The Pittsburgh Penguins have tried nearly everything to get star center Evgeni Malkin back on track and to make third line center Derick Brassard more productive. Both centers have played with several different linemates, Brassard has been effectively benched once and Malkin has been the subject of lectures, stern and encouraging from Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
Despite a good effort Wednesday against the New York Rangers, the Penguins third line with Phil Kessel and Brassard was underwater in scoring chances. Brassard was on the ice for just two scoring chances and six chances against (his Corsi was bad too, but scoring chances are more important).
Evgeni Malkin has been teasing signs of breaking from his nearly two-month slump. Wednesday, his Corsi and scoring chance ratios were 58 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Malkin even scored a goal without a legitimate shot on net as the puck rolled off his stick but slid beneath New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
The Penguins have tried nearly everything to correct the situations.
The one and perhaps only thing which the Penguins haven’t yet tried is to pair Brassard with Malkin. Yep, grant Brassard his release from the third line center role in which he feels shackled and put him in a top-six left wing role which greatly excites him. Recall Brassard had three assists in one game on Sidney Crosby’s left wing (vs. Calgary) in October before suffering an injury which caused him to miss weeks. That three-assist game literally accounts for 25 percent of Brassard’s output this season, as he has scored a total of only 12 points (6g, 6a) in 31 games.
Add Brassard’s enthusiastic endorsement of playing more left wing, “I loved it.”
In theory, Brassard’s playmaking ability and creativity could mesh well with Malkin. And Brassard’s ability to carry the puck through center ice could also limit Malkin’s high turnover rate.
“The lines are always changing. They could change tomorrow,” Brassard has joked. And perhaps they should. Despite a recently increased effort from both Brassard and Phil Kessel to make the third line all that it can be, it hasn’t happened yet. The pair still looks like Bill Murray and Harold Ramis at the beginning of Stripes, not the end. They are not all they can be.
Given Brassard’s defensive responsibility, what the heck, give it a whirl. The subsequent domino to fall if the Penguins move Brassard to Malkin’s left wing would be the third line center job.
PHN has for over a year written that Sheahan is not offensively talented enough for third line center duty. However, in this case, Sheahan’s lack of offense would still lead to greater production from the third line than Brassard and Kessel. According to NaturalStatTrick.com’s line tool, last season Sheahan and Kessel were on the ice for 17 goals in 291 minutes at even strength.
In 114 minutes this season, Kessel and Brassard have been on the ice for four goals. Just Four. At that snail’s pace, it would take nearly 500 minutes to get to 17 goals, which translates to over 40 games. Yikes.
Now that the Penguins have Kessel’s attention and his performance has greatly improved since his Dec. 22 benching, the Penguins could achieve their long-sought four-line balance by creating a less talented third line with Sheahan in the middle. Statistically, it was far more productive last season than the talented square peg they’ve been hammering into the round hole for the last few weeks.
Kessel can carry a line with a dry center and Sheahan is humble enough to employ the Nick Bonino strategy: give the puck to Kessel. That plays to Kessel’s primary skill set which is to carry the puck and shoot.
It just may make Brassard and Kessel happier. And Brassard, in turn, may make Malkin happier.
And, if Brassard does not benefit Malkin, it’s on Brassard. The bone-dry third line offensive production can’t continue. The Penguins must find a solution but are running out of time. The trade deadline is six weeks away. And before big changes are made, this solution seems as good as any.
Sullivan has tried everything else.