The Pittsburgh Penguins didn't waste any time.
Less than 24 hours after general manager Jim Rutherford told NHL.com the Penguins were seeking to improve up the middle behind centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh acquired forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from the Panthers in a trade for forwards Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and three picks in the 2019 NHL Draft on Friday.
Rutherford hasn't been shy in his criticism of Brassard, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. The veteran center, who missed Pittsburgh's 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday because of an upper-body injury, has 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 40 games.
[RELATED: Brassard, Sheahan traded to Panthers by Penguins for Bjugstad, McCann | 2018-19 NHL Trade Tracker]
"To be honest, Brassard has not played up to our expectations although he's been a little bit better of late," Rutherford said. "We don't feel pressure to make a deal. I like our team. But if there is an area I'd like to address, it would be to upgrade up the middle behind Sid and [Malkin]."
Though the point production of Brassard and Bjugstad hasn't been great this season, the difference in their styles of play is tangible. Bjugstad can use his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame to play a more physical game than Brassard (6-1, 202), especially down low in the cycle game.
Given Rutherford's comments, it seemed unlikely the Penguins would have re-signed Brassard this offseason. Rather than lose a commodity without getting anything back, Pittsburgh was able to get Bjugstad, who is under contract through the 2020-21 season.
The 26-year-old has 191 points (87 goals, 104 assists) in 394 career games, all with Florida. Brassard has 443 points (171 goals, 272 assists) in 756 career games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators and Penguins.
This is the second straight season Brassard has been traded before the deadline. The 33-year-old was part of three-way trade on Feb. 23, 2018 that saw him go from the Senators to the Penguins and resulted in forward Ryan Reaves being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights by the Penguins.
Pittsburgh (27-17-6) enters Friday three points behind the New York Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan Division
The Panthers (20-20-8), who are 11 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, also received the Penguins second- and fourth-round picks in this year's draft, and a fourth-round pick Pittsburgh previously acquired from the Minnesota Wild.
Video: SJS@FLA: Bjugstad nets PPG on one-timer
The Florida Panthers acquired forwards Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday with an eye on the rest of this season and the offseason.
In the short term, general manager Dale Tallon said the Panthers will see where they are near the deadline before deciding if they trade Brassard - who like Sheahan can become an unrestricted agent on July 1 -- or keep him for the rest of the season.
In either case, the Panthers created cap flexibility by not only trading Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, who are each under contract past this season, but by acquiring players with expiring contracts.
"That was the key to the trade. We got two good players that can help us in the run here, that have experience and have talent and fits a need for us," Tallon said. "Also we freed up a lot of space for an aggressive summer in free agency."
But how aggressive?
TSN's Pierre LeBrun said on Thursday that Florida, if it had cap flexibility, could have an interest in either trading for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovksy, who can each become UFAs on July 1, or signing them when if they hit the open market.
Panarin's agent said this week he would discuss his future with Columbus after the season.
As for Brassard, Tallon said the Panthers' on-ice fortunes in the coming weeks will determine whether he stays or is moved before the deadline.
"If we continue and can get on a hot streak like we did last year, then he'll stay," Tallon said. "But if it looks like we're going to fall out … we can't afford to fall back any more."
The Senators, who face the Penguins Friday at PPG Paints Arena (7 p.m. ET: ATTSN-PT, TSN5, RDS, NHL.TV), have a couple of major decisions to make of their own.
Forwards Matt Duchene and Mark Stone can become unrestricted free agents on July 1. If the Senators can't re-sign them before the deadline, they might have to cut bait with either or both in order to ensure a return on two of the NHL's premier forwards.
"The biggest thing is if I don't have an answer for them, I would expect that they'll make a move," Duchene told the Ottawa Sun on Thursday. "You can't really afford to let guys go for nothing anymore in this League, or probably ever; you couldn't do that. I understand that's the situation.
"At the end of the day, I need to be sure of what I'm doing and it's a process right now that I'm evaluating. It's not an easy one because it's the first time I've ever been in this situation. It's really hard to make in mid-season. I'm taking my time, as much time as I have here, and I'll see what happens. But we're not at that point yet."
Duchene has 47 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in his second season with the Senators. The 28-year-old was traded to Ottawa by the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 5. 2017.
Stone, who has been tight-lipped about talks between the Senators and his representatives from Newport Sports, knows Ottawa (19-26-5), which is last in the Eastern Conference, needs a decision soon.
"When you don't have a ton of success, you obviously know that things can happen and that is the nature of the game, but I don't think you can let it be a distraction," he told TSN. "We've done a pretty good job so far this season jelling as a group. We obviously haven't had as much success as we'd like but I think as far as bonding is a 22-man group, we've done a pretty good job.
"No (distraction) for me. Like I said since Jan. 1 everything I do is going to be held privately. Nothing else to really further on that."
Stone has 50 points (22 goals, 28 assists) in 50 games this season. The 26-year-old has played his entire seven-year NHL careere with Ottawa, scoring 299 points (117 goals, 182 points) in 357 games.
Video: OTT@CAR: Stone picks corner on Mrazek
Eric Staal wonders what his future is with Minnesota.
The center, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, told The Athletic that he has not had talks with the Wild about an extension and understands there is the possibility of being traded.
"I've been around long enough to understand how everything works and I'm not 25 anymore. I'm not 26," said Staal, who has 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 49 games this season. "I'm 34 … But at the same time, I still feel like I can be a player for the next number of years yet. So, still decisions to be made and that will all kind of happen in due process."
Staal is in his 15th NHL season, and has 958 points (412 goals, 546 assists) in 1,142 games with the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and Wild.
The Wild (26-21-3) are third in the Central Division, but three points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche, who own the second wild card in the West.