Surely it must be a ploy to mitigate the high price of a scoring left winger on the trade market, as Pittsburgh Penguins coaches are reportedly considering moving center Derick Brassard to left wing. The potentiality was discussed in the media, with the player, and among coaches since the end of last season. But that doesn’t make it a good move or one which would help the Penguins.
For his part, Brassard was agreeable when asked about the possibility after last season. He gave the appropriate, “Whatever helps the team,” answer.
Brassard is one of the better centers in the NHL. Pivots who can score 60 points (42 points at 5v5), with his ability in the defensive zone are not cheap, or easy to obtain. The Penguins essentially parted with a top-shelf goalie prospect (Filip Gustavsson), a first-round pick (which became K’Andre Miller), a solid defenseman (Ian Cole) and fourth liner (Ryan Reaves) for Brassard.
Don’t be fooled by Brassard’s meager statistics with the Ottawa Senators, who suppress offense in Guy Boucher’s ultra-conservative system. Brassard would be a legitimate second-line center on most teams and a first line guy on others.
It would be a mistake to move Brassard to the wing to make room for one of the players behind him on the depth chart. The Penguins center depth after Brassard is Riley Sheahan, Matt Cullen, and Teddy Blueger.
Blueger brings a little spark to the game, but while trying to make the team in 2017-18 preseason, he was too aggressive and too positionally loose. Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s notes included the phrase “puck chaser.” He could make the team this season, but he isn’t in Brassard’s league. Not even close.
Respectfully, nor are Sheahan and Cullen.
Some players cause their statistics and analytics. Others benefit from their situation. Sheahan is both. He was clearly the cause of his defensive metrics and helped improve other players’ defensive statistics with faceoff wins and responsible play. Offensively, he benefited from talented linemates, such as Phil Kessel, who did the heavy lifting on the other side of the red line.
Last season, Sheahan wasn’t a third line center who fits the Penguins scheme. The Penguins gave him more than a half-season tryout before again shopping for a solution behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Sheahan scored 32 points (11g, 21a), which was four less than his career-best 36 points, scored in 2014-15. That appears to be his ceiling.
To move Brassard to left wing would return to the Sheahan at third line center experiment which didn’t provide enough results the first time.
Such a move most likely amounts to replacing one need, at left wing, but creating another at center.
Cullen will be 42-years old in November. He was a healthy scratch for portions of last season and didn’t find his stride with Minnesota, though he still scored 22 points (11g, 11a). Cullen could and will battle Sheahan for the fourth line role, but even in his previous stint with the Penguins, Cullen was only a fill-in third line center.
The most direct comparison could be the Philadelphia Flyers, who moved top-line center Claude Giroux to the left wing, last season. Giroux posted a Hart Trophy-worthy season beside Sean Couturier, and the Flyers made the playoffs. However, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol was motivated in part to make room in the middle for second-overall pick Nolan Patrick.
The Penguins have no such need to make room for a top draft pick or prospect.
They also don’t have a desperate need for a top-six left wing. Jake Guentzel has shown abundant scoring ability beside Sidney Crosby, at least in the playoffs. Carl Hagelin’s speed and puck retrieval were the perfect compliments to Evgeni Malkin.
So, from this seat, it just doesn’t make the best sense to upset the apple cart to move a gifted center, replace him with a less player, and hope both experiments work.