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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Penguins should hope they never see Derick Brassard's greatest value

| Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, 6:57 p.m.
The Penguins' Derick Brassard collides with the Devils' Miles Wood in the first period Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
The Penguins' Derick Brassard collides with the Devils' Miles Wood in the first period Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

Derick Brassard finally made his Penguins debut Tuesday night. Ever since the trade from Ottawa, he was cooped up in Toronto near the airport, waiting for immigration red tape to work itself out.

Just sitting there, waiting for word from the government that he could leave the hotel and fly out of the country. Like he was a member of Pablo Escobar's family in Season 2 of “Narcos” or something.

Was he going stir crazy?

“Yeah. A little bit. Close,” Brassard said with a laugh on his first day in Pittsburgh.

Now that Brassard is here, Penguin fans expect to see all of the reasons why he was acquired.

• He's offensively gifted enough to pilot a talented third line.

• He'll be pesky enough to occasionally get other players off their games.

• He'll be responsible defensively.

• He'll play his best in the playoffs.

Brassard should help in all of those areas. And because they didn't immediately manifest after game one, some were fretting right away about “disrupted chemistry.”

Patience.

Besides, Brassard's best attribute is something Penguins fans hope they never see: He's insurance against injury for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

OK, before you read these next few sentences, find the closest piece of wood and start knocking on it.

Because it should be pointed out that part of the reason the Penguins are back in playoff position again is that their star players have remained remarkably healthy.

That has rarely been the case over the years.

Crosby and Phil Kessel have yet to miss a game. Kris Letang has only missed three. Malkin has been absent for just four. Even Olli Maatta, with his star crossed injury history, is 64 for 64.

If Crosby or Malkin get hurt in the playoffs though — and depending at what specific point in the postseason — the Penguins' chances of winning a third consecutive Stanley Cup will be severely damaged.

If that were to have occurred prior to Brassard's arrival, those hopes would have been irreparably harmed.

“I think the fact that we have as many centers as we have at this point strengthens our team and gives us the versatility that we need,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Derick is a guy that can ‘play-up' if we had to. I think that he brings that element to our team that maybe we didn't have before we acquired him.”

None of this commentary is to minimize the efforts of Riley Sheahan since he came to town in late October. He's been very good since Jim Rutherford picked him up from Detroit. But Sheahan was probably already “playing up” when he was centering the third line.

Or at least playing where he comfortably should, and no higher.

“You can have some fourth-line centers that play a lot of minutes and they are heavily relied on,” Sheahan said the day before Brassard was acquired. “Whatever role I find myself in, I'll try to help as much as I can.”

Should Malkin or Crosby go down for any length of time though, or even to finish out a game, Brassard is better suited to fill that role and eat up that extended ice time than Sheahan is. Brassard has totaled between 38-60 points in every season since the lockout of 2012-'13. Sheahan's career high is 36 points in 2014-'15.

Brassard could also be elevated into a power-play role given those circumstances. Sheahan may as well. But probably in more of a net-front presence than one of the perimeter spots Malkin or Crosby tend to absorb and would yield to Brassard.

“I'm ready to play a lot of minutes,” Brassard said. “I'll play wherever they are going to put me. I know there are a lot of good centers. Riley is a really good two-way centerman. Really good on faceoffs. We are really good at that position. Whatever the coaches decide, I'll do whatever.”

Odds are if Crosby or Malkin get hurt for most of the playoffs, or even a full series, the Penguins will probably get knocked out. Although in an effort to close out a best-of-seven series where they were up before one of the superstars got hurt, or to stay afloat while one of those players heals, Brassard can make that happen as a second-line center.

Flashback to last year's series against Washington. The Penguins were up 2-0 when Crosby got concussed by Matt Niskanen. Fortunately, Crosby only missed the remainder of Game 3 and all of Game 4, and the Penguins survived.

What if that hit ended up being as bad as we initially thought? What if that scenario were to be replicated this year?

Penguins fans should feel better knowing Brassard is here to do more of that heavy lifting for any stretch when No. 87 or No. 71 may get sidelined.

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.

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