Tucker Poolman came into Winnipeg Jets camp having undergone extensive shoulder surgery just months earlier, but you’d never know it watching him play. The 24-year-old defenseman from East Grand Forks has blazed an unusual trail to the pros. He was a walk-on with the NAHL in his 18-year-old season, then moved to the USHL where he was drafted at age 20 in the fifth round in 2013.
From there he spent one more season with the Omaha Lancers before moving on to the vaunted UND Fighting Hawks program. He shuffled back and forth between forward and defense with UND in his first season but became the team captain and their best defenseman by his last.
And now? Poolman has gone from being a draft day afterthought to one of the most promising prospects in the Jets’ system, and he’s forcing Paul Maurice to answer a tough question: what should the Jets do with him?
It was a question the Jets didn’t know they’d have to answer when they took Poolman 127th overall in 2013, but now his maturity, size, and poise have the Jets in a tough spot with the first-year pro.
Jets have 8 D left in camp…one is Tucker Poolman. Doubt he beats out Chiarot, but he's had a good camp.
— Tim Hiebert (@TimJHiebert) September 27, 2017
Some feel Poolman has done enough to earn a spot on the roster, even though there are a few things working against him from his age to his contract to the hand he shoots. But his preseason performance has been enough for some to suggest the Jets look past those things.
That Poolman is mature should be no surprise. He spent three years at UND, forgoing a chance to turn pro early in favor of a shot at another NCAA title, and he was an older player when he arrived there. Naturally, he’ll be far along his development curve. Few people including myself, however, expected him to be so effective in training camp and the exhibition series after dual offseason shoulder surgery.
When I saw Poolman last year, calling a game between his Fighting Hawks and the Manitoba Bison men, his maturity stood out. He was easily the best defenseman on the ice and combined smooth skating and puck movement with some big hits. He even chipped in a goal with a great shot through traffic from the point.
In the young stars tournament, he was easily the most pro-ready Jet. He was calm with the puck, was good on the rush, skated well, and played a physical game that he developed so well at UND; generally, he was a steadying force on the back end.
In exhibition games, he’s seemed poised and calm for the most part. His shots get through traffic well, he’s a smooth skater, and he plays the body effectively. At times he’s looked better than the established pros.
One of the under-rated things about Tucker Poolman's game is that he gets his shots from the point through to the net. There's another one
— Ken Wiebe (@WiebeSunSports) September 28, 2017
The question of whether Poolman could play for the Jets this year has been coming for some time, but his play of late has made the question more pressing. So, do the Jets send him to the AHL to season or give him the spot some feel he has earned in the NHL?
What’s Best for Poolman?
The deck was stacked against his chances of making the team before training camp started. For one thing, he’s a right-shooting defender on a team with a very deep right side. Which of the Jets’ established righties could he reasonably unseat?
And sure, a player who used to switch between d and forward probably wouldn’t be too bothered by switching to the left. But on the left side, the only player without an established contract is Josh Morrissey (who’s still on an ELC) and it’s hard to picture Poolman vaulting him on the depth chart.
Poolman might have played better in the preseason than Dmitry Kulikov, but Kulikov is an established NHLer whose contract essentially keeps him out of the press box unless he’s hurt or done something really bone-headed. Ditto for Toby Enstrom. Both will likely start with the team.
I don’t think there’s any question that Poolman has looked better than Ben Chiarot in the preseason. He certainly has a higher ceiling than Chiarot. But if the Jets are going to pick somebody to sit in the press box as a seventh defender, I’d rather it not be the young Poolman.He is still at the stage of his development where being in the AHL won’t hurt him and playing big minutes in the AHL will do better for him than playing hardly any in the NHL.
Ultimately, if the Jets were picking a team based solely on preseason performance, Poolman would have a spot. Then again, Brandon Tanev had a great preseason last year and that never translated into regular season success. Maybe the Jets are right to take Poolman’s exhibition game prowess with a grain of salt. His contract means he can go to the AHL with no consequences and if one of the regular Jets is injured (which, looking at the Jets’ d-core, seems likely) Poolman becomes an obvious call-up.
The Jets should and probably will send Poolman to the American league to test his mettle in the pros. Just don’t expect him to be gone long.