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Getting down to Brass tacks

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How can the Penguins best use Derick Brassard?

NHL: Calgary Flames at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s now been eight games that Derick Brassard has played as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. To this point, the results have not been overwhelmingly positive with just one goal (a beauty at that) and two assists. Brassard has played almost exclusively with Phil Kessel on his right but that duo has seen a litany of left wingers due to injury and performance. From Conor Sheary to Dominik Simon to Riley Sheahan to now Bryan Rust they have cycled through a bunch of options.

The latest, Rust, may be worth sticking with. Brassard fed Rust for a goal last night against the Rangers and that is all well and good but the focus here is Kessel. “The Thrill” only has one even strength point in the last four games. That’s both a small sample but yet still somewhat concerning that Brassard-Kessel isn’t flourishing as time goes by.

There’s been a big adjustment for Brassard. For one thing, the Penguins play an uptempo style that he’s not used to after years of trapping and a passive 1-3-1 system with the Ottawa Senators. So in that realm it’s a change for Brassard to be more aggressive.

Yet there’s also a dichotomy in the Pens asking Brassard to play more of a two-way game and role than the offensive-minded center has been known for in his career, as Bob Grove recently noted on twitter.

So it’s probably a bit odd and awkward that Brassard’s been thrown onto a team with great skill and plays at a higher octane, yet at the same time he’s drawing that more defensive type of role. Still, there’s no doubt at even the Pens are looking for three scoring lines to rock and roll with, and right now that’s been lacking in the early going.

Is this cause for panic? Probably not. The Penguins aren’t designed to peak in March. They’re not even interesting in performing in March a lot of times. The third period of last night’s NYR game is proof of as much. As fans we wish they all could be efforts like the 5-2 spanking of Philly last week but in an 82-game grind a two-time defending champ isn’t going to be pedal to the medal at all times.

This opens up some interesting questions about how to push forward. Given a choice, the Pens would clearly like to see Brassard-Kessel become that power 3rd line, total mis-match in the playoffs and prey on opposing lower lines and weaker pairs. This was the 2016 HBK strategy. More patience is always an option to give Brassard and Kessel more time.

The wildcard may be Rust. He’s got to be considered a “fixer” in hockey terms, given his versatility to play on the left or right side and add speed and skill to any line. Rust has played very well and given a boost to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at times. Will Brassard-Kessel be able to hold onto Rust?

Maybe not. Conor Sheary was demoted from the Crosby line to the 4th line last night. Sid has had rotating wingers and none have been able to add the consistency and performance worth keeping around for very long. Throwing Rust out their with Crosby makes a lot of sense at this point.

Tough time for Simon and Zach Aston-Reese to be injured right now, as each could have a golden opportunity to carve out a niche on the Pens 3rd line. With those options off the table for right now the Pens will have interesting decisions to make on how to boost Brassard and give the strongest team. A few options to consider:

#1 Status quo: Crosby with Guentzel/Sheary, Malkin with Hagelin/Hornqvist, Brassard with Rust/Kessel

#2 Help for Sid: Guentzel/Rust with Crosby, Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist, Brassard+Kessel..and Sheary? Sheahan? This option leaves the most unsettled for Brassard.

#3 Super 2nd line: Sheary-Crosby-Rust, Guentzel-Malkin-Kessel, Hagelin-Brassard-Hornqvist. Could be interesting if Sheary can hold up his end of the bargain. Hagelin-Brassard have a connection from past NY teams and the Malkin line could be dominant.

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A lot of fans may be wondering where Daniel Sprong could factor into this, but he remains in the AHL. In the last month he’s got but 1 goal and 7 assists in 13 games. In six of those games Sprong has recorded 2 SOG or less per the official logs. He’s not exactly banging down the door and showing the Pens have no choice but promote him and likely is viewed about the same in the team’s eyes as when they sent him down less than two months ago, leading us to believe he’s probably going to remain on the back-burner in a crowded RW situation unless something changes via injury.

In the last few weeks of the regular season an interesting point to watch will be how the lines come together and how Brassard continues to integrate into the Pens lineup and system. Will they get antsy and try to shuffle things up for him? Or patiently let Brassard and Kessel have time to establish more of a rapport. Aside from the race in the standings that will be one of the more intriguing storylines for the Pens.