Derrick Pouliot didn’t endear himself to the Pittsburgh Penguins last year. Pouliot was nearly handed a position going into camp last season after having played 34 games with the club the year prior. Since then, he’s regressed to playing in only 22 contests this past season and could be headed for another year serving as a defensive swingman. As the eighth overall selection in the 2012 Draft, he’s admittedly been a monumental disappointment.
It’s difficult to believe that after four long years of development, Pouliot has been merely moonlighting as a replacement-level player with the big club. That’s hardly a promising direction for a player of Pouliot’s pedigree to be heading. But there may be hope.
— PensSRH (@PensSRH) August 21, 2016
A Creative Path to Playing Time
If an 82-game season isn’t reason enough to warrant the effective use of a seventh defenseman, consider this: in 2016, we’ll see an additional two weeks of competitive hockey introduced in September in the form of the World Cup of Hockey. That tournament concludes on Oct. 1. The NHL then starts their season on Oct. 12. Olli Maatta is the sole representative from the Penguins’ defensemen, but five other players will join Maatta in representing their respective countries. That, combined with a long playoff run and all of the offseason training they undertake, and you’re looking at a potentially exhausted Pens team.
Pouliot could be the answer if the Pens are looking for creative ways to balance the defensive workload. The NHL has condensed the regular season schedule to a game nearly every other day to accommodate the World Cup of Hockey. The Penguins proved during their run up to winning the Stanley Cup that speed is a huge difference maker in today’s NHL. A fast team playing hard minutes under a compacted schedule is going to require more frequent rests. Including Pouliot in a sort of rotation (at least among the bottom two or three defensemen) could ease the burden of the additional minutes played so closely together.
And sometimes, you’ve just got to find out what you’ve got in a player. Exercising Pouliot in the minors for a third straight season won’t showcase his ability or his potential to compete with the big boys. Allowing Pouliot to make mistakes and develop his game in the NHL is the only way to determine if he’s truly prepared for rigors of the next level. He’s got over 50 regular season games under his belt stretched over two seasons. He’s seen what it takes to win a championship. There’s no better time to utilize a young talent than the perfect storm of circumstances which make it necessary to use more bodies in the 2016-17 season.
How Can He Fit In?
It’s a numbers game. With Ben Lovejoy now a member of the New Jersey Devils, only two other defensemen block Pouliot’s path to regular ice time. And until last year’s playoffs, neither one of Ian Cole or Justin Schultz were particularly impressive over the course of the regular season. Cole elevated his game once the playoffs arrived, but Schultz largely remained true to himself and his game during that time. If the regular season versions of Cole and Schultz make an appearance, Pouliot should have little difficulty cracking the lineup regularly.
Injuries, too, present an opportunity. There’s little word of the progress Trevor Daley is making in his recovery from a broken ankle suffered during the playoffs. However, if Daley’s injury is still a concern heading into October, resting Daley once a week could see Pouliot drawn into the lineup. Injuries in Pittsburgh are often an intentionally vague affair, especially when discussed by the coaches or management. Relying on injury isn’t the best way to make a living, but there’s no doubting that resting Daley and playing Pouliot could benefit both players.
Pouliot’s opportunity to play regular minutes might not hinge upon numbers and injuries alone. An important skill that Pouliot possesses over teammates like Cole and Schultz is his ability to quarterback a power play. Throughout his career in juniors and in the minors, he’s been played as the point-man on the power play.
Cole is a defensive guru and is much more of a physical presence. Schultz has the slight touch of a playmaker but lacks a useful shot. If star defenseman Kris Letang were ever to receive a day off, having confidence in Pouliot’s ability to distribute the puck on the power play would be a great second option. And if he were to become a regular, Pouliot could slot right into the point on the second power-play unit.
Twenty-two regular season games are far too small a total for a player of Pouliot’s pedigree. The 2016-17 season presents a few creative new ways to manage ice time. In the past four years, there has been no better time to establish yourself as an NHL regular than right now. Derrick Pouliot needs to play right now.
Penguins hockey enthusiast, journalist, poet and rec league roller hockey player.