It was less of a surprise – though probably even more pleasing – that the 6-4, 225-pound defenseman returned to camp last fall and earned a spot in four preseason games for coach Dan Bylsma, who is not averse to giving any player the ice time he deserves. Then Despres proved good enough to be named the best defenseman in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and live two dreams: playing in the pressure-packed environment that is Team Canada at the World Junior Championships and winning the Memorial Cup with his Saint John club.
Now the kid from Mario’s old junior town, Laval, Quebec, is turning pro, and there are seven players on one-way NHL contracts ahead of him on the Penguins’ depth chart. Every one of them with the exception of Paul Martin spent time in the American Hockey League before reaching the NHL, including fellow first-rounders Brooks Orpik (152 AHL games) and Matt Niskanen (13).
Although you better believe the kid who turned 20 late last month believes he might have another surprise in him, all signs point to Despres beginning the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. After all, it’s an imposing jump from junior to the NHL, and the Penguins can afford to have him there.
“He’s only 20 years old, very raw, very young coming into his first pro year,” says Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins’ assistant to the general manager. “He’s a little more educated on what is expected in training camp because he stuck around for two training camps a little bit longer than most kids, which will be beneficial to him, but at the end of the day, it’s about the proper development and the proper path you take with these kids.
“I truly believe we have the right pieces to insulate kids, allow them to grow at their own pace down in the American League. It’s an excellent option for them. We don’t need to rush anybody into NHL games; we can develop them and allow them to play in all areas of the game. Simon, that’s probably the path he’s going to take.”
Former NHL forward and NHL head coach Gerard Gallant, who was behind the Saint John bench while Despres and his teammates won the Memorial Cup, understands the challenges ahead for Despres but thinks he’s ready for the big time. Now.
“It’s a big jump from junior to NHL , especially for a defenseman, but the kid knows that. He’s matured and I think he’s ready to play in the NHL,” says Gallant. “He’s an outstanding player, probably the player in our league who, when he was playing well, he was a man amongst boys. He just dominated certain nights.”
Despres is an impressive skater for his size, has real offensive ability and the kind of hockey sense that keeps him from making mistakes in his own end. In fact, Gallant said the only time Despres got into trouble last season was “when he tried to do too much. He has a complete game.”
There’s no doubt that game will translate to the NHL very soon. It just doesn’t look like it will be this October, although Fitzgerald added: “But then again, you never know. That’s why you have camp.”