RALEIGH, N.C. — In the end, Jim Rutherford got his man.
The Penguins finally secured the third-line center they had been seeking for months, acquiring Derick Brassard, the top prize at the position on the NHL’s trade market, from the Senators on Friday in a remarkably complex three-team trade that sent Ian Cole to Ottawa, Ryan Reaves to Vegas and that, at one point, was rejected by the league because of concerns that it circumvented the salary cap.
• To Ottawa from the Penguins: Cole, goaltending prospect Filip Gustavsson and Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, as well as the third-round pick in 2019
• To the Penguins from Ottawa: Brassard, a third-round pick in 2018 and Vincent Dunn, a forward prospect
• To the Golden Knights from the Penguins: Reaves and a fourth-round pick in 2018 originally acquired from the Canucks
• To the Penguins from the Golden Knights: Tobias Lindberg, a forward prospect, plus retaining 40 percent of Brassard’s prorated $5 million salary this season, plus the same percentage and amount next season
Got all that?
Well, basically, it’s still about one player.
“We’ve tried to get more depth at center and get more insurance there,” Rutherford said late Friday night at PNC Arena after the Penguins’ 6-1 rout of the Hurricanes. “Our centers have played pretty well, but you’ve got to have a lot of strength at center and when we felt we had a chance to get a guy like this … this is a good addition.”
In 702 career games over 11 seasons, Brassard has 159 goals and 261 assists for 420 points to go along with 348 penalty minutes. Though he was a second-line center with the Senators, Brassard will slot in as Pittsburgh’s third-line center, with Riley Sheahan moving down to the fourth. Given Sheahan’s strong play of late, that will give the Penguins two solid centers behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Brassard has 18 goals and 38 points in 58 games this season (0.66 points per game) with the Senators. In 78 playoff games, Brassard has 22 goals and 55 points (0.71 points per game). In 24 playoff games against the Penguins, he had nine goals and six assists.
Rutherford called it “the most complex trade I’ve made,” and he had ample cause.
For one, the Penguins, Senators and Golden Knights had reached agreement early Friday, according to Rutherford, but the NHL, citing its collective bargaining agreement that fiercely protects the salary cap from both the owners’ and players’ perspectives denied the teams the right to proceed. The reason given, according to Canada’s TSN, was that it involved “improper use of salary retention mechanism.”
“We thought we had it done earlier,” Rutherford said. “We had to make a couple changes. There were cap issues and how the three teams lined up and who went first.”
That’s when Vegas’ involvement apparently heightened and, as would be discovered later, the Golden Knights had competitive reasons for doing so, hoping to keep the Jets from getting Brassard.
Winnipeg wasn’t alone in pursuing Brassard, as the Blue Jackets also were known to have been aggressive, and as many as eight other teams pursued.
For another complexity from Rutherford’s perspective, he doubted he could pull it off.
“This didn’t really come up until the last three or four days,” he said. “People kept asking if we’re in on Brassard, and the answer’s always been no. Because we really didn’t think we could figure out how to get him under the cap. It really heated up yesterday.”
Far more predictably, the Penguins’ price for Brassard was heavy.
Most notably, they parted ways with Cole, a solid defenseman on the past two Cup-winning teams. Cole, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, had been the subject of trade rumors for months. To pull off the trade, the Penguins had to clear cap space by dealing the 29-year-old, who was popular with teammates and fans. It remains to be seen if he’ll get that chance in Ottawa, as multiple reports from Canada’s capital suggested the Senators will try to trade Cole before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
“Ian was a good player for us here for a long time,” Rutherford said. “He helped us win two Stanley Cups. It’s been an up-and-down year for him. He’s been in and out of the lineup. He handled it like a great pro. And I really thought that, when he went back in the lineup, he was probably here to stay this year. But, you know, when you start breaking these deals down, you’ve got to figure out the cap and what teams will take back, it was one of the guys that had to go in the deal.”
Gustavsson was the Penguins’ second-round pick, 55th overall, in the 2016 NHL Draft. Most recently, he led Sweden to the gold-medal game in the World Junior Championship, earning top goaltender honors.
“We feel that Gustavsson is one of the game’s top goaltending prospects, a dynamic talent who has excelled in the Swedish Hockey League as a teenager and was the top goaltender at the most recent world junior championships. Ian Cole is a hard-nosed veteran defenseman who has a long pedigree of success, which includes two Stanley Cups.”
The Penguins thought so much of Reaves that they sent a first-round pick and center prospect Oskar Sundqvist to the Blues last summer to acquire his services. In 58 games this season, Reaves had four goals and 84 penalty minutes.
“He did exactly what we wanted him to do,” Rutherford said. “He kept games calm, and I really felt he was playing his best hockey for us the last three or four weeks.”
George McPhee, Vegas’ general manager, suggested Reaves will play a role in the playoffs, something that seemed uncertain with the Penguins.
“He gets around ice really well,”McPhee told reporters in Nevada. “We wouldn’t have done the transaction if we had any concerns about that. He was effective in St. Louis in the playoffs last year. He just didn’t get to play as much in Pittsburgh.”
Here’s more of the reaction from the Penguins, including Rutherford and Mike Sullivan, after the game:
For much more coverage on the trade, check our Penguins team page.