On the Penguins: Despres still part of the plan

The Penguins obviously thought pretty highly of Simon Despres back in 2009, because they made him their first-round draft choice.

Management's opinion of his potential didn't seem to change over the next few years, either, because he consistently was touted as one of the organization's top prospects.

And, to hear general manager Ray Shero tell it, the front office still believes Despres has the potential to be an impact player.

Just as important, the Penguins seem to want it to happen with them.

"Where he is right now, in terms of his career, he's in a good spot," Shero said. "In terms of the progression he's made and his maturity, on and off the ice, I think that's coming.

"Even though he's not [in the NHL now], we still believe he's a very good prospect for us and will be an NHL player, for sure."

Despres was lopped off the NHL roster Jan. 16, when he was assigned to the Penguins' minor league in Wilkes-Barre.

The reason for the demotion, Shero said, was not displeasure with how Despres performed during his time with the Penguins, but because they finally began to get back some of their injured defensemen.

With nine healthy bodies on their blue line, something had to happen, and a couple of things did: Deryk Engelland was bumped up to right wing and Despres was dispatched to Wilkes-Barre.

That he did not have to clear waivers to go back to the American Hockey League, Shero said, influenced the decision.

"Absolutely," Shero said. "I told him that."

He pointed out that, in previous seasons, defensive prospects such as Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait had ended up with the Baby Penguins for the same reason. (Once Strait became waivers-eligible, he was claimed by the New York Islanders, for whom he has become a regular.)

"We've gone through this many times with different players at different points in their progression," Shero said.

He acknowledged that management was not particularly happy with Despres' work during training camp, but said he liked the way Despres reacted to the challenges presented by the staff in Wilkes-Barre when he started the season there.

"[Wilkes-Barre coach] John Hynes and [assistant] Alain Nasreddine gave him a specific purpose to his play, in terms of matching up against the best players, the best lines," Shero said, "And he handled that really well. ... When he got his recall, it was very deserving."

The qualities that made Despres such an attractive prospect five years ago haven't deserted him.

He still has good size (6 feet 4, 214 pounds), still skates well and still has impressive offensive talents. Perhaps more important, Despres is picking up the finer points of playing defense, which was a conspicuous shortcoming earlier in his career.

"That has really come along over the last couple of years pretty well," Shero said.

Still, Despres has not been able to force his bosses to give him a steady job in the NHL, something 19-year-old Olli Maatta managed this season.

Their situations were different -- Maatta would have had to return to his major-junior team and, barring emergencies, stay there for the entire season if he didn't make the NHL -- but Maatta proved that a young defenseman can carve out a niche for himself, even on a team with a bounty of quality defensemen.

Despres, 22, has yet to do that. And for all the promise he has shown, there's no guarantee Despres -- or just about anyone else in the organization not named Crosby or Malkin -- will have a place in the Penguins' long-term plans.

Quality players and prospects are assets that GMs use to upgrade weak spots and patch holes in their lineup via trades, and few players at a team's position of strength are exempt from being included if the right deal is proposed.

"In terms of our long-range plans, we've got some pretty good players here , and some good young players coming," Shero said. "The good news is, he's one of them."

Monday: vs. Buffalo ... The Penguins have lapped the Sabres in the standings, but probably should be ready for a close game. Buffalo just went through a stretch during which seven in a row were decided by one goal.

Thursday: at Los Angeles ... The Kings presumably know better than to focus their defensive efforts solely on Sidney Crosby, because Evgeni Malkin has five goals in four career games against them.

Saturday: at Phoenix ... Don't blame the Penguins if Jobing.com arena doesn't look terribly familiar. This will be just their third trip to Arizona in seven seasons.

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