Grove: Kessel; Brassard Line Needs To Produce

West Coast trip could decide Brassard's fate in Pittsburgh

Bob Grove
January 11, 2019 - 10:49 am

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - The Penguins have every right to feel good about themselves as they begin a five-game West Coast road trip tonight in Anaheim. They’ve not only won nine of their last 10 games but 17 of their last 24, and since Thanksgiving they have more points than every team but Vegas and Tampa Bay.

Matt Murray has been unbeaten since returning from injury and is making his job look easy, providing his teammates a healthy level of confidence every night. The Penguins’ five-on-five production has continued to be a strength, their 108 goals just eight fewer than league-leading Tampa Bay. Their special teams have been consistently good, the Sidney Crosby line has been dominant and the addition of Marcus Pettersson has given their defensive depth a whole different look – with Justin Schultz likely returning in a few weeks.

But this road trip may provide an important perspective on the one piece of Pittsburgh’s game that is not pulling its weight – the production of center Derick Brassard and right wing Phil Kessel together on coach Mike Sullivan’s third line. And, yes, this is an important piece for GM Jim Rutherford, who believes Kessel on a productive third line is the Penguins’ best recipe for playoff success.

This trip includes intriguing let’s-see-where-we-are matchups against red-hot San Jose and Vegas, and when it’s over Pittsburgh will have only 14 games remaining before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. If the Brassard-Kessel pairing doesn’t start trending upward while playing with left wing Tanner Pearson, Rutherford may be inclined to move Brassard, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Over the past nine games, Sullivan’s top three lines have all stayed intact with a one-game exception when Bryan Rust missed the New Year’s Eve game in Minnesota. Over those nine games, Kessel has just 16 even-strength shots and only one even-strength goal. That came in the aforementioned Dec. 31 game, during which he played almost the entire night with Brassard but scored the goal while taking a shift with Crosby.

More alarming is this: over these nine games, Brassard doesn’t have a single even-strength assist and, in fact, hasn’t set up a single Kessel goal in the 14 games they’ve started together this season. Brassard has one assist on a Kessel goal this season, a second assist in a 9-1 victory at Calgary Oct. 25 when he was on the ice with Malkin.

Brassard and Kessel aren’t going to impact the team away from the puck. They’ve got to make a difference on the scoresheet together, and thus far this season it hasn’t happened.

These two will have started 19 games together this season if they remain as linemates on this long road trip. If the production doesn’t happen over the next 10 days, either, it’s hard to see how the Penguins can believe those two will find the magic later.  

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