The Pittsburgh Penguins have waited three years for defenseman Derrick Pouliot to seize his opportunity to join the NHL lineup. In his fourth meaningful Penguins training camp, Pouliot, 23, finds himself in a battle for his career, and in a battle versus Chad Ruhwedel for a seat in the pressbox as the Penguins extra defenseman.
Intense off-season training with fitness fanatic Gary Roberts, encouraging talks from veterans and some harsh talks from veterans have not been enough to help Pouliot complete his development. Pouliot played 34 games three seasons ago but has played less in each successive season. He played 22 games in 2015-16 but was scoreless in just 11 games last season.
As questions about Pouliot have mounted, Chad Ruhwedel, 27, has resurrected his career. Ruhwedel played just 33 games in four seasons for the Buffalo Sabres. He played a career high 34 games with the Penguins, last season.
Injuries and roster depth limited Ruhwedel to six games in the playoffs.
Ruhwedel was a sure-footed, steady presence on the blueline. The Penguins defensive corps suffered a seemingly never-ending string of injuries throughout the regular season and playoffs. Ruhwedel, a right handed shot, was able to log significant minutes and maintain continuity.
Rudhwedel won’t be confused with a top-four defenseman. He lacks the strength to clear the front of his net or win corner battles. His decision making is strong, his forward step is quick and his breakouts are good.
Ruhwedel signed a two-year contract with an annual $650,000 salary in June. There is little doubt he can manage the rigors spot starts after a week of press box nachos.
Pouliot was once billed as an offensive defenseman, able to join the rush and run the power play. As a rookie in 2014-15, Pouliot played 34 games in the NHL and scored 7 points. In 31 AHL games, he piled up an impressive 24 points (7g, 17a).
It likely helped that Pouliot’s juniors coach, Mike Johnston, became the Penguins head coach that season. Johnston preferred a slower game and liked defenseman to push the offense. The defensemen were the most unhappy about Johnston’s firing.
The Penguins current scheme is the exact opposite, which doesn’t bode well for Pouliot. To this point, he has not displayed strong skating, adequate decision-making, or even an ability to keep pace with the NHL game. His decisions are slow. His breakout passes are a beat behind. Despite praise from the Sullivan coaching staff and General Manager Jim Rutherford last season, Pouliot was clearly playing inside his head, not on the ice.
Some members of the Penguins organization, past and present, have quietly offered similar assessments, but hold out hope the young defenseman will turn around his career. Veteran players have pulled Pouliot aside to explain what is necessary to compete at the NHL level.
And, the Penguins offered a last chance, one way contract this season worth $800,000.
Other Competition: Frank Corrado
Also competing for space is Toronto Maple Leafs cast-off, Frank Corrado. Corrado found himself in a Pouliot-like situation in Toronto before being acquired by the Penguins last year. Corrado has offensive skills. He moves the puck well. He has a solid shot and can quarterback a power play. Corrado to this point, however, has struggled in the defensive zone.
The Penguins will attempt to corral his offensive abilities while teaching him how to play in the defensive zone. One intriguing possibility is Corrado being able to spend a couple months with Penguins assistant coach, Sergei Gonchar who worked wonders with Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin. With a strong training camp showing, the Penguins could decide Corrado is worth the investment.
Also, there is thundering hitter Jarred Tinordi, who has NHL experience. Tinordi, 25, is a reclamation project and, at worst, organizational depth. Tinordi has 53 games NHL experience with the Montreal Canadiens and Phoenix Coyotes. He is a heavy hitter who can skate well but was suspended for 20 games last season for violating the NHL’s substance abuse policy.
Tinordi fell out of favor with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015, as GM Marc Bergevin grew impatient with his development. Injuries to his wrist then head, further complicated matters. He was dealt to Phoenix last season, but played just seven games, in part because of the suspension.
Tinordi, with his head straight, could well leap frog all challengers for the 7th defenseman spot. He offers attributes which no other Penguins defender can match. With Jim Rutherford’s stated goal to add a little more toughness to the lineup, Tinordi may have the inside track if he proves able to move the puck quickly and keep his game simple.
It isn’t hard to see the Penguins keeping Tinordi available for a few physical Metro Division battles. If Tinordi proves capable, anyway.
While the Penguins would like to see Pouliot finally return the investment of a 1st-round pick, it is hard to see him beating Chad Ruhwedel. Ruhwedel is the safe bet, plays well within the Penguins system, is a steady if not unspectacular contributor is won’t make waves if he doesn’t receive enough playing time. The same cannot be said for Pouliot’s past behavior.
But don’t discount Jarred Tinordi, who was a 1st-round selection in 2010, in part because of his mobility and puck skills. He has the highest ceiling of the bunch, but only a two-way contract.
Let the training camp battles begin!