Ryan Pulock has shown flashes of what he could be as a regular NHL defenseman before — Islanders fans will recall the work he did in the 2016 playoff series against the Panthers, when Pulock tallied three points in two games before being hurt.
But flashes are all anyone had seen until recently. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound defenseman seemed hesitant too often at either end of the ice.
Since he came back into the lineup on Dec. 1, however, Pulock is showing he was worth the wait. He only has one point in the last six games, but the 23-year-old has stepped up to play the sort of forceful game his coaches have wanted from him all season.
“Whether you’re sitting out or you have a bad game, sometimes you make a decision. And it sounds so easy, but I think he just came in a few games ago and it was like, ‘OK, that’s the guy,’” coach Doug Weight said. “Quick hands, lugging the puck, stapling guys (to the wall) in his own zone. I think he fed off that.”
Weight liked what he saw so much that he paired Pulock with Nick Leddy for two games while Johnny Boychuk sat out with a lower-body injury. The Islanders didn’t win either one of those, in Pittsburgh and Boston, but Pulock more than held his own against the Penguins’ high-end forwards and the Bruins’ puck-possesion monsters on their top line.
Pulock has the best shots for/against percentage of any Islanders defenseman, with the Isles generating 51.5 percent of shots attempted with Pulock on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. That’s not an overwhelming percentage, but it backs up what the coaches have seen: A more assertive player who’s not afraid to unleash his 100-plus mph slap shot or use a fake to get open ice, as he did on Thursday when he walked around Sidney Crosby to set up Jordan Eberle’s second-period goal.
Pulock’s offense has never been an issue in three AHL seasons, where he scored 39 goals in 163 games. Weight has been happier with Pulock’s defensive zone play more than anything at the other end of the ice.
“It started from his D, too — really exploding into players, using his big body,” Weight said. “It’s been really good in the D zone, assertive, good stick, making contact with people. He’s been working a lot after practice on those things. He’s feeling really confident defensively, it’s transferred to his offense.
“When you look like him, 225, he’s strong, a good skater, but his technique was poor. He’s been working on it and now it’s second nature for him. That’s a credit to (assistant coach) Luke (Richardson), Cro (associate coach Greg Cronin) and Ryan.”