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Would the Penguins be better off with Pacioretty or Brassard next season?

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Center depth vs. a potential 30-goal scoring winger. What is more important?

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The Montreal Canadiens are like a soap opera these days and not in a complimentary way. The latest twist is that they apparently told their team captain and best skater, Max Pacioretty, that they didn’t want to negotiate with him. Pacioretty has one year left on his contract, but now it’s obviously looking like he’ll be traded sooner than later.

Pacioretty being linked to the Penguins is nothing new. Last week we talked of reports with Pittsburgh inquiring about the talented winger. We even mentioned last month how, if there was no other alternative and Phil Kessel had to be traded (which he won’t be anytime soon), a deal to Montreal for Pacioretty made the most sense of a senseless situation.

Now, with this report of Montreal uninterested in extending the player, business is about to pick up on the trade rumor front again.

One reason that it makes a lot of sense is the the Habs have long been seeking upgrades at center. On their depth chart are a couple guys better suited for the wing (Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi), an old guy (Tomas Plekanec) a new rookie (3rd-overall pick Jesper Kotkaniemi) and a couple unestablished, fairly unimpressive centers (Philip Danault, Matthew Peca).

Value-wise and need-wise, a potential Pacioretty for Derick Brassard swap makes sense at surface level. The Habs get a talented center and one who hails from Quebec too (which while no big deal to many, it’s important because it moves the needle for their decision makers). Brassard isn’t of an ideal age and would have to re-sign, but Montreal has chased lesser centers. At this point, simply adding a legit top-six style center seems to take precedence over all other factors, or possibly genuinely good points that Brassard isn’t a perfect fit for where they’re at as a team.

On the Pittsburgh side of the equation, the Penguins could use an improvement at left wing and a grouping of Pacioretty, Jake Guentzel and Carl Hagelin turns that area into a team strength for 2018-19.

For entertainment purposes, let’s just say that’s the basis of a proposed, potential deal: Brass for Patches. Nothing is final or written in stone, but it’s July and we’re having fun. Now the question is, from the Pittsburgh perspective, is this a wise move to make?

The Penguins have been seeking a great third-line center. It’s pretty much a common thread that in all three Stanley Cup wins in the Sidney Crosby era, Pittsburgh has received outstanding playoff performances from that postion, whether it was Jordan Staal in 2009 or Nick Bonino especially in 2016 and also to an extent as a solid guy in 2017. Brassard could be that guy. Without Brassard, Pittsburgh would have to shuffle Riley Sheahan up to the third line and rely on either 42-year old Matt Cullen to center the fourth line, or hope an unestablished youngster like Teddy Blueger or Jean-Sebastien Dea could do the job. Either way, while Sheahan does a decent job, he’s not likely to be Staal or 2016 Bonino, and that’s important to keep in mind.

However, if the Penguins keep their center depth with Brassard at 3C and Sheahan on the fourth line, the wing becomes a weaker point on the team, more so remembering they had to jettison Conor Sheary. And since coach Mike Sullivan favors having Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on different lines, that naturally is going to put Malkin in a position where he won’t have a ton of reliable, standout offensive skill as the roster currently projects to be. Make a trade and add a bonafide great winger and Geno either plays with that guy, or at least benefits from a trickle-down effect of a skill winger getting pushed off Crosby’s line.

Boiling it down for a poll: hypothetically, we’ll keep it simple. You’ve got two choices of a top-12 forward grouping, which we will lay out in the mindset/style of Mike Sullivan’s tendencies. We know Sullivan does not usually favor putting what he perceives as two defensively-risky forwards together. Sullivan also shuffles wingers constantly, so it’s not like this will be permanent and all-time combinations, though it seems pretty reasonable starting points. With that in mind, we’ll take feed back as to what scenario would be preferable.

Choice A (The Center Depth Option, aka status quo at this point)

Line 1: Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Dominik Simon/Daniel Sprong

Line 2: Carl Hagelin - Evgeni Malkin - Patric Hornqvist

Line 3: Bryan Rust - Derick Brassard - Phil Kessel

Line 4: Matt Cullen - Riley Sheahan - Zach Aston-Reese

or...

Choice B (Making a trade to upgrade the wing situation, at the expense of losing a quality center)

Line 1: Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist

Line 2: Max Pacioretty - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust

Line 3: Carl Hagelin - Riley Sheahan- Phil Kessel

Line 4: Zach Aston-Reese - Matt Cullen - Dominik Simon/Daniel Sprong


In a way, it’s sort of a question of what is more important: pure power on the top six or three balanced lines? For Choice A, you have a much even squad with three really good lines. For Choice B, the top-six is stacked but the lower two lines are lesser, including Kessel with two relatively unskilled partners.

It should be noticed that stars make a difference, and traditionally the Pens are led by performances of their top guys. For in Choice A, Kessel is centered by a superior offensive player in Brassard over Sheahan. But in Choice B, it’s giving Malkin an all-star caliber offensive player to play with, which traditionally he never really has had aside from the James Neal days and when Kessel is on his line.

Not sure there are any clear cut right or wrong answers at this point. There’s certainly a school of thought to favor and protect center depth at all costs, a tried and true concept. In this perspective, the Choice A centers look really, really good. Go to Choice B and if there is any sort of injury to a center that important area of the ice becomes a real team weakness as lesser players have to slot up to roles they wouldn’t be good at. Having Brassard as an insurance policy to move into a bigger role is a very valuable hidden aspect of the center depth philosophy.

However, the pure talent and skill level of a team can’t be denied or ignored either, and the opportunity to add a productive player who could boost the overall ability of the team is an intriguing perspective to approach. Even more when we are talking about a consistent and proven top talent like Pacioretty. It also highlights how to best surround the Penguins top players so they can lead the team far.

It will be interesting to see which approach the Penguins decide to take. Will they be aggressive in looking to add a winger from their current position of strength up the middle, or sit back and see how the current group unfolds and then attempt to make any needed adjustments during the season?

At the end of the day, it’s our position that having Brassard in the fold for next season gives the Pens an unmatched group of centers around the league. But since a difference maker like Pacioretty is on the trade market, it’s certainly worth the consideration to wonder if he can add a dynamic to boost the overall effectiveness of the team. With that in mind, it’ll be great to turn it over to the readers and see what the temperature of the virtual room is as to which strategy may be preferable by the fan base at large.

Poll

Given the choice of the rosters

This poll is closed

  • 69%
    Choice A: Keep the center depth as it currently exists
    (1447 votes)
  • 30%
    Choice B: Trading Brassard for a winger would be more appealing
    (644 votes)
2091 votes total Vote Now