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Penguins

Tim Benz: Is playing wing for Penguins the answer for Derick Brassard?

| Wednesday, May 9, 2018, 8:21 p.m.
Center Derick Brassard, acquired by the Penguins via trade at last season's deadline, was slowed by a lower-body injury down the stretch.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Center Derick Brassard, acquired by the Penguins via trade at last season's deadline, was slowed by a lower-body injury down the stretch.
The Penguins' Derick Brassard looks to shoot during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Derick Brassard looks to shoot during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 3, 2018.

He stunk. There's no nice way to put it.

When James Neal was traded to the Penguins from Dallas in 2011, he stunk. Just two goals and six assists in 27 games after the deal.

Then he scored 40 goals the next season.

My gut says that is exactly what will happen with Derick Brassard next year. Like Neal, he's a good player with a proven track record who had trouble fitting into a new environment.

"I think it's a big adjustment when you go to a new team, a new system," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said on Wednesday. "Any guy that goes through that, there is an adjustment time frame."

Injury was also a factor. Following a slow start, Brassard appeared to click with a six-game point streak in mid-March. Then he got hurt March 27, and he missed the final five regular-season games.

Brassard, general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan all revealed Wednesday that Brassard's still-undisclosed injury lingered — and at times got worse — during a postseason which saw him score just once in 12 games.

Brassard intimated the ailment won't require surgery, but perhaps he pushed too hard and attempted to come back too quickly.

"He played with an injury that is very difficult to play with," said Rutherford. "It made it difficult for him to play the way he is capable."

In the case of Neal, he got two healthy centers back after playing without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for much of his first year in town. In the case of Brassard, maybe his own health will be key.

But then there is the question of "role." This is the part that I don't see magically fixing itself.

On three separate occasions during a nine-minute exit interview with media Wednesday, Brassard made reference to willingly "accepting his role" as the third-line center behind Malkin and Crosby.

He also suggested adjusting to that new role was part of the reason for his lack of productivity. Sullivan concurred.

"It affects ice time," Sullivan said. "He's not on our first power play. On most teams that he has played on, he's been on the first power play or got significant time on their second power play. The way this team operates, our first power play gets the predominant time."

Understood.

Here's the thing: that isn't changing. Unless Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel or Patric Hornqvist are traded, Brassard won't be contributing much on man-up situations.

If it's volume of opportunities Brassard needs to show his talents, when will that come? Even at even-strength, Crosby and Malkin are more likely to get longer shifts and better complementary wingers.

An option is to play Brassard on a wing more often. That's something he and Sullivan said was pondered this year and might be an option next season.

The Penguins might then be guilty of robbing Peter to pay Paul because Brassard's initial job was to add center depth.

Brassard was acquired to answer questions, not create them. All those uncertainties will disappear if he does have a Neal-esque awakening in his second season with the Penguins.

The path to those answers, however, is still unclear.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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