Reeling from the sting of their second first-round playoff exit in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins went into the 2012 NHL Draft under a fair amount of pressure. The draft was in home territory at their very own PPG Paints Arena. The team, who three years before had hoisted their first Stanley Cup in decades, had struggled through debilitating roster injuries and ugly playoff exits for a few seasons. And on top of it all, they had claimed the eighth-overall pick from the Carolina Hurricanes and, as an announcer told the waiting audience, General Manager Ray Shero was expected to “shake things up.”
Shero selected Derrick Pouliot with that pick. Five underwhelming years later, Pouliot was shipped to the Vancouver Canucks for a fourth-round pick and an AHL defenseman.
What happened? Pouliot was supposed to be a key player, a star offensive-defensman selected before many big names including Jacob Trouba, Filip Forsberg, Tom Wilson, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Penguins’ own Olli Maatta. What made the Penguins finally decide to give up on the Pouliot experiment?
Pouliot’s Time With the Penguins
During Pouliot’s time in Pittsburgh, rumors swirled of attitude problems, but a clearer answer to his difficulty lies in his raw numbers. Pouliot’s production plateaued, not just at the NHL level but in the minor leagues as well. Sure, maybe a high draft pick needs time to develop but after five years, 67 NHL games and a stunning drop off in production, the Penguins were ready to trade the Pouliot chip in for something new.
In the 2014-15 season, Pouliot split the year between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh, playing 34 games with the Penguins and 31 down with their minor-league affiliate. He did remarkably better in the AHL than the NHL, producing 24 points as opposed to just seven in three more games with the Penguins. (He also ended those 34 NHL games with a minus-11 rating, whereas his AHL season ended with a plus-2.)
His positive AHL performance gave observers some hope; if he could adjust to the Penguins’ style of play, and work out whatever problems he was having with the coaches, then Pouliot could be the defenseman that the Penguins’ system was searching for.
Pouliot’s Continued Struggles
The next season was a similar story. He split time between the NHL and the AHL, this time with 37 AHL games and only 22 in the NHL. And just like the season prior, Pouliot was much better in the minor league than the majors. He put up 23 points and a plus-15 rating in 37 AHL games, as opposed to 7 points and a plus-4 rating in 22 NHL contests. He was still performing better in the minors, which led people to believe that he could be good if only the Penguins played him more.
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The problem for Pouliot came in the 2016-17 season. The Penguins had just won the Cup and learned to trust other players like Justin Schultz, which shifted Pouliot further down the depth chart and his underwhelming performance in the NHL the year prior kept him in the AHL for most of the year. But although he played almost 10 games more in the AHL that season, his point total remained stagnant at 23, which meant his points per game production dropped from 0.62 to 0.5 per game.
The 11 games Pouliot played in the NHL in 2016-17 were disappointing. Not only did he fail to notch a single point, but his possession metrics plummeted as well. His Corsi For Percentage— the measure of how much the Penguins kept possession of the puck while he was on the ice— dipped below 50% for the first time in his NHL career. No one else with so few games played that season recorded as many turnovers as Pouliot, and he ended those 11 games with a minus-4 rating.
The Pouliot Plateau
From the Penguins’ perspective, Pouliot’s problem was not the amount of time he was taking to develop but that his development was beginning to plateau. After the 2016-17 season proved to be as unsuccessful for Pouliot as it was spectacularly successful for the Penguins, it became clear that he wasn’t going to be cracking the roster anytime soon.
Getting a return for Pouliot instead of losing him for nothing on waivers was a smart move on the Penguins’ part. After all, look at the case of Schultz, sometimes struggling players need a change of scenery. The Penguins recognized Pouliot’s value and kept him on their roster so as to maintain his trade value rather than letting him go in a quiet contract dump.
Pouliot simply ran out of time to improve. His stagnant 2016-17 season and lingering inability to gel with the team was the last straw in a long saga of attempting to fit him into the Penguins’ system. A fresh start in Vancouver, where he has a chance to be on the starting roster, will be good for him, just as a draft pick and defenseman will be good for the Penguins, especially if used as fodder for that much-needed third-line center.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it’s hard not to look back and wonder: what if the Penguins had skipped over Pouliot and snagged Filip Forsberg with that eighth pick, instead?