For the first time in about five years, the Pittsburgh Penguins organization has several prospects at the Wilke-Barre/Scranton Penguins level worthy of keeping NHL attention. Not since 2016 when Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, and a year later, Jake Guentzel burst on the scene have the Penguins had a group of kids on the farm as they do with Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare, and P.O. Joseph.
PHN had a chance to chat with the trio. P.O. Joseph made headlines with his graceful and firm words on racism in hockey reflected by recent racist attacks in minor league and international play.
The others are still making their way. Poulin and Legare were dropped into the deep end but are figuring it out. Those little plays they made in juniors no longer cut it. The sixth defenseman on an AHL team is a bit different than the sixth defender on a struggling QMJHL team.
It’s part of the learning process for the first Penguins prospect pool in years. It hasn’t been all sunshine, either.
On the ice, Poulin and Legare are facing different challenges than the older Joseph. While Joseph is refining his game and showing the necessary consistency, the Penguins’ 2019 draft picks are in the middle of an eye-opening professional debut.
Both Poulin and Legare were a healthy scratch in mid-January. WBS Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest decided some tough love was in order for his prized youngsters after they didn’t get the earlier messages.
“We really want them playing, but there just came a point where we thought that some of the progression you want to see was kind of stagnant,” Forrest told PHN. “Maybe to get them out of the lineup and into the stands to watch and see where they need to be more effective and a little bit of tough love as far as some repetitive mistakes that we wanted to make a point of.”
Legare is the heavy body with a thundering wrister. He was the 2019 third-round selection; former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford traded back into the third round to select Legare.
In 2019, Poulin was the first Penguins’ first-round pick since 2014, when Rutherford snagged Kasperi Kapanen (and traded him a year later in the Phil Kessel deal).
To Poulin’s and Legare’s credit, they did respond. Legare’s overall numbers aren’t significantly better over the past couple of weeks, but he does have three points (2-1-3) in his last five games.
Poulin is similarly hitting the scoresheet lately, too. He also has three points in his last five games (1-2-3). Overall, Poulin is averaging .5 points per game (6-12-18) in 36 games but is a minus-7. Legare has 12 points (5-7-12) in 34 games but is a minus-5.
The red numbers speak directly to the steep learning curve. Coming from the QMJHL, which is still known for a more open style of play, to the AHL is a giant leap.
Everything is different. The young men are living on their own for the first time. That means cooking. Cleaning. Taking care of details at the rink and taking care of themselves. On the ice, those little cheat codes against teenage defensemen no longer work.
“It’s been a little adjustment. Wouldn’t lie to you, just the fact of, you know, (having a) main apartment by myself and just all this stuff around–Not exactly like at the rink–but outside of the rink, its been a little adjustment for me,” Poulin admitted to PHN.
Poulin, 20, lives with former Sherbrooke Phoenix teammate Felix Robert, 22, who has a couple of years of professional experience. For the record, Poulin also admits that Robert is the better cook.
Poulin surprised us when he admitted this season wasn’t the first time he was overwhelmed on the ice. During his first year in juniors, he went through a similar process when he was dropped to the fourth line and heading towards a seat in the stands. For his part, the WBS Penguins scratch seemed to be the wake-up call Poulin needed.
And he heard it.
“I was struggling a bit on the ice–I was making some turnovers that I shouldn’t be doing. And that one game I made like a huge mistake. I wouldn’t lie, it led to a goal, and I was pissed at myself when it happened,” Poulin said. “I knew it was something I had to deal with and to go through again just to learn from it. And I didn’t play that third period, and I think I was scratched the next day. I think from that point on, I just kept playing good hockey, and I think it’s been my best hockey so far since the start of the year.”
The last sentence is probably what Penguins fans and the organization want to hear.
Poulin was playing a complicated game. Now, he’s learning to use his size and keep the game simple; all of those “details” the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan preaches. Not coincidentally, since Poulin and Legare were scratched, the team has picked up the pace, too.
The WBS Penguins are 7-2-1-0 in their last 10 and 4-0-1-0 in their last five games. They are above .500 and close playoff spot (AHL playoffs will be determined by winning percentage as teams have different game totals).
The WBS Penguins are projected to be in a playoff spot based on winning percentage, even though they’re behind in points.
“I think guys are bigger and stronger. Also, they have more experience, so they make less mistakes on the ice,” Legare said. “And sometimes I was expecting some mistakes like they did like in juniors, but I’ve just got a play the right way–the small details. I think the small details, it’s a key and especially at the pro level, if I want to be in the NHL, I think it’s all of the details I have to do day-in and day-out.”
Legare is living with his girlfriend and Sam Hood. Legare and his girlfriend are the cooks in their house.
Despite having an NHL-caliber wrister, the 205-pound Legare is finding where to score goals at the pro level, and it’s probably music to a lot of ears.
“Goalies are so good right now. They are all square in the net. You don’t catch them off guard often,” Legare conceded. “So I think you just got to be in front of the net, and sometimes dirty goals are the ones that pay the most.”
None of them wanted to admit to much internal competition to get to Pittsburgh first. They all smiled and said their focus was on getting better and helping the team. But the Pittsburgh Penguins remain the next goal.
And it sounds like they’re on the right path after a bit of course correction.
“It’s not for lack of willingness to compete or any of that stuff for those two guys. They want to be in battles. They want to compete. They’re big, strong kids-big, strong men. It was just more of understanding when, how, where…,” Forrest said.
They’re learning. The Penguins first legit prospect pool in several years has more to prove to themselves and the organization, but they’re on the way.