Tim Benz: Derick Brassard breaking through for Penguins
Take a 4-3 rush end. Now put him on a 3-4 team and have him drop in coverage as an outside linebacker.
Picture a kid transferring from Syracuse’s 2-3 zone to West Virginia’s press.
Or maybe a baseball player switching parks and moving from center field to a corner spot.
Dramatic transitions in style or position aren’t always smooth. But good players eventually make them work.
Such has been the case for Penguins center Derick Brassard.
So much was made of Brassard’s acquisition. But when he didn’t score a hat trick in his debut or instantly click with Phil Kessel to help form HBK 2.0, some Penguins fans quickly wondered if they were sold a false bill of goods.
The haul Ottawa got for Brassard, including the eventual spin of popular defenseman Ian Cole to Columbus on the third wheel of that trade, didn’t help. Neither did Cole’s instant impact with the Blue Jackets and their subsequent 10-game win streak. All the while, the Penguins have been largely up and down since the deadline.
But Cole’s is the perfect example of an easier stylistic transition. His shot blocking and sturdy play in his own end mesh perfectly with a John Tortorella-coached team. He should fit hand-in-glove there.
Brassard coming here from Ottawa is a different story. We saw the Senators’ approach of turning defense into offense with trapping from the neutral zone give the Penguins fits in the Eastern Conference finals.
That’s not how the Pens operate, with so much more of their game predicated on speed, scoring on the rush and individual offensive creativity.
It’s a switch Brassard has admitted struggling with.
In a Penguins.com piece authored earlier this month by Trib columnist Mark Madden , Brassard admitted a struggle with reminding himself to move his feet and to embrace the mentality of making plays instead of concentrating on defense first.
Brassard also recently spoke to his need to get his legs going and keep up with the Penguins’ pace of play.
Then there’s the challenge of meshing with Phil Kessel — something even a great player like Sidney Crosby couldn’t figure out how to do.
Plus, given the depth of scoring on the Penguins, Brassard doesn’t get power-play time until the second unit comes on.
As a result, Brassard had just one goal and one assist in his first seven games with the Penguins. Since then, he has been on a six-game point streak. His goal against Montreal last week was the winner. He added a first-period tally Sunday against Philadelphia.
The goal against the Flyers exemplified Brassard’s statement that he is catching on to the creativity with which the Penguins play. Conor Sheary flipped a gorgeous aerial lead pass to Brassard through traffic, and Brassard finished.
It was also an indication he is figuring out the characteristics of his teammates.
“Feeling better. Those shifts, those reps help everyday,” Brassard said Sunday. “With Conor’s speed, he is always hunting pucks. He is really hard on the forecheck. And we all know the talent of Phil with the puck. So it is going well right now.”
It’s clear the Penguins coaching staff never was leary of Brassard after his slow start. In fact, Mike Sullivan suggested perhaps one issue facing Brassard initially was he wasn’t getting enough ice time.
“I’d quite honestly like to find him more minutes in the game, just because I think he’s that good of a player,” Sullivan said last week. “When he is playing in that third-line center role, it’s hard to get him more minutes.”
Given the presence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in front of him on the depth chart, volume scoring chances for Brassard are scarce. He’s getting about three minutes less ice time per game than with the Senators. Sullivan suggested using Brassard on the penalty kill more often might help.
“He’s a real smart player,” continued Sullivan. “I think he understands how we are trying to play. I think he’s comfortable. I think he is more comfortable with his teammates and with the situations we are trying to put him in.”
Remember when Marian Hossa came to Pittsburgh? That didn’t exactly start fast either. Between injury and finding comfort on the roster, Hossa had just three regular-season goals between the trade deadline acquisition and the start of the playoffs.
In the 2008 postseason, he tallied 12 goals and 26 points in 20 games.
No one is asking that kind of production from Brassard when the playoffs hit in 2018. But expect an uptick as he gains familiarity.
Patience paid off with Hossa. It will with Brassard as well. The Penguins are just scratching the surface of what he can add.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.