With Derrick Pouliot struggling to establish himself as a viable NHL defenseman, there have been some fans and media making the comparison between the soon-to-be 23-year old Pouliot and the resurgent Justin Schultz, as an example of how to be patient with defensemen.
It’s true that next to goalie, the most difficult position for a young player to master is defense. Not only are the zonal marking schemes more complex, the offensive alignments are also unlike those seen in juniors and the AHL. This is to say nothing of the fact that the players themselves are the best in the world and far above the quality seen by defensemen, too.
As it relates to Schultz and Pouliot, there’s a misconception that Schultz himself was terrible with the Oilers. He wasn’t a star, especially not as predicted when he spurned the Ducks to sign with the Oilers as a free agent out of college (thanks to a loophole), but it was more of a function of how terrible the Oilers were. Schultz’s counting stats of goals and assists were pretty good the first three seasons in Edmonton, ranging between 27 and 33 points each of the three years. His plus/minus (not a good analysis stat) ratings were unsightly as they ranged between -17 and -22 in his age-22 to age-24 seasons. Schultz’s Corsi possession metrics were in the low 40’s his first two seasons and barely cleared 50 in his third season, indicating some improvement for both Schultz and the team.
But since the Oilers were rebuilding, it didn’t really matter. Schultz averaged 22 minutes of ice time in those first three seasons, seeing plenty of top-4 ice time. In Schultz’s debut 2012 season, he finished 7th in the Calder for top rookie. Pouliot was drafted 8th overall in 2012, the same year as Schultz’s debut season, and debuted in 2014-15 at age 21. Pouliot managed to rack up a -11 in plus/minus in just 34 games, even with being on a team that afforded him a Corsi of 54.0% that year.
Although last week’s rout against Columbus was a terrible team-wide effort, here’s an example of what’s wrong with Pouliot right now in this video clip. Pouliot incorrectly pinched in, got caught flat-footed, then got outraced by Scott Hartnell to a loose puck. This led to Hartnell coming in on Murray and roofing a shot on him. Hartnell, especially at this point of his career, is no speedster, yet Pouliot’s lack of foot speed did not allow him to catch up to him.
All through Pouliot’s career in juniors and the AHL, he was touted as an offensive defenseman that needed work on his defensive games. These defensive lapses were always papered over and excused as youthful errors, but in actuality he’s just not fast enough or well-versed in defensive positioning.
Recently, I forecast who the Penguins would protect and expose to Vegas in June’s Expansion Draft. I didn’t expect them to protect the pending Restricted Free Agent Pouliot. I mentioned that if Vegas wanted to gamble on upside, Pouliot should be their choice. Now, however, I’m thinking that with Pouliot failing to establish himself in the top-4 with Letang, Daley, and Maatta all out (he was 3rd pairing with Steven Oleksy last night), the word is going to get out on him that he may just be a bust.
Perhaps Vegas or some other team will see him as a reclamation project, in the same way the Penguins did when they traded for Schultz midway through his 4th season, and Pouliot will blossom in a different system that accentuates his offensive gifts and covers his defensive lapses. But it’s hard to envision Pouliot getting that chance here in Pittsburgh when he can’t even establish himself now as a viable option.
Justin Schultz was an established top-4 NHL defenseman that just suffered from a poor team environment. His offensive talents were on full display in Edmonton. At this point, it’s up for debate if Pouliot is anything more than a 3rd pairing guy in the NHL. The comparisons between the two don’t ring true.