Derrick Pouliot Holds the Keys to His Future

At 22-years old, it’s time for Derrick Pouliot to cement himself into Pittsburgh’s future plans. Easier said than done at this point, though.

You can easily look at Pouliot as a young defenseman that still needs time to develop. It’s quite common for blue-liners to find their game a bit later than 22, look no further than Pittsburgh’s own Brian Dumoulin for a perfect example. The difference, though, is that Dumoulin showed consistent improvement throughout his years in the AHL and when he was finally given a shot at the NHL level, he capitalized.

The same can’t be said for the extremely talented Pouliot.

Last summer looked like his moment. The Penguins left the window wide open for their stable of young defensemen to climb in and many assumed Pouliot was poised for a top-four role. Unfortunately, despite training with well-respected Gary Roberts in the offseason, he looked unprepared and out of shape.

He wasn’t even Pittsburgh’s best defenseman during their rookie camp and prospect tournament, both which being situations you’d expect someone of his caliber to shine brightly. Pittsburgh built a championship caliber defensive corps without him, which means he has his work cut out for him going forward if he wants to carve a place in Mike Sullivan’s starting lineup.

Positive Signs for Derrick Pouliot?

Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford recently discussed Pouliot with a glowing review of his offseason progress. “All the reports are very good on (Pouliot)”, Rutherford told TribLive’s Bill West. “It’s his time to jump in here”. And, unsurprisingly, the veteran GM is exactly right.

Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz will be restricted free agents in the spring, while Trevor Daley will be unrestricted. Dumoulin will certainly receive a qualifying offer but Pouliot and Schultz will need to prove themselves. Considering Daley’s age and price tag, Pittsburgh will likely want to replace him with a cheaper, younger body when his contract expires and Pouliot should be that guy.

Of course, ‘should‘ is the key word in that sentence.

Pouliot’s skill set is no secret. Neither is his pedigree or potentially high ceiling. What baffles everyone is what looks like a lack of motivation and an inability to take the next step in his development, mainly from a training standpoint. When he arrived at prospect camp last summer, he looked slow and seemed to be one step behind the play. Very concerning issues when you consider that he was playing against NHL hopefuls, as opposed to individuals already playing at the NHL level.

Also perplexing is that Pouliot tends to boast very good underlying numbers, despite looking less than stellar on the ice. Let’s consider his impact on teammates by looking at the WOWY (with or without you) chart below from Corsica.Hockey.


(Courtesy of Corsica.Hockey)

If you’re unfamiliar with how this reads, it’s fairly simple. The light blue dots indicate each player’s Corsi-for percentage while on the ice with Pouliot, while the red dot indicates that number while away from him. Outside of Ben Lovejoy and Conor Sheary, every player sees at least a slight boost when Pouliot is in the mix. The numbers above reflect even-strength play for the entire 2015-16 season, including playoffs.

His individual possession numbers are fantastic as well. He led Pittsburgh in individual even-strength Corsi-for percentage at 58.51-percent, ranked second on the team in Corsi-for per 60 minutes of play and while the biggest knock on him is his defensive zone coverage, he also ranked third among active Penguins in Corsi-against per 60-minutes. In other words, the Penguins are spending much more time in the offensive zone when he’s on the ice and his shot suppression numbers aren’t reflective of the ‘bad at defense’ narrative following him around.

The quality of competition he sees, as well as his limited role, are certainly factors here. However, these are signs that Pouliot is doing a lot of things right, but hasn’t been able to impress as many feel he should.

Will He Crack the Top-Six?

This is the question on everyone’s mind as we approach training camp. Despite the positives that were discussed above, the odds are stacked against him for the start of 2016-17.

Would the Penguins consider trading him this season? According to a poll I ran on Twitter, fans are 50/50 on the possibility…

One major factor is that he’s left-handed, which means the Penguins would prefer he plays the left side. There are exceptions to that – Daley being one of them – but ultimately, his chances of supplanting Schultz are impacted due to Schultz being a right-handed shot. Barring any drop-offs in performance from Schultz, I have a hard time imagining Pouliot taking that spot on a regular basis.

With Ian Cole manning the left side, he has a steep mountain to climb if he plans to be a mainstay in the top-six.

Of course, nothing is set in stone. With the Penguins operating so close to the salary cap, Pouliot could actually make Cole expendable by proving he’s ready for full-time NHL duties. Cole is tradable and if I had to guess, I’d say he’s the first name Rutherford would look to move if they needed to send a defenseman elsewhere.

I won’t call this a make-or-break season but it’s darn close. The Penguins want more from their highly touted defensive prospect and if he doesn’t deliver, he may have to start over with another organization. That may or may not be the best option for the youngster, as a fresh start isn’t necessarily a bad thing. His place on Pittsburgh’s future blue line is there for the taking. Now, it’s up to him to capitalize.