The line from an old Garth Brooks song seems appropriate for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sure, they have friends in low places with every spoiler who beats their playoff-spot competition. They are just four points in front of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But the other Garth line which applies is God’s greatest gift are unanswered prayers.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has nearly overhauled his roster since the middle of last season. The Penguins thought they had an unbeatable center trio with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Derick Brassard. The Penguins thought they acquired a better alternative to Carl Hagelin when they snagged slumping winger Tanner Pearson.
Rutherford also really wanted Riley Sheahan to be the Penguins third line center and young winger Daniel Sprong to succeed.
Each of them became unanswered prayers.
However, each of them also gave way to better alternatives. Just imagine where the Penguins would be in the standings with Pearson, Brassard, Sprong, and Sheahan. Pittsburgh Hockey Now would be blistering Rutherford for inaction and weak action. The fanbase would justifiably be raising hell. Job security for several people would be tenuous, at best. And there wouldn’t be any talk of competing in the playoffs.
Oh, those unanswered prayers.
Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan = Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann
Brassard was a flop during his Penguins tenure. His speedy, gritty, playmaking game became soft, disengaged neediness. His failure to fulfill the Penguins hopes for the best pivot trio in the league, coupled with Riley Sheahan’s shortcomings as a third line center literally brought the Penguins 6-foot-6, 215-pound third line center Nick Bjugstad, and gritty speedster Jared McCann.
“It feels good to be back at center,” Bjugstad told Pittsburgh Hockey Now as part of a longer answer about settling into the role.
Bjugstad actually wants the Penguins third line center role. Paired with Patric Hornqvist, Bjugstad is posting jaw-dropping puck possession stats and cracked the scoring sheet, Thursday night with a back-breaking goal against Columbus.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has identified an evolutionary trend in the NHL. He and Rutherford wanted to get bigger, stronger and be able to play hard below the dots on both ends of the rink. Would Brassard have fit that evolution? Nope. Instead, the Penguins were able to package Brassard and Sheahan for Bjugstad.
And, the Penguins also got an extra gift of speed and grittiness with the inclusion of McCann in the trade. McCann has proven to be a player capable of adding to the Penguins lineup on several lines and levels. He is also just 22-years-old and under team control through next season at the ridiculous bargain price of just $1.25 million.
McCann has five goals since the Penguins acquired him on Feb. 1. He has added to the dynamic Penguins first line with Sidney Crosby and added speed to the lineup. Those are all areas in which Pearson was given a chance but failed. In the past month, McCann provided more goals than Hagelin has scored in 45 games this season (4) and four more goals than Pearson contributed in his final six weeks.
Tanner Pearson = Zach Aston-Reese, Erik Gudbranson
Because Pearson didn’t cut it with the Penguins, space was cleared for Zach Aston-Reese to join the Penguins top-six, too. Aston-Reese does the dirty work for Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the Penguins second line. He is also stronger below the dots, has become a tenacious forechecker, penalty killer, and added more speed to his skating.
Aston-Reese is better than Pearson but had Pearson showed a modicum of success, Aston-Reese would not have been given a chance. At just 24-years-old and technically a rookie, Aston-Reese is still growing. And his cap hit is only $925,000.
Trading Pearson also brought the potential reclamation project, 6-foot-5, 217-pound Erik Gudbranson who has helped to make the front of the Penguins net a painful place for Penguins opponents.
Daniel Sprong = Marcus Pettersson
Right wing prospect Daniel Sprong captured the imagination of Penguins fans and Rutherford, but it never translated to success. In December, as Sprong’s frustration seemed close to the boiling point, he was dealt to Anaheim for defenseman Marcus Pettersson, on Dec. 4. Since arriving, Pettersson has become a mainstay of the Penguins top-six and provided steady, calm work even in unsteady moments.
Despite being a stay-at-home defender, Pettersson has as many points (14) as does Sprong in Anaheim. Pettersson is also playing hard minutes with the Penguins and provided vital defensive depth this season. Sprong is not playing big minutes with Anaheim and was a healthy scratch for part of February.
Each of the Penguins and Rutherford’s “prayers” made great sense and were the right call. But each failed to provide what the Penguins needed and in that failure, the Penguins benefited. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need (sorry, entirely different song lyric).
So, Brassard, Sheahan, Sprong and Pearson brought Bjugstad, McCann, Pettersson, and Gudbranson. And cleared space for Aston-Reese.
The Penguins are now bigger, tougher, faster, younger, cheaper and more motivated. Is anyone going to argue about unanswered prayers?