Simon Despres should have plenty of time in an NHL uniform ahead of him as the former first-round selection’s only 19 years old. But Despres, a native of Laval, QC, is bound and determined to crack the Penguins’ roster — and he’s got the confidence to back up his words.
“I always had confidence, but my first two years of junior, I didn’t have as much. Last year, I worked on my confidence and that’s why I’m having the success I have,” he said. “I’m going to try and fight for a spot and you never know. I’m really very confident and I’m going to try to do my best.
“If not, I’ll go back to junior and work on a few things. I just want to keep getting better everyday.”
Despres’ overall game has jumped markedly. Following an experience last year at the Penguins’ rookie camp, the 6’4 blueliner enjoyed his best season overall scoring nine goals and adding 38 assists in 63 games for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. He followed that up with an almost point-per-game performance in the QMJHL playoffs, where he earned 19 points in 21 games. He credits his fellow Sea Dogs for helping him find his sea legs.
“There were a lot of different things. We had a winning team, a great group of guys, and excellent coaches, which helps,” he said. “It was a good change.”
With the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie tournament coming to an end, Despres has been pleased with the majority of his play — going so far that he feels more comfortable amongst the pro ranks.
“It’s a lot simpler. It’s actually easier to play up here,” Despres said. “Guys are a lot better and you know where the guys are going to be. In junior, sometimes, the guys don’t know where they’re going. They’re also bigger and stronger here and harder on the puck.
“I’m just trying to keep it simple and make smart plays.”
John Hynes, head coach of the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre Scranton affiliate and coach of the Penguins’ entry into the rookie tournament, said despite his words, Despres is putting pressure on himself — especially since lingering junior eligibility means that it’s NHL or the Q for the young blueliner.
“I think he is [pushing a little bit]. I think he’s a very motivated player and he wants to progress here,” Hynes said. “He knows that the better he plays here, then the longer he gets to stay.”
Despres has been able to self-critique his game and admitted that trying to do too much has impacted his performance.
“Today I had a couple of turnovers because I was trying to do too much. I kept it simple after that and from that point I think it went great,” he said. “I just couldn’t hit the net for trying! I was getting frustrated at the end, but that’s another thing I have to work at.
“I need to work on the little things. Every day it’s a different thing and there’s always work to be done.”
Hynes said he’s been impressed with Despres’ performance both on and off the ice during this rookie tournament. In fact, he’s leaned on the young Quebecer as a leader of this young squad.
“He’s another player who has been to our camps before. Last year he did a great job in rookie camp and he got in some some NHL exhibition games,” Hynes explained. “That helps build confidence and I think this year he knows that he’s going to come in here and be one of those guys that we count on. Again, he’s done a great job being a leader in our locker room.
“Even though he’s a young player, he’s a high draft pick and his work ethic’s been exceptional.”
Despres was taken 30th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, which was hosted in Montreal — just a bridge away from his hometown of Laval. That’s a moment that will live with him forever, he explained, adding that he not going to rest on those laurels.
“It was very special. My family was very proud of me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t put any pressure on myself and I wouldn’t have minded falling to the second round, but then I saw my mom crying, and I was like, ‘Oh, man,’ so I was hoping to [get selected],” he said. “I was really happy, I love this organization and it’s been good.
“Seriously I wasn’t nervous at all. After all, once you’re on the ice they don’t have number-one pick on your jersey. You look out there at [Dustin] Jeffrey — he’s a seventh-round pick and he was one of our best guys out on the ice. I don’t think the draft means that much now.”
For Despres to avoid a return to the junior ranks, he’ll have to earn a spot on the NHL roster. While he has the physical tools, Hynes added that there are certain things the young blueliner needs to work on.
“He has great physical tools; he has a great mind for the game,” Hynes said. “Now it’s physical strength, game maturity, and defensive habits — stick position, how he plays his one-on-ones, and then maturing physically and just mentally just knowing what to do in certain situations during tight times of the game.”
As for Despres, his confidence would not allow him to opine upon any frustrations he’d have returning to the QMJHL after these experiences at the professional ranks.
“I’m not going back to junior yet,” Despres said. “I’ll answer that if it comes up.”