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Chat with Dejan Kovacevic: April 29, 2014

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 2:15 p.m.

Dejan Kovacevic: Hello to all. The big TribMobile, driven by photog Chaz Palla, just dropped me off at home about 20 minutes ago, in the nick of time. All topics on the table.

Carolyn: What do Pens need to do to sign Niskanen? Can they afford him going forward?

Dejan Kovacevic: I'm of the firm view that the Penguins have no choice but to sign Matt Niskanen. Letting him walk after committing so much money to Kris Letang would look too bad to allow to stand. Niskanen doesn't have Letang's talent, but he's performed better, more consistently. He has to be paid.

Victor: DK, so I'm a little confused about the Penguins. Some are saying that Penguins are not that good this year, but some are saying there is great pressure on this team to win a cup. How can you be touted as not that good yet still win the cup? Which one is it?

Dejan Kovacevic: Ha! That's a very fair way of looking at it, Victor. Because you obviously can't have it both ways.

In trying to answer that, I'd say that broader expectations/disappointments are about the past five years in general, that only one Cup has been one despite the extraordinary event of having the world's two best players on the same team. So it's not necessarily just about this spring.

I've said all along I felt the West was better than the East, and that the Bruins are the best in the East, so I obviously haven't been touting the Penguins as potential champs. But I've also been critical of the drafts, the coaching, that stuff that's led to this half-decade of falling short.

Scott: Hey Dejan... What's your favorite sport to cover in Pittsburgh? What about outside of Pittsburgh?

Dejan Kovacevic: You'll hate this answer, but it's whatever sport I'm covering that day. It really is. I try to dive into whatever's in front of me, aimed at the best column I can pull off.

Jim Bergreen, Columbia, MD: Dejan, I keep hearing people clamor for Polanco. However, the last I looked the Pirates are 4th worst in runs allowed. I see no fix for the pitching staff other than to perform better. Do you see a way to turn it around via personnel?

Dejan Kovacevic: The more I see of the Pirates' down April and the fans' down reaction to it, the more I'm convinced that Gregory Polanco has become something of a distraction point for the anger. Because it sure is easier to grab onto the irrational concept of spending $15 million or more on six weeks of an upgrade at one position, right field, that isn't currently among the Pirates' weakest three positions. And it's even easier than that to go after Bob Nutting just because he's Bob Nutting and his cheapness is keeping Polanco the savior from arriving to flip things around.

Hold the narratives and go with facts: Pedro Alvarez is hitting .172. He's killing the Pirates right now in the middle of the order. Starling Marte is at .229 with a ridiculous 37 strikeouts. He's killing the Pirates atop the order. Jordy Mercer is at .167, Clint Barmes at .154, and they're killing the Pirates near the bottom of the order.

That's three of your everyday eight right there, none of which would be remedied by Polanco if he came up and hit .750.

Bringing him up would be stupid financially.

It would be utterly ridiculous if conceived as some panacea.

Bryan: Update on Sutter injury? If it's an ankle injury, is he likely out for a couple weeks?

Dejan Kovacevic: You won't get an injury update from the Penguins, certainly not on an off-day like today with no media availability. So you'll have to settle for bits and pieces.

I wrote pretty much everything I knew about Brandon Sutter's injury to open today's column , and I'll add here — for those who didn't see it — that he returned to the bench for the final five minutes of regulation and the handshake line. Add up all that info, and it didn't look or sound terribly serious.

Andy Isaacson: Is the hype surrounding Tom Savage justified? Some NFL Draft pundits have him being taken in the second round.

Dejan Kovacevic: The part I find odd about the Savage surge is that anyone who watched him at Pitt will attest that he wasn't very efficient at moving around and seldom through, say, on a rollout. Not that all NFL teams are going the way of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, but more and more are. Savage is anything but that player.

I seriously wonder if this might not wind up a case of the scouts' eyes and NFL team needs not aligning.

SDBurghman: As a reporter that has access to the Pens, it would seem that you become privy to information about injuries that management chooses not disclose. What is your obligation on reporting injury information, such as Sutter's and Vitale's injuries, that you observe?

Dejan Kovacevic: I couldn't care less what any team would want me to print or not print about anything. If I know something, you know it, too. We aren't in the business of secrets.

Alan: Hello Dejan, if the Steelers trade down to get a 3th, draft CJ Mosley in 1st, a DE in the 2nd, and a WR and and a CB with the two 3th, does it sound like a good draft for you ? Thanks a lot Dejan

Dejan Kovacevic: You're going by straight need there, Alan, and I'll agree there's no greater immediate need to the roster than inside linebacker unless you're willing to fly with Vince Williams and no parachute. And I do feel that the Steelers need to think at least a little more immediately in this draft than the norm, given the nature of a couple specific needs.

But I'll stick by WR in the first round, CB in the second, LB/DE after that. These receivers available up high are just too enticing, and there are so many of them. That's where the NFL is these days. Can't have just one. You have the franchise QB, the bookend WR, and you have everything to gain from the other WR.

CB is more a need, no question, but I'll take the impact at WR.

Domjbs: You get to stay in Pittsburgh, but you can no longer cover sports. You get to stay in media (and not dig ditches) - what subject matter would you like to cover?

Dejan Kovacevic: Easy. Downtown and airport development. Both are an intense interest of mine, anyway. It would be a joy. Just don't tell the bosses.

DNY: When people disagree about hockey — online and elsewhere — there seems to be a rush to terms like “real” fans vs. those who “don't understand the game.” Why do you think that is? Sure there's a lot of nuance in every play and people who say silly, superficial things, but is it really that much more than other major sports where it doesn't seem like those accusations are thrown around as much?

Dejan Kovacevic: That one is unique to hockey. If you don't understand something about football or baseball, someone will kindly attempt to explain it. If you don't know hockey, then you don't know hockey. And therefore, you are an idiot who does not deserve to share in such wisdom that it's taken a given super-fan years, even decades to accumulate.

Hate that. Doesn't help the game at all, that phrase, but it's everywhere.

Jeff: The Pirates are going to turn things around soon...right?

Dejan Kovacevic: I believe that they are, yes. Some of those numbers I cited up there won't stay that way. In fact, just about everyone offensively is below career curves. That'll change. It's baseball. Water finds its level. Always.

I didn't even mention Cutch at .286, Walker at .235. We're now talking about more than half the lineup without even mentioning right field. Or, for that matter, that the starting pitchers have three wins through 26 games.

I know there's no worse individual stat than the pitching win. Just saying that the three is glaring under any circumstance. John Russell's 105-loss team in 2010 had six wins from their starters to the same point in the season.

Crystal: What are your thoughts on the Vitale/Comeau collision on the third.

Dejan Kovacevic: I thought Joe Vitale was the guilty party, sticking out his knee. Didn't like it at all. Agreed with the penalty.

Matt: Hey Dejan, Do the Pens keep Malkin and Crosby together going into the next series?

Dejan Kovacevic: I hope so. Really, I don't see the crime. I know the popular perception for years has been that it doesn't work, but the fact is it's never been used on any sustained basis. So long as Sutter is healthy, there's plenty enough for a solid second line, with James Neal and Jussi Jokinen on his flanks.

I'd say go with it until you see a reason not to go with it.

Nathan: Wouldn't Boone Jenner look good in a penguin uniform?

Dejan Kovacevic: Oh, man. No doubt. Big body. Skilled. Tough. Plants in front like he means it. Alas ...

Chris from DC: Has Letang's play progressed over the past few games? Do you anticipate him playing better as the playoffs go forward? Or given the recent article that states he's still fatigued, that maybe he'll get worse?

Dejan Kovacevic: I've loved Letang's play the past couple games. He's looked dangerously close to the star version of Letang at times, just effortlessly controlling both ends.

And Letang's reference to the fatigue in the Trib article, as I understood it in Columbus, was not related directly to the medical condition but rather the time off that followed. He's a conditioning freak. He'll probably never be happy with it.

The Capital of Greenland: The Pirates are going to get a boost in the line up with the addition of Polanco in a little over a month. Could they also make a push to sign Stephen Drew around that same time, or would he cost too much?

Dejan Kovacevic: They need their current players to perform at career norms. That's No. 1 with a skyrocketing bullet. And they need to get more from their pitchers and not have their closer blow three saves, then suddenly come up with an injury.

Tony Clifton: Dejan, you claim to not be a fan of the teams that you cover, since it's all just journalism. At what point did you stop being a Penguins fan, and how did you just switch it off? (I assume you were at some point a fan, since you've tweeted photos of yourself as a kid in a Pens sweater)

Dejan Kovacevic: Wild the number of questions I get about this, like there's just no conceivable way I could be telling the truth.

I'm born and raised in Pittsburgh, always had a passion for sports and for our teams. But my greater passion was for journalism. And once I got into that, it took over completely. That's true of pretty much everyone in this business. At least that's how it's supposed to work. It's not that you have to turn something off or stifle anything. It's just that the thing that matters to you is your work. Not the outcome. Not who's happy or sad. But whether or not you did a good job documenting it.

I'm not ‘claiming' anything. It's the truth.

David: What do you believe is the biggest lesson the Penguins can learn from the Columbus series that will serve them best moving forward this postseason?

Dejan Kovacevic: Ah! Stealing tomorrow's column concept for your question, I see! Actually, I'll get into that very topic for a piece that's really heavy on strategy and Xs and Os. If you don't like it, I'll send you an email that says you don't know hockey, deal?

Adam: Remaining Series Predictions: Aves/Wild; Kings/Sharks? NYR/Philly and if this goes 6 or 7?

Dejan Kovacevic: I'll take the Avs in Game 7 on home ice with Nathan McKinnon and an edge in goal, I'll take the Sharks to gag for the umpteenth team though this would be the biggest of all, and I'll take the Flyers in 7 just to annoy us all and create a circus in the second round.

Joel Mackler: After all the preseason hype, how can the Riverhounds' performance thus far be explained? Should they still be considered legitimate championship contenders?

Dejan Kovacevic: Until they find real answers on the back line, I'd be a lot more focused on getting a first W before thinking title. Going to a 2-5-3 has helped because it built off a midfield strength, but Anthony Arena and Michael Green need help, and Arena is shuttling back and forth with Houston of MLS. It's not a championship back line, for sure.

Tim in Arlington VA: Dejan, I love your work, as you're a journalist first and foremost, who just happens to write about sports. There seem to be fewer and fewer of the breed, as time goes by. Assuming you have the time, are there any “sports journalists” that you read or follow?

Dejan Kovacevic: There are, but one I'd single out is Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He's a columnist, he covers all teams there, so his job is very similar, as he and I were talking about a couple weeks ago at PNC Park. He's really good with readers online in various forums, as I trust you'll see.

Tim: To win 90 games the Pirates need to be about 25 games over .500 the rest of the way. Shouldn't that aid the Pirates argument in holding Polanco down in AAA?

Dejan Kovacevic: Eh, that would suggest the season's a waste, which seems a bit premature on the 29th of April.

Look, my broader point here isn't about Polanco at all — though I think it would be stupid, again, to bring him up for that crazy cash — but rather that this team has real problems right now that aren't getting mentioned at all because it's all gotten condensed down to this bite-sized, cheap, populist morsel that the Pirates are where they are because they're holding down the next Willie Mays.

They are where they are because a whole lot of players aren't doing their jobs.

Sammich: Do you think the Pens will use one of their “amnesty buyouts” in the offseason? If so, which players do you think would be affected?

Dejan Kovacevic: They will not. And no, Rob Scuderi isn't eligible for a buyout, no matter how often his name is cited. His contract was signed after the current CBA.

Tanner: Wheeling, WV: Not really related to sports right now, but I saw before you said you arent a “fan” anymore. As someone who can't imagine not cheering for my team, how hard was it to just let it go and become a writer?

Dejan Kovacevic: (Groan)

It isn't hard at all, Tanner, if your work is what matters to you. Sports writing isn't about sports. It's about journalism. Here's a blog piece I did on that very thing last year, one that actually — and amusingly, I think — got picked up by at least three different college professors.

Guest: I see the Steelers are a finalist for Hard Knocks. Is there a fear an ‘obviously' drinking game could end up killing someone?

Dejan Kovacevic: Not a ‘Hard Knocks' guy. Never seen it or any of the NHL 24/7 episodes, either. Not my thing, so I really can't give you much of an answer.

Stupid Yinzer: Can you plead validate my mock draft and stop keeping secrets from us about the pens?

Dejan Kovacevic: That's very good.

TheBurgh: who do you think would be the best match up for the pens to be successful in the next round? The speedy Rangers or the Flyers that seem to always get in the pens head?

Dejan Kovacevic: It's not even close, assuming you're being serious. The Penguins will see blood red as soon as they see all that orange. But they match up nicely with the Rangers, especially down the middle, where New York has Derek Stepan and an old Brad Richards.

Stephen Dotts: What are some of your favorite sports books or documentaries?

Dejan Kovacevic: Best sports book I've ever read — and I don't read many at all — is ‘Moneyball' by a broad margin. Brilliant and entertaining. Best documentary I've seen was the recent ESPN piece on Jim Valvano's N.C. State team. Not so much because of Valvano, whose story is well known but because of the rest of that amazing team. Beautiful stuff.

Chris: Was there a conscious effort by the players or coaching staff to keep the Penguins emotions in check? They finally looked like the veteran team letting after whistle bs roll off their back. Dan even sat Letang when he went off in Game 1 and it seemed to settle him down. Granted it could all change if they play the Flyers, but I was thrilled they stayed in control.

Dejan Kovacevic: How about when Chris Kunitz was savagely cross-checked from behind by Jack Johnson on that Malkin goal last night?

Dusted himself off, got up and celebrated with his teammates.

Yeah, there was more control, and it's commendable. But I'll repeat that'll all change if they see orange.

One more today. Didn't realize the time ...

Patrick: In the spirit of “knowing hockey,” I just wanted to thank you for pointing out the DVR moments during games. Always nice to be able to pick up on stuff, especially the little stuff away from the puck.

Dejan Kovacevic: In that case, I think you'll like this column tomorrow. It's full of that kind of stuff. And my thanks go to you, not the other way around, for reading.

FB: Detroit wants to trade Suh. Pouncey for Suh straight-up. Wallace or Velasco could play center. Trade down with SF, pick up extra picks and take Kyle Fuller in round one. What say you?

Dejan Kovacevic: Did you see Suh's salary? I'm guessing not.

Drewski: Will we see the ACC football conference schedule expand to 9 games soon?

Dejan Kovacevic: School presidents and ADs hate to relinquish too much control of the schedule. I'd be surprised. Home games are gold.

Troll: Since you aren't a “fan,” why does the media refuse to tell the people the date and time of the next Pens series? Is it because they are in Nutting's pocket and are conspiring to keep Polanco down until 2015?

Dejan Kovacevic: Love it!

pghgolfgirl: Does Montreal stand a chance against the big, bad Bruins? If so, how do they go about taking the series?

Dejan Kovacevic: Blood. Lots and lots of blood. And loose limbs. Just wait. That series will make Penguins-Flyers look like Shaler-Kittanning JV.

Tanner: Wheeling, WV: if you had a chance to become an everyday radio host, or keep writing with trib, would you keep writing?

Dejan Kovacevic: I've had the chance. I've passed. I'm a writer. I do a weekly radio show, Wednesday, 2-3 p.m. on TribLIVE Radio. I'll always write first.

Joe: How much money is Nutting pocketing each year? Your best guess please.

Dejan Kovacevic: It's zero. Because if he ever did directly withdraw money for himself, the minority owners — who don't particularly see eye to eye with him on stuff like that — would squawk like crazy. Trust me on that.

Dejan Kovacevic: Thanks to all for participating. The remaining columns this week will be published for the newspapers of Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, no matter how the Penguins' schedule sets up.

Thanks to those of you just reading, as well. Happy to have you!



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