The Penguins organization is stacked with great defensive depth both at the NHL level and in the system.
One of which is a French-speaking Quebec native, who played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was drafted by Pittsburgh, won a medal in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada and won the Emile “Butch” Bouchard Trophy as QMJHL’s best defenseman.
Can you guess which player is described above?
If you said Kris Letang, you are correct.
But if you said Simon Despres, you are also correct.
Despres, 21, completed his first season of professional hockey in 2011-12, mostly seeing action with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, the Penguins’ top minor-league affiliate.
Despres, a physically-mature player at 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, also had a taste of the NHL, appearing in 18 games with Pittsburgh during the season, and made his NHL postseason debut in a 10-3 Penguins win in Game 4 at Philadelphia.
“I love playing in big games. That’s why I play hockey,” said Despres, who was paired with Letang during the playoff game and finished a plus-2. “I was very happy to get a chance to play in that game. I took the most out of it. When the puck dropped all the fans were screaming. It was a crazy series, too. My first game it was 10-3 for us. It was a lot of fun.”
Despres enjoyed a remarkable junior career with Saint John from 2007-11. The defensive leader and alternate captain led the Sea Dogs to the QMJHL championship and Memorial Cup title in 2011 en route to winning the Bouchard Award. In his final two seasons with Saint John, Despres posted 134 points (25G-109A) and a plus-55 rating in 110 contests. He also helped Canada win a silver medal in the WJC.
Despres, Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2009, made the transition from junior to pro hockey last year.
“It’s a big difference, junior to pro,” Despres said. “You have an easy life in junior. All you have to do is play hockey and go to school and hang out with the boys. There isn’t anything else to worry about.”
Despres needed some time to adapt and find his rhythm, but he transformed into one of the team’s better defensemen by the season’s end.
“I learned how to read the play more and not force things, not do too much,” Despres said. “I let the puck do the work and trust your teammates, not try to do everything by yourself.
“I learned a lot and I’m still learning. I have a long way to go.”
Heading into the current season, Despres wants to be the WBS' best defensman. The coaching staff also has high expectations of the defensive talent.
“We want to see him be a very good defender, where he can use his size and skating and strength to be a dominant player defensively as far as being tough to play against,” WBS head coach John Hynes said. “Offensively, using his skating to support the rush and be involved as we saw he could do last year at both levels. Keep things simple and utilize his shot from the blue line. He has a good shot, but now it’s about the accuracy and timing of getting shots through to the net consistently.”
As he continues to improve his play on the ice, Despres gets closer and closer to realizing his life’s goal. And soon Letang may not be the only French-speaking Quebec native, Bouchard award-winning, Team Canada medalist on the Penguins’ blue line.
“Since I started playing hockey my wish was to play in the NHL,” Despres said. “To get that chance last year was extraordinary. Now that I tasted it a little bit I want more. I’m going to work hard to do that. I’ll listen to the coaches and try to get there.”