In a move that excites fans and which many fans claim is long overdue, the New York Islanders have recalled defenseman Ryan Pulock from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL. The move became expected after Calvin de Haan was placed on IR yesterday.
[Note: Mikhail Grabovski, though not on IR, also did not make the start of the trip, per Arthur Staple of Newsday.]
Because of his booming shot and offensive production in juniors and in his rookie pro season in 2014-15, there is a vocal segment of fans who wanted him recalled yesteryear.
Because of his age (21) and a desire to develop the defensive side of his game before throwing him into the NHL fire, the Islanders waited to recall him, instead using members of Bridgeport's top "shutdown" pair of Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield when previous injury situations required.
Neither position is unfounded.
The Isles since the mixed experiences of Nino Niederreiter and Josh Bailey have tended to "over-ripen" prospects, Detroit-style, arguably to a fault. But the defensive side is notoriously the most nuanced part of a blueliner's game to hone at the NHL level, and it's far from unusual for an NHL franchise to avoid rushing a 20- or 21-year-old defenseman to the NHL. (People tend to forget that because of Pulock's birthdate, he had only one post-draft year in juniors. Some also forget he missed development time last season with a shoulder injury.)
In these cases it's always tough to compare more than anecdotal evidence -- that's why fans who haven't seen the kid play focus solely on AHL points, because it's something concrete, something to hang a hat (and management) on -- but it's instructive to keep in mind cases like Justin Schultz. That offensive NCAA defenseman refused to sign with Anaheim and became the target of a free agent bidding war won by Edmonton, who now is trying to cast him away to whomever will take him after three-plus seasons and 250 NHL games of periodic offensive wizardry mixed with defensive incompetence.
So what we know from the Isles' perspective, and from Pulock's and other observers, is the Isles have seen Pulock's offense as a near-given but his defense as a work in progress that continued through this winter, accelerating after the recalls of Mayfield and Pelech and the long-term injury to the latter.
From Jack Capuano, in today's Isles day-by-day blog:
"He possesses a big shot which we know and he can get up into the play," Jack Capuano said. "To me it’s about how you defend."
Capuano and the Islanders wanted Pulock to develop his play away from the puck this season adding another dimension to his game.
"He’s had a good attitude," Capuano said. "He’s improved his game in a lot of areas that we talked about coming out of training camp. Everybody has to play without the puck. He has to play physical, he has to play down low hard. When you get to this level the difference for a defenseman is the ability to play in your own end."
From Pulock himself, in the same:
"That’s an area of my game that I’ve really improved these last couple of months in Bridgeport. I’ve been getting more time on the PK and in those big situations late in games. It’s really helped me grow as a player and even my confidence as well."
"Ryan Pulock is taking huge steps right now," coach Brent Thompson said. "At the beginning of the year, he was getting his feet underneath him, getting the pace back. Right now, he’s playing with pace. He’s assertive. He’s moving the puck."
Thompson said Pulock has been getting his shot off better, and he’s not just talking about the ginormous slapper that devastated the AHL last year.
"He still needs to work on staying low," Thompson said. "He can’t lose that D-side positioning."
And then there's this from prospect watcher Corey Pronman of ESPN, who has followed and updated his position on Pulock since before he was drafted, and said Pulock's pace had improved this season but his defense was still a question:
In terms of his NHL readiness, I see a stronger argument for Pulock than where I was 6 months ago.— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) February 22, 2016
There are no numbers to these assessments, nothing to easily support or refute them other than the watchful eye. But the Islanders' approach to this prospect is far from unusual -- and the careful development is probably far from over. In any case, multiple perspectives, including his own, say he's much more ready for NHL duty now than he was before this winter.
If this is your first real look at Pulock outside of some exhibition games and AHL video, there's your scouting report. (And it's impossible to have any discussion of the Islanders future on D at this point without thinking of how important it is they find a replacement for fellow right-shooting Travis Hamonic, who is expected to be traded at his request this summer.)
So maybe he gets a game or two on this trip and sticks in the lineup; maybe he gets the same and only keeps his name in the picture as the new 7th/8th guy when rosters expand after the trade deadline. Or maybe he plays, doesn't quite shine, and goes back to Bridgeport for more ice time.
That's not the worst thing. He's 21.