Tucker Poolman is planning to seize the moment.
The 26-year-old defenceman is heading into training camp with the opportunity to fill one of two gaping holes on the Winnipeg Jets' blue line after Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot found significantly greener pastures elsewhere in NHL free agency last month.
The native of East Grand Forks, Minn., who split last season between the Manitoba Moose and the American Hockey League club's injured list, would like to swap his Moose jersey for one bearing the Jets' logo for good. He played 24 games for the Jets in the 2017-18 campaign.
Poolman isn't planning to make any major revisions to the way he approaches his craft.
"On a personal level, it’s definitely exciting. But you still have to go out there and earn it. Show results, show what type of player you can be," he said Wednesday, during an informal skate at the Iceplex. "At the end of the day it’s just like my first two years trying to make it, taking care of my business and showing that I can do things on a consistent basis."
The 6-4, 215-pound mobile blue-liner, who missed Manitoba’s final eight games of the 2018-19 regular season with an ankle injury, spent the spring and early summer healing up at home and resumed skating in early July. He arrived in Winnipeg about 10 days ago and will skate daily for a couple of weeks before enjoying a week at home ahead of camp next month.
Winnipeg has six veteran D-men in the fold: Dustin Byfuglien and Neil Pionk, both right-handed, and Josh Morrissey, Nathan Beaulieu, Dmitry Kulikov and Anthony Bitetto, all left shooters. Cash is tight, and with forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor still to be signed it’s unlikely general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff can shop for defensive help at this stage of the off-season.
That adds to Poolman's attractiveness; he's a right-shot defenceman who is in the second year of a three-year contract (average annual value of US$775,000).
A cheap price tag doesn’t guarantee employment with the big club, but sound reads and physical play in the defensive zone, sharp passes and heady offensive decisions certainly help as he battles Sami Niku, a skilled but slight, left-shot blue-liner, and the journeyman Bitetto for work on the third pairing.
Poolman, a fifth-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, demonstrated a simple but effective approach during a small sample size in 2017-18 when he replaced then-injured and now-departed Jacob Trouba. But his development was likely hampered some because he had a regular seat in the press box for weeks at a time instead of performing in the AHL.
“(Myers and Chiarot) are great guys. When I played with them they were so helpful as veteran guys, talking to me and just being able to watch them work. They were great to learn from. Sitting next to them in the locker room, talking about whatever it might be, you just glean things from every conversation. I just enjoy being around guys like that.” — Tucker Poolman
In his second pro season, Poolman suited up for just 43 games with the Jets’ minor-league affiliate — shelved for nearly two months due to the lingering effects of a concussion and whiplash suffered Nov. 23, and later the ankle trouble – but still earned the team award for "best defender."
Neck pain was a greater concern than any cognitive symptoms, he said.
"It was my first concussion. It was more of a stiff neck for a few months and it just wouldn’t let go. I was with a chiropractor and saw a few doctors. It was a weird thing. Other than that, I felt really good after, no problems reading or watching TV," he said. "It’s tough not being healthy enough to go out there and play."
He was finally cleared to return to the ice on Jan. 12, and Moose head coach Pascal Vincent gave him plenty of responsibility. He was used in all situations and averaged about 20 minutes of ice time per game paired with Logan Stanley or Cam Schilling.
In mid-March, following a 5-4 overtime loss to the Texas Stars, Vincent said, "Tucker Poolman was playing like he was in the wrong league. He was outstanding."
The former University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks standout had a pair of assists that night, and was in the midst of registering two goals and five assists in seven contests.
"It was just good to be playing again," said Poolman. "I thought I developed and got better throughout the year. It was about the minutes and playing in all situations, compared to the year before. You can work on so much when you’re playing, and you have a little more leash to do things and see your limits. You’re playing so much, you get more confident, you make more plays and you get better."
Poolman said he credits the very men he hopes to help replace with aiding in his NHL readiness.
"(Myers and Chiarot) are great guys. When I played with them they were so helpful as veteran guys, talking to me and just being able to watch them work. They were great to learn from," he said.
"Sitting next to them in the locker room, talking about whatever it might be, you just glean things from every conversation. I just enjoy being around guys like that."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).