VANCOUVER – After playing his third game in three nights, Portland Winterhawks defenseman Derrick Pouliot could hardly be blamed if he looked more like a Walking Dead extra than a top Pittsburgh Penguins prospect.
With a game-day ferry ride mixed in for good measure, it was also Pouliot's fourth game in five nights since flying back from Sweden following a disappointing performance at the IIHF World Junior Championship in which Pouliot and Team Canada failed to win a medal. Through these frantic few weeks, Pouliot was still able to demonstrate the skill and poise that has the Penguins very excited about their prized prospect.
Following that hectic schedule, Pouliot was looking forward to four days off to go home to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where he would celebrate his 20th birthday with friends and family.
"It will be nice to recharge," Pouliot told NHL.com.
Pouliot certainly looked rejuvenated after the much-needed break, adding five points to a season that has further confirmed the faith the Penguins showed when they made him the eighth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Not that Pouliot's play slipped immediately after the World Juniors ended with a loss to Russia in the bronze-medal game. Pouliot had five points in the four games before his break and scored a key shootout goal in the only game in which he didn't record a point.
Of course, producing points has never been a problem for Pouliot, who had a goal and four assists in six World Junior games.
Blessed with great mobility and elite vision and puck-distribution skills, Pouliot is having another terrific offensive season in Portland, already matching in 34 games the 11 goals he scored in 72 games the year Pittsburgh made him an early pick in the 2012 draft. He had 59 points in his draft year, added 45 in just 44 games last season and has piled up 40 points this season.
"The game looks like it slows down for him all the time," said Portland coach and general manager Mike Johnston, who spent eight seasons as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings before joining the Winterhawks. "His on-ice intelligence, his calmness with the puck, he's a very special player, very poised."
That's not to say he doesn't still have things he needs to improve.
During the season, Pouliot said he is focused on getting better defensively as he tries to get back to the Memorial Cup with a Winterhawks team that lost to the Halifax Mooseheads in the final last year. That team lost key contributors, including Seth Jones, Ty Rattie and Tyler Wotherspoon, so Pouliot will be relied on to shoulder a greater load in Portland.
In the offseason, Pouliot wants to slim down and get stronger. He is currently listed at 6-foot and 203 pounds, which sounds like a good size for an NHL defender. But after taking part in the Penguins training camp last fall, the baby-faced Pouliot realized he needed to proportion that weight differently before jumping to the pro level.
"This summer I want to slim down a little bit and build some more muscle," Pouliot said. "The guys up there are working hard every day, they are really strong and you have to be able to handle that when you get up there. It's just about having good habits every day."
Pouliot singled out Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for opening his eyes at Pittsburgh's training camp, both in terms of how hard it was to defend against them and how hard they worked every day.
"You get to watch them on TV but you don't really realize it until you step on the ice with them," he said. "They are professionals and you can tell from the way they handle themselves and the way they go about practice every single day."
Pouliot also got a brief taste of the professional life after last season ended in Portland, playing one playoff game with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League. He finished minus-2 in a 7-0 loss.
Through his fourth and final season with the Winterhawks, Pouliot has kept an eye on the Penguins' defensive depth. With Finnish rookie Olli Maatta making the team as well as the 2014 Sochi Olympics at age 19, and a handful of other call-ups filling in admirably for Pittsburgh, all he can do is keep getting better for next year.
"You know who is in the system," Pouliot said. "You just have to be better than those guys when your opportunity comes."