When Simon Despres
first pulled a Penguins sweater over his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame as the 30th pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, he was joining an organization fresh off two consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances and two weeks removed from a thrilling Game 7 victory over the Red Wings and subsequent parade through downtown Pittsburgh.
He hopes to be wearing that Penguins sweater again when the archrival Philadelphia Flyers
come calling on Opening Night 2010 at the new Consol Energy Center.
In the meantime, it's all about continual development -- which, for the 19-year-old Despres, started last season for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It has continued through to the most recent Team Canada World Juniors development camp, where Despres was among 46 invitees.
The progress has been as overwhelming -- in a positive sense -- as the situation Despres joined on Draft Day 2009, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by team management.
"You can see the transformation in his body in one year," Penguins Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald told reporters before the team's recent development camp.
"When you try to forecast in five years what that big body is going to look like, that's pretty exciting to think about."
Even Despres, normally as modest and soft-spoken as they come, noticed the changes in his game.
"This past year has been the best hockey year of my life so far," he told NHL.com. "I put on a couple of pounds. Now, I'm more mean in the corners. I wasn't that mean [when I got drafted]."
But the physical growth was only natural. What's more impressive has been the difference in self-perception.
"I think I improved a lot on my confidence, which was always a big thing with me," Despres said. "Now, it's a big aspect of my game. And my shot got better, too."
He may as well have been referring to his chances of cracking the lineup come October, which certainly would've been great had General Manager Ray Shero
not brought in established free-agent defensemen Paul Martin
and Zbynek Michalek
. Those acquisitions -- or the competition they bring with them, rather -- are among the only roadblocks on Despres' journey to the NHL.
So while that remains a question mark, the attention now is turned to making an exclamation point at the World Juniors development camp in St. Johns, Newfoundland, an event Despres is especially proud of being involved with.
"You [get the chance to] compare yourself to the best in the country," he said of the experience. "It gets you in shape for the main camp, too. It's great."
It's also been a reunion of sorts. Fellow Sea Dog Nathan Beaulieu
was among the invitees to camp and he couldn't be happier with having had Despres around.
"He took me under his wing," Beaulieu told NHL.com. "He is a great player, and I learned a lot from him. He taught me some important things and it was really fun to be at the same camp because I remember when I was 16, I looked up to him. Now, I'm on the same team as him. It was a lot of fun playing with him and it made it that much better that I knew him."
Beaulieu's praises also highlight the growth in intangibles for Despres, as leadership has been an effort led more by example than vernacular, but time has changed the smooth-skating quiet kid.
Despres' take was more modest.
"He didn’t know anyone here," he said of Beaulieu. "So I'm helping him here and am telling him to enjoy and be confident and just play your game."
That sage advice is a motto that Despres himself subscribes to. Just ask what his goals are.
"In the short term, I want to try to have as much fun as I can with (Team Canada) camp and then camp with the Penguins," he said. "Then, my goal is to start the season there and stay there. But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't matter. I'll continue to work to try to get better and hopefully one day I will."