With the Pens on a power play early in the first period of their game against Florida on Dec. 20, 2014, head coach Mike Johnston decided to send Derrick Pouliot
over the boards with the second unit – even though it would mark just the third shift of the game for the rookie defenseman, who was making his NHL debut.
But Pouliot, 21, showed exactly why he deserved to be out there. He didn’t hesitate when he urgently tapped his blade on the ice to let Steve Downie know he was wide open in the far circle.
Downie slid the puck over to Pouliot, who quickly let it rip with a sick release into the near top corner past Roberto Luongo to give him his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot in his first NHL game.
In that moment, Pouliot – the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft – also showed precisely why fans should be so excited about the blue-chip defensive prospect.
He transitioned to the pro level this year after a magnificent four-year junior career with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, which was capped off by Pouliot being named Canadian Hockey League Defenseman of the Year.
Pouliot began the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and spent the second half going back and forth between there and Pittsburgh, as his play earned him lengthy call-ups. There were many growing pains, but all in all, it was a solid first season for Pouliot and one to build upon.
Pouliot put up big numbers from the blue line in juniors, and his offensive game certainly translated to the AHL level. He finished second among WBS defensemen in scoring with 24 points (7G-17A) despite playing in just 31 games.
In the NHL, after scoring on his first shot, Pouliot went on to tally seven points (2G-5A) in 34 total games and became an important part of the Pens’ power play when he was in the lineup, averaging 2:28 minutes per game on the man-advantage – which ranked second among Pens defensemen and third among all NHL rookie blueliners.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS:
Pouliot is an offensive defenseman with swift skating, a big shot, great vision and puck-moving ability that is certainly capable of putting up numbers at this level. It’s his defensive game that he needed to improve the most this season.
While Johnston said Pouliot has definitely gotten better in a lot of areas – most notably at being more assertive in his own zone – there's still a lot of work to do. Pouliot made his share of mistakes this past season, but that’s to be expected with a young defenseman trying to learn the league and the players he’s going up against.
“Physical play, boxing out, stuff like that, things that allow you to keep the puck out of your net. … (Defense) is always something you can work on,” Pouliot said. “You can never be perfect at it. Luckily it’s a teachable thing. It’s a mindset that I have to get into game in and game out. I’m still working on it for sure, but it’s definitely improved.”
Pouliot was injured in the second-to-last game of the regular season and was forced to miss the entire postseason. Fortunately, he now has the entire offseason to get healthy and ready to go for next season – where he should be a big contributor in Pittsburgh.
The 21-year-old is likely to compete for a top-four role and should continue to be given a lot of power-play time. While there’s sure to still be bumps in the road, Pouliot should have the opportunity to grow and develop – into a regular NHLer.