Longtime friends reunite, looking to rekindle NHL dreams

American Hockey League
HSK: Sven Baertschi and Derrick Pouliot

Steve Marcus

Henderson Silver Knights forward Sven Baertschi, left, and defenseman Derrick Pouliot practice at the Lifeguard Arena in downtown Henderson Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

It seems that no matter where Sven Baertschi and Derrick Pouliot go in hockey, they can’t quite escape each other.

They met more than a decade ago in junior hockey, played two seasons together in the NHL “and now we’re in Henderson,” Pouliot said with a grin.

Baertschi, a forward, signed with the Vegas Golden Knights organization when free agency opened on July 28, and Pouliot, a defenseman, followed three days later. They’re two of the oldest players on a youth-laden Silver Knights roster, but they’re still under 30 and have no desire to live out their days simply playing minor-league hockey with the Golden Knights’ affiliate in Henderson.

NHL stats

Sven Baertschi (with Calgary and Vancouver): 291 games, 66 goals, 72 assists, 138 points

Derrick Pouliot (with Pittsburgh, Vancouver and St. Louis): 202 games, 8 goals, 40 assists, 48 points

They both want to return to the NHL and see an opportunity with the Golden Knights. That’s why they chose to come here. That they both happened to come to the same place just adds an extra layer of excitement.

“I’ve been on a couple teams now, and when you go into a new place and you don’t know anybody, you’re starting from scratch,” Pouliot said. “You’ve got to make new friends, you don’t really know if you’re going to fit in. So it’s nice to have one guy, especially a guy I know so well.”

The paths of Baertschi and Pouliot to the Silver Knights have been remarkably similar — both cut their teeth with Portland of the Western Hockey League, both were high first-round picks, and both achieved NHL success before spending all of last season in the AHL.

Upcoming Silver Knights schedule

7 p.m. tonight vs. Tucson at Orleans Arena

7 p.m. Wednesday at San Diego

7 p.m. Friday at Stockton

*All games broadcast on radio at 1230-AM, KLAV

Baertschi, the 13th overall pick of the Flames in 2011, was traded to the Canucks in 2015 and signed a pair of contracts there, including a three-year, nearly $10.1 million deal in 2018.

He was teammates with Pouliot for two seasons in WHL Portland, and the pair reunited when Pouliot was traded to Vancouver in 2017. An eighth overall pick of the Penguins in 2012, Pouliot has played 202 NHL games, including two in the 2016 postseason when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, getting his name forever engraved.

Both have come on hard times in recent years.

Baertschi was waived by the Canucks in 2019, then again last season as Vancouver let his contract expire this summer, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. Pouliot hasn’t played a full season in the NHL since 2018-19, bouncing between the Blues and Flyers organizations before signing an AHL deal with Henderson this year.

The NHL success doesn’t guarantee a call-up to the Golden Knights, though.

Baertschi, 29, and Pouliot, 27, have both seen younger players earn calls to the NHL as the Golden Knights deal with injury issues. Vegas has opted for Daniil Miromanov (24), Jake Leschyshyn (22), Jonas Rondbjerg (22) and Pavel Dorofeyev (21), all Silver Knights last season, to make their NHL debuts this season. Vegas has also claimed Michael Amadio off waivers and signed Ben Hutton since the season began.

It’s part of the process for players like Baertschi and Pouliot, whose NHL experience was surpassed for youthful potential.

“There’s so many different factors nowadays in different call-ups because it could be positional play for one, it could be cap, who knows,” Silver Knights coach Manny Viveiros said. “They understand that more so than maybe a younger player. They also understand if they put the work in down here and they’re playing well down here, it bodes well for them getting that opportunity to get called up to the show.”

There are 11 players on the roster born in 1999 or later, and the kind of resume the veterans have established have earned them a measure of respect among those younger players. Baertschi and Pouliot aren’t that old, after all, and it wasn’t that long ago they were producing in the NHL.

“They definitely contribute a lot to a team, just by their presence in the locker room and the knowledge they’ve had,” Henderson defenseman Peter DiLiberatore, 21, said. “I’ve definitely grown up watching these guys play. I remember Pouliot, watching him with the Cup with Pittsburgh, so that’s definitely cool to see myself play with him now.”

That the Golden Knights’ AHL team is in the same metro area was a selling point for both, knowing regardless if they’re in the NHL or AHL they won’t have to travel to another metro area. Pouliot remembers his back-and-forth drives across Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, while Baertschi had perhaps the longest commute — Vancouver’s AHL team was in Utica, in upstate New York.

It’s easier to plan on training in Henderson with the best-case scenario of going to Summerlin. As parents with young kids — each has a son under 3 — it’s a level of stability not found with many AHL teams in the league.

“The travel we’ve done, me and my family, the past few years has just kind of been tough,” Baertschi said. “I wanted to come to a place where we could have one home.”

There’s no question Baertschi and Pouliot want to return to the NHL. For now, they’re fine biding their time and focusing on their game until the call comes.

Their role has evolved over the years, from promising first-rounders to NHL standouts to veterans looking to make it back, making decisions on what’s best not just for their careers but for their families as well.

And they made this last decision reuniting a friendship that started a decade ago as teenagers.

“We’re sort of in similar situations now, where we’ve got families — he’s got a young boy, I’ve got a young boy — so I was super excited that a couple of days after I signed, he signed as well,” Baertschi said. “He’s been part of my life and he’s been my teammate a few times over. It’s cool to be part of each other’s journey.”

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