New spot for Bras­sard? Pen­guins coaches plan to test him on the wing in camp

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Sports - By Ja­son Mackey

The Pen­guins could open the 2018-19 reg­u­lar sea­son with a new top-six left winger, but it wouldn’t in­volve a trade for Jeff Skinner, Max Pa­cioretty or any of the other pre­mium play­ers they’ve been linked to over the past cou­ple of weeks.

Ac­cord­ing to gen­eral man­ager Jim Ruther­ford, the Pen­guins coach­ing staff plans to test Der­ick Bras­sard on the wing at train­ing camp, and it would likely be in a top-six ca­pac­ity — to take ad­van­tage of Bras­sard’s skat­ing, shoot­ing and vi­sion.

“That is one op­tion that the coach­ing staff has talked about,” Ruther­ford said of Bras­sard in a top-six role.

Bras­sard has never played the wing. He has spent 716 NHL games as a cen­ter with the Blue Jack­ets, Rangers, Sen­a­tors and Pen­guins. Most of that has been in a top-six, scor­ing ca­pac­ity, plus a reg­u­lar role on the power play.

When the Pen­guins traded for Bras­sard this past sea­son, and plunked him on the third line, things didn’t re­ally work out, with Bras­sard pro­duc­ing four goals and 12 points in 26 games (reg­u­lar sea­son and play­offs).

Where Bras­sard would play cer­tainly cre­ates a bit of a co­nun­drum. It’s hard to imag­ine coach Mike Sul­li­van sep­a­rat­ing Jake Guentzel and Sid­ney Crosby, not af­ter the chem­istry they showed in com­bin­ing for 19 goals and 42 points in 12 play­off con­tests.

Carl Hagelin cur­rently oc­cu­pies the Pen­guins sec­ond-line left wing spot, and he’s in a con­tract year; his $4-mil­lion-a-year deal ex­pires af­ter this sea­son, when he’s likely to earn big­ger money else­where.

On the plus side, Hagelin has meshed very well with Ev­geni Malkin, and he’s good ( and in­ter­ested) enough de­fen­sively that it would en­able Malkin and Phil Kes­sel to play to­gether with­out their line turn­ing into a de­fen­sive sieve.

But say Bras­sard wound up play­ing rea­son­ably well at left wing. It could, in the­ory, free Ruther­ford up to trade Hagelin and ap­pro­pri­ate his salary else­where. It will all de­pend on what Bras­sard feels and the Pen­guins coach­ing staff sees.

“He’s got the skill level to do it,” Ruther­ford said of Bras­sard. “That’s one side of it. The other side of it, he’s never played the wing.

“When you try some­thing, it doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. You try it. It may work. It may not.”

Try­ing Bras­sard as a top­six left winger also could help him find a bet­ter fit with the Pen­guins. Yes, he was hurt, but Bras­sard never felt truly com­fort­able with what the Pen­guins were try­ing to do — ei­ther be­cause of a re­volv­ing door of lines, his in­jury or a se­ri­ous lack of con­fi­dence.

A new po­si­tion could change that. Es­pe­cially when it would the­o­ret­i­cally al­low Bras­sard to tap into the of­fen­sive game that has helped him av­er­age 21 goals per sea­son since 2015. It could back­fire, as Ruther­ford said. But it’s a good prob­lem to have.

“If I had a chance to sign an­other cen­ter who could play wing, I’d do that,” Ruther­ford said. “It just gives you more depth and more op­tions for the coach.”

All the cen­ters

This all started be­cause Ruther­ford signed Matt Cullen to a one-year, $650,000 deal July 1, giv­ing the Pen­guins three cen­ters for two spots. Some­body, un­less there’s a trade, will have to move to the wing.

Don’t in­ter­pret what’s above to say that Bras­sard is the front-run­ner to go there; it’s sim­ply the most ap­peal­ing route be­cause nei­ther Ri­ley Shea­han nor Cullen would ide­ally be de­ployed in a top-six role.

Shea­han and Cullen have, how­ever, ac­tu­ally played wing be­fore and might be bet­ter bets to open the sea­son there.

“It’s bet­ter to have those op­tions than not enough at that po­si­tion,” Ruther­ford said. “The good news is we have a lot more cen­ters than we did at this point last year.”

Ja­son Mackey: jmackey@post-gazette.com and Twit­ter @JMack­eyPG.

Peter Di­ana/Post-Gazette

Der­ick Bras­sard, whom the Pen­guins ac­quired in a trade with the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors in Fe­bru­ary, could open the 2018-19 sea­son as a top-six left winger de­spite never hav­ing played that po­si­tion in his NHL ca­reer.

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