PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Defenceman Simon Despres was described last season as being a man playing among boys in junior hockey. This season, he hopes to fully complete his jump to manhood.
Namely, by passing up minor league hockey and making the huge leap from juniors to the NHL.
Few players actually do it. But Despres appears to have the talent, the offensive tools, the puck-moving skills and the resume to go from starring for the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs to playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are only two seasons removed from winning a Stanley Cup championship.
“He might be ready,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said.
What’s interesting is that Shero made the comment during last season’s training camp, when the 19-year-old Despres lasted until the final pre-season roster cutdown.
So good, so soon, so close.
Now, following a superlative season in which he further transitioned himself into a multi-dimensional player, it might Despres’ time. Even while expanding his game, he led Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to a league-record 58 victories and the Canadian Hockey League championship.
Winning the Memorial Cup has been called the toughest feat in hockey outside of raising the Stanley Cup. Despres didn’t realize what an accomplishment it was until a few days after the No. 30 pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft wrapped up his final season in juniors.
“I started to realize it was a big thing we did,” Despres said Tuesday. “You start the season with almost 60 teams and everyone wants that trophy. At the end, we finished on top and it was a very special feeling.”
Still, Despres could celebrate for only about a month before he began offseason conditioning. This week, he is among the most-watched of the 28 players who are attending the Penguins’yearly player development camp, which runs through Saturday.
Despres and forward Eric Tangradi, who played in 17 NHL games last season, are the players taking part who are most likely to start the season with Pittsburgh in October.
Not that Despres is about to get that far ahead of himself.
“Winning the Memorial Cup finished off a very good junior career, and I think I’m ready to take on my pro career,” Despres said. “I really don’t know what to think. I’m going into camp thinking I want to make the team and I want to work hard to do that, but if I have to go to Wilkes-Barre (of the AHL) I will work that much harder just to get to the NHL.”
Despres, the Emile Bouchard Trophy winner as the QMJHL’s top defenceman, already has shown the Penguins enough to make them think he’s ready—now. During training camp a year ago, coach Dan Bylsma liked how Despres wasn’t differential to stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, zipping the puck to them when they were open but not trying to force passes when they weren’t.
“He’s just not handing the puck over,” Bylsma said.
While he’s still a teenager–he won’t be 20 until July 27–Despres has been a closely watched prospect for years while growing up in Laval, Quebec, Montreal’s largest suburb and the hometown of NHL legends Mario Lemieux and Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.
That ability to play under pressure from an early age may explain Despres’ uncommon poise and maturity.
“I learned a lot just being in (the Penguins’) camp last year,” Despres said. “I’m going to try to learn in this camp. All the staff is here watching and you want to be very professional and serious and show them you’re ready to be a pro.”
Last season, the acquisitions of big-ticket defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin may have been all that prevented Despres from making his NHL debut. Even after they returned him to his junior team, the Penguins were so convinced that he is nearly a finished product that they traded defenceman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for forward James Neal last season.
Known primarily as an offensive defenceman early in his career, Despres displayed much-improved defensive and penalty-killing abilities last season even while accumulating 13 goals and 28 assists in 47 games last season.
In the World Juniors, a tournament where deficiencies show up in a hurry, the six-foot-four, 205-pound Despres was relied upon primarily for his defensive skills.
“I learned how to play defence—very good defence—and I worked on my nutrition. You’ve got to be good off the ice, too, you just can’t always go out and party,” Despres said. “I knew I always had defensive abilities. My only issue before was confidence and I think I’ve gained that.”
Now, he’s out to gain an NHL job. And not necessarily in 2012 or 2013.
“I think my style of game fits in with this organization,” Despres said. “Hopefully (it’s this season).”