Penguins defenseman Simon Despres collected the puck in his own zone and took a quick look at the ice. He locked eyes with forward Patric Hornqvist, who had just jumped off the bench and was standing at the opposite blue line.
Despres snapped a hard, on-target pass that sprung Hornqvist into the New Jersey zone. Hornqvist unleashed a perfect shot over the shoulder of goaltender Cory Schneider.
The goal tied the Tuesday night game at 3-3, a game in which Pittsburgh would be victorious by an 8-3 margin. Despres finished the night with two assists, a plus-3 rating, three hits and was the game’s No. 2 star.
The play was also a glimpse of Despres’ potential as an NHL blueliner: the vision; the awareness of the situation; the right play read; the perfect pass. All those things, among others, are why the Penguins drafted the Laval, Quebec native in the first round (30th overall) of the 2009 NHL Draft held in Montreal.
“(Despres is) moving the puck quick and making really good decisions with the puck,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “That’s an important thing for me. If we want to be that type of team that escapes our zone fast, but you have to move that puck quick. I thought his puck decisions have been good so far.”
Despres, 23, certainly has all the tools to be a top-4 NHL defenseman. Along with his skill set, he also adds a physical element. Despres stands at 6-foot-4, 214 pounds, and leads the team’s defensemen with 26 hits. He’s not afraid to take the body.
“You look at the hit totals and our defense corps, (Despres) really adds an element which we don’t have on the backend,” Johnston said. “That balance to our defense is important.”
Despres has had a decorated career. He was the first-overall pick by Saint John in the 2007 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft. He led the team to a QMJHL championship and Memorial Cup title in 2011. That year he won the Emile “Butch” Bouchard Award as the QMJHL’s best defenseman. Despres also earned a silver medal at the 2011 World Junior Championship.
Since turning pro, Despres has played parts of the last three seasons with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He is still a young defenseman that needs to grow and improve.
“You’re never perfect. There are always things to work on,” Despres said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Everyday I’m trying to get better, get stronger and be a better player.”
Mistakes are inevitable in the game of hockey. Even the most seasoned veteran will make a gaffe. For young players, it’s important to learn from those mistakes. Despres has made his share of mistakes, but the Penguins coaching staff is letting him learn and grow through those errors.
“It’s a game of mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes,” fellow defenseman Kris Letang said. “It’s how you react to it and bounce back. He improved that aspect of the game. He focuses on the next shift and makes sure he has a strong shift every time.
“I think Simon plays a lot better when people have confidence in him. The coaches have shown that so far.”
Letang, who attended the 2009 draft in Montreal, has been one of the people Despres has leaned on from Day 1. Literally.
“Right from the start, when he got drafted, I was there. I was the first player to talk to him,” Letang said. “He’s a guy that I spend a lot of time with. I’m tying to help him out. We talk a lot. Sitting next to me (in the locker room), we’re both French Canadian. We live near each other so we spend time together.”
Despres has played the entire season alongside 10-year veteran Rob Scuderi.
“I can’t say enough about how much (Rob Scuderi has) helped me,” Despres said. “He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner. I listen to him a lot. He’s my mentor. We’re playing well together. He talks a lot and makes it easy for me. It’s going well so far.”
Despres should only improve with each season, each game, each minute. He’s shown glimpses of being the player the Penguins envisioned in 2009. It’s just a matter of letting him grow into that role.
“I think his game improved a lot,” Letang said. “He’s still young. He’s 23 years old. Defenseman usually get in the league at 25, 27. He’s still young and he’s going to learn.
“He’s becoming a great player.”