Penguins' Pouliot more than just other guy
Penguins general manager Ray Shero heard from a lot of people about Derrick Pouliot prior to the trade deadline.
No members of his developmental staff, though, offered a better ringing endorsement of the Penguins' first first-round pick at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft than their second first-round pick that year.
“I just know how good of a guy (Pouliot) is off the ice,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “So, yeah, I'd like to have him here. He has some unbelievable skill. I saw it when we played against one another in junior hockey and at training camp.
“I can learn from him. I think we can help each other.”
Maatta, 19 and the No. 22 pick two years ago, has emerged as a Calder Trophy (top rookie) candidate. Pouliot, 20 and the No. 8 pick from 2012, is the Penguins' “top prospect not in the NHL,” said Tom Fitzgerald, whose specialty is development in his role as assistant to the general manager.
General managers inquired about Pouliot during trade talks — some exploratory; others, such as with Vancouver for center Ryan Kesler, seriously — in the weeks leading to last Wednesday's deadline.
Shero stopped short of declaring Pouliot “off limits,” but he said it would “take a lot” to seriously consider moving him. Pouliot remains only the second top-10 pick of Shero's tenure. The other was center Jordan Staal (No. 2 overall in 2006).
Shero reminded Pouliot of that during a conversation before his return to Portland of the Western Hockey League after Penguins training camp. Shero also clearly outlined his expectations for Pouliot in his final season of junior hockey.
“Work on my defensive game, get stronger and make the World Junior (Championship) team,” Pouliot said. “Ray told me the Penguins thought I had a good camp but that another year of junior hockey — and doing those things — would be beneficial to my career.
“Luckily, defense is teachable, so it was really up to me.”
Pouliot returned to Portland focused, said club general manager/coach Mike Johnston. He packed on 5 pounds, added daily one-on-one defensive drills to his regimen and sharpened his game to the point Team Canada selected him for the World Junior Championship.
“I was worried about when he came back from Pittsburgh — that he wasn't there and Maatta was,” Johnston said. “Derrick wasn't worried, and that surprised me. He's always been very aware of where his game is at, and he said he knew it wasn't ready for the NHL yet.
“I think Derrick realized he is one type of player and Maatta is another.”
Maatta, Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill noted, is 6-foot-3 and 206 pounds. Pouliot is 6-foot-1 and now 198 pounds.
“I wouldn't say one of them was on a quicker track to the NHL,” Botterill said. “Olli has a little more size. Growing up in Finland, Olli played against older players before coming to North America.
“A 19-year-old defenseman making an impact is rare. Hopefully, seeing what Olli has done with us gives Derrick even more confidence.”
At the World Junior Championship, Pouliot was part of Canada's second penalty-kill pairing and ran the power play. He finished with a goal and five points in seven games.
Fitzgerald said he was most encouraged with the respect Canada's coaches showed Pouliot by “using him in all situations.” Johnston, who has used Pouliot similarly for the past two seasons with Portland, said the World Junior experience changed Pouliot.
“He's always been a great leader, a guy who battles every shift,” Johnston said. “I've seen more of that since World Junior. He's gone to another level, probably because he realizes that's what it will take for him when he turns pro.”
Pouliot is projected to begin next season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. His progression the rest of this season and over the summer could alter that plan.
During the trade-deadline period, several members of Shero's staff shared with him their opinions that Pouliot could contribute in the NHL at some point during the 2014-15 season.
When he arrives, Pouliot will stand out for his ability to control flow with his skating and awareness and a seeming innate sense for commanding the power play, Johnston said.
“You almost never see him get hit,” Johnston said. “He knows where he wants to go or go with the puck, so he beats guys by making quick play. He'll just roll off checks.
“He probably won't do that as much against bigger guys as a pro, but his intelligence, making the right read and doing it quickly, that's not going to change for him at any level.”
Also not at risk of changing is the opinion of perhaps Pouliot's biggest advocate within the Penguins. Linked by their draft history, Maatta said he “can't wait” for the day he and Pouliot are leading a Stanley Cup charge.
“He'll be here when he's ready, but I think it will be soon,” Maatta said. “It's not embarrassing that he's not here. I feel bad if people think that way because of me playing in the NHL.
“He's going to be a great player. I know it.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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