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Penguins young defenseman Despres is looking for NHL staying power

| Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, 9:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Simon Despres takes down the Rangers' Brian Boyle in the second period Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

Simon Despres is back.

Will he finally stick? Will he be used as trade bait? Will he make yet another trip to the American Hockey League?

Despres doesn't know the answer, but his teammates certainly appear to believe in him.

Almost five years after being selected by the Penguins in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Despres figures to see steady playing time during the next month because of ailments suffered by Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand).

“I think he's ready,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

The Penguins are unsure if Letang will be available again this season. Should the Penguins be without Letang and any other defenseman in the playoffs, Despres could become valuable.

Defenseman Rob Scuderi, who left the Penguins for Los Angeles days after Despres was drafted, said he has been impressed.

“The physical talent is there. The skill set is there,” Scuderi said. “He can make every play that you'd like a skilled defenseman to make. He's got the physical skills and one-on-one skills to impose his will on guys.”

Despres has seldom hurt the Penguins when he's in the lineup. He has played in 66 NHL games, and the Penguins' record in those contests is 50-16.

However, Despres has found ways to frustrate the Penguins' coaching staff. Assistant coach Todd Reirden's tone, however, suggested Monday that a new, improved — and more mature — Despres has landed with the Penguins.

“We were real happy to add Simon back to our roster,” Reirden said. “His play in the American league speaks for itself. He's gone down with a great attitude and a commitment to playing Penguins hockey. All the reports — and we've had quite a few of them during the Olympic break — were very strong for him to be the first guy who gets called up here.”

Niskanen is aware of the expectations faced by a first-round draft pick who happens to be a defenseman.

“It's not easy,” he said. “Simon is still so young. People forget that.”

Despres, 22, has been dominant at the AHL level this season. In 34 games, he produced a team-best plus-18 mark while scoring six goals and 22 points.

Despres, who has come to training camp out of shape and whose occasional sulking has earned trips to the minor leagues, has impressed the coaching staff and his teammates with his defensive play. The offensive side of hockey comes naturally to Despres, but the Penguins insisted before this season that he exclusively focus on defense in Wilkes-Barre. He has done that, to positive reviews.

“I've wanted to work on my defensive game, to be a smarter player,” Despres said. “Just trying to make plays when they're there. I'm trying to get better at every aspect.”

He said he believes he has improved and is about to get an opportunity to prove it. Penguins defensemen Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland are unrestricted free agents this summer. All three don't figure to return. Now could represent the time for Despres to state his case as an NHL regular.

“He's shown flashes of brilliance,” Niskanen said. “He's got size and speed. Those are two good things to have. He's got that ability to skate the puck out of trouble. He just needs to learn to be a pro, and I think he's getting there.”

So, too, does Despres.

“I'm happy to be here,” he said. “And I'm ready to play.”

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

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