The New York Islanders had one of the more surprising seasons in the league last year after losing John Tavares, especially the leap they made on defense and with goaltending, leading them to a playoff berth and surprise playoff sweep of the Penguins. However, they didn’t quite fill the Tavares void completely, as center depth remained an issue for them. To attempt to solve that, they went out and signed former Ranger Derick Brassard to a 1-year, $1.2 million dollar contract. For the value, it certainly looks like a good deal. However, he is coming off his worst year from an assist perspective (only 9), and had 14 goals, which isn’t terrible, but is also low for him as well. Can the Islanders rebirth him? The coaching is there, but it will be tough to tell, and here are some reasons why.
First of all, those 9 assists last year is a problem for a guy that plays mostly as a center. While he did play for 3 different teams last year (Penguins, Panthers, Avalanche), and the travel lag and the suddenness of being traded twice could have gotten to him, those teams definitely have the offensive depth to help him get those assist totals higher. Another stat to further that is that with the Avalanche in the around 3 months he was there, Brassard only had 1 total assist, which was in Game 6 of their playoff series against the Sharks. Mike Sullivan has always been good at finding young players to fit his system in Pittsburgh, the Panthers are loaded with young offensive depth despite Vincent Trocheck having a down year last year, and the Avalanche had a good amount of it too that helped them succeed in the playoffs the way they did as an 8 seed. The Islanders don’t have that same offensive depth, and that could be worrisome as a second line center. Anders Lee, Matthew Barzal, and Jordan Eberle are definitely nice pieces, but odds are they will be Top 6 options while Brassard probably will be a 3rd line center. And while Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson did over-perform last season, Islanders fans know those two are notoriously streaky players throughout the season as well as season-to-season, so it is possible they could be due for a letdown year. Also, for an Islanders team that was 3rd worst in faceoff percentage at 47.4%, somebody like Brassard doesn’t help there either. Brassard is a career 45.4% at faceoffs and has only had 2 seasons where he has been 50% or better. Granted, those were pretty recently (2015-16 and 2016-17), but it still is a small sample size in comparison to the rest of his career. Those factors don’t bode well statistically for somebody like Brassard, who is also now 31 years old and definitely has lost some speed.
However, I don’t think it is a completely hopeless signing either, especially for the money amount that it was. If it doesn’t work, it is definitely a movable contract if the Islanders aren’t contending, or if he struggles for the factors I listed above. However, the Islanders have something better than the 3 teams he played for last year, and that is better coaching with Barry Trotz. Trotz did a great job last year rebirthing a lot of players that looked like they were either done or going to stay at a lower level for the rest of their career. Granted, most of that was with the defensive system, but it was also guys like Brock Nelson, Ryan Pulock, and Casey Cizikas as well. All three had very good point-scoring seasons in Trotz’s system, and only Nelson played on occasion on a line with Matthew Barzal, which shows how effective the system can be even for offense. Therefore, you can definitely trust him to do the same with Brassard, who has had several coaching changes in his career as he has bumped around teams. Brassard played with 3 different head coaches with the Blue Jackets, and did best with Scott Arniel in 2010-12 before getting traded to the Rangers. He had one season with 17 goals and 30 assists and another with 14 goals and 27 assists, which isn’t bad for a second or third line center on a team that was pretty bad at that time. In his first year with the Rangers in Alain Vigneault’s system he had 18 goals and 27 assists in 2013-14, and then took even bigger leaps after that with 19 goals and 41 assists in 2014-15 and then 27 goals and 31 assists in 2015-16. When he first started with the Penguins in 2017-18, he had 3 goals and 5 assists in 14 games, which isn’t too bad for that stretch, especially with several guys hurt on the team at that time. Therefore, the potential to be a spark plug in his first year with the Islanders is definitely there, especially since Barry Trotz is a better coach than any of the coaches listed in this paragraph.
The other primary benefit could be if the Islanders are contending for the playoffs again, Derick Brassard has been a good playoff player. He had several clutch goals for the Rangers in his career there, and also had one with the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins as well in second round series. Statistically, he has been very good as well, which could give a young Islanders team a boost as well. He had 12 points (2 goals, 10 assists) in 12 games for the Rangers in 2012-13, and had 12 points in 23 games the following year when the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup, including 6 goals and 2 game-winning goals. The following year when the Rangers lost to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals, Brassard had 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in 19 games. In his first season with Ottawa, he had 4 goals and 7 assists in 19 playoff games playing as a 2nd or 3rd line center. His veteran presence and success both statistically and skill wise could definitely be a boost for an Islanders team that made a statement sweeping the Penguins in the first round last year, so if the Islanders keep contending, don’t be surprised if he is one of their best playoff players. Not to mention, having experience with the Rangers, he is definitely prepared for the pressure of playing in New York too.
Overall, I am worried about Brassard based on what he did last year, especially with the Avalanche. However, I don’t think it could be any worse than it was last year in the assist column. However, if the Islanders want to take that next step and possibly win the Metropolitan Division and go further in the playoffs, they are going to need Brassard to double or maybe triple those assist totals. It is a bargain move getting him for the money they did, so it won’t hurt them financially if he struggles. Will he succeed there is another question though. I will give it a chance with Barry Trotz and Lou Lamariello there making the decisions, but still will be tough to tell if he can make the leap and be the truly impactful second line center that the Islanders need to be a Stanley Cup contending team again. If last year was an anomaly, the Islanders will get something good, especially if he is good in the playoffs. Otherwise, who knows, he might just get moved again.
Kyle Kloiber, @2Kgmenrule1080 on Twitter
Brassard with Rangers- Rick Carpiniello, USA Today Sports
Brassard with Penguins- Matt Di Giacomo, Elite Sports NY