Jim Rutherford got his third-line center. And he’s just as surprised as anyone that he made it work.
“I’ve been asked by different people are we in on [Derick] Brassard, and the answer’s always been no, because we really didn’t think we could figure out how to fit him into the cap,” the Penguins GM said. “It’s come up the last three or four days, and it really heated up yesterday.”
Even after it was done, it was heating up — on social media and on the NHL’s phone line. Because, as it turned out, it wasn’t done. The league rejected the three-way deal between the Penguins, Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights, and it was back to the drawing board for Rutherford and counterparts Pierre Dorion and George McPhee.
“This was the most complex trade I’ve made,” Rutherford said. “We thought we had the deal made earlier in the day; it wasn’t made. We had to make a couple of changes, so it took quite a bit longer than most. There [were] cap issues and how it was made with the three teams, which moves went first and things like that.”
It made for a surreal atmosphere as the Penguins prepared to face the Carolina Hurricanes Friday night, a game they ended up winning, 6-1.
“It’s been kind of a weird day with how everything worked out,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We all saw the reports and things like that but, as far as we knew coming to the rink, the deal hadn’t gone through. There was a lot of stuff still up in the air. It’s part of being a hockey player, it’s what you sign up for, but I don’t think you ever get used to that.”
In the end, the deal looked like this:
Pittsburgh got Brassard, a 2018 third-round draft pick and prospect forward Vince Dunn from the Senators, and prospect forward Tobias Lindberg from the Golden Knights.
Ottawa got defenseman Ian Cole, top goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, and 2018 first-round and 2019 third-round draft picks from the Penguins.
Vegas got forward Ryan Reaves and Vancouver’s 2018 fourth-round draft pick from the Penguins, and agreed to retain 40 percent ($2M) of Brassard’s $5 million salary. He’s signed through the 2018-19 season.
“We gave up a lot,” Rutherford said. “But a lot of things that we gave up are futures, and our mandate is to win now. So we can hang onto those futures and they can probably help three or four years down the road, but what we’re trying to do now is win and put the best team out there to give us the best chance. And this deal gives us the best chance.”
Why did the Penguins hone in on Brassard?
“Why not?” Rutherford smiled. “Have you seen him play?
“He’s got 18 goals, 38 points, plays center. We’ve tried to get more depth at center and get more insurance there. Our centers have played pretty well, but you’ve got to have a lot of strength at center. We just felt, when we had the chance to get a guy like this, this is a good addition.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan thinks so, too.
“I coached him for a period of time with the Rangers when I was there,” Sullivan said. “He’s a terrific kid; he’s a real good person. I think he’ll fit into our locker room extremely well, and he’s a real good player. He’s a good 200-foot centericeman. He’s got an offensive dimension to his game and he’s good defensively. We’re excited to have him; we think he’s certainly going to make our team better.”
Vegas’ motivation to retain Brassard’s salary is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the deal. It was less about helping the Penguins than trying to keep the Winnipeg Jets from acquiring a player who’s been dubbed “Big Game Brass” while scoring double digits in four of his five postseasons.
So my question…why would Vegas take money on Brassard and help Pittsburgh? It appears otherwise, Brassard was heading to a western team, VGK got involved to keep him in the east. As I was told “Better to face him in round 4 than 2.”
If Vegas GM McPhee has gone from his original plan of building for the future to contemplating the Stanley Cup Final for his Western Conference-leading Knights, he’s got company in Pittsburgh. The difference is, for the Penguins, a third consecutive Stanley Cup has been the only measure of a successful season from the start.
That’s why Rutherford had to part with Cole, a reliable defenseman who will be flipped by Ottawa to a playoff team he can help before he hits unrestricted free agency this summer.
“Ian Cole was a good player here for us for a long time, and he helped us win two Stanley Cups,” Rutherford said. “It’s been an up-and-down year for him; he’s been in and out of the lineup. He’s handled it like a great pro. And I really thought that when he went back in the lineup [Jan. 25] that he was probably here to stay this year.
“But, when you start breaking these deals down and you’ve got to figure out the cap and what teams will take back, [he] was one of the guys who had to go in the deal.”
The Penguins might be stronger at center, but they’re weaker on the blue line without Cole. Offseason acquisition Matt Hunwick hasn’t been as effective for Pittsburgh as he was in Toronto, and was scratched for nine games recently as Cole surpassed him on the depth chart. Hunwick has been better in the three games since he’s returned to the lineup, but the Penguins would figure to be happier with him and Chad Ruhwedel as No. 7 and 8 depth options than in their top six.
Rutherford said he’ll look at options before Monday’s trade deadline, but doesn’t feel any pressure to add to his defense.
“It’s not as good when you take an Ian Cole out,” he said. “But when you look at the seven guys here, we like them a lot. And we have some guys, albeit it a few of them are hurt, down in (AHL) Wilkes-Barre, but our organization feels pretty strong that we have probably three or four guys there that can come in and play. So we’re comfortable with doing this.”
The Penguins also parted with Reaves, who cost them a No. 1 draft pick and prospect Oskar Sundqvist last summer. Widely considered the league’s top enforcer, Reaves was acquired to help protect the Penguins’ star players but also proved to be a competent fourth-liner when in the lineup, contributing a few points (4G, 4A) in his 58 games.
“Yeah, it was [hard], because we made a big deal to get him,” Rutherford said. “He did exactly what we wanted him to do. He always kept the games calm, and I really felt he was playing his best hockey for us the last two or three weeks. But that was a player one of these teams insisted on having, so we had to do it.”
Brassard, 30, has 55 points (22G, 33A) in 78 career playoff games, and the Penguins have seen a lot of him over the past four postseasons. Brassard faced Pittsburgh as a member of the New York Rangers in 2014, 15 and 16, then with the Senators in 2017, and he’s racked up 15 points (9G, 6A) in those 24 contests against his new team.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist. “He can play both sides of the puck, he’s good on the power play, he’s good down low in our end, too. He’s a 200-foot guy, and he’s going to fit really well in this room.
“Obviously we’re going for it, and that’s the kind of organization you want to play for, [that] always tries to get better. That’s what we try to do every day we’re on the ice, too; we try to improve. Now management steps up and gets us a good player. But, still, a long way to go.”