It is a good day to the a Pittsburgh sports fan.
Now, before going forward, I am very aware there is a strong contingent in the BTSC community who follow only the Pittsburgh Steelers. Other than that, they have their separate allegiances in MLB and the NHL. To each their own, but if you even follow what is happening on the other side of town with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it is hard to ignore the template the Penguins have put together for success.
Let me elaborate. The Penguins are a team built around their superstars. Regardless of sport, to succeed you need to have at least a handful of players who are considered 'a cut above' the rest. For the Pens it is Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and the captain Sidney Crosby. The Steelers can echo a similar sentiment with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Cameron Heyward.
However, what truly makes a championship team is the supporting cast of characters. Follow the Penguins long enough and you will see this was their downfall since raising the cup in 2009. General Manager Ray Shero pulled the trigger on many trades to try to "win now", but only to fall short when it mattered the most. Fans watched James Neal, Jerome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, just to name a few, come in an fail to be the difference maker fans and the organization hoped.
The template Shero and company provided was how to mortgage your future with aging veterans who were never able to lift a team above their current sagging standard. Shero is removed, and in comes Jim Rutherford as the new general manager. Rutherford marches to the beat of his own drum, both in life and in hockey. When he signed Matt Cullen fans were disgusted it wasn't a bigger name. He traded David Perron to the Anaheim Ducks for Carl Hagelin and most just shrugged it off. After all, the Penguins stumbled out of the gate in ever facet of the phrase.
What fans weren't aware of was Rutherford was putting together the pieces of a puzzle which hadn't been completed since that storied championship under Dan Bylsma. Instead of acquiring aging veterans, he was promoting the young talent from the minor league affiliate and watching them produce with speed and tenacity. Nothing motivates like trying to keep your job.
So, what has all this work done? Only made the Penguins into one of the more formidable forces in the NHL Playoffs.
Enough hockey talk. How can the Steelers learn from the Penguins' successes? Easy, follow the template they have in place.
Make the right moves in free agency
Although the Steelers aren't big players in free agency, making the right move can be the difference between average and superb. Signing Josh Norman would have been great, but it wasn't going to happen. Signing James Farrior is the perfect example of how the right transaction can make a world of difference. Did the Steelers do this with Ladarius Green? Absolutely, but what about the defensive side of the football? There are still holes to be filled.
Speed and Youth
The Steelers were once called "old and slow" on the defensive side of the football. With the likes of Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree on the roster those words aren't being used as often anymore, but there are still concerns. James Harrison is still relied upon to be a standout outside linebacker, and it isn't as if he can't get the job done -- he has proven otherwise -- it speaks more to the lack of depth and youth at the position. Many will point to Jarvis Jones, while the finger should be pointed at those who pulled the trigger on the Jones' selection in 2013. Having youth and speed at key positions can be the difference between a Super Bowl berth, or a loss in the Wild Card round.
Drafting the right players
It seems as if the Steelers have gotten their ducks in a row the past few years. With players like Stephon Tuitt, Dupree and Shazier, they have hit way more than they've missed in recent drafts, but finding players that don't just have the tangible skills on the field, but the heart and desire to win, are vital in creating a championship team. In the NFL, unlike the NHL with a minor league system, one first or second round bust can set you back for years...just ask Limas Sweed.
Change when changes are needed
The Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston mid-way through the 2015-2016 season, and no, I am not suggesting the Steelers fire Mike Tomlin. However, what the Penguins did was make a necessary change when it was called for. In other words, it would be pulling Antwon Blake from the field for Brandon Boykin in 2015 because the change was necessary. To succeed at the professional level you need to have the depth and the guts to make the tough decisions, and this is something the Steelers have yet to prove they are willing to do on a regular basis.
This all isn't to suggest the Steelers are a team who is in a desperate situation. In all actuality, it is the furthest from the truth. There is a reason the Steelers are favored to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51, but they could still learn a thing or two from those skating birds across town who are trying to win their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history.