No more junior hockey for Ryan Pulock. The offensive-minded defenseman is ready for his next challenge, which he hopes will be NHL competition as a member of the New York Islanders.
Pulock finished his junior career in 2013-14 as the leading goal-scorer among defensemen in Brandon Wheat Kings history. The Islanders' first-round pick (No. 15) at the 2013 NHL Draft scored 64 goals and 146 assists and played 261 games in four Western Hockey League seasons. He is armed with a slap shot that has been clocked at over 100 mph.
Pulock, who turns 20 on Oct. 6, could start the 2014-15 season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League, but he'll head to NHL training camp in September with greater aspirations.
He'll be facing some stiff competition this fall. The Islanders already have Calvin de Haan, Travis Hamonic, Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey in the mix on their blue line and signed TJ Brennan, the defenseman of the year in the AHL last season, on July 1. Griffin Reinhart, the Islanders' 2012 first-round pick (No. 4), also is expected to push hard for a roster spot.
"There's a lot of good other [defensemen]," Pulock said last week while participating in development camp at Nassau Coliseum. "For me, I just want to come in and have a good camp and push for a spot and just do all I can to be on the team and see what happens from there."
Pulock had an outstanding season with Brandon in 2013-14, finishing second on the team with 63 points in 66 games, and his 23 goals were second among WHL defensemen. But the improvements Pulock made in the defensive zone have Islanders brass smiling.
"I think he's doing a really good job developing his overall game," director of player development Eric Cairns said. "He's obviously an offensive defenseman with a very heavy shot. He's put a lot of time and focus into his play away from the puck defensively. His habits have improved and it's just been a year. He's starting to push his pace a little bit harder, a little bit faster. He is a good skater; he's a very powerful skater. Just in one year I've seen a lot of development in his game."
Some of Pulock's production at the junior level can obviously be attributed to his blazing slap shot. Reinhart, who played against Pulock in the WHL with the Edmonton Oil Kings, is excited by the prospect of no longer having to face Pulock's rockets from the point.
"I think everyone in the league was scared of playing against the Brandon Wheat Kings because of that shot from the blue line," Reinhart said. "It's a lot more fun being on his side."
When Brandon's season ended, Pulock got his first taste of professional hockey. He played three games for Bridgeport and had one assist and two penalty minutes. It didn't take long for Pulock to see how challenging the transition from junior to pro hockey would be.
"Obviously it goes up in all areas," Pulock said. "Guys are bigger, stronger, smarter. The skill level is higher. It's another step and there's another step from there on to the NHL. But it's a good development. I think getting there for a few games will really help me.
"It was a great experience for me. Obviously it was good to get down there and have a taste of the next step and kind of get comfortable with that. I think that definitely helped my development a bit going into [2014-15]."
Where Pulock lands in October ultimately will be determined by how he performs in training camp. That's why he's spending the summer in the gym and on the ice honing his skills in an attempt to impress Islanders coach Jack Capuano and his staff.
"This summer I'm trying to get bigger and stronger and faster," Pulock said. "My defensive game needs some work. I think it's improved over the years but it's an area for me that I can continue working on."
If he needs more work, he'll likely get it in Bridgeport, something Pulock and the Islanders are happy about.
"I don't know if you call it relief, but we are happy that he's able to turn pro and be able to accept the next challenge, whatever it is, after training camp," Cairns said.
It's a bittersweet time for Pulock, who is excited for what lies ahead but also closing a chapter of his life he will reflect on with fond memories. Last season, he was Brandon's captain and became the fifth Wheat Kings defenseman to amass 200 points, impressive for a franchise that has existed since 1936.
"I had a lot of fun playing junior in Brandon. I think it really helped me a lot," Pulock said. "When I first got there as a 16-year-old, I was pretty young and I wasn't sure where my game was going to go. But I think in Brandon I learned a lot over my years and really improved as a player and I think I can thank them for that. [Brandon general manager/coach] Kelly McCrimmon was there for me the whole time, helping me out, pushing me as a player … he's helped me get to where I am now."