Thoughts: Trade Deadline – Pens get deeper on defense

By: Meesh Shanmugam

It’s all over. The trade deadline has come and gone with Jim Rutherford making two trades: 1) Robert Bortuzzo and a 7th round pick in 2016 to St. Louis for Ian Cole and 2) Simon Despres to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy.

Before we get into the trades, here’s a copy/paste from last night’s thoughts post about how I viewed the roster going into the trade deadline:

Perron-Crosby-Hornqvist
Kunitz-Malkin-Comeau
Winnik-Sutter-Downie
Spaling-Lapierre-Bennett
Adams

Letang-Martin
Ehrhoff-Pouliot
Scuderi-Despres
Bortuzzo

Fleury
Greiss

In my head, that equated to:

1st W – 1st C – 1st W
2nd W – 1st C – 3rd W
3rd W – 4th C – 3rd W
3rd W – 4th C – 3rd W
Extra F

1st D – 1st D
2nd D – 3rd D
3rd D – 3rd D
Extra D

Starting G
Backup G

Now let’s look at each trade.

1) Robert Bortuzzo, 2016 7th round pick to St. Louis for Ian Cole
This won't be missed... (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

This won’t be missed… (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

Bortuzzo struck me as a guy with a ceiling as a 3rd pairing defenseman. He filled that role admirably under Bylsma’s watch as he threw his body, fought when necessary, and added the occasional burst into the offensive zone to catch everyone off-guard with his long strides. He was also good for a shot on net when seemingly no one else wanted to do it.

Though he had his moments over the last few years, he never found a steady role under Mike Johnston’s regime. Bortuzzo’s trademark hits slowly disappeared, especially after the Jagr/Tootoo incidents this season. As the *big* hits dropped off, it also appeared that his confidence in his role did as well. His positioning has fallen off and it was probably time to part ways. I had him marked as the extra defender/healthy scratch at this point and it appears that he will go to St. Louis to play the 6th/7th defenseman role there as well until their defense gets healthy. A change of scenery should help him out, but he was no longer a fit here.

Ian Cole is like Bortuzzo in some ways, but probably has more upside in the Penguins system. He’s shorter than Bortuzzo, but still is capable of throwing the body and playing the “defensive defenseman” role. He is better positionally, brings a little more offensive talent, and most importantly, he’s generally a better puck mover than Bortuzzo is. He was looking for top-4 minutes with St. Louis and wasn’t going to get it, which is one of the reasons the trade possibility opened up according to St. Louis beat reporters.

Player for player, Cole should be an upgrade over Bortuzzo based on pure talent and also within the system (which is likely why a 7th round pick was thrown in as well). I doubt he’ll see top-four minutes in Pittsburgh, but you can feel confident with him in a 3rd pairing role and he has some 2nd pairing potential if injuries (Ehrhoff) or inexperience (Pouliot) requires it. Based on my chart above, the Penguins traded an Extra D and a 7th rounder for a 3rd D. It certainly appears to be an upgrade.

2) Simon Despres to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy
The last good memory of Simon Despres. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

The last good memory of Simon Despres. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

Despres has had an inconsistent and unsteady path through the NHL with the Penguins. He has shown *flashes* of being a top-four defenseman and had a wonderful first half of the season. His first few months were so strong that it appeared Bylsma’s regime was his problem and that Mike Johnston had fixed it. That didn’t seem to be the case lately though. Despres has struggled with consistency over the last few weeks, often getting off to terrible starts in the first period before *sometimes* fixing his game. He has struggled with the puck and has even gotten thrown around a bit in recent games (see: Caps game).

Based on Rutherford’s press conference after the deadline, the recent inconsistency plus the glut of young defensemen in the system basically made Despres expendable. He was never going to be a long-term top-four guy in this system with Letang, Maatta, Pouliot and probably Dumoulin or Harrington taking up spots in the long run (with a stopgap of Ehrhoff or another veteran until one of them is ready). Keeping in mind that Despres is a free agent after this season **EDIT: he has one more year at $900k and then is a RFA** (thanks @vincelaboon for the catch), I get the idea that the organization already planned on letting him go and decided that they would rather get an asset that they felt they could trust going through the playoffs with rather than keep Despres and lose him for nothing. **CORRESPONDING EDIT: I still don’t think he would have fit into the long-term plans, while Lovejoy can exist as a mentor and a stopgap**

Surprisingly, that asset turned out to be former Penguin Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy is not the player anyone remembers from his stint in Pittsburgh as he entered the league. He was traded away to Anaheim back then because there was no room for him in Pittsburgh and he was likely going to be lost on waivers. I still remember watching him a month after that trade, seeing him on the 2nd powerplay and getting penalty kill time, and looking like a completely different player. Lovejoy did turn into a completely different player, one with confidence that he never had in Pittsburgh.

At this point in his career, he can take 2nd pairing minutes and he does have the size to get physical even if he won’t launch himself into a hit like Despres. With another year on his contract too, he provides a potential stopgap next season as the Pens try to groom Dumoulin and Harrington for their future roles.

“Potential” makes this a tough trade to judge. Despres, at the age of only 23, still has plenty of growth that he can accomplish. His flashes of solid play this season could be the tip of the iceberg, but it wasn’t enough for the organization to feel confident in him for this playoff run and it doesn’t amount to enough to dethrone the potential top four of the future. The Penguins know what they’re getting with Lovejoy at the age of 31. Sometimes, when you’re trying to build a Cup champion, you want to work with what you know instead of taking a chance. Lovejoy is basically another insurance policy with more 2nd pairing potential than Cole and it came at the cost of a current 3rd pair defenseman. Based on my chart, I view this as the Pens traded a 3rd D for a 2nd/3rd D.

Overall

In the short-term, I think the Pens won both trades. Cole and Lovejoy should fit very well under this system as competent skaters and passers. In the long-term, I think the Pens still win the Cole trade, but the long-term definitely favors Despres over Lovejoy. Does that long-term matter if the Penguins end up with a Stanley Cup this year? That remains to be seen.

The Penguins basically traded a 3rd pairing defenseman and an an extra defenseman for *ideally* two 3rd pairing defensemen, both of whom have more consistent potential as 2nd pairing defensemen this year than the guys who were sent away.

The Old Defense:

Letang-Martin
Ehrhoff-Pouliot
Scuderi-Despres
Bortuzzo

1st D – 1st D
2nd D – 3rd D
3rd D – 3rd D
Extra D

The New Defense:

Letang-Martin
Ehrhoff-Pouliot
Scuderi-Lovejoy
Cole

1st D – 1st D
2nd D – 3rd D
3rd D – 2nd/3rd D
3rd D

They set themselves up to give Pouliot a shot to win a 2nd pairing spot with insurance to step in if it doesn’t work out. Overall, I think the defensive group is deeper, more trustworthy, and should be more consistent now.

Did they give up hits? Sure. But this entire season has been about owning the puck and absorbing hits instead of throwing them. These additions only further that cause. The Penguins are a better team than they were 24 hours ago in regards to winning this year’s Stanley Cup. Isn’t that the goal?

 

Thanks for reading!!