NEAL FOR HORNQVIST = GOOD TRADE

So far, anyway.

I’m a James Neal guy. He’s a great talent. A pure goal-scorer. An excellent RW for C Evgeni Malkin.

But trading Neal to Nashville for RW Patric Hornqvist and LW/C Nick Spaling has changed the Penguins’ dynamic in drastic fashion, especially on the power play.

Last season, the Pens had one guy legitimately work down low and invade the blue paint on the man-advantage: Chris Kunitz. This year, it’s Kunitz and Hornqvist. The result is evident.

When a team works the perimeter on the power play, it can be defended. No matter how much talent is there, a decent PK can figure it out.

But when a PP has talent, moves the puck AND keeps going to the net, the PK is always scrambling. Responsibilities change in the wink of an eye, and they keep changing.

The Penguins’ PP is a red-hot 6/13. Credit assistant coach Rick Tocchet. He’s in charge.

Last year, the power play looked for the perfect shot. This year, the power play is looking for the second shot – the rebound, the loose puck – and those are often better shots because the opposition PK is caught out of position.

TOO MUCH LIKE THE SAME THING

Based on the morning skate, here’s the Penguins’ top PP: Crosby, Hornqvist, Kunitz, Letang and Malkin.

I don’t like it. It makes me wonder who’s in charge.

Ehrhoff needs to be up top, with Malkin in the right circle and Letang in the left, and Crosby and Kunitz underneath.

With the personnel being utilized, Malkin will be up top. Crosby will be in the right circle and Letang in the left. Kunitz and Hornqvist will be underneath.

I’m not questioning Hornqvist’s PP credentials. He plays well down low and is a master at deflections.

But Malkin is not a pure, crisp distributor of the puck up top. He’s a shooter. Up top is a bad shooting spot. Malkin should be in the right circle.

Is new coach Mike Johnston acquiescing to what certain players want? Specifically, Crosby’s desire to play the right circle?

If Johnston is, they should have just kept the old guy. That’s what he did. Comfort zones shouldn’t matter after five straight playoff disappointments. Crosby is good in the right circle. But it’s a better power play if Malkin plays there.

The Penguins’ PP finished first in the NHL last year with a conversion percentage of 23.4. But it went 1-20 in the second round against the Rangers.

The last thing they should do on the PP is the same thing. This looks too much like the same thing.

SUCKAS GOTS TA KNOW

Evgeni Malkin hasn’t practiced or skated since Penguins training camp started.

What’s wrong? Nobody’s saying.

Since the truth remains unknown, rumors abound:

*Malkin got hurt in a golf-cart accident at the Penguins’ preseason golf outing.

*Malkin doesn’t want to play for new coach Mike Johnston.

*Malkin is unhappy because ex-linemate James Neal got traded.

There is no truth to any of these rumors. Nothing tangible to back them, anyway.

But SUCKAS GOTS TA KNOW. If fact isn’t available, innuendo does just fine.

I see no value in concealing Malkin’s injury. None.

It’s part of the idiotic NHL “code.” The NFL publishes a list of injuries weekly. The NHL conceals every player’s slightest hurt like it’s a nuclear secret. To what end?

I love hockey. I love the Penguins. But both entities are starting to BORE THE HELL OUT OF ME.

DTA: DON’T TRUST ANYBODY

I watched Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti plead his case on ESPN. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” exposed the Ravens’ cover-up of the Ray Rice travesty. Bisciotti says ESPN “manufactured” the story.

Anytime someone from the NFL talks – owner, commissioner, executive, coach, player – I’m going to assume they’re lying. Anytime the media says or writes anything about the NFL, I’m going to assume they’re lying. Unless it directly contradicts what the NFL says. Then, I will believe it unconditionally.

DTA: Don’t trust anybody. It’s time to be right, or wrong. To choose up sides.

What Watergate broke and Richard Nixon got caught, you could trust the media. With the NFL, you don’t know who’s in cahoots and who isn’t. ESPN, in particular, has blurred the line that much.

QUITTER

Mauro Monz quit as Carlynton High School football coach. Three games into the season, he quit.

Carlynton moved up to Class AA this year. They are just three boys over the enrollment limit for Class A. The Cougars are 0-3, have been outscored 121-40, are down to just 22 players, and lost their star running back to a broken foot. Monz said his game plans were designed to protect his players, not win the game. Monz says he quit because of “safety concerns.” It became an “ethical issue.”

What a load of crap.

For whatever reason – and there isn’t a good one – Monz quit on his kids. Every coach preaches togetherness. But Monz bailed. He should be ashamed.

A WIN’S A WIN? YES, BUT…

Yeah, I know…a win’s a win.

But you’re nuts if you don’t look past the final score of yesterday’s 30-27 Steelers victory over Cleveland at Heinz Field.

The Steelers, playing against a team that will be lucky to win 5-6 games, squandered a 27-3 lead in a little over 17 minutes. The Browns scored on four of their six second-half possessions.

But we love to have sunshine blown up our backsides.

Some are praising the stop the Steelers defense made on Cleveland’s last possession. Coach Mike Tomlin talked about “tremendous play in the most significant moments.”

That’s Tomlin urinating down your leg, then telling you it’s raining.

I hold the coaches at great fault for blowing that lead.

Focus and discipline collapsed: That’s on Tomlin. The Steelers didn’t run enough no-huddle: That’s on offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The defense had no answers for Cleveland’s no-huddle: That’s on defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

The Steelers defense looked every bit as bad yesterday as it did last year, and that’s with a lot of new components and improved play by a few players, most notably LB Jarvis Jones.

LeBeau has to fix it, or he should be replaced next season. This isn’t about “the legend of Dick LeBeau.” This is about RIGHT NOW. FIX IT.

ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT

For the Steelers to end their two-year playoff drought, they must change their philosophy.

The Steelers can’t keep it close, then depend on the defense in the fourth quarter. The Steelers can’t depend on their defense in ANY QUARTER.

It’s sacrilege to say, but if Dick LeBeau’s job isn’t on the line, it should be.

The Steelers’ defensive coordinator has more to work with now. More speed. More talent. FIX IT.

I know about the shortcomings. I don’t care about the shortcomings. If you’re a defensive genius, as LeBeau is reputed to be, FIX IT.

I respect LeBeau. But this isn’t about reputation. It’s about now.

It’s often thought that people of great accomplishment should be allowed to dictate their own end. That’s nonsense.

If I’m running the Steelers, this season is do-or-die for LeBeau as defensive coordinator.

Offensively, the Steelers must come out and WIN THE GAME. Not keep it close. WIN THE GAME. Don’t settle for three. Get six. WIN THE GAME. Don’t grind the clock when you lead by one score. Extend your lead. WIN THE GAME.

Offensively, the Steelers play chicken football. They settle. They lay up.

QB Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t want to do that. Let Ben be Ben. If Ben had autonomy over the offense, the Steelers would win at least 11 games.

Let’s see a lot of no-huddle right off the bat. If the Steelers come out for that first series Sunday and pound the ball on the ground, then kick a field goal, it’s going to be a long season. We will know it, right then and there.

The whole concept of “Steeler football” is dead. Not just in Pittsburgh, but everywhere. You can’t win that way in the NFL. It’s not the way the league plays football, and it’s certainly not what officiating dictates.

Super Bowl champ Seattle had the second-fewest passing attempts in the league. That means nothing. They had a lot of big leads. Why throw?

If the Steelers get a big lead, POUND THE BALL. You’d be orgasmic, right? Terrific. But get that big lead first.

WHAT IS KEISEL’S ROLE?

It’s good that the Steelers re-signed DE Brett Keisel. Solid player, positive locker-room presence. Keisel managed to dodge training camp. Veteran move.

But, at 35, what is Keisel’s role going to be?

Cam Heyward started 13 games at left DE last season. Heyward moved to right DE at camp. Keisel plays the right side. Are the Steelers disappointed with Heyward on the right? Will he move back left? Are the Steelers unhappy, period, with DE Cam Thomas, who is in his first year with the club? Is rookie DE Stephon Tuitt not as close to being ready as the Steelers want?

Keisel’s return begs many questions. Dominoes may fall.

You hear Keisel will play about 15 snaps per game. That seems a small number.

But, given the frequency with which the Steelers employ their nickel and dime packages, 15 snaps is a lot along that front three.

Keisel will help. But if he’s asked to help too much, that doesn’t speak well of the younger defensive ends, or the defense in general.

MANZIEL = JACKASS, NOT REBEL

Cleveland rookie QB Johnny Manziel gave the finger to the Washington bench during preseason action Monday night. Real cute.

Anyone who thinks that’s cool – or even remotely acceptable – is a bigger jerk than Johnny Football. And that takes some doing.

It’s rare when someone comes along who inspires instant and absolute disdain on my part. Manziel does.

I like a rebel. I consider myself a rebel. Manziel isn’t a rebel. He’s just a jackass.

Ex-NFL QB Boomer Esiason predicts a dire result if Cleveland decides to start Manziel Week 1 at Pittsburgh.

“Manziel will get his [butt] kicked if he starts vs. the Steelers,” Esiason said. “He is not even remotely close to being ready. If he opened as the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh in Week 1, he would get his [butt] kicked. And his [butt] would be driven into the ground. Other teams hate this guy. Hate him.”

Esiason sure does talk about Manziel’s [butt] a lot.

Esiason continued: “Those linebackers for the Pittsburgh Steelers are just praying to God that [Manziel] plays in Week 1. And if I were [Browns head coach] Mike Pettine, I would have to have my head examined to put that kid on the field. He is not even close to being ready.”

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has a 17-2 record against rookie QBs. It hard to imagine an arrogant know-it-all like Manziel beating LeBeau. It takes a bit more intelligence and humility than Manziel happens to possess.

NO MORNEAU = MISTAKE

The Pirates’ biggest mistake since last season is not retaining 1B Justin Morneau.

The Pirates’ first-base situation is DIRE. Morneau, who signed with Colorado, is second in the National League in hitting at .324. He’s hitting .319 on the road, so Denver’s altitude isn’t doing all the work. He also has 65 RBI, 11th-most in the NL.

Morneau’s contract is a BARGAIN: $12.5 million over two years. Some say Morneau hated Pittsburgh and didn’t want to stay.

So offer him $8m per year. That’s still cheap. But for that bump, I bet Morneau would join the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

Sooner or later, if the Pirates really want to win, they have to overpay some people.

C Russell Martin is in the final year of his deal. He reportedly wants $40m over four years. That’s high. But he’ll be the No. 1 free-agent catcher on the market. That’s what Martin will get. The Pirates need him. He’s their backbone.

Tony Sanchez will catch if Martin leaves. Sanchez is a minor-leaguer. Period.

Good teams overpay selected guys in pursuit of winning. That’s just how baseball is. The Pirates aren’t going to change that.

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