Over the course of 15 NHL seasons playing for nine teams, Flyers forward Derick Brassard has covered just about every square on the journeyman bingo card.
Playing for three teams in one season? Check: Brassard, 34, suited up for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, and Colorado Avalanche in 2018-19. Facing off against his former team, the Panthers, on the same day he was traded to his new team, the Avalanche? Check: Brassard learned of his trade after morning skate on Feb. 25, 2019, and went back to the hotel with Panthers teammates for lunch before the game (“It was just a weird feeling,” Brassard said).
Brassard’s winding road through the NHL, more than just a timeline of teams and trades, is paved with lessons learned. During stints on the bench in Pittsburgh, where he struggled to find opportunities behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Brassard grew to understand the importance of establishing a well-defined role on a team.
“You can look at the cities and the water, the beach,” Brassard said of evaluating NHL markets. “The No. 1 thing, I think it’s the opportunity and the fit.”
Brassard made the pursuit of a proper fit and a team with a shot at the playoffs the focus of his free agency this past offseason. When the Flyers called him toward the end of the summer offering less money than other teams, Brassard evaluated the roster with the scrutiny of a veteran still searching for his first Stanley Cup.
He took note of the offseason additions of Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Cam Atkinson, and Keith Yandle. Brassard valued the sense of comfort that would come with playing with former teammates such as Atkinson, Yandle, and Kevin Hayes. Then, he got on the phone with coach Alain Vigneault, for whom Brassard played from 2013-16 with the New York Rangers.
“When I played for the Islanders [in 2019-20], I signed as a center,” Brassard said. “We got [center Jean-Gabriel] Pageau at the deadline, so I ended up playing wing. So I can play both. I told [Vigneault] on the phone that I was comfortable playing everywhere.”
After his conversation with Vigneault, Brassard concluded he could make an impact on the Flyers with his versatility. Regardless of where he would play in the lineup, Brassard had confidence that Vigneault would utilize all 12 forwards and would not place a disproportionate burden on the top line alone.
Eager for an opportunity at a playoff run with a familiar coach, Brassard signed a one-year, $825,000 contract with the Flyers on Aug. 25.
“We chased a Cup in New York for a few years, came really close and I think we’re on the same page as far as that,” Brassard said. “We’re not getting any younger, him as a coach, me as a player.”
What happened next was beyond what Brassard could have foreseen this offseason — Hayes, the Flyers’ second-line center, had abdominal surgery on Sep. 21 and would start the regular season on long-term injured reserve. Hayes would be sidelined for the first 10 games of the season at a minimum.
During the Flyers’ final preseason game against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 8, Vigneault placed Brassard on the second line with wingers Atkinson and Joel Farabee for the first time. Despite the Capitals’ 5-3 win, the second line would go on to have an effective night finishing the game with a 55.56% Corsi For and registering 83.33% of the Flyers’ High Danger Scoring Chances For, per Natural Stat Trick.
“I like playing with those guys,” Atkinson said after the game. “They’re very, very skilled and they’re always looking to make plays. So I think the more that we practice and get familiar with each other, we’re going to have a lot more success.”
That trio has remained the Flyers’ second line through the first 10 games of the season, with Brassard not just holding down the center spot in Hayes’ absence, but excelling in what looked to be a gaping hole following Hayes’ injury. Brassard has two goals, five assists, and is plus-7 (third-best among Flyers forwards only behind his linemates Atkinson and Farabee).
He is averaging .70 points per game, a pace that he hasn’t attained since his 2015-16 season with the Rangers when he averaged .73 points per game. That season was Brassard’s best in the NHL, as he scored a career-high 27 goals and racked up 58 points.
“He’s really good on faceoffs, just knowing where to be,” Farabee said. “Right spots and things like that. I think he thinks the game at a pretty elite level, so I think you really want that as a centerman. I think he really pushes the pace.”
Undoubtedly, skilled shooters like Atkinson and Farabee have helped bring out the best in Brassard. As a whole, the line has scored nine goals at five-on-five and only conceded two. But even when Hayes’ inevitable return — he’s eligible to come off LTIR Wednesday — alters the lineup, Brassard is confident he can continue to make an impact further down the lineup.
“Whatever the coaches, wherever they put you, you’re trying to help the team in any way,” Brassard said. “I’m sure they’re going to ind a way to get everyone going. We’re not a one-line team. We’re a four-line team.”
Above all else, Brassard looks forward to getting Hayes back on a nightly basis. Brassard hesitated to call Hayes the “heart and soul” of the Flyers — “We have other players that are leaders and good players,” Brassard said — but he stressed that Hayes is a “game-changer” capable of bringing the 6-2-2 Flyers to another level of success.
The winding road brought Brassard to Philadelphia, and despite the long season ahead, the first 10 games with Team No. 9 have sparked within him a sense of excitement.
“The last time I was excited like that was in Long Island, probably,” Brassard said. “We had a really good group and I feel like it’s really similar here. Our room, it’s so much fun to come every day and be part of that group of guys. We have a really good team and playing in Philly, sports town and atmosphere in the building, it’s great. That’s what you want as a player.”