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Random Thought: What if the Pens traded for Grabner instead of Brassard?

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Would anything have changed in the 2018 playoffs if the Penguins traded for winger Michael Grabner instead of center Derick Brassard?

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Here’s a random thought, and one we ultimately will never truly know, but an interesting one still. Rewind back to February. The trade deadline is approaching. Rumors are flying around everywhere. One such story covered on Pensburgh was the Penguins interest in speedy (then) New York Rangers winger Michael Grabner.

“Pens were in on Grabner. I suspect Rutherford was reluctant based on probability some of the assets needed could be used in Brassard talk.” - Darren Dreger

Rutherford’s reluctancy makes a ton of sense whenever you get down to the nitty gritty. The Penguins, a team on an absolute tear right now, don’t need to add huge pieces down the stretch to guarantee success, but what they do need is a bottom-six center. Why not try to capitalize on Ottawa’s fire sale and bring in a really good one and take a chance on a three-peat while the opportunity presents itself?

As a reminder, Brassard’s contract would have the Penguins responsible for $5 million both this year and next, as he becomes a unrestricted free agent in 2019-20 — we touched on this a couple days ago. The ask for him is not small, which is why I agree with Dreger about how Rutherford gave up on Grabner to wrangle his assets in a try for Brassard. There’s still a possibility the center comes cheaper if Rutherford can maneuver a deal. He’s been successful in doing so in the past.

As we all know at this point - Rutherford worked some magic and ended up getting his man in Brassard to boost the Pens position of need - at center. To get Brassard for a $3 million cap hit, which will apply for this 2018-19 season. He paid a big price in giving up a 1st round pick and top goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson to do so, but such is life to add a top trade target.

We also know that Brassard took a bit of time to mesh and gel with the aggressive Pittsburgh style of play after playing for a couple seasons in a trapping-style Senators system. Then Brassard was on a six-game point streak before suffering a groin injury in late March. He would manage to return for the playoffs but clearly was limited and bothered by one of the toughest common injuries in hockey.

With that in mind, the addition of Brassard for the 2018 playoffs has to be a disappointment. An understandable one factoring in the injury, but a disappointment all the same for a team hoping Brassard would be the next Jordan Staal / Nick Bonino type of 3rd line center hero that gives the Pens an advantage all the way to the Cup. Didn’t work out that way.

So, what if from the article above, that the Penguins decided to forego the trade on Brassard and instead go the direction of speed overload and use their trade chips and limited salary cap space to grab Grabner instead.

To be certain, it’s not easy answer. Grabner in reality got dealt to the New Jersey Devils. After scoring an impressive 25 goals in 59 games with NYR in the first portion of the season, Grabner only scored 2 goals and added 3 assists in 21 regular season games with his new team before playing in just 2 scoreless playoff games, so it wasn’t as if Pittsburgh missed out on anything by that measure.

But it’s still an interesting question for theater of the mind. Fellow speedy winger Carl Hagelin got injured and missed time and didn’t really look like himself when he did come back wearing a full cage to protect his face. If you put an assumed healthy Grabner on that Evgeni Malkin line (himself a bit banged up) does that change anything? Maybe not, but margin of wins and losses was so close that maybe.

Riley Sheahan 1 goal in the playoffs. Conor Sheary, Zach Aston-Reese, Tom Kuhnhackl, Dominik Simon, 0 goals in the playoffs. Brassard, Hagelin, Bryan Rust 0 goals in the Capitals series. The Penguins got such little supporting player goal scoring that it’s a question with no right or real answer but an interesting one to pose.

The Pens lost Games 3, 5 and 6 against Washington where the game either was tied or Pittsburgh had a lead at one point in the 3rd periods of all those games. One burst of speed to get behind the defense and a goal by Grabner may have tipped a loss into a win. Or maybe not and Grabner would have just ended up an offensive non-factor passenger like almost everyone on the team besides Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Malkin were. (And let’s toss in Brian Dumoulin if we’re shouting out nice performances relative to expectation).

This isn’t meant to be any bigger lost cause narrative or some sort of “Monday morning quarterbacking”, just idle Sunday thoughts. It’s very obvious Grabner wouldn’t have won the Conn Smythe or anything, and who knows, maybe if the Pens players didn’t hit the wall against the Caps, they most likely wouldn’t have hurdled a strong Tampa Bay Lightning team in the Eastern Conference Final with all the injuries they had. Plus it wasn’t like Matt Murray was in 2016 or 2017 form, it’s tough to imagine him out-dueling all those TB shooters. So it’s not a matter of if this was a Stanley Cup make or break decision.

And Grabner was a free agent in the summer, signing a three year $3.35 million annual contract in Arizona. Pittsburgh probably couldn’t/wouldn’t have been that interested in meeting or exceeding such an offer. The benefit of getting Brassard is the extra year he is under contract for in this coming season.

We’ll never know if Grabner would have been quiet in Pittsburgh or have been able to provide a spark and contribute something in what was a close series. Depending on your imagination that could go either way. There are so many different possibilities and options in the course of a season on which direction to go in terms of players to acquire that a million scenarios and “what ifs” could be out there. As a whole, you can’t blame Pens GM Jim Rutherford at all for acquiring a player at a position the team needed, and one under contract for an additional year. In hindsight anything is possible, but in real time the team played it logical.