Mark Madden: Fitting Penguins’ pieces together after Derick Brassard trade
Last year, Kris Letang missed the playoffs. No problem.
This year, Ian Cole got traded. Big problem.
Such panicky sentiment got batted about by the hoi polloi in the wake of three consecutive Penguins losses that saw 17 goals surrendered. Buyer’s remorse pervades discussion of the trade that fetched Derick Brassard from Ottawa but sacrificed Cole’s penalty-killing and shot-blocking, qualities that have marked him as a bottom-pair defenseman, yes, but one that can’t possibly be replaced.
Not by Matt Hunwick, anyway.
Trading for Brassard involved a degree of calculated risk, to be sure.
Cole was a clear-cut No. 5 on the defensive depth chart, but his aforementioned assets were needed.
Hunwick is faster of skate, thought and hands, which is why Coach Mike Sullivan often preferred him to Cole when both were available.
But with Cole gone, the Penguins lack a defenseman to do what Cole does. In context of the blue-line corps, Hunwick is more of the same, but worse.
That’s not a condemnation of the trade. In a 31-team league that employs a salary cap, each team will have soft spots. Third-line center was the Penguins’; GM Jim Rutherford strengthened that at the expense of his defense.
That’s not to be criticized. After goaltender, center is the most important position in hockey. If Sullivan is to realize his ambition of using Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on different lines, the center on Kessel’s line had to be better than Riley Sheahan.
That balance is ground zero of Sullivan’s plan. Having Brassard facilitates.
It also seems more likely Hunwick will close the gap on Cole’s level of play than it did Sheahan would provide proper service for Kessel.
The Brassard trade solidifies a few realities: The Penguins are a three-line team now. Sullivan talks about rolling four lines, but why do that? The fourth line will see limited use — as it did before the trade — and will be primarily used to store penalty-killers like Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl.
Certain situations will dictate greater use for the fourth line: routs and meaningless late-season games. But mostly, the Penguins will use three lines.
The Penguins will primarily use four defensemen come playoff time: Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz. Many teams use that philosophy in the postseason, notably Nashville last spring.
Injuries on defense could give the Penguins trouble, but that applies to all teams at all positions.
The Penguins survived Letang’s absence in last year’s playoffs thanks to late acquisition Ron Hainsey playing above expectations. If it’s necessary, maybe Hunwick can do the same. Hunwick averaged almost 26 minutes for Toronto in the 2017 postseason. He’s proven capable before.
Somebody can kill (and is killing) penalties in Cole’s place. Shot-blocking is more organic. Better puck management will put a dent in all problems. Bad puck management has been, by far, the Penguins’ biggest recent shortcoming.
Sullivan’s Plan A is a good one. Three lines scoring won the Stanley Cup in 2016. H-B-K! H-B-K! Do you still have your T-shirt?
But a solid plan B is available.
The Penguins could put Malkin and Kessel on the same line. That helped win the Stanley Cup in 2017.
Sullivan could then assemble a third line of Brassard, Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist. Hagelin’s speed, Hornqvist’s nastiness and Brassard’s all-around quality would make that a tough line to play against. Sullivan could match that trio against the opposition’s first line and give it fits.
Don’t do it now. Hagelin and Hornqvist have helped make Malkin into the league’s hottest goal-scorer.
But it’s a good arrow for Sullivan’s quiver. A lot can (and will) happen between now and a third straight Stanley Cup.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).