Brassard was first class

Zucc's Back: A happy Mats Zuccarello gets congrats from Derick Brassard for one of his two goals in the Rangers' 5-4 win over the Leafs.  The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

In better times,  Mats Zuccarello celebrates a goal with Derick Brassard as cohesive teammates who made the Rangers fun to watch.
The Canadian Press by Frank Gunn

Whenever a good player gets traded, it’s emotional for both teammates and fans. Take the captain for captain trade at the 2014 deadline that sent Ryan Callahan to Tampa for Martin St. Louis. Callahan was one of the most popular Rangers. A fan favorite who bled our colors by sacrificing body parts during games, Captain Cally was a Black & Blueshirt.

When he was dealt, I was sad. I also was mad at the organization for intentionally leaking the details of the negotiation between Callahan and the team which didn’t get done. It was an example of PR turning the fans against a player who went above and beyond the call of duty. They didn’t need to do that to justify a trade for a future Hall of Famer. St. Louis became the emotional leader during the club’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. His teammates rallied around him following the death of Mom France.

I’ve always said since that special run which included the first ever comeback from a 3-1 deficit in franchise history, the 2013-14 Rangers don’t get that far without St. Louis. Even if the deal was a risk, Glen Sather had to take it to try to win the Cup. They fell short of that goal losing to the Kings and then to the Lightning in a gut wrenching seventh game of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final. St. Louis retired.

Unfortunately, his loss was felt this past season. Both in the locker room and on the ice, the ’15-16 Rangers missed his presence. Even when they started out well, they never were quite right. Henrik Lundqvist covered up so many mistakes. Eventually, he caved in and Alain Vigneault’s system broke down.

The struggles of proud vets Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented. Coming off injuries that required off-season surgery, neither were the same. They were mistake prone and slow to react causing turnovers and leading to goals against. While they received most of the criticism, a few of the club’s more popular forwards were ignored.

That included Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. A dynamic duo that was formed during the 2014 season. Along with Benoit Pouliot, they became the team’s best puck possession line. After Pouliot departed for the Oilers, Brassard and Zuccarello remained intact teaming with Rick Nash to form the team’s top scoring line. The chemistry between Brassard and Zuccarello was undeniable. They were a perfect match. Brassard with his combination of skating, passing and finishing. Zuccarello with his play-making, skill and bravery.

The Brassard/Zuccarello tandem were fun to watch. They scored and set up pretty goals that got fans out of their seats at MSG. Unfortunately, that chemistry ran out during the second half of ’15-16. They never were in sync. Even worse, their play away from the puck suffered. Ranger forwards didn’t always come back defensively. Brassard and Zuccarello were the biggest culprits. It was sad to see because it hurt the team.

Eventually, Vigneault broke them up. He replaced Zuccarello with J.T. Miller. A stronger two-way presence who Brassard credited for his sudden increase in goal scoring. In an interview with TSN that aired yesterday following the trade to the Senators for Mika Zibanejad and a second round pick, Brassard credited Miller for helping set him up for a career high 27 goals. He was finishing more plays than setting up but wound up with 58 points (27-31-58). Two shy of his career best set in ’14-15.

Zuccarello led the Blueshirts in scoring with a career best 61 including a career high 26 goals to go with 35 helpers. Amazing production from a player who was a question mark due to brain contusion and a fractured skull sustained during the 2015 first round on a Ryan McDonagh shot that struck him in the helmet. By the end of the season, Vigneault tried him successfully with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. A combo we could see more of in the future.

No matter how down I was on Brassard for his inconsistency and defensive deficiency in a first round elimination to the Penguins, he was a very good Ranger. He excelled under Vigneault’s higher tempo and puck possession system. His scoring increased. From a third line role in which he tallied 18 goals and 27 assists plus 6-6-12 in a memorable 2014 postseason, he established career bests in goals (19), assists (41) and points (60) in ’14-15. That included 9-7-16 which paced the team in the 2015 postseason.

Known as Big Game Brass due to his penchant for raising his level in the playoffs, Brassard totaled 44 points (18-26-44) in 59 postseason contests all with the Rangers from 2012-16. That also included a goal and three assists in a disappointing five-game loss to Pittsburgh. Truth be told, they were over matched by a superior and deeper team that won the Stanley Cup. It still was inexcusable for Brassard to give up on a couple of key plays in a blowout Game 5 loss. Perhaps that sealed his fate.

Make no mistake. Brassard had a good run here. But the lack of attention to detail couldn’t have sat well with the coaching staff or management. Having signed a affordable five-year deal worth $25 million ($5 million AAV), the 28-year old from Hull, Canada has three years remaining when he comes home to play for Ottawa. Maybe it’s for the best. He will join a talented team featuring Erik KarlssonMark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan. Hoffman must still be re-signed to a long-term deal. But the Sens have plenty of room. So, the notion that Brassard could be left unprotected for next year’s expansion with Las Vegas seems unlikely.

One thing about Brassard. He was always accountable. When he wasn’t performing up to par, he took responsibility. He was a quality player and teammate whose leadership could be missed. For the Rangers, it became about cutting salary and getting younger. The Zibanejad acquisition does both. As noted yesterday, he has similar production to Brassard at the same stage of his career. It’s ironic that both were chosen sixth overall five years apart. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out for both the Rangers and Sens.

As for Brassard, the classy center made sure to thank the Rangers on Instagram.

The only thing we as fans can do is wish Brassard luck with his new team. As far as the future of the Blueshirts, the page has been turned. With this move, it signals a move in a different direction. Undoubtedly, Kevin Hayes will play a bigger role once he re-signs.

So too will Chris Kreider, who I now expect to get a long-term contract in the neighborhood of five years for $25 million. It’s now about a young nucleus that also includes Stepan, Miller and captain McDonagh. Zibanejad and newly signed top prospect Pavel Buchnevich will be part of it along with Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath.

For once, it’s not about the vets. But rather about youth. Even as Lundqvist ages, there is still enough young talent for the Blueshirts to remain competitive. They also recently signed 19-year old 2015 third round pick Robin Kovacs to an entry level contract. With Ryan Graves and Adam Tambellini also in tow, the future looks bright.

GM Jeff Gorton is preparing for it the right way.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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