Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan dramatically cut the ice time for center Derick Brassard Saturday in the Penguins 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings. The move continued the downward trend of Brassard stature in the Penguins lineup.
Whether or not it was rock bottom remains to be seen.
Brassard had the lowest even strength ice time of all Penguins forwards, a group which included Derek Grant and Garrett Wilson. Brassard skated just 9:43. Wilson was rewarded with over a minute more at 5v5 and Grant was 90 seconds more.
Fourth line center Matt Cullen played nearly three minutes more at even strength and Sullivan rolled his fourth line in a prominent shutdown defensive role against the LA top two lines.
If Sullivan wanted to free his top lines, the defensive role could have been handled by the more talented third line. Instead, the third line centered by Brassard was essentially passed over. This season, Brassard has just nine points (4g, 5a) in 23 games. Three of those assists came in one game on the top line left wing beside Sidney Crosby.
Before the season, Sullivan confirmed rumors of a Brassard feeling left out or underused. Sullivan said Brassard broached the topic of moving to left wing this season. Brassard will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, so a position change would be risky, but Brassard prioritized the team ahead of person.
When the move finally happened, Brassard was over the moon, “I love it,” he exclaimed. Pittsburgh Hockey Now had the chance to chat with Brassard when the move was made. The player was well aware of Philadelphia Flyers All-Star Claude Giroux’s successful move to LW.
Brassard was successful on Crosby’s left wing, but the Penguins lineup was too top heavy. Together, Brassard and Crosby had positive Corsi, scoring chances, and most importantly goals. But the injury bug which bit Brassard last season just as he began to fit in, bit again and Brassard missed a few weeks.
Upon Brassard’s return he rolled with newly recalled Zach Aston-Reese. The pair also had a solid 55 percent Corsi rating and were positive in high danger scoring chances.
Things were trending up for Brassard. But then the Phil Kessel experiment happened.
The upward trend went straight down. With Kessel on the line, the trio earned a horrid 37 percent Corsi even as they managed to score three of the five goals. The lack of chemistry was painfully noticeable. On Dec. 2 Sullivan said:
“We’ve got to find a way to find some more production through the middle of the lineup,” Sullivan said after the 4-2 loss the Philadelphia Flyers. “We’ve got good players there. We’ve got good players; we’ve got to make sure we find the combinations that give us more consistent success.”
That was two weeks ago. Little has improved.
For the Penguins middle lines, success may be graded on the curve recent struggles of both the second and third lines, from Evgeni Malkin to Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard. Talented players. But things are not working for the Penguins. For either line.
After Kessel was moved off the line just two and a half games later, the downward trend continued for Brassard. The positive vibes were gone. And so was the offense generation. And then the ice time, too.
The center who last year was the top centerman for the Ottawa Senators has been relegated to an afterthought. And, rightfully so. Brassard has not produced enough to earn more. The inconsistency and the lack of offense has not been what the Penguins signed up for.
And so Sullivan continues to mix and match and rotate and revolve wingers in hopes of finding a spark. At this point, he’ll settle for a few periods before worrying about a few weeks.
After 37 games including last season, there is enough of a sample size to conclude Brassard is sinking with the Penguins. One of the better centers in the NHL cannot gain traction.
If the Penguins would like the middle lines to be successful, it seems the current mix won’t get the job done.