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Devils at the 2009 NHL Draft: A Simon Despres Overview

Before we begin with today's overview of Simon Despres, I want to remind you that I selected Calvin de Haan in the SBN Mock Draft.  I've explained why I made that choice here, and there's a poll for you to state whether you think it was a good pick or not. So check that out if you can.

Also, before we begin, I want to point out a link Tibbs had in today's link-post; from Mike McMahon at the Eagle Tribune, there's a hint as to who the Devils could be interested beyond the first round:

[Merrimack College's Kyle] Bigos likely has the best chance of getting picked, some scouts believe as high as the second round. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound defenseman wrapped his junior career in May by being named the MVP of the Royal Bank Cup (Canada's junior hockey national championship). Several have indicated that the New Jersey Devils are high on him.

I figure if interest is already stated, it's not unlikely.  He's originally from California, Central Scouting Services ranked him 169th among North American skaters, and he's coming out of the BCHL, a Junior A league.  Anyway, I bring him up because he is a big defenseman and generally they are sought out in drafts at all levels.   Maybe you get a possible bruiser or defensive depth defender later; or you can get very skilled big man in the first round, like Simon Despres.

Simon Despres - Defenseman - 6'4" - 214 lbs. - Hometown: Laval, Quebec, Canada
2008-09 Team:  St. John's Sea Dogs  66 GP - 2 G - 30 A - 32 PTS - 74 PIM (source)

From his vitals and stats from his junior team, two things stick out: he's definitely big and he's definitely not a scorer.  CSS is quite high on him, listing him 8th among North American skaters in their final rankings.  Yet, as I have found from others, opinions vary on him completely.  With respect to other profiles on Despres on the network, Dirk Hoag did one at On the Forecheck and Jim Schmeideberg has one at Blueshirt Banter.  Let's see what else is out there: has two quotes in their scouting report that both excite and concern the reader about Despres:

NHL Central Scouting’s Chris Bordeleau

"I think for a potential pro player, he's got the size and mobility. I've seen him [in] many games, and he never seems to make a bad play. He's never going to get 100 points, but definitely, when you want a guy to play defense, he's your guy. He does it all, he'll block shots and he moves the puck at the right time."

Saint John Sea Dogs head coach Jacques Beaulieu

"Simon is a very good skater with and without the puck. He has good hands for a big man and he has outstanding vision as well as hockey sense. To make it to the next level he will need to improve his upper body strength and his shot, but overall Simon is an outstanding person on and off the ice. He loves the game. He is without a doubt an NHL prospect."

While there's some serious praise in these comments and it goes a long way in explaining why some are thinking he'll go early in the first round: he's big, he's a good skater (a still somewhat rare combination), he's apparently very good in his own zone, and he's willing to do whatever it takes for success.  All good stuff so far.  That said, it's not all golden for Despres.  Chris Bordeleau of Central Scouting, the organization high on Despres, comes right out and says he's not a scorer.  OK, that's fair, it's good to be open about that; though one would have to be really, really good on defense to justify the ranking.  His coach's words are more telling.  He's 6'4", 212 pounds and Beaulieu thinks he needs to get stronger?  The shot, OK, I understand - his numbers at Saint John are evidence that offense is an area of improvement.  But how much stronger can Despres get?

Some of these assets - and areas to improve - are highlighted further in Kevin Forbes' feature article on Despres at Hockey's Future.   Here is what I think is the most interesting section as it helps explain why Beaulieu stated that Despres needs to get stronger:

Despite all these pieces, the puzzle that is Despres is far from complete. Although he has such tantalizing size, Despres is not known for his physical play. As Kim Houston of Central Scouting described, "sometimes I think he plays a little soft, in the middle of the zone, maybe he doesn't feel he has to have that physical element, but he's going to find out at the next level, he's got to be a little bit more physical, especially in his own end."

Midgley attributed Despres' preference to tie up opposing forwards instead of punishing them with his frame to his physical growth and his young age, saying "when his strength catches up to his body, he'll be fine."

OK, this makes the comment about him needing to work on his strength more sensible - but I think this section also provides a criticism and a compliment at the same time. The criticism being that despite his size, he's not a physical player and he'll need to learn to do that.  The compliment, however, is that he's lauded for his vision and decision making in his own zone despite not being a physical defender.  It speaks well of his defensive skills while pointing out a flaw - it's impressive in its own right.

Nathan White. who reported on Despres' performance at the CHL Top Prospects game for the Telegraph Journal. in New Brunswick (Canada, not New Jersey) had this from an anonymous NHL scout.  It basically confirms what Forbes reported in his article, while supporting what others praise him for:

Working on his hitting is one of the next steps Despres needs to take in his development, said one NHL scout who attended the propects game. "We'd like to see a little more physical (play) from him, especially when it comes to finishing his check in the last three or four feet," the scout said. "Let people know that they're going to be punished. When Dion Phaneuf is finishing his check or Zdeno Chara finishes his check, he finishes his check. The quality guys finish their check the last three or four feet." While Despres' combination of skating and size have vaulted him up the scouting lists, the scout would also like to see him work on his shot. "He's got an average shot, which needs to get much better because he's got a lot of tools. He has good vision, he's a good skater, he makes good plays with the puck and he contains pretty well one-on-one."

So at this point you're probably thinking, "OK, John, Despres is a defensive defenseman who's big and can skate well and he's got good sense on defense.  Why are we even discussing this? He's not dropping to New Jersey."  Fair enough.  While searching for information on Despres, I came across this page from Inside College Hockey that put up a number of mock drafts from various sources - TSN, The Hockey News, etc. - for comparison purposes. Some have Despres in the middle of the first round, others have him later, and one (TSN) doesn't even have him going in the first round.  

Upon further investigation, I have discovered that it is because Despres had an awful time at the World U-18 tournament.   Before the tournament began, during the exhibition games the teams played, there was this snippet from the Western College Hockey Blog when reviewing how the players on Team Canada looked:

Simon Despres(6): Despres is a very tough player to get a read on because he was very inconsistent. Some shifts he looks like a first round draft pick, and other shifts, he looks like a seventh round draft pick. Some team will really like him because of his size and upside, but I think he'd be a very risky pick.

Well, this really puts a whole new spin on that praise.  It's one thing to make good decisions, but it's useless if you're not making them all that often!   Now, inconsistency in a prospect is commonplace to a point and even some NHL players struggle with it.  While it would prevent him from being an elite player, it doesn't mean he's a bust. It's just something he'll have to work on over time, and besides, some defenders tend to get better with more experience.  

However, Dan at Deuce by Definition, in considering Despres as a possible pick for the Wild, has these quotes from McKeen's Max Giese about Despres at the World U-18 tournament.   Needless to say, it doesn't paint Despres in a good light.

So he seemingly has all the tools; yet he struggled at the Under-18 Championships in Fargo, North Dakota. What happened, and how does this affect his stock?

Giese: His play the U-18's was very disappointing, in fact he was the biggest disappointment of the tournament. Both offensively and defensively he struggled. He was giving to large of gaps and wasn't playing physical, he was getting outworked in one-on-one confrontations. With the puck he skated himself into dead

ends, he wasn't seeing the ice well, and most of all he seemed to go brain dead every time he was pressured. Even when he had time/space to operate with he didn't manufacture anything on the points.

Tyler Myers had a pretty bad last year at the U-18's, and still went in the middle of the first round (Buffalo, 13th overall.) Is there any reason to believe that a bad showing here will cause his stock to fall?

Giese: Myers did have a bad U-18's, but Myers was filled to the brim with untapped potential. We were just seeing the beginning of him as a player, where as Despres is already physically mature and is much further along than Myers was at the same stage.

Ouch!  Giese really doesn't hold back here and that follow up question really hammers home the point. At the tournament itself, Despres only put together 2 assists and given that he wasn't an offensive or a two-way defenseman with Saint John, then it's not really a concern.  Reading that he struggled in one-on-one situations in a tournament featuring the best U-18 players in the world, players who will also be drafted this Friday along with Despres, is very unsettling.  The tournament is the last time scouts get to see players in such a situation and flopping in the tournament is a good way to have your draft stock drop like a rock.  It raises the question of whether it was just a bad tournament, or more indicative that the player is more limited than originally thought. 

And Giese isn't the only one stating that Despres had a poor tourney, it's even admitted near the end of the Hockey's Future article on him.  Though Forbes did note that Despres was playing with a hip injury since December 2008, so it's possible that he was limited in his effectiveness.  Then again, why Despres didn't decide to rest until he was fully healthy is beyond me as well.  It brings up the question as to whether Despres can return to form after the injury, too.

Dan, with Giese's words, concludes that Despres is a project pick.  He has clear assets - size, skating ability - but he has much to work on to take it to the "next level."   That alone doesn't bother me, but seeing that his upside is considered to be a #3/#4 defenseman as Giese stated, does bother me.  I don't think that is necessarily worth a first round pick, much less one in the top 15.

As far as comparisons to players are concerned, the fellows at Heated Skates compare him to Eric Brewer, but a much better skater; and Christopher Ralph of The Hockey Writers thinks he is like Marc-Edouard Vlasic.  Those aren't bad players to be compared to, in all honesty. Then again, if we're talking about a mid-first round pick, I would want to see to #1 and #2 defensemen instead of, well, #3/#4 defensemen.

Ultimately the question for teams in selecting Despres seems to be this: how willing are you to look past the flaws and believe that he has the potential to overcome some of his deficencies.   Big defensemen who can skate real well don't come all that often, so I know he'll be picked for that alone.  But there seems to be a lot of risk, or at least questions, as to what kind of player he'll become.   Some are high on him, others are soured due to his U-18 performance, and so where does that leave the Devils should he be available at 23rd overall this Friday?

Personally, because of the questions about his skills and upside, I can't help but think he would be a stretch should other players be available.  If the Devils are going to take a prospect considered as risky to a point, I'd rather they go after the defenseman who done well at the U-18s like Dylan Olsen, than someone who hasn't.  If the Devils are going to go for a potential project player, why not consider the high schoolers in Chris Kreider or Zach Budish, who may have much higher celings?   If the Devils are going to go after a defenseman at all, I would prefer they would look at the seemingly multiple two-way/offensive defenseman that could be available there like de Haan, Erixon, Rundblad, Elliott, et. al.  Those type of players also come at a premium as well (so do forwards)  I'm not saying Despres would be an awful pick; but I think the Devils could end up doing better considering who may be there at 23rd overall.

It's time to have your say on Simon Despres. Maybe you've seen him play at Saint John and think that the criticism doesn't make sense.  Maybe you've seen him play for Team Canada at the World U-18s and can agree or disagree that he was pretty bad.  Maybe you think the Devils should jump at the chance at picking him should he fall this far.  Please leave any and all comments about what you think of Despres here.