From Ray Shero to Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh Penguins have long built their roster around the three-center model. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been anchored by Jordan Staal, Brandon Sutter, Nick Bonino, and most recently, Riley Sheahan. All skated on the Penguins’ third line to varying degrees of success, but Derick Brassard is the most impactful player of the lot.
Brassard didn’t get off to the best start in Pittsburgh as he struggled with injuries while adjusting to his new role and reduced ice time. But that is behind him, and with a Mike Sullivan training camp under his belt, the 31-year old is healthy and ready to make an impact.
Better Than Bonino
A big part of the Penguins’ struggles in 2017-18 was the lack of depth and the lck of a third line center after Nick Bonino bolted to Nashville via free agency. Looking at the 2016-17 season when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup after meeting Brassard’s Senators in the conference finals, we can compare the two fairly accurately.
In 80 games Bonino scored 18 goals and 37 points, while Brassard earned 14 goals and 39 points in 81 games. These numbers appear to be pretty even, but goals and assists alone do not tell the whole story. Brassard drove possession far better than Bonino; granted they played very different roles with Brassard being a top-six centerman for the Senators. But Bonino largely played with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, which could be a top line on many teams.
When Brassard was on the ice, his team controlled play at a significantly higher rate than Bonino (54% vs. 46%). His team had a much higher goals for ratio while he was playing (56% vs. 47%). Not to mention that he was significantly more successful relative to his teammates. Ottawa benefited much more from Brassard’s presence than the Penguins did Bonino.
Managing Expectations for 2018-19
Fans expectations for Brassard may have been a little too high following his acquisition. He has never scored more than 27 goals and only exceeded 20 goals twice. While you will never see him competing for the “Rocket” Richard Trophy, he will be a lot better in Pittsburgh than he was last season. His preseason play was outstanding.
Playing with quality linemates such as Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon, and Patric Hornqvist, scoring 20-25 goals and 50 points is not out of the question. The former sixth-overall draft pick will thrive in Sullivan’s system that is built on speed, puck possession, and allows skilled players to flourish.
Even in the midst of all of the high hopes, Brassard’s status in Pittsburgh still could be considered a fluid, and short-term situation. He will become an unrestricted free agent following this season and could price himself out of Pittsburgh, provided that he performs well. If the concerns of last season prove to be true, he will likely walk at the end of the year, or be traded before the deadline. Regardless of how well he plays, Brassard may not want to buy a house in Sewickley anytime soon.
Despite the potential to be an extended rental, this is a season of many possibilities. The Penguins have dramatically improved their depth to a point that it may be the best of the Crosby era, and Brassard is a big part of that. He is on par with Staal defensively with a better offensive upside, while being a more complete player than Bonino. Along with Crosby, Malkin, and Sheahan, the Penguins may have the most lethal four lines in hockey.
To put things into the perspective of this year vs. last year, in the words of Dan Kingerski, “Riley Sheahan < Derick Brassard”. That simple difference may be what has Pittsburgh playing hockey in June.