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Kovacevic: Penguins right to delay Despres

| Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 12:34 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review Penguins defenseman Simon Despres during development camp at Consol Energy Center July 10, 2012.

Simon Despres stands 6 feet, 4 inches, he's swift and skilled, and he's smart beyond his 21 years and his 21 games of NHL experience. And as the Penguins' top prospect, he might be the single most prominent piece of the franchise's future.

But all that and a couple bucks will buy him a tall iced chai as it pertains to the coming season.

“Yeah, it's going to be tough to make the team. I know that,” Despres acknowledged in the Southpointe locker room on the eve of the Penguins' cameo training camp that opens in earnest Monday. “I'm here to work hard, do my best and show what I got.”

Well, bonne chance, kid.

Doesn't appear as if there's any time for the future right now.

Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma won't come right out and say it, of course, but the cold fact for the handful of youngsters summoned to this camp from Wilkes-Barre is that there's no time in five days of drills to take a veteran's job, especially without a formal exhibition game. More important by far, there isn't enough time in a 48-game schedule to engage in let's-see-what-we've-got experiments. Certainly not for a Stanley Cup contender.

Every game counts.

Every mistake is magnified.

So don't read too much into Despres being paired with Deryk Engelland in the skating session Sunday. By the time the puck drops next weekend, Ben Lovejoy should join Engelland on that third pairing. Shero expects to keep eight defensemen to open the season, and the two extras should be Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait. That makes sense for roster management alone: Despres doesn't have to clear waivers, and all the rest do.

Really, the one prospect I hear will get a legit look at any position is big Eric Tangradi, possibly even to skate alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. And that's fine. Tangradi will turn 24 next month, he's been one of the Baby Penguins' best, and word is he's finally cut out some of the cute in his game and begun crashing the crease.

The parent Penguins could use more of the latter right away.

They could use someone in Despres' mold, too. But even if that doesn't happen at any point this season, it shouldn't be taken as discouraging for the Penguins' 2009 first-round draft pick.

To start, as Shero put it, “he's a second-year pro, for crying out loud.”

Exactly. Defensemen not named Kris Letang take time. It might not be coming at a pace that delights everyone, but Despres is getting better.

His main problem as a pro has been that he's too talented for his own good at times. Where a simple head-man pass will suffice, he'll go cross-ice and get picked off inside the blue line.

“Find the right guy, make the right pass,” Shero said.

The other problem has been conditioning.

I can tell you the Penguins were plenty disappointed with how Despres reported to camp two summers ago. And they had every right. He wasn't hitting the weights, wasn't watching his waist, and it very much showed on the ice. Some went so far as to question his dedication.

But that, by all accounts, changed this past offseason and carried into a season at Wilkes-Barre that's been steady if unspectacular.

“Simon's always been one of those guys who was so gifted, always the top guy, even without working for it,” right winger Pascal Dupuis said. “It probably surprised him how guys here are all fast, all skilled, all big ... but they also work hard in the gym and do the right things off the ice. I think Simon sees that.”

Dupuis made sure of it. Those two partnered in workouts last summer in Quebec, waking each day at 7:15 a.m. and putting in long, hard hours until, as Dupuis described it with a grin, “His shirt was soaked, you know?”

Those burritos were replaced with Brussels sprouts, too.

“Yeah, organic,” Depres spoke with a cringe.

Not that he's complaining.

“I feel much better, much stronger, more ready now,” he said. “When you look at these guys in here, you learn: You can have fun, but you've got to work hard and eat right.”

For the record, Despres rejected the notion that he wasn't in good shape last season but did acknowledge his conditioning is “even better now.”

Hey, however he wants to word it is fine by me.

What's important is that he takes his game to a new level, which probably will begin, ironically, by taking it down a notch or two.

“I want to be reliable. That's No. 1 for me. I want to be a safe defenseman in my zone,” Despres said. “I can support the rush, but don't be a risk.”

It'll come. But it'll come in time the Penguins just can't spare right now.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports colummnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.comor via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic

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