Who is this guy?
What are they saying about him?
In reading up on Pouliot I discovered there are 3 or 4 different versions of him floating around the internet. First there is the pre-Draft National media version which questions his consistency, his small stature, and his defensive play. These seem to be the ones that most frequently compare him to Brian Campbell and suggest he project to be a #3/4 D. Then there are the Pittsburgh fans and media version which is based mostly on the outdated pre-Draft profiles from 2 years ago. They often compare him, perhaps a bit unfavorably, to former Penguins such as Alex Goligoski and Ryan Whitney. They feel that he is a pretty one-dimensional offensive PP specialist that while a Top 5 D isn't particularly special on his own. I saw him as more of a Sergei Gonchar type player, capable of logging big minutes but mostly being an offensive specialist, but then I read even more about him.
The third version is the Pouliot seen by those most familiar with his play in the WHL, and that would include the Penguins staff that have been scouting Portland for the past few seasons now and seen how dynamic he truly is. I said 3 or 4 versions, because while the first two groups in particular mostly gave up on him after seeing his rookie season and based all future assessments on that, there are those that have been tracking his growth over the past 3 seasons, and much of what was said about him is already getting better. His size, while he will never be a huge imposing Defenseman, neither is Kris Letang, another player he has occasionally been compared to. But complaints about not being an ideal NHL size are pretty much par for the course with 18 year old prospects, and he has already added 10 pounds of muscle over the past year. And defensively, his play in his own zone has improved steadily over the past 2 seasons and he is starting to develop into a pretty solid two-way D, although as Hockey's Future's Ian Altenbaugh points out "He will need to continue to improve his defensive play, but his game will always be predicated around creating offensive chances and taking some degree of risk."
The praise for his offensive play is pretty much universally positive. WHL From Above said prior to the Draft that "When compared to the other defenceman in the draft, Pouliot might have the most offensive potential going forward" and Scouting Report said he was "Considered by many scouts as one of the purest skaters in the draft." That is pretty high praise considering the fact that 2012 was the "Year of the Defensemen" and saw big names like his fellow WHL prospects Ryan Murray, Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, and Mathew Dumba. Those in the know consider him to be a Top 3 D and 1st Unit PP Quarterback. There have been some lofty comparisons tossed out as well, with people following the WHL and tracking his growth over the past few seasons now speculating he is more similar to Nicklas Lidstrom, Drew Doughty, Scott Niedermayer, or Tomas Kaberle. I think Lidstrom might be a bit of a reach, but he certainly has grown as a total defenseman over the years so the other 3 might be a good prediction.
Where has he been?
Pouliot spent the past 3 seasons playing for the WHL Portland Winterhawks, who drafted him #1 overall in 2009. His rookie season he got partnered with former Penguins D prospect Joseph Morrow. He didn't put up mind-blowing numbers, but he was the #1 rookie D on the team in Goals, Points, and Plus/Minus for both the regular season and the playoffs, and that season was the first time in 10 years that Portland had reached the WHL Finals. That season he also played for Canada Western in the World Hockey Championships U17, finishing tied for 1st on his team in Assists and tied for 1st amongst all D on his team in total Points, and being named to the tournament All-Star team.
His 2nd season he was once again paired up with Morrow, and now as the top D pair on the team they were given free reign to make plays, and Pouliot was given control of the top PP unit. Pouliot finished the season as the #2 scoring D on the team, just behind his partner Morrow, and during the playoffs managed to tie his point total to share the spotlight as the #1 scoring D on the team. Portland made it to the WHL Finals for the 2nd year in a row, but once again fell short. He also participated in the CHL Top Prospects Game, getting an assist on the game winning goal, and while he was not named to the World Junior U18 roster that year he did represent Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in which he tied for the 3rd highest scoring D on the team and finished with the highest Plus/Minus on the entire squad, with Canada bringing home the Gold medal.
His 3rd season he was back to lead the blue line without his long time partner Morrow, and while it was speculated that he would be paired up with 18 year old rookie phenom Seth Jones, but they went a different route and Pouliot played alongside Captain Troy Rutkowski. Pouliot focused on expanding his play at both ends of the ice last season, and while he still remained an offensive threat and anchored the top PP unit, he also expanded his skill set by seeing time on the PK, often playing alongside Tyler Wotherspoon. Pouliot was off to a stellar pace last year, but suffered an ankle sprain and missed a sizable chunk of the season, and after struggling a bit when he returned he managed to finish strong.
Despite playing in just 44 games he scored at just over a Point per Game pace and finished as the #3 D in Goals, Points, and Plus/Minus. During the playoffs he came back with a vengeance and finished as the #1 D in Points, and #8 amongst all skaters, in the entire WHL. Continuing his dominance playing against the league's elite he finished as the #1 D in Points, and #6 amongst all skaters, in the Memorial Cup. Portland won the WHL Championship and made it all the way to the Memorial Cup Final, the first time the team had done either since winning it all in 1998, and Pouliot was named to the Memorial Cup All-Star Team.
When can we expect to see him?
Most sources suggest that the only thing holding Pouliot back from getting his first look in the NHL this season is the Pens Salary Cap and roster space situation. Already $1M over the Cap and with 8 D on the roster there is no reasonable way to get him into the league this year. However, both the Penguins and Pouliot have said it is not necessary to rush his development, so another year tearing up the WHL would be good for him. Depending on how the Cap and roster situation unfolds next season he could very well make his NHL debut then. However, as there is no need to rush him he could wind up starting out in the AHL where he could play as one of the top D and quarterback their top PP unit until they are certain he is adjusted to playing at the professional level, possibly even moving up part way through the season. But I would be extremely shocked if he wasn't in the NHL by 2015-16.
Why is he #1?
Pouliot received 5 votes for 1st, 1 vote for 2nd, 1 vote for 7th, and 2 votes for 8th. Not that it has any bearing on our rankings, but Hockey's Future and reportedly the Penguins internal rankings have also had him as the #1 Penguins prospect for the past 2 years.
How can he climb the list?
He is already at the top, so now he needs to work on staying there. One of the biggest disappointments last year was his failure to make the World Junior Championships, so playing for Team Canada this year would do a lot to cement his place at the top. Also, while he was on pace to lead the league last year, injury slowed him down, so if he can remain healthy this year he could bring home a boat load of hardware to show that he is one of the best D around. And of course the usual complaints, needing to get stronger and bigger to compete in the NHL and needing to continue to improve his defensive play in his own zone. And lastly that elusive Memorial Cup.