ZMI ALPHA:First Call: Twists as JuJu Smith-Schuster approaches free agency; Islanders stay hot atop East

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ZMI ALPHA:First Call: Twists as JuJu Smith-Schuster approaches free agency; Islanders stay hot atop East

Monday’s “First Call” features a few interesting twists along the way toward JuJu Smith-Schuster’s free agency. The New York Islanders stay red-hot atop the Eastern Division. Robert Morris’ women’s hockey team takes a unique route to the NCAA tournament. And Duquesne’s spring football season opener turns back the clock when it comes to rushing offense.

Oh. Wide receiver Josh Gordon is back again, too. See where this time.

Shootin’ the breeze on Smith-Schuster

Even the Steelers’ own team website doesn’t like the chances of JuJu Smith-Schuster returning to the Steelers.

Bob Labriola of wrote this about Smith-Schuster in his assessment of the team’s receivers heading into free agency, “… despite his pronouncements on social media that he wants to continue his career with the Steelers, he’s unlikely to want to accept what the cap-strapped Steelers would be able to pay him on a new contract.”

That said, at least one national reporter is wondering if the market is going to be as deep as Smith-Schuster is expecting. During a Friday appearance on 93.7 The Fan, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora said Smith-Schuster may not find the top-dollar slot-receiver money he is seeking.

“I’ve talked to some teams who feel like $11 (million) should be the high-water mark for him. Maybe push it to 12 (million),” La Canfora told “The Fan Morning Show.” “If he’s closer to $10 (million) than 15 (million), then I don’t know that it’s out of the question (for him to stay in Pittsburgh) because you can get creative with how you structure things and you could put a lump sum payment two years from now when the cap should be soaring again. But if there are people who are evaluating him closer to $15 (million), that’s going to be too rich for their (the Steelers’) blood.”

Previous projections had placed Smith-Schuster’s annual average value at $14-17 million.

Island paradise

Before the Penguins won a 5-1 game against the New York Rangers Sunday night, the Eastern Division-leading Islanders stayed hot with a fifth straight victory. The Islanders won a 5-2 decision Sunday afternoon against the Buffalo Sabres.

The Isles are now 10-0-2 at home this season. Elsewhere in the East, the Bruins lost 1-0 to the New Jersey Devils in Boston, and the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the Washington Capitals 3-1.

So the standings entering the week see the Islanders in first place with 34 points, two better than the Capitals. The Bruins and Penguins are next with 29 points. Boston is technically in front, though, because they’ve earned those points in just 22 games, whereas the Pens have completed 24.

The Flyers are the first team out of the playoff mix as of now. They are in fifth place with 27 points.

‘Flash’ makes a splash

Oft-suspended ex-NFL wide receiver Josh Gordon showed what he can do in the Fan Controlled Football league Sunday.

“Flash” made this game-ending Hail Mary touchdown catch from Braden Smith to win the game 32-26 for his team, the Zappers.

That was Gordon’s debut with the Zappers (2-2). He had four catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns.

Ground and pound

Who says the run game is dead?

At least to open the NEC spring football season, it wasn’t for the Duquesne Dukes.

Jerry Schmitt’s team held on to beat the Sacred Heart Pioneers in the “2020” season opener … in 2021. The final score was 30-27 at Arthur J. Rooney Field Sunday.

And they did so with a rushing assault. The Dukes churned up 203 rushing yards. New running back Garrett Owens had 105 rushing yards. And Ohio transfer Joe Mischler had 63 yards rushing, including a 34-yard touchdown in his Dukes debut.

Meanwhile, in defeat, Julius Chestnut had 168 yards on 28 carries for Sacred Heart along with two touchdowns. He had two receiving as well. In his two previous games against the Dukes, Chestnut had 128 and 131 yards rushing respectively. That’s 427 yards on the ground and six total touchdowns in three contests for the Pioneers against Duquesne.

Unfortunately for the Dukes, with the new eligibility rules, Chestnut may get to play them twice more before he leaves the program.

Three’s company

The Robert Morris women’s hockey team qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the CHA championship.

And they did so by using three different goalies over three different games on three successive days.

Senior Molly Singewald — who never got a start until senior weekend two weeks ago against Sacred Heart — started the quarterfinal game against RIT Thursday. And the Colonials won 4-0, with Singewald posting her third shutout in as many tries.

In the semifinal, Arielle DeSmet returned to action. She backstopped a 3-2 overtime victory over Mercyhurst in the semifinal.

And in Saturday’s final, the usual starter Raygan Kirk was able to get back on the ice for the first time since Feb. 17. After dealing with health issues late in the season, she pitched a 1-0 shutout against Syracuse, making 36 saves to help the team win the crown.

Up next, it’s the NCAA tournament. Paul Colontino’s team will play No. 1 seed Northeastern at Erie Insurance Arena on March 15.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

Duquesne | NHL | Robert Morris | Sports | Steelers/NFL | Breakfast With Benz

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