So much for Jim Rutherford needing to apologize for the Simon Despres trade.

Over a year has passed since the Penguins GM felt the need to apologize for sending a then 23 year old Despres to Anaheim for Ben Lovejoy. Yet, Despres is no less enigmatic now than when the trade occurred almost 16 months ago.

To be fair, the early returns on the trade did not look good. Despres posted 6 points in 16 games to finish the 14-15 season, and then put up 7 points in 16 games in the playoffs. Since then the returns for Anaheim have been lacking.

However, while not much has changed regarding Despres’ trajectory towards fulfilling the potential that convinced former GM Ray Shero to select him in the first round back in 2009, much has changed for the Penguins.

The championship that Ben Lovejoy helped a revamped Penguin’s team claim back on June 12th stands as a testament to one of many gambles that paid off for Rutherford. Now he must decide if continuing to pay Lovejoy or another asset acquired via trade, Justin Schultz, is in the team’s best interests.

I’m not sure I’ve made up my mind on what I would do if I were him, but I know which way I’m leaning.

So, let’s take a look at the four factors that I believe will affect who the Pittsburgh Penguins keep. Another option is to keep neither based on what the free agent or trade market dictates. But, for the purpose of discussion let’s say they keep one. The following are the things I believe have to be taken into account when assessing the value and worth of these two players.

  1. Intangibles – Broader assessment of what each guy means to the team
  2. Tangibles – On ice production and basic advanced metric analysis
  3. Estimated money required to sign each player
  4. Outlook for each player on the team moving forward

On an intangible level I’m fairly certain that Ben Lovejoy is the more valuable off ice locker room presence. He’s an experienced 32 year old who is well spoken, intelligent and completely team oriented. His accountability of both his own actions and willingness to shoulder the blame for defensive failings of both he and whatever defense partner he plays with probably went a long way in calming the nerves of the entire defensive group during this past postseason run.

The same cannot be said for Schultz but that’s not uncommon for someone at age 25 going on 26. Schultz was brought to Pittsburgh as a high-end potential reclamation project. A player whose rare on ice talent simply needs sharpened and channeled consistently.

Schultz may never be a defenseman that can singularly control the play. But, his ability to read the play before it happens, consistently make the pass to maintain possession, and shoot the puck from the point are traits Lovejoy will never possess. And, to no great surprise, these intangible traits manifest themselves in tangible ways on the regular score sheet.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s a small sample size for Schultz but in less than a third of the games played by Schultz (18) as compared to Lovejoy (66), Schultz put up nearly as many points (8) compared to Lovejoy’s (10). And, Schultz only took ONE penalty.

spreadsheet 2

This trend continued in the playoffs. And for proponents of the mantra “you can’t beat yourself”  that’s big.

spreadsheet 3

The decision becomes a little tougher when we look at their basic possession metrics and account for zone deployment as well as time on ice. And for those that want to do their own bit of research, this basic metric data can be found on hockeyreference.com

I’ve color coded the general values one looks for in yellow, highlighted the generally good to above average values in green and highlighted the underwhelming numbers in red. I put the TOI in blue because there is no real positive or negative to it. Both players’ time on ice was augmented by Kris Letang’s ability to consistently take on tougher defensive assignments.

spreadsheet 1

There are a lot of things that someone can try to pull from these numbers. Maybe the coaching staff’s ability to “shelter” Schultz’s minutes by having him start an increased amount of his shifts in the offensive zone caused a marked improvement in CF% from the regular season.

Maybe injuries to Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley forced Lovejoy into tougher assignments that at times eroded his possession numbers. Or, maybe Schultz became more comfortable and confident over time on a team that was able to take advantage of his skill set.

Quality of completion and with or without metrics would provide a clearer picture of what either player accomplished in the playoffs. But I’m not quite sure yet how to breakdown and compare the data in a simple way.

The unfortunate part is that neither player’s salary situation helps make this decision all that much easier.

Ben Lovejoy has already turned 32 and is a UFA coming off a championship. Those circumstances suggest that some team will be willing to throw “stupid” money at him. The deal Deryk Engelland got from the Calgary Flames two summers ago, that is currently paying him over 2.9 million a year is a great example of this. (I wonder if Brian Burke would be interested in Ian Cole?…..note to GMJR)

Lovejoy’s age in particular makes this summer his last big chance to cash in. My guess is that three years would be the starting point because one and two year deals wouldn’t be part of any rational 32 year old players thought process who can play top 4 minutes when needed on a contending team.

But, let’s say we’re existing in a more reasonable world where Lovejoy agrees to a two year deal. Even in that world his 1.2 million dollar salary this season will probably come closer to 2 moving forward. The question then becomes “do the Penguins want 2 million or more tied up in Ben Lovejoy over the next two years?” Especially when they still have to pay a guy like Rob Scuderi to play against them for another year.

Schultz on the other hand is a RFA who, if he were going to be qualified, he would have to be at 3.9 million. Fortunately, the Pens have elected not to do this. From a practical standpoint the metrics above suggest that Schultz is not ready to handle the minutes that would be required of 3.9 million dollar defenseman.

However, Schultz won’t turn 26 until July, so he is still young. He could elect to take a two year bridge deal for 2.25 million, give or take a hundred thousand, and round out his game under Jacques Martin and Sergei Gonchar while playing for a contender. That still allows him to cash in at age 28 when most defensemen hit their prime.

In either case, no matter what the Pens do, there is only one thing that really matters long term, other than successfully sorting out the goalie situation, and that is not signing any contracts this summer that will eventually hinder their ability to sign Brian Dumoulin long term.

At 24 years old and checking in at 6’4” 220, his emergence in the top pairing next to Letang in this year’s playoffs was a godsend.

Dumoulin logged 19:23 of even strength ice time during the playoffs which was only second to Letang. Take a minute and let that sink in……..He basically played a period a game, at 24 years old, at even strength, ON A STANLEY CUP WINNER!

Marc Andre Fleury might get traded and Chris Kunitz might retire in the next year or so, but if the Penguins want to make a few more runs at a cup before #87 and #71 are on the down side of their primes, Dumoulin should be in their plans.

In fact, since everyone likes bold statements, “if Dumoulin’s progression continues, I would trade Phil Kessel before I would let go of young 6’4”, 220 pound defensemen that can play top 2 minutes.” AND PHIL KESSEL IS/WAS AWESOME!!! I’m completely on the bandwagon with him. But, in terms of priority as it stands right now, only Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Maatta and whichever goaltender the Pens settle on should be more integral pieces to the team.

I’ll leave it to all of you to decide which one the Penguins should keep.

I think we can all agree that more championships should be all that matters.