PITTSBURGH -- In part because of the outstanding organizational depth at the position, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been carrying eight defensemen.
Now that the first injury of the season has hit the team, the fruits of that depth will begin to be realized.
Matt Niskanen will be out for two-to-four weeks with an ankle injury sustained early in the Penguins' 2-1 shootout win Sunday at Ottawa. In the immediate future, that means rookie Simon Despres regains his spot in the lineup. The former first-round pick will be paired with Kris Letang to open the game Tuesday against the New York Islanders.
"He's an exceptionally good defenseman -- he talks a lot out there, he's easy to play with," Despres said of Letang. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
Despres, 21, spent the early part of the abbreviated training camp paired with Letang, whom many pundits view as a Norris Trophy candidate. But when the season opened, it was Niskanen who was to the left of Letang.
Despres did, however, make the team in what was a somewhat surprising move only because he did not need to clear waivers to be sent back down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. Ironically, the player who lost out on the Penguins' decision to keep Despres in the NHL, Brian Strait, was claimed by the Islanders, is taking a regular shift next to captain Mark Streit and will face his former team Tuesday.
A favorite of coach Dan Bylsma for obvious reasons -- Despres' pure skating and puckhandling skills are surpassed only by Letang among Penguins defensemen -- Despres averaged almost 10 minutes of ice time through Pittsburgh's first three games. However, he was a healthy scratch in the Penguins' two most recent contests in favor of more stay-at-home Ben Lovejoy.
"[Despres] played well for us; he did some good things when he was in the lineup," Bylsma said. "He wasn't reprimanded when he got out -- 'You're not playing well.' There was just some consistency in his game and decision-making that would make him better at both ends of the rink, defending and offensively. That's part of his maturation process."
A left-handed shot, Despres will play on the left side with right-handed Letang on the right. Niskanen, a righty, liked taking one-timers from Letang when he played on Letang's left side. Letang shrugged off any suggestion of a readjustment period to a new defense partner.
"It's a different partner, but we all play the same system, so it's going to be the same," Letang said.
"I think (Despres) did pretty well [in the first three games he played]. He just needs to focus on his defensive game. Everybody knows he's got great abilities and got great skills and has got a good shot and can skate really well. I think he just needs to get better defensively and learning the game better."
Bylsma said Despres can fill Niskanen's void at the point of the Penguins' second power-play unit. Still, even if he is usually paired Tuesday with Letang, Despres doesn't expect Letang-like minutes.
Letang played 29:10 Sunday in Ottawa, and veterans Brooks Orpik (28:28) and Paul Martin (31:06) also logged considerable time. Though the ice time numbers probably won't be that gaudy, expect the trend of those three playing significantly more than Despres, Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland to continue.
"We've got a lot of good defensemen on this team," Despres said. "We've got to get ice time to a lot of people."