There’s an old stereotype that the QMJHL only produces one-dimensional scoring forwards and butterfly-style goaltenders. Many who follow the league on a regular basis constantly refute this idea, but like any ingrained thinking, old beliefs are hard to shake.
Perhaps one of the best examples of how incorrect this misconception is can be found in the number of defensemen who dot the top tier of the 2009 draft-eligible players from the QMJHL. Near the top of that list is Saint John Sea Dogs blue liner Simon Despres.
Joining the Sea Dogs as a 16-year-old rookie for the 2007-08 season, Despres played a secondary role, mainly charged with playing a safe and reliable game in his own end. Living up to his pedigree as the first overall selection in the 2007 QMJHL Entry Draft, he performed near flawlessly, often helping cover for the club’s more offensively adept defensemen when they joined the play. As former Sea Dogs assistant coach Jim Midgley explained, "he was a 16-year-old kid coming into the league. We had some veteran guys like Alex Grant, (Yann) Sauve, (David) Stitch and (Pascal) Amyot who played a few more games in the league and we took him through slowly."
Overall, Despres finished his first season with a single goal and 14 points in 64 games before adding four assists over the course of 14 playoff matches.
When the 2008-09 season rolled around, Despres was asked to step his game up for the club and he responded well. Embracing a more two-way role, Despres’ offensive totals took a jump where he more than doubled his rookie output with two goals and 32 points in 66 games. His strong play allowed Saint John to feel comfortable dealing team captain Alex Grant (PIT) and veteran blueliner Pascal Amyot away during the trade period. As Midgley explained, Despres’ mature and steady game soon led to an even larger role.
"He definitely has more ice time now without Alex, he’s playing on our power play now. With Alex leaving and Pascal leaving, it’s just opened up more opportunities for him and he’s taken advantage of it. He’s a guy we lean on quite heavily as a 17-year-old."
Perhaps most remarkable is that Despres spent the second half of the year, when he was depended on the most, playing through pain, as he finally admitted recently to NHL.com. Suffering a hip injury in December, Despres continued to fill a workhorse role for the team.
Despite his strong play, it was a disappointing year for the Sea Dogs. After expectations of being the top team in the Atlantic Division, the Sea Dogs never lived up to those lofty hopes. By the time the QMJHL trade period opened, the team chose to trade off veterans like Grant, Amyot and forward Chris Didomenico (TOR) in an effort to reload for the 2009-10 season. The team finished third in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the league with 72 points. Entering the playoffs as Saint John’s top defenseman, Despres had four assists in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Despres’ season was not done, however, as he joined Team Canada for the World U18 Championships. Despres wore an ‘A’ as one of the team’s alternate captains as Canada finished fourth. Again limited by his hip, in six games, he had two points, both of them assists.
In hockey-speak, the idea of the full package player who can do everything that is asked of him gets thrown around far too often, but in Despres’ case, this ideal fits like a glove. Midgley describes him as "a big strong kid, a guy we can lean on, a great skater."
At 6’4" and 214 pounds, Despres’ size does not limit his mobility on the ice.
"He’s just an unbelievable skater and when he hooks towards the net, it’s pretty to watch," said Midgley.
It is hard to say if having the height advantage also helps Despres see the play better, but in any case, his vision serves him well both in offensive and defensive situations. He quickly recognizes opportunities and reacts in a safe and controlled manner, be it a smooth pass out of the zone or thwarting an offensive opportunity.
"He’s arguably our best defenseman, no doubt about that," said Midgley. He plays with the top lines right now and he just gets better every time he’s on the ice. "
Out of everything, it is Despres’ dedication to the game that Midgley highlighted in particular.
"He loves the game and that’s what’s good about him is that he’s got a lot of passion for it. We have to kick him off the ice, kick him out of the weight room and tell him to get his rest because he just loves being out there."
Despite all these pieces, the puzzle that is Despres is far from complete. Although he has such tantalizing size, Despres is not known for his physical play. As Kim Houston of Central Scouting described, "sometimes I think he plays a little soft, in the middle of the zone, maybe he doesn’t feel he has to have that physical element, but he’s going to find out at the next level, he’s got to be a little bit more physical, especially in his own end."
Midgley attributed Despres’ preference to tie up opposing forwards instead of punishing them with his frame to his physical growth and his young age, saying "when his strength catches up to his body, he’ll be fine."
Although Despres did see power-play time in the second half of the season and can move the puck well, his strength is definitely not in the offensive zone, mainly due to his shot. This is something that Midgley mentioned as one of the primary things Despres is working on improving.
"That’s one thing he knows he needs to work on is his shot," Midgley said.
Houston felt that Despres still has some untapped scoring potential, stating that "he’s got great puck skills, he’s very creative, he’s got a real good offensive component to him."
Some lackluster performances in the QMJHL playoffs and the U18s have left some wondering if Despres will truly be able to put it all together and realize his potential. Answering the call as Saint John’s top defenseman as a 17-year-old while also playing through lingering pain from the hip injury, it is easy to see why his effectiveness was diminished at the end of the year. However, no NHL team will know how well he can bounce back to start the 2009-10 season until after they spend a draft pick on him on this weekend.
After flirting with the top QMJHL draft eligible spot in the eyes of many scouting services throughout the season, Despres’ struggles as another year of hockey came to a close may have dropped his stock. Midgley was quick to point out the extra attention never seemed to bother Despres and he remained confident in the future of the young player, saying "he’s definitely going to be a superstar, we truly believe that."