Disappointment might have sharpened Derrick Pouliot's focus for next season — when the wisdom of drafting him will likely be better revealed.
With Morgan Rielly out of the picture for much of the season due to knee surgery, Pouliot affirmed that he is the best offensive defenceman available out of the Western Hockey League. The 6-foot, 181-pound rearguard was fourth in defenceman scoring with 11 goals and 59 points while playing all 72 regular-season games and showed he could play a tidy defensive game despite his modest size. Pouliot also counted 17 points in 22 playoff contests, but it stung that Portland lost the WHL final in seven games to Edmonton.
One can picture Pouliot taking on an expanded role next season, when he could form a big three on the blueline with Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Joe Morrow and top 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones. Portland stands to lose ace centre Sven Bärtschi to the Calgary Flames organization, among others, adding motivation to stay near the top of the WHL for another year.
"We'll still have quite a few guys, good young guys," says Pouliot, who is NHL Central Scouting's 12th-ranked North American skater. "We have Seth Jones coming in, so I think we can still be up there."
Pouliot was the No. 1 overall pick in the WHL bantam draft in 2009 and has mostly lived up to expectations. The Weyburn, Sask., native wasted little time as a rookie showing that he had a rare playmaking ability, counting 30 points in 2010-11. That's comparable with what Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder Ryan Murphy put up (39 points) in the OHL at roughly the same age.
The 18-year-old says he needs a better shot to complement his passing skills and also needs to be more physical in the defensive zone, although his good feet and deft use of his stick have covered up for that so far at the junior level. Pouliot adds that his small-town Saskatchewan upbringing has increased his desire to be a good pro.
"Everywhere you went to play minor hockey was at least a hour's drive," he says. "It just made you appreciate it that much more, everything everyone was willing to do to help you reach your dreams."
1. How would you assess the way you played in the playoffs, with the Winterhawks again reaching the final but coming up shy?
"It was disappointing this year, especially with it being the second year that we were there. We had a good team and were confident. We had a good chance and let it slip away ... You just got to bring it every night. I felt like in Game 7, our team didn't have the best game [giving up the first four goals in a 4-1 loss]. You can't take nights off in the playoffs."
2. Whom in the NHL do you really watch for specific things?
"I kind of watch [Los Angeles Kings star] Drew Doughty. Great poise, great offensive abilities, good two-way guys. I try to be more intense and more aggressive like those guys are."
3. What are some specific components of the game you need to brush up on before you will be ready to turn pro?
"I need to work on my shot and be more of a threat on the power play. I have to work on my defensive play, being more aggressive on guys and more intense."
4. What teammates have had the greatest impact on you, not necessarily with the Winterhawks?
"Probably [NHL first-round picks] Sven Bärtschi [of Calgary] or Joe Morrow [of Pittsburgh], just seeing those guys go through the process. They both have unbelievable skill and hopefully they'll be in the NHL next year. Watching and learning from how hard they work has been a valuable experience."
5. Favourite road rink in the Dub?
"Seattle. It [the ShoWare Center] is a nice rink and they don't like us very much there. We play pretty well there."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.