The Development of Despres
In 2009, after winning the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins held the 30th pick in the NHL Draft. With said pick the Penguins selected Simon Despres, a big bodied defensive prospect from the QMJHL. Standing at 6’4 and weighing in at 215 pounds, Despres wowed scouts with his excellent skating prowess and his offensive upside. While still very raw in his game, it was clear that Despres possessed the skill set and size to become an all situation defensemen in the NHL.
After being invited to training camp with the Penguins in 2009 and 2010, Despres showed how much his game needed to evolve. He would be sent back to his junior club in both seasons to progress. In the two seasons he spent with the Saint John Sea Dogs after being drafted, Despres was as impressive as the Penguins had hoped.
While playing in the top pairing, Despres posted 47 and 41 points in just 63 and 47 games respectively. All of this while expected to shut down the oppositions top lines prove to be quite an accomplishment. Despres’ play earned him a spot on team Canada’s World Junior squad in the spring of 2011. Despite being an offensively gifted player, the world junior team forced Despres to play in a shut down role early. This new approach to his game was difficult at first, as Despres struggled, but eventually Despres found out how to use his size to his advantage and became one of team Canada’s most depended on defensemen
In 2011 Despres was invited to training camp again, this time looking to earn a spot among the Penguins NHL roster. Despite another great performance at camp, it was too difficult for the Penguins Coaching staff to rationalize placing Despres in their already crowded blue line, as he would not be able to grow his game being part of a rotating third pairing.
Despres would be sent down to the Penguins AHL affiliate Wilkes Barre-Scranton Baby Penguins. While in the AHL, Despres would be able to adjust to the pro game at a pace that would be more comfortable to a young defender. In 44 games in Wilkes Barre-Scranton Despres had 5 goals and added 10 assists, however; he was a minus five and struggled to find his shut down game. With injuries at the NHL level, mostly to Kris Letang who missed over 20 games due to a concussion, Despres was called up to the NHL level to show what he had. In 18 games with the Penguins, Despres managed 4 points, but left the club with a plus 5 rating, showing that his game was improving and that he was more prepared to play in the NHL than previously thought.
Once Letang was healthy again, Despres was sent back down to the baby pens. He would be called up once more to play against the Flyers in the Stanley Cup playoffs of 2012. Despite no offensive production in the series, Despres was extremely comfortable in his game. He would be one of the few Penguins that would be able to leave the series with a plus rating, plus two to be exact.
With a logjam of talent acquired in the following offseason, it became apparent that Despres’ talents would no longer be needed in Wilkes Barre. If Despres was to have a good enough camp, he would be ready to stay full time in the NHL. Then the lockout happened and Despres again found himself in the AHL, but as we all know it didn’t last all that long.
Despres made the club coming out of camp in January of 2013. His play was strong, but like most young defensemen in the NHL, he was wildly inconsistent. This forced the Penguins to scratch him for a few games, hoping that it would inspire the young blue liner to focus and well, it did.
When Matt Niskanen went down due to injury, Despres was placed alongside Kris Letang as the teams second pairing. His confidence quickly grew. To date Despres has two goals and three assists to go along with a plus six rating. He ranks third among rookie defensemen in scoring despite only averaging 13:50 of ice time per game. In comparison Despres is just behind Boston’s Dougie Hamilton and Edmonton’s Justin Shultz in points despite playing five and nine minutes less per game than each player respectively.
While the offensive output was expected of Despres, it is his defensive game that has shown great improvement. Despres currently has 18 hits and 11 blocked shots on the season and posts an impressive plus six rating. He just about matches Hamilton of Boston in these categories with Hamilton posting 17 hits and 11 blocked shots. Shultz currently has just seven hits and nine blocked shots. So despite the lack of ice time and notoriety, it is not too far off to compare the play of Simon Despres to these two Calder trophy candidates.
With Simon Despres’ great improvement this season, it becomes only a matter of time before he is an every situation defenseman and counted upon much more than the 14 minutes per game that he is currently seeing. If Despres is able to continually grow his game in this shortened season, it is not a stretch to say he would eliminate the Penguins needs to acquire a top four defensemen via trade for a post season push. As of right now, Despres is the player the Penguins had expected him to be. While he still shows the maddening inconsistencies that most young defenders show, Despres is heading in the proper direction.