Despres back to AHL as Penguins defense corps continues to get healthy

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 10:03 p.m.

Simon Despres just wants to play some defense.

On the surface, getting Despres ice time, even at practices, is significant in Penguins general manager Ray Shero's decision to re-assign the defenseman to the AHL on Thursday.

“We've got a lot of depth,” Despres said.

The Penguins are not blessed with opportunities for even their best prospects when the defense is near full strength. So Despres and forwards Nick Drazenovic and Pierre-Luc Letorneau-LeBlond were sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Drazenovic and Letorneau-Leblond had spent only part of this week with the Penguins. Despres had spent almost two months in the NHL.

However, after playing in 15 consecutive games from Nov. 27-Dec. 27, Despres appeared in only three of the past eight contests, and he was used as a fourth-line winger during a practice this week because of a suddenly crowded defense corps.

That crowd will grow this weekend when Paul Martin, out almost two months with a broken tibia, returns to practice. Martin's return to games, perhaps next week, will give the Penguins their projected top-four defensemen in the lineup for only a third game, presuming no injuries to Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi.

Despres was one of eight defensemen — counting Deryk Engelland, who is on a second stint as a fourth-line winger — on the 23-man roster as of Wednesday.

Despres was the only one of those defensemen who did not need to clear waivers for an AHL assignment.

Coach Dan Bylsma prefers no more than seven healthy defensemen at once because practices are not designed to work with four pairings. A seventh defenseman can rotate with the third pairing.

Bylsma believes that a young defenseman — Despres is only 22 — does not develop properly if he is an eighth defenseman for an NHL club. Robert Bortuzzo barely played last season as the No. 8, but Bylsma has said the biggest challenge for Bortuzzo was getting enough work during practices.

Despres, who began this season in the AHL, will resume his role as a top-four defenseman and prime penalty killer with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The 30th overall pick at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Despres remains viewed by some within the organization as a potential shutdown defenseman at the highest level.

“Simon is definitely on the right track,” said Tom Fitzgerald, assistant to the general manager who oversees organizational prospect development.

“We've all seen games of his in the NHL where it's like, ‘Look how good he's been tonight.' We've also seen games where it's like, ‘Well, he's going to get there with some more help.' ”

Though Despres' AHL assignment is circumstantial, his stock is not high with the coaching staff.

Improved off-ice work habits and defensive focus that were evident during his season-opening stretch in the AHL did not carry over to his extended NHL opportunity. Also, coaches were disappointed with his response — pouting — in the days after he was a healthy scratch Dec. 29.

That reaction contrasted with one from rookie Olli Maatta, who was the first Penguins player at practice the day after his first NHL scratching Dec. 31. Coaches graded Maatta, 19, as the Penguins' best defensemen in his next game.

Maatta is the player about whom Shero expects to field the most offers in upcoming trade talks, but Despres has become the defenseman he is believed to be most willing to part with before the March 5 deadline.

Shero has moved a young defenseman — either a prospect or a player from the roster — at or just before the deadline in four of his seven previous seasons.

Shero is seeking to upgrade the third line, which Bylsma said has lacked an identity, and to possibly replace injured Pascal Dupuis (torn ACL), a top-line right winger likely out for the season.

The Penguins currently are holding their amateur scouting meetings in Las Vegas.

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