have the building blocks for a promising team. A lot of people don’t know that Reynolds was in the Andrew McCutchen trade involving San Francisco back in the day. Now that wasn’t a great day for Pittsburgh. Cutch was beloved by everyone, but as of right now, he is a better baseball player than Cutch. Now, can Bryan win and MVP? Probably not, but he can help elevate his team the way Cutch did. He is ranked 7th this year in OBP and 4th in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Now WAR is typically the number one stat to elect an MVP each year for whatever that stat is worth. Not to mention he is only 26-years-old. We also have the number one pick in the draft this year. So the chance at adding a true ‘Ace’ to our abysmal looking pitching staff looks promising. Either of the guys from Vanderbilt look primed to take the league by storm and we’ll also have an opportunity to watch those pitchers perform in this year’s National Championship, as Vanderbilt takes on Mississippi State.
Another aspect to aid to the future of the Pirates is the fact that we have two guys who can net us something serious in the trade market. Despite how good Reynolds and Hayes has been playing, Adam Frazier has been the best player on the Pirates this year. Frazier is third in the MLB with a .322 BA, and fourth in at bats. He is one of the best leadoff hitters in the league right now, and a team like Boston or the New York Mets could really use him to win a championship. Now with the way he is playing, there is no reason you don’t get a top 5 prospect in either farm system. Then you also have a guy named Richard Rodriguez sitting, waiting for save opportunities that never come. His .716 WHIP is good enough for fifth amongst all qualifying pitchers (25 innings), and a low 1.84 ERA. Not to mention he went scoreless in his first 19 appearances. A couple years ago, the Pirates got too greedy when they were trading Felipe Vasquez. The Dodgers, at one time, were offering Dustin May and Keibert Ruiz. Dustin May was dealing before a UCL injury, forcing Tommy John surgery. Keibert Ruiz is currently the no 42 prospect in the league, sporting a .319 OBP and an astounding .587 slugging in the minors. We all know what happened outside of baseball with Vasquez, but imagine how the Pirates look with that trade? There was even reports Will Smith could have been paired with May. I highly doubt that Rodriquez pulls a haul of that size, but know that teams will throw out some serious prospects for a guy they know can get three outs.
If it wasn’t for a history of bad management, or coaching, this franchise’s future would have so much belief behind them. They have a lot of key pieces to really blossom into a competitive ball club, but sadly some of these prospects don’t translate with us. Tyler Glassnow could never quite get his footing with the ball club. However, with the Rays, they tweaked his mechanics, and added a slider. Now we see a guy like Mitch Keller, who was a top 10 prospect at one point, look completely lost on the mound at times. I’m not saying that he can’t be great, but it’s almost weird to think he will be great in a Pirates uniform. They have all of the opportunity in the world to actually build a competitive franchise. They will NEED to pay when the time comes. A title doesn’t have to be top five in payroll. But there has only been one team since 1990 that didn’t have a top 16 payroll win the championship. So take that for what it is. Let’s just hope Bob Nutting, and company, will rise to the occasion, build this talent, and actually come through. Or maybe they just drop the ball like they always do.
Do you think the Steelers have the smallest window? I guess that would depend on how much weight you put into the quarterback position. Outside of Ben and the boys, this team looks built to succeed. On the offensive side of the ball, this WR core can stack up to any other team in the league. The big 3 is ready to run it back with JuJu returning on a franchise tag. The trio all finished with over 800 yards a piece. Each and every one of them looking like a number one option. Claypool will look to really work on the tools to make him an elite wide receiver. His natural ability of size and speed will take him only so far. If he can really improve his footwork, there won’t be any reason he doesn’t beat his man off the line of scrimmage. Plus, with his big play ability down the sideline, there will be tough catches to make, which is the complete opposite of Johnson. He just needs to learn to catch the stinking ball. It was evident with his league leading 10 drops last year that he has some mental lapses at times. Sadly, each drop always seemed to be at a crucial time in the game. I still think he can really be something on this offense. We all sort of know what JuJu can bring. It’s just whether or not he is able to come through. It’s hard to tell sadly, but Ben believes in him. Last year, when they needed a first down or a reliable set of hands, he was the go-to option.
Pairing those wide receiving weapons with a running back like Najee Harris was a smart move. Especially with the new promotion of Matt Canada to Offensive Coordinator. He has come with a play-action heavy background that loves to put guys in motion. Keeping defenses on their toes at all times, but also using the strengths of personal. Knowing that the Offensive line is going to have a lot of new faces, that extra second of hesitation from defenses is only going to help them. Zach Banner looks like an upgrade at LT with the departure of Villanueva. He looked solid before a season ending knee injury. Rookie Kevin Dotson looks like a mainstay for years to come at the guard position. He was thrust into the roll week two and never looked back. Rookie Kendrick Green and newly acquired Trai Turner will be filling in the vacant role at O-line since the release of long time Steeler, David DeCastro. This group, if healthy, can look like a top 10 offensive line in the league. They can open up holes and allow Najee to really make the most of every opportunity. The pressure is honestly all on Ben’s shoulders. Can he stay healthy and move this offense along? We know he has all the ability in the world to do it. He led the team to an 11-0 start last year, but failed to make adjustments down the stretch. Only time will tell if he learns from that mistake. Hopefully the new faces can make that happen.
The biggest plus for a great offense is how much pressure it takes off a defense. Imagine giving that defensive line the ability to pin its ears back, and get after that quarterback. The secondary is going to be a little suspect this year. Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton have unfortunately left for free-agency. Both were crucial pieces to the success of that defense. Now we have to hope Cameron Sutton and Justin Layne can rise to the occasion. That mystery is intriguing, but scary. You also have Terrell Edmunds whose fifth year option was not picked up by the team. So this is a “prove yourself” kind of moment for Edmunds. He has never really blossomed like some would hope, and since we have seen what Minkah has done from the safety position, the pressure is on. Joe Haden is getting up there in age, and who knows when he drops off. If he misses any games, this defensive back group will look ugly. This puts even more pressure on the front seven disrupting the quarterback at times. As it stands right now, any quarterback that gets a little bit of time will be able to find success against that group. Now, this speaks to the importance of the offensive group getting a lead.
Looking at some of the key pieces, the Steelers are decently young. Everyone besides Ben Roethlisburger is under 30 on the offensive side. TJ Watt is only 26 and still entering his prime. Minkah is only 24 and Devin Bush is 22, so there is a generational young talent at every level of this defense. There aren’t many teams in the league that have such a talented young nucleus. The franchise has shown that they can draft well, alongside adding quality, young talent to this core group.
As fans, the only real question we can ask is, “What are our plans at QB?” Ben has to be in his last year, if not that second year could be ugly. So that leaves us with wondering if Haskins is really going to develop, or can Rudolph actually be a good quarterback in the league. Haskins had all the tools and support coming out of the draft. Sadly, some off the field issues, paired with poor performances on the field, left him out of the picture in Washington. People close to the organization have said that Washington isn’t good at developing young quarterback talent. So will a new scenery bring new hope to Haskins future? I personally hope so because we have seen what Rudolph will bring us. Mason is a below average quarterback who doesn’t bring enough to elevate the talent around him. He has accuracy issues downfield, and looks like he plays with zero confidence. So will we need to draft a quarterback? If this team is competitive, can they get a quality option in picks 20+? Probably not, and that’s going to be a conundrum for this franchise for years to come. Maybe it’s good to keep Rudolph around, to lead this team to a top ten pick. Either way, this team has all of the talent in the world, but sadly has a big question at the most important position in the game.
So you tell me, which franchise has the best future? Who is in the best position to be successful over the next 5 years? Who will win a championship over the next five years? The Pens have the best player on the planet in hockey, but when he leaves, is there anything there to take the torch and run with it? They are probably set up best for a championship over the next five years, but who really knows how long Crosby will play. It’s clear the Pirates are set up the best for future success. The talent, and the potential for talent, screams a possible winning franchise. Yet, we have zero faith in the front office to actually come through in development. They have to come through on executing crucial trades, alongside molding that young talent into something special. Then you have the Steelers who have the most complete roster. A coaching staff that has a winning background, a front office known for getting the most bang for their buck, and has also shown they know how to treat young stars. But can they really come through and get them a winner once Ben retires. That’s the only way that talent will ultimately succeed in the future.
The city of Pittsburgh should feel blessed to have the teams that we do. Other cities would kill for what we have in the 412. But will those cities be jealous of us in Hockey, Baseball or Football? You tell me.