EX-PEN DERRICK POULIOT: AN UNDER-THE-RADAR FREE AGENCY PICK-UP
As the list of unqualified restricted free agents broke yesterday, we found out that former Pens' top draft pick Derrick Pouliot (D) will become a unrestricted free agent on July 1st. The Vancouver Canucks decided not to make him a qualifying contract offer and are parting ways with him. That's not particularly surprising as they continue to streamline their middling ranks in pursuit of more aggressive big moves to further their franchise reboot. And Pouliot landed on the chopping block.
It's of course true that Derrick Pouliot has had a disappointing career thus far for his 8th overall pick status too. He never became the next Kris Letang as the Penguins were clearly hoping he would. Yet the evidence suggest he's actually a good player for some very precise and highly desired roles when deployed with proper usage. This potential makes him one of my choices for the best dark-horse, under-the-radar players available in this year's crop of free agents. Guys that savvy, bargain shoppers should consider as additions that provide the maximum skilled bang for minimal bucks.
That's a mold Derrick Pouliot fits right into.
Looking at Pouliot, one of the first things that's noticeable is his true potential for assist generation. He reached a career high of 19As two seasons ago in Vancouver. In fact his 22 points that season was 2nd best among all Canucks defensemen for the year. In the same span he also finished 2nd best in for-Corsi, expected goal shares, and scoring chances. He also finished as 3rd best in suppressed shots on the defensive end of things.
Team leading defenseman is probably not what people envision when they think of Derrick Pouliot, but he's shown the ability to be one in the right environment.
He has also consistently put up about 3 goals per year like clockwork in every season where he played more than 30 games (at least 1/4 of a season), for a slight scoring kicker on top of helpers. I believe that total goals number can easily be pumped up 2-3 more if he's encouraged to shoot as often as a player of his skill set should. He's too reticent in the shooting department for his high level of offensive ability. That's perhaps a leftover effect of his last days in Pittsburgh where he was discouraged from getting too bold with the puck. (Mostly due to staff's preferences more than a pattern of actual liability.) Whatever is making him hesitant aside this is an easy fix. Have the coaches give him their blessing to let 'em rip.
Pouliot's advanced statistics are also striking and definitely a desirable quality in today's league. In his key 2017-18 Canucks season, Pouliot made up one of Vancouver's best D pairs. He found a sweet spot skating with Alex Biega and they played very admirably together (see this Vancouver Courier article for the full advanced stats chart and analysis). The Biega/Pouliot pair produced better than league average in 7 of 13 different categories and led or came in 2nd in every stat out of all the Canucks' defensive pairings. They managed to do all that as 3rd liners. For those fluent in advanced stats in particular, on 5-on-5 they produced: CF%- 55.95, CF/60- 61.96, CA/60- 48.79. The duo put up the best Corsi-for percentage on the team by a large margin. Their defensive analytics were stout as well. It wasn't a one-way, all offense show. This more proof positive in Pouliot's favor.
His best usage at this point in time is probably exactly as a 3rd pair defenseman with puck-handling skills far beyond that of a typical L3 player. In a more comfortable team environment than the highly scrutinized Canucks, and with a little more confidence gained in playing regularly, he might have the potential to evolve into a 2nd pair player in the long term. Pouliot also boasts power-play experience and can quarterback the blue line there as a fill-in or possibly on a 2nd unit with a stronger fundamental D-man on the opposite wall. That's a position he was allowed to hold even in his later days in Pittsburgh, the confidence in his skill on the PP was one thing that the coaches never lost. He remained the Pens 3rd unit/fill-in 2nd unit PP point when he did manage to get into games here until he left the team.
As far as who would make a great match for him, he'd be especially useful on a team that needs the added punch of an offensive defenseman. Which is what he brings to a "T". Particularly a place that can insulate him with the counter-balance of more defensively minded guys. Since his puck moving skills are still top notch. He can drive the play up ice and make passes to the forwards to spark a break-out with ease. And while his game is offense heavy there's one category where he's shown a marked niche defensively- blocks. In his career year of 2017-18 Pouliot had 118 regular season blocks, 3rd best on the Canucks. That wasn't a one-off. He also showed well in blocking last season, although with a slight drop, to 5th best on the team with 71 blocks in correlation to playing roughly 20 less games. And this is a new skill for him, something we never saw in Pittsburgh. That shows he still has a propensity for growth in his game. Which is a huge question mark when teams are trying to consider whether or not to take a chance on a player who has fallen short of expectations.
Looking at him in totality: Derrick Pouliot has some solid analytics numbers, highly desired fine skills, and special teams aptitude to his game. Plus experience playing in 1 Stanley Cup run and was a black ace in a second in his history. And he is still only 25-years-old. All characteristics worth betting a contract on. There's clearly more tread there. Add the fact that he’s likely to take a sizable pay cut from his entry-level contract's inflated $1.1 million salary, he’d be a thrifty addition to a astute team in need of value.
Now that does sound like a label that fits the Penguins but I have to mention that a re-do in Pittsburgh is unlikely. Despite the fact as other scribes have also pointed out, Pouliot is statistically a clear advantage over a certain wildly dysfunctional, ultra costly Pens' defenseman (Jack Johnson). It seems like too lofty an idea considering Derrick Pouliot and head coach Mike Sullivan never saw eye-to-eye when he was with the team. Pouliot was perpetually in doghouse once Sullivan took over the team. He was never able to gain his trust and often remained benched. That caused him to lose the necessary ice-time to mature and build the credibility he needed to with the coaches. It was a self-perpetuating cycle. And being that the same regime is still at the helm, it's just as likely he'd sit and be wasted in Pittsburgh the second time around.
So our loss is the league's gain. We'll get see on 7/1 which teams really did their homework and put Pouliot on their signings shopping list.