Penguins’ Scuderi, Despres an odd couple on defense
One is 35 years old and closer to retirement than his next big payday.
The other is 23, and until this year, had trouble finding regular work in the NHL.
Yet Rob Scuderi and Simon Despres have come together to form a successful defensive pairing.
“We’ve been consistent and good defensively,” Despres said. “We’ve been reliable. We haven’t allowed too many two-on-ones or odd-man rushes. We’re trying to get confidence from the coaches.”
Coach Mike Johnston swapped Robert Bortuzzo (25 years old) for Despres in last Friday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Islanders, but the basic tenets of success remained.
Make the smart play. Stay in position. Hit someone when possible.
The three are a combined plus-9.
The Penguins lead the NHL in several statistics, goals per game (3.5) and power-play conversion rate (33.3 percent) chief among them.
Though it’s probably not available anywhere, they have to set some sort of record for age disparity on a pairing, especially considering Bortuzzo, if he again spells Despres, is only 25.
“He’s got the experience. I have more legs … younger legs,” Despres said.
“He’s always in good position, and I try to be in good position, too.”
When Scuderi’s at his best, he’s sound positionally and making smart plays with the puck in his own zone.
Hits aren’t exactly his thing, and he’s not a threat to take Kris Letang’s place quarterbacking the team’s top power play.
For Despres, who has more offensive upside, a key has been staying smart with his decisions while still adhering to coach Mike Johnston’s desire for defensemen to jump into the play.
Bortuzzo, who has three points in seven games, has fit nicely as well, adding more of a physical element while still playing smart.
“I think it’s going real well,” Scuderi said. “We’re keeping it simple. I know that’s my game, so it comes naturally to me.
“Simon has had to resist the temptation to make a play every time. I think he’s done an awesome job at trying to find an option. If nothing’s there, making the safe play and moving it north.”
A year after finishing a minus-8 — his worst in that category since 2005-06 — Scuderi’s resurgence also has been key. He dealt with a broken ankle last season that he admitted affected his confidence.
Throughout the offseason and preseason, Scuderi insisted he was not finished, that last season was an aberration and he would prove it.
A quarter of the way through the year, Scuderi has been true to his word.
“I feel like I’m back to my normal self,” Scuderi said. “I’ve been doing it for a while. I know what I expect of myself game in and game out. I feel like I’m there.
“We’re not that far into the season, so I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch. But at the same time, I’m happy with the start.”
Johnston has been beyond pleased with the work of this pairing, the Penguins’ own version of the Odd Couple.
“They’re a very complementary pair,” Johnston said. “Despres plays such a physical game. Scuderi plays such a position game. Both of them you can trust them defensively. They can play against anybody.”