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Newcomer Simon Despres flourishing as key postseason cog in Anaheim

CHICAGO -- On the day Simon Despres would become a member of the Anaheim Ducks, he was shopping for furniture with his girlfriend. Despres noted that the trade deadline had passed and thought little of the matter.

Then his phone started lighting up with messages wondering how he felt about his impending move to Anaheim.

Needless to say, the Laval, Quebec, native was dumbfounded that he was no longer with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that had drafted him with the 30th overall pick in 2009.

At the time, mentions of the deal that saw former Penguin Ben Lovejoy returned to Pittsburgh in return for Despres considered the trade a wash, if not a slight advantage to Pittsburgh, given Lovejoy’s experience and physical nature.

Hindsight being what it is, it’s difficult to imagine this deal working out any better for Despres or the Ducks, and not just because he delivered the game-winning goal in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night.

OK, well, that’s part of it. But what Despres, 23, has brought to the Ducks cannot be measured solely on point production. His presence in the lineup, playing almost exclusively with Cam Fowler as Anaheim's No. 2 defensive pairing, has brought a kind of simpatico to the entire defensive unit.

It is something that has happened almost by happenstance. In fact, head coach Bruce Boudreau admitted that when the Ducks acquired Despres, Boudreau imagined he would be a kind of spare part, the seventh defenseman, and that fellow trade acquisition James Wisniewski would pair up with Fowler.

But Wisniewski was hurt and Despres simply gave Boudreau no opportunity to take him out of the lineup.

“He played really well. Got to the point where, gee, how can you take him out of the lineup? He was playing with Cam really well,” Boudreau said. “So he just kept getting better. We kept waiting for him to fail, but he didn't. That's a real good mark for him as a player.”

Think these things are important, how a defensive group as a whole, comes together? Think about teams that win championships and how their pairings forge a kind of individual identity, and those pairings then combine to create an overall team defensive identity.

Despres, who struggled to find a place or a role like this with the Penguins, has helped bring that kind of identity to the Ducks, to flesh out a kind of personality that has led them to a 2-1 series lead in the team’s first appearance in a conference finals since 2007.

“I’m growing as a player,” Despres said. "Every year in Pittsburgh, I got better and better. I learned a lot in Pittsburgh. I’ll never forget my years in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t be the same player today if I didn’t go through Pittsburgh and all the lessons I learned over there."

Former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, who drafted Despres, said he’s pleased to see Despres finding a home in Anaheim. Shero said he recalled times in Pittsburgh when he had to send Despres to the minors based not on play but on circumstances: too many healthy defensemen, combined with the fact that Despres didn’t need to clear waivers because he was younger.

There was also a learning curve that many young defensemen have to tackle, and Despres is no different, Shero pointed out.

“He’s got the attributes,” Shero told ESPN.com. "And good for him."

John Hynes, the highly regarded minor league coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL team, said there were some bumpy times for Despres as he learned to develop the maturity to match his significant raw talent.

“Just maturity as a player and a person were the things he needed to work on the most,” Hynes said. "He was kind of like a horse as far as his physical abilities, but it was all raw."

Body position, stick position, how to practice effectively and proper conditioning all were things Despres needed to work on.

“It’s a great story for young kids,” Hynes said. “He really had to develop the next level. He had some tough times. We were hard on him at times. He really had to go through the process.”

By the time Wilkes-Barre/Scranton advanced to the AHL conference finals in 2013-14, Despres was a force. The question was whether he would advance that next step to the NHL level.

Well, what has happened since the moment Boudreau and Ducks defensive coach Trent Yawney paired Despres with another youngster in Fowler has been significant.

“The first game we had a good chemistry. Sometimes you can’t explain it. He has a good hockey IQ, a good skater, he’s a good hockey player,” Despres said. “We just read off each other. We talk and play good hockey and we’re two guys that like to play in the playoffs. Big-time hockey. It’s exciting stuff.”

Yawney also was the head coach of the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Norfolk and saw a little bit too much of Despres for his liking when Despres was toiling in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

“Des is a really calm guy to start with,” Yawney said. "He just plays a hard, heavy game."

He recalled that seemingly every time his team would play Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Despres would be freshly reassigned to the AHL, much to Yawney’s chagrin.

“He would control a game at the minor-league level,” Yawney said. "Big, rangy guy, strong guy and when he came here, I think the whole trade thing kind of surprised him.

“No discredit to Ben Lovejoy, but we were real excited to have him. He’s really complemented Cam. And really solidified our defense. He plays a lower-risk game but has that mobility and that vision to be able to make that good first pass."

Indeed, in his postseason news conference after the Penguins were bounced in five games by the New York Rangers in the first round, GM Jim Rutherford acknowledged that he and others in the organization questioned the Despres-for-Lovejoy move.

“He’s just a guy who goes about his business,” Fowler told Craig Custance of ESPN The Magazine. "Somebody who might not be talked about as much as one of the big stars or gets the attention of some of the other guys in here. He’s as solid as they come. He’s a great playoff player. He plays heavy, he’s a good skater. I’ve really enjoyed playing with him so far."

Despres is part of a youthful Anaheim group that includes sophomore Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Fowler. The group is anchored, at least in age and experience, by Francois Beauchemin, who plays with Lindholm, and Clayton Stoner, who plays with Vatanen.

Regardless of their age, all six of the Ducks' defenders are encouraged to jump into the play when the time is right.

“They all add different elements to our team game,” Yawney said. "Most of them are all pretty mobile. Stoney and Beauch have that little bit of that grit and experience and, yeah, you add Des in there and he’s a combination of both.

“Bruce wants everybody to be involved in the offense. They’ve really contributed in different times to our team game. It’s a good mesh. They’re fun to watch. I’ve really enjoyed watching them develop.”

Big picture, the Ducks are flush with top-end talent waiting in the wings -- including Josh Manson, the son of former NHLer Dave Manson, and Western Hockey League defenseman of the year Shea Theodore -- a credit to the work done by GM Bob Murray and senior vice president of hockey operations David McNab.

But this is small-picture time for the Ducks. They are two wins away from advancing to their second-ever Stanley Cup finals. Anaheim's victory in Game 3 marked the first home loss of the playoffs for the powerful Chicago Blackhawks.

“The main thing is we like to use our skating, especially against this team. They have four lines who can really skate and push the pace,” Fowler said. “As ‘D’ it’s important for us to gap up and get our ice and try and play in their face as much as we can. Dez is certainly good at doing that.

"He has the ability to jump up in the rush too. You’ve seen him throughout these playoffs create some chances offensively. I like to do the same. We seem to read off each other.”

The defensive corps, including Despres, will be crucial to achieving that goal and the goal of a second championship for the franchise.

In Game 3 the defense chipped in a goal and two assists. Over the first three games combined, the defensemen have two goals and six assists, while Despres has seven points in 12 postseason games.

If he and his mates can keep that up, well, Despres’ interrupted shopping trip will become but a distant memory.