Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Benching Pouliot

A Question Of Priority

Benoit Pouliot took a fateful penalty in Game #3. Following 2 games and a period without a point, Ben charged into Johnny Boychuk as the second man and ended up serving 2 minutes. Although the Bruins didn't technically score on the PP, they did score their 3rd (and gamewinning) goal within 10 seconds of its end while the Habs were still scrambling.

Pouliot played 2 more shifts in that game, and with Halpern's return, none since.

While the penalty was extremely ill-advised, and warrants a lesson of the sort being handed out right now. On the cusp of Game #6, however, the banishment of Pouliot turns into something bigger: a decision on organizational priority.

To bench Pouliot now reinforces the message to Ben and to other young players that the playoffs are a special brand of hockey where concentration has to come before whimsy.

The other side of the coin is that Pouliot represents a better player than many of those in the line up. A player who can break defenses on his own, who can control quick passes, who can score goals under tight checking.

The choice for the Habs, therefore: This year or future years?

This year

To go for it this year, the Canadiens need to answer Claude Julien's defensive adaptations. No longer can the Tom Pyatts of the world just carry down the boards. That avenue of attack has been sealed off. To go for it this year, Martin has to look to increase his goalscoring and the threat of goalscoring (to push Bruins defenders to make mistakes again).

Pouliot isn't going to storm the scene and take over the series, but he does offer a known quantity in terms of offensive know how. This season he scored 13 goals while playing on different lines. Never once was he given the full benefit of Gomez or Plekanec, yet he found ways to make it work for certain periods of the season.

Over the season, Benoit scored 0.856 goals per 60 minutes of play and averaged 1.975 points per 60 minutes. As a goalscorer and point getter this places him in the top 6 on the team. Consider also that he was on the ice for a total of 41 goals this season (36 of which were at ES).

This puts him in good stead vs. the current top 6 players and a good distance ahead of the others. Tom Pyatt, who rarely misses a game, was only on the ice for 12 goals all season long. Pouliot also offers promise over Eller (0.49 G/60 and 1.19 Pts/60), Moen (0.35 G/60 and 0.92 Pts/60) and White (0.50 G/60 and 1.24 Pts/60).

I think adding Ben back in would accomplish a few things like adding a third line that can score (much like the Ryder line that has troubled the Habs so much), giving another option for when Moen dries up production on the 2nd line again and just add a little bit of danger to the minds of Boston defenders who mustn't shudder when they see Pyatt and Weber coming.

I think adding Ben back in would be an indication that the choice to win tonight and to win as much as possible this season represents as big a priority as anything else to the organization.

Future seasons

The choice to defer success now for success later wouldn't be a new choice for the Habs. Three years ago, when the team gave Price his baptism by fire, they did the same.

Benching Pouliot is more than a lesson to Pouliot. It is a signal to everyone, rookie and veteran alike, that straying from the core strategy will not be tolerated - the core strategy of course being discipline under fire.

It's a valid stance. Discipline is valuable based on the season the Habs have just had. The Canadiens worst slip ups and defeats came during moments of indiscipline and largesse. To eliminate silly penalties is to eliminate one of the team's main weaknesses.

It's also valid given the make up of the squad. Price, Eller, Pouliot, Subban, Weber, Pyatt, Desharnais, White. These are all players that will be here for a while. These are all players being molded. It's hard to see it when it's taking place, but some trouble seasons, some dead-end playoff runs are valuable learning grounds. Without losing and the pressure of having to win, the precocious talent often misses being tempered into the steel that can battle through 4 rounds. If the goal is a Cup, and it should be, then hardening the competitors for a Cup run is a vital step.

If Pouliot is benched one more time, with the threat of elimination, it will mark for me the organization's priority for the future. A recognition that the team may not be there yet and lessons gathered now may be more helpful than a second round berth.

Mutually exclusive goals?

If you know our blog, then you know our thinking on this. Losing Markov, recent trades, surges of other teams, these are all lessons that show us chances are precious. Planning for the future is nice, but there are no guarantees there will be a future (at least in the playoffs).

What's more (and you can probably tell from the undeveloped argument for the future above), lessons don't have to be contained in packages that run over a year. And there are more lessons to be learned than the one Pouliot is supposed to be soaking up in the pressbox. Think for example of the lessons that a young team could learn from a disciplined couple of games from Pouliot, think of the lessons they could learn from adding passion to discipline, think of what they could learn from winning tonight's game, tomorrow's game.

My position (although I can see the other side) is that Pouliot needs to play. As probably the fourth best pure talent on the team in front of the defenders and an unpredictable proposition, he's too important a piece to leave out of the battle plans. I believe that the Habs dearth of scoring and chance generation is a bigger problem now than discipline - particularly in light of the fact referees are taking care of discipline regardless of play by now.

I hope the team of coaches and managers think this through and graps that what may seem like a black and white choice could be a winning compromise where present and future goals are sought and achieved.

Go Habs Go.

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