Ryan Pulock enters the 2018-19 season with 86 NHL games under his belt, a total that should be higher if he was permitted to spend 2016-17 where he belonged. Despite playing fewer than 100 games, he might already be considered the best defenseman on the Islanders.
Five years removed from his draft, Pulock has spent a few seasons developing his craft up and down the Isles’ organization, as management and staff feared for his game beyond his offensive ability and booming shot. Last season was his first full NHL campaign, and his rookie season didn’t disappoint, even if it was overshadowed a bit by the kid who won the Calder.
He reached double-digits in goals with 10 (leading rookie defensemen), and added 22 assists over 68 games. Just under half a point a game from the back end is impressive for guy playing his first full season, though hardly surprising. In 2016-17 - the year he should’ve been in the NHL but got hurt in the one NHL game he played, and was never called back up when he was healthy - he recorded 46 points over 55 games with the Sound Tigers. Any worries that his offensive game would not translate from juniors to the pros have been blasted away not only by the cannon he can fire, but his slick passing game, as well.
And it’s that passing skill that feeds his defensive prowess, helping him escape the defensive zone with control and with ease. He led Isles defensemen in CF%Rel with a strong +4.2; the next closest defenseman to play more than 25 games was Adam Pelech at +0.8, much less effective. And at one point in February, he was in the top 20 in the NHL in shot suppression, according to James Duffy. I’ve scoured the Internet, and I can’t seem to find reliable end-of-the-season stats on shot suppression, but if someone out there reading has found a solid source, please send it my way. While we wait, we can assume that, based on his excellent CorsiRel, this trend didn’t buck.
The most exciting part of his rookie season is that it was his rookie season. He turns 24 one month from today - assuming a player’s prime is 25, he has not yet peaked.
And yesterday’s birthday boy, HockeyGoalieEh, best described the conditions that Pulock superseded last season, from the article that announced Pulock ranked #2 in the LHH Top 25U25:
Minute-per-minute, Pulock was one of the best defensemen in the NHL last year. He was able to do that with a coach that had the defensive I.Q. of a kumquat. He should be stellar this year - potentially an all-star.
Now that Pulock has a Real NHL Coach™ that understands how defense works, he should thrive - not only on natural ability, but because the other defensemen on the team that should be good, like Nick Leddy, will hopefully experience great improvements from last season, as well.
Not to mention, if he is tossed the keys to the top power play unit, his scoring totals will continue to rise. Hell, even if he doesn’t quarterback the top unit, I can see him eclipsing last season’s marks and even pulling All-Star duty.
To answer the initial question, yes, I do think this will be Ryan Pulock’s breakout season. He is going to make himself a known commodity throughout the league as he pushes 50 points with at least 15 goals if he gets top power play time, and he will uphold his excellence in his own end by continuing to keep it out of his own end. I predict he will, once again, be the best defenseman on the Islanders, whether he plays with Leddy or Thomas Hickey or anyone else. He will also solidify himself as one of the top overall defensemen throughout the entire NHL.