Simon Despres: Minor Leaguer or Kris Letang's Partner?

Other than open spot on the Evgeni Malkin / James Neal line, the set up and roster makeup of the defense is the story to watch for the Pittsburgh Penguins short 2013 training camp.


Head Coach Dan Bylsma has decided to use Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik in his "shutdown" pair that he is so fond of, ever since the days of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. Despite the chemistry and breakdowns that Orpik/Martin have had when they've played together in the past in brief stints, it seems like that is happening.

Which opens up the big question: who will then play as the regular partner of Kris Letang? Letang will probably be playing 26-28 minutes a night and played very heavily on all the special teams, so it's not as if whoever his regular partner will be the only guy he's out there with.

The top answer seemed like Matt Niskanen, who's the most experienced and best options after Orpik and Martin. However, Bylsma hinted that might not be the case. Bylsma told the media it's "a real possibility" that 2009 first round pick Simon Despres may play with Letang, though the coach quickly hedged his statement with it "not something we're locked into".

Bylsma's said a lot of things in past training camps. He's said that Arron Asham might play with Evgeni Malkin at times (and he really didn't). He's said seemingly every year that Tyler Kennedy might play with Malkin- and that never lasts.

Should we read into it this time? Mike Colligan from the Hockey Writers isn't, giving Despres only a 3% chance of making the roster and saying:

Simon Despres is simply a victim of a numbers game. Shero says he’ll keep no more than eight defenseman on the final roster and may possibly cut that to seven. Barring a trade, with eight defensemen eligible for waivers and no exhibition games for Despres to steal a job, it’ll be very difficult for him to make the team. It also wouldn’t make sense from a development standpoint. A young, promising defenseman like Despres can learn a lot more from having a big role at the AHL level as opposed to spending most evenings in the press box or getting limited minutes at the NHL level.

Right now it's hard to disagree. Unless the Pens are looking to trade a guy like Ben Lovejoy or Robert Bortuzzo or Brian Strait, the numbers aren't adding up for Despres to stick in Pittsburgh.

Despres only chance is to play very well with Letang, but perhaps more importantly- benefit from Letang playing very well when they're out there together. If the Despres/Letang combo is showing the coach so much that he simply can't turn away from it, that might force management's hand on one of the other depth players.

Despres and Letang have some experience playing together in preseasons of past, and they've played well too. From my vantage point, Letang seemed to play some of the most heady and best hockey that I've ever seen him play while paired with Despres. Letang wouldn't pinch as much, seemed to be very conscious of the fact his partner was a young guy and Letang made sure to compensenate for that and prepare his positioning for anything. It's no guarantee it would keep up over a long season, but Despres might just have a chance if he can display great chemistry with the Pens top defenseman.

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