Derick Brassard learning from the best in second season with Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins centre Derick Brassard (19) celebrates as he returns to the bench after scoring against the Philadelphia Flyers. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

I remember spending a lot of time with Derick Brassard in his draft year—I was actually sitting in a seat behind his family at the draft in 2006. Back then, he didn’t have tremendous confidence in English in an interview but he wasn’t short of confidence when it came to his game. He said that he wanted to be a first-line centre for a Stanley Cup contending team. And when the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Brassard sixth overall, they projected his floor as a second-line centre.

If you had told Brassard back then that he was eventually going to be playing behind two centres in what should be his prime, I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken it well. But that’s exactly how it played out last season when the Ottawa Senators, deep in their swoon, traded Brassard to Pittsburgh.

“I mean, how could I complain about playing behind two centres when they’re the two best centres in the league?” Brassard told me in Pittsburgh at the start of the regular season.

When Penguins traded for Brassard last February, it looked like a move that contenders make to raise their chances of a deep run. Adding depth. At least it looked like that on the surface. But really, a team with two Hall of Fame centres in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin adding a skilled third talent down the middle?

“I saw a trade coming but I didn’t see a trade coming here,” Brassard said. “The direction things were going in with the Senators and the point I was at in my career I didn’t feel I wanted or needed to be in for rebuilding for three or four seasons or however long it might be. I just wanted a chance to win and go to the Cup final. The one year, we got to the final in New York—we had a great core group of guys and I thought that team had a chance to back there again, maybe win it all. That didn’t happen. And then in Ottawa we got to Game 7 of the Conference final a couple of years ago, a great push. But then last year it was clear we were heading a different way. So, I was excited to go to a contender…”

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Yeah, but what was the fit? A skilled centre. As responsible at both ends as he might be, for all his hockey sense, he just doesn’t play the heavy game you expect a third-line checking centre might. The design was a mystery.

Pittsburgh wound up running into the Caps in last spring, as they have so often, and for only the second time in the Crosby vs. Ovechkin era Washington prevailed in the post-season. A few hard-hearted critics drew a line between the Pens’ loss and the acquisition of Brassard. They didn’t cite him as a cause of the post-season disappointment, didn’t tag him as the goat or anything like that. They did suggest, however, that he wasn’t exactly the difference-maker as promised or at least supposed.

Suffice it to say, Brassard didn’t exactly thrive: three goals and five assists in 14 regular-season games and then just one goal and three assists in 12 playoff dates. That is, he wasn’t Butch Goring or anything. Sometimes the trades reap immediate payoff. Other times it requires a period of adjustment. And then there are the times when it just doesn’t come together at all.

Back at the start of his first full season with the Penguins, Brassard viewed it as the second possible outcome: Give it some time to adjust to a new setting. And learn.

“Before I came over last season I really didn’t know how hard Sid and Geno trained and how they prepared for games,” Brassard says. “That reflects on the rest of the team too. Everybody picks up on it. Like you’d expect. When I was playing in New York and in Ottawa we’d play those guys every year. We’d see them a lot… probably be out on the ice against one and watching the others. So, you have a good idea of what their games were like. And their teams were always good—it wasn’t a coincidence that they won those two years. You knew what they brought but it wasn’t until I got here that I understood how they did set the tone [for the team].”

“They’re always looking to elevate their game, but it’s not just about them,” Brassard added. “They’re really looking to make their team better. They pay attention to detail on the ice like no one else I’ve really been around. They establish the culture around the team. You know, you can be in the league 10 seasons but still learn. One hundred per cent I’ve gone to school on their game and it’s been a blast. I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re a 19- or 20-year-old kid walking into this room and seeing them—it’d be an eye-opener, like you went from high school to university. There’s not an age or amount of experience you can have when you can’t learn something about the game.”

And now the 31-year-old Brassard is a bit like the 19- or 20-year-old kid walking into the room. On the weekend in Montreal, coach Mike Sullivan moved Brassard off the third line and had him playing a new position, taking shifts on left wing beside Crosby and Jake Guentzel. If you’re going to be playing outside your comfort zone and try something new, you can’t ask for a better set-up. Where this goes and how long it lasts is anybody’s guess but for the moment Brassard seems enthusiastic about it.

“I just loved the experience,” Brassard told the Pittsburgh Tribune’s Jonathan Bombulie. “I think it’s going to (bring) the best out of me. I just can’t wait for tomorrow. I want to try it again, over and over. I’m really confident in my ability to see the ice and making sure I can give that puck to (Crosby) when he has open space, and the same thing for Jake.

“I think we can be an effective line. If we compete hard, if we work hard, I think our skill is going to take over and we’re going to have success.”

It’s a mid-career turn that last season well served a guy who sat with Brassard at the draft in ’06: His buddy and training partner, Claude Giroux, who had a career year in Philly after moving to the wing. If you’re never too old to learn, make sure you’re sitting close enough to look over the shoulder of kid with the highest marks in the class.

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