18
Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

How often do highly-touted defencemen like Derrick Pouliot break out after age 23?

In acquiring defenceman Derrick Pouliot from Pittsburgh, the Vancouver Canucks have made a pretty conventional gamble by NHL standards. It’s common to see clubs bring in once-esteemed prospects whose development has stalled, and it’s easy to understand why: it generally doesn’t cost very much and the potential payoff could be enormous.

What we generally don’t spend a lot of time on is how frequently (or infrequently, as the case might be) these bets pay off, or what “paying off” would actually entail.

Every case is obviously a little different. Colleagues Ryan Biech and J.D. Burke have already written about the trade that brought Pouliot to Vancouver and the player specifically, so that’s most of the necessary background on this player; I’d only highlight two specific points:

  • Pouliot has been an effective player on some very good AHL teams. That isn’t always the case with this sort of reclamation project and should improve his chances. If all he has to do is survive at the NHL level for this deal to be a success, excelling in the minors means he’s already most of the way there.
  • Ideally, the Canucks would have a definite idea of what isn’t working with Pouliot, so that they can fix it. In that vein, GM Jim Benning having no answer when asked what had held Pouliot back from translating his talent to the majors is not a good sign.

More broadly, it would be nice to know how often these kinds of bets pay off, and if there is a specific kind of player more likely to find his game late.

Late Bloomers and First Round Busts

We settled on two key criteria to find players in the same situation Pouliot is presently.

The first was draft position. This matters for a few reasons. Benning himself referenced it multiple times in that linked interview, using it as evidence of Pouliot’s natural talent. We wanted to find similarly talented players.

It’s not just a matter of talent, though. It’s also about opportunity. First-round picks get treated differently than later selections. Pouliot’s draft position goes a long way to explaining why he’s been given 67 NHL games over three seasons despite not establishing himself; it also plays into why he’s getting another shot with the Canucks. Failing to break out by age 23 is a different thing for an eighth overall pick than it is for a 108th overall selection.

Using Hockey-Reference.com’s wonderful Play Index tool, we can identify every defenceman since 1998-99 (when the NHL first started to record ice time) who a) was drafted in the first round and b) played less than half of his team’s games at age 23. We end up with 38 names, plus Pouliot.

We have to whittle the list down a little, though. Two of those players (Brad Stuart, Denis Gauthier) were NHL regulars at 23 who only missed our cutoff because of injury. A third (Jesse Wallin) suffered a career-ending injury at 24.

Then there’s the “too soon to tell” crowd. Ten players had their 23-year-old campaign at some point in the last three years. Of that group, Mark Pysyk is trending well, while Derek Forbort, Jamie Oleksiak, Jordan Schmaltz and Joe Morrow have a mix of positives and negatives. Dylan McIlrath, Ryan Murphy, Duncan Siemens and Jarred Tinordi just cleared waivers while Brandon Gormley was cut loose by AHL-Toronto a few days ago.

That knocks our list down to 25, which we can break into three broad categories:

  • Done at 23 (8/25). Pouliot’s certain to get at least one NHL game in Vancouver, so he’s already clear of these guys. Canucks fans may remember Ryan Parent’s four contests with the team, though for my money the most famous name on the list is Boris Valabik, the 6’7” monster who was supposed to be the new Zdeno Chara.
  • Brief NHL careers (12/25). The most common outcome, with half the players on this list falling into this category. Utica Comets assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner falls in here: he had to wait until he was 29, but he got a full major-league season in, playing 70 games (and putting up 34 points!) for the 2005-06 Canucks.
  • NHL regulars (5/25). More on these guys in a moment.

Obviously the Canucks are hoping Pouliot falls into the last category; it’s the only one of the three that does a rebuilding team any good. At first glance, a one-in-five chance sounds pretty decent, but the numbers are probably not quite that good because they include Wade Belak and Niklas Kronwall.

Belak was a pure enforcer, earning more than 500 NHL games in what I tend to think is the hardest possible way. That’s not an option open to modern players though, because the long-serving, full-time NHL enforcer is no longer a job that exists.

Kronwall’s career path isn’t really a fit for this group, either. He came over from Europe at age 23 and spent his first season on this side of the Atlantic adjusting. He got a full year in the AHL after that thanks to the 2004-05 lockout, after which he played just a single minor-league game. Moreover, he was developed by the Red Wings at a time when they really bought into patience in development. He represents an unrealistically best-case scenario for this kind of player.

The three other NHL regulars on this list are what I see as the realistic best-case scenario for someone like Pouliot: Ian Cole, Carlo Colaiacovo and Mike Van Ryn. Van Ryn had three seasons where he topped 20 minutes per game; he might have had more if his career hadn’t been cut short before age 30 by injury. Colaiacovo played nearly 500 career NHL games, while Cole came in just below 20 minutes/game for last season’s Stanley Cup-winning Pens.

Stylistically, Colaiacovo is probably the strongest match as a skilled scorer with average size and physical presence; the two even have remarkably similar careers through this age. That he would represent a pretty successful outcome in all this is a good reminder of what a win looks like here: four solid seasons as a No. 5 defenceman by Pouliot would certainly qualify as a victory for the Canucks.

The odds of Pouliot having a long, impactful NHL career are not great; in general this kind of player washes out within a few years. But the door is still open.

  • valleycanuck

    Interesting article, nice to see some historical reference and some best-case scenarios laid out for Pouliot as a player. One thing to keep in mind though is that the focus here happens to be on the player. For the organization there could be some scenarios that one would deem a win even if Pouliot ends up falling into the 2nd category listed in the article. By putting together two NHL calibre seasons Pouliot could either increase his value and recoup a greater return than he cost the Canucks, or allow them the roster flexibility to move other players of the same position (Hutton and Gudbranson come to mind) and fill the void while eventual replacements are developed or found. Either of those scenarios would be seen as a positive outcome to this trade as well, and based on the research above greatly increases the chances of this turning out well for the organization as a whole.

  • wojohowitz

    To me Pouliot looks more like Nolan Baumgartner than anyone else. Drafted 10th overall in 1976, had a very good junior career, played 878 games in the AHL and only 142 in the NHL. Spent his first four years with Washington and then six years with five other NHL teams who all saw the potential but could never figure out the problem.

  • Sami Ohlund

    I wonder what the factors are other than being “highly-touted”? There are solid D-men who do not make the big club until 23 or older – examples come to mind – Kevin Bieksa, Chris Tanev and for the Flames Mark Giordano – all un-touted. Bieksa is the only one in that group even drafted (5th rounder). All solid NHL players at or after the age of 23.

    • Jonathan Willis

      Defencemen do sometimes come out out of the woodwork later, but the career path is different. Pouliot started getting serious opportunities to make the Pens almost immediately, and they pushed him into an NHL role before he’d even earned it. Players who aren’t drafted that early can play equally well, but have to wait a lot longer for those same chances.
      Take the undrafted Giordano for example. Just landing a third-pair job in the AHL in 2004-05 is a hard thing for a walk-on to do. To get an NHL shot, as he finally did in 2005-06, he actually had to lead Calgary’s farm team in scoring – he outscored two forwards who went on to have 500+ game NHL careers on that club. Even then the Flames weren’t totally sold on him – he spent time in the AHL in 2006-07 and went to Russia in 2007-08 because they didn’t want to pay him.
      That’s where the draft position comes in. When Pouliot hasn’t made it at 23, it’s because he’s failed in a bunch of opportunities. When Giordano hasn’t made it at 23, it’s because he’s had to work his way up to a place where an NHL team even looks at him.

      • Cageyvet

        Fair enough, but there is one factor that hasn’t been P in your article, which I very much appreciated, btw.

        Pouliot is dripping offensive skill on a team begging for a dynamic point man on the power play. I didn’t see a lot of high end skill with the puck on your list. It will be interesting to see if his odds improve with the style of play and opportunity afforded him by the Canucks.

        It was universally accepted that, unlike Pedan, this kid would not clear waivers, not in a league where Bartkowski keeps finding employment because he has a modicum of this kid’s abilities.

  • speering major

    The Pens just scooped an offensive D that was floundering from the oilers. The game is changing. Mobile puck moving D are becoming much more of an asset than large physical D that bang pucks off the glass.

    I have never seen the kid play but it’s obviously useless to compare him to Belak or Nolan. Those guys played a completely different game in a completely different era. It would be like looking at a goaltending prospect that is 5’10 and comparing it to outcomes from the 80’s or older. Same position sure, but its apples and oranges

    • Killer Marmot

      If all you know about a player is what Willis used in his analysis, then the conclusions may well be correct.

      However, the odds change as you add more information. And Green has a lot of information at his disposal, having coached Pouliot. He may well have some insight into precisely why Pouliot’s career has stalled.

  • truthseeker

    All of that is fine and dandy, but ultimately it comes down to a factor that can’t be measured.

    In this case, there is no talent issue holding this kid back. This is completely about what’s between the ears.

    Confidence, mental prep, work ethic…etc…

    It really all depends on his attitude. Maybe he is one of those kids with all kinds of talent but just doesn’t want to put the work in. Or maybe he was just broken by the Pens and frustrated. Everyone handles things in different ways. And none of us commenting with or without stats, have any clue about the mental makeup of this kid.

    I’m not saying it’s not interesting to look at “comparable” situations (and I do appreciate the effort), but just don’t think it matters. Players aren’t robots. The sample size is so small and so spread out.

    Really what I think would be the most helpful for teams would be to develop huge psych profiles or some kind of psych test that they could apply to potential players to help determine if they have the mental fortitude to play in the NHL or to recover from situations such as this. Or they need to employ more use of sports psychologists to use on players to build them up. I know they do some of that now, but I bet it’s not nearly deep enough.

    Hopefully Pouliot has some motivation to prove people wrong.

  • jaybird43

    There was another comment elsewhere by a GM that said that if Pouliot can learn to play average defence, then he’ll be a regular top 4 D-man. Perhaps Green can work his magic like with JV by showing him lots of video, etc., until he finally gets the “D” side of his job. If that happens, then maybe he’ll look a bit more like Subban1, than Subban2.

  • defenceman factory

    Not a big deal but I kinda like this trade. Del Zotto, Stecher and Edler are getting lots of PP time. If (when) one gets hurt that work would fall to Hutton. Pouliot could very well be a PP upgrade over Hutton. At the very least Hutton will have Pouliot looking over his shoulder and working to take his job all year.

    Although there is no elite talent the Canucks D are pretty deep on the left side. The right side is a much bigger concern. This needs to be a focus of trades and drafting this year.

    • DJ_44

      Although there is no elite talent the Canucks D are pretty deep on the left side. The right side is a much bigger concern. This needs to be a focus of trades and drafting this year.

      Maybe so, however after watching the Utica games this weekend, I like Chatfield more and more. He is very mobile, smart, and appears to make the right play more often then not.

      • defenceman factory

        Completely agree but there is almost nothing on the depth chart below him. I would like to see Gudbranson traded and although I don’t agree others have advocated for a Tanev trade. Neither move is really feasible because of the lack of depth.