COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi christened the maiden voyage of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2013 trade rumor season by smashing a bottle of Jack Johnson over the bow of the league's 20th-ranked defense Monday.
From Rossi's blog,
"This past summer, while pursuing free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter, the Penguins envisioned pairing Letang with an elite partner.
"Jack Johnson, 26, could potentially fit that description."
While a defensive upgrade should absolutely be on the Penguins radar--the team has allowed three or more goals against in seven of its last eight games, including six goals against in three separate instances--Johnson's cap hit and production hardly scream "elite."
At $4.35 million per season through 2018, Johnson's contract is not an easy one to digest, even if relatively cap-friendly. His stats are no better. The former third-overall pick is a career minus-95, was traded out of Los Angeles a season ago and has negative Corsi numbers this season in Columbus, where he was averaging more than 26:00 per game before sustaining a shoulder injury in late February.
Pittsburgh needs to make an upgrade or several, and the blue line isn't a bad place to start.
However, instead of floating 21-year-old defenseman Simon Despres' name as potential trade bait, the Pens could upgrade their top-four by promoting Despres from an occasional healthy scratch to an everyday, 20:00 minute-per-game defenseman.
Despres, the Penguins' first-round pick (30th overall) in 2009, is in his first full season of NHL action in 2013. The 6'4", 215 pound defenseman has two goals, six points and a plus-eight rating in 17 games this year, averaging 13:51 TOI per game.
Despres was a touted offensive defenseman in his junior career with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL and has put that ability on display this season (perhaps never better than in assisting on Brandon Sutter's overtime winner against the Montreal Canadiens). Surprisingly, though, he has also provided consistent, aggressive physical play in his own zone this year, answering questions about his defensive acumen.
Given his potential and production so far, Despres has earned more minutes and more responsibility. In his limited minutes thus far, Despres has provided stable if not stellar defensive play. His plus-eight rating leads all Penguins defensemen, and the team is 13-4 in games in which Despres is in the lineup (compared to a 2-4 record in six games without him). Despres also has the best on-ice Corsi rating (a measure of a player's shot differential expressed over a 60-minute average) of all Penguins defensemen, and the fifth best on-ice Corsi on the team.
While this number is massaged by his sometimes favorable match-ups, the numbers are still excellent for a rookie defender.
If Despres' numbers in his first full season aren't enough to take his name out of the trade rumor mill, his physical tools and contract status ought to do the trick.
Despres is the one of two Penguins defensemen to stand 6'4" or taller (fellow rookie Robert Bortuzzo is the other) and his offensive production could stand second only to Kris Letang when he begins to fully touch his NHL potential. It's for that reason that Despres has often been called a potential partner for Letang, if not the insurance policy for Letang's potential departure which prompted the initial call for Johnson.
Where's Johnson's contract is a detriment to retaining Letang, Despres' deal is a strength both for the Penguins and for their hopes of re-signing Letang and center Evgeni Malkin. Despres has one year left on his entry-level deal at $840,000.
If the Pens believe Despres can be a long-term option, signing him to an initially friendly deal should be easy enough. Penguins GM Ray Shero has been able to lock players down to team-friendly deals as though he is able to see their future production before anyone else.
Shero signed winger James Neal to a six-year extension in the middle of the 2011-12 season, a seemingly sweet deal for a player who at the time had never cracked 30 goals in a season. Neal finished with 40 goals last year, fourth-most in the NHL, and is second in the league in goals in 2013.
Shero's eye for talent has led to a few high-value extensions such as Neal's, and Despres has the pedigree and tools to be a player on Neal's level.
Signing Despres to a team-friendly contract, perhaps as early as this season, would mitigate the need for insuring against Letang's next contract by giving the Penguins the cap space to retain Letang in the first place.
They might even get an elite partner to pair him with in the process.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and is a Penguins contributor at The Hockey Writers and Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He owns the Pittsburgh Sports Blog Slew Footers and has attended Penguins home games with credentials.