Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

***

As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.