Does Benoit Pouliot have about five more Jan. 5 games in him? Maybe not statistically, but the Boston Bruins’ late-blooming winger should be the center of the team’s ultimate test of depth in the coming week-and-a-half.
Recall that, last Thursday, top-six winger Brad Marchand withdrew from the lineup for a bout with the Calgary Flames with flu-like symptoms. Filling in Marchand’s spot with Tyler Seguin and Patrice Bergeron in the subsequent contest (or no-contest), Pouliot landed four shots on goal, forced a turnover and tallied a playmaker hat trick as part of Boston’s 9-0 victory.
With Marchand now suspended for five games as penance for spilling Vancouver Canucks’ defenseman Sami Salo over his back late in Saturday’s second period, Pouliot will likely be elevated again. Such a move on the part of head coach Claude Julien makes nothing but pristine sense and no other modifications to the Boston depth chart would make much sense.
Assuming the Bruins decide to grind rather than gripe over NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan’s decision, Pouliot could peddle the adage that some good can be cultivated out of an unsavory development.
As if the following facts were not convincingly gauged in the Calgary game last week, temporarily sacrificing Marchand is the most ideal lineup alteration for Julien’s ecosystem. Pouliot shares a left-hand shot in common with Marchand, whereas Seguin and Bergeron both shoot from the right side, and also has a propensity to finish plays in the dirtier, heavier-traffic areas.
Elsewhere, the alliance of Nathan Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic is worth keeping intact, especially now with Krejci’s active eight-game production streak. The same applies to the inseparable fourth line of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton.
And there is no sense in prying apart Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley, what with the chemistry those two have fostered since simultaneously coming to the team last February. And just as Bergeron is to his line, Kelly is the third-line’s faceoff specialist while Peverley is the troika’s primal playmaker who can also win his share of draw.
Conversely, Pouliot’s grit and scoring touch is exactly what the top-six portion of the Boston depth chart needs to replenish in Marchand’s absence.
Granted, he has not tuned the opposing mesh in any of the last five games, but the majority of his seven goals to date have come from the front porch or the lower slot. Ditto most of Marchand’s 16 strikes.
If Pouliot’s work with Bergeron and Seguin last Thursday hinted that he can finally live up to his label as a fourth-round draft choice and a top-six caliber forward, this could be his chance to answer the confirmation bell.
If he and his fellow Bruins continue to pressure and plug as they have for the better part of the last two months, Pouliot could hit double digits in either the goal or assist column by the time Marchand returns Jan. 19.
In other words, here is his chance to catch up with his usual linemates as a third-liner putting up top-six numbers on the NHL’s most prolific strike force. Not a bad way to kick a few extra ice chips over the memory of a transition period that saw Pouliot mustering a mere two goals over his first 16 appearances in Boston attire.
By the same token, spare forward Zach Hamill ought to fill in Pouliot’s normal position alongside Kelly and Peverley for at least the majority of Marchand’s absence.
Jordan Caron will indubitably be summoned from Providence, especially for a three-game road swing in the Southeast Division starting this weekend. In turn, he will likely see action in one or two of the next five games.
But Hamill, who has struggled even more than Pouliot to verify his own first-round draft label, should be permitted to take the opportunity to advance his own late-blooming repertoire.
Hamill, who has already played more than twice as many NHL games this season than in all of his first three professional campaigns, is on last call as a Bruin.
The budding center can either prove himself flexible enough to be a long-term winger and thus salvage his position in the organization. Or he can make himself a more enticing commodity for the trade market, when and if that becomes a priority for general manager Peter Chiarelli.