Mike Johnston used his first-ever draft pick as coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks in 2009 to select defenseman Derrick Pouliot
first overall in that year’s Bantam Draft.
Pouliot spent the next several seasons playing under Johnston, who left to become head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins – the team that drafted the young defenseman eighth overall in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Tonight Pouliot, who is in his first professional season, will be taking the next step in his career – making his NHL debut – under Johnston, the man who played a crucial role in his development to help get him to this point.
“It’s kind of neat how that happened because he played for us at age 15 in Portland and played five years there,” Johnston said. “I had an opportunity to watch him grow as an individual, watch him grow as a player and now to be here with him for his first NHL game, it’s a unique experience for sure.”
The two of them spent a few minutes skating around chatting during the Penguins’ game-day skate heading into their matchup with the Florida Panthers this evening.
“He just told me who I’d be playing with (Rob Scuderi) and make sure I get a good rest today because of the late night,” said Pouliot, who was informed he was being recalled last night around 11 p.m. after his game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “Be ready. … I kind of know his system, what he wants us to do out there. We went over some stuff beforehand too so I’m pretty familiar with it, but I still have to go out there and execute.”
Pouliot, 20, is an incredibly exciting prospect. He put together a terrific final season of junior hockey last year, as he capped off his 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.
Pouliot, who’s been compared to Kris Letang, is an offensive defenseman with incredible skating, vision and puck-moving ability that has the potential to be the team’s power-play quarterback of the future.
Pouliot leads WBS in scoring this season with 20 points (7G-13A) in 23 games. His point total ranks fourth (tied) among all AHL rookies and fifth overall among all AHL blueliners. He comes to Pittsburgh with five goals and seven points in seven games during the month of December.
“(Offense) is a big part of my game I think and it’s just clicking right now,” Pouliot said. “You’ll get on a hot streak like that and you might die down for a bit, so it has been going well so far and definitely something I need to keep up.”
With Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff both out tonight, Johnston plans to use Pouliot on the second power-play unit.
“It’s part of my game,” Pouliot said. “If I get a chance to get out there, I plan on bringing the offense and showing what I can do.”
But while Pouliot’s offensive game has certainly translated to this level thus far, his defensive game is a continually evolving work in progress.
Pouliot didn’t enter the lineup until Oct. 21 after undergoing shoulder surgery in May. That paired with the knowledge that the adjustment to the pro level tends to more difficult for defensemen and that the Penguins just didn’t want to rush his development meant keeping him in Wilkes-Barre and letting him play.
They wanted him to experience playing a lot of minutes, especially on the power play, and learning under the coaching staff down there.
“Last year when I was coaching him in juniors, the Pittsburgh development coaches – Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald – gave him a checklist of things and those were some of the things that they wanted him to work on,” Johnston said. “Being more assertive in his defensive zone (is something) we worked on at the junior level, but it’s a lot different at the pro level. It’s a lot different in the American league than it is at the NHL level.
“And so certainly (WBS head coach) John Hynes has commented to me and the conversations we had that he definitely has improved in that area, concentrated in that area. He’s very smart defensively. It’s a matter of learning the league and learning the players, but it is a big step.”
Pouliot said WBS assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, a former pro defenseman, has worked extensively with him in that regard.
“Alain Nasreddine has been really good with me down there, working on some stuff and making sure I’m consistent in both ends of the ice,” Pouliot said. “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. 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.”
The Penguins certainly don’t expect him to be perfect tonight. But they are looking forward to seeing him take this next step.
“Tonight we have several young defensemen playing as Harrington and Dumoulin and Pouliot all get experience at the NHL level, which is really important for our organization, but Derrick in particular,” Johnston said. “We’ll really give him a chance to get his first NHL experience.”