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An Impressive Finish

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

After an excellent showing at Penguins training camp last fall, elite defensive prospect Derrick Pouliot admits he was disappointed to be among the final cuts.

(Photo courtesy of Portland Winterhawks)

But the No. 8-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft turned that disappointment into motivation heading back to his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, for his fourth and final season.

Pouliot knew he had an opportunity to take what he had learned in Pittsburgh and use it to develop as not just a player, but a team leader back in Portland on a team that had lost key defensemen Seth Jones and Tyler Wotherspoon.

“I was a little disappointed that I was going back to junior, but I knew I was going to be a big leader and play a big part on the team,” Pouliot said. “It was my fourth year there, I was one of the older guys. I’ve always wanted to kind of be the guy that other people look up to and follow. I can lead by example, so I tried my best to do that this year.”

He more than succeeded.

Pouliot put together a terrific final season of junior hockey, and capped off his four-year career by being named Defenseman of the Year for the entire Canadian Hockey League – which consists of the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Past winners include Keith Yandle and Chris Pronger.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Pouliot, who was also named the WHL Defenseman of the Year. “It’s nice to be recognized like that. Obviously that award is for one person, but it can’t happen without your teammates and your parents and the coaches. There’s a lot of people that do a lot of work behind-the-scenes that have helped me reach this stage. So it’s a huge honor and I’m very thankful to have won that award.”

Pouliot helped his team win their fourth-straight Western Conference title and berth in the league championship series, where they lost in Game 7 to fellow Penguins prospect Tristan Jarry and the Edmonton Oil Kings. Pouliot finished the postseason as the league’s third-leading scorer and highest-scoring defenseman with 32 points (5G-27A) in 21 games.

During the regular season, Pouliot ranked third among league defensemen in scoring with 70 points (17G-53A) in just 58 games – the lowest amount played of the top-20 blueliners.

Pouliot is often compared to Penguins defenseman Kris Letang because of his mobility, elite vision and puck-distribution skills. Pouliot, the team’s future power-play quarterback, drew praise from Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma for his “poise and patience” working with forwards like Evgeni Malkin on the man-advantage.

Pouliot has all of the offensive capabilities, but discovered quickly at his first-ever training camp, going up against and defending world-class talents like Malkin and Sidney Crosby, that his defensive game still needed work.

“I learned that I had to work hard on my conditioning – making sure that I’m in shape – and especially my defensive game,” Pouliot said. “I just saw, when I was at camp, that you have to be able to play both sides of the puck equally as well as you can. So that’s something that I’ve been working on for the past four years in Portland and I’m lucky it’s a teachable skill, so I can definitely add that to my game and I’m going to keep improving on that.”

Both Penguins coaches and players have said that when Letang focuses on defense first, the offense comes effortlessly. And Pouliot said having that same mentality throughout the season helped him record career highs across the board.

“When you play solid defensively and you can spend a very little amount of time in your end, I think my offensive abilities are pretty good and I have confidence in those,” Pouliot said. “So if you can get out of your zone and spend more time in the offensive zone, the numbers and the points and the rest of my game will kind of take over and speak for themselves.”

Overall, it was a fantastic four seasons in Portland for Pouliot. And after he recovers from the successful shoulder labral surgery he underwent on Wednesday, with his recovery time expected to be 4-6 months, he’s looking forward to taking the next step in his career.

“It’s tough to put into words,” said Pouliot while reflecting on his junior career. “It seems like a long four years as it’s going on. Now looking back at it, it’s just kind of flown by. Playing junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks, it was an amazing time, a phenomenal organization and I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot of lessons while I was there, so it was a very, very good four years and I’m excited to kind of move on from that and see what happens next.”

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