Pittsburgh Penguins Assistant GM Jason Botterill says there’s one question that he and the team’s front office always ask when evaluating a player: “Have they played in big games?”
Next to defenseman Simon Despres‘ name he can now write ‘Yes’.
Despres, the Penguins first round pick in the 2009 draft, led the Saint John Sea Dogs to a 3-1 win over the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors on Sunday for the first Memorial Cup in team history. [The Cup is awarded to the top team in all of Canadian junior hockey]
The victory capped off an impressive season for Saint Johns that saw them win a QMJHL-record 58 games. Obviously with that kind of success comes attention from the scouting world.
The Sea Dogs roster featured seven players who have already been drafted, as well as another seven in the Top 100 of NHL Central Scouting’s 2011 draft rankings. While most scouts and fans were focused on the performances of draft-eligible studs Jonathan Huberdeau (ranked #3) and Nathan Beaulieu (#5), the Penguins and their front office had their eye on Despres.
“It excites us that he’s playing in big games,” Botterill said. “We want [our prospects] to get used to playing on the big stage. Sure, it’s a level lower [than the NHL], but you still have the intensity and the pressure of raising your game in huge situations.”
With his team shorthanded just two minutes into the first period, Despres raised his game and took charge:
The goal was a perfect demonstration of Despres’ skillset: awareness, smooth-skating, mobility, imposing size, and even a rocket of a wrist shot that he was able to develop in his extra season of junior hockey.
Despres impressed the Penguins staff at last year’s training camp, but coach Dan Bylsma said keeping him at the pro level didn’t make sense at the time.
“Given our opening night roster and given the makeup of our defense, there’s not a lot of minutes available for Simon,” Bylsma said on the final day of camp.
The coach also knew Saint John would be relying on Despres to play an important offensive role for their team this year that would allow him to develop confidence, as well as new skills like his shot.
“He’s done a lot of good things, but making a mistake would create a situation that I’m not sure is good for Simon’s development. I’m not sure sticking around and not playing is best for his development.”
Bylsma was right. In addition to leading the Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup, Despres made the most of his final season by also winning the Emile “Butch” Bouchard Trophy as best defenseman in the QMJHL. At times, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder looked like a man amongst boys.
Botterill and the front office staff liked what they saw offensively out of Despres with the Sea Dogs this year, but it was as a member of Team Canada at the World Junior Championships when Despres really showed them his full potential.
“I know he can move the puck well, I know he has good mobility, but you never really know what a guy’s offensive upside is going to be at the NHL level,” Botterill said. “At the World Juniors he played [effectively in] a defensive role, more as a penalty-killing guy. He’s now shown that he probably has better defensive abilities and penalty-killing skills than we ever thought he had. I think that will help him get to the NHL quicker and who knows where that might take him.”
If Despres follows in the footsteps of another QMJHL alum, he could be at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
Kris Letang, the Penguins third-round pick in 2005, left Val d’Or and spent just ten games with Wilkes-Barre (AHL) in his first pro season before being recalled. He never returned to the minors and at age 24 is already finding himself in Norris Trophy conversations.
However, the 2006 Penguins looked quite a bit different defensively than the current edition that already features Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Botterill says that kind of depth means it’s probably not realistic to expect Despres to crack the lineup out of training camp.
“A guy like Simon Despres is going to obviously need time,” Botterill said. “You never close any doors because he’s performed well in training camp for us, but we’re also not in a situation where we have to put him in our lineup right away.”
In a league where speed has surpassed size as the game’s most important attribute, a 6-foot-4 defenseman who can effortlessly weave through traffic might be called the total package.
Physically, Despres may have been ready to make the jump to the NHL last year. But it’s the mental aspects of the game that can never be taken for granted with any young player, especially a defenseman.
Just ask Michael Del Zotto what was going through his mind last year at this time. Del Zotto burst onto the scene out of juniors as a powerplay force for the New York Rangers in 2009 and fully expected to be leading his team into the playoffs this spring.
Instead, the 20-year-old took huge steps backward and finished the year in the minors nursing a broken finger and a shattered confidence, putting his future with the team in question.
“You want to make sure these guys are prepared,” Botterill said. “You never want to be in a situation where you’re rushing a defenseman. It’s a tough game and if you make a mistake as a defenseman everyone’s going to see it. With forwards, if they make a mistake on the forecheck, at least they have their defense and goaltending waiting to help. If you make mistakes as a defenseman it can be difficult [mentally].”
Regardless of where Despres spends the 2010-11 season, Botterill is content with the instruction and help he’ll get from the organization’s coaching staffs at all levels.
“I love where we’re at [with our coaches],” Botterill said. “Whether it’s [Pittsburgh assistant coach] Todd Reirden, a former defenseman who did a great job in Wilkes-Barre and has done a great job working with Letang and Alex Goligoski up here.”
“Or now down in Wilkes-Barre we have John Hynes, who does a great job as head coach, but also [assistant coach] Alain Nasreddine, who played in the NHL as a defenseman. [Nasreddine] has already developed a good relationship with Simon through training camp and understands him.”
GM Ray Shero believes good defensemen are hard to find in today’s NHL and has made it a point to accumulate as many as possible in recent years. The Penguins’ embarrassment of riches on the blueline last year allowed them to acquire winger James Neal from Dallas in exchange for Goligoski, who was struggling to find ice time and opportunity as a fifth defenseman.
Despres would face an even tougher challenge this year to crack a lineup with seven defenseman already signed to NHL contracts, but in many ways that’s seen as a luxury for Shero and Botterill.
With a few training camps under his belt to go along with a World Junior Championship experience and a Memorial Cup, Despres will get the chance to develop the same confidence at the minor-league level before trying his hand against the likes of Alex Ovechkin.
To paraphrase Red Wings GM Ken Holland, you’ll never regret leaving a young player in the minors for an extra season.
If the recent past is any indication, Simon Despres has a bright future with the Pittsburgh Penguins…however long it takes.