Improved Despres impresses Penguins

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 10:41 p.m.

The reconstruction of defenseman Simon Despres is under way.

So far the Penguins like what they see.

Aware that Despres, a 2009 first-round pick, is blessed with offensive instincts, the Penguins have altered his duties with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. Despres doesn't always see power-play time and isn't encouraged to push for offense as the Penguins want him to focus almost exclusively on defense.

“We know all of the offensive gifts come naturally to him, and they'll always be there,” said Bill Guerin, the Penguins' player developmental coach. “We needed him to get better in other areas, and he really has.”

The Penguins received their first glimpse Wednesday against Toronto. Although the game won't be remembered as a defensive struggle — the teams combined for 72 shots on net in the 6-5 Penguins victory — Despres acquitted himself well.

He committed an early interference penalty that resulted in a Maple Leafs power-play goal, but he became stronger throughout the contest. He finished with a plus-1 rating, something only five Penguins accomplished. Despres also put four shots on goal, the finest total for any Penguins defenseman.

“I thought Simon was excellent,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He stepped up against a team with speed ... and he did a great job.”

Despres registered nine points in 33 games with the Penguins last season and was fairly reliable defensively, finishing a plus-7.

However, he struggled in Game 3 against the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs and played only two more games last spring. Then he was exiled to Wilkes-Barre after a disappointing training camp.

The Penguins made it clear to Despres that improving his defensive work was imperative if he wanted to return to the NHL. In fact, the Wilkes-Barre coaching staff stressed defense so much that Despres, probably the team's most gifted offensive player, didn't play on the power play until the 13th game.

“I've learned that I have the ability for a two-way game,” Despres said. “Down there, I was forcing myself to play good defensively. It's probably the first time I've ever really done that, focused completely on defense.”

Despres was plus-13 in 17 games for the AHL Penguins while playing significant minutes against the opposition's best offensive players.

“Switching your way of thinking to defense isn't always the easiest thing to do,” Guerin said. “But you know what? Simon went down there, and, to be honest, he did great.”

The game seemingly always came easy for Despres. For once, he has taught himself how to do things the hard way.

“I've learned to stay within myself,” he said. “They had me in big spots. I liked being the go-to guy down there. It was fun.”

He suddenly appears back on the Penguins' radar.

Bylsma made it clear the Penguins are eager to see how Despres performs with defensemen Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi out for a few weeks.

“The opportunity for him is going to be significant,” Bylsma said. “The consistency he can play with is something that we need.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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