Pouliot was coming off a week where he played five games in six nights, three for his team, the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League, mixed in with two for an OHL team that faced the Russian Selects as part of the Canada/Russia Challenge series.
“I have been pretty busy and it is nice just to stop and have a couple of days to unwind,’’ says Pouliot, who was Minnesota’s first pick and fourth overall in the NHL Draft last June. “It was fun playing but it’s great to get a break.”
There’s a reason why Pouliot was very much in demand. He is a top talent who has nothing but sunny skies in his future.
The six-foot-one, 186-pound Pouliot is a fluid skater with scary offensive instincts. He creates scoring chances with his speed and no one can question his character and desire. He repeatedly draws comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Vince Lecavalier.
“He has been a great asset for our hockey club,” says Sudbury Coach/General Manager Mike Foligno. “He is learning how to become a more consistent player, game in and game out, and he has stepped up his game, not only on his skating ability but also getting more involved in special teams.
“He is on the power play. He is on the penalty kill and he is very reliable defensively. He takes a lot of pride to make sure he is not scored on when he is out there. He has established the maturity to play in his zone.”
Pouliot has come a long way in a short time.
Teams in the Ontario Hockey League conduct what’s called a bantam draft every year to stock their rosters and Pouliot went in the 11th round of the 2002 OHL draft, which is as close to the edge of the hockey map as you can get.
“I didn’t have a good year at all,” he says about his OHL draft year.
Pouliot was deemed to scrawny to play major junior and he ended up playing junior B. A year later, he was Sudbury’s final cut and played the 2003-04 season playing Junior A.
He was called up by the Wolves in February, ’04, and scored his first OHL goal a day after his father, Sylvain, died of leukemia. Sylvain coached his son in minor hockey and Pouliot says “I am where I am because of him.”
Pouliot became a hot prospect last season when he had 29 goals and 65 points in 67 games for Sudbury and was named the Canadian Hockey League’s top rookie.
“People who get drafted that late think they will never make it but I made it so it shows it doesn’t matter where you are drafted. It matters whether you want to make it or not,” says Pouliot.
“There are a lot of players who slip under the radar and sometimes it is because of circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes they just do not develop physically and sometimes guys are just late bloomers,’’ adds Foligno. “He started to grow rapidly but he didn’t follow it up with any kind of weight. But he put a little bit of meat on him and all of a sudden he turned into a franchise player. He has worked really hard on that. He has probably gained about 15 pounds in the last year.”
The Wild brought Pouliot to its training camp in September and it wasn’t for the proverbial cup of coffee. He stuck around for a long time, played in 7 pre-season games, and was one of the final cuts.
| Pouliot gave NHL opponents all they could handle during the exhibition season. |
“They gave me a good chance to stay there and it was an unbelievable feeling and next year will be better,” says Pouliot. “The first week at the big camp I had no idea what was going on but the coaches must have liked what I was doing because I stayed on. Then they cut some players the next week and the week after that and I stuck around. They gave me another chance and I started another week and it was pretty intense after that. That last week, I was nervous.”
Foligno wasn’t shocked that Pouliot turned a few heads at the Wild camp.
“I think they were pleased with how he developed over the short term at training camp and he had one of those camps where he was feeling his way through, and then all of a sudden it’s ‘boom! I know what to do here,’ says the former NHLer. “He has a lot of skill. He is one of those guys who is capable of doing this because he has such tremendous skating abilities. He is such a strong skater and it comes effortlessly.”
After he was cut, Pouliot flew back to Sudbury and landed three hours before a 2 p.m. game. He had a hat trick in a 7-4 win over Peterborough.
Foligno says Pouliot leads by example.
“He is still not the most talkative guy in the dressing room. But he cares very much. He is a proud player and he is not a player you embarrass in front of the other players because he is a leader in his own way,” he says. “He is a leader and he knows he has to be prepared to play like leader in each and every game.”
Pouliot, whose first language is French, has been playing hockey since he was three. He’s always wanted to play in the NHL and now he’s close to realizing his dream. He recalled being at the Draft in Ottawa, wondering when he’d get the nod.
“I came to the draft maybe rated second. It was close after No. 1 and you never know when you are going to end up,” he says. “It was wondering when my name was going to pop up and when I heard Minnesota call my name, it was great.
“I’m going to work hard this summer getting ready for training camp. It’s my goal to play next year.”
Pouliot is a top candidate for Canada’s National Junior team, which will try to defend its world title at the World Junior Championship later this month in Vancouver. Bryce Mackasey, the head scout for the Canadian team, likes Pouliot a lot. “Great skill and speed,” says Mackasey.
Should Pouliot make the team, he’ll be bucking the odds, again.
Pouliot has never played for Canada. He wasn’t on Hockey Canada’s radar screen when it came time to invite players to international tournaments.
But Pouliot is all about proving people wrong.
“I watched the world juniors every year and it is a dream to play there. I went to the (evaluation) camp (in August) and had a great time and if they invite me back it is even better.”
Foligno guarantees that Pouliot will get invited and will make the team.
“This is a superior player you are talking about and he will be part of that team.”