It was announced today that Penguins defenseman Paul Martin is out 4-6 weeks due to a fractured tibia (leg). This is definitely a big blow for the Pens, who have had Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) on the shelf for the past 14 games, with about 3-4 weeks remaining before he'll return. Martin leads Pittsburgh with 25:16 of ice-time per game, including 18:51 at even strength (where his quality of competition and advanced stats are best on the team), 2:41 short-handed and 3:43 on the power play, where he'd recently been promoted to the top unit.
Any way you look at it, it's a heavy loss. Martin has been the team's steadiest and best defenseman, capable of playing big minutes against the other team's best competition, and as we pointed out last week, he (along with partner Brooks Orpik) have been doing a spectacular job this season in their shutdown roles.
Enter stage right, Simon Despres. The 22 year old former 1st round pick has spent all season in the minor leagues with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and somewhat disappointingly so. Over the summer, coach Dan Bylsma called Despres a top 4 defenseman (this came before the team signed Scuderi as a free agent) and since Despres spent the entire lockout shortened 2013 season in the NHL, it was believed he'd be a regular for the big Pens.
It wasn't to be, in part because of numbers like the Scuderi signing, but also due to the excellent training camps had by 19 year old (an AHL ineligible this year) Olli Maatta, and also Robert Bortuzzo. But there were also whispers Despres came to camp out of shape and did not impress in September.
However, his time again in Wilkes-Barre could benefit Despres. "I was on the 1st PK unit and playing against other teams’ top lines. I was working on being good defensively," Despres told the Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson. That increased role should help Despres, who at 6'4 has great size and skating ability, but played in a sheltered 5/6/7 defenseman role in Pittsburgh since the spring of 2012.
Despres, who has played occasionally throughout the years with Kris Letang, will not figure to replace Martin as a top-minute, big-time NHL defenseman right off the bat. Based off practice lines, Bylsma will have Letang and Orpik as the #1 pair matching the other team's top threats. But, after those two players the Pens are very thin at defense with injuries, and along with Matt Niskanen, Despres could find himself getting opportunities on the power play and at even strength that he hasn't had before.
Developing players from prospects into NHL regulars is rarely a linear and steady progression. Although disappointing that Despres hasn't established himself as an NHL player yet, he's also just 22 years old and still has a variety of skills and attributes that should make him an NHL player for years to come. It hasn't happened yet, but these injuries, combined with Despres' strong play in WB/S, have earned him this call-up. The Penguins could badly use defenseman at this point. The opportunity for Despres is there. Now, we'll see if he's ready to make the next strides and be able to contribute.