By Kyle Shohara
Sometimes, all it takes is a change of scenery and a new opportunity. Such was the case with young defenseman Simon Despres, the soft-spoken 23-year-old whom the Ducks acquired from Pittsburgh for blueliner Ben Lovejoy in a Trade Deadline deal last March.
Not much was admittedly known of the physical defenseman – a former first-round pick of the Penguins in the 2009 NHL Draft – at least in the mind of head coach Bruce Boudreau, who at first thought the Ducks were getting a quality depth d-man.
“I was thinking we were getting a raw, fairly green guy,” Boudreau said. “I thought, mistakenly so, that when we got him and I looked at our charts, he’d be a really good seventh [defenseman]. But he came right in and had composure, was physical and did all the right things.”
Indeed, he did. Despres found instant chemistry with Cam Fowler, and the duo shined in the final two months of the season and all throughout the playoffs. Despres has size (6-4, 214) and mobility, and he has the ability to play the right side as a left-handed shot. In fact, Despres says he prefers the right side, having played his off-side since his days with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He won the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the QMJHL's defenseman of the year for the 2010-11 season.
Despres scored his first goal as a Duck in the club’s division-clinching 5-1 win, April 1 vs. Edmonton, and earned his first point (assist) and tied his career high with a +3 rating in his Anaheim debut, March 3 at Arizona. It was quite the debut for Despres, who admitted he was angry when he first got word of the trade.
“I was definitely [ticked] off a little bit at the beginning,” he said. “I was with the [Penguins] organization for six years, so it was definitely tough on me. Some of my friends, I’m leaving them behind. But I’ll make new friends here, and it looks like a really good team to be with.”
Despres fit in seamlessly with his new teammates, as evident by the big, cheesy grin that graced his face on a daily basis. He’s part of a young nucleus of defensemen which include Fowler (23), Hampus Lindholm (21) and Sami Vatanen (24).
In all, Despres combined for three goals and 23 points with a +11 rating and 86 penalty minutes in 75 games with the Ducks and Penguins in 2014-15, and set career highs in all major offensive categories, including goals, assists, points, plus/minus and games played.
His impressive play carried over into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he and Fowler logged big minutes throughout all three rounds, including a marathon triple-overtime thriller in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final vs. Chicago. Despres entered the postseason with six games of experience during his time with the Penguins, going scoreless. He wasted no time getting on the board with the Ducks by earning his first career postseason point (assist) in Game 2 of the First round, April 18 vs. Winnipeg.
From there, Despres recorded two assists in his first career multi-point/assist playoff contest in Game 3 of the Second Round, May 5 at Calgary.
Despres finished the postseason with seven points and a +4 rating, appearing in all 16 games for Anaheim while also finishing second among team defensemen in hits (43) and third in blocked shots (30).
Despres’ goal in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final at United Center served as the defining moment in his short time with the Ducks. Not only was the goal his first ever in the postseason, it served as the game-winning tally in a tightly contested battle with the Blackhawks, who, up to that point, had yet to lose a home game in the playoffs (5-0).
The ever-modest Despres was his usual self following the victory. “It was definitely a big one to score a game-winning goal in the third round against Chicago,” he said. “Getzy made a nice play. We moved the puck well on that shift.”
Boudreau was more effervescent in his comments. “His goal was a great one-timer. He doesn't get a chance to one-time the puck too often from his position. It was a great goal and a great shot.”