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What does the future hold for Derrick Pouliot?

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One of the most intriguing players to watch in Pittsburgh Penguins training camp next month will be defenseman Derrick Pouliot. GM Jim Rutherford keeps bringing up his name and praising him, but is everything as it seems?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One interesting little note is how in his last two times out making public comments (in the Matt Cullen and Thomas DiPauli signings), Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has gone out of his way to praise Derrick Pouliot. Bill West from the Trib picked up on this and made it a major part of a story earlier this week.

"Derrick Pouliot is having a really good summer," Rutherford said unsolicited after the Matt Cullen signing and reiterated after the Thomas Di Pauli signing this month. "All the reports are very good on (Pouliot). He's worked very hard. It's his time to jump in there."

As the No. 8 overall draft pick in 2012, Pouliot, 22, will try to make this the season he fully sheds the "prospect" label and becomes a regular in the Penguins lineup.

The return of Justin Schultz, who signed a one-year deal worth $1.4 millon in mid-July, likely means Pouliot remains outside of the team's top six on the defensemen depth chart with training camp a month away.

And with Pouliot set to become a restricted free agent after the 2016-17 season — one of six with that fate among the Penguins — there is pressure for him to prove his worth and for Rutherford to maximize the prospect's value.

"He got hurt in his first year, and we kind of mishandled his development, I thought," Rutherford said of Pouliot, who has 14 points in 58 NHL games, including seven in 24 a season ago.

"Last year, he made great strides. It's my understanding he's had a terrific summer, and he's really prepared for camp. I'm expecting Derrick to take a big step forward."

Dejan Kovacevic ($) has sprayed for a couple weeks now that he's seeing through this as a smoke-screen for the team to prop up value in Pouliot as a trade. Dejan goes as far to say Mike Sullivan has "no use" for Pouliot and goes to question the youngster's effort and motivation to improve.

Pouliot certainly is in an interesting point of his development, entering the final season of his entry level contract. We've seen first-hand that it sometimes takes defensemen a little longer to make strides to NHL level and player development isn't always a straight or steady line of growth. It took Brian Dumoulin 3 years as a pro to put it all together, until this past season (his 4th) he continued to grow and progress into an increasingly solid player.

On one hand, if the Penguins don't like Pouliot's growth in the past couple years (or worse, if they don't believe in his attitude and mindset as the nuclear DK theory goes), they might as well trade him soon as recoup something for the asset while he still has value.

On the other hand, Pouliot is still very young at 22 and has some encouraging underlying possession metrics when he has been in the NHL lineup. Patience in a talented player might be rewarded if and when he is able to put it together at the NHL level like Dumoulin has in the past 16 months. It also seems difficult to believe that a good skating, puck-moving defenseman like Pouliot wouldn't be a fit in Sullivan's system that is configured around those exact attributes for defensemen.

Position matters too. With teams becoming increasingly vigilant about keeping left-handed defensemen on the left-side of the ice, and right-handed players on the right, that's tough for Pouliot when the Penguins LH depth chart includes Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and to a lesser extent Ian Cole. Daley figures to be, as of now, the lone defenseman to play off-handed, joining Kris Letang and Justin Schultz on the depth chart of right-side defensemen.

Pouliot's chance to play in the opening night lineup may depend on beating Cole out for that 3LD job. Cole is arguably the Pens most physical defenseman and he surely would give more PK capability than Pouliot in the eyes of an NHL coach. Cole is also probably more defensively responsible in his coverages, gap control and positioning. If Pouliot can show improvement in those areas in training camp, that could give him a leg up.

Which might be the part to remind that last season the Pens were basically leaving an NHL lineup spot for Pouliot to come grab. Instead, he had what he admitted later was an awful training camp and was cut from the team. He certainly needs to come to camp this year with a lot better performance.

The whole situation is interesting due to Rutherford repeatedly bringing it up. Pittsburgh could probably use bringing in more defensemen rather than sending any out, but it certainly looks like Pouliot will be a major key to watch how things unfold for him in the next month. He could be an opening night player, a healthy scratch, a minor league demotion or even traded. Perhaps no other player in camp will have such a number of totally different possible paths.