When Austin Poganski takes the ice for the U.S. Under-18 Select Team this weekend at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, much will have changed since the St. Cloud, MN native made his red, white and blue debut last year.
Poganski went from a seemingly talented, but relatively unknown, skillful Minnesota high school hockey player, into a highly-recruited power forward that rose to the challenge at the 2012 Five Nations Tournament. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound winger ended up leading the undefeated Team USA squad with four goals and an assist, earning himself a variety of Division I hockey scholarships and a shout out in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd.
Now, Poganski heads to Breclav, Czech Republic, and Piestany, Slovakia as a verbally committed Division I recruit for the University of North Dakota. He is also no longer an unknown, but a physical and gritty hockey player that will provide Team USA with some toughness overseas.
“Last year I was kind of a rookie to all of this and I was a little nervous,” Poganski said. “I am still nervous this year, but I feel a little bit more confident. I have done it before. I just have to go out there and play. We are a big group so we will be tough to play against in the corners and I feel like we are coming together as a team and will be competitive at this tournament.”
Toughness is an attribute that has continued to grow and represent the work-a-holic grinder on the ice. U-18 select head coach Bob Corkum, who works for the New York Islanders in player development, believes Poganski will be a versatile weapon for the Americans.
The former University of Maine interim head coach added earlier this week that Poganski can fill the team’s third line and fourth line checking roles, but don’t be surprised to see the former Cathedral High School star see time on the squad’s top lines and specialty units.
“All the countries are bringing their best guys and it’s a physical tournament," said Corkum, who was an assistant coach during Team USA’s gold medal victory at the 2013 World Junior Championship. “I feel very comfortable having him on a checking line role. He is very versatile and brings that nice physical element. He is not afraid and has a great compete level.”
It is Poganski’s compete level and attitude that really has elevated his game over the last three years says Cathedral High School hockey coach Eric Johnson. When Poganski first began practicing with the varsity team in 2010, the freshman quickly caught the eyes of Johnson and his coaching staff. The team had known of Poganski, but were stunned at how talented and ready he was to compete at the varsity level.
Poganski would get his shot and go on to post 22 goals and 15 assists in his first season, before erupting for 23 goals and 29 assists as a sophomore.
“It’s a credit to him,” Johnson said. “He works his butt off. We knew him forever. Then that summer before his freshman year he just brought it.”
However, this past season as a junior Poganski really evolved his game, bringing a new intensity to the ice to compliment his larger frame, and posted a career-high 35 goals and 32 assists in 23 games played.
“He’s developed into more of a nasty player, but not in a bad way,” Johnson said. “North Dakota said he has a big body and that his game is going to be someone that has to be that way to be successful.”
Johnson believes that when Poganski does eventually make the jump to the collegiate level – next year the senior will be playing for the USHL’s Tri-City Storm – he will fit in just fine with North Dakota’s physical style of play.
The physical style of play, the chance to play in Ralph Engelstad Arena and the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of other North Dakota alums who have reached the NHL level all played a factor in his decision-making said Poganski.
“My style from day one has always been hardcore, blue collar, get into the corners,” Poganski said. “North Dakota plays right into that.”
Poganski added that once you start playing at the international and other higher levels of competition you have to raise your game to new heights.
“Every year kids get bigger, faster, stronger, meaner so you have to increase your competitive level and just go back at them and be that tough. Through the years and different leagues I have played in I have learned to be a little bit more tougher and stronger.”
It’s a playing style that a player like Evgeni Malkin plays with, and the Pittsburgh Penguins sensation is someone that Poganski looks up to.
This week Poganski and the rest of Team USA got to experience a taste of what Malkin and other NHL players experience in the NHL when the American boys had a chance to skate and practice at the Kettler Captials Iceplex, the practice facility of the Washington Capitals.
Even if it was only for a couple of days, it gave Poganski a sniff and a taste for what his future could be. Now the 17-year-old is even hungrier for his potential NHL future.
“It gives you jitters, but it also gives you that little competitive edge and makes you want to work that much harder,” said Poganski. “Just being here and getting the treatment we get is just surreal.
“It’s like any hockey players dream. When you can taste it this close you want to work as hard as you can when you get home in the offseason and in-season just to get a chance to get there.”
This year’s group of young Americans will look to avenge last year’s disappointing seventh-place finish. The last time the U.S. finished in the Top 3 of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament came back in 2010 when the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Connor Murphy and Lukas Sutter led the team to a second-place finish.
Poganski, who has skated at times with fellow North Dakota commitment Nick Schmaltz, believes the talent is there this year for the U.S. to make a run, and he is not ready to start slowing down on his career dreams and goals. This tournament is just the first of many necessary steps to continue on towards hopefully one day playing in the NHL.
“When you’re this close, and you have so much going for you, there is no reason to let off,” Poganski said. “A lot of kids that get this opportunity just take it and don’t work at it anymore. The good players keep going and that’s my goal. To keep going and improving every week, every practice and just busting my butt all this year, and hope it’s going to work out for me in the future.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter via @jfelisko