Top pick quietly takes stage
The Penguins' No. 1 pick, Derrick Pouliot, meets owner Mario Lemieux Friday at Consol Energy Center.
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The NHL likes red carpets. The league rolls one out at its annual awards show, and it used one Friday for prospects heading into Consol Energy Center before Round 1 of the 2012 entry draft.
Derrick Pouliot pulled an end-around.
"There were all the people standing around. He looked, and he quietly snuck in the back door," Pouliot's mother, Wendy, said. "That's his way. He's quiet, but tell the fans to approach him. He's very approachable."
Pouliot is expected to be back in Pittsburgh and at the arena next month for development camp after the Penguins selected this offensive defenseman eighth overall at the draft.
"He's a quieter guy," said defenseman Joe Morrow, the Penguins' first-round pick a year ago and Pouliot's teammate and occasional defense partner last season with the junior Portland Winterhawks.
"Once you get to know him, he opens up. He's good-hearted. He's a really likable person. He's worth getting to know."
For the Penguins, he was partly worth trading center Jordan Staal. They got that eighth pick Friday as part of the return in a deal with Carolina and used it to take Pouliot.
Pouliot, 5 feet 11, 192 pounds, had 11 goals, 59 points in 79 games for Portland last season.
"I think I'm a good skater," Pouliot said. "I think that's one of my strengths. Hopefully, I'll be able to carry that on to here.
"I try and model myself after [the Kings'] Drew Doughty, guys like that, maybe [former Detroit star] Nick Lidstrom. I try to get that intensity and grittiness."
That's apparently as verbose as Pouliot, 18, usually gets, particularly in a lights-camera-action moment such as the draft.
Others are effusive on his behalf.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero called Pouliot "a power-play quarterback of the future."
Ron Pyette, a Penguins amateur scout who followed Pouliot, got testimonials from people such as Morrow, but his own instincts and observations were sufficient.
"He's an NHL skater even today," Pyette said. "It's going to be a huge part of his game.
"His hockey sense is so special. That's really the biggest part of his game for us. He can advance the puck up the ice. We think he's going to be pretty close to being elite when it's all said and done."
Pouliot is expected to spend another season in junior, but Morrow, a solid prospect who has turned pro, could find himself competing against Pouliot in the not-too-distant future.
He welcomes that, and indicated the Penguins and their fans should welcome Pouliot, too.
"They're getting a phenomenally talented offensive defenseman," Morrow said. "The kid could play forward if he wanted to. He has a smooth, calm kind of poise to him. Good hands. Accurate shot. Thinks the game well.
"He's still young and needs to work on defense a little bit. When I got drafted, I was the same."
Portland coach Mike Johnston, who was in town for the draft, stopped in the middle of gushing about Pouliot to offer that "he does have things to work on."
Those would include getting stronger, getting better defensively as pointed out by Morrow and, Johnston said, "being more consistent in his effort to take over the game. He has to initiate in all areas of the game."
That last part assumes Pouliot has the ability to take over a game, and Johnston confirms he does.
"The best way to describe Derrick is he's a defenseman who controls the game, by his puck movement, by his decisions," Johnston said. "He's a smart player. He's really intelligent everywhere on the ice.
"He can make a great breakout pass and then can join the rush. And he's not a big guy, but he's a hard guy to hit."
The Winterhawks drafted Pouliot into the Western Hockey League as a 14-year-old, but, as standard policy, he could play only some exhibition games before he was 16.
"He played as a 15-year-old, and a lot of people thought he should have been granted special clearance to play [full time]," Johnston said.
Pouliot is the oldest of three siblings. Nicholas is 16, Janelle, 12.
He honed his skills in Weyburn, Saskachewan, an oil and gas exploration plains town of about 11,000, first on a backyard rink and, after that became too small, a city-approved neighborhood rink two doors down on an empty lot.
Lionel Pouliot helped build a flooding machine and the skating area, which has boards, lights and a warming shack.
"It is a culture. It's what you do," Lionel Pouliot said of hockey back home. "You put on the skates at the age of 3, and it's just part of our daily lives. We just love it."
The elder Pouliot always took comfort in knowing he could easily find Derrick down the block on that rink when he wasn't in an organized game, and that hockey provided a safe pastime as well as a way to develop friendships, even with opponents.
Take, for instance, defenseman Matt Dumba, who grew up an hour or so away in Regina and on Friday was selected one slot ahead of Pouliot, by Minnesota.
"We left the rink [Friday] night and ran into the Dumba family," Lionel Pouliot said. "They were competitors, and as we're going back to the hotel, there's him and Matt Dumba walking side-by-side in their two [NHL] jerseys."
First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 am