Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice admitted he wasn't sure what to expect from Tucker Poolman this season.
The former East Grand Forks Senior High and UND standout got a taste of the NHL during the 2017-18 season, playing 24 regular-season games and twice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But he spent an injury-plagued 2018-19 entirely in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose.
"There were question marks about where he could get to," Maurice said.
But with the Jets losing the entire right side of its defensive core -- Roseau's Dustin Byfuglien unexpectedly retired, Tyler Myers signed with Vancouver as a free agent and Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers -- an opportunity opened up for the right-handed Poolman. Maurice didn't ease him into it.
Poolman found himself on a defensive pairing with Josh Morrissey, playing more than 20 minutes per game and against some of the NHL's best forwards.
"There's the advantage of being thrown into the fire. . . he's playing with Josh Morrissey, he's playing against the other team's best, and that's in his first (full) year in the league," Maurice said. "That's an awful lot to ask of a defenseman. But he's not an 18-year-old defenseman. He's a man. He's physically very strong and he can skate. He had the physical tools to weather the demands."
Maurice hopes that experience will help Poolman when he steps into the lineup at 9:30 p.m. Saturday night as the Jets open the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a best-of-five series against the Calgary Flames.
Poolman, who had four goals and 16 points in 57 games for Winnipeg, will likely be paired with Nathan Beaulieu.
"What we are excited about is there's a chemistry there," Maurice said. "They have interest in working together. They're aware of each other and their tendencies on the ice and they're talking. When you just look at the D-pairings, we don't get last change, which means those guys are going to get out behind a skilled group for us or against a skilled group on the other side. We have lots of confidence in both those guys playing against the other team's best."
Lessons first the 2018 Cup Playoffs
This won't be Poolman's first opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He got into two games in 2018, when the Jets made a run to the Western Conference Finals. Both games came against the Minnesota Wild in the opening round.
The Jets didn't allow a goal in either game Poolman played, winning 2-0 in Game 4 in St. Paul and 5-0 in the clinching Game 5 in Winnipeg.
"My draw from those couple games was just how simple the game turned into in the playoffs compared to the regular season," Poolman said. "There are certain things where it was just simple and hard. Guys weren't playing with the puck as much. That was kind of the mentality everyone was playing with in those games. That's something I can use going into these games."
Maurice thinks that experience will help Poolman.
"Playoff hockey is so different than the regular season," Maurice said. "You can't explain it until they get in there, the intensity level it gets to, so not having to ask those questions -- 'What's it going to be like?' -- lets you manage your nerves and the adrenaline you have. I do think there's a value to every playoff game you play. A lot of your questions get answered."
A different experience
There's no doubt this playoff game will be a bit different than the last one for Poolman.
Then, he was playing in front of a packed Bell MTS Place in downtown Winnipeg with a white-out crowd chanting and jeering at the opposition. His family was in the stands watching.
This time, nobody will be there.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be played behind closed doors in Edmonton and Toronto. The Western Conference will be played in Edmonton, where Poolman made his NHL debut on Oct. 9, 2017.
Poolman said he could think of one experience playing in front of small crowds that may prepare him for these playoffs.
"My first year after high school, my 18-year-old year, I played in the North American league," he said. "The team I was playing for (Wichita Falls, Texas). . . we didn't get many fans. . . so I had some good experience playing with no fans there. You've just got to learn it's a hockey game. You've got to get up for them no matter what. It will be playoff hockey, so it will be fun."
In the quarantine
During the time away from hockey this spring and summer, Poolman spent time in East Grand Forks and Brainerd, where he worked out with his brother, Colton, a Calgary Flames signee.
"No one really knew what was going on and no one had a timeline," Poolman said. "It was like, 'Are we off a month? Are we even going to play?' It was mentally trying to stay in it. It was definitely odd.
"It was a lot of waiting, time with family, playing cards, hanging out. I was able to get together a pretty good gym in the garage. I wasn't leaving the house much. But I was trying to treat it like, instead of just staying home all day, I tried to treat it like taking a few hours in the garage to try to break up the day and keep a routine of some sort."
Poolman left in early July to return to Winnipeg and get ready for the restart.
"Once I got to Winnipeg, it felt like another training camp at the start of the year," Poolman said. "Although, we're not heading into the regular season. We're heading into the playoffs."
Winnipeg Jets vs. Calgary Flames
Best-of-5 series, in Edmonton
Game 1: 9:30 p.m. Saturday (NBC Sports)
Game 2: 1:30 p.m. Monday (NHL Network)
Game 3: 5:45 p.m. Tuesday (NHL Network)
Game 4: Aug. 6 (if necessary)
Game 5: Aug. 8 (if necessary)