Defenseman Simon Despres celebrates his first NHL goal against the Sabres Saturday at Consol Energy Center.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins were on a power play. Simon Despres rotated into the right circle. From the far side, winger Tyler Kennedy threaded a pass that found the sweet spot for a left-handed shot by the rookie defenseman.
Despres slammed a one-timer from the faceoff dot past Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller in the first period of an 8-3 win Saturday. It was his first NHL goal in his eighth game.
The puck sits in his hotel room waiting for him to get the chance to give it to his father.
"I got a lot of congratulations from my friends and family," Despres said Monday after practice.
Truth be told, the shot didn't sail true.
"I was trying to go top corner. It stayed on the ice," he said.
Proving further to Despres that while not all things carefully planned go in a direct route, they can make it there nonetheless.
With every game -- Despres is likely to play in his ninth tonight when Chicago visits Consol Energy Center -- he flashes more of the potential associated with a first-round draft pick. The Penguins selected him 30th overall in 2009.
Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ray Emery for Blackhawks.
Are 2-4 in past six games ... Evgeni Malkin has five-game point streak (6 goals, 6 assists). ... Steve Sullivan is one point shy of 700 for career.
Have won six games in row and are 7-0-1 in December. ... Marian Hossa has five-game point streak (4 goals, 6 assists). ... Are 13-0-1 when scoring first.
Patrick Sharp's nine-game point streak (7 goals, 6 assists) is longest in NHL this season.
But for all the success Despres, 20, had during his junior career, he stumbled at training camp in September and was among the first wave of players cut and sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
"They weren't satisfied with my overall play," Despres said. "I wasn't on my 'A' game. It was a very hard training camp. I wish I would have done better. I was a bit disappointed in getting cut first, but I went down to Wilkes-Barre and worked really hard."
Despres had three goals, seven points and plus-minus rating of plus-3 in 22 games at Wilkes-Barre before he was summoned by the Penguins as injuries mounted. In his first eight NHL games, he has 3 points, 12 hits, 10 blocked shots and is a plus-3. He played 20 minutes, 7 seconds Saturday, his most so far.
What happens when the Penguins finally have a healthy stable of more experienced NHL defensemen remains to be seen, but Despres has been much stronger in December than he was in September.
"It's clear to see how good a player he can be and how long he's going to play in the National Hockey League," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's still developing, still learning the game a little bit and learning his game, but you could see it right away, almost from his first shift up here, that he possesses all those skills."
Those being his skating, shooting, passing and defensive play packed into a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, Bylsma said.
At the 2010 Penguins camp, Despres flirted with making the club before being sent back to his junior team, Saint John. He helped the Sea Dogs win the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship and the Memorial Cup. He was named the QMJHL's top defenseman and played on Canada's silver-medal team at the 2011 world junior championships.
After the bump in the road at this year's Penguins training camp, Despres found a couple of mentors in Wilkes-Barre assistant Alain Nasreddine and veteran defenseman Alexandre Picard.
"Both of us stayed out on the ice a lot after practices, worked on stuff," said Picard, whose training camp got sabotaged by an injury and who has bounced between Wilkes-Barre and the Penguins.
"We usually just worked on shooting the puck, getting open, moving it along the blue line, passing the puck hard, receiving the puck -- all the stuff that's just a step above junior. From day one, you could see that he's got all the tools."
Picard watched knowingly as Despres adjusted to being a pro player.
"His biggest challenge was probably off the ice, learning to be a professional, taking care of himself and his body, getting accustomed to more games, more travel," Picard said. "I kind of see myself in him when I was that age. It's fun to see that."
What wasn't so fun was seeing Despres, head hanging, not budging from the dressing room for an hour after losses.
"He cares a lot about the game," Picard said. "We were just telling him to forget about it, move on to the next game, take the positives out of it."
Despres is adjusting.
"Way different lifestyle off the ice," he said. "The guys are older. They've got families and kids. You don't see that a lot in junior. Guys here go home with their families, so you don't hang out as much off the ice. It's more professional, less goofing around."
He wouldn't trade it for anything.
"It's what I want to do, to come to the rink as a job," he said. "Best thing in the world. That was my dream growing up, and I can't ask for more.
"I'm confident I can play in the NHL. I have a lot of things to work on still. I can get a lot better."