No matter how much success the Pittsburgh Penguins had in the second half of the 2015-16 season on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, their defense was pretty consistently viewed as the biggest question mark on the team.
Once you got beyond Kris Letang, a player that will be on the shortlist of Norris Trophy candidates for the foreseeable future, it was a mix of young, unproven players (Olii Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot) and veterans that had been tossed aside by other teams that were acquired for minimal return (Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and Ian Cole). For whatever shortcomings the group may have had, they all shared a common trait (mobility) and seemed to be a perfect fit for the way coach Mike Sullivan wanted the team to play.
With the signing of Schultz to a one-year, $1.4 million contract on Wednesday, the Penguins are gearing up to take another run with mostly the same group of players on the backend at the start of the 2016-17 season. When it comes to the Schultz deal, it is a relatively low-risk move. It is a reduced salary from what he made a year ago, and he has enough skill offensively that if he is sheltered and put in the right spots he can be a useful player. He admitted on Wednesday after signing the contract that he regained a lot of confidence after the trade from Edmonton. He seemed to cut down on the glaring mistakes that came with a bigger role in Edmonton, and he was probably at his best early in the Stanley Cup Final against San Jose.
Schultz: “I got some confidence back (in Pgh). My teammates did such a great job of making me feel comfortable. It’s such a big thing.” -MC
— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) July 13, 2016
What stands out about the Penguins’ decision to bring him back is the impact it could end up having on Pouliot, a former top-10 pick from 2012 that has never really seemed to gain the trust of the organization or any coaching staff during his time with the team.
Barring any other move this offseason, the re-signing of Schultz will only give him more competition for playing time.
This much is obvious when it comes to the Penguins’ defense: Assuming everybody is healthy, Letang, Dumoulin, Daley and Maatta are going to be the top regulars in the lineup. That means Cole, Schultz and Pouliot are going to be rotating in and out of the lineup in the 5-6-7 spots. With Schultz and Pouliot being so similar in their style of play, it stands to reason that they will be the ones rotating.
Pouliot is the type of player that can be pretty polarizing when it comes to analyzing his play and determining his value.
He is supposed to be a skilled, puck-moving defenseman that teams covet on the blue line. Even though his playing time has been limited over the past two years, he always fares well from an analytics perspective with fantastic possession numbers. But outside of a brief surge in the middle of the 2014-15 season he really hasn’t shown the type of playmaking ability at the NHL level that made him such a top prospect entering the organization, while he can also be prone to “the big mistake.” When things go wrong for him, they tend to stand out in a big way. That type of player will always get a shorter leash in the eyes of fans, coaches and even front offices.
This is going to be a big year for Pouliot. He is now at an age where his status as a prospect is starting to dwindle, while two different coaching staffs in Pittsburgh (including Mike Johnston, who coached him in the WHL) have seemed to go out of their way to keep him out of the lineup unless they absolutely have no other option.
The Penguins drafted Pouliot with the draft pick they acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in the Jordan Staal trade, which also landed them Dumoulin and Brandon Sutter. He was supposed to be one of the key pieces of that deal. In the three years since Dumoulin jumped over him on the depth chart while Sutter was traded for Nick Bonino.
Pouliot has quickly gone from the key player in the trade to an afterthought that will now need to beat Justin Schultz for playing time.