CRANBERRY — The players selected immediately after Sam Poulin have played in the NHL, at least 69 games and counting. The Pittsburgh Penguins selected the heavy winger 21st overall in 2019 with the full knowledge Poulin had work to do to reach his full potential.
Skating was tops on the list.
Poulin’s first pro season did not begin well. While his draft-floor peers hit NHL ice, Poulin was a healthy scratch at midseason with the WBS Penguins. He and fellow draft-class member Nathan Legare struggled to adjust to the pro game. Legare was also a scratch.
And that’s when Poulin’s first change happened.
The slower Poulin had difficulty generating speed on the wing. In an unconventional move, the Penguins slid Poulin to center. And it seems in that move, Poulin’s path to the NHL began in earnest. He scored 29 points in 41 games before cooling off in April. Overall, he had only 37 points in 72 games, further amplifying his turnaround beginning in January.
In six playoff games, Poulin had four points, including three goals.
“I think he’s light years ahead of where he was a year ago. And I think him and some other young players are very much challenging for this roster, and that’s exciting for us,” Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on the first day of training camp. “I know it’s exciting for them. That’s an important element of sustaining a competitive organization — having that internal competition where we have young players trying to push their way on the roster … And I think Sam is one of those guys.”
The swift-moving Poulin has departed from the lumbering, heavy winger of the past few camps. Those who have ventured to the UPMC Lemieux Complex may have noticed Poulin getting after the puck. His aggressive stride put him in spots a step ahead of where past versions of the player would have been.
Thursday, the Pittsburgh Penguins main practice group needed a center because Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger were absent with injuries. The Penguins didn’t shift Drew O’Connor to the top group; instead, Poulin got the call.
“I think it’s been my best camp and my three years here,” said Poulin. “So I’m pretty happy about the way I’m playing and how things are going. Hopefully, they can stay that way.”
One of the most significant pieces of the puzzle for any prospect is confidence. PHN asked Poulin not what the team thought about his prospects this season but how close he felt to the show.
“I think I could play this year, but you never know what can happen. Sometimes teams are pretty healthy, so there are not too many spots available,” Poulin said. “What I can do is just play my best every night and show them that I belong in this league. So whenever there’s a call-up at this league, I’d like to get my chance here.”
The Penguins prospect is most likely ticketed for the long drive across the state via I-80, whizzing past Dubois, Bloomsburg, and finally stopping in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. But that may not come for another week as the Penguins have two preseason games, Friday in Buffalo and Monday in Detroit.
Depending on Blueger’s and Carter’s injuries, the Penguins will need a few more centers to fill roster spots, and Poulin will get another couple of whacks against NHL teams.
Poulin’s ascension couldn’t come at a better time for a prospect-starved team. Next summer, Blueger will be an unrestricted free agent. For a team already fighting to get under the salary cap, a prospect with a cap hit below $1 million could allow GM Ron Hextall to allocate resources elsewhere.
Blueger did not skate on Friday, and Carter only skated before practice with the injury group, so Poulin figures to play a prominent role Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres, if he’s available.
Poulin did not skate on Friday, either.
Under typical circumstances, it would be a bit longer before Sam Poulin makes his NHL debut, but as he said, anything can happen.
Update: Poulin was excused from the team for a couple of days due to personal reasons, per Sullivan. He will not play in Buffalo on Saturday.