Mathew Barzal showed through his Calder Trophy-winning rookie season he has the potential to anchor the Islanders’ forward group for seasons to come.
Fellow second-year player Ryan Pulock feels the responsibility to do so for the defense corps and give the Islanders foundation pieces both up front and on the back end.
“One hundred percent,” Pulock said. “I was a high pick. They’re picking me to be that guy. This is my time to take that. I’ve been in the organization for four years now. It’s the time I grab the reins and take it. I feel like I can do that.”
The 6-2, 214-pound Pulock, 23, was the 15th overall pick in 2013 and played three seasons for Bridgeport (AHL) before notching 10 goals and 22 assists in 68 games as a rookie last season. His righthanded shot already is considered one of the hardest in the NHL and two plays in preseason displayed his immense scoring potential.
He set up in the left circle on the power play, near the same spot new coach Barry Trotz watched Alex Ovechkin knock home shot after shot for the Capitals, and slapped in the winner for a 3-2 overtime victory over the Flyers in Allentown, Pennsylvania on Sept. 21.
“Everyone knows he can rip the puck,” left wing Anthony Beauvillier said.
The next night in Bridgeport, Connecticut, against the Rangers, he skated in from the right and snapped a shot that beat goalie Dustin Tokarski to the short side just under the crossbar for the final goal in a 5-2 win.
But pro success has not come as quickly for Pulock as it did for Barzal, 20, the 16th overall pick in 2015 who jumped straight from junior hockey to the NHL and won rookie of the year honors. Even last season, Pulock’s game developed slowly and he still had only three goals and six assists when everything suddenly clicked at Chicago. He had a goal and four assists in a 7-3 win over the Blackhawks on Jan. 20, becoming the first rookie defenseman in franchise history with a five-point game and marking just the 10th time in league history a rookie defenseman did so.
Trotz believes Pulock’s slow start stems from him being “a little bit respectful.”
“Inside, he knows he’s a good player but, sometimes, you need someone saying you’re responsible,” Trotz said. “Sometimes, he needs a little reassurance. I think usually guys who are slow starters, they’re just sort of respectful and they need a little boost of confidence here and there.”
Both Pulock and Trotz hail from Dauphin, Manitoba, and Trotz knew Pulock’s father, David, as a player.
When Trotz had his day with the Stanley Cup back home, he arranged to meet with Pulock.
“I talked to him about where I think he can go,” Trotz said. “He comes from a really solid background. His mom and dad did a really good job with him.”
“Every guy wants to fight for more minutes,” Pulock added. “I’m expecting to come in here and trying to prove that I can fill that role and play in all situations and play against the other team’s top lines. A goal of mine is to come in here and prove I can be a guy that’s relied on.”
Trotz will use Pulock as a power-play point shot, pairing him in the preseason with defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who also has a booming slap shot.
But Pulock knows he must improve his defensive technique in order for Trotz to fully trust him as a top-pair defenseman.
“I’m just working on little things technically, whether it’s with my feel or learning how to defend properly,” Pulock said. “Once I have the things in place, it’s a matter of building confidence.”
And developing into a foundation piece.