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Madden: Penguins weak on fundamentals

Saturday, March 17, 2001

The NCAA Tournament tells a million stories, although none have been all that interesting so far. So, in twisted tribute, here's a column of refreshing sports notes, as enchanting as they are diverse:

There's no doubt the Penguins have more offensive firepower than any team in the NHL. But until they perfect the simple things -- such as clearing out the front of their net or hitting forwards in stride with breakout passes -- doing the spectacular things will do no more than keep them competitive. The Penguins are often less fundamentally sound than a team of 10-year-olds.

The Penguins say they have three goalies that could do the job in the playoffs. Which means they don't have faith in any of them. Johan Hedberg came to Pittsburgh last week with zero NHL experience. Garth Snow has missed more than a month with a groin injury and likely won't return until just before the postseason. Of course, the proper thing to do in light of all this is to further undermine Jean-Sebastien Aubin's confidence by leaving in limbo what should be his obvious No. 1 status. Memo to any good young player owned by the Penguins: Pull a Lindros and refuse to play here. Run away in terror.

Even though Trevor Linden stopped scoring a long time ago, his acquisition by Washington is significant because it gives the Capitals a big, hard-nosed center to match up with Mario Lemieux.

Michael Jordan, his agent, and the NBA's Washington Wizards are denying Jordan's rumored comeback just a bit too strenuously, which means he'll likely be back. For all those years, Jordan was telling everybody to be like Mike. Now he wants to be like Mario.

Lemieux's overwhelming success in his comeback -- he is, by far, the best player in the NHL right now -- is not only a tribute to his talent and focus, it's an indictment of hockey. Mario is 35. He didn't play for more than three years. He trained strenuously but relatively briefly for a comeback, then proceeded to blow the NHL totally apart from the moment he set skates back on the ice. What's that say about the level of play in the NHL? What's that say about the so-called stars that had supposedly replaced Lemieux on top of the hockey heap? Wayne Gretzky should try a comeback. Heck, Gordie Howe should try a comeback.

Levon Kirkland came back from Seattle without a contract offer. His best option appears to be the lowly Cincinnati Bengals. Interest in Kirkland seems surprisingly sparse. Which confirms that the Steelers did the right thing by releasing him.

The Pirates should never, ever spend money on midlevel free agents and should instead pour more cash into scouting and development. If the Pirates could perfectly execute their scouting and development process -- as opposed to mangling it like now -- they could, theoretically, have runs of respectability and maybe even contention every so often. Scout well, draft well, develop well, contend for a while, lose players to free agency, repeat the process. It would be a more probable means of contending than signing Derek Bell and Terry Mulholland, that's for sure.

Francisco Cordova can do nothing about his elbow problems. But there are those who believe Jason Schmidt could have worked a lot harder to rehabilitate his shoulder after off-season surgery.

Reports that portly Jimmy Anderson mistook Cordova's arm for a chicken wing and bit his elbow in half remain unconfirmed, though police are dusting Cordova's afflicted limb for honey-mustard sauce.

Pitt quarterback David Priestley is finally healthy after a year of shoulder problems. That established, Coach Walt Harris should ask Rod Rutherford to move to another position. Not because he played in the City League, not because he can't play quarterback, and certainly not because he's a black quarterback, but because an athlete as outstanding as Rutherford is too valuable to have in a backup role.

I have no doubt that Bob Knight will go to Texas Tech under the premise of behaving, then quickly revert into a human minefield. But I also have no doubt that Knight deserves a second chance. Sure, he has been guilty of abuse, and Indiana did right by ditching him. But his track record for graduating players and winning basketball games warrants Knight getting another opportunity. I hope Knight can keep from imploding. What's bad about Knight is very bad. But what's good is very good.

Duquesne University should join the Patriot League. It would be a much-warranted step down for the basketball program and a much-warranted step up for the football program. Right now, both teams are boring. One loses too much, one wins too easily. Both would find a proper level of competition in the Patriot League, which features weak Division I basketball and strong Division I-AA football.

Plum native R.J. Umberger was named Rookie of the Year in the Division I Central Collegiate Hockey Association last week. The Ohio State freshman center is projected as a first-round pick in the next NHL draft. He's big, he's fast, and he can shoot a quarter into a soda machine. It would be nice to see the Penguins draft him. But he's exactly the kind of player that never gets a chance in Pittsburgh.

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