📝 by Patrick Williams
“Consistency” is a word that may well most define the battle that American Hockey League prospects face.
String together multiple strong outings. Don’t let one off-game spiral into three or four poor showings. Be reliable. Earn the head coach’s trust. Doing that puts a player on the way to the National Hockey League.
“Process” is another much-used word among AHL head coaches. A shift in thinking among many NHL organizations now recognizes that player development does not always follow a nice, tidy path. Sometimes it is a bit messy. Sticking to that collaborative process and plan is a much more effective way to guide young talent through difficult periods.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Sam Poulin is working to apply those lessons, and head coach J.D. Forrest is noticing. From here on out, it is a full-speed sprint for the Penguins (25-23-4-4, .518) to the end of the regular season as they try to secure an invitation to the Calder Cup Playoffs in May.
“I think just trying to do simple things and being consistent doing them [has helped],” Poulin said of his first pro season.
Poulin’s first pro hat trick on Saturday night took the Penguins to a 6-2 win against the visiting Laval Rocket. After another quality effort on Sunday, this time in a 4-2 victory against the Hartford Wolf Pack, Poulin has 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) through the first 52 games of his pro career.
“The game’s fast,” Poulin said. “I think it’s being aware of what’s going on and making sure we execute plays.”
Those back-to-back strong efforts are what Forrest and Pittsburgh Penguins management want to see from Poulin, who came to the organization as the 21st overall selection in the 2019 NHL Draft.
“For Sam, what we looked for [against Hartford] was just the consistent-style play,” Forrest outlined. “I mean, he was rewarded last game with the hat trick, and we didn’t want to see him go outside of the process that he went through to get those goals.
“You really have a big night, you might want to come in the next day and try to force for more, but he didn’t.”
Sunday’s win gives Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a run of four games with at least one point (2-0-2-0), and a 4-0-1-1 mark in its last six at Mohegan Sun Arena. Forrest’s club remains at home this week, awaiting a Friday visit from the Syracuse Crunch followed by a Saturday night clash with the Utica Comets. They then take on a four-game, five-day road swing through the North Division’s Canadian wing.
So the final seven weeks of the regular season will be a challenge for everyone with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Poulin included. Few AHL rookie seasons are without their difficulties, and Poulin’s has been no different.
In a 6-5 shootout loss at Utica on Jan. 7, Poulin’s defensive-zone giveaway set up a Comets goal. That turnover led to Poulin sitting out the following night in Hershey, and also came as the Penguins found themselves stuck in an eight-game winless streak (0-7-0-1) that nearly sidetracked their season.
But two months later, Poulin continues to progress. Against Laval, Poulin centered a line with Felix Robert and Anthony Angello and pounced on the Rocket quickly. On his first goal he took a drop pass from Robert before sneaking a shot past Laval goaltender Louis-Philip Guindon 1:15 into the game.
Then 3:03 later, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Poulin crashed the Laval net and planted a rebound past Guindon. He finished off his hat trick with an empty-netter.
For Sunday’s game against the Wolf Pack, Forrest altered his lines somewhat. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had critical offensive piece Alexander Nylander back for the first time in more than two weeks, and he lined up with Poulin and Robert. Nylander factored into two of the Penguins’ first three goals, scoring once and assisting on Drew O’Connor’s tally. Hartford’s late rally made it a one-goal game before the Penguins put away the win. Playing with a talent like Nylander may have tempted some players to cheat for even more offense.
Poulin stuck to the plan, however.
“To his credit, he just played the same exact way,” Forrest said. “He was solid all [game]. He’s been great in the D-zone, really hard to play against, smart decisions throughout the three different zones for us.
“I thought for him that shows a level of maturity, some growth.”
Poulin’s final season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League saw him on a Val-d’Or roster that featured Nathan Legare, now a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton teammate, as well as current AHL rookie standouts Jakob Pelletier (Stockton Heat) and Jordan Spence (Ontario Reign). He put up 31 points in 24 regular-season games along with 19 points in 15 playoff contests to finish his Quebec League career.
But that was the junior game. Poulin admits that adjusting to the AHL’s pro level of play did not come easily.
“I think my first half I didn’t play my identity,” Poulin said. “And since Christmas break, I think my game has stepped up a lot, and I think I’m more consistent again. My first half and my second half were just two separate things this season.”
That difficult January weekend may well have been the turning point, though.
“I saw it coming a little bit, to be honest,” Poulin said of being scratched. “I wasn’t playing [well], and I knew something like that was about to happen.
“I [understood the decision], because it was my fault. It was something that was in my control that I didn’t do well. I just used that as a wake-up call and as a way to turn my season [around] and be more dialed in every night.
“I think since I got scratched, things started going much better for me.”
Heeding that process, adhering to that plan, is paying off now for Poulin and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“[Poulin] just played exactly the way we like to play,” Forrest said after the Hartford win, “and the most effective way that he’s able to operate out there, and that was good to see.
“I was really happy for him to get the hat trick, but I think it’s more impressive that he [returns] the next game and has another really solid game at both ends of the ice.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.