If half the acrimony coming out of Pittsburgh over the deal that sent Simon Despres to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy is based on Despres’ status as a still-young player with a high ceiling, fine.
But half of the distaste for this deal seems to be pinned squarely to memories of Lovejoy’s last appearances in Pittsburgh, where he was run out of the 2012 Philadelphia series and moved to Anaheim just three games into the following season.
That was a different time, and Lovejoy was an untested player heading into his poor postseasons against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. However, that inexperience isn’t tied to a name, but a time. And at this time, Lovejoy is almost certainly a better playoff option than Despres.
Lovejoy’s is a familiar name in Pittsburgh, and now Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is betting his third playoff defense pairing on the idea that his name and jersey number will be the only familiar things he brings back to his first NHL city.
That would be a fair expectation, to say the least.
Despres, a former first-round pick and one of the cap-strapped Penguins’ better cost-controlled talents, is the player going the other way in a last-minute deal that was completely off the radar before news of the trade broke at Monday’s trade deadline. If Despres isn’t a better player than Lovejoy at this very moment, he’s got the tools to suggest he’ll very much get there one day. And, unless that one day is seven years down the road, he’ll hit that plateau at a younger point in his career than Lovejoy.
When the Penguins say Win Now, they apparently mean it. For a team so bereft of draft picks and internal prospects (on defense, at least, they are pretty well off), the deal smacks of the many shortsighted deadline moves that the former management team had made in five straight fruitless postseasons.
That doesn’t mean the deal doesn’t make the Penguins a better playoff team right now, because it absolutely does.
Lovejoy comes back to town carrying these advantages over Despres — twice as many career games, five times the playoff experience and virtually none of the risk that he carried as a playoff greenhorn three years ago in Pittsburgh.
In other words, Despres was more likely to struggle as an inexperienced playoff defenseman this season than the no-longer-inexperienced Lovejoy, who in the last two seasons has collected 20 postseason games with the Anaheim Ducks against some very formidable Western Conference competition.
The time has apparently done him well. After averaging just under 15 minutes per game and regular healthy scratches with the Penguins from 2009-12, Lovejoy was at times a top-pairing defenseman for a very good Anaheim squad, averaging more than 20:00 TOI per game in 20 postseason games.
Head-to-head, that experience, both overall and very much especially in the postseason, has to be what brought Rutherford to put the stamp on this deal.
Here’s how the two stack up, head-to-head.
|P.O. Points / Game||.206||.000|
Lovejoy’s experience when compared to Despres is undeniable. That is especially true in the postseason, where Lovejoy has 29 games to Despres’ 6.
In those postseason games, Despres is averaging minutes on the order of a highly-sheltered, barely-trusted young player at just over 10 minutes per game.
While Lovejoy is averaging just over 17 minutes per playoff game, that number is held down by his earliest experience with the Pens. In two postseasons with Anaheim, Lovejoy averaged better than 20 minutes per game in 20 playoff contests.
That distinction alone is what makes him a better option for the coming postseason, even if Despres has the tools and youth to make the deal a painful loss five years from now.
Is the risk of an inexperienced third-pairing worth mortgaging the future for? It certainly was in the past, when then-young players like Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen and Alex Goligoski were getting tortured in the playoffs and contributing to the Penguins’ half-decade of playoff letdowns.
Lovejoy is no longer that player. Just as important, the Penguins are no longer that team. Lovejoy has done his part to confirm what many former Penguins defensemen had to say about Dan Bylsma’s complicated defensive schemes.
The systems favored by Mike Johnston and assistant Gary Agnew have paid off so far. Kris Letang is having a renaissance season and the Penguins are on pace to finish as a top-five team in goals against and penalty killing, uncharacteristic territory indeed. There’s no reason to think he won’t find his groove with this group in time for the playoffs.
Lovejoy, right now, is a better bet to solidify that group and its success than an inexperienced Simon Despres. And as prior deals for Daniel Winnik and David Perron have shown, Rutherford’s Penguins are all about the now.
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