Last night provided a rare opportunity to see two recent Calgary Flames draft picks in their natural element – the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Thankfully, our buds at Sportsnet televised a contest between the Gatineau Olympiques and the Drummondville Voltigeurs, so I was able to get a rare chance to check out 2013 first round pick Emile Poirier of Gatineau and 2012 fifth round pick Ryan Culkin of Drummondville. (Well, I saw them both during pre-season, but this is them in their current level of play against guys their own age.)
GAME IN A NUTSHELL
Drummondville won in a shootout 6-5.
The first period had many, many penalities. Drummondville scored twice on the PP, but Gatineau got another goal by the end of the period and trailed 2-1 after 20. In the second, each team scored twice. In the third, Drummondville played a tight defensive game with a one-goal lead and scored with six minutes left to have a two-goal lead. Then they blew said two-goal lead, including giving up a goal with less than 10 seconds left in regulation.
It was a pretty entertaining, back-and-forth, playoff-style game. Lots of hitting, lots of after-the-whistle scrapping and lots and lots of special teams play.
HOW WAS POIRIER?
Like I mentioned, the Olympiques spent a lot of the game on the penalty kill, and Poirier doesn’t play a lot on the PK, so he was minimized a bit early-on. Five-on-five, his speed is what sets him apart – he’s incredibly quick to get to top speed and he’s agile enough to stay onside via toe-drag on the blueline without losing speed. That’s fast.
He’s also undoubtedly the top offensive threat for Gatineau, which itself is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he constantly has guys feeding him the puck. On the other hand, it’s became painfully obvious to Drummondville that’s what the game-plan was, so when they were able to focus on Poirier, they were able to shut things down. It’s no coincidence that neither Poirier or Culkin were on for the first goal that Gatineau scored to bring things close, and that Culkin’s pairing was on at the end when it did get tied up by the second line. (Thumbs up to the commenters for noting that Culkin was a minus at the end.) Culkin’s pairing negated Poirier’s line, so it was up to Gatineau’s second line to out-play Drummondville’s second pairing. It worked, and so the Olympiques got a point from the game.
Poirier wasn’t really noticably defensively, but he never got burned by an offensive player or anything. He was never really in a position for defensive skill to be useful. I’d perhaps compare him to Mike Cammalleri in terms of his overal game, although he’s obviously bigger than Cammalleri and uses his size fairly well – there was a sequence on the PP where he kept the defender at bay merely with his size and then set up a scoring chance with a nice pass.
Poirier plays first line wing, the Cammalleri "rover" spot on the power-play (where they use a left-handed shooter on the right side for one-timers) and occasionally on the PK. He didn’t get onto the PK very much until later in the second period, so that may be a product of their regulars being tired-out – or a product of Gatineau trailing at that point. With usual linemate (and Montreal pick) Martin Reway out with an injury, Poirier’s primary linemates are Taylor Burke and Adam Stevens. Both are undrafted Nova Scotia boys, although Burke has been to a Phoenix rookie camp.
Poirier has an NHL contract for next season, but because he turns 20 before the end of 2014, he has the option of playing in the NHL, the AHL or the QMJHL next season.
HOW WAS CULKIN?
Offensively, Culkin had three points. He had two first-period assists on that extended man-advantage for Drummondville, and he acted as the puck distributor for the Voltigeurs PP. On both goals scored, he passed the puck to the left winger. On the 5-on-3, he passed left and then drove towards the net. One of the defenders cheated towards Culkin, expecting something, so the winger with the puck passed across the ice (through the seam opened by Culkin’s movement) and he one-timed it home. On the 5-on-4 goal, Culkin simply played pitch-and-catch with the right-winger until a seam opened on the left side, and a quick pass later it was 2-0. His second-period power-play goal was a product of puck movement and a screen. It also helps that on an extended 4-on-4 situation, he went for gigantic wild (large wind-up) slappers, and then merely laid a quick snap-shot towards the net on the shot that went in. Expectations are tricky.
Defensively, Culkin is a bit less amazing, but had some nice plays. I’d compare his deployment and general role on Drummondville to Jay Bouwmeester when he was in Calgary – he plays a lot of minutes against the other team’s best guys, and he tends to go for positonal play and stick-checking to negate the other team’s plays. He reads plays well, on one occasion breaking up a short-handed 2-on-1 led by Poirier by playing the pass and blocking the cross-ice pass with his skates, leading to a rush up the other end of the ice. He sometimes makes odd choices in his own end, though, such as trying for a clearing pass across the high slot rather than going boards or glass-and-out, which can backfire on him. With the puck in his own zone, he was a good enough skater to avoid most incoming forecheckers without much trouble.
Culkin plays on the top pairing for Drummondville, and also plays top minutes on their power-play and penalty kill. But given his age, draft status and previous junior performances, it’s not all that surprising. Plus, when a team trades their captain to get you, they probably want to play you a whole bunch. His primary defensive partner is new Drummondville captain Charles-David Beaudoin.
Culkin does not have an NHL deal for next season and is currently in the QMJHL as an over-ager (he’s 20). He must be signed by the Flames by June 1 or else they lose his rights. He’s likely good enough that somebody will sign him (he was born 15/12/1993, so he’s 16 days too old to re-enter the draft) and he’ll get a shot in the pros.