Derick Brassard scored a pair of goals Thursday night including the empty netter which clinched the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. Brassard was also the perfect backboard for Phil Kessel’s bank shot in the second period.
However, those were only the fifth and six goals this season for Brassard who has admittedly struggled with his third line role, struggled to find chemistry with Phil Kessel (and Kessel has struggled to find chemistry with Brassard) and smiled broadly when he was moved to left wing on the top line.
What should have been a dream scenario for the Penguins–the best center depth in the NHL–has instead been a struggle to keep their third member happy.
“I think he is (beginning to embrace the role),” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He and I had a lot of conversations about it and he’s well aware of the situation and playing behind two generation talents.”
Unpack that sentence as you will. The head coach has had a lot of conversations with a player about accepting a role. The head coach believes he is starting to accept it.
“On most teams, he’d be a top two center. If he can just play his game and bring the same level of urgency and compete level and embrace the challenge, we think he can really help this team win,” Sullivan continued.
The word “if” in that sentence also is oddly striking.
As one of Brassard’s staunchest defenders, I noticed that word in Sullivan’s sentence immediately. Sullivan didn’t try to hide Brassard’s struggles on the ice or with his role. The specifics have been left unsaid but every context clue and inference is the player feels left out, in some form or another.
“It’s been an adjustment for him,” Sullivan did concede.
And so it is. The Penguins have a pair of well paid, talented players on their third line–Brassard and Phil Kessel. And neither really wants to be there. Yet it is the Penguins best chance for a Stanley Cup and another chapter in an unparalleled salary cap-era run.
Sullivan was adamant in words and in voice tone when he endorsed Brassard, “I know he’s had his ups and downs, but I believe in him.”
Sullivan’s particular emphasis on the “I believe in him” was also striking. It wasn’t his normal cadence and his tone softened.
Thursday night, Brassard and Kessel finally hooked up to produce offense. It wasn’t a whirling display of talent or domination, but it was something. And it gave Sullivan a chance to praise both players.
“I thought it was their best game since we put them together,” Sullivan said. “They potentially could be such a dangerous line. They’re both really good players in their own right.”
They are. No questions asked, even if Brassard has not flashed his full potential in his 42 game Penguins career.
Brassard is a Sullivan-type player. He’s serious. Intense. He doesn’t have to be encouraged to defend, has decent speed and playmaking ability. He should fit perfectly with a Sullivan-Sidney Crosby led crew. But there hasn’t been enough “puck” for Brassard.
The Penguins must be hoping those conversations are about to start paying off. There will not be enough puck for Brassard. And there will be even less until he and Kessel figure out how to multiply their talents instead of dividing them.
“We didn’t do anything different tonight, we just connected,” Brassard shrugged when asked about finally being on the scoresheet together. “Hopefully we can put a few games together. That would be good for our team.”
Yes, it would be good for the team. The Penguins would find balance and depth in one strike. After both Brassard and Kessel have recently been benched by Sullivan, the message may be getting through. Both are clear top-six talents but with the Penguins construction, they need to wear the third line label but perform to their top-six abilities.
For now, it’s one game. But of all things to take from the Penguins fourth straight win, the potential for four lines is the biggest takeaway.