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Penguins confident Pouliot will be healthy, ready for camp

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, 8:24 p.m.

A year ago, it was Olli Maatta receiving a steady workload on the Penguins' blue line as a rookie defenseman.

This season, first-year coach Mike Johnston believes it's Derrick Pouliot's turn.

“Yeah, I do. For sure,” Johnston responded when asked whether he thought Pouliot, a former first-round pick who played four-plus years for Johnston with the Portland Winterhawks, was ready for the NHL. “Not only his play in Portland, but the thing that convinced me the most was last year at the World Juniors.

“I really thought Derrick was the best defenseman in the tournament. If you can play at that level on the world stage, yeah, you're ready.”

Not so fast, though. While a healthy Pouliot may be ready, Pouliot, who was drafted eighth overall in 2012, isn't healthy yet.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound left-handed shot underwent labral repair surgery on his right shoulder May 21.

The operation, performed by Dr. Dharmesh Vyas at UPMC, was successful, and he was given a timetable of four to six months.

“It's coming along well,” Pouliot said. “Everything's on track. I'm right where I'm supposed to be.”

Is the goal to make it back for camp?

“That would be ideal, but we'll see if that happens or not,” Pouliot said. “We're still not sure when I'm going to be ready.”

Pouliot was ready for this past Western Hockey League season, finishing with a career-high 70 points (17 goals, 53 assists) during the regular season and then really turning it on in the postseason.

In helping the Winterhawks reach the WHL championship series for a fourth consecutive year — they lost to the Edmonton Oil Kings, who were backstopped by another high-end Penguins prospect in goaltender Tristan Jarry — Pouliot was named the WHL's Defenseman of the Year. He finished with 32 points in 27 playoff games.

Over the past four years, Pouliot has played in 21, 22, 21 and 21 playoff games with Portland.

“By the end of the season, a lot of guys are looking forward to going home,” Pouliot said.

“Fortunately, I never had that in Portland. We made it to the finals every single year. I got a lot of experience under my belt.”

Johnston said Maatta, who had surgery to repair a labral tear a day after Pouliot, is about two weeks ahead of Pouliot in terms of recovery.

What can't happen, general manager Jim Rutherford insisted, is rushing Pouliot back. Pouliot will make the big club when he's ready and healthy.

“We have a really good group of young defensemen and a bunch of guys who are going to be good NHL players, but you don't want them to come into the lineup under extra pressure,” Rutherford said. “You want them to develop at the proper time.”

Johnston has seen more of Pouliot than anyone. The new coach insists his longtime pupil is ready, even if Pouliot has endured some criticism — not unlike current Penguin Kris Letang — that he's suspect defensively.

“(Pouliot) has played a lot of minutes. He can play in every situation,” Johnston said.

“People look at players like Letang and Pouliot and say, ‘They're good offensively, but they're not good defenseman.' I think Pouliot is really smart defensively.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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