FanPost

Despres v. Engelland in the Month of March

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Since the Olympics ended, the Penguins blueline has delivered performances that have fluctuated from serviceable to total garbage. This is no doubt driven by the injuries to Kris Letang and Paul Martin that loom larger and larger as the season wears on. And when the Pens played the Hurricanes on Tuesday night, the blueline put forth a performance that was pretty damn close to the "total garbage" end of the spectrum.

Engelland had a particularly rough game. Some wondered on twitter why Bylsma decided to sit Despres in favor of Engelland. I don't remember Engelland having as bad a game as this one in a while, and I don't remember Despres standing out in recent memory either. So I wanted to go through each game in the month of March and compare the performance of Despres and Engelland. One note: Engelland sometimes played forward, but I'm only interested in his work as a d-man in this comparison. As such, I did not include Engelland's stats in games where he played forward.

Below is a summary of each player's performance for each game in the month of March:

March 1 @ Chicago

Engelland: played as forward

Despres: 0 points, 4 PIM, +3 Fenwick, +4 Corsi, 50% Offensive zone start (OZS)

March 4 @ Nashville

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 0 points, 2 PIM, -2 Fenwick, +2 Corsi, 63% OZS

March 6 @ San Jose

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, -7 Fenwick, -7 Corsi, 55% OZS

March 7 @ Anaheim

Engelland: 1 goal, 0 PIM, -3 Fenwick, +1 Corsi, 25% OZS

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, -5 Fenwick, -4 Corsi, 25% OZS

(per shiftchart.com, Despres and Engelland skated as a defensive pair this game)

March 10 @ Washington

Engelland: 0 points, 0 PIM, -2 Fenwick, 0 Corsi, 57% OZS

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, -6 Fenwick, -2 Corsi, 63% OZS

(per shiftchart.com, Despres and Engelland skated as a defensive pair this game)

March 11 vs. Washington

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 0 points, 2 PIM, -1 Fenwick, -2 Corsi, 38% OZS

March 15 @ Philadelphia

Engelland: 0 points, 0 PIM, +6 Fenwick, +9 Corsi, 88% OZS

Despres: 0 points 2 PIM, +8 Fenwick, +11 Corsi, 88% OZS

(per shiftchart.com, Despres and Engelland skated as a defensive pair this game)

March 16 vs. Philadelphia

Engelland: 0 points, 0 PIM, -3 Fenwick, -6 Corsi, 33% OZS

Despres: healthy scratch

March 18 vs. Dallas

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, +3 Fenwick, +4 Corsi, 67% OZS

March 20 @ Detroit

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, +6 Fenwick, +7 Corsi, 100% OZS

March 22 vs. Lightning

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, -5 Fenwick, -3 Corsi, 40% OZS

March 23 vs. Blues

Engelland: 0 points, 0 PIM, -9 Fenwick, -9 Corsi, 40% OZS

Despres: 0 points, 0 PIM, -3 Fenwick, -3 Corsi, 17% OZS

March 25 vs. Phoenix

Engelland: healthy scratch

Despres: 1 assist, 0 PIM, -1 Fenwick, 0 Corsi, 44% OZS

March 27 vs. Kings

Engelland: 0 points, 0 PIM, +1 Fenwick, -2 Corsi, 25% OZS

Despres: healthy scratch

March 28 @ Columbus

Engelland: 1 assist, 2 PIM, +7 Fenwick, +10 Corsi, 20% OZS

Despres: 0 points, 2 PIM, +6 Fenwick, +8 Corsi, 0% OZS

(per shiftchart.com, Despres and Engelland generally skated as a defensive pair this game)

March 30 vs. Chicago

Engelland: 0 points, 2 PIM, -4 Fenwick, -5 Corsi, 44% OZS

Despres: healthy scratch

TOTALS FOR MARCH

Engelland: 8 games played, 2 points, 4 PIM, -7 Fenwick, -2 Corsi, 45% OZS

Despres: 13 games played, 1 point, 12 PIM, -4 Fenwick, +15 Corsi, 54% OZS

The first thing I'd like to dispel is the notion that the Penguins aren't trying out Despres, or that they're not accurately gauging where his ceiling is. Dejan Kovacevic made a comment in this vein on twitter last night:

Yet Despres played in 13 of the 16 games in the month of March; Engelland only dressed as a defenseman in eight of them. Despres has been used a lot, more than Engelland, and the coaches are getting a good feel for what he brings to the table (more on that later).

The bigger point I'd like to address is the idea that playing Engelland over Despres versus Carolina was a mistake. Because of the injuries, both Engelland and Despres got significant minutes in March, so I think looking at this month provides a good framework for us. Engelland's big advantage over Despres is that he provides more scoring and takes far fewer penalties. Where Despres comes out ahead is in Corsi. However, the Corsi advantage he has should be lessened considerably due to his favorable zone starts.

I'd say one could interpret this data in two ways, both of which speak favorably of how the coaching staff has used Despres and Engelland. First, if you discard everything else and believe Despres's possession advantage merits more playing time, that's exactly what happened here. Despres saw action in five more games, indicating that the coaches were well aware that he had some success with controlling play while on the ice. Second, if you acknowledge the possession advantage for Despres but lessen it due to zone starts, and take account of his low point totals and really high penalty minutes, you might think Despres doesn't provide a clear advantage over Engelland and that playing one over the other is close to a wash. In that regard, playing Engelland versus the Hurricanes wasn't a problematic decision.

We can also judge this decision by noting that Despres was a plus 15 in Corsi over 13 games, which amounts to an average of a +1.2 Corsi for each game. Deciding who to start in an individual game, Bylsma might think that adding one blocked shot attempt over the course of ~14 minutes is not a clear edge for Despres. And it isn't. That number should be even lower due to zone starts, so the whole advantage Despres gives you in the month of March shows up in the form of less than one blocked shot attempt in each game. And that would probably be wiped out by a minor penalty that he takes.

Part of the reason Engelland started versus Carolina had to do with his strong showing versus Chicago. This also illustrates that Bylsma made adjustments throughout the month based on recent performances. Let me explain. In the Blues game, Engelland had a particularly bad performance (especially compared to Despres). In the following game versus Phoenix, he was scratched (presumably because he was bad the game before). Then versus the Kings, a "heavy" team, Bylsma went with Engo and sat Despres, and it paid off as Engelland put in a fine performance. Both Engo and Despres skated together versus Columbus and looked good, and Bylsma again went with Engo over Despres in the next game versus Chicago presumably for the size/grit edge. This decision paid off in spades: Engo and Scuderi were the best Penguins' possession d-men that game even though they had the toughest zone starts.

Understandably feeling a sense of satisfaction from the 4-1 win over the Blackhawks, Bylsma dressed the same six d-men for Carolina. Given Engo's performance in that game and the team win, this was a perfectly rational decision. The unfortunate thing is that all six defensemen in the Hurricanes game played terribly. Engelland might have been the worst. After he made a critical error that led to a goal against, Bylsma took note:

Based on the coaching decisions in March--where Engelland sat after a bad game--I have no doubt he'll be a healthy scratch for the Winnipeg game on Thursday. And let me also be clear: Despres is probably better than Scuderi and Orpik at this point, but thinking that management would be OK with Bylsma permanently scratching close to $8 Million in salary so Despres can play is a fool's dream. Owners don't want to pay that much for guys who aren't playing.

Criticizing the decision to dress Engelland over Despres in hindsight is not fair. Before the game, based on the statistics compiled by Engelland and Despres in March, either would have been a good choice. But based on Engelland's performance against Chicago, he probably earned a spot in the lineup against Carolina. Unfortunately, he sucked and will certainly pay the price.

As a pseudo post-script, I think Despres is starting to become a bit overrated by certain Pens fans. Despres ranks second among our d-men with a 52% Corsi, which is good. But this should be negated in part by the fact that he has the highest zone start among our d-men at 54.1%. On top of this, he generally faces the easiest competition. To make matters worse, he has the second worst penalty plus minus and the lowest even strength points/60 minutes among Pens d-men. Yes...even lower than Rob Scuderi. For someone with a ton of offensive potential, taking lots of penalties and rarely scoring points is not a good way to endear yourself to coaches. I also think that his slightly positive possession numbers are a product of his good situational metrics rather than skill at this point.

I hope Despres stays with us because I think he can improve over time. But right now, I don't think he's made a good case for being inserted into the lineup every night.

The content expressed in fanposts does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff here at Pensburgh.com. FanPosts are opinions expressed by fans of various teams throughout the league but may be more Pittsburgh-centric for obvious reasons.

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