The Pittsburgh Penguins are growing weary of the job center Derick Brassard is doing.
How is such a bold statement so easily said? Well the general manager said as much plainly to Jason Mackey of the Post-Gazette:
Derick Brassard, their big acquisition last season, hasn’t been what they expected. He has no points in seven games, three in his past 17. Which means that either Brassard needs to start scoring, or he must suddenly transform himself into a Selke Trophy candidate and penalty-killing dynamo.
That’s what the Penguins will be watching for over the next little while, general manager Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday. And if Brassard isn’t able to function within the role the Penguins have for him — that would certainly been the team’s preference — Rutherford may need to go find someone who can.
“We win with balanced lines,” Rutherford said. “I do think that he’s got more to offer, but that’s an area we’ll be watching here to make sure that we’re getting what we need out of that position.
That sounds harsh, because, well it is harsh for a general manager to openly say to the media. In the “for what it’s worth” file, Rutherford did appear to temper the edge on those comments a little with the next quote he gave:
“I do believe over the last few games he’s played better,” Rutherford said. “Certainly in these last few games he’s won some big faceoffs for us at critical times. He’s been more involved in the game. At that position, you either have to produce or you have to be a defensive, penalty-killing role player.”
Calling players out publicly is nothing new for Rutherford, who pretty much said without saying directly in November on his radio show that he was perplexed and unhappy by the slow start Bryan Rust (among others) got off to
“At a young age, guys win Stanley Cups and a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it. We’ve got some young guys that won a couple, then they get bigger contracts and then they kind of settle in. They forget what got them to where they are today.”
In Rust’s case, the underlying numbers were encouraging, while the shooting percentage and production was bad in his slump. That eventually corrected in a big way, as we’ve all seen this month with him playing so well and getting lucky breaks/bounces.
But can the same be said for Brassard?
Probably not, especially to Rutherford’s point of either producing or playing a penalty kill role. Choice B of the penalty kill is a no-go. Brassard only plays 0:09 per game on the PK this season, basically a rounding error. He’s not fit really for such a role and has never really done that in his career. Coach Mike Sullivan is always going to rely on Riley Sheahan and Matt Cullen (and last game Sidney Crosby) as his centermen of choice for the kill. The skeptic could say Rutherford ought to have known this upon acquiring Brassard - that his skill set is to be an offensive center probably best suited in a second line role, he’s not a traditional checking line center by any means and is ill-suited there.
So that leaves Brassard with only Choice A to earn his keep: produce points at even strength. That’s certainly a more fair expectation for his skill set and ability but he hasn’t gotten much traction there- with only three goals and five assists at ES in 28 games so far this season. Also when you remember three of those ES assists came in a single game in October on Crosby’s wing in the 9-1 blowout win over Calgary and, yikes, that makes the context worse for only five ES points in the other 27 games, and as Mackey noted no points at all in the last seven games.
All in all, perception is a big problem as the Penguins and Pens fans expect probably too much from a third line center. As our Adam Gretz put it just two weeks ago in breaking down Brassard and expectations and reality:
When you watch a team that has had the center depth the Penguins have had over the years your perception of what is an acceptable level of production gets skewed and blown entirely out of proportion.
Most first-line centers don’t score like Sidney Crosby (they are probably 70-80 point players). Most second-line centers don’t score like Evgeni Malkin (they are probably 50-60 point players). Most third-line centers don’t score like Jordan Staal used to (they are probably 30-40 point players).
And, to be fair, you don’t have to look fair to see a reason for caution and patience with Brassard. Only look back to 2016 and this same Pittsburgh team and their third line center- Nick Bonino for a tale of perception, production, results and a great finish.
Bonino only scored nine goals and added 20 assists in 63 games with the Pens in that 2015-16 regular season. Then in the playoffs he hit a hot streak, caught magic in a bottle with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, put up 18 points in 24 playoff games and was an impact player and driving force in the Pens’ Stanley Cup championship season.
In December 2015 or January 2016 based on results, you’re probably thinking Bonino is a player where an upgrade is needed. By the summer, he’s a hero and almost irreplaceable piece of the puzzle. So perhaps though Rutherford is rightfully frustrated by Brassard’s lack of consistent production and no PK capability, he should exercise patience.
After all, if you trade Brassard, what’s the better option to take his place as the third line center? Anyone better probably isn’t available and trading a rental like Brassard is now while he isn’t exactly lighting it up probably results in a neutral move in the best case scenario - and likely a downgrade in talent in a realistic scenario. Plus, this isn’t a shot at Sheahan or Cullen but they’re not better players right now than Brassard, there’s no better internal option for the third line job.
To Rutherford’s point though, the Pens do need production and life out of the role Brassard is in. Also, to the eye, Brassard hasn’t fit in or shown much sustained chemistry with any wingers on the team, despite a long time of having multiple chances. Bonino caught fire, but he did so by meshing incredibly well with Phil Kessel, and being a smart player to play to the strengths of Kessel. Brass hasn’t done that yet.
It’s also a bit curious now that his current wingers in Tanner Pearson and Patric Hornqvist combine to make more than $9 million on the cap. That’s more than the first line wingers of Rust and Jake Guentzel ($4.23m combined) and the second line of Kessel and Dominik Simon ($7.55m combined hit to Pittsburgh). There’s no doubt that Brassard has the talent and payroll around him where he should be getting results with the Pens healthy and fielding three strong lines, which no doubt is also in Rutherfrod’s mind as lately he’s watched Brassard be mostly a non-factor in games and get on a lengthy scoreless streak.
Bottom line, the Pens are probably right to want more out of Brassard. But they also have to realize that a 15-minute a night third line center isn’t going to be a 50+ point player either. And barring pulling a rabbit out of the hat on the trade market, betting on Brassard to step up seems much smarter than banking on finding an improvement.