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World Juniors "Big Step" for Despres

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s not often that Penguins prospect Simon Despres is humbled when it comes to the game of hockey, a sport he has excelled at since putting on his first pair of skates.

But the Penguins’ first-round pick (30th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft was just that – humbled – when it came to his World Junior Championships experience.

And both Despres and Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald couldn’t say enough about the lessons the 19-year-old blueliner took from his time playing for Team Canada at the tournament, which took place Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Buffalo, N.Y.

“I’m sure he was a bit humbled at times through the World Junior process because of things he got away with (in juniors), he couldn't get away with there,” Fitzgerald said. “Then when (the Team Canada coaching staff) told him you’re not going to play if you continue down this path, to his credit, he figured it out and had a really good World Juniors.”

Despres is a horse of a defenseman at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, that possesses impressive mobility, puckhandling skills and a nose for the net. He’s always been projected as a defenseman with some offensive capabilities, scoring a career-high 13 goals in 47 games this past season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).

But in order to make Team Canada, the coaching staff told Despres he had to change his style of play to become more dependable on the blue line if he wanted to make the team.

“Going to training camp and to the camp in the summer, I wasn't sure of making the team because Team Canada considered me as a high-risk defenseman,” Despres said. “They told me that if I just wanted to make the team, I had to be low risk and be dependable and make the simple plays.”

So although it wasn’t an easy process by any means, Despres, who notched three assists and was a plus-7 rating in seven games while helping Canada to a silver medal, did just that.

“I started off the tournament as the sixth ‘D’ and didn't play much,” he said. “But in the finals and the semifinals I was playing like every two or three shifts, so I was very happy with my performance over there.

“Each game I was getting better and gaining (the coaches’) confidence, and I think I did a good job at the junior tournament. As the games went on, I just got better and they gave me more ice time.”

Despres has attended the last two Penguins training camps, where Fitzgerald and assistant coach Todd Reirden have worked on instilling the team’s defensive philosophies into the young defenseman, mainly the mantra that “less is more” when it comes to playing on the back end.

Heeding the Penguins’ advice and implementing the lessons he learned from camp helped him land that spot on Team Canada’s roster.

“Playing for Team Canada, they’re icons up there, these kids. Every game is on national TV. So that was a big step,” Fitzgerald said. “To his credit, he figured it out in his head what he needed to do to get more ice time and I think in the process, I think eventually it all comes back to where it started, with Todd Reirden and the words that we use – less is more.

“He figured it out during that whole World Junior process, and he was very effective. He helped that team as best he could in a role that was probably different. It is different than the role he plays in Saint John. So he got to see two sides of it.”

Fitzgerald is confident the experience will once again put Despres in a fierce competition for a roster spot once his third training camp arrives in September.

“I think what also the World Juniors did for him is added something to his arsenal,” he said. “I think he figured out that there is the best of both worlds – a defend-first mentality, but help your team offensively by jumping up at certain times, having a good gap and creating offense by a having that tight gap that can create turnovers to create offensive chances.

“I think he’s going to be a guy that’s going to have a long career. He’s got a bright future with this organization and be a top defender.”

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