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Penguins' Despres picks up playing time piecemeal

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 8:26 p.m.
Penguins rookie defenseman Simon Despres has played a limited number of minutes for this season. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

WASHINGTON — Simon Despres does not need to play for the Penguins.

Not Tuesday at the New York Islanders. Not Thursday against the Washington Capitals at Consol Energy Center.

At any point, without risk of losing him on a waiver claim, the Penguins can place Despres with AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

That is the reality facing their most promising young defenseman since Kris Letang.

That fantasy is far more interesting.

In it, Despres gradually grows into his top-six role and, even as a rookie, is primed to contribute when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in late April.

“Our responsibility is to help grow this guy into the projection he was when our guys scouted him,” said Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins assistant to the general manager.

“That projection wasn't to fail. It was to make a mark.”

Despres, the 30th overall pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, has played fewer than 13 minutes in two of three games.

Only twice over the past four contests has he played more than 18 minutes. His low total for the season is 8 minutes, 46 seconds.

Coach Dan Bylsma is not intentionally testing Despres. Still, this offbeat rhythm is a test of his mental makeup.

“I'm just trying to get better with each game, more comfortable and play good hockey,” Despres said.

Kris Letang, the Penguins' top defenseman, played only 10 regular-season games in the AHL before a permanent promotion in 2007. Aside from the 2008 Cup Final, during which he appeared in just two games, Letang has been a defensive fixture for the Penguins.

Letang is a believer that some players progress quickly playing more often against the best competition.

Despres and Letang are French Canadians, but their most common trait might be skill that trumps inexperience, Bylsma suggested.

“There is talk among players that it is harder to play there (AHL),” Bylsma said. “That doesn't make a lot of sense because there's not a (New Jersey Devils captain Ilya) Kovalchuk down in Albany.

“But there is a learning curve that comes with playing in the AHL, for defensemen in particular, that when you play in the NHL, some of those mistakes and the way the game is played, you have more support from the players around you and with position of your teammates.

“With Simon Despres, you have to go through those learning experiences — and we've seen this with Kris and Alex Goligoski, other good defensemen we've had — he is still learning. He still needs some consistency to his game, and he's still in that process.”

The Penguins, winners of three in a row, seem prepared to take a long ride with Despres. They are expecting a bumpy ride, especially early.

“In-and-out of the lineup might not be a bad thing for Simon,” Fitzgerald said, stressing Despres can benefit from a truncated NHL schedule that differs from an AHL slate heavy with weekend games.

“You have to inject your young talent into your lineup, and we feel real strong about protecting our guys. He will not be put in a situation to fail.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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