Top defensemen give WHL champions skill and muscle

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOANTHAN HOUSE - Mathew Dumba, recently acquired by the Portland Winterhawks, gets congratulations from his teammates after scoring against Vancouver.An interesting thing happened in the 2012 NHL draft. The first five players selected from Western Hockey League teams were defensemen, and the Nos. 7 and 8 picks have become familiar names around these parts.

At No. 8, it was Derrick Pouliot of the Portland Winterhawks. A pick earlier, it was Mathew Dumba ... now of the Portland Winterhawks.

“It was just the year of the defenseman,” says Dumba, a former Red Deer player acquired by the Hawks when the NHL Minnesota Wild sent him back to juniors for more seasoning. “We all knew that going into the draft.”

It started with the 2009 bantam draft, when the top four picks were D-men Pouliot, Morgan Rielly, Griffin Reinhart and Dumba.

They stayed tightly bunched in the 2012 NHL draft. Everett’s Ryan Murray, the ninth selection in the 2008 WHL bantam draft, emerged as the No. 2 NHL pick in 2012, going to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Edmonton’s Reinhart went No. 4 to the New York Islanders, Moose Jaw’s Rielly was No. 5 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dumba went No. 7 to Minnesota and Pouliot was No. 8 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“It was a good year for defensemen, for sure,” says Pouliot, a Portland star for three seasons. “We weren’t sure where we were going to go and when. We had a little rivalry in the WHL.”

Murray plays for Columbus and Rielly for Toronto. But the other three find themselves back in the WHL, hoping to win the league title and play in the Memorial Cup.

Reinhart’s Edmonton team has been surging, as have the Winterhawks since the midseason acquisition of Dumba and the return of Pouliot, Nic Petan and Taylor Leier from the Canada team in the world junior tournament.

The Hawks go into Friday’s game at Tri-City on a 10-game winning streak.

Make no mistake, write it down, bet on it: Dumba and Pouliot will be playing in the NHL, it’s just a matter of time. Very few high first-round picks flame out, and each has impressed his NHL team. Dumba played 13 games with the Wild, but the team scratched him throughout December. Pouliot returned to the Hawks after his stint in NHL training camp, but he expects to be playing minor- league hockey or with the parent and powerful Penguins next season.

It’s pretty coincidental for them to be on the same team, although, curiously, Dumba and Pouliot share the same agents — Newport Sports.

They’ve come to know each other in recent years. Pouliot is from rural Saskatchewan and Dumba is from Calgary, Alberta, but their teams met in various tournaments. Then came the world juniors in Sweden.

The Hawks had acquired Dumba’s rights from Red Deer, but the Wild didn’t released him until Jan. 6, after the Canadians fell short of earning a medal (Russia beat Canada 2-1 for the bronze).

“We weren’t too sure what Minnesota was going to do,” Pouliot says. “We’re really happy.”

Dumba agrees. He’s happy, after the initial shock and disappointment of being sent from an NHL team back to juniors.

“They just wanted to send me to a contending team,” Dumba says. “(Coach Mike) Johnston has been awesome so far. I’ve never had a coach like him. It’s nice, it’s really good.”

Pouliot can relate to Dumba’s disappointment. He thought his audition for the Penguins in 2013 training camp went well, but, at age 19, he still had some junior eligibility and an excellent situation in Portland.

“His (relegation) was a little worse,” Pouliot says, of Dumba, “because he’d already been in Minnesota for the first half of the season.

“He’s doing really well here. He’s happy to have a good chance to make a playoff run. We’re very happy with him so far.”

Yes, the Hawks are thrilled to have Dumba. He’s the real deal, they say, and greatly upgrades the defensive corps. Pouliot and Dumba have been paired with other defensemen, but in important situations they could find themselves on the ice together. They have similar skills — both play offensively and jump into the rush while minding their defensive assignments.

But, they’re also different.

“’Pouli’ is so smooth out there,” Dumba says. “I don’t know if I have the hands he has, but I think my shot is a big one. How we get it done is kind of different.”

Says Pouliot: “He’s a very solid two-way guy. He’s got a big bomb (of a shot) back there, so we like to get him out on the power play. We’re similar in a lot of ways. Maybe he’s a little stronger defensively than me. You can tell he’s played some games in the NHL.”

Minnesota felt the 6-foot, 180-pound Dumba could use the ice time on a very good junior team. The Penguins thought the 6-0, 200 Pouliot could “get a little stronger and have a better overall defensive game — making sure I can handle bigger and stronger guys,” he says. “This is the year I can really dominate the league, I think, and I need to do that.”

Dumba has enjoyed playing on the same team as Pouliot, although he likes being paired with other Hawks, whether it’s Garrett Haar, Anton Cederholm, Josh Hanson, Layne Viveiros or Keoni Texeira.

“With our D-corps and the players we have out there, if we play with different players and switch all night, we’ll be all right,” Dumba says. “You never know what situation you’re going to get yourself into, or who plays well. To play with everyone is what you have to be good at.”

Dumba, also 19 and a fan of then-Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla growing up, says he has brought some important intangibles from the NHL.

“Just little things day in and day out,” he says. “Trying to keep that professionalism and doing your best every day. When you come to the rink, it’s all work. You can’t have a day off. And you lead by example.”

The Winterhawks won the WHL title and went to the Memorial Cup tournament last year.

Repeating those feats probably will take going through Western Conference leader Kelowna and either Edmonton or Calgary, the top teams in the East.

“We were so close to winning everything last year,” Pouliot says. “We really want it.”

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