Under different circumstances, Sam Poulin might have been a leading candidate to claim a spot on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Opening Night lineup in three months.
There’s no question that he has the size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) and pedigree — he’s the son of former NHLer Patrick Poulin and was a first-round draft choice in 2019 — that should allow him to contribute at this level.
And perhaps he will do that this fall, because the Penguins’ lineup for Game 1 against Chicago Oct. 10 at PPG Paints Arena isn’t likely to be set for quite a while.
But it’s reasonable to assume that his chances of playing against the Blackhawks that night would have been considerably better if Poulin hadn’t missed most of his second season of pro hockey while taking a leave of absence for what Penguins officials described as “personal reasons.”
Team officials and Poulin have declined to elaborate on the details of why he took that leave of absence.
He left the Pittsburgh Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre in early December and did not return until mid-March. Whatever benefits that time away had for him, the layoff did not enhance his on-ice development.
Couple that with Poulin being waivers-exempt and having a one-way contract — to say nothing of the glut of veteran forwards expected to contend for spots on the bottom two lines — and it’s easy to project Poulin starting the season in the northeast corner of the Commonwealth.
That’s something he seems willing to accept.
“I’m just being patient with the process,” he said during the Penguins’ recent development camp. “We’ll see where it takes me. If I have to go back to Wilkes, that will be fine. And if I make the (NHL) team, that will be fine, too.”
Poulin, 22, made it into three games with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2022-23, putting up one assist. While he is largely unproven in the NHL, he can play center or wing — coach Mike Sullivan has a deep appreciation for that kind of versatility — and can thrive in a physical game.
“He’s a moose,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach J.D. Forrest said. “He can battle down low with anybody, and he wins those battles most of the time. Whether it’s in the defensive end or the offensive end down low, he’s just really hard to play against. You can’t get the puck from him.
“Then, when he’s defending, he defends hard. … As a young player in the American League, I haven’t seen too many guys hang onto the puck as long as he has, below the dots, with big guys on him.”
Poulin had four goals and no assists in 15 games in Wilkes-Barre in 2022-23, after putting up 16 goals and 21 assists in 72 games in his first season there.
Although he was drafted as a left winger, Poulin began working in the middle late in his junior career, and has been used there extensively since turning pro. Where he’ll play in the NHL isn’t clear, and possibly will hinge on other personnel on his team.
“I know I can play both,” Poulin said. “So it’s just a matter of where Pittsburgh wants me to play. Last year, I played center when they called me up, and it went pretty well, so if that’s the case again, I’ll be ready. And if it’s on the wing, I’ll be ready, too.”
That’s because, at least in part, he has put whatever issue it was that prompted him to sit out most of last season appears to be behind him, allowing Poulin to be ready to take on the challenges before him.
“Right now, I’m in a good place,” he said. “And just ready to play hockey.”