The debate which will echo through the Penguins fan base for years and even generations will center on the February trade in which the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired highly sought center Derick Brassard but had to give up a healthy dose of character and toughness by sending away defenseman Ian Cole and fourth line tough guy Ryan Reaves.
Yes, Derick Brassard was worth the price the Penguins paid. Every red (bearded) cent. Brassard was worth the risk, the price and, in the end, it was bad luck with an injury which hampered Brassard far more than any inability to assimilate. Brassard is an excellent skater with offensive instincts, defensive awareness and is a locker room leader.
Unfortunately for player and team, he came from the most programmed, robotic, soul-sucking offense black hole in the NHL–the Ottawa Senators. Brassard’s first few weeks in a Penguins sweater were marred by going backward when he could go forward, thinking instead of feeling the play, and generally worrying about defense at the expense of the Penguins uptempo offense.
Head coach Mike Sullivan said Brassard never truly settled in, “I don’t know if we ever got there, to the comfort level where we know he’s capable of being the player he is,” said Sullivan.
In 14 regular season games, Brassard’s statistics didn’t belie his struggle to adapt. Brassard tallied three goals and five assists.
General Manager Jim Rutherford told reporters Brassard was hampered by a “difficult” injury, which occurred late in the season and lingered through the playoffs.
But Brassard’s transition and injury are only part of the equation.
Ian Cole Factor?
Were the Penguins fatally crippled without a blood and guts player like Ian Cole?
No, the Penguins were not crippled. They were lessened, in some aspects, but defenseman Chad Ruhwedel was sturdy in the playoffs. Ruhwedel defended well and was physical. The Penguins missed Cole’s shot blocking and on-ice leadership, but they should have been able to overcome his absence.
The reasons for the 2017-18 Penguins unceremonious dismissal were many. However, the Penguins third defensive pairing didn’t make the list. The Penguins had opportunities to win their Round 2 series, and it wasn’t the Penguins third pairing which yielded the heartbreaking goals. That dubious honor belongs to the Penguins top defensive pairing, Kris Letang, and Brian Dumoulin.
The Penguins shortcomings were a lack of offense from every line except their top unit with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, not a lack of toughness or character.
In fact, Brassard eventually became that fourth line center. Like Riley Sheahan and even Evgeni Malkin, Brassard could not get his name on the score sheet often enough.
The situation mirrored the 1993 Penguins’ attempt at a third straight Cup, too. Longtime Penguins fans (and one Penguins announcer) may still grumble at the Penguins 1993 trade when then-GM Craig Patrick dealt Bob Errey for heavy-footed defenseman Mike Ramsey. That 1993 attempt at a three-peat also ended with a Round 2 upset.
The vast difference between 1993 and 2018 is the Errey trade didn’t make the Penguins a better team. Unequivocally, the Brassard trade made the Penguins a better team, now and for the 2019 run.
Brassard was clearly not yet comfortable in the Penguins system. It was a 180-degree departure from what was drilled into him in Ottawa. The skills are obviously present. Brassard and Conor Sheary created high danger scoring chances in the playoffs but were not able to convert. Sometimes, the right move doesn’t produce good results, and occasionally bad moves do.
Rutherford made the right move. In this case, the “process” was sound, even if the results were not.
Fortunately for Penguins fans, the trade will make the Penguins again favorites the Stanley Cup. Some rest, a training camp, a few tweaks, and the Penguins may yet recoup the benefits of the trade, even if they immediately didn’t.
A third Stanley Cup in four years would end any debate about the trade. And because of the trade, a third Cup is more possible.