Habs Fever - Pouliot: Imagine the possibilities
Published Sunday, January 17, 2010 9:15AM EST
I think the decade-long search is over. Since Saku Koivu became the de facto number one centre in the mid 90's, the Montreal Canadiens have lacked a quality that just about every Stanley Cup champion has to have. They've been missing a big, hard-to-take-off-the-puck, dominating, game-changing centre. You can't win a championship without a dominating centre. Ask teams who have had to face Lecavalier, or Crosby, or Malkin. It's been a search so frustrating that you thought they would never get a chance to grab a marquee man down the middle, but along comes Benoit Pouliot.
The pedigree is there in Pouliot. He wasn't taken fourth overall in the draft year of Carey Price in 2005 because the entire NHL community didn't think he was gifted. It's just that some guys develop a little slower than other guys. Add to the equation that Pouliot was forced to learn defence in Minnesota to such a high degree that all of the natural talents that he had were stifled. That's why a change of scenery is the best thing for a young player sometimes. Look at Guillaume Latendresse as well. Away from the spotlight of Montreal and all the pressure that it entails, Latendresse is playing the best hockey of his career. It can be very difficult to make it in your own hometown. Every day is a struggle to get away from the pressure of fans wondering what is wrong, and before you know it, everything is wrong.
So both these young men are benefitting from their new scenery. I predict this though, that five years from now the winner of the deal without question will be the Habs. Latendresse will be a solid 20-25 goal scorer. Pouliot will be a star. He has all of the tools: a great shot, a greater skating stride, outstanding instincts, a ridiculous reach, two-way hockey ability with excellent defensive decision-making (thank you Mr. Lemaire). The only thing he lacks is physical force, yet despite some of the skinniest legs that I have ever seen, Pouliot is nearly impossible to bring down. He is so strong on his skates that you would think he was 240 pounds at his height, instead of 190. I ask you to imagine this: If Benoit Pouliot adds some bulk to his frame and he still has the same skating stride and speed, who is going to stop him? I see for Pouliot when he finds his best game 80- to 90-point seasons. He will be the number one centre on the team and the Habs will finally stop being a team that fights every season for 8th in the playoffs. They will be in the playoffs in late February instead of the last regular season day in April.
More importantly to the franchise in the next five to seven years is that the development of Pouliot is the only way that the club survives the 7.3 million that Scott Gomez makes each season. Pouliot's salary being low enough to not handcuff Bob Gainey from strengthening his line-up with the overpaid but still talented Gomez on it could be the key to save the building blocks of the near future for the franchise. And if Gainey already has on his thinking cap, then he should be wearing it with Tomas Plekanec in his mind, because he has to make a decision on Plekanec. That decision is impacted by the development of Pouliot in the next four months. If Pouliot is still playing great right up to the trading deadline, then Plekanec might just be outstanding trade bait for the Habs to deal the UFA and move in a talented winger. This sounds a bit out there, I know, but future Cups are won with bold decisions today. Gainey already nailed it getting Pouliot, now he has to be forward thinking and wonder if Plekanec has the gumption to get them to the Promised Land. If he can't, a trade for a top-line winger could be a formula to improve 2011 without hurting 2010.
A lot hinges on this Benoit Pouliot fella, and I think he's got the tools to open up a world of possibilities for Bob Gainey. All he has to do is think outside the box and imagine the possibilities.