GLENS FALLS -- When Emile Poirier stepped onto the ice at Madison Square Garden, it all became real. MSG is a pretty cool rink, a good one for your first NHL game.
“Pretty awesome” was the phrase the Adirondack Flames winger repeated in recounting the experience on Tuesday.
Poirier was called up to the NHL for the first time on Feb. 23. He played five games out of Calgary’s 12 before he was sent back to the AHL on March 20.
He stuck around so long, he had to go shopping. It’s a good sign when a recently-recalled hockey player hits the mall. Poirier brought two suits and a small suitcase, not enough to get him through a month.
It worked out well that Poirier joined Calgary at the start of an East Coast swing. That gave his family and friends a chance to make it to a couple games. His dad has now seen him play in the AHL All-Star Classic and in the NHL. Not bad for a 20-year-old who could still be playing in juniors.
Calgary coach Bob Hartley said it was an easy decision not to send Poirier back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the beginning of the season, despite the fact that Poirier could not participate in training camp as he recovered from shoulder surgery.
“He’s a big prospect in our organization and the AHL is the best league to develop our players,” Hartley said of the 2013 first round pick. “He was ready because of his speed. He has pretty good size. We felt he was capable of holding his own in that league.”
They were right as evidenced by Poirier’s 31 points in 44 games, all-star selection and now call up. Calgary general manager Brad Treliving and assistant GMs Brad Pascall and Craig Conroy have all been on hand to see the AHL Flames play and Hartley and Huska talk once a week about each prospect.
All of the parties involved in judging the Flames prospects have been happy with his “progression” — a key word three of them used. He was a strong player offensively already, with 87 points last year, but needed to work on his defensive game.
“He’s learning to play the full game,” Hartley said. “That’s kind of a normal process for a 20-year-old kid coming out of juniors. You haven’t spent much time backchecking or paying attention on the defensive side of the puck. Sometimes defensive details are forgotten. He’s really applied himself to learning the details.”
Poirier thinks he’s improved a lot from last year, but still needs to improve a lot to stay in the NHL.
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Coming off such a strong season, as a high draft pick, some players feel pressure to perform at a high level. Poirier is down-to-earth enough to know he can’t replicate those numbers right off the bat. He just needed to keep playing his game, keep growing his game.
In a way, it helped that he couldn’t start the season on time. He missed training camp and the first month of the season due to an off-season shoulder injury. At the time, he was frustrated watching from the stands. It felt like a punishment almost.
Now, however, Poirier looks back and, with the benefit of hindsight, realizes it might have been a good thing for him. Poirier got to learn the systems, observe the game before diving in. By the time he started playing, Poirier was in better physical shape than before and was mentally ready to play.
Maybe Poirier doesn’t need to put pressure on himself. Huska thinks he can hit the same kind of numbers he hit in juniors. He said there’s a “feeling-out process” in any player’s first season.
“Emile’s done a good job of putting up points for someone who’s 20 years old,” Huska said. “If he’s down here for another year, parts of another year, I foresee him getting closer toward that point total. He’s that type of player. The more offensive guys he’s able to play with, the more confidence he gets and the more mature he becomes, I see that happening for him.”
It’s good timing for Poirier to return to the AHL. Adirondack is in a tight playoff race, barely in eighth place right now and plays Hamilton, with which it is tied at 70 points, on Wednesday. Poirier scored one goal and was one of the better forwards in his second game back, the Flames’ 4-1 win over Grand Rapids.
“That’s what we need from him,” Huska said. “He’s a dynamic player and this time of year, we need him to be a factor in games because he is one of our more offensively-gifted guys.”
Poirier sat in the press box as a healthy scratch for seven games before being sent back to the AHL. He got the benefit of practicing with an NHL team — and said he learned a lot about being a professional — but wasn’t playing. Now, at least Poirier’s playing.
Hartley has no doubt he can be an NHL player, but it’s up to Poirier to answer that. It’s up to him how much he puts in and how much he wants it. Poirier plans on proving he’s up for it.
“I just want to play my game and show them I’m ready to play out there,” he said. “I know what it is now, I know what it takes. So I just need to do that.”