Derrick Pouliot has seen less NHL action in each of the past three campaigns, and his one-year deal in Pittsburgh could be his last chance. He's not the only player facing a make-or-break year, though.
Derrick Pouliot’s development hasn’t exactly gone as planned.
Drafted eighth-overall by the Penguins in 2012, Pouliot was touted as a high-end offensive defenseman who could, at some point, become Kris Letang, v. 2.0 in Pittsburgh. He had put up outstanding totals in the WHL over his first two seasons, was on the radar for Canada’s World Junior Championship squad and, by 2013-14, was more than a point per game player in both the regular season and playoffs for the Portland Winterhawks.
The next season, Pouliot found himself splitting time between the NHL and AHL, earning 34 games with the big club and skating in another 31 down in Wikes-Barre/Scranton. But come 2015-16, there was a decline. Pouliot was used less, skating just 22 games in Pittsburgh and 37 down on the farm. And this past season, a year when some would have expected more out of Pouliot, he skated 11 games with the Penguins and 46 in the AHL. And when Pittsburgh’s blueline ran into health trouble and the trade deadline approached, GM Jim Rutherford opted to wheel and deal rather than haul Pouliot up from the minors.
That has been reflected in the way scouts see Pouliot, too. In THN’s Future Watch issues over the past four seasons, where prospects are ranked by a panel of scouts, Pouliot has steadily declined. In 2014, he was the 20th-ranked prospect. He slipped to 24th the following issue. In 2015’s magazine, the panel had him as the 56th-best prospect, and in the Future Watch issue released mere months ago, Pouliot had dipped all the way to 79th.
And that’s why Pouliot’s new one-year, $800,000 contract with the Penguins might be his last chance to make a real strong impression on the club. While the 23-year-old defenseman is far from long in the tooth, the fact of the matter is that he’s yet to really prove his mettle in Pittsburgh, and that could mean the clock is ticking on his time with the organization.
If that seems a quick rush of judgment on a player — he is only coming out of his entry-level contract — consider that there are others from Pouliot’s draft who are already on the outs with the team which drafted them. The first-overall selection in 2012, Nail Yakupov, has already been traded once and didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Blues this off-season, landing with the Colorado Avalanche as a free agent. Griffin Reinhart, fourth overall in 2012, has been traded and then left exposed for and subsequently selected by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. In addition, Henrik Samuelsson and Stefan Matteau, late first-rounders in 2012, weren’t extended qualifying offers this summer.
But, at the very least, Pouliot, unlike several of his 2012 draft counterparts, will get the chance to prove he can contribute to the club that saw such promise in him. It’s a one-way deal and projections are Pouliot will make for a sixth- or seventh-defenseman on the Penguins’ this coming season, and that position could be enough to allow him to get his feet wet and find his game as a full-time, contributing member of the roster. If that isn’t the case, though, Pouliot could find himself on the chopping block, either waived by the Penguins or playing out the season before being cut loose without an offer.
Pouliot isn’t the only player facing a potential make-or-break season with the only NHL franchise they’ve ever known, though. Here are four other recently drafted players who might need to have impactful seasons in order to prove their worth and maintain their jobs beyond this coming campaign:
Malcolm Subban, G, Boston Bruins
There was a time, and it’s not a distant memory, when Subban was considered one of the standout prospects in the Bruins’s system, and his first two seasons in the AHL were certainly full of promise. In 2013-14, he turned in a .920 save percentage in 33 appearances and followed that up with a .921 SP across 35 games in 2014-15. But in the 2015-16 campaign, Subban’s game started to slide. His SP dropped to .911, he started 27 games and had to fight for the AHL starting job which was once expected to be his. This past season, he improved, but only posted a .917 SP in 32 games.
And it’s led some to question if the 2012 24th-overall pick is ever going to pan out and meet projections. It’s a fair question, too. In the NHL, he’s struggled in a big way, posting subpar SP marks and getting shelled in the two regular season outings he’s seen, and his performances were such that his name totally disappeared from projections that he’d be a target come the expansion draft.
Subban is currently without a contract from the Bruins, but it stands to reason Boston will give him at least one more shot. Maybe his fifth professional campaign can be the one where he really finds his game.
Zemgus Girgensons, C, Buffalo Sabres
The 2014-15 Sabres an awful team in every sense of the word. Buffalo finished with 54 points, a minus-113 goal differential and there was very little about the club that was worth watching. However, when the all-star break started to roll around, a voting campaign for the ‘Latvian Locomotive’ gave Sabres fans something to enjoy. Girgensons was a fun candidate for the All-Star Game, too. He was having a career year, taking first-line minutes and when the season ended he had a respectable 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games.
Don’t let the fun memory cloud today’s reality, though. Girgensons has struggled since the 2014-15 campaign, and in his past 146 games has managed 14 goals and 34 points. His ice time has slipped to little more than 14 minutes per game. He’s been passed on the depth chart by Jack Eichel and Johan Larsson and, quite possibly, Evan Rodrigues and Jacob Josefson. It’s not a good look.
Girgensons still has potential and upside. It’s why the Sabres haven’t cut ties with him. But he’s set for another one-year deal in Buffalo, and if he doesn’t perform, his time could very well be up as a Sabre.
Duncan Siemens, D, Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche blueline is in a bad way. Currently, Colorado has three defensemen — count ‘em, three — under contracts as full-time NHLers. Nikita Zadorov is maybe, possibly heading to the KHL if he doesn’t get an offer he doesn’t like from the Avalanche, and even if he does stick around in Colorado, the club is going to then need to dig into the minors in order to fill out their roster. And that’s where Siemens comes in.
He has slipped perilously low in Colorado’s prospect rankings, moving from their eighth-best option to outside the top 10 in the most recent Future Watch, but Siemens has size, at least some NHL experience and was extended a qualifying offer this off-season. That should at least give him a chance to crack the Avalanche blueline. From there, though, he’s going to have to impress to stick around.
Taken 11th overall in the 2011 draft, Siemens has since played four games in the NHL, three this past season, but averaged roughly 12 minutes per game. That doesn’t bode too well for his future.
Slater Koekkoek, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
Selected 10th-overall in 2012, just two spots behind Pouliot, was Koekkoek, but he’s had similar issues cracking the Lightning roster with any consistency since his draft year. Like Pouliot, though, this coming season could be Koekkoek’s chance to do so. Tampa Bay signed Koekkoek to a one-year, one-way deal worth $800,000, and he stands to fight for minutes as part of the bottom pairing in Tampa Bay.
The big issue for Koekkoek, however, may be finding a way to be a nightly contributor in limited minutes. He’s going to have a tough or impossibly time unseating any of Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi or Andrej Sustr for their spots in the lineup, so beating out Jake Dotchin, who is projected to make the team, or Mikhail Sergachev, who will get every chance out of training camp, is the only way to get a regular shift this coming season.
However, if there’s one player on this list that can fall on the better side of the make-or-break scenario, it might be Koekkoek. Coach Jon Cooper used the blueliner in 10 games during the Lightning’s 2015-16 post-season run and was rewarded with 29 games in the Tampa Bay lineup last season. He’s getting the chances.
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