North Dakota junior defenseman Tucker Poolman might be one of the more underrated defensemen in the NCAA this year, as much as any player that plays for a major program like North Dakota can be underrated. Poolman isn’t always one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about the best defensemen in college hockey, but with his start to the season, he’s already shown that he deserves to be in that conversation.
Poolman didn’t draw as much attention the past two seasons because of some incredibly deep, talented blue lines at North Dakota. As a freshman in 2014-2015, Poolman played games at forward because he was too good to keep off the ice, but not quite good enough to regularly crack North Dakota’s top six defensemen. The following year, the departures of Jordan Schmaltz to the pros and Nick Mattson to graduation opened up a regular spot for him in the top six, but he was still overshadowed by players like Troy Stecher and Paul LaDue, who North Dakota relied heavily on in key situations.
That didn’t necessarily dissuade the Winnipeg Jets, who drafted Poolman in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Draft. The Jets were interested in signing Poolman last summer, especially considering Poolman had the opportunity to become an NHL free agent by withdrawing from school. But returning to school offered Poolman, a local from East Grand Forks, to play with his younger brother Colton, a freshman with the Fighting Hawks this year, and to play a bigger role with North Dakota.
I took a closer look at Tucker Poolman in games against Minnesota and St. Cloud State earlier this season to see how he is responding to that bigger role and how his game might translate to the NHL level.
The answer, it turns out, is quite well. Poolman and senior Gage Ausmus form North Dakota’s top pairing and are one of the toughest pairs in college hockey. North Dakota likes to play them together in tight situations, but also often splits them up, pairing each one with a freshman that plays on the third pairing to give themselves a little more depth. He sees time on North Dakota’s top power play unit as well as their penalty kill. He’s basically getting as much ice time as he can handle.
The first, most obvious thing that stands out about Poolman is that he’s a big dude. He’s listed at 6’4” 217 lbs, which is very legitimate. If anything, he looks bigger than that, since everybody else is probably inflating their height/weight a little bit.
His size works to his advantage on the defensive end. He can change directions well and with his long reach, he can play a conservative gap one-on-one, but still have the ability to close out space and take away any chance of a clean shot. He’s not a big hitter physically, but with his size, when he gets good inside position on a player, he’s not going to lose a battle for the puck. He’s also a fearless shot blocker. He’s great at getting his big frame in shooting lanes and blocking shots that come from the perimeter.
He likely projects as more of a defensive defenseman at the NHL level, but is showing some offensive flair to his game at the college level this year. He’s showing more willingness to skate the puck up the ice, or to join an offensive rush if the opportunity presents itself. Again, I don’t think that will be a big part of his game in the long run, but it does show that despite his size, his skating is good enough that it shouldn’t be a liability at the next level.
One of the most underrated abilities in Poolman’s game is his vision and passing ability when skating the puck out of his own zone. He’s terrific at keeping his head up, surveying the play and finding or creating a pass lane to move the puck through the neutral zone. He has a pretty good assist rate for a defenseman, and that’s not all because he’s playing on a good team that scores a lot of goals. He’s creating some offense from the back-end.
But the asset that stands out about Poolman’s offensive game is that he can really fire the puck. If he gets a shot through on net, it’s either going to hit the goalie where he’s standing, or it is going to go in. Against Minnesota, he got a clear look from the top of the left circle and though his shot caught of a piece of the shoulder of Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn, it still had enough power to ricochet over him and into the net.
What does all this mean for Poolman in the future? It is worth remembering that he is already 23-years-old, so he’s closer to his ceiling than many other college prospects. But I definitely think he has an NHL future as a second or third pairing defenseman.
Like last summer, Poolman could potentially become an NHL free agent by withdrawing from school after the season, thought it would be a surprise if he did. Winnipeg is the closest NHL team to his hometown and appear to have a bright young core group of players. If the Jets make a fair offer in terms of contract and playing time, there’s really no compelling reason not to sign.
Poolman is only a junior, but I would expect him to sign after this season. He’s already got a national title ring, and should add an All-American award this spring, leaving him little left to prove at the collegiate level.