On Saturday, July 16, the Penguins conclude their 2011 prospect development camp with a team scrimmage open to the public at Consol Energy Center. One of the focal points for many fans in attendance will be blossoming young defenseman Simon Despres.
I had planned to discuss Despres before I left to attend the camp today, but this desire was increased by a link I saw over at letsgopens.com. From time to time, I enjoy lurking the boards over there, and to my pleasant surprise I saw a discussion about Despres.
At that link, there was reference to a TSN article where there are some great quotes about the expectations from both team and player sides.
In the TSN article, Despres said, "Winning the Memorial Cup finished off a very good junior career, and I think I'm ready to take on my pro career."
He continued, "I'm going into camp thinking I want to make the team and I want to work hard to do that, but if I have to go to Wilkes-Barre (of the AHL) I will work that much harder just to get to the NHL."
Those quotes leave nothing to the imagination. Simon Despres wants to make it to the NHL now.
Last preseason, he came pretty darn close by having a training camp where, unlike the past preseason, he looked confident with the puck and made solid decisions at both ends of the ice.
Back to the TSN article, GM Ray Shero said, "He might be ready." That is not exactly preparing the fanbase for the trip to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that Despres may have to make by October.
Expectations for Despres, it would seem, are high. The fact that Shero allows room for him to make this team means, well, that he does have a chance to make this team.
If there is one thing you can say about Shero with certainty, it is that he is pretty straight forward when it comes to what he says to the media. While not one to tip his hand, he is also not one to say things just to make headlines.
In the TSN piece, Despres said in no uncertain terms that he understands his chance. "I'm going to try to learn in this camp. All the staff is here watching and you want to be very professional and serious and show them you're ready to be a pro."
The question really becomes, what has to happen for Despres to make the NHL Penguins directly out of training camp? There are four defenseman on the team that are cemented in to the lineup: Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.
Past those four, there are three other defenseman that fight for playing time: Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy and Matt Niskanen. Lovejoy played well at the end of last season but did have a rough playoffs. Engelland has become one of the tougher fighters in the game, so there will be many nights where he is in the lineup based on that alone.
At the end of the day, the competition comes down to Simon Despres and Matt Niskanen. Niskanen had a rough go of things in his time in Pittsburgh after arriving with James Neal in the Alex Goligoski deal.
While I'm not convinced Niskanen can be the defenseman the Penguins want, head coach Dan Bylsma did him no favors by pairing him with Lovejoy. Lovejoy was also learning the ropes in the NHL, so he was not able to bail Niksy out like a veteran such as Martin or Michalek may be able to.
Sadly, if the competition is only going to be between those two players that means Despres can win a shot as sixth or seventh defenseman at best. At that point, it seems that it would be best for Despres to spend this season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
While that may not be the most popular choice among the fanbase, or even myself, the overall development of Despres is what is most important.
Unless he is guaranteed a spot as a fifth or sixth defenseman, the AHL will be the best route for Despres—at least it will be to start the season. It is not outside the realm of possibility to say that Despres plays well enough in the AHL to warrant a re-evaluation of this by Christmas.