The Penguins were willing to pay the price to bolster their bottom six and rid themselves of the mistake that has been Derick Brassard as their third-line center, and GM Jim Rutherford made as much clear by orchestrating a four-player, seven-piece deal with the Florida Panthers that has retooled Pittsburgh's forward group in an instant.
On Friday afternoon, the Penguins announced that they have moved Brassard, 31, and fourth-line center Riley Sheahan, 27, to the Panthers in exchange for forwards Nick Bjugstad, 26, and Jared McCann, 22. To sweeten the pot and push the deal through, Pittsburgh also sent their 2019 second-round and fourth-round selections to Florida, as well as another 2019 fourth-round selection formerly belonging to the Minnesota Wild. As for salary, the Penguins incurred an additional $250,000 in cap hits in the swap.
The big question facing Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the swap is what it means for their lineup and where Bjugstad slots in. Though he’s played center in the past — and his faceoff winning percentage was trumpeted in the Penguins’ official post-trade statement — he has spent the majority of the past three seasons playing on the wing and ranked fifth in total faceoffs in Florida this season. It should be noted, too, that Bjugstad’s career-best 49-point campaign came in 2017-18 in which his common linemates were Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov. That would suggest that if Pittsburgh is looking to get the most out of Bjugstad in terms of offensive production, he’s best suited to a top-six role alongside either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
Bjugstad could be quite the fit on a line with Crosby, too. While there’s no sense in breaking up Crosby’s pairing with Jake Guentzel, Bjugstad’s size could make him a great puck-retrieving fit on that line. At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, he has the frame to be a highly effective power forward with a distributor such as Crosby. Finding a way to tap into Bjugstad’s potential could make this deal look like a steal for Pittsburgh in hindsight, and the change of scenery could provide Bjugstad, who has just five goals and 12 points in 32 games this season, with just the spark he needs.
As for McCann, it’s evident that the Penguins’ hope is he will be a much better fit on the Penguins’ third line than Brassard, whose tenure was largely characterized by an inability to maintain the level of production he had previously seen and highlighted — or low-lighted, whichever you prefer — by his point-per-game production dipping to a career-low rate this season. Simply put, he wasn’t the third-line fit that Pittsburgh had expected he could be, and the disappointment in his play led to consistent trade chatter.
In terms of production, McCann and Brassard have been awfully similar this season, too. In 46 games with the Panthers, McCann has managed eight goals and 18 points, while Brassard put up nine goals and 15 points in 40 games with the Penguins. That said, underlying numbers this season lean in McCann’s favor. Though he has had more favorable zone starts, McCann possesses a better relative Corsi percentage, relative goals for percentage and relative expected goals for percentage while facing a similar level of competition.
There’s also some future implications here for Pittsburgh. With Brassard set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end — one the Penguins were never going to re-sign even if he had remained with the club through the deadline — and Sheahan likewise free to hit the open market this summer, bringing in Bjugstad and McCann affords Pittsburgh a level of stability that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Bjugstad’s contract, which carries a $4.1-million cap hit, is on the books through the 2020-21 campaign, while McCann’s contract, and $1.25-million cap hit, ends following the 2019-20 season, at which time he becomes a restricted free agent.
In getting a possible boost offensively through Bjugstad and a potential improvement as far as fit on the third line in McCann, the Penguins have addressed two needs ahead of the deadline, and the only true loss for Pittsburgh is a smidgen of salary flexibility and three additional darts to throw at the board come draft day. Yes, some will suggest moving the draft choices hurts the Penguins’ long-term prospects, but if it hasn’t been clear before it most certainly should be now that Pittsburgh is more than willing to continue to mortgage the future for as long as Crosby and Malkin can keep the Penguins’ Stanley Cup window pried open.
One might have noted by now that not much has been said about what acquiring Brassard or Sheahan means for the Panthers. That’s because the deal isn’t one made for the present, but the future, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that one or both of Brassard and Sheahan could be moved on again before the deadline hits.
What Florida was truly seeking in moving out Bjugstad and McCann — and what they got in adding two expiring contracts — was cap flexibility moving forward. The Panthers have on several occasions been mentioned as a club with interest in pursuing top free agents this summer, including current Columbus Blue Jackets winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. By moving out $5.35 million that was set to count against the cap next season, Florida has increased their available cap space for next summer’s signing season to more than $21 million, according to CapFriendly. Florida is flush with the kind of cap space they’ll most certainly need to pursue one, if not both, of Panarin and Bobrovsky, if they so choose. And that, as well as adding some extra picks, is the goal here for the Panthers: nab the best players possible this summer and add to a core that includes Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad in hopes of taking a long-awaited step towards perennial contention.
Overall, is it an overpay by the Penguins? Maybe. But it’s one Rutherford and Co. have executed in hopes of shaking their team up and propelling a still-dangerous group to great heights once again. It’s a move for the now with only a dash of consideration given to the future. For the Panthers, it’s the opposite. It’s a deal done with the bigger picture in mind — and that picture will likely become all the more clear once the summer signing season begins, if not sooner.