Simon Despres had no reason to believe that the Pittsburgh Penguins would trade him.
The organization had signed him to a two-year deal last July and the only time he heard his name floated out in hockey circles was when everyone was trying to figure out how to pronounce it (it’s si-MONE, de-PRAY, just for the record).
The young defenseman was so sure that his status with Pens was safe that he and his girlfriend decided to set down roots of sort, buying furniture together for their place in Pittsburgh.
That order was quickly canceled as Despres was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for Ben Lovejoy in early March … and the Ducks were playing in Arizona the very next day.
"I was shopping for furniture with my girlfriend and my phone blew up," he said. "A lot of things went on after that. I had 15 minutes to pack and leave for Phoenix that day. It was a big change in my life."
The question begged to be answered: Why on earth did Pittsburgh give Despres up? He has quietly put together a very strong postseason with seven points, 15 blocked shots and a plus-eight in rating. His game-winning goal vs. Chicago in Game 3 only served to underscore his performance and highlighting his value.
"He was big for us tonight," center Nate Thompson said after Game 3. "He was physical, he was blocking shots, he was taking away time and space for the big guys out there. And then he comes up with a big goal for us. That’s what it’s going to take in the playoffs. It’s going to take different guys stepping up at different times."
Despres was an afterthought at the trade deadline. The Ducks brought back James Wisniewski in attempt to replace the veteran presence lost when Lovejoy was dealt and aid the struggling power play. But Despres’ play fit perfectly with the Anaheim’s heavy checking system. He uses his physicality in a smart way, loves to go after the top players on the ice and make their jobs more difficult, he blocks shots and jumps into plays.
This wasn’t what the Ducks expected when they traded for him, but he’s pushed his way past Wisniewski and anyone else who dared stand in his way, turning himself into a top-four defenseman.
"I think at the beginning we thought Des was going to be the seventh defenseman," said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. "So he got a chance to play two or three games. He played really well. Got to the point where, gee, how can you take him out of the lineup? He was playing with Cam (Fowler) really well."
The relationship with Fowler developed instantly. Despres had played against Cam Fowler at the junior national level, himself with Team Canada and Fowler with Team USA, and had studied the Ducks’ prized young blue liner from afar.
"He’s a very good skater, good hockey IQ," Despres said of his defense partner. "He won the Memorial Cup with Windsor and the next year I won it with St. John, so we’ve kind of followed each other. I knew of him before I met him and played with him and I always knew he was a good player."
At first glance, it may seem as though their styles of play contrast. Fowler had enjoyed a strong partnership with Lovejoy and keeping him with a veteran skater instead of a young, puck-moving bruiser seemed like the obvious answer. But Fowler hadn’t been without his struggles in the spring and there was talk of complacency. He was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career just a couple weeks after the trade deadline.
Change was finally starting to sink in.
"Obviously I enjoyed my time with Lovey. We were a great partnership too, but sometimes changes need to be made," Fowler said. "Desy stepped in and since he came in, he played that game in Phoenix which was a while back. We’ve been together ever since. Sometimes things just click."
As it turns out, Fowler’s finesse skating and Despres’ speed and strength actually compliment each other.
"He’s a big physical kid who can impose his will on some of their skill guys," Fowler said. "He has the ability to join the rush whenever he has the opportunity, and that’s also a big part of my game. So I think we have a good understanding with one another with when it’s time to go and when it’s time to sit back and play solid defensively."
Life changes are almost always unexpected. No one could have predicted that a seemingly innocuous defenseman swap would pay dividends. Orange County was never a destination that Despres ever thought would be home. But now that he’s here, he has no intentions of leaving — and his employer seems to feel the same.
Despres is ready to buy furniture once again.
"It was a shock and I’m happy it happened," he said. "It’s California though, I’m really happy. It’s one of the best places to live. A lot of people want to live there and I seized the opportunity and tried to make the most of it."