REFRESHING PENGUINS NOTES!

Fresh and smooth like newly-Zamboni’d ice! Cool off with refreshing Penguins notes!

*Winger Patric Hornqvist is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Did GM Jim Rutherford miss the boat not signing him to a long-term extension this past off-season? Hornqvist will command a three- or four-year deal averaging over $5m per. Hornqvist provides physicality and net-front presence on a team not flush with either. But, given his method, Hornqvist seems an old 30. How long before his body starts really breaking down? If Hornqvist departs, management figures that rookie pro Zach Aston-Reese will pick up some of the slack stylistically.

*Sidney Crosby has several skills that are unrivaled, but his touch on deflections is absolutely nonpareil. His two tip-in goals at PPG Paints Arena against Florida Saturday evoked memories of…well, nobody but Crosby, really. Phil Esposito, if you want to revisit the ’70s.

*If Ryan Reaves is going to average six minutes of ice time per game, it was foolish to give up a first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to get him. We got told Reaves was more than a run-of-the-mill goon. That he could skate, and play. But now Reaves is being deployed like a run-of-the-mill goon.

*Greg McKegg is good enough to play for the Penguins, to kill penalties and take important draws. He’s just not good enough to center their third line.

*If Antti Niemi doesn’t start playing like an NHL goaltender, Rutherford faces a difficult decision: If he promotes Tristan Jarry from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, it cuts Jarry’s games played considerably but (hopefully) gives the Penguins an acceptable backup. Niemi looks as bad as his stats (7.94 goals-against average, .809 save percentage) and his confidence appears shot.

*Jarry is 22. Two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matthew Murray is 23. If Jarry is in the minors for development’s sake, what exactly is that development supposed to lead to?

*The Penguins managed their visit to Donald Trump’s White House perfectly. The Penguins minimized exposure on their web site and social media. Sidney Crosby stood in the back so he wouldn’t be photographed next to Trump. The President was presented a golf bag instead of a jersey, so there aren’t photos of Trump in a Penguins sweater. The visit was pristinely apolitical, so now we get to talk about hockey and not indulge festering sidebars. The NFL is ruined for the foreseeable future.

*Little kids holding up signs during pre-game warm-up requesting pucks, sticks, jerseys, etc. is a trifle distasteful, mainly because it’s done at the behest of parents. A three-year-old doesn’t think to do that. What adult teaches his child to beg like a dog?

*Marc-Andre Fleury’s brilliant start with Vegas is no surprise. He learned to function in a siege mentality during his salad days with the Penguins. Fleury needs to perpetuate that, because he is Vegas’ lone hope for respectability.

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ROLL FOUR LINES

There’s not often reason to question Mike Sullivan, who has done an outstanding job as Penguins coach.

But the Penguins (again) struggled in the second leg of playing back-to-back nights, and when I check the box score of yesterday evening’s 5-4 loss at Tampa Bay, I see Tom Kuhnhackl playing eight minutes, Carter Rowney six and Ryan Reaves three.

Roll four lines. Not strictly equally, but more equally than that. Especially when playing back-to-back nights, which will happen 17 more times this season.

Kris Letang played 26 minutes. Sidney Crosby played 23. But the Penguins still lost, never mind compromising the bigger picture.

I also don’t see the point of trading a first-round pick and Oskar Sundqvist for Reaves if Reaves is going to play that little.

We got told that Reaves can skate, and has reasonable skill. He can, and does. But Sullivan is deploying Reaves like he’s a traditional goon, and not worth the price paid.

10-1 IS A PROBLEM; THE ROSTER ISN’T

When you lose 10-1, it’s always jarring. Even more so when you raised your Stanley Cup banner the night before.

Defenseman Ian Cole played 19 minutes and was minus-1.

Cole was the Penguins’ No. 1 star at Chicago. Not that he was formally honored.

Twitter is awash with panic, thanks in part to Richard Panik. Only the stupidity of Twitter could so quickly push aside consecutive Stanley Cups.

Fingers point. Blame is placed. Compassion is in short supply.

The Penguins don’t deserve any compassion after that horrible defeat. But having to sit through a next-day video session with Coach Mike Sullivan merits some sympathy. That was undoubtedly scorching.

The Penguins have three difficult games next: Nashville at home, at Washington and at Tampa Bay. All legit contenders. The bad start may continue.

But the Penguins have a very good roster. Problems will be ironed out.

Don’t lament those who are gone. That’s not what’s wrong. The Penguins lost good players who contributed to Stanley Cup wins. But no one crucial.

Chris Kunitz used to be crucial, but not now. Not at 38.

Matt Cullen is 40 and has played for eight teams. He’s been replaced plenty of times.

Nick Bonino is a very good bottom-six center. But he’s a bottom-six center.

Trevor Daley’s body is falling apart. Injuries galore.

Ron Hainsey is 36. Great as a stop-gap. Dispensable in the long run.

Marc-Andre Fleury is the biggest loss. Having Fleury as the No. 2 goaltender was a uniquely quality situation.

Don’t romanticize losing those players because the Penguins won with them and you like them.

In a salary-cap league, you have to churn and burn the bottom of your roster. If GM Jim Rutherford hasn’t yet found all the right replacements, he will.

PENGUINS SWITCH DEFENSE PAIRS

The Penguins are trying something different on defense.

The pairs had been Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta and newcomer Matt Hunwick.

But now Cole is practicing with Hunwick. Maatta is with Schultz.

Maatta wouldn’t have to be the anchor with Hunwick. Maatta wouldn’t have to stay back and concentrate very primarily on defense. With Schultz, that’s what Maatta has to do, and what Maatta did last season when he played in tandem with Trevor Daley, now with Detroit.

Maatta had nine goals as a rookie in 2013-14. He can manufacture offense.

Maatta with Schultz is surprising. It’s also surprising that Coach Mike Sullivan would break up Schultz and Cole, a very steady and proven pair.

But it’s an 82-game season plus playoffs. The Penguins haven’t yet opened the regular season. Things will be very liquid between now and springtime.

Maatta, 23, has had a good preseason. Maatta has his critics, and has definitely been hampered by various maladies suffered since his rookie season: Thyroid cancer, two shoulder surgeries, mumps, etc.

Perhaps Maatta can finally get all the way back physically. The odd blunder duly noted, Maatta has been an integral part of two Stanley Cup winners.

HAVE PIRATES QUIT ON NUTTING?

The Pirates have quit, likely because of dissatisfaction with ownership.

The Pirates are 5-14 since Juan Nicasio was waived to save a meager $600K and 1-7 since Nicasio, now with St. Louis, saved consecutive games against them Sept. 8-9 (1-9 including those losses). Statistically, Nicasio was the Pirates’ second-best pitcher.

The Pirates have lost six straight, and 11 of 12. They are an absolute joke, a laughingstock of a baseball team.

But I can’t blame the players. Owner Bob Nutting screwed that clubhouse one too many times. A negative reaction was inevitable.

Now Nutting has a chance to be even more shameless.

P Ivan Nova has started 29 games. If he starts one more game, he gets a bonus of $750K. If he starts three more, that bonus increases to $1 million.

Will the Pirates shut down Nova to save money?

Trevor Williams starts tonight. Steven Brault starts tomorrow night. No Pirates starters have been announced past that.

I’d bet the middle. Nova starts once more, but not thrice more. Shutting down Nova now to deny him $750K might trigger open mutiny.

UPDATE: Nova will start Friday at home against St. Louis. Cha-ching!

But I bet the Pirates lose and Nicasio gets the save for the Cardinals.

WHY DIDN’T BELL GET MORE TOUCHES?

The Steelers won. That negates a lot of criticism.

But what happened on offense yesterday at Cleveland is a bit confusing.

RB Le’Veon Bell got only four touches in the first half and only 13 on the game. Bell didn’t gain much: Just 47 yards total.

Was Bell refused more touches by the Steelers’ game plan because he wasn’t ready due to his absence from camp? If so, play James Conner.

Was Bell refused more touches by way of punishment for missing camp? That was my first reaction, and DeAngelo Williams definitely thinks so.

The former Steelers RB tweeted: “I get it. The 5 wides must be that punishment package for [Bell] not going to camp.”

But denying Bell touches because he missed preseason seems childish and unlikely.

It’s far more probable that, as he does too often, offensive coordinator Todd Haley tried too hard to make himself look clever.

I hated the five-wide package. Too much dink and dunk.

Tomlin vociferously blamed the running game’s struggles on too often being “behind the chains” because of penalties.

Fair point. Perhaps if the coach was more boss and less buddy, the resulting accountability would eliminate a few flags.

I do think Bell was, inevitably, rusty.

But I don’t blame Bell one bit for holding out.

The Steelers exercised their option re: the franchise tag, so Bell exercised his. Anyway, a lot of guys who were in camp looked sluggish yesterday, including WR Martavis Bryant. Not necessarily stoned, but…

At one point on the sideline, QB Ben Roethlisberger was visibly upset about the Steelers’ offensive struggles. Rightly so. The so-called “best offense in football” scored only 14 points and got only 290 yards.

But don’t worry. That offense has too much talent to not fix itself. Given the stumbling blocks involved with this year’s preseason – yes, including Bell’s tardiness – Week 1 was bound to be akin to a fifth exhibition game.

PIRATES ARE “CLOSE”…BUT TO WHAT?

GM Neal Huntington says the Pirates are “close.”

Close to what, exactly?

The Pirates’ problems are great, and they are many.

Here’s what made the list:

*Gerrit Cole, his 4.11 ERA and his 27 HR allowed (15th most in MLB). Some ace.

*Tyler Glasnow, who looks like a 4-A pitcher.

*Gregory Polanco, who looks like a bust.

*Austin Meadows, who didn’t even wait to get to the big leagues before looking like a bust.

*Jung-Ho Kang is stuck in Korea.

*John Jaso is still getting at-bats.

*Josh Harrison is out for the season. Harrison and his $10.25m salary for 2018 are likely to be traded. Max Moroff will be the new 2B. Yikes.

*Is Andrew McCutchen gone? How about Cole? How about Jordy Mercer? If you make too much, the Pirates get rid of you. No sum is too petty to save.

What are the Pirates closer to: A division title, or losing 90 games?

The real problem is: You don’t buy enough tickets. Like Huntington said.

If you spend more, the Pirates will spend more. Except in 2015, when the Pirates set a club attendance record but still cut payroll for 2016.

How many times will the Pirates tell the same lie?

But the Pirates have won four in a row. RIGHT BACK IN IT!

COPE, NUNN, ART JR. DON’T MAKE HoH

The Steelers announced the inaugural class for their new Hall of Honor. There were no notable omissions. With a 27-man class, there shouldn’t be.

But here are three men who didn’t play or coach that could have made it. Two definitely will. One seems up in the air.

*MYRON COPE, broadcaster, 1970-2004. If there is a surprising exclusion, it’s Cope. Cope is identified with the Steelers as much as most of the 27 inductees. His “Terrible Towel” has raised millions for the Allegheny Valley School in Coraopolis, a facility serving children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and has served as a flag for Steeler Nation. Cope definitely gets in.

*BILL NUNN, scout, 1967-2014. Nunn was responsible for scouting some of the greatest draft classes in Steelers history, and was instrumental in the team getting players from historically black colleges – among them Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Donnie Shell and John Stallworth. Nunn definitely gets in.

*ART ROONEY JR., scouting director, 1969-86. Rooney drafted the players that formed the Steelers’ dynasty of the ‘70s. But his brother, Dan, fired him in 1986. Whether posthumous fallout from that dismissal keeps Art Jr. out of the Hall of Honor remains to be seen. But he certainly merits inclusion.

FEW EARLY TESTS FOR STEELERS

The Steelers still have two exhibitions left, but I’m already thinking about Week 1 at Cleveland.

That game shouldn’t be much of a test for the Steelers defense.

The Steelers D may stink. But against Cleveland, how can you tell?

If you shut down the Browns, it’s only the Browns.

If you get lit up, call the coroner.

How a defense does against Brock Osweiler should not determine its quality.

That’s assuming Osweiler will be at quarterback for Cleveland. Maybe it will be DeShone Kizer, the rookie out of Notre Dame.

Cleveland Coach Hue Jackson hasn’t announced his starter, but says it will be one of the four quarterbacks on the Browns roster.

That’s a worst-case scenario.

For the Steelers, the situation is a microcosm of the first half of their schedule. The Steelers play mostly weak foes.

The Steelers might rack up some wins. They had better.

But we won’t know how good the Steelers are, or how good their defense is, until the second half of the campaign.

The Trib website posted an article pointing out that injuries have cost the Steelers’ most recent draft picks a lot of reps, most notably WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (second round) and CB Cameron Sutton (third round).

That’s bad news for the individuals involved, but also for the team.

The Steelers need Sutton to move up the depth chart, claiming at least the nickel spot from Willie Gay, but Sutton’s unavailability has sabotaged.

So the Steelers go into the regular season with the same secondary as last season’s, and it just isn’t good enough. Gay isn’t good enough. Ross Cockrell might not be, either.

UPDATE: Jackson announced that Kizer will be Cleveland’s starting QB. The Browns traded for Osweiler, and now he will make $16m to be the backup. Typical Browns.

WHY IS CUTCH STILL IN CENTER FIELD?

Why is Andrew McCutchen still playing CF?

Starling Marte is back from suspension. Given McCutchen’s exit by the end of the 2018 season at the latest (and probably much earlier), the Pirates’ long-term plan must certainly still be to use Marte in CF like we saw at season’s start.

But Marte is back, and he’s in LF.

McCutchen remains in CF. Why?

A) McCutchen is playing better defensively than he was last year.

B) McCutchen has been hitting well for over two months, and Manager Clint Hurdle wants to keep McCutchen in his “comfort zone” (even though where McCutchen plays in the field should have zero effect on his hitting).

C) McCutchen is a big baby and Hurdle doesn’t want to have to handle the fallout of moving him out of CF.

D) All of the above, but mostly C.

If you picked D, you’re on to something.

Full disclosure: If I were Hurdle, I’d leave McCutchen in CF, too. Doing otherwise just wouldn’t be worth dealing with, and tangible benefit of such a move would be minimal.

Also, Marte would be unavailable for the playoffs by the terms of his PED suspension. But the Pirates aren’t making the playoffs.

BTW, there’s no good place to play Gregory Polanco. #bust