It seems that the Detroit Red Wings have a penchant for drafting and developing forwards in the American Hockey League before seeing them excel on NHL ice. Those in the Motor City might not have to wait much longer to add another homegrown talent to their permanent NHL roster with the emergence of 2015 AHL All-Star forward, Teemu Pulkkinen.
Selected by the Red Wings in the fourth round (111th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft, Pulkkinen returned to his native country of Finland to continue playing in Liiga for the next two years, where he tallied 30 goals from 2011-13 before making his North American pro debut with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, after the completion of his 2012-13 season with Jokerit.
“When I came from Europe, I liked the game right away,” Pulkkinen said in a recent interview during the AHL All-Star Classic in Utica, NY.
Pulkkinen appeared in 14 AHL Calder Cup playoff games with the Griffins and, while he only tallied three goals and two assists in his first taste of the smaller ice across the pond, the experience gained in 2013’s postseason run by Grand Rapids shortened the learning curve for his rookie season in the AHL .
Pulkkinen was a pleasant surprise for the Griffins in 2013-14, his rookie season, where he tied for first among first-year players in goal scoring with 31 goals.
“I like the game they’re playing here,” Pulkkinen said of the smaller rinks in the North American pro game. “You have to do everything faster. It’s my style of game.”
There hasn’t been any kind of sophomore slump for Pulkkinen this season, who has nearly matched his offensive output from his 71-game rookie season – just four goals and two assists shy of his 59 points in 2013-14.
“When things are going the right way, it’s good for you,” Pulkkinen said, acknowledging playing with talented linemates Andy Miele and Mitch Callahan has helped. “You get confidence and it makes it easier to score. It’s been fun so far, so hopefully just keep going.”
Pulkkinen made his NHL debut with the Red Wings last season, going scoreless in three games. It wasn’t until January of 2015 that Pulkkinen got his second taste of NHL action – a six-game stint – and his first NHL goal (see video below), seeing more ice time playing alongside “the good guys”.
“Last year I played a couple of games and didn’t get much ice time,” Pulkkinen recalled during the AHL All-Star weekend. “This year it was way easier. I played more and played with the good guys. It’s been a nice couple of weeks for me. It was great.”
While Pulkkinen entered the AHL All-Star break second in the league in both points (44) and goals (21), it seems he’s kicked things up another notch heading down the stretch with 10 points (six goals, four assists) in his first five games after the All-Star break.
Pulkkinen’s recent offensive surge has him back atop the AHL in scoring (53 points) and in goals (27). It also mirrors his response when asked about what he wants to work on while in the AHL.
“Just improve my overall game,” Pulkkinen said, as if almost from a script. “A two-way game.”
Though Pulkkinen is having no trouble putting the puck in the net, translating back-to-back 30-goal seasons in the AHL to the next level is no easy task. The fact that he’s still working and wanting to improve in the offensive zone is a scary thought for defenders who might have to line up against Pulkkinen in the future.
“When I was up there, the defense is playing better,” Pulkkinen said. “They’re blocking shots, they know where to put the stick and make the plays, so I have to improve my game in the offensive zone, too.”
Plenty of forwards currently in Detroit have had to pay their dues, namely guys like Tomas Tatar (265 regular season AHL games with Grand Rapids), Gustav Nyquist (137 AHL games) and Riley Sheahan (110). Part of the reason they’ve been able to come in and make an impact ‘right away’ is due to the fact of having triple digit amounts of pro games under their belt in the AHL coming in.
Only in his second professional season in North America, Pulkkinen is 23 years old and came to the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate with three years of playing experience in Finland’s highest league of pro hockey. While’s he’s on the proverbial door step to the NHL, Pulkkinen will play a major role while in the AHL with Grand Rapids – a team in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race, where they currently sit in sixth place.
“It’s been a battle,” Pulkkinen said. “We had a slow start and then we came back. Then we lost a couple games, but overall I think we have a really good team. We have 30 more games to improve and I think we are going to be a good team at the end of the season.”
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