After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins made a drastic change to their drafting philosophy, opting to build a heavy stable of blue chip blue-line prospects. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and (at the time) Jordan Staal, the Penguins already had an impressive crop of NHL ready forwards that would be able to help them compete for years on end.
So with the forwards set in place, away they went with the defense-first mindset. They weren’t only trying the draft as many as you can and hope one sticks, they were investing highly on D-men.
It began with the selection of Simon Despres from the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. At 6-foot-4 and with amazing skating ability, he had top-4 two-way potential written all over him. Some draft outlets had him going as high as just outside the top-10, a far cry from 30th overall where the Pens were drafting.
He dropped, and dropped, and dropped all the way until the Pens were able to pick him up with the last pick of the first round. The Penguins had their first legit defensive prospect since Kris Letang. Not rushing the young player, he finished out his junior career with Saint John, even winning the Memorial Cup, before turning pro.
Since that time, Despres has bounced between the AHL and NHL, even though at times it has appeared as if he has graduated from the AHL level and is ready to take on the NHL full-time.
Last year looked like it could have been his time, but the ‘two-way’ tag on his contract doomed him to be the odd man out when the Penguins traded for Douglas Murray. He stuck with the team during the playoffs, even playing in a couple of games, but it was obvious he had little or no faith from the coaching staff, as he played sparingly.
At the end of the season, head coach Dan Bylsma announced that Despres will be one of the favorites to lock up a top-4 spot in the lineup, making it appear it was his time to shine in Black-and-Gold. However, the Rob Scuderi signing, the ‘two-way’ tag on his contract and Olli Maatta doomed Despres to yet another start in the minors.
Despite having the talent there, have the Penguins completely passed over Despres as part of the team’s future? It seems silly to suggest that, since he is only 22 years old and still hasn’t even finished up his entry level contract. With no idea what the salary cap will look like the next few seasons, there is a good possibility that one or both of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik will be gone over the next two seasons, so the Pens will almost certainly bring Despres back. But with a giant crop of defensive prospects waiting in the wing, how long is ituntil they pass Despres over?
Every time he seems ready for the limelight, the Pens make a move to pass over him. There was talk of the organization trying to butter him up for a potential trade, and now with Maatta succeeding in the NHL, why not try it?
The Pens have Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin in the AHL, as well as Derrick Pouliot playing in juniors that project as front end blue liners, and players like Harrison Roupp and Philip Samuelsson could wind up as sixth or seventh defenders at the NHL level as well.
The Pens may not want to admit it, but waiting so long on Despres has put him behind the other top prospects in the system. While his return won’t be anything that will get Pens’ fans jumping, it will be more help than him sitting in the minors to rot away.
The defensive depth will be fine, but it has become apparent that the Pens could use another depth scorer who is capable of putting the puck in the net. Despres could land them that piece.
Anthony Murphy is contributing writer to RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AMurphyTFC.