As the NHL inches towards the February 29th Trade Deadline, more names are being added daily into the churning rumour mill. Count Brandon Pirri of the Florida Panthers among them. The second such occasion in his young professional career, no less.
Speculation was tepid, before being thrown into overdrive by a series of healthy scratches which marked a three-game stretch going into this weekend’s All-Star festivities. To the credit of Panthers head coach, Gerard Gallant, Pirri’s extended stay in the press box has been described as a motivational ploy for a struggling club.
Not that I bought that in the slightest to begin with, but Pirri’s status as an impending RFA on a budget team with several higher priorities on the horizon all but renders that moot. Let’s dig in.
Before Jim Benning was taking the league by storm with his expedited prospect accumulation, I had set my eyes on Pirri. Originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the 2009 entry draft, Pirri was eventually shown the door by Stan Bowman when there were fewer spots than there were NHL ready prospects. Pirri drifted in and out of the trade block in 2013/14, before eventually getting scooped up by the Panthers for a third and fifth round selection.
Prior to joining the Panthers, Pirri cut his teeth in the AHL as a high-scoring utility forward, playing primarily at centre. Scoring at a near point per game pace (0.84 PPG), Pirri forced the Blackhawks to find him suitable pasture in the bigs – at home, or abroad.
Since joining the Panthers, Pirri has gained recognition for his bizarre, Cy Young worthy stat line of last season, marked by 22-goals to the just 2-assists. Outside of the obvious proportional uniqueness, it’s especially puzzling because Pirri is much more a facilitator than finisher.
I’ve tracked a relatively significant amount of Panthers games and I can say with a certain amount of confidence that Pirri is a strong driver of success in the neutral zone. In fact, relative to his teammates, he was positively revelatory.
Beyond that, Pirri is a productive playmaker, with good vision and hands, who can fit quite literally into any spot in the lineup. Pirri is afforded this versatility by his comfort at every position other than defence. Originally a centre, Pirri has split time playing on opposite wings in Florida – a byproduct of solid centre depth more than anything.
I can’t say with any degree of certainty that Pirri’s defensive game is solvent, but the net value is positive for the Panthers relative to when he’s not on the ice. Hockey is a zero sum game and the Panthers fare better from a territorial standpoint with Pirri on the ice than off. There’s value in finding out which side of the red line this value is derived from, but at the end of the day, we’re splitting hairs.
While I’ve a healthy amount of skepticism towards Pirri’s first-line plus offensive production since graduating to the NHL, it’s hard to ignore the company he keeps in terms of even-strength goal production over the course of these last two seasons. Being sandwiched by Brad Marchand and Marcus Johansson at G/60 among forwards at 5-on-5 with 750-minutes or more these last two seasons shouldn’t be scoffed at.
The only player to don the blue and green that’s ahead of Pirri by this regard is Shawn Matthias and it’s hardly what one would call a commanding lead. The former Canucks forward is just 0.02 G/60 ahead of Pirri, but who’s counting?
Which brings us to exactly why the Canucks should be falling all over themselves to submit a bid in the Brandon Pirri sweepstakes. The Canucks, as a team, have struggled to replace much of the even-strength scoring they parted with this off-season – not that this should have been overly surprising or qualifies as news.
Adding a two-way capable, young forward with positional versatility addresses many of the Canucks most glaring problems. It’s a not a one-step fix all, but it’s a start.
Wherein the problem lies is the Canucks advanced place on the organizational schedule. A good problem to have, all things being equal. The Canucks have more NHL ready players than they have spots to accommodate them. Adding Emerson Etem and Sven Baertschi in less than a calendar year throws two more horses in the stable and we’re just addressing the position at hand.
The Canucks have rolled weighted dice three times already in these last two seasons. All good bets, even if the results are mixed. Finding a place for Pirri means throwing another in the cup and hoping for Yahtzee. For Jim Benning, the question becomes: are the odds better of hitting with players slated to make the jump later this season or early next? If so, can this hypothetical acquisition be accommodated by parting with one or two assets deemed a lower probability of long-term NHL success?
These are all questions I’m glad I don’t have to answer. Given the level of success Pirri has achieved already in his career, it’s a situation worth keeping tabs on, though. Running a franchise is an efficiency contest – especially in a hard capped league. Even the most incremental of edges make the most substantial of differences. Hard to say Pirri can offer that with any certainty, but there’s likely a probabilistic edge over some of the players ready to enter the fold in the not-so-distant future.