New spot for Brassard? Penguins coaches plan to test him on the wing in camp
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: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
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.