Penguins Right to Move on From Brassard & Sheahan

With the Pittsburgh Penguins barely clinging on to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, it was no surprise that general manager Jim Rutherford decided to make some changes. Of all the GMs in the NHL, Rutherford may have the quickest trigger finger when it comes to making trades. In July 2015, he traded for Phil Kessel in what was one of the biggest moves in franchise history, and it eventually resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.

In an effort to win a third straight Stanley Cup, the Penguins acquired Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard via separate trades. On Oct. 27, 2017, Sheahan and a fifth-round pick were sent to Pittsburgh from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Scott Wilson and a third-round pick.

A few months later, Brassard arrived in a three-way trade with the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights. In order to get Brassard, the Penguins shipped Ian Cole, Ryan Reaves, goaltending prospect Filip Gustavsson and three draft picks – a 2018 first and fourth-round pick and a 2019 third-round selection. The Penguins were eventually ousted by the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs.

After giving away so many assets for the two centers, the Penguins had big expectations for both Brassard and Sheahan, but the experiment has undoubtedly failed. On Feb. 1, the Penguins shipped both players and three draft picks away to the Florida Panthers in exchange for forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Brassard Failed to Meet Expectations

Considering the laundry list the Penguins shipped away in order to acquire the former 2006 sixth-overall pick, Brassard arrived in Pittsburgh with high expectations. He was supposed to finally be the player to fill the third-line center role that had been a revolving door since the departure of Jordan Staal in 2012. The good news was that he would be overshadowed by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so no one was expecting him to put up huge numbers.

Penguins center Derick Brassard
Derick Brassard struggled to meet expectations ever since being traded to the Penguins (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

In the three and a half seasons before Brassard arrived in Pittsburgh, he had 226 points (92 goals, 134 assists) in 342 games with the Senators and New York Rangers, which put him right around 0.66 points-per-game with a plus-37 rating. As the third-line center, the Penguins likely expected him to be a 50-point producer and continue his solid defensive ways. Unfortunately, Brassard was merely invisible offensively and struggled immensely in his own end, which has caused trade rumors to swirl for weeks.

In 66 games with the Penguins, Brassard only managed 27 points with a minus-six rating. One of the other problems was that he never fit into the team’s plans on special teams. In his final three seasons with the Rangers, he combined for 58 power play points, but with the star power on the Penguins’ roster, he was only used as a cog on the second unit. With a lack of penalty killing ability, which is something most teams count on from their bottom-six forwards, he simply never fit into the Penguins’ system. He only managed one power-play goal during his time in Pittsburgh.

Sheahan’s Struggles Too Obvious to Ignore

When Sheahan arrived to Pittsburgh, his expectations were far lower than with the eventual arrival of Brassard. Some assumed that he was the long-term solution to be the third-line center for the Penguins, but after the Brassard trade it was clear that Sheahan was meant to be a fourth-line staple. Last season, he played great for the Penguins. In 73 games, he had 32 points to go along with a plus-four rating.

Riley Sheahan Penguins
Riley Sheahan was effective in his initial season with the Penguins, but has been underwhelming thus far in 2018-19 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season however, he was a glaring disappointment. Just a season removed from averaging nearly a point every two games and a career-high 54.4 face-off percentage, Sheahan has only nine points, a minus-seven rating and a 49.2 face-off percentage in 49 games. The Penguins’ bottom-six has been a mess all season, and it’s no surprise he was added to the deal to bring in Bjugstad and McCann given his poor performance this season. Sheahan will certainly get more ice time in Florida, but the time was right for him and the Penguins to part ways.

Bjugstad, McCann Bring Youth, Better Contracts

One of the best parts of this trade for the Penguins is that they will get a little younger. Brassard, 31, and Sheahan, 27, are by no means old, but shipping them to the Panthers in exchange for Bjugstad and McCann – who are 26 and 22, respectively – will bring some youth to a roster that has six players who are 30-plus years old. In a league that seems to get younger and faster every season, it’s never a bad option to swap two older players for two younger players when the talent levels are comparable.

Nick Bjugstad, Florida Panthers
Nick Bjugstad will bring youth and versatility to a Penguins lineup desperate for both (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Both Bjugstad and McCann are signed through 2019-20 as well, which is huge considering that Brassard and Sheahan are signed to contracts that expire at the end of this season. No salary was retained either way in the trade, and the cap hits are similar as a whole, but considering the Penguins were unlikely to re-sign Brassard at season’s end, the contract situation is a huge win.

Finally, Bjugstad and McCann bring some needed versatility to the lineup. Head coach Mike Sullivan tried to put Brassard on the first line with Crosby at times, but he was never too successful in that role. Same goes with Sheahan, as he only found success in the middle. Both Bjugstad and McCann can play center or wing. In fact, Bjugstad has had arguably the most success in his career playing on the wing with Aleksander Barkov as center. Perhaps a future on the Penguins’ top line alongside Crosby and Jake Guentzel, who has been stellar this season, is a possibility.

With Brassard and Sheahan both struggling, Rutherford got fantastic value by acquiring both Bjugstad and McCann. Only time will tell who wins this trade in the long run, but at first glance it appears the Penguins are setting themselves up well for another championship run.