Ryan Pulock’s Rise to the Top

Perhaps overshadowed by Mathew Barzal’s brilliance and Calder Memorial Trophy-winning season, Ryan Pulock’s first full National Hockey League season was still an impressive one. Now, Pulock isn’t only looking to build off his rookie campaign but to become the go-to guy on the New York Islanders’ blue line.

Drafting Ryan Pulock

In 2013, the Islanders used the lockout-shortened season to their advantage, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. The result was a valiant effort but ultimately resulted in a 4-2 first-round exit to the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins.

The quick trip to the postseason gave the Islanders the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The draft, highlighted by Nathan MacKinnon who was chosen first overall by the Colorado Avalanche, featured several future stars including Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Drouin, and Seth Jones.

Pulock Brandon Wheat Kings
Ryan Pulock was taken with the fifteenth overall pick by the New York Islanders. (Shoot the Breeze Photography)

With the pick, the Islanders opted to select defenseman Ryan Pulock from the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. In his draft year, Pulock captained the Wheat Kings and scored 14 goals and 45 points in 61 games.

His biggest asset is and was his shot. “He does everything well,” Central Scouting’s Peter Sullivan told NHL.com before the draft. “He’s got the hardest shot I’ve seen in years. He’s so smart. The thing that’s even more impressive is I’ve seen him take seven or eight super hits — body checks and hip checks — laying guys into the boards. He’s got all the tools to be a top pick.”

How would his shot translate to the NHL level? Well, according to Sullivan his shot was more than NHL-ready. “He’s got one of the hardest shots not only in the Western Hockey League, but would have one of the hardest in the NHL,” Sullivan said. “Don’t laugh … it’s that good.”

Development Controversy

As expected, Pulock didn’t make the big club the following season and was returned to Brandon where he would once again captain the Wheat Kings. Pulock dominated in the WHL, scoring 23 goals and 63 points in 66 games with an additional two goals and four points in nine playoff games.

After his junior season, he joined the Islanders’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers to finish off their season. In a short three-game stint with Bridgeport, Pulock picked up one assist.

The next season, however, was Pulock’s first as a professional hockey player and he picked up where left off in Brandon, contributing 17 goals and 29 points in 54 games with the Sound Tigers. Despite the impressive numbers, he never appeared in an NHL game during the 2014-15 season. He was called up for a game in December, and despite participating in warmups for the game, he did not play. Even when the Islanders’ defensive core was depleted in their series against the Washington Capitals, Pulock still didn’t get a chance.

Ryan Pulock Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Ryan Pulock scored 39 goals and 100 points in 163 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL. (THW Archives)

Pulock made the team out of training camp in 2015 but a few days later he was loaned to the Sound Tigers without an NHL game to show for his time in Brooklyn. Back in Bridgeport, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound defenseman continued to dominate the competition, scoring seven goals and 24 points in 51 games before being called up to the Islanders on Feb. 22, 2016.

His long-awaited NHL debut had to wait a few more days but on Feb. 28, it finally happened. After that, he basically rotated in and out of the lineup with former Islanders defenseman Brian Strait. At the time, scratching Pulock seemed unjust. For example, in his eighth NHL game, Pulock scored his first NHL goal. The next two games, former head coach Jack Capuano made him a healthy scratch.

Pulock remained on the Islanders’ roster for the rest of the season and finished the regular season with two goals and four points in 15 games. Come playoff time, he began to show his true potential. The Dauphin, Manitoba native was an integral piece in the Isles’ Game 3 comeback against the Florida Panthers, where he showcased his tremendous shot off a one-timer on a 5-on-3 man advantage and soon after, joined the play to set up Shane Prince for a goal. In Game 4, he recorded another assist but also suffered an upper-body injury that kept him out for the remainder of the series.

Pulock returned for the final two games of the team’s second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning but the Bolts ended the Isles’ first trip to the second round in 23 years abruptly, defeating New York in just five games.

Coaches Reluctance

At this point, it was clear that Pulock was NHL-ready. He played well in the preseason but being waiver-exempt, sending him down to the minors was an easy decision for the Islanders’ management. Five games into the season, however, he was called up on an emergency basis and suited up for a game, playing just 3:57 before suffering a lower-body injury.

Once healthy, he was activated off the team’s injured reserve list and banished to Bridgeport for the remainder of the season where he scored 15 goals and 46 points in only 55 games. It was clear that he had surpassed the AHL competition but management kept him in the minors even when things were rough in Brooklyn.

The following season, Pulock was no longer waiver-exempt and so he made the roster out of training camp along with seven other defensemen. The 23-year-old was often the odd-man out on the crowded blue line and was a healthy scratch in the team’s first six games of the season.

Ryan Pulock (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even his season debut was forced. The Islanders’ power play was struggling, to the say the least, starting the season without a tally despite 20 opportunities. To try and fix that, Pulock was inserted into the lineup on Oct. 19 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden but as the seventh defenseman.

The team elected to dress 11 forwards and just 2:40 into the game, putting Pulock into the lineup paid off. On an early man advantage, Pulock took a shot that was stopped by Henrik Lundqvist but Anders Lee was able to put home the rebound for the team’s first power play goal of the season.

By the game’s end, Pulock only played a total of 8:43, the lowest amount of ice time of any player on either team. Of those minutes, 3:18 were on the power play which was tied for the most in the game. Despite doing what former head coach Doug Weight put him in the lineup to do, Pulock was a healthy scratch in two of the next three games, but again proved himself on Oct. 28 in Nashville, scoring a power play goal and adding two assists in the win.

Pulock’s Breakthrough

Ultimately, injuries are what allowed Pulock the opportunity to play. By January, the team’s blue line was thin with both Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan out for a significant amount of time. Because of this, he was able to prove that he can handle more minutes and still produce.

Perhaps his coming out party was on Jan. 20 in Chicago against the Blackhawks. The rookie defender registered five points (one goal, four assists) in a 7-3 win. According to Eric Hornick of NYISkinny, with his five-point night, Pulock broke the record for most points in a game by an Islanders rookie defenseman. He also became the 10th rookie defenseman to record five or more points in a single game in NHL history and the first since 2007.

His defensive game got better, he grew more confident, and by the season’s end, he was a top pairing defender averaging 20+ minutes a night. As it was before he was drafted, his biggest weapon was his shot. His ability to shoot through goaltenders is truly special to see. But there are other attributes he possesses that makes him such a good player. He can handle the puck extremely well, excelling at entering the zone on the power play, and he has a lot of skill for a blueliner.

Overall, Pulock finished his rookie season with 10 goals and 32 points in just 68 games. Eleven of those 32 points came on the power play. Amongst other rookie defenders around the league, Pulock finished third in points behind Will Butcher of the New Jersey Devils who had 44 in 81 games and Mikhail Sergachev of the Tampa Bay Lightning who had 40 in 79 games. Pulock’s 10 goals were the most by a rookie defender last season.

This summer, Pulock, a pending restricted free agent, agreed on a bridge deal with the Islanders that will pay him $4 million over the next two seasons.

Pulock’s Preseason Dominance

This preseason, expectations were high for Pulock. He was no longer a young prospect trying to make the team but a top defender preparing for a season where he should be playing upwards of 20 minutes a night. He didn’t disappoint. In five preseason games, he countered with five goals. The biggest takeaway from his preseason dominance is that he is no longer hesitant. Labeled as a slow starter in the past, he looks confident and not only ready to go for the upcoming season but poised to emerge as a top NHL defender.

“Every guy wants to fight for more minutes,” Pulock told Andrew Gross of Newsday. “I’m expecting to come in here and trying to prove that I can fill that role and play in all situations and play against the other team’s top lines. A goal of mine is to come in here and prove I can be a guy that’s relied on.”

With the team likely to start the season with eight defenders again this season, defensive pairings have been shuffled on a daily basis in practice and game situations. In the team’s final preseason game, Pulock was paired with Adam Pelech, Nick Leddy was paired with Thomas Hickey, and Devon Toews was paired with Boychuk. Scott Mayfield and Luca Sbisa, both on one-way deals, were healthy scratches.

Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock
Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock scored five goals in five preseason contests. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

Fans would prefer Pulock on the top pairing with Leddy but head coach Barry Trotz is trying the left-handed Leddy on the right side of the ice where he played in Chicago. Pelech and Pulock have been paired together for the last two preseason games and they compliment each other pretty well.

At 24-years-old, Pelech is a defensive-minded player while Pulock tends to join the rush and create offense. Both Leddy and Pulock are offensive-minded and usually, those kinds of pairings don’t work because if both of them get caught too deep in the offensive zone, they won’t be able to get back to prevent an odd-man rush. Regardless of who he is playing with, Pulock is ready to show not only the Islanders but the rest of the league that he is ready to take the NHL by storm.