It’s been five years since an 18-year old Derrick Pouliot was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins with their eighth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The Penguins — as the Hurricanes were seemingly headed to the podium to make their pick — swooped in and sent Jordan Staal to Carolina in exchange for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and the pick that ultimately became Pouliot. Expectations were immediately through the roof for the highly touted offensive defenseman and most assumed he’d be a major pillar on Pittsburgh’s blue line sooner, rather than later.
Unfortunately, Pouliot never lived up to those expectations.
Like most prospects at that age, Pouliot was assigned to his Junior team — the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. Coached by Mike Johnston prior to his short stint in Pittsburgh as head coach for the Penguins, Pouliot amassed 205 points through 247 games played with Portland and put together a career year in his final junior season with 70 points in 58 games. He also scored 72 points in 85 playoff games. And while success in junior hockey doesn’t always translate to the pros, all things indicated Pouliot was headed for a solid career as an elite blueliner in the big leagues. His career to this point, though, has left everyone wondering…
What the heck happened?!
Will over Skill
Raw talent will only get you so far in the NHL. Pouliot’s skill may have given him a false sense of security and ultimately, the biggest knock on him as a player has been his willingness to put in the extra work required to take his game to the next level. Year after year, it’s the same story as the Penguins head to training camp with hopes that he’ll finally break out and make a case for a full-time spot with the big club.
Why is his conditioning so bad? Why doesn’t he look ready for camp?
Maturity has been an issue for Pouliot. Teammates have pulled him aside to call him out, and the organization hasn’t been shy about addressing those concerns publicly with the media. His offseason conditioning has been poor, despite spending time with well-respected Gary Roberts last summer and his development, in general, is way behind the expected timeline. In Pouliot’s defense, he’s still quite young having turned 23-years old in January but even so, it’s concerning that such a skilled player has taken this long to hit his stride. And really, are we sure he’s hit his stride just yet?
From a performance standpoint, underlying numbers — or, possession stats, if you will — have been friendly to Pouliot. He’s lacked the assertiveness to impose his will at the NHL level, though, and is far too hesitant to let his offensive instincts take over. His reluctance and inability to make sound decisions with the puck have led to turnovers and his physicality — though, not something he’s expected to excel at — isn’t even in the ballpark of a steady NHL defender. Still, the organization remains high on him as a future part of this team and with Pouliot hitting restricted free agency this summer — they sent him a message by signing him to a one-year, one-way contract worth $800,000.
It’s now or never.
One Last Shot for Derrick Pouliot
During the summer of 2016, with Justin Schultz hitting restricted free agency, Jim Rutherford made him a deal. The Penguins provided him a one-year ‘show me’ contract and an opportunity to prove his success in Pittsburgh during their Stanley Cup run wasn’t a fluke. He did that and more and eventually earned himself quite the payday. Pouliot, like Schultz, has now received his ‘show me’ deal.
The difference, of course, is that Pouliot needs to prove he can properly train this summer — enter camp in the best shape of his career — and earn his spot on Pittsburgh’s roster. He’ll be competing with the likes of newly signed Matt Hunwick and returning journeyman Chad Ruhwedel for the number six spot on the blue line, but injuries throughout the season will pave way for more playing time. Contracts such as Pouliot’s new deal are usually handed out to individuals like Slater Koekkoek of the Tampa Bay Lightning who, like Pouliot, was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He’s proved that he’s ready for a jump to the NHL on a full-time basis, though, whereas Pouliot is simply being challenged to get there. They know he has the skill. So far, he hasn’t shown that he has the will.
A one-way contract doesn’t mean that Pouliot cannot be sent to the AHL, as some may think. And whether or not Pouliot was offered a one-way or two-way deal, he’d still be waiver eligible this season based on his age and when he signed his first NHL contract. His one-way deal does mean that no matter what level he’s playing, the Penguins will be providing his full NHL salary and like any other business, they want a return on investment. They want Pouliot to stick in the big leagues and become the defender that everyone has been hoping for since his draft day.
They anted up, now it’s up to Pouliot to do the rest. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh could very well walk away without extending a qualifying offer when he’s once again a restricted free agent next summer.