A lot of college-aged adults tick off a lot of firsts around 20 or 21. First true love. First apartment. Skydiving for the first time. First hangover. First trip abroad.
Sam Poulin recently experienced this. Widely considered Pittsburgh’s best forward, he was knocked out last month for the first time in his life.
“I just took it as a learning experience and a wake-up call. I knew I had to get my game back and I wasn’t bringing enough to the table,” he said last week.
It would be both the low point and the turning point of Poulin’s first season as a professional, although there is still a lot of work to be done to make it to the NHL.
By September, the door had been left open for Poulin to make the Penguins with a solid training camp. He was indistinguishable from a group of deep attackers. But the feedback was positive when he was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Don’t consider it a setback, they told him. Most NHL players go this route, including all the guys with their pictures hanging in the lobby of the Coal Street practice rink in Wilkes-Barre – including Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray.
Poulin had an assist in his first game in the American Hockey League and scored his first goal two weeks later. But as the fall continued, so did his struggles.
On the ice, he quickly realized that many AHL players were big, fast and strong, and he couldn’t get away with certain tactics that helped him dominate inferior athletes during his outstanding career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Off the ice, he struggled with personal issues that he wouldn’t discuss in a phone interview with the Post-Gazette. Living alone was also an adjustment. Not only did he have to fend for himself, but he had idle hands. When he was at home or living with his junior host family, there was always something going on.
“I’ve never been someone who stayed home and watched Netflix all day,” he said. “It was a rush to set up my apartment. As soon as it calmed down, I realized I had a lot of free time to kill. I really wasn’t used to that.”
Poulin eventually got into the kitchen, cooking meals for his roommate Felix Robert, his former junior teammate and occasional teammate with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and himself. Poulin, a music lover who dabbled in DJing in the past, started “mixing tunes” in their apartment. He also enrolled in a college class.
Poulin, who turned 21 on Friday, reports he is now in better mental condition.
“Once I started to deal with those things better, things on the ice became a lot easier. I noticed a huge difference and things are much better now,” said Poulin.
Poulin has four goals and three assists in his first 21 games. And he’s seen a few other Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forwards getting calls in Pittsburgh because of him.
One of them was Valtteri Puustinen, who was drafted 182 picks after him in 2019.
Around New Years, he was rated minus-8 over a four-game span. After his gruesome Jan. 7 giveaway led to a goal in a loss, coach JD Forrest sat him down.
“I saw it coming. Before that, I wasn’t playing good hockey and I knew it,” he said, before admitting, “I could have been scratched a few games before that.
Since then, Poulin picked it up. He wanted to simplify things and he thinks that has been a big help. He also settled into the center after often skating on the wing in the first half of the season. He feels that when he’s playing it, he’s on the move more often and engaged in battles on both sides of the rink.
“What makes you a good player is when you make smarter decisions than others. I just realized that,” Poulin said of the AHL. overwhelming. So everybody works their balls. You have to contribute or you won’t get the puck or you won’t be in the game. Those are the most important things I’ve done.
The former first-round pick had at least one point in 10 of the first 15 games after being eliminated healthy. He had a few scoreless games over the past week.
Additionally, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are winning more often after a slow start to the season. They won Tuesday and Wednesday to stay in playoff contention.
Poulin is having fun and not worrying about a possible call-up from Pittsburgh.
“My head is not in the NHL. I don’t think about that,” he said. “We are fighting for a playoff spot. Of course, that’s my number 1 intention. … I’m just here to be the best player I can be, to improve and learn from the mistakes I make.