Wednesday, April 23, 2014

So Far, So Good - Emile Poirier's Bright Future

Emile Poirier’s favourite player growing up was Alexei Kovalev and despite being drafted 22 years apart and born over 7,700 kilometers apart from his idol, they are a lot alike.

The Calgary Flames can only hope when all is said and done, their career NHL numbers will also end up being similar.

For example:
  • Both were first round picks – Kovalev selected 15th overall by the Rangers in 1991, Poirier drafted 22nd overall by the Flames last June.
  • Both are 6-foot-1
  • Both are left-handed shots that play right wing
  • Both are frisky competitors on the ice. Kovalev piled up over 1,300 PIM in his career. Poirier had 129 PIM in 63 games this past season in Gatineau.

Kovalev played his first NHL game at age 19, which is the same age as Poirier will be at the start of next season. By the time he played his final NHL game -- two days shy of his 40th birthday, the talented Russian had appeared in 1,316 NHL games, scoring 430 goals and racking up 1,029 points.

Yes, no kidding the Flames would be very happy should Poirier’s career end up resembling that.

A Soft Spot for Montreal

Poirier became a Kovalev fan when he signed with his hometown Canadiens in 2005. Poirier was 10 years old at the time. He spent four seasons with Montreal and was the leading scorer for the final two.

As you’d expect from someone born and raised in Montreal, who had the chance to attend five or six games live every year, Poirier was a huge fan of le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. In fact, Poirier admits he still has a “little bit” of a soft spot for the Canadiens today.

That was a good game, real fun to watch,” said Poirier, when I caught up with him via telephone in his hotel room Tuesday night, shortly after the Habs completed their four-game sweep of Tampa Bay.

Although, he admitted he had some mixed emotions on this particular night considering Cedric Paquette, the Lightning player in the penalty box when Max Pacioretty scored the winning goal, is a buddy of his from back home that he trains with during the summer. “Oh man, I feel bad for him,” Poirier said.

Poirier says some of his best Habs memories are from 2009-10. That season, with Kovalev gone and Mike Cammalleri signed as an unrestricted free agent to replace him, eighth-seeded Montreal went to the Eastern Final. In 19 playoff games, Cammalleri had a whopping 13 goals. Brian Gionta (9) was the only other Montreal player with more than four goals.

“I remember that first year Cammalleri was here and they went all the way to the third round, he was unbelievable in those playoffs,” said Poirier. “Those playoff games were crazy.”

Interestingly, Poirier might well have been drafted by the Canadiens last June.  Of the handful of teams that Poirier had in-person visits with leading up to the draft, Calgary was one and Montreal was another. There is speculation that if the Flames didn’t grab Poirier at No. 22 – much higher than he had been ranked by the NHL’s scouting services, he quite likely may have been snapped up by Montreal at No. 25. Instead, the Canadiens took American-born right-winger Michael McCarron.

Recapping the 2013-14 Season (thus far)

Poirier’s third and probably final year with Gatineau in the QMJHL was excellent. After 32 goals and 70 points in his draft year, he followed that up with 43 goals and 87 points this season. In the playoffs, he added seven more goals in nine games as the Olympiques got ousted for the second year in row by Halifax.

“I had a good season and I was able to develop certain things that I needed to work on defensively,” said Poirier.

One of those areas, as is so often the case with young players, was his work in his own end, away from the puck.

“It’s trying to be a complete player, competing in those one-on-one battles defensively and learning to not always go on the offence,” said Poirer, who says he was in contact every week with the Flames – usually Ron Sutter, the Flames Director of Player Development. “I’ve became a way better player now than I was a year ago.

Also new this year was a leadership role. He served as assistant captain for the Olympiques for the first time.

“The leadership part was definitely different, especially with all the young guys coming in and I was the leader and they’re learning from you,” Poirier said. “But it was a good thing and I appreciated that.”

In a second life that hockey players don’t get very often, this year when Poirier’s junior season ended, his season wasn’t actually over. Soon after getting eliminated on April 11, Poirier was invited to join the Flames American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford. He hooked up with the team in San Antonio the following weekend and after watching the first game from the press box while getting instruction from the coaches, he was in uniform the next two days -- the final two games of the regular season.

Solid First Impression

In his first game on Friday, Poirier scored a goal off a set-up from Max Reinhart. The next night, he scored another goal and had two assists – all in the first period.

“The biggest difference is the execution, it's way faster and the execution is way better,” Poirier said of the jump to the AHL. “Plus, you’re playing against men, not young kids in which many are younger than you. There are some big guys.”

In Saturday’s game, Poirier’s linemates were the ever-dangerous Finn Markus Granlund and Reinhart, who set a team record this season with 63 points.

“He’s a big, strong kid with tremendous speed,” said Reinhart. “He makes good plays on the boards and doesn't turn the puck over. I had a lot of fun playing with him and I wouldn't be surprised if he's in the playoff line-up.”

For that to happen, considering Abbotsford is carrying over 30 players, the most important person to impress is Heat head coach Troy Ward. Well, it’s safe to say that was achieved also.

“One thing that Poirier brings to the table is he's like Pavel Bure in that one-and-a-half steps and he's at full speed, he's gone. He's super fast,” said Ward Wednesday morning during a guest spot on Sportsnet 960 radio. “He has great vision, obviously he has good hands, and he puts his nose in there. He's not afraid to go to the dirty areas to score goals.”

Poirier’s 52 goals in the QMJHL and AHL combined in 74 games, is the most goals for a Flames prospect in a single season since Dustin Boyd scored 55 with Moose Jaw in 2005-06.

“Obviously, through just one weekend, he's made a pretty good push,” said Ward. “There are two different sides to you as an AHL player. 1. Can you fit in on the ice and make the plays that are necessary to help yourself and help the team. 2. Do you fit in socially and mentally at this age.

“Sometimes it doesn't seem like a big step from major junior to the AHL but it's a huge step as a man. Sometimes it takes kids a little bit longer but so far, so good for Emile. He looks like he has a lot of maturity to him and he understands how to get through the pace of the game so far and he seems to be fitting in well.”

Enjoying the West Coast

It’s only been a week but Poirier says he’s enjoying his time with Abbotford and hopes it goes on for a while. Should the Heat make it to the Calder Cup final, the season would run into mid-June. While there are new players to get to know, Poirier says he did meet many of the younger players at Flames development camp in July including his current roommate at his hotel, French-speaking Ryan Culkin, also a recent addition from the QMJHL.

While Poirier said he hadn’t been told yet if he’ll play when Abbotsford hosts the defending champion Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings) on Friday night in the first game of the best-of-five opening round series, and while Ward was non-committal, you sure get a sense of which way Ward is leaning.

“I was really happy with his first weekend and we'll look to get him in there this weekend,” said Ward. “It's still really about development. We've got to develop hockey players.  That development is within the food chain of the company. The Poiriers, the Kulaks, and the Klimchuks of the world, they're all future guys that we want to get ready for training camp next year with Bob Hartley and his staff so we're going to give them as much exposure as we can.

“To play any of those guys in any one of those games is something that is our goal and if they're better or we feel that they can contribute more at this particular time than obviously some of the guys that have been here all year, those are decisions we'll make come Friday,” said Ward.

What Lies Ahead?

Long term, Poirier looks to have a pretty bright future according to Ward.

“Here's a guy that you would project at some point in time, will be able to get for sure in the 20s, if not in the 30s, in goals in the NHL. He's that gifted as a skater and he's got great vision. There are good days ahead for Emile.”

And for his part, Poirier sees good days ahead for the Flames also. He didn’t see Calgary play a lot this year but he did see them play live in Ottawa and also watched them play on TV a few times. He says he liked what he saw and feels his style is a good fit with the blue-collar work ethic the team displayed all season.

“That's good for me, I like that style of play. The intensity in the game, I loved it,” said Poirier.

Meanwhile, Poirier will continue to practice hard during the day and until the AHL playoffs get underway, sit back and watch the NHL playoffs at night and imagine the day when that will be him -- playing in front of a raucous crowd after a dazzling pre-game display like Montreal put on at the Bell Centre.

“Oh, sure, you think about it. You put yourself in that situation and wonder how it will be like -- to see all the video stuff, to see and hear all those great names. It's unbelievable,” said Poirier.

Calgary may not have the same rich history as the Canadiens but should exciting prospects like Poirier, Granlund and Johnny Gaudreau turn out as hoped, they could have a very prosperous present soon enough.

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Related Reading:
  • The Big-Time Emergence of Max Reinhart - As Abbotsford prepares for the playoffs, it's top line is a reason for optimism for the Flames franchise. Reinhart, Markus Granlund and Emile Poirier are all very young and home-grown Calgary draft picks.
  • Johnny Gaudreau: A Limited Engagement - Excitement, hype and optimism aside, here's why starting 'Johnny Hockey' in the AHL next season is probably the wise thing to do.

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