For so many young hockey players, the leap from the junior ranks to the pros is a yawning chasm.
Emile Poirier made it look like a mere bunny-hop.
Selected by the Calgary Flames in the first round (22nd overall) of last spring’s NHL entry draft, Poirier joined the Abbotsford Heat last week at the completion of his junior season with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
After watching from the press box as the Heat beat the San Antonio Rampage 3-1 last Thursday, he got into the lineup on Friday and authored a memorable debut, scoring his first pro goal as Abbotsford won a rematch with the Rampage 3-0.
For an encore, he racked up a goal and two assists on Saturday en route to first star honours as the Heat edged the Texas Stars 4-3.
Asked whether he was surprised at generating so much offence right off the bat, the 19-year-old winger indicated it was a little from Column A, a little from Column B.
“I’ll say no, but I was ready for it, I think,” he said. “They gave me a chance to play the first game with Ben Street and Max Reinhart, and the second game with Markus Granlund (and Reinhart). They helped me out a lot.”
“It was good to see a game before I played,” he added. “Then they put me in on Friday, and I just played my game.”
Poirier, who boasts good size (6’1″, 200 pounds), terrific foot speed and soft hands to go with, is coming off a monster season with Gatineau – he racked up 43 goals and 44 assists, along with 129 penalty minutes, in 63 games.
Pro hockey, he insisted, isn’t as easy as he made it look.
“I just got good bounces and good passes on the tape,” he said. “The speed, I think, and execution is way better than in junior. Those are the two biggest things.”
As much as his physical tools, Heat head coach Troy Ward said he’s impressed with Poirier’s mental approach to the game.
“He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low,” he said. “He just plays to his strengths, and that’s just the way he is.
“We noticed it last summer at development camp, after he was drafted. He’s just a pretty calm individual who goes about his business every day and enjoys the game.”
Ward said Poirier will factor into the Heat’s first-round playoff series vs. the Grand Rapids Griffins, which begins with Friday and Saturday home games (7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Centre).
“I know it’s going to be way harder than those two (regular season) games,” Poirier said. “So I’m going to prepare all week at practice and play my game – keep it simple.”
REINHART HITS HIS STRIDE
While Poirier’s dazzling debut draws rave reviews, and deservedly so, Max Reinhart’s season-long breakthrough shouldn’t be overlooked. The sophomore pro has been easily the Heat’s most improved performer.
Reinhart struggled as a rookie in 2012-13, mustering pedestrian offensive numbers (seven goals and 14 assists in 67 games) to go with an unsightly -26 rating, fourth-worst in the entire league.
This season, he looked like a new man, racking up 21 goals and 42 assists for 63 points in 66 games, setting a new Heat record for points in a single season in the process.
(At this point, let’s pause and appreciate the previous record authored by Krys Kolanos. The veteran winger registered 30 goals and 31 assists for 61 points in 2011-12, but he did it in just 47 games. Phenomenal production.)
Reflecting on his points record, Reinhart gave a great deal of credit to his teammates. That’s classy, and also fair – he was surrounded by more dynamic offensive talent this season.
But it doesn’t give proper credit to the fact that Reinhart himself was more effective.
“It’s confidence and experience,” he analyzed. “Playing with good players all year, it helps you get your confidence when you give a guy the puck and he goes down and does all the work and scores. And on a nightly basis, I was able to be more consistent this year.”
Ward believes the biggest difference for Reinhart this season was a more mature mental approach.
“For him last year . . . his workmanship towards the day as a professional athlete was an extension of major junior,” he said. “This year, he kind of came into his own as a man – more mature, simpler, spent a lot of time and energy on things he can control.
“And the second thing that happened to him is, he got a taste of the NHL again. And I think he knew in his mind that he could play there, but he did not get upset when other players . . . got chances and he didn’t. He said, ‘I’m OK with that. I’m down here, I’m going to improve my game, and I’m going to become the best Max Reinhart I can become.’
“I just think he became more comfortable in his own skin as a pro. I think he figured out how to get his time and space, and there were subtle things he figured out about his own game in terms of getting time and space, and that’s enabled him to play at a higher level.”
REGULAR SEASON RECORD
As they head into the playoffs, the Heat close the book on the most successful regular season in franchise history.
Abbotsford established a new team record with 43 wins, eclipsing the 42 they earned in 2011-12, Ward’s first season on the job.
“We set out to make this a good program three years ago for players to develop holistically,” Ward said. “And because we’re getting good athletes and really good people, we were able to take it another step this year.
“Over the course of time, we’ve been able to improve our product on the ice. We’ve been able to continue to grow as an organization (despite) some trouble times above us and had some troubled times in town, and we’ve just stayed the focus.”