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IN DEPTH: Pouliot finds a home

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Benoit Pouliot lines up for a faceoff. Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers.

Benoit Pouliot was living out of a suitcase. Not literally, but it sure felt like it. The Oilers are his fifth NHL team in five years. It was a difficult period of time for the, now 28-year-old, winger. He was searching for a home.

“Changing teams every year is always tough,” said Pouliot. “You never know what’s going to happen the year after. You’re not guaranteed to come back, and in your mind you always think about it. You’re a bit more stressed.”

All that uncertainty can weigh on a player.

“People say they don’t really think about it, they try not to think about it but it’s always there. Maybe not at the beginning of the year, but when you get to the end of the year you want to make sure you had a good year because it always comes back in your head and you always think about what’s going to happen next,” said Pouliot.

“You never know because you don’t talk to the general manager, you don’t talk to those guys. You’ve got your agent to do that, but at the same time you try not to worry about it but it’s always going to linger. It can throw you off your game at times and other times it can push you even more. There are positives to it and negatives to it.”

But Pouliot doesn’t have to worry about all that uncertainty as the 2014-15 season comes to a close. He has found a fit.

FINDING A HOME

The Oilers showed immediate and legitimate interest in Pouliot as the 2014 free agency period opened. That quickly culminated in Pouliot agreeing to a five-year deal with the club.

“Edmonton was really interested in me and I was interested in them,” Pouliot said shortly after the announcement was made. “It didn’t take long to get the deal done.”

What Pouliot wanted the most out of free agency was stability, but he also wished to feel wanted. After numerous one-year stints in different cities, it was time to find a longer-term destination.

Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish spoke on the phone with Pouliot when free agency opened and something clicked.

“I had a talk with Craig before signing in Edmonton. The way he sold me on the city and sold me on the team, it was a tough thing to say no to,” said Pouliot. “I was really happy about what he said. They way he wanted to bring me in here and what he wanted from me as a player to bring to this team, it gave me a little boost. It gave me a little confidence at the same time. It’s always nice when you’re wanted somewhere and you know you can do the job.”

Pouliot felt like he found his new home.

“I think coming in here, it helped me a lot knowing that I had a few years more after this one and it kind of calmed me down,” he said. “My game has been good and I haven’t really thought about much except for playing the game and dealing with what’s going on right now. I think it helped a lot for me. My family is a little bit more stable right now and being in Canada was a huge part of me signing in Edmonton. I wanted to stay up here and it’s always better and more fun to play in Canada I think.”

ADJUSTMENTS & OPPORTUNITY
Photo by Getty Images.

Last season, Pouliot found himself in the Stanley Cup Final as a member of the New York Rangers. He had high hopes coming into his first year with the Oilers, but couldn’t match the success of his previous career stop.

“It’s tough, but it happens,” said Pouliot. “Sometimes switching teams like that, you never know what to expect. I knew coming in here that Edmonton had some things that had to change and hopefully we’ll be on the better side. It’s just tough because we have so much talent up front on this roster. We’ve got some great players that we should be able to at least compete from the playoffs and get a chance to get in there at some point. Sometimes it takes time. You’ve just got to deal with it and keep going. Next year is a different year and we’ll see how it goes.”

When Pouliot looks back at his first season in Edmonton, which is seven games from its close, he sees it in two ways.

“Positive and negative,” he said. “I’ll speak personally, I think it has been pretty good for me. I had some time where I had a pretty big injury that kind of slowed me down a bit. But at the same time, when I came back I did the job, the work I had to do. The negative side of things is we’re not really winning games and being close to last place in the standings is always tough on everyone. Especially, I came from New York where last year we went to the Final and now we don’t get a chance to make the playoffs. There’s some ups and downs. Hopefully next year it’s a different scenario.”

The team success hasn’t come this season, but it has been a good year for him personally. In the third period against Dallas on Friday night, Pouliot potted his 17th goal of the season. That tied a career high he set back in the 2009-10 season with the Minnesota Wild (2) and Montreal Canadiens (15).

Pouliot, taken fourth overall in 2005 NHL Draft, has played for the Wild, Canadiens, Bruins, Lightning, Rangers and now Oilers. Until these last two seasons, Pouliot has not had much of an opportunity to play at the top of the forward rotation.

“Whenever guys got injured on the top two lines, in the past, I’ve had my chances to play there. But I’ve mostly played (on the) third line,” Pouliot said. “Last year I had time on the second line, so top six, most of the year I played there in New York and it was a good learning process for me on how to play good every night and how to be good with a lot of minutes.”

Pouliot has been playing on the Oilers top line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle for a good part of the season. It’s a new experience and one that has provided great opportunity for him to find consistency in his game.

“I used to play 11 or 12 minutes before and now I’m in the 17-18 range. It’s good, I like it. You get more chances, more opportunities to show (what you can do). It’s just a matter of being consistent. I thought I did that this year in being more consistent in my game. That was my big problem before. It was a roller coaster ride, going up and down, up and down. Not being on the same level. Sometimes, it’s not going to always go good, but I felt this year it was more on the positive side, personally, than on the bad side.”

Pouliot likes playing with two skilled forwards in Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins. What player in his situation wouldn’t?

Benoit Pouliot celebrates his goal against the Dallas Stars. Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

“It’s awesome. You can’t complain,” said Pouliot. “Even though I didn’t have much ice time before in the past, I think I’ve always tried to do my job and produce with the amount of minutes that I had. At one point, I thought I’d get a chance to show a little bit more and this year I did, like last year. I’m starting to show a little bit better things and it’s good, I like it.”

And his linemates like him.

“He’s been great for us,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s a veteran guy. He’s had a lot of experience around the league. He works extremely hard every night and wins a ton of battles. He’s been a great addition for us and I think our lines really work well together.”

Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson had no qualms about keeping that line together, even after Taylor Hall returned from injury.

“He gives us size,” Nelson said. “For a big guy, he moves pretty well. The thing about Benny is his puck retrieval skills and how good he is with his stick, he creates turnovers and keeps plays alive. He provides a good net-front presence so it’s a good complement to the other two forwards.”

While his linemates have had a positive effect on him, Pouliot has helped them as well.

Nugent-Hopkins has a career high of 23 goals this season. The centre has seven goals and 12 assists in his last 14 games. Eberle has seven goals and nine assists in his last 10 games, and leads the team in scoring with 60 points (22-38-60).

Pouliot has four goals and six assists in his last eight games.

The forward had a feeling he might find his offensive game with the Oilers, citing his season with the Rangers as reference to his previous success with skilled players.

“If I get the chance to use my speed and be first on the puck, I have a great stick and I’ve just got to poke it away from those guys and try to find (my linemates),” Pouliot said. “I always bring back last year. Last year is a perfect example of playing with two guys in (Derick) Brassard and (Mats) Zuccarello, who are probably the same type of players as Nuge or Ebs. We had success by doing that. That was creating chaos in the corners, changing possession. That’s a big thing in hockey. If you can find those skilled guys on your line and you give them the puck whenever you get the chance to, you’ll have success and you’ll play in the opponent’s zone mostly. I think it’s a big part of my job, I enjoy it, I like it, it got me here so I don’t have much to complain about.”

A BIG SEASON

Pouliot has 17 goals and 13 assists in 51 games. What is remarkable about him managing to tie a career high in goals this season is that he missed 24 games due to foot injuries.

“It was tough,” said Pouliot. “I’ve never had an injury for that long. I didn’t really know what to expect or how it would go when I’d come back. I was playing on the top line before I got injured and things were going pretty well. We had some good chemistry and then I go down for a month and a half. When I came back I was hot, I was on a roll. Things started back to where I left off and ever since, we’ve had good games, good chemistry and guys were finding each other pretty well on the ice. They make it so simple for me. I know exactly where they’re going to be, we know exactly what to do together. They help me a lot big time and that’s why I’m here now.”

Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

Missing all that time to injury is not ideal, but Pouliot is happy with how he has rebounded.

“It’s unfortunate that happened. At the same time, it has been one of my best years, productively, for goals,” he said. “It was a long injury but there are still games left and maybe I can try to put a few more in and end on a good note. Hopefully next year I go the same way.”

While scoring goals is great and welcomed, it is not all Pouliot brings. He plays a good possession game, he’s excellent on the forecheck and his coach can deploy him in a number of ways.

“He is versatile,” Nelson said. “We had him play centre the one game a bit. He can play both wings, it doesn’t matter where he plays on the power play, he can play there and he can play on the penalty kill. He gives us lots of options of where to put him. He hounds the puck well and he creates turnovers. That’s what makes him successful out there.”

It doesn’t matter where he plays, Pouliot is always a team-first guy. If one day Nelson wants to change up the lines, that’s fine by Pouliot. If they want him to play on the man advantage, kill penalties or do neither, that’s good by him too. It doesn't matter if it's the first line, second line, third line or fourth line.

“I’m not too worried about where they play me,” he said. “I can help on any line that they put me on. If they want me in a different role, a different job then I just have to deal with it and do it. I’m not worried about that."

“I’m not too picky," he continued. "I’m a pretty laid-back guy. I don’t really stress about much. I try to go day by day and not worry about what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m just going day by day and see how it goes. I try to take that as something that kind of relaxes me more and makes me not worry as much. I’ve had success with it.”

When MacTavish met with the media after signing Pouliot in free agency, it was clear the organization thought highly of him.

Benoit Pouliot was maybe in our minds our most important add,” MacTavish said. “We needed somebody with speed. We’ve talked about size, we’ve talked about increasing our competitiveness and he’s a guy that tracks the puck really well. He’s a great skater and we really felt as a group that we needed to add that element. He’s added that element.”

This season, he has shown those abilities.

LOOKING AHEAD
Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

Pouliot signed a long-term deal with Edmonton, so this is not just a quick stop along the way for him. He has tasted success and experienced winning in his career. It is something he’s eager to get back to. The most exciting thing for him is that he sees the tools there with the Oilers, it’s just a matter of learning and growing together.

“I think the amount of skill and how young we are,” said Pouliot. “We’re still really young. Guys got to learn it takes awhile. You don’t get successful right off the bat. With different teams, it could happen. It’s a different situation. Here we’ve got the assets up front, we’ve just got to find a way to be successful together. We know we can do it. Once you get that taste one time of the playoffs or once you get close to the playoffs, you know how good it feels and how fun it is. Then it can get on a roll and keep it going. It’s just a matter of getting there and after that, taking care of business.”

Pouliot is taking care of business in his first season with the Oilers. Maybe part of that is because he feels comfortable, relieved he has finally found where he belongs.

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