Expectations were low for Derrick Pouliot after being acquired from Pittsburgh for a 4th round pick and Andrey Pedan. After all, the former eighth overall pick had failed to outplay journeyman Chad Ruhwedel for a blue line spot on the Penguins roster.
Pouliot has defied these critics and played some of the best hockey in his professional career; earning a regular spot on the Canucks’ backend. What’s stood out most to the naked eye has been the poise and confidence that he’s shown with the puck in all three zones. The 23-year-old has been able to effectively transition the puck to forwards with crisp breakout passes, whilst showing an ability to also rush the puck up the neutral zone for controlled offensive zone entries.
Pouliot’s play with the puck has overshadowed the positive defensive impact he’s also made. In fact, underlying defensive metrics suggest that Pouliot has been one of the better defensive blueliners in the entire league.
Sample size and deployment attenuate his success to a degree, but it’s still worth noting when we’re discussing a player like Pouliot who’s been labelled as a defensive liability.
As always, it’s critical to acknowledge the way a player has been deployed and how that may affect his performance before making any judgement.
In this case, Pouliot has been leaned on heavily during even strength— ranking behind only Alex Edler in averaging 16:37 per game since mid-November. The biggest reason for this(aside from his performance) is Pouliot’s versatility in being able to play his off side.
Pouliot has been sheltered in these minutes— matching up against weaker competition more often than not.
The graph above tells us that Pouliot is spending a higher proportion of his ice-time against the opposition’s bottom six forwards. Furthermore, he is receiving 59.2% of his zone starts in the offensive zone.
Recent studies have proven though that zone starts have a negligible impact on the result of possession and shot based metrics. Still, it’s an important tool when understanding the context of how a coach deploys his players.
Underlying Defensive Metrics
Looking at possession and shot-based metrics, it’s clear that the Canucks do significantly better when Derrick Pouliot is on the ice. The team is retaining possession, suppressing shot attempts, and controlling scoring chances at a much better rate with the 23-year-old deployed. In fact, he’s one of the better defensemen in the league in these regards.
Context serves as an advantage for Pouliot when comparing him to other defensemen in the league. Playing on a poor team like the Canucks is surely hindering some of these numbers. Pouliot’s Corsi %, for example, doesn’t look overly impressive at first glance. It looks much better however when you factor in that the Canucks as a whole are controlling just 47.6% of shot attempts. The same applies to scoring chances, where the team is second last in controlling just 45.99% of them.
What’s particularly impressive is how Pouliot is able to suppress shot attempts against—finishing 26th(CA/60) and 18th(FA/60) best in this regard. Quality of shot attempts against isn’t a particular concern either, as Pouliot is second to only Ben Hutton in allowing just 10.53 high danger attempts per hour.
Comparing these numbers relative to other Canucks blueliner’s is where Pouliot really shines.
There’s an important metric that’s been left out though and it’s one that I wanted to tackle separately. Pouliot’s raw goals against per hour rate(2.96) ranks him 146th in the league and second-worst on the Canucks.
It’s peculiar when you consider that the Canucks are doing a much better job of preventing shot attempts and scoring chances with Pouliot deployed. The cause of this abnormality has been particularly porous goaltending.
Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson have combined for an ugly .899 even strength save percentage with Pouliot on the ice. This mark is a far cry from the .912 even-strength rate that Markstrom and Nilsson are combining for as a whole. In this case, Pouliot’s expected goals against rate(xGA/60) would be a much better indicator of defensive performance.
Pouliot isn’t the only defenceman whose goals against rate suffers from poor goaltending either. Norris Trophy nominee Erik Karlsson ranks as the worst defenceman in the league when looking at goals against rate. Is he poor defensively? No, it’s just that Senators’ goalies are leaking goals at a ridiculous pace with the superstar Swede on the ice.
Why Is Pouliot Successful Defensively?
Pouliot excels in facets of the game that ensure he spends as little time as possible defending in his own zone.
One of the biggest things that stands out in Pouliot’s game is how well he’s able to anticipate and read opposition breakouts. He then uses his mobility to make aggressive pinches that help maintain tight gap control in the neutral zone.
In this clip, Pouliot abandons the right side he’s covering and cuts across in an aggressive pinch to take space away from the puck carrier. Pouliot does a great job of wedging his body and stick between the Kings forward Alex Iafallo and the puck. Iafallo is now forced to poke the puck into the Canucks end for an uncontrolled entry instead of a potential two-on-two.
Pouliot is able to make plays like this in the neutral zone to consistently force uncontrolled entries. Forcing a high percentage of uncontrolled entries is important because they are half as likely to result in unblocked shot attempts compared to controlled entries.
Smart reads and tight gap control lead to consistent neutral zone breakups like the one below as well.
Most impressive about this play is how early Pouliot is able to identify Couture as the player most likely to lead the counterattack. Pouliot begins closing in on Couture as soon as Vlasic picks up the puck in the corner. The first clearance attempt fails, but had it been successful Pouliot would have been in a position to take away the puck.
As Pouliot begins to peel off, the puck is chopped and squirts loose to Couture. Pouliot’s skating ability ensures that he can easily recover to close the space again before breaking up the play with his stick.
Here’s another example where Pouliot does a great play of reading the breakout and stepping up to reduce the gap.
Pouliot can afford to make these aggressive plays because he has the speed and mobility to recover as witnessed in the next clip.
Pouliot is caught high up the ice in this clip but backchecks hard to catch up to Darren Helm for a stick lift.
All of these clips also highlight how adept Pouliot is at using his stick to break up plays. It’s a small factor, but one that also helps him win puck battles as well.
In this clip, Pouliot plays to his strengths to win the battle along the boards. He doesn’t physically engage the Sharks forward, knowing that the much stronger Thornton would win this type of battle. Pouliot instead uses his stick to dispossess Thornton to regain puck possession for the Canucks.
Traditionally known as a defensive liability, Derrick Pouliot has been a revelation for the Canucks both with and without the puck. Game footage has shown us that Pouliot is defending with a lot more confidence, with underlying metrics supporting his defensive success.
Pouliot’s ability to maintain tight gap control and anticipate opposition breakouts has combined with his adept stick work for excellent neutral zone defence. Factor in his puck-moving skill and you have a defenceman that does very well at keeping play away from his own zone.
*All stats courtesy Corsica and Natural Stattrick