By Daniel Friedman
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The New York Islanders might just have themselves a goaltender in Kevin Poulin.
Much of the fan base has been clamoring for Isles’ GM Garth Snow to trade for one, but there’s a legitimate possibility that won’t be necessary.
Poulin has made seven starts, going 2-5-0 while posting a 2.45 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. Those numbers would be even better if he had a semi-competent defense in front of him and don’t let his record fool you either; he has definitely played well enough to win more than two games.
That’s something Islanders’ head coach Jack Capuano alluded to after last night’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. It’d be a stretch to say Poulin was brilliant against the Kings, but several of his 21 saves were huge ones.
He made his best pair of stops early in the third period, denying Mike Richards on a shorthanded breakaway just 28 seconds in and then robbing Jake Muzzin with a phenomenal glove save at the 1:13 mark.
L.A. ratcheted up the intensity in that third period and, unfortunately, the Isles turtled and wound up digging their own grave. They surrendered three goals in the final twenty minutes of the game and only one of those was Poulin’s fault.
On Tuesday night, the Islanders ended their four-game losing streak by defeating the Nashville Predators at the Coliseum. In that 3-1 victory, Poulin stopped 32 shots fired in his direction, including a dandy on Eric Nystrom (son of Islander legend Bobby) in the first period.
It’s important not to evaluate progress solely based on wins and losses, a theory Poulin subscribes to: “Win or lose, sometimes you just have to focus on what you do.”
What Kevin Poulin’s been able to do this season — in most of his starts, anyways — is keep the Isles in hockey games and give them a chance to win.
To a certain extent, Evgeni Nabokov had been doing that as well, but in a different and not necessarily as proactive manner. He’d made most of the saves he needed to but, if and when the defense faltered, the opposition usually scored.
Conversely, ever since Poulin’s been entered into that same desperate situation, he’s been able to stop pucks when least expected to. He’s made saves that, at 38-years-of-age, Nabokov simply cannot anymore.
He hasn’t stolen any wins yet but, to be fair, he’s also only played in seven games.
The fact is, Poulin has bailed out the defense a number of times and so their margin for error isn’t nearly as slim when he’s between the pipes. That said, it’s up to Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald and the rest of that defensive corps to bear down at key points in the game and, all too often, that simply hasn’t happened.
You can only ask your goaltender to do so much and, right now, the 23-year-old Poulin is doing more than was asked and, very likely, more than was expected of him. It’s easy to look at his stats and conclude that they’re run-of-the-mill, but factor in the context and you’ll see there’s more to it.
If that’s not enough for you, then consider the following: Jonathan Quick’s goals-against averages in his first two years were 2.48 and 2.54, respectively. Ryan Miller’s were 2.60 and 2.73, Carey Price’s were 2.56 and 2.83, and Tomas Vokoun’s were 2.95 and 2.78.
Poulin has played 28 games in the NHL and, in that time, has a 2.67 goals-against average and .913 save percentage; numbers that are fairly-comparable to the ones recorded by those aforementioned goaltenders. The stats suggest that declaring Poulin a bust is extremely premature.
The bottom line is that a lot of people gave up on Kevin Poulin too soon and, given that he’s done a lot of good things within a small sample size, I felt it was unjustified.
His recent injuries and well-documented struggles in the AHL basically made everyone forget about anything positive he’d accomplished before that point. While that’s somewhat of a natural reaction, I still thought it was a bit short-sighted.
Throw in the fact that he was shaky in his first couple of starts this season and, for those who already doubted him, that only served to reinforce their belief that Poulin was not NHL-material.
Faster than you can say “Eric Fichaud,” many declared Poulin to be a bust. Might as well just box him up, get him to the post office and ship him out of town. Bring up Anders Nilsson because he’s the future and trade the kitchen sink away for a big-time goalie.
Or, you could entertain the possibility that, like many young players, Poulin was struggling but that his potential was still highly-evident and that, given a bit of time and put in the right situation, he’d sort out the kinks and break through.
That is precisely what has occurred here. Poulin’s been able to get into a rhythm and build some momentum, and has rewarded the organization for their patience. “Right now, I’m playing with confidence,” he iterated. “I’ve been playing a lot lately so it’s helped me a lot. I’ve felt more comfortable.”
If you ask Capuano and Co. what they think of Poulin, they’ll tell you they believed in Poulin all along. “My perception of Kevin — and our coaching staff’s — has never changed,” said Capuano. “We know what he can do, we’ve seen enough of him develop in Bridgeport and how he competes and in the games he was here last year.”
The Islanders are in a bit of a hole right now and will ride anyone who can help them climb out of it. On Thursday morning, Capuano acknowledged that Poulin was one such player, but that he has to keep it up:
“The fact that he’s got a few starts, he’s gotta realize it’s been deserved,” said Capuano. “It’s up to him now to continue to play well. If you’ve got a guy that’s playing well like we did last year (Nabokov), you’re gonna keep playing that guy.”
Islander fans, of all people, should be quite aware of what can happen when you give up on a young player and especially when that player is a goaltender.
Thirteen years ago, a young Roberto Luongo went 7-14-1 in 24 games for the Isles, sporting a 3.24 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. He’d just turned 21-years-old as the season was winding down.
Mike Milbury, who was the team’s GM at the time, had criticized Luongo throughout the 1999-2000 campaign and grew increasingly impatient. At the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, Milbury traded him to the Florida Panthers, along with some other 22-year-old kid named Olli Jokinen. Subsequently, Milbury drafted Rick DiPietro with the first overall pick in that same draft.
I don’t think I need to go much further.
People shouldn’t have been upset with Garth Snow and the coaching staff for giving Poulin a shot to prove himself before opting to blow it all up and make alternative plans, nor should they have decided that he was already washed up.
As Poulin’s starting to show, Patrick Roy just might’ve been on to something when he suggested the kid had a bright future.
During training camp, I asked Poulin what his goals were for the season. The one thing he kept mentioning was that he wanted prove himself and was ready to do so: “I want to be here, I want to play in the NHL,” he told me. “I know I can play here. I don’t wanna just play every once in a while anymore. I want to play a lot of games.”
The Islanders are certainly giving Poulin every opportunity to emerge as their go-to guy. They’re going to see what they have in him and, for now, that’s the right approach. If Poulin can establish himself, there won’t be any need to make a move for a Ryan Miller or Jonas Hiller.
Now, that of course is a best case scenario, but one which perhaps allows the Isles to have a little more flexibility to trade assets in order to retool their blue line instead. New York’s defense (or lack thereof) has been a far more pressing issue.
The question of whether or not Kevin Poulin is a franchise goaltender will be answered in due time. What we do know is that he has an immense amount of potential and more than enough talent to be an effective puck-stopper at this level.
He’s coming through in the clutch for the Islanders at a critical juncture giving the team (and its fans) reason to be optimistic. In terms of effecting the outcome of a hockey game, Poulin’s arguably just as important to this team as John Tavares right now.
What’s the secret to his recent success? Confidence. Pure confidence.
“I’ve always said he’s got a little swagger and attitude about him,” Capuano remarked. “You have to have that when you’re the last line of defense.”
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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