Friday, September 8, 2017

Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster--LW, Benoit Pouliot

Published by, 9-7-2017

Benoit Pouliot
30 yrs. old
6'3" 204 lbs.
Drafted 4th-overall, 2005 (MIN,) signed by Buffalo on July 1, 2017

Career stats:  551 games  |  117 goals  |  127 assists  |  244 points  |  +33

The Buffalo Sabres have a huge hole at left wing in the top-six right now as it's a bit of a mess. The only legit top-six winger for the past two seasons has been Evander Kane who missed 29 games during that span because of injury. Other than that it's been a revolving door.

Former coach Dan Bylsma had used a number of players in the top-six including Tyler Ennis, who had injury problems of his own, Matt Moulson who has skating issues and Zemgus Girgensons, who had issues on offense Rookie William Carrier, was plucked by Vegas in the Expansion Draft, fellow rookies Hudson Fasching and Justin Bailey need more seasoning and at one point Bylsma even lost his mind trying to fill that hole by putting Nicolas Deslauriers up there. Marcus Foligno, who is better suited to a bottom-six role, played the most time at left wing last season, mostly next to Jack Eichel, which was seen as a travesty by many, but a necessity by the coach.

The Sabres didn't do much to fill the hole at left wing this off season and the depth chart is somewhat thin behind a raw but highly skilled 19 yr. old in Alexander Nylander and Evan Rodrigues, who was signed as a winger but was moved to center last season. Fans are clamoring for Nylander to be inserted into the No. 2 left wing spot, but unless he has a killer training camp, odds are that he will at minimum start the season with in Rochester with the Amerks. Part of that has to do with his development and the other part stems from Botterill's time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, an organization that uses a long developmental curve with their players.

Benoit Pouliot was taken fourth-overall in the 2005 NHL Draft by the Minnesota Wild. He spent four years in the Wild system (65 games, 9 goals, 9 assists with the big club) before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens in November, 2009. Pouliot would play in 118 games for the Canadiens notching a respectable 28 goals while adding 26 assists before becoming a free agent.

From there he signed a series of one-year contracts beginning in Boston, then on to Tampa Bay and finally in New York with the Rangers. In all he played in 188 regular season games for those three teams scoring 88 points (39+49.) But it was a performance in the 2013-14 NHL playoffs that got him off the revolving one-year-deal wheel and on to a long-term contract.

The Rangers made it through the first two rounds of the 2014 playoffs with their stars struggling. Pouliot was on an unheralded line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello that, at times, carried the team. During that time, Pouliot's size, speed, skill and most importantly possession numbers came to the fore and in the off season, Edmonton Oilers GM Craig MacTavish signed him to a five-year, $20 million free agent contract.

In Pouliot's case, the numbers really didn't seem to add up to a $4 million AAV contract using common statistics but MacTavish was convinced that they found a gem and much of it stemmed from the analytics community, most notably Tyler Dellow and his MC79 blog.

Dellow was quoted by David Staples of the Edmonton Journal as tweeting this about the signing, “This Pouliot deal features sensible money. He’s a classic Oiler from the ’96-06 period: A ‘bust’ who can play. This is stunning.” Staples went on to write that Dellow "delved into shot metrics to show how the vast majority of Pouliot’s teammates in the previous three seasons had a better shot share when Pouliot was on the ice." Dellow also speculated, according to Staples, "that the Pouliot signing might be Edmonton’s best ever free-agent signing."

The Oilers brought Dellow on board that summer and two years later they did not renew his contract. Pouliot lasted three years before being bought out by Edmonton just prior to the 2017 NHL Draft.

Pouliot's play in Edmonton last year drew some harsh criticism as his tepid production and penchant for brain farts in the offensive zone lead to dumb penalties which drew the ire of Oilers Nation as well as the national media. Staples quoted Oilers Now, commentator Bob Stauffer as saying "Pouliot had a horrendous year," NHL network commentator Mike Johnson as calling Pouliot's play "dreadful," and TSN's Ryan Rishaug as saying, "He’s been awful. Beyond awful.”

So why did Botterill sign Pouliot this off season?

Pouliot came in on a reasonable one-year deal that pays him $1.3 million and he's a vet that can be a placeholder while those in the pipeline, like Nylander, have more time to further their development. It will allow Botterill to get an up-close look at Nylander, Rodrigues and 2017 free agent signee, C.J. Smith as well as the development of Bailey, who was drafted as a right wing powerforward but has been playing the left side.

Botterill told the gathered media of the signing, "If you look at Benoit's history, in situations where he's had a difficult season he's been able to bounce back strong. That's what we're looking for from him coming into Buffalo here.

"I think there's opportunities on our left side right now. I think he's a guy who can play anywhere in that two, three, four hole. It's going to be a matter of how he comes in and how he performs. You look at his size and his ability to get on the forecheck, we just think he's a guy that could complement our centers well and be a guy who can sort of get his career back on track."

As we head towards training camp, the two, three and four spots on the left side are open. What makes me think that Pouliot will get first crack at No. 2?

At 6'3" 204 lbs. he has the size plus he still skates very well and he does have the skill to produce as shown by a shooting percentage that has never dipped below double-digits outside of his first three NHL games in 2006-07. Being on a line with Ryan O'Reilly should be extremely helpful as well as he works well with his line mates and creates space.

Going into the 2016-17 season, new coach Phil Housley doesn't have a lot to work with on the left side. Training camp will sort a lot of this out but it wouldn't be too surprising to see Pouliot get a good shot at landing a spot next in the top-six. What he does with that, however, is up to him.

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