Canucks hope to unleash Derrick Pouliot’s untapped potential

Talking about Vancouver Canucks who were great offensive defencemen is like listing jockeys who were great basketball players. It’s a short conversation.

In the case of the Canucks, the first stop down memory lane is probably Christian Ehrhoff, who left Vancouver in 2011 and, four National Hockey League teams later, is now lighting it up in the German League. At least, Ehrhoff is at home.

Then you’ll probably wistfully mention Jyrki Lumme in the 1990s, and maybe Paul Reinhart at the end of his career in the 1980s. And then you’re talking about guys remembered in black and white, who never wore helmets when they played and never went without hats when they didn’t. And some of those guys were effective because the goalies back then wore pads like baseball catchers do, minus the mask.

The Canucks have had some defencemen who can hammer the puck: Sami Salo, Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, Jeff Brown. But in terms of a green-light defenceman, a guy who could skate the puck up ice on a one-man breakout, make plays and generate offence on the rush, and quarterback a power play, the Canucks have had nearly as few of those as they’ve had Stanley Cups. Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey never played here.

And no one remotely resembling in style Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns plays for the Canucks now. Which is why Jim Benning leaped at the chance to relieve the Pittsburgh Penguins of Derrick Pouliot in Tuesday’s trade that saw Vancouver acquire the disappointing defencemen in exchange for minor-leaguer Andrey Pedan, a fourth-round pick, and some stick tape and gum to be named later.

Now, lets’ fully understand – because Benning and Canuck coach Travis Green were insisting we understand it – that no one expects Pouliot to be dashing end-to-end and quarterbacking the power play Saturday when Vancouver opens its regular season against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.

Pouliot, 23, may never do those things in the NHL, and you’d probably get a lot of money betting that he never will if you are a bookie in Pittsburgh.

But the mobile defenceman from Weyburn, Sask., amassed 134 points in 102 games in his final two Western Hockey League seasons with the Portland Winterhawks, and still possesses the tantalizing offensive upside that led the Penguins, under previous management, to invest the eighth pick of the 2012 entry draft on Pouliot.

In a sense, every NHL team operates with the belief system of the Salvation Army — that it can save a wayward player who has struggled elsewhere. Usually, they can’t. But emboldened by recent success stories like Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund and Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks feel they can resurrect Pouliot’s NHL career, too.

He will be coached in Vancouver by Travis Green, who helped shape Pouliot in Portland.

“That’s not why we made the decision,” Benning told reporters. “It could be beneficial. But we made the decision because we believe in Derrick’s talent level, his skill level. We think the way he skates, the way he can carry the puck up ice and jump up in the play, he’s an offensive defencemen. We believe his style of game is going to fit the way Travis wants to coach.

“It’s hard to find now defencemen who can quarterback a power play because not only do they have to be great skaters who can handle the puck, but they have to have a good shot from the point to score, too. We didn’t acquire Derrick to fill that need (now). We think with development that could be a big part of his game. But I don’t want to put so much pressure on him that he has to be the saviour back there. He’s a guy we want to work with, we want to keep developing. We want him to regain his confidence in the things he’s really good at. And if he does that, he can help us.”

Confidence will be one of the issues with Pouliot, who made several return trips from the minors to the NHL during his first three seasons in professional hockey.

“It’s been a bit of an up-and-down ride,” Pouliot conceded. “My first three years in Pittsburgh haven’t gone exactly as I’d hoped or planned. But I think I’ve made strides along the way. I’m starting to get back to the player I know I can be.

“Confidence has been a bit of a battle sometimes. You go through lots of ups and downs in a season. Getting sent down and getting called back up, sometimes you’re not even sure where you are or where you’re going to be the next day. It has been a little bit of a challenge.”

The Canucks will give Pouliot a hug and encourage him to play to his strengths.

“Sometimes a trade is what a player needs,” Green said. “Sometimes a player is too confident and gets knocked down with the team he is at, and a trade wakes him up. Sometimes a player isn’t confident enough, and needs to find that confidence and a trade is what does it.”

Green acknowledged the Canucks’ need for a dynamic power-play quarterback but, like Benning, wasn’t predicting greatness or even a Norris Trophy for Pouliot.

“I think it’s early for us to start putting those kind of expectations on a player,” he said. “I know that’s what he was tagged with at 19, 18, 17. I just want to see him … play in the NHL, make the NHL. Whether it’s as a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh defenceman, play in the NHL. Hopefully he’ll become the best player he can be and if that’s a power-play defenceman, so be it. If it’s not, there’s a lot of good fourth or fifth defencemen that play a long time and are important to winning championships.”

The Canucks would love one of those, too.