On Monday, March 2nd, only a few minutes before the 2014-2015 NHL Trade Deadline, Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford finalized a deal that would send 23-year old Simon Despres to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for former-Penguin Ben Lovejoy. It didn ?t take long to see that the general response from the fans and media was one of confusion, disappointment, and even anger. The questions started to fly: What was Rutherford thinking? Why didn ?t he get more for Despres? Why did we trade for someone who the Penguins already had traded away, for even less?
On the surface, the trade looks overwhelmingly in favor of the Ducks, which received a 23-year old up-and-coming defenseman who just seemed to come into his own this season. Through deeper inspection, it appears that it may not be as cut and dry, as it was initially perceived. Here are three reasons why the Penguins might have actually ?won ? the Despres-Lovejoy trade:
- This is not the same Ben Lovejoy from 2013.
During the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13, the Penguins traded defenseman Ben Lovejoy to the Anaheim Ducks for a whopping 5th round pick. While facing a logjam on defense and having already jettisoned Brian Strait, Ben Lovejoy was unable to break through with the Penguins as a consistent defender.
Here ?s what USA Today had to say about Lovejoy after the first trade:
?Lovejoy had played his entire pro career for the Penguins organization, suiting up for a career-best 47 NHL games in 2010-11 with three goals, 17 points and a plus-11 rating.
Last year, he was limited to 34 games because of injuries and coach’s decisions. His career totals are 25 points in 98 games.
This season, he had played in only three games because of the emergence of Simon Despres, getting no points and averaging a little more than 13 minutes a game. He was checked hard in the boards in a Jan. 29 game, earning New York Islanders forward Colin McDonald a two-game suspension. Lovejoy quickly got up and finished the game, but that was the last one he played for Pittsburgh. ?
It wasn ?t difficult to see that Lovejoy was not in the short-term and/or long-term plans for the Penguins coaching and front office. At the time Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma had provided Lovejoy with limited opportunities to step into the spot vacated in the aftermath of an injury to Matt Niskanen, but Lovejoy was often inconsistent and made mistakes that were costly to the team.
In his time in Anaheim, Lovejoy was paired primarily alongside Cam Fowler, the young Ducks defender often relied on for starting rushes from the defensive end.
Here ?s what the Los Angeles Times had to say about Lovejoy prior to the start of this season:
?Lovejoy has flourished since the Ducks acquired him from the Penguins on Feb. 6, 2013 for a fifth-round draft pick and gave him the trust and playing time he craved. The 30-year-old native of Concord, N.H., has developed into an effective shutdown defenseman alongside Cam Fowler as well as an articulate, insightful voice in the locker room.
?I think a lot of Ben’s thing was confidence, ? Coach Bruce Boudreau said. ?At the time he came here, we were languishing. He didn’t expect anything. We didn’t expect anything, except we gave him an opportunity, and the more confidence he grew, he became a really good player.
Sometimes all it takes is the right situation for a player to blossom,” Fowler said. “He made the most of that opportunity. We certainly leaned on him a lot. Even the improvements he made last year were huge from the year before.”
Proof that the ceiling imposed on Lovejoy in Pittsburgh was way too low. ?
Brian Strait, Ben Lovejoy, Simon Despres, and others had cycled through Dan Bylsma ?s lineup throughout their time in Pittsburgh, having difficulty finding a consistent spot in the lineup. Even recent rookie sensation Olli Maatta experienced bumpy patches in the past system, occasionally finding himself in the press box after an error.
While he could barely break into the 18-man lineup each night in Pittsburgh, Lovejoy quickly became a legitimate top-4 defender in a different system under a different coach in a different city. The one aspect of this trade and change in teams that might worry Penguins fans is how can Lovejoy, a player that didn ?t seem to fit in the lineup only a few years earlier, succeed with the Penguins. In other words, are the Penguins a different enough team now from when Lovejoy was here last for him to be in a position to succeed? Yes. Coming from Anaheim with Coach Bruce Boudreau, the 31-year old is likely to fit in with the system instilled by Head Coach Mike Johnston, as both Johnston and Boudreau coach a similar style of puck movements and breakouts.
- Multiple Missed Opportunities for Despres
It wasn ?t too long ago that Penguins fans were wondering if Simon Despres had a future on this team.
From August 2014, this is what writer Joe Yerdon had to say about Despres:
?As opposed to other players we ?ve featured in our series, Despres is in a tricky position when it comes to making the leap. Instead of trying to blast his way out of junior or college hockey, he ?s trying to make his way out of the American Hockey League.
The 23-year-old came in highly-touted when he was taken in the first-round, 30th overall in 2009 out of Saint John. He put up strong numbers for the Sea Dogs and turned pro in 2011. Since then, it ?s been a bumpy ride that ?s seen him get acclimated to taking the bus between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh.
Perhaps fortunately for Despres, Bylsma is gone and Mike Johnston is in. With Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik now in Washington, the Penguins are going to have one hole to fill on the blue line. Christian Ehrhoff should take over where Niskanen left off, but with puck possession becoming a more vital part to playing defense, the opportunity for Despres to make a good impression is there for the taking.
Perhaps fortunately for Despres, everyone will start with a clean slate for the new coach. ?
The consensus was that Despres, among others, were not given fair chances to play and learn under Bylsma ?s system without facing trips to the press box after mistakes. Well, it looks like the question has to be asked — what happened between August 2014 and now to make Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, along with his gaggle of assistant general managers and Mike Johnston ?s coaching staff lose faith in the value of developing Despres as a defenseman?
In one of his first opportunities to shine with the organization, Simon Despres showed up to Penguins training camp amid rumors of poor conditioning and general unpreparedness. After an underwhelming training camp, where Despres had been expected to compete for a spot with the big club, he was instead sent back down to the Penguins AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. Once again, Despres failed to impress and was at risk of being stuck in the minors until injuries struck the Penguins defense, allowing Despres to receive occasional opportunities in the NHL.
When a player fails to impress at multiple points under one coaching staff/front office, it ?s a concern, but when a player fails to consistently impress under two very different coaching staffs/front offices, it ?s a trend. Many within the Penguins media and fanbase, having seen flashes of big hits and offensive talent believed that Simon Despres was set to be a fixture in the Penguins top-4 on defense for years to come. In reality, Despres was limited in responsibilities on the Penguins bottom-pairing, and in recent months had made worrisome mistakes at a concerning rate, which begs the question — what was the actual potential for Despres on this Penguins team now and in the future?
During the trade deadline press conference following the finalization of the Lovejoy-Despres deal, Penguins GM Rutherford explained that Despres was given an opportunity to make the team and spend time in the starting lineup at the beginning of season. In the opening months of the season, Despres seized upon the opportunity and seemed to have found success on the third-pairing alongside Rob Scuderi. Rutherford continued by saying that over the past couple months that Despres had clearly regressed on the ice. In other words, Despres may be a serviceable defenseman, but he may not be there now, whereas Ben Lovejoy is already there, which brings us to our next point.
- Lovejoy Now > Despres Now
It ?s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins believe they are a win-now team. The Penguins believe they have a legitimate shot at contending for the Stanley Cup this year. When expectations for teams are high, as they are with the Penguins, the smallest mistakes at the most unfortunate times, can hurt the most. This is the lesson that Ben Lovejoy learned during the 2012 Playoff series against the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers, as one of his turnovers led to a game-deciding goal.
What this means for the team is that minimizing the potential for these mistakes has to be at the top of contending teams defensive priorities and what that means for the Penguins is that a young, developing defenseman in Despres is not the best option at this time. On the other hand, acquiring a defenseman like Ben Lovejoy, who has excelled in Anaheim as a shutdown defender while paired with an offensive leader, minimizes the risks, while providing almost identical offensive output and possession figures.
While Despres ?s true potential and value are years from likely being set, Lovejoy ?s consistency and current set of skills put the Penguins one step closer to being a more well-rounded team this year. If Simon Despres follows the footsteps of other defensemen recently traded by the Penguins including Joe Morrow, Noah Welch, Ryan Whitney, and Alex Goligoski and doesn ?t become the ?stud ? defenseman that many expect him to become, then it ?s likely that the Penguins will have come out on top in this deal.
The Penguins pulled off a trade that brings in a known commodity that minimizes risk, provides similar offense, better defense, while sending away a question mark, yet to be answered. Unless Simon Despres becomes a fixture in Anaheim ?s top-4 over the next few years, the Penguins may have quietly outsmarted the Ducks in this deal.