Penguins' Sullivan tasked with helping Pouliot fulfill vast potential

| Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, 8:33 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Mike Sullivan's primary objective is getting the Penguins to win games.

For the first two months of the season, before he was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to replace Mike Johnston as coach Dec. 12, his No. 1 task was developing the organization's prospects.In the coming weeks and months, those two functions could dovetail in the person of 22-year-old defenseman Derrick Pouliot.

“He's one of those guys that's knocking on the door,” Sullivan said. “He's had a real good start to his season down in Wilkes-Barre. If an opportunity presents itself at this level, I'm sure he's going to help us win.”

Technically, Pouliot was called up as an injury replacement for David Warsofsky, who is out with a concussion. But there is obviously more to his promotion than that.He's one of the top defensive prospects in hockey. His presence will push the team's top six defensemen to perform.

Struggle, like they did at times in a 5-2 loss at St. Louis on Monday night, and they easily could find themselves in the press box, Wally Pipped by an improving Pouliot. But for any of that to happen, Pouliot will have to prove the work he did with Sullivan earlier this season paid dividends.

Coming into this season, Pouliot's name practically was written on the Penguins roster in ink. Then came a minus-7 rating in four exhibition games — only now-retired Sergei Gonchar's minus-8 was worse in the NHL — and Pouliot understandably started the season in the minors.

“Obviously, I didn't have the best camp,” Pouliot conceded.

With the benefit of hindsight, Sullivan said the demotion after a poor camp could be good for Pouliot in the long run.

“I think it's a great experience for players, especially defensemen, to have to play at the American League level,” Sullivan said. “In a lot of instances, it's a more difficult league to play that position because it's more scrambly. The reads are more difficult.”

Sullivan and Baby Pens assistant coach Jay Leach worked with Pouliot on his reads when they were together in Wilkes-Barre. They worked with him on his positioning, gap control and stick details, too.

The results largely were positive. When he was called up Monday, he was among the top 10 highest-scoring defensemen in the AHL with six goals and 23 points in 37 games. His defensive game had its ups and downs, but by and large, he was effective in his own zone.

His plus-16 rating is the best on a Baby Pens defense that has a handful of players who could be sixth or seventh defensemen in the NHL.

“I think my game's taking steps down there,” Pouliot said. “I feel like I'm improving on some of the things these guys want me to improve on. It's been a pretty good season so far.”

And he credits a lot of his improvement to Sullivan.

“Sully's a very good coach,” Pouliot said. “He has high expectations for his players. He wants them to play a certain way, and he holds you accountable. There's no slacking off or taking a break. He really pushed you to be your best every day.”

He also thinks his game meshes well with Sullivan's preferred style of play.

“He wants the D men to be active when they can,” Pouliot said. “The power-play system, all that stuff, it all works very well. He wants to play a quick game, fast, lots of speed. Skating is a big part of it, which I think is one of my strengths, so it fits fairly well.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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