I've known Derrick Pouliot since the night the Pens selected him with the eighth-overall pick of the 2012 NHL Draft that took place right here in Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center.
And I've seen a lot of the defenseman in the four-plus years since, from international tournaments to prospect development camps to rookie tournaments to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and then again, right here in Pittsburgh.
And right now, this is by far the best he's ever looked. Despite the short summer, Pouliot has come into training camp in the best shape of his life, noticeably thinner and both looking and feeling fantastic after the first day of on-ice sessions.
"I definitely have a lot more energy," he told me. "Less weight to move around (laughs). So I feel good. Really good."
After the season ended, Pouliot went home to Saskatchewan for just one week. Then he returned to Toronto at the end of June and spent the rest of the summer there training with Gary Roberts, save for his day with the Stanley Cup at the end of July.
One big factor in Pouliot's transformation was his diet.
"Just kind of paying a little more attention to the small details with that and learning what my body needs," he said. "Everybody's different, so learning what food was right for me and then obviously the workouts on top of that. I had a little more cardio and stuff like that."
At Roberts' High Performance Centre, breakfast and lunch is provided for the athletes. They then have the option of getting an additional meal separate, but Pouliot opted to cook that one for himself.
"It was more of a high-protein, high-fat diet," he said. "Less carbs, just to try and change my body composition. I didn't need to gain a whole bunch of muscle; I was still pretty strong at the end of the year. It was more kind of trimming down, losing some fat and improving my cardiovascular conditioning."
One of the reasons behind Pouliot's transformation is maturity. You have to keep in mind he's just 22 years old, and sometimes it takes longer for some players to figure out everything that comes with being a professional. Everyone grows at their own pace.
Another reason is Pouliot's role in the Pens' postseason run. He was with the team the entire time, skating in two playoff games for Pittsburgh during the Second Round against Washington. And while Pouliot was grateful to be there, he wanted to contribute more.
"It was an amazing experience and at the same time, it was frustrating too, wanting to be out there and battling with those guys and helping them win the Stanley Cup like they did," he said. "But it was a really good experience and something nobody can take away from me."
When I asked him if that frustration was a big motivation for his offseason training regimen, he said it was.
"Maybe (my conditioning) was one of the things holding me back last year from performing at my best," he said. "It's my third year professionally now, so I'm starting to learn how to be a professional and do the right things."
Five of the six defensemen who played in the majority of the Pens' playoff games are back this year. There's going to be stiff competition for time on the blue line, but Pouliot feels ready for it.
"I think I have a little more confidence going into this training camp," he said. "I'm confident in my ability to play, the shape I came in, there's no worries there. So it's a different feel for sure. Just want to play an overall, all-around, consistent game. I want to be good in my own zone. And I think a big part of my game is creating offensively, so I want to do that."
UPDATE: Pens head coach Mike Sullivan got back into town this morning after coaching for Team USA at the World Cup on Thursday night, and was on the ice for Team 3 practice. I asked him how impressed he was with Pouliot. Here's what he had to say...
"I was talking to him in the dressing room before I went out on the ice with these guys and he looks terrific. He's a determined guy and that's great for us. We have high expectations for Derrick. We've said it all along. The experience that he went through last year, being around this team, being part of that playoff run, playing in some games, that's an invaluable experience for a young player and our expectation is that Derrick steps up and brings his game to another level because we know he's going to help us win this year. I know that he had a great summer of training with Gary Roberts and we've kept close tabs on him all summer long, and we knew he was coming into camp in the type of shape that he was in. We've had a number of conversations with Derrick that his fitness level has to be the foundation that gives him the ability to act on his skillsets. He's a very talented kid. And when he puts those two things together, we think his game will go to another level."