The Pittsburgh Penguins’ defensive lineup has been decimated by their recent bout of injuries. In the Penguins’ Wednesday night blowout against the Chicago Blackhawks, only Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz and Ian Cole remained from the core defensive lineup. Two AHL players, as well as new addition Mark Streit, were filling in for the spots left empty by Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta and other recent addition Ron Hainsey. And although Hainsey has been practicing in a regular-contact jersey, always a hopeful sign for return, Letang and Daley remain firmly on the injured reserve.
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Earlier today, the Penguins reassigned two forwards and one defenseman to their minor league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Cameron Gaunce and Chad Ruhwedel, who played last night, are staying up in the majors, which means we won’t be seeing any immediate returns from missing core defenders. The Penguins are fighting to break their losing streak before it hits four games, which would be their longest since Mike Sullivan took over in late 2015. In light of this pressing need for defenders, should the Penguins be looking at calling up Derrick Pouliot?
Pouliot has been simmering in the lower levels of the Penguins’ development leagues for quite some time now. He was the Penguins’ eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, and he’s played a significant number of games in the NHL since his inaugural 2014-15 season. This season, he’s been called up several times already. We’ve seen him once in October, then again for six games in December and once again for three games in March.
In the minor leagues, Pouliot has been doing relatively well. He has 20 points in 39 games, which makes him the second-highest producing defenseman on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. But whenever he comes up to the major leagues, his play doesn’t seem to click with the Penguins. This season, he is -4 with zero points in 10 games played. He has been unable to mesh with any of the Penguins’ other defenders, frequently allowing turnovers that turn into scoring chances for the other team. In the defensive zone, he’s weak with the puck, and never a solid presence on the ice.
Here’s an example of when Pouliot’s presence on the ice has been a weakness to the Penguins. Here, his positioning and inability to get back fast enough to block a pass led to a goal by the New Jersey Devils.
Searching for a Defensive Answer
The Penguins’ defense is floundering. Three losses in a row, including a 5-1 loss to the Blackhawks in which the Penguins allowed 36 shots against Marc-Andre Fleury, is proof enough of that. But the answer is not to turn to Pouliot; the chances he’s already had with the Penguins this season has proven that. The solution to the Penguins’ defensive problems lies in getting more injured players back on the ice, not reaching deeper into the minor-league ranks.
The fact that the Penguins haven’t called up Pouliot now when they’re as desperate for depth as they’ve ever been, casts Pouliot’s future in the organization into a questionable light. Sullivan spoke highly of him midway through this season, calling Pouliot a “very good young player” and of plans to help him develop. But the fact that he didn’t make the call-up list even when the Penguins were four defenders short shows that his future may involve playing with a different organization if he ever wants to permanently crack the major leagues. For a first-round pick, Pouliot’s play with the Penguins has never quite hit the level to keep him on the roster.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.