Penguins GM Rutherford 'wouldn't make' Despres trade today

Ducks defenseman Simon Despres (24) celebrates a goal with his teammates during the second period of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Chicago.
Ducks defenseman Simon Despres (24) celebrates a goal with his teammates during the second period of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Chicago.
Photo by AP
| Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 10:42 p.m.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford admitted he has enjoyed the Western Conference final between Anaheim and Chicago, even when defenseman Simon Despres does something positive.

But observing Despres in high-leverage situations — a concern management had when it exchanged the 23-year-old former first-round pick for Ben Lovejoy at the trade deadline — got Rutherford thinking.

“If I had a chance to make that trade today, as we speak, I wouldn't make it,” Rutherford told Trib Total Media on Wednesday.

In trading Despres, Rutherford acknowledged, then and now, that he could come to regret the move. But he wanted a right-handed shot and experience for the postseason. The Penguins' glut of highly drafted defensemen since 2009 also has left NHL-level openings at a premium.

“We have a lot of young defensemen coming,” Rutherford said. “I knew at the time, over time, the trade would certainly be in Anaheim's favor. But at the time we made it, and the reasons we made it for, I still feel it was the right thing to do.”

Rutherford hinted that losing a young defenseman could shape the Penguins' plan for next month's draft, although he admitted those meetings are still in their formative stages.

Including Despres, the Penguins have drafted six defensemen in the first two rounds since last winning the Stanley Cup. Brian Dumoulin, whom the Penguins acquired in the Jordan Staal trade in 2012, was a second-rounder for Carolina — and Rutherford — in '09.

Three of those seven — Joe Morrow, Philip Samuelsson and Despres — are gone.

“We're getting to the point where the younger defensemen who were being developed, most of them are going to get moved into the big team,” Rutherford said. “It may sound strange, but our strongest position is defense from a youth point of view. We may be in the position where we need to start replenishing them more than any other (position) because those guys are getting moved up.”

Rutherford traded Despres on March 2. A little more than three weeks later, Christian Ehrhoff was lost for the season with a concussion. Then Kris Letang four days after that, another concussion.

The Penguins never recovered. They finished 7-10-3 after posting a 36-17-6 mark over their first 62 games.

Because of injuries and a dicey salary-cap situation that left them with five defensemen for a half-dozen games, Lovejoy was overexposed, often playing on the top pairing and on six occasions logging more than 24 minutes per game — about 33 percent more than Rutherford had planned.

Lovejoy's five-on-five goal differential with Anaheim was plus-1. In Pittsburgh, it dropped to minus-6. Despres was a plus-9 in all situations here, Lovejoy a minus-7.

“When you're playing on a team that's winning, everybody looks good,” Rutherford said. “And they should. Everybody does well. It's contagious. He's not playing any different than the guy that we traded.”

Note: Though the Penguins have not announced it, per their policy on announcing the entire preseason schedule at one time, the Penguins and Montreal Canadiens will play a preseason game Sept. 28 at Quebec City's new Videotron Centre. It will be the first NHL game at the $400 million building, which was constructed with the hope of Quebec City again becoming an NHL city.

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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