The Ballad of Benoit Pouliot
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
A line that Kurt Russell immortalized in the 2004 movie, “Miracle,” and a line that fits perfectly with the crossroads that Benoit Pouliot’s career is at.
Drafted 4th Overall in the 2005 Entry Draft, Pouliot was drafted as the Minnesota Wild’s “Next Big Thing.”
Taken just three spots behind Sidney Crosby and ahead of names like Carey Price, Devin Setoguchi, and Anze Kopitar, Pouliot was expected to give the Wild the scoring punch beside Marian Gaborik that they had needed for so long.
Entering his fourth pro season, Pouliot has yet to live up to those lofty expectations.
In 52 NHL games, he has tallied just 7 goals and 14 points. After an impressive rookie campaign with the Houston Aeros in the 2006-07 season, one that saw him tally 19 goals and 36 points as a rookie, Pouliot was expected to contend for a roster spot on the big squad the following season. He was even given the opportunity to play pivot between Gaborik and Pavol Demitra in what would form the team’s top line.
Unfortunately, Pouliot didn’t quite make the cut. He did, however, earn a late season call up that saw him get a couple goals in the last eleven games of the season.
A promising look into the future.
The next season, he was all but given a spot on the Wild’s roster.
Through ten games, Pouliot had 3 goals and 1 assist and was a plus-4 rating. Not a terrible clip for a rookie playing in his first full NHL season.
But the signs of a lack of effort soon began to show.
Pouliot would go games at a time without so much as a hint of effort and was taking, at most, two shots per game. Not necessarily what you want to see out of a big time sniper.
Occasionally, he would dazzle with the puck. Every once in a while, you would see a flash of the skill that got him drafted fourth overall.
But then he would disappear. In fact, he went his last 23 games with the squad without scoring a single goal. Again, not necessarily what you want to see out of one of your snipers.
With the regime change in Minnesota, many were expecting Pouliot to fall by the wayside. Certainly there would have been enough reason to. But Chuck Fletcher decided to give the youngster another shot.
Pouliot came into camp this season ready to prove himself and, again, he has certainly shown flashes of what he is capable of. In a preseason game against Chicago, centering Martin Havlat and Petr Sykora, Pouliot showed marked improvement in all aspects of his game.
All aspects, but the consistent effort.
Head Coach Todd Richards called it being “engaged” in the game, but whatever you want to call it, Pouliot just doesn’t get “it.”
“It” would be defined as the understanding of the effort that needs to be put into the game to be successful.
The good players get “it.”
The great players live “it.”
And right now, Benoit Pouliot does neither.
But he has in front of him a golden opportunity. An unfortunate opportunity, born from the fact that one of the Wild’s top-six forwards, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, has been sidelined indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms.
There’s no telling how long Bouchard will be on the shelf, but Pouliot will be given the opportunity to fill his skates over the next few weeks.
Call it a tryout, call it an audition, call it blind luck. Whatever you call it, what it equates to is that Pouliot has the chance to prove every one of his naysayer’s wrong.
Despite only playing a little over five minutes in the Wild’s overtime victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, Pouliot did indeed look “engaged.” He had a nose for the puck, he was throwing his weight around, and he was trying to create. But what stood out most to me, was that he skated hard without actually looking like he skated hard.
It dawned on me that maybe this is one of the reasons that he has been given the label of lazy. Because, quite simply, while everyone looks like they’re skating on the ice, he looks like he’s skating above it. It is a marvel to me that someone with such an effortless stride, with his size and hands, can be struggling so much at this level.
But it also dawned on me that, despite buying into the checking line role on Tuesday, Pouliot might not be suited to play that role.
There are some players that elevate the game of those around them and there are some that elevate their game to those around them and it seems to me that Pouliot is the latter.
Looking at his stats last season, Pouliot’s shot percentage was fourth on the team at 14.7 percent and, get this, he took just 34 shots. He also averaged over four minutes of ice time less than the three players in front of him, playing in a checking role.
This is a Wild team that is trying to re-craft their identity.
We have all witnessed the calamity that is Pierre-Marc Bouchard playing center in this system, so I say this:
Let Benoit Pouliot re-craft his identity as well. Over the coming weeks, while Bouchard is out, let Pouliot be the second line center.
He has had ample opportunity to impress on the checking lines without success, but he has impressed on the scoring lines in his limited stints in the preseason.
What Richards needs to do is take Pouliot to the end of the dock, tell him that he’s going to be there to help him, and then throw him into the deep end.
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