Count me among those stunned when the Penguins kept rookie defender Olli Maatta with the big club earlier this season.
Despite his junior eligibility, movable contract and the wealth of NHL-caliber defensemen already available at the NHL and AHL levels, the Penguins retained Maatta. It was a pure hockey move. Everything about his contract and the team's desperate need to create cap space, not to mention the their excessively deep defensive battery, suggested that he'd be returning to junior hockey.
Instead, Maatta played his way right onto the NHL roster. And he's now one of only three Penguins defensemen to have appeared in every game so far.
That lesson - play your best players, no matter what - didn't seem like a very Penguins maneuver at the time. The team is calculated in its roster moves and exacting when it comes to cap considerations. Sometimes that means decisions go beyond what takes place on the ice. Maatta's retention went against that grain, but the Pens have been better for it.
Like Maatta, Simon Despres needs to be a part of the lineup -- regardless of who has to move in his stead.
Despres has appeared in just four games this season, recalled after Paul Martin was placed on long-term injured reserve with a broken leg. Despres appeared in nearly three-fourths of the regular season a year ago and was with the postseason roster, but started this year in AHL Wilkes-Barre following a disappointing training camp.
While in Wilkes-Barre, Penguins staff worked exclusively on Despres' defense. A natural offensive talent, the team sought to improve his defensive game by playing him almost exclusively in defensive situations.
"My first instinct right now is be in position defensively," Despres said Wednesday. "I am better at reading the play and knowing when to jump in rushes. Just little stuff like that in my third year I have developed.
"Being consistent throughout the year is what separates the AHLers from the NHLers, and that is what I am trying to do."
Despres' defense has certainly been good in his short time in the NHL, although it never seemed to lack in years past. Despres appeared in 51 games in the last two regular seasons, compiling a plus-14 rating while playing 14-15 minutes per game.
In four games this season, Despres is already a plus-3 and sports a team-best 22.70 in On-Ice Corsi rating, albeit with a very small sample size. However, he is seeing much more ice than in the past, averaging about 19:00 minutes of ice time through his first four games.
That increased ice time may speak to the coaching staff's trust in his new, more defensive style of play.
"He has shown he can defend," Bylsma said. "And that has really been something he has done really well this year in Wilkes-Barre. They rave about the consistency in his game in a defensive, shutdown role for Simon."
If his defense remains strong, the offense will come. No matter what his focus is, the ability to turn defense into offense does not go away.
It's still a tough job to crack the Penguins' blue line with any regularity. Even with injuries to Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi, Robert Bortuzzo has found it impossible to get past the likes of Deryk Engelland and even Maatta and back into the lineup. When Martin and Scuderi return in a few months, it could very well mean that Engelland, Bortuzzo and Despres are all back on the outside of the top-six, looking in.
That's to say nothing of his value beyond this season. Brooks Orpik is set to enter free agency this summer. Ditto Engelland. Bortuzzo's status isn't assured, Kris Letang has yet to light the world on fire with streaky play this season and Martin will be just one year away from free agency as well.
Though the group is deep now, significant change could come with the offseason. Despres is set to become a restricted free agent after this season, giving the Penguins a good deal of leverage in re-signing the young defenseman.
In the meantime, Despres needs to show he can stand out in a deep, talented group. As Bortuzzo and others can attest, it's not the easiest group out of which to make a name for yourself.
It's a tall task. But following Maatta's lead, the Pens have shown they'll stick with players they believe in.