In Derick Brassard, the Penguins have made the ideal move to position them as Stanley Cup favorites yet again.
As we’ve discussed multiple times over the past several days here on Pittsburgh Hockey Now, Brassard was the move for Jim Rutherford to make, both now and into 2018-19. For a $3 million cap hit this season and next — the Golden Knights are paying 40 percent of Brassard’s salary via Friday’s convoluted three-way deal — the Penguins have a third-line center who has a proven track record of productive hockey beyond the role he’ll play with his new team.
No offense to Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, valuable players in their own right to the Penguins’ back-to-back championships, but Brassard gives them center depth they haven’t had since Jordan Staal was dealt nearly six years ago.
That’s right. The ‘three-center model’ is back.
Brassard, 30, has had a slight downturn in point production during his two seasons with the Senators, but the underlying numbers are still strong, enough so that the Penguins can project a return to his scoring pace with the Rangers. Within a higher-tempo New York system, Brassard averaged a little more than 20 goals and a little under 60 points per season.
Digging Deeper on Derick
When judging a player’s ability to help his team create offense and prevent opposition attacks, relative stats are a good place to start. Even if the player in question is employed by a poor team, we can get some insight into the individual by seeing how the team performs with him on the ice, compared to overall results.
In Brassard’s case, he’s has a positive Corsi Relative in each of the past six seasons, spanning his time with the Blue Jackets, Rangers and Senators. In other words, his teams have controlled the five-on-five shot attempt ratio better with him than without him. The past two seasons with the Senators have amplified that effect, as Ottawa performed a whopping 8 percent better with Brassard last season and 6 percent better this season.
For reference, Sidney Crosby‘s Corsi Relative in his career has been a shade under 5 percent to the positive; Evgeni Malkin‘s is roughly 3 percent. There’s some handicap we should give Brassard because he’s been playing under Guy Boucher‘s counterpunching system, so the shot ratio standard in Ottawa has been lesser than in Pittsburgh, but to help lift a team’s level by that much is nonetheless impressive.
Using Natural Stat Trick’s scoring-chance data, Brassard has the Senators’ best ratio of high-danger opportunities in this disappointing season, at 53 percent for. Ottawa’s team rate in that category is 47 percent.
Even in this era of ‘top-nine’ forwards instead of the traditional top-six, most teams in the league hope to have their third-line center at least keep the score the same while the top two lines get some rest. Much like in the heyday of the ‘HBK Line,’ the Penguins should be able to attack all three opposing defense pairs with at least.a respectable level of offensive threat.
An Attack-First Mindset
If there’s one area for caution on Brassard, it’s that he hasn’t been used in a ‘defensive’ role much in his career. One way to measure how a player is deployed by his coach is to look at a metric called zone starts. It’s simply the percentage of shifts a player starts in the offensive zone compared to the defensive zone. (Neutral-zone faceoffs are ignored in his calculation.)
Both in his career (57 percent offensive) and with the Senators (55 percent), Brassard has been put on the ice in more attack situations than defending situations. It’s not as extreme as Malkin’s zone start number — 62 percent for his career, 66 percent this season — but it’s not the hallmark of a so-called ‘shutdown’ center.
Fortunately for the Penguins, they already have a center they can feel comfortable using to batten down the hatches in their own end: Riley Sheahan, who has a 32 percent zone-start rating this season. With some creative line changes, the Penguins shouldn’t have to feel short-handed in go-to centers when defending a late lead.
Considering Mike Sullivan‘s preference for pushing the pace with three forward lines, if not four, Brassard should be up to the task. The Penguins could consider placing Phil Kessel on Brassard’s wing and get back to the three-line depth that helped them dominate the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs.
However he’s used and whomever he’s deployed with, Brassard will likely feel a sense of freedom upon his arrival in Pittsburgh. Not only will he face easier matchups than he did with Ottawa, he will also be placed into a system that puts his offensive talents to use.