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Poolman making waves after injury

Moose defenceman earns quality minutes

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Tucker Poolman missed 17 games while recovering from a concussion/whiplash sustained in a collision during a Nov. 23 against the Iowa Wild.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Tucker Poolman missed 17 games while recovering from a concussion/whiplash sustained in a collision during a Nov. 23 against the Iowa Wild.

The process of turning Tucker Poolman into an everyday NHL defenceman took a major hit earlier this season, when he missed 17 games while recovering from a concussion/whiplash injury.

More recently, the 25-year-old from East Grand Forks, Minn., has started to thrive as a second-year pro. He’s been anchoring the Manitoba Moose blue line while earning praise for his steady all-round play.

Poolman has three goals and 15 points in 27 AHL games this season. His 15 consecutive games played heading into Friday’s matchup with the visiting Chicago Wolves was the longest such streak in his pro career.

But two months ago, Poolman’s outlook wasn’t quite as rosy. A collision during a Nov. 23 game against the Iowa Wild resulted in an injury that wouldn’t go away until he was finally cleared to return to the ice on Jan. 12 against the Laval Rocket. In between, it was almost two months of limited skating and gym workouts while he struggled to become pain-free.

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The process of turning Tucker Poolman into an everyday NHL defenceman took a major hit earlier this season, when he missed 17 games while recovering from a concussion/whiplash injury.

More recently, the 25-year-old from East Grand Forks, Minn., has started to thrive as a second-year pro. He’s been anchoring the Manitoba Moose blue line while earning praise for his steady all-round play.

Poolman has three goals and 15 points in 27 AHL games this season. His 15 consecutive games played heading into Friday’s matchup with the visiting Chicago Wolves was the longest such streak in his pro career.

But two months ago, Poolman’s outlook wasn’t quite as rosy. A collision during a Nov. 23 game against the Iowa Wild resulted in an injury that wouldn’t go away until he was finally cleared to return to the ice on Jan. 12 against the Laval Rocket. In between, it was almost two months of limited skating and gym workouts while he struggled to become pain-free.

"After about a week, I felt pretty good and sharp up top. But I’d get on the ice, though, and I’d do something and it would trigger my neck," Poolman said Friday morning. "My neck would get all tight. It just slowly got less and less severe until I was good to go."

Poolman’s physical woes have been a microcosm of Manitoba’s season.

On Dec. 15, for instance, Poolman, Nic Kerdiles, C.J. Suess, JC Lipon, Seth Griffith, Skyler McKenzie, Luke Green and Ryan White were all sidelined with injuries, and Tye McGinn was suspended. It was no surprise, then, that the team was 11-16-2-0 and an afterthought in the post-season conversation prior to the Christmas break.

Since his return, the Moose have used Poolman in all situations, and he is averaging around 20 minutes of ice time per game while paired with rookie pro Logan Stanley or AHL veteran Cam Schilling.

Meanwhile, the Moose had gone 12-5-1-2 since the break and, prior to Friday’s game, were three points out of a playoff berth. Poolman has been a big part of the turnaround.

"He’s a real mature guy," Moose head coach Pascal Vincent said. "We did talk, but not that much. He showed up to the rink, we asked him how he felt and how he was doing — (it finally) felt good. It was not easy, and he has not played a whole lot of minutes in the last few years, so it’s important for us to play him as much as we can. To stay healthy is a big piece of his development."

Poolman had reconstructive surgery on both shoulders following his junior season at the University of North Dakota, and once his rehab was completed, split the 2017-18 season between the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets (24 games) and the Moose (17 games).

His shoulders, Poolman said, are feeling fine. And his neck feels right, too.

"In juniors and college, I learned to just show up every day and not worry," said Poolman, who signed a three-year, US$2.325-million deal with the Jets in the off-season. "I think I’m getting games right now, and I’d love to play a whole year, but things happen. Lately, I think I’ve been playing some good hockey.

"I feel pretty good out there. I feel like it took a few games after taking those two months off, just trying to get healthy."

On Friday, the Jets announced veteran blue-liner Joe Morrow would miss as many as three weeks with a lower-body injury, and called up Moose D-man Sami Nikku.

Poolman, who was also a top candidate for promotion, said he doesn’t fret about the possibility of being involved in a deal prior to the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 25.

"Sure, every guy watches TV and knows what’s going on," he said. "(I don’t worry) too much, but everyone knows where the big club’s at and things like that. I don’t let it ruin my day."

DEVELOPMENT PLAN: left-winger Jansen Harkins is another Moose player showing improvement in his sophomore pro season.

Harkins has 18 points, including 10 goals, in 45 games and has earned a spot on the club’s second line with centre Michael Spacek and right-winger Lipon.

"I think production’s up recently," Harkins, 21, said.

"It just kinda comes, I think, from getting good ice time and confidence in myself. I think that’s the biggest thing at this level, especially moving forward."

Winnipeg’s second-round (47th overall) pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft admitted his rookie season wasn’t easy, including a six-game demotion to Jacksonville of the ECHL at mid-season.

"It was kinda unexpected — I wasn’t ever expecting to go there," Harkins said. "They thought it would be good for me and, obviously, I’ve gotta do what they say and trust what they say. I just went there and tried to prove myself. They gave me a timeline, which helps."

After a two-week stay, he was back in the AHL.

"Like we told (goaltender Mikhail) Berdin this year — we’re just being honest with the player," Vincent said. "Those young players need to play. Like we told him last year, if he would have been 27, 28 years old in the American league, we’d probably keep him here and play him low minutes and that would be his role. But we have expectations for him and we feel he needs to play."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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History

Updated on Friday, February 15, 2019 at 6:53 PM CST: Adds Niku detail.

6:55 PM: Adds Niku detail

February 16, 2019 at 7:28 AM: Final

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