By Sean Hartnett
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More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Rangers committed a five-year contract worth $25 million to 27-year-old center Derick Brassard. After all, Brassard had never scored more than 47 points in a single season and developed a reputation for being a streaky scorer.
Despite concerns over whether Brassard would fulfill the promise of a top-six draft pick, Rangers general manager Glen Sather made the correct choice in rewarding him with No. 1 center money.
A dependable top-line center is exactly what Brassard has become. Against a pair of dominant, puck-possessing teams in the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings, Brassard contributed one goal and three assists, while winning 27 of 46 faceoffs (58.6 percent) against some of the league's dominant centers.
The Hull, Quebec native has stepped up and embraced the challenge of being a go-to center for the Blueshirts while Derek Stepan has missed the opening 12 games of the regular season. After a slow start, Brassard has recorded 11 points in his past 10 games, sparking outstanding chemistry with linemates Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis.
"The challenge for us is going to be facing the top defensemen and top lines on pretty much every team," Brassard said before Wednesday's 4-3 overtime win over the Red Wings. "They're going to be paying big attention to our line because Marty and Nasher is on our line. I just need to be solid everywhere and try to make plays."
Brassard played a central role in Wednesday's win, assisting on Nash's first period power play goal and later scoring the winning goal on the power play in the extra session.
"He was great all over the ice tonight," alternate captain Marc Staal said. "It's pretty fitting that he gets that goal."
Since joining the Rangers in a six-player swap with Columbus just prior to the 2013 trade deadline, Brassard has had a flair for scoring game-winning goals. He netted four last season and collected two more during the Rangers' run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
"Brass is an emotional player," head coach Alain Vigneault said. "When he competes for pucks, stops on pucks and protects it – he can make some really good plays. I would say for a stretch of two or three weeks there, he's been getting his game in order."
Brassard has fed off the pressured atmosphere and high expectations in New York. His on-ice contributions last season far exceeded what his 45 points could ever prove.
"I think I've matured a lot as a player," Brassard said. "The experience of going to the playoffs two years in a row showed me what it takes to win some important games. Basically, when I got traded I never had a taste of the playoffs and I never played big games. I think it really helped me for this year."
Brassard is currently on pace to score 34 goals and post 75 points this season. While it may be unrealistic for him to maintain that kind of production, he's on the path toward putting together his best statistical season and justifying the Rangers' faith.
Once Stepan returns, it would be surprising if Vigneault opts to move Brassard off the top line. Stepan could be in line to make his season debut on Saturday night in Toronto. The 24-year-old center has been practicing in a full-contact jersey since being cleared for contact on Monday.
Right now, there's no reason to mess with the Nash-Brassard-St. Louis line.
HUNWICK EMBRACING INCREASED ROLE
Matt Hunwick was expected to serve as a depth defenseman when he agreed a one-year, $600,000 contract with the Rangers on July 1. But with captain Ryan McDonagh and Dan Boyle on the injured reserve, the 29-year-old has assumed a significant role and been a solidifying presence.
"Matt is getting some important minutes," Vigneault said. "For the most part, he's done a pretty good job. He's not an overly 'size' defenseman, but he can skate and move and beat the forecheck. We need him right now to play really big minutes. When he's been asked to do it, he's been alright."
Hunwick logged 21:40 of ice time against the Red Wings on Wednesday, collecting two assists and blocking three shots in the process.
"Matt's been playing solid," Brassard said. "He's opening a lot of eyes here. The way he skates is off the charts. He's been playing some really good minutes and he's been solid."
Hunwick's style of play fits in with Vigneault's up-tempo system that allows defenseman to carry the puck and join the attack. Staal said he sees confidence in brewing in Hunwick's game.
"He's been playing well all year," Staal said. "He's such a mobile guy, smart on the puck. He's been playing with a lot of confidence. That's what we need right now. He's been delivering."
VET D-MAN KABERLE TO GET TRYOUT
With McDonagh out for the next three-to-four weeks due to a separated shoulder and Boyle still recovering from a broken right hand, the Rangers are set to see what the 36-year-old Tomas Kaberle has left.
Following Wednesday's morning skate, Vigneault explained that Kaberle's arrival has been held up by an immigration issue.
"I was under the impression that he would be here today," Vigneault said.
Once the issue is sorted out, Kaberle would begin skating with the Rangers informally without a guarantee of a contract.
Conor Allen, 24, tends to play a steady game and is a fairly mobile puck-carrying defenseman, though like any inexperienced player there will be growing pains. Lumbering, 6-foot-5 defenseman Dylan McIlrath did not impress in his one-game call-up. The 22-year-old was reassigned to AHL Hartford on Wednesday.
The Rangers only have one remaining contract available. Shutdown defenseman Kevin Klein returned Wednesday after missing one game witha foot contusion. John Moore has two games left on his five-game suspension.
It wouldn't be the wisest move for the Rangers to use their final contract on Kaberle. His last NHL game was on March 5, 2013. He was cut after a brief audition with the Devils during the preseason. He is at least four years removed from being anything close to a dependable NHL defenseman.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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