BUFFALO — The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t received many contributions from their draft picks for eight years running. Not since 2015 has the team had a pick crack the lineup with regularity or consequence. After a step back last season to get healthy, 2019 first-round pick Sam Poulin looks ready to mount a serious challenge for a roster spot.
After a so-so Game 1 at the Prospects Challenge, Poulin dominated Saturday in an 8-3 win over the Ottawa Senators prospects.
In case you’re wondering, the ’15 pick who played in the most games was Dominik Simon, who delivered 228.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach J.D. Forrest, who is coaching the prospects team which concludes the three-game competition at LECOM Harborcenter Monday, has used a myriad of terms to describe Poulin’s game.
Bear. Freight train. Tank. Unstoppable. Saturday, Poulin battled several Ottawa defenders near the crease to poke a loose puck past the goalie. He took the abuse to get that goal.
“One of the biggest things he can do is just control the puck on his stick down low. He’s near impossible to knock off it, and on the defensive side of things, it’s the same way,” said Forrest. “His stride is just so strong down low. He’s able to close guys out, finish plays, and get us going the other way, as well. So, in that goal, it’s just how he scores goals. He plays around the net, but it’s a lot of grunt work that Sam does. He makes it look easier than it really is.”
The tournament scoring is more casual than formal, and only three assists were given on eight Penguins goals, so don’t read too much into Poulin’s stat line that includes only one goal in an 8-3 win.
It was Poulin who drove the play Saturday.
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound forward is a significantly better player than a year ago. He’s more aggressive and assertive in the dirty areas. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to be moving significantly quicker. The lumbering or slogging skating has been replaced with a more streamlined push from Point A to B.
“He’s still rounding (his game) out. He’s still young … we’re constantly working on keeping his pace up and keeping his feet,” Forrest said. “He’ll have a tendency to get his feet moving and then kind of glide. He’s at his best when those feet are moving because when he’s at top speed, he’s a train out there. You’re not going to stop him, so that’s something that we work on with him quite a bit.”
Poulin has a clogged road in front of him when Penguins training camp begins on Thursday. Colin White, a bonafide NHL center, signed a professional tryout deal with the Penguins last week. And the battle for the final few roster spots will be fierce, with other NHLers hoping to stick. About 16 players are battling for 12, maybe 13, spots.
We’ll take Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas at his word that he won’t worry about losing a player on waivers, but will ice the best players available. That means Poulin’s waiver exemption shouldn’t count against him when the team makes its final cutdowns in a few weeks.
The Penguins do need a fourth-line center, but experienced NHL players such as Jeff Carter, Noel Acciari, White, or even Drew O’Connor could fill the void. Poulin will have to fight past one or more to earn a spot.
Taken immediately behind Poulin, whom the Penguins selected 21st overall, were four players who have played at least 50 NHL games already. Of those, Philip Tomasino (Nashville) and Connor McMichael (Washington) were drafted as centers, too.
However, Poulin is quickly making up for lost time after stepping away from the game for much of last season to deal with personal issues. He played only 18 games in 2022-23, including three with the Pittsburgh Penguins, after making his NHL debut in November at Calgary.
“I mean, you wouldn’t … you would never know by watching him play, practice, and compete. You know, he’s just a hockey player in the battles. He’s a bear down low. Just he does a lot of good things out there,” said Forrest.
It’s not a make-or-break moment for Poulin, who could be sent to the WB/S Penguins to smooth the rough edges in his game, but for the first time in years, a Penguins draft pick will push for NHL ice time.
Poulin is earning that consideration. How he fares in the coming training camp and the preseason against professional players could establish him as ready. He looked ready on Saturday.