Typical small-town Canadian makes good as top NHL prospect
If somebody had to make a mold of a typical Western Hockey League player, they could start with Derrick Pouliot, Portland Winterhawks defenseman.
A small-town Canada boy, from rural Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Played hockey in a makeshift rink in his backyard. Picked No. 1 overall in the bantam draft, and then moved to Portland at age 16 - a small-town kid experiencing big-city life. Smart. Humble. Great teammate.
And now, a couple years removed from being the best player in Weyburn, Pouliot has risen to be one of Canada's top young D-men. He's regarded as first-round material for the 2012 NHL draft.
So goes the road of many a WHL player.
'It's a big step, a bit of an adjustment,' says Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach. 'The best thing for our players is we have a lot of guys who've been through it before, to help him out.'
Indeed, as Pouliot goes through his all-important draft year, when each game could bring a scout or scouts out to watch him play, he'll have teammates such as Joe Morrow, Sven Bartschi and Ty Rattie to guide him. They were drafted into the NHL as high picks earlier this year.
'I tell him to stay calm about everything,' says Morrow, a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a fellow offensive-oriented defenseman. 'It's a really stressful time.
'He's a phenomenal hockey player. Sometimes he can get down on himself. It's completely normal. … If he's not having fun playing hockey or feeling down on himself, he's not going to play we well as he can. Once he's doing well and having fun, he's at the top of his game. (Scouts) are going to like that about him.'
Pouliot, who had 30 points as a WHL rookie, has been up and down in his second season, Johnston says. He has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in the first 20 games.
Johnston says that, like a lot of creative hockey players who move the puck and skate well, Pouliot sometimes tries to get too creative.
'I try to do too much, make plays that can't be made,' he says. 'I need to simplify. I'm getting back on track. … I'm obviously trying to learn how to stay at a consistent level.'
The 6-0, 180-pound Pouliot also needs to develop the physical part of his game, although Johnston says the kid will be fine. He's an offensive defenseman, and a terrific one.
'I think he defends very well,' Johnston says. 'He can be more physical, can be harder on his checks, stronger in checking situations. And, he'll have to be. But, if you're smart in checking … he's always on the right side of people, his positioning is really good.
'I don't know if he has to change his game radically to be an NHL player. He's going to be fine at that level with the skills that he has.'
It doesn't faze Pouliot to hear his name and NHL first round being mentioned together.
Although he grew up in little Weyburn, an hour away from Regina, he didn't lack for big NHL dreams. He looked up to NHL players Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermeyer. And, when the Hawks made him the No. 1 overall bantam pick in 2009, it solidified the thoughts he had in his head: 'I kind of realized what I wanted to do. I'm trying to make it a reality, I guess.'
Pouliot says it's an honor and a motivation to be regarded as a potential NHL first-round draft pick. It could be the third consecutive draft that the Hawks put a player or players in the first round - it was Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter in 2010 and Bartschi and Morrow this year.
He'll try to improve his overall game, but ultimately, he says, it's about helping the Winterhawks win. He'll try not to think about his draft status.
The Hawks have a very good defensive corps, with the likes of Morrow, Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon, William Wrenn and Pouliot.
Pouliot got plenty of ice time last season as a key player in the team's defense pairings. He often played with Taylor Aronson, who has since gone pro. He also looked up to Morrow.
Now, Pouliot realizes he has to be a mentor to younger players.
'And, I want to take on more of a role with the team,' he says, 'getting some PK (penalty kill) time, and try to play against the other team's top two lines.'
Johnston says Pouliot is a quiet and unassuming kid, like many from the small towns of Canada who step up to play major junior hockey. The coach will see a spark and a take-charge attitude in Pouliot on the ice, when it counts.
'He's not a boisterous personality by any means,' Johnston says. 'But, he has a neat personality. Guys enjoy him. He's kinda funny. Get him off the ice, he's very, very humble.
'He's from a small town in Canada. All this is new to him - being recognized, people wanting to interview him, rating him for the draft. If you're from a small town in Canada, it's almost overwhelming. But he watched (teammates) go through it, and that's the best example you can have.'