by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
For a 20-year-old, Derrick Pouliot has a pretty impressive resume.
The Saskatchewan native starred in the Western Hockey League with the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks after they drafted him first overall in the 2009 bantam draft. He put up 205 points over 247 games and was recognized as the top defenseman in the entire Canadian Hockey League last season.
He’s won gold with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, and made four trips to the WHL finals, winning the league title in 2013. He played in the 2012 CHL Top Prospects Game, and was selected to both the 2013 Memorial Cup All-Star Team and the 2014 WHL First All-Star Team.
Those accolades, those 73 points in 85 career WHL playoff games, and that work ethic and skill set of a player beyond his years – all those things factored into making Pouliot the No. 8 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2012 NHL Draft, held at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
It’s a day that Pouliot, now a pro rookie with the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, still has trouble putting into words.
“You’re excited. You’re waiting to see which team is going to draft you. They called my name and it’s tough to describe the feeling,” he said. “Absolutely incredible. A huge honor to be selected by that organization and in front of their home fans. It was a very, very special day and a very memorable moment.”
Pittsburgh traded Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes in order to move up to the eighth slot and claim Pouliot, a move that has benefited them as the defenseman currently sits sixth in scoring among all AHL rookies. Additionally, his 19 points through 22 games this season pace the entire Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster.
“He’s an extremely talented player,” said Wilkes-Barre head coach John Hynes. “He’s really been able to excel in his strengths on the power play [and] on the offensive blue line. He makes very good decisions, he has an excellent shot, [and] he’s poised with the puck.”
Hynes and his coaching staff in Wilkes-Barre knew of Pouliot’s offensive prowess before he ever set foot in the AHL, an asset that has better helped him guide the young defenseman in the move from juniors to the pros, and better communicate how the jump in leagues directly correlates to Pouliot’s duties on the ice.
“Bringing offense is part of my game. It’s something that I need to do to be successful. A lot of the stuff that I’m working on is on the defensive side of the puck,” said Pouliot. “It took a little while to get the systems down and get adjusted to the speed of the game. If I can be as consistent in the defensive zone as I am in the offensive zone, then my game is definitely going in the right direction.”
With Pouliot contributing at both ends of the ice, the Penguins are on top of the East Division with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, allowing a league-low 2.14 goals per game.
“Offensively, a lot of it comes naturally to him. The biggest thing with Derrick has really been his play without the puck,” said Hynes. “His defensive habits and understanding the importance of that part of his game – and not only understanding it, but the willingness to work at it and continue to get better at it – has really accelerated his transition, his coachability, and his work ethic.”
Pouliot was unable to fully experience training camp this year due to an injury that saw him continue an already long process of rehab into the start of the 2014-15 season. Even though being sidelined prevented him from showing the Pittsburgh organization his full potential, any rust that might have settled didn’t stay long.
In addition to leading Wilkes-Barre in points and assists, Pouliot has recorded four multiple-point games thus far in the season, stepping up from the blue line to help a team that has been depleted by having 10 different players recalled to Pittsburgh already this season.
“You know what’s expected of you. You realize what kind of player you are and what you need to do out there to be successful. I think if you just go back to those things game in and game out, you’re not going to have too many problems,” Pouliot said. “If you have a bad game or something, I mean, you’re only human. It’s going to happen. You just try to minimize those things from happening and go out and play your game.”