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.