Poulin turning a corner for Penguins

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📝 by Nick Hart | AHL On The Beat

Sam Poulin came into his first season as a pro with high expectations.

Now, in January, Poulin might be realizing those lofty expectations. But not before realizing a low point first.

Earlier this month, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest scratched the rookie for a game against the Hershey Bears at Giant Center. Poulin wasn’t injured. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t tired. The coach simply sent a message, one that the 20-year-old heard loud and clear.

Poulin responded to the scratch with a series of top-notch performances in gotta-have-it games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It sure looked like his best run of hockey since turning pro, and when asked if Forrest felt that way, the Penguins’ coach provided a swift answer.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “He’s really playing a purposeful game where you can see that he’s trying to take ownership of his identity as a player.”

Poulin showed parts of that identity early this season. Likely riding the adrenaline of playing in his first pro games, the native of Laval, Que., proved to be an extremely disruptive force on the forecheck. He’d finish hits, jar pucks loose into scoring areas, or take the puck himself and try and bully it somewhere for himself or a teammate to light the lamp.

That same kind of turbulent effectiveness has been on display again lately. It’s helped him produce offense for the club, as he racked up points in three consecutive games since he was pulled from the lineup. Fast-forward a few more weeks, and half of Poulin’s production on the season has come in his nine games since the scratch (one goal, six assists).

Forrest also notes that Poulin is making a cognizant effort to play to his strengths and minimize his number of mistakes. The latter was a big reason why Poulin was scratched early in the month.

Photo: KDP Studio

Poulin’s impact on games waned as the season dragged on, not uncommon for young players experiencing the grind of pro hockey for the first time. However, putting himself and/or the puck in compromising positions ― especially in the defensive zone ― quickly gnawed at the patience of the coaching staff. That patience ran out after a hard-fought, shootout loss in Utica on Jan. 7.

“There were a few things that happened in Utica that were, I would say, ‘repeat offenses,’” Forrest said. “The way to hit home most with guys right now is ice time and to take it away from him.”

“I kind of knew it was coming,” Poulin said of the decision for him to be scratched. “I took it as a learning experience. At the next level, those errors are going to cost way more.”

Forrest made it clear that the team’s preference is not to scratch Poulin. Drafted in the first round, 21st overall, at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Penguins organization has a lot invested in Poulin. They want him in the lineup and playing as much as possible.

Nevertheless, the coaches felt a message needed to be sent. Some could say that Poulin is now delivering a message of his own back at Forrest and his staff, because his response to the scratch has been everything they could have asked for.

He’s routinely disruptive, generating offense, and attentive to the details the coaches had been hammering on him for months.

“I’ve just wanted to play a strong game, keep it simple,” Poulin said. “It’s just a thing I have to do consistently. Guys at this level are better, they’re smarter. The stuff I was doing in junior might not work anymore, so I’m just learning from it.”

It’s possible that Poulin could regress again and might get called into the coach’s office once more. It’s also possible that Poulin might continue to improve in other areas of his game while never compromising on those more minute details. Whatever the rest of the season has in store for Sam Poulin and the Penguins, it may be a case study in the growing pains of development.

“Player development” is often spoken about in vague terms as if it’s a straight line; players steadily getting incrementally better over time until they’re prepared to secure a spot at the next level. But 20-year-olds aren’t ripening fruit. Development is not always a linear ascent. Bumps in the road happen, and sometimes those bumps are more jarring than one might envision.

Poulin already had to dip into a bumpy pothole early in his pro journey, but he quickly veered back onto the right path. Maybe he’s turning a corner for the Penguins in the second half of the season.