Early last week, Winnipeg Jets fans breathed a sigh of relief after Kyle Connor signed his entry-level contract. Unfortunately, it seems folks won't be able to do the same with fellow prospect Tucker Poolman.
According to Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald, the 2013 5th round selection will be returning to the University of North Dakota for his junior season. This comes after a 2015-16 wherein the Fighting Hawks not only captured the NCHC Regular Season Championship, but also the NCAA Men's Division I Ice Hockey Tournament, referred to in its latter stages as the Frozen Four.
As for Tucker Poolman himself, the general consensus is that his sophomore season constituted an important step forward developmentally. In an April 6th interview which deemed him "one of the NCAA's most promising defensive prospects", Poolman described for Hockey's Future writer DJ Powers some of the improvements he's made:
I think it’s being able to play in all situations being a defenseman. I think my puck-handling has gotten better, and I’m making better plays. I’m paying more attention to the little details, especially with my stick work.
While on Episode 32 of the AIH 20416 Podcast (shameless plugs are shameless), Oliver Francies with Seamore Sports first brought attention to Poolman's positional versatility, going so far as to call it "Byfuglien-esque". Listening to the integral role this mobile, positionally sound, great all-around player had in UND's championship season was surely music to the ears of Jets nation.
Following such tremendous success on both a team and individual level, there was almost an expectation the 6'3", 214 lb RHD would make the jump to pro hockey. News stating the Winnipeg Jets "wanted to sign Poolman" certainly comes as no surprise. But alongside other possible and completely valid reasons for returning, one in particular stands out: family.
After a campaign where he was often paired with soon-to-be 2016 1st round selection Dante Fabbro, Tucker's younger brother Colton Poolman is set to join the Fighting Hawks as a freshman. Furthermore, Schlossman's article mentions how this will provide the brothers and fellow defencemen an opportunity to play together "for the first time in their careers".
If that weren't reason enough, their father Mark Poolman is a long-time member of UND men's hockey staff, currently serving as both the program’s athletic trainer and team’s strength and conditioning coordinator. Taken together, it's hard to begrudge a decision to return on familial aspects alone.
By most (though not all) accounts, Poolman is able to become an unrestricted free agent as of August 15th, 2017. With the case of Jimmy Vesey fresh in people's minds, not to mention a certain NCAA UFA example currently on Winnipeg's roster, many Jets fans have responded to the news with distress.
Rather than add fuel to the fire, TSN analyst Craig Button tweeted an important reminder of how "very few players have chosen the free agent route despite many having the option". Frenemy of the blog Garret Hohl provided additional, more Poolman-specific words of comfort:
Not surprised. Father is part of team, brother joins the team next year, & Jets didn't have year burn leverage with UND going all the way.— Garret Hohl (@GarretHohl) April 22, 2016
This isn't an ideal situation for either the Winnipeg Jets fan base or organization. Uncertainty rarely is. But far from rejecting Winnipeg forever, all Tucker Poolman has indicated is his unreadiness to sign this offseason. Even the writer who first broke the news has said to "pump the brakes on assumptions that Poolman is coming back to go UFA". Combined with Poolman's intention to attend the Jets 2016 Development Camp this summer, fans are still reasonably allowed to live in hope.