Prior to Simon Despres'
arrival in Saint John, the Sea Dogs were hurting. Saint John had finished with the second-worst record in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2005-06 and the worst record in 2006-07.
Those poor finishes, however, enabled Saint John to pick first in three consecutive QMJHL drafts, which allowed the team to significantly bolster its blue line with the selections of Alex Grant
in 2005, Yann Sauve
in 2006 and Despres in 2007.
Since Despres' arrival, the Sea Dogs' bite is beginning to live up to its bark.
Saint John finished second in the Eastern Division last season with a 41-22-4-3 record. This season, they're in third place in the highly competitive Atlantic Division, with a 22-18-2-2 record.
And Despres, an offensive defenseman, is the top-rated QMJHL prospect for the 2009 Entry Draft, according to NHL Central Scouting's Preliminary Rankings, released in October.
Despres had 13 assists and 14 points in 64 games last season; through 42 games this season, he has 18 assists and 19 points.
The stats back up Despres' contention that his ability to play with the puck and help in transition is what makes him an attractive prospect.
"I like skating with the puck and I make a good first pass out of my defensive zone," he said. "I can read the play really well. If I have an opportunity to make good passes and help my team break out of their own zone, then I try to."
Sea Dogs coach Jacques Beaulieu has coached junior-level teams for 12 years and has been with Saint John since 2006, and he believes Despres is the best defenseman he's ever coached. He's almost certain his star pupil will go in the first round of this June's Entry Draft.
"I personally think that he's going to be a first-round pick, but we'll have to wait and see in June in Montreal," Beaulieu said. "I think for sure out of the 12 years of junior that I've been a coach, I think he's the best defenseman that I've ever had. I think he's a more complete package than any of the defensemen I've ever coached in the past."
Despres tries to block out such praise, as well as thoughts about what awaits him this summer. He knows he must continue to post results on the ice if he wants to fulfill his dreams.
"It's just a draft," Despres said. "Hockey is played on the ice and it's about players that come to camp in the best shape. A guy drafted in the first round could get passed by a guy that was drafted in the seventh round. The draft means something, but not everything. I focus on it, but not that much."
It is a veteran statement, one that clearly has been shaped through his exposure to older players that have been through the same process. Foremost among them are his fellow defensemen, Grant and Sauve.
Grant, 19, was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins
in the fourth round of the 2007 Entry Draft, while the 18-year-old Sauve was taken by Vancouver in the second round in 2008.
"Grant and Sauve have been really helpful because they have leadership qualities and they have the experience of being here," Despres said. "They also had the experience of playing in their draft year, which I'm in now. They know what this year is like for me, and when I have difficulty they answer all of my questions. I try not to ask too many questions straight-up, but they are still very helpful."
Despres usually is paired him with Grant, who also is a mobile defenseman not afraid to join the rush.
"He's playing with Alex Grant
, who is more of an offensive defenseman as well," Beaulieu said. "He's learned from Alex, for sure. He (Despres) came here last year and it was his first year so he's really grown up with Alex. Alex has certainly helped him throughout his time here."
While Grant, in his fourth season in Saint John, has taught Despres a lot, Beaulieu makes the point that Despres has developed a lot of pro attributes on his own.
"He thinks like a pro and he wants to be a pro," Beaulieu said. "He works very hard off the ice. He's in the gym a lot and he takes care of his body by eating properly, gets proper rest and his time management is very good."
Despres knows that while he and Grant are dangerous offensively, they have to cover for each other defensively when one joins the rush.
"We both read the play really well and we're both offensive-minded defenseman and we are very dangerous in the offensive zone when we are both on the ice," Despres said. "We both join the rush and start the breakout in our zone. When one of us jumps into the play offensively we are aware that the other one has to stay back. I work hard and win all of the little battles, or try to. I try to finish all of my hits so the other team doesn't come back in the corner."
Contact Adam Schwartz at email@example.com.