Benoit Pouliot likely wasn’t in the Rangers’ long-term plans when they signed him this summer, and he certainly wasn’t a month ago when the big winger had just six points through 32 games. He may very well be now.
Pouliot has been one of the best Rangers forwards of late, which, on a team that’s beginning to roll, is certainly saying something. With a long list of forwards now playing well, he has stood out because of what he’s done, not what others haven’t. After posting just three goals and three assists through December 12, including a 14-game pointless streak in November, Pouliot has come to life with 11 points in the past 15 games.
He’s now up to eight goals and 17 points on the season, resurrecting a year in the matter of a month. What was once a failed investment for the Rangers is now a very shrewd one, as Pouliot is giving the team first-rate play for the scant cost of $1.3 million.
The reason, of course, that he came as such a bargain is because Pouliot has been prone to inconsistency in the past. And the Rangers certainly saw this side of him in the first three months of the season, when Pouliot skated invisibly through games and ultimately wound up in the press box in early December.
But they also saw the side of him that the Minnesota Wild saw in 2005, when the team drafted him in the first round, 4th overall. And the side that three other teams – the Canadiens, Bruins and Flyers – have seen since then in giving the journeyman a chance, aware of the player he has potential to be.
In fact Pouliot has very much survived in the NHL on the merits of what he can do, not necessarily what he has been able to do. To any trained hockey eye, the Ontario native is the perfect NHL prototype, big, fast and smooth with the puck. He’s the full package, as the saying goes, and thus an enticing player despite his past.
For the first half of the season, the Rangers only saw that bright side of Pouliot in practice. In games he was simply a non-factor, a guy taking up space, a frustrating example of unrealized potential.
When Alain Vigneault made Pouliot a healthy scratch December 7th, the coach called it the “crossroads of his career.” In other words, it was time for Pouliot to put it all together.
Message received. Pouliot scored in his fist game back in the lineup, then ripped off a seven-game scoring streak beginning a week later. Since then, he’s been a mainstay in the lineup and a force on the power play.
He has used his big frame and soft hands to carve out a Tomas Holmstrom-like role for himself on the man advantage. He is tied for the team lead with five power play goals, all of which have come on deflections and rebounds. Pouliot’s prowess in front of the net has earned him a spot on the first power play unit, displacing Captain Callahan in the process.
He’s still a third-liner on this team, but that’s fine. The Rangers brought him in to be a depth forward, a player who could supplement the scoring in a bottom-six role. Now, after giving them exactly what they feared through the first half of the season, he’s giving them exactly what they hoped.
Naturally, this brings into question Pouliot’s long-term future with the Blueshirts. He was signed to a one-year, experimental-type deal this summer, the Rangers wary of his inconsistency in the past. (This marks the fifth year in a row that Pouliot is playing under a one-year contract. The Rangers weren’t the only ones afraid of commitment.)
But if he continues to produce the way he is now, the Rangers would be foolish to let him go. Scoring depth has long been an issue for this team, but Pouliot, along with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, has lately made it a strength. And though he might demand a slight raise this summer, he’ll still come relatively cheap.
The Rangers might not like the idea of committing to him long term. If the past is any indication, it’s a risky investment at best. But Pouliot is now doing his very best to give them no choice.