By Jeff Capellini
Ryan Pulock will likely never see the AHL again.
The rookie defenseman is in the midst of a trial by fire in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and so far is more than holding his own.
After playing in 108 games over parts of three seasons with Bridgeport, Pulock saw 15 games with the Islanders, the majority coming over the last six weeks as New York scrambled to secure a postseason spot. In that time, he impressed head coach Jack Capuano enough to be trusted with 15 minutes of ice time a night through the first three games of their current series against the Florida Panthers.
He has shown so far that he has more than enough native ability and that the Isles using the No. 15 overall pick on him in the 2013 draft was, indeed, justified.
“You dream of it, to get that chance and that opportunity,” said Pulock, who won’t turn 22 until Oct. 6. “This year I spent a lot of time down and was able to come up the last month and a half. I learned a lot over that month and a half playing in some big situations, which has really helped down the stretch.”
The Isles have some givens along their blue line. Travis Hamonic, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk are bona fide first-pairing talents that play in all situations and are compensated well for doing so. The other three spots among the top six have been less defined. Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey are solid options that have earned their minutes with representative production over the last few seasons.
It’s the sixth spot that has been wide open for a long time. Or, had been wide open. Pulock appears to have secured his place with the Islanders for the foreseeable future. His development has likely put to bed the notion that general manager Garth Snow needs to go out and get a defenseman this offseason.
“He’s a young player. The points are great,” Capuano said of Pulock following Game 3 on Sunday at Barclays Center. “He’s still working on his game, he’s still working on his gap control, his play away from the puck. That’s what a lot of guys need to work on, and that’s what they’ve worked on. We know he’s got a big shot, we know he sees the ice well. But to me, he’s a lot more assertive now than when he first came, and that’s a good sign. As a young player in this league playing against some pretty good forwards down the stretch and in this series, he’s done well.”
Now, what Pulock’s emergence will mean for Adam Pelech, Brian Strait and Marek Zidlicky the rest of the way in the playoffs will likely depend on who stays healthy and who doesn’t. As for next season, if the Isles do ultimately grant Hamonic his wish and trade him west, the Isles could enter camp with Leddy, Boychuk, de Haan, Hickey, Pulock and Pelech as the assumed regulars, with just about anyone’s guess in the seventh spot.
That’s pretty solid when you consider Boychuk, who is 32 but does not have considerable wear on his tires, would be the elder statesman, with Hickey coming next at the ripe old age of 27. Every Islanders defenseman that figures to be in the mix next season is signed, with cornerstones Leddy and Boychuk in the fold through 2021-22.
When Pulock was drafted all you heard about was his cannon of a slapshot. Well, we finally saw it Sunday night when he beat Florida goalie Roberto Luongo clean to the stick side on a 5-on-3 power play midway through the second period. That goal got the Isles on the board not long after Capuano, with the aid of his video coach, changed the entire tenor of the game by challenging whether or not the Panthers were offsides prior to what likely would have been a back-breaking goal by defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
The Islanders won the challenge and a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 deficit went back to a more manageable two-goal hole. Pulock’s goal then started the Islanders toward one of the more impressive victories in a franchise postseason history filled with stirring comebacks and dramatics.
Even when Florida scored again quickly to go back up by two, the Isles’ body language didn’t suggest the game was over. They kept up their intensity and relentless pressure on Luongo, and Pulock was right in the middle of it all. Just past the midway point of the period, the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder capped a long possession in the Florida end by finding wide open Shane Prince in the slot. The young forward’s roof job sent the Panthers reeling as they took a penalty not long after that led to the Islanders’ tying the score on Frans Nielsen’s nifty backhander with 3:05 to play.
You know what happened from there. The Isles went on to win in overtime and now lead the series heading into what is for them a pivotal Game 4 on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. Sure, the Isles have some margin for error, but it’s advisable that they don’t make this a best-of-three with two games in Florida.
Pulock will continue to get his minutes, especially on the power play, in which his mere presence and shot accuracy is forcing the Panthers to respect the point. The more they jump out on him, the less they’ll have bodies down low to clear the generous rebounds Luongo tends to give up. And given the fact that the Isles are getting more and more traffic in front, it could lead to an increase in danger-area chances.
In the spirit of full disclosure, not everything about Pulock’s game currently screams can’t-miss future All-Star. He’s a good skater, but by no means a great one, yet. While he can make up for his lack of acceleration with his physicality, he has trouble in open ice against speedy forwards.
Reilly Smith, who has terrorized the Islanders throughout the first three games to the tune of four goals and eight points, turned Pulock inside out on the Panthers’ third goal on Sunday, driving wide on the rookie before getting off a backhand that forced Isles goalie Thomas Greiss to drift across the crease as he made the save. The ensuing scramble ended with Nick Bjugstad banging home a rebound, temporarily giving Florida reason to believe it would take the lead in the series into Game 4.
But for the time being, Pulock’s offensive upside will continue to outweigh his defensive deficiencies. If the idea is to build this kid up to the point where he becomes a big-club mainstay next season, the Isles are going to have to live with his shortcomings in the interim. Of course, if the situation becomes dire at any point in this series or in the later rounds, Capuano may have to think more about protecting Greiss and less about Pulock’s offensive prowess. Remember, the Isles have several defensemen who can play a 200-foot game.
But until that type of situation presents itself, Pulock will remain an all-situation option — and he’s enjoying every second of it.
“I think at this point right now, this is the best I’ve felt,” Pulock said. “Every game you get more comfortable, more confident … to be able to play here quite a bit lately, it’s really helped with that.”
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet