Derrick Pouliot has all the tools to be a top-six defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins next season. Now, he just has to earn it.
With veteran blueliner Paul Martin moving on to San Jose and Christian Ehrhoff a free agent, the need for a puck-moving defenseman is apparent on the Pens’ current roster. While Pouliot’s name is the first one to pop up in the discussion to replace them, that spot won’t just be handed to him.
Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi and Brian Dumoulin all have NHL deals ahead of Pouliot, but the No. 8 overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft is highly talented with tremendous potential.
“We’ve got a lot of talented guys here,” Pouliot said. “I know nothing is going to be handed to me, so I have to work for it. It’s always been like that for me at every level, so I’m ready for the competition.”
Last season, Pouliot played in 34 NHL games while averaging 17:33 minutes of ice time. While the rookie defenseman did score his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot in his NHL debut on Dec. 20 against the Florida Panthers, it wasn't the easiest transition from the AHL.
Pouliot said a lot of that had to do with the adjustment to the NHL game, which is much quicker and where players are much stronger.
“The pace of the game was a lot faster,” Pouliot said. “At first it was difficult to adjust to, but as the season progressed I thought I did OK. The big thing for me was my conditioning, which I felt wasn’t where it needed to be once I jumped to the NHL.”
The promising young defenseman pointed to his fitness as the one key area he wants to improve heading into this season.
To try and improve his conditioning, the 21-year-old enlisted former Pen and fitness guru Gary Roberts, who was hired in March to oversee training at the new UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry (which is scheduled to open in August).
“It all just sort of came about towards the end of the season,” Pouliot said. “We had a few discussions and we decided to put something together. It’s been great.”
Although Pouliot was just 14 years old when Roberts was a member of the Pens, he knows the reputation Roberts still carries in the city of Pittsburgh. The intensity he portrayed on the ice has translated into the environment created at his training facility in Toronto, the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre.
“It’s pretty intense there, to be honest,” Pouliot said. “They’ve got their chiropractors and massage people to keep the bodies working like they should be. The thing with (Roberts) is that he really helps us with nutrition and the lifestyle stuff, how to be a pro, because he’s been through it all before.”
Although Pouliot played nearly half a season in the NHL last year, the Penguins' blue line is still crowded at the top, which will make it difficult for him to crack the NHL roster.
With expectations shaping up to be quite high for the young defenseman heading into the 2015-16 season, Pouliot can rely on the conditioning and intense work he’s put in while he’s trying to earn that coveted roster spot in the NHL.
Gary Roberts and Derrick Pouliot