The Problem with Engelland-Despres

There’s a problem emerging with the Penguins third d-pairing. So far this year Deryk Engelland and Simon Despres have provided 10:13 and 9:57 time on ice per game. As such Engo and Despres are 4th to last and 3rd to last on the team, ahead of only the much maligned Eric Tangradi and the ill-used Dustin Jeffrey. And that’s not good. The Pens’ third pair rank 195th and 196th out of 204 defensemen who have played at all so far in the NHL this year.

ice time-engo despres
By comparison last year’s third pair of Engelland/Niskanen averaged 16:08 and 17:56 respectively. In limited NHL action even Despres typically played 14:13, four and a quarter more minutes per game than he’s gotten so far this year. What follows is an examination of why the Pens third pairing have received so few minutes (and they aren’t all bad reasons) and whether or not the Pens can/should/could rely on the third pairing.

The good reasons why the third pairing has played so little ice team.

The top 4 defensemen have been so stellar: There’s no doubt about this factoid, the Tanger/Nisky pairing and Paul-Mart/BO pairing are shouldering whatever load they’re tasked with. Certainly giving up 5 against Toronto isn’t great but so many of those goals were legitimately unlucky that I can’t fault the top 4 (and for what it’s worth both Paul-Mart and Brooks Orpik were net 0 plus/minus in that game).

In contrast to Engo and Despres, Letang, Martin, Orpik, Niskanen rank 1-4 in TOI/game on the Pens and Letang’s 26:17 so far is good for 11th in the league overall.

The top 4 defensemen have been healthy so far (touch wood): Last year none of the top 6 defensemen for the Pens played more than 75 games–that player was Matt Niskanen. Certainly it’s hasty to say that there won’t be any health issues in the defense this year, but the point here is that everyone missed time last year. Part of the reason why Nisky and Engo played so many more minutes last year is because they had to move up in the lineup as the need arose. If the top 4 guys keep their health then there is less need to rely on third line contributions.

Matt Niskanen: to further extrapolate on the shifting role of Nisky you have to consider that he was viewed as a minor leaguer, or a 7th d-man, at best, with the Penguins. He was the 6th defenseman when the season started last year and even this off season he only got a 2-year, $2.6 million/per deal: not a ringing endorsement from Shero.
But so far this year he’s already positioning himself for a big time raise. As such we need to evaluate Engo’s play last year as a result of Niskanen’s play. So far we’ve noted Niskanen’s play in every game this year, and we’re not just doing that to be annoying, he’s been that good, and he’s looked even better playing alongside Kris Letang.

Neutral reasons for why the third pairing is getting no ice time.

That is brutal.

That is brutal.

Engelland’s fight: Although it was a prodigious battle, Engo’s fight with Colton Orr on Wednesday did a lot to derail the play time for both him and Despres. The fight happened in Engo’s first shift, from there he had to spend 5 minutes in the box, and then he missed the rest of the first period when his eye threatened to swell shut. Before you know it Engo ended up with like 30 seconds of ice time in the first period. Further, the Pens don’t seem to play Despres without Engo, as such he had a similar looking stat line at the end of the first period.

Negative reasons for why the third pairing is getting no ice time.

Simon Despres isn’t ready for the NHL: we know why the Pens are sticking with Despres–his potential and his value as trade bait. In the Cup years Letang, a 2nd round pick, undersized, and temperamental played a supplemental role with the Pens. They shielded him away from tough assignments and it seemed to work. The Pens are hoping for the same thing with Despres, but I’m not sure that it’s working. Despres is smooth with the puck but he doesn’t have the knack for the net that Tanger did even back then.

In essence, I do fear that the Pens are hoping on a situation that isn’t reality. They’re playing the guy because of what he can be, not what he is right now. In terms of a trade, it isn’t a secret the Pens think more highly of Joe Morrow than Despres and there is only so much room on the Pens blueline. Despres could be a cornerstone piece to acquire a veteran winger to play with Malkin and Neal, as such the Pens want to make him look good and as ready as possible.

Deryk Engelland isn’t as good as we thought he was: above we mentioned Engo’s play time with Nisky last year. We’ve also mentioned that Nisky is making Letang look good through 3 games (no easy feat) maybe the reality is that Engo isn’t as good of a third pairing d-man as we thought and he’s paid the price this year playing with slightly less impressive talent. I think that Engo is a good hockey player, but I don’t know if he’s a mentor for someone like Despres.

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