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The Benoit Pouliot Experiment

Posted By Matt Preston On Apr 18 2012 @ 8:41 pm In Boston Bruins | No Comments

In case there have not been enough comparisons to last season already this playoffs, allow for one more.

On April 18, 2011, the Boston Bruins traveled to Montreal for Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Series with the Canadiens. With the Bruins leading the game 2-0 in the waning seconds of the first period, then Canadiens forward Benoit Pouliot throws a marginally late, high hit on Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk, inciting an epic rant by Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards [1], railing the former #4 overall draft choice for his failure to live up to the expectations surrounding him when he was drafted in 2005.

One year later, the Boston Bruins are waiting to play Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Series with the Washington Capitals on Thursday night and that same chump is now wearing Black-and-Gold and has been one of the most productive players thus far in the Bruins’ bid to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

When he was signed last July, many came into the year wondering why the Bruins would even bother and if he would even make the team out of training camp. At best, the expectations were for Pouliot to be no better than the team’s 13th forward, rarely seeing the ice. In the end, while Pouliot may not have blown away the competition during the regular season, he surpassed expectations. In 74 regular season games, mostly playing with on the third line, Pouliot set career highs in goals (16), game-winning goals (5), points (32) and plus/minus (+18). Along the way there were numerous, highlight reel maneuvers, flashes of brilliant, one-on-one play that showed an offensive skill set far beyond many Bruins forwards and the former Canadien provided a great deal of offensive spark down the stretch to help pull the Bruins out of their mid to late season malaise.

Through the Bruins first three post season game, as Boston’s top six forwards struggle to find their groove, the third unit of Pouliot, Chris Kelly and Brian Rolston have led the offensive charge and there are some who consider Pouliot to have been their best upfront, at least through the first two games. He set up Kelly for the overtime game-winner in Game 1 and then recorded the team’s only tally in Game 2, tying the game in the third to force overtime. Pouliot quieted down in Game 3 and was held off the score sheet, but it was his group that was on the ice when the Bruins scored 1:02 into the third period of Game 3 to give Boston their first lead in regulation of the entire series.

Needless to say, if asked these days, Edwards is sure to have a much different take on Pouliot’s talent and ability.

Regardless of how well he has played or how this season ends, however, there are questions and decisions to be made about Pouliot’s future in Boston. The 25-year old came to Boston on just a one-year, $1.1 million contract making Pouliot a free agent, albeit restricted, at the end of the season. There would certainly be the cap space should general manager Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the Bruins brass decided they wanted to keep Pouliot in the fold, and his play has certainly earned him enough respect that Boston should, at least in theory, want to bring him back. Where the issue comes in, however, is where the ceiling is at on Pouliot’s potential and how does the Ontario native fit into the long term plans of the Bruins?

Pouliot’s level of play improved a good deal over the course of the season and, at just 25, there is still plenty of hockey life in him. He is still raw and is still better playing a one-on-one game than playing the team game within the system the Bruins speak so highly of, but Pouliot is also young enough that, based on the season he had, it is possible that he could continue to develop a better team sense and produce more. Boston, however, already has 10 of the 15 forwards who logged significant minutes this year locked up for the 2012-2013 season. Of the remaining five, Pouliot is the only restricted free agent, but one would think he comes behind at least Kelly on the priority list, if not Kelly, Daniel Paille and possibly even Gregory Campbell. This is also excluding the Bruins top offseason project of re-signing netminder Tuukka Rask.

Also working against Pouliot is the competition of Jordan Caron, who also came on late in the season. Caron played in just 48 games this season, recording seven goals and eight assists, but battled Pouliot all season for a spot in the Bruins lineup, right up until the eve of Game 1 against Washington. He is also younger and it is less likely that the ceiling of his potential has been seen.  There are also a handful of other young prospects in the Bruins system that will garner a look from the big club over the next season or two to see how well they can produce at the next level. It is very possible that at all of 25-years old, Pouliot may be deemed as too old to be worth a long-term contract as an end of the roster, depth player.

Another detracting factor in Pouliot is how similar his game has been this year to that of Michael Ryder during his tenure in Boston. There are many who will claim that Ryder never quite lived up to the $4 million a year contract he was given by the Bruins, just once scoring more than 20 goals in a season and never quite developing into the first line winger many envisioned him to be when the Bruins laid out that kind of money. Ryder, however, always managed to show flashes of brilliance in his game that left folks wanting more and always seemed to save his best hockey for the postseason, as Pouliot seemingly has done as well.

In the end, Pouliot’s fate with the Bruins could play out much like that of Ryder. A nice player, one the team would strongly consider bringing back, but only at the right price, which will likely be a bit lower than could be found elsewhere based on the flashes he has shown. Regardless of how and when his Boston career ends, however, Pouliot has been anything but the chump who took a run at Boychuk a year ago and has erased all doubt about why the Bruins would even considered bringing him to Boston.

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[1] an epic rant by Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpFjEv8V2h4

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