On December 14th, 2013, Benoit Pouliot was merely a depth winger who was struggling to make an impact on a team that was struggling to do anything. But then something magical happened. Pouliot went on a six-game point streak. Then, on December 29th, Pouliot extended the streak to seven games with a game-winning goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning. At that moment, Benoit Pouliot became more than a hockey player. Benoit Pouliot became Captain Taco.
Anyway, Pouliot is an unrestricted free agent and probably the hardest, of the unsigned Rangers, to figure out. I think his potential return to the Rangers is literally a coin flip. Let’s try to figure out what to do with him.
Age: Turns 28 in September.
Previous Contract: One Year/$1.3M Cap Hit
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2013-2014 Basic Stats: 80 Games, 15 Goals, 21 Assists (25 Games, Five Goals, Five Assists in Playoffs)
Irrelevant Info Pierre McGuire Would Enjoy: Pouliot was teammates with Marc Staal while playing for the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League.
Why You Keep Him:
Like pretty much everyone else on the team, Pouliot’s stats are watered down by the disastrous first two months of the season. Fast forward to December, and Pouliot went on to score 13 goals with 19 assists in 53 games. Around the pace of a 20-goal, 50-point season. Those are some sneaky good numbers from a guy the Rangers scooped up out of the bargain bin and who got little fanfare this season outside of New York.
Even though Pouliot really broke out offensively this season, he’s been viewed favorably by the advanced stats community for a while now. His possession numbers have always been tremendous, and that’s what is so reassuring about Pouliot’s season; it wasn’t a fluke. He’s capable of repeating it again and again in the future. This season, he was put on a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, who together formed one of the most difficult lines in the NHL to defend. What’s particularly special about Pouliot is that his Corsi Relative (how his corsi ranks compared to his teammates) was +3.6%. Meaning that the Rangers had a 3.6% higher corsi when he was on the ice than when he wasn’t. Only Chris Kreider had a higher Corsi rel among Rangers forwards. To compare, Zuccarello was at 2.2% and Brassard was at 1.6%. In other words, Pouliot did better in situations without Brassard and Zuccarello than those two did without Pouliot. If there’s any piece of information that’s going to convince anyone of Pouliot’s worth, that’s probably going to be it. His possession numbers were only better in the playoffs; a 5.3% Corsi Rel.
Pouliot was also very good on the powerplay. Aside from Kreider, he was the only player on the roster capable of setting up in the slot on the powerplay. The result was him tying Brassard for the team lead in powerplay goals, with seven. The Rangers’ powerplay had all sorts of struggles this season, it goes without saying. Pouliot was one of the few bright spots.
Why You Lose Him:
Without undermining the ability of Pouliot, let’s be rational. Brassard and Zuccarello are damn good offensive hockey players. They have hockey IQ through the roof. They skate well. They have unbelievable hands. Their line wasn’t good this year because of some Disney-esque magic. They were good because Vigneault stuck three good offensive players together who play the game similarly. Brassard and Zuccarello are going to continue to be those kinds of players regardless of whether Pouliot is on the team or not.
As I said regarding Brian Boyle, if this was a non-salary cap era then there’d be little debate about what to do here. James Dolan gives the greenlight (or is blissfully unaware) as Glen Sather pays the guy whatever he wants (within reason). He, Zucc and Brassard remain linemates and BFFs.
But it is a salary cap league now. The consequence of Pouliot playing some quality hockey on a team that played all the way into June is that every GM around the NHL who was previously ignorant to Pouliot’s under-the-radar season is now very much aware of what he can bring to a winning team. The secret is out, and that means Pouliot can create quite the bidding war for himself. Pouliot has bounced around the NHL, playing for five teams over the last five seasons and playing on year-to-year contracts. He’s earned the right to demand a multi-year contract and a nice raise. If the Rangers don’t give it to him, then multiple teams will fight with each other for the chance to do so.
Spending on Pouliot means not being able to spend elsewhere, so the question becomes; how much of a priority is Pouliot? Whether through re-signing Stralman or adding another defenseman in his absence, addressing the second-pairing spot next to Marc Staal is of the utmost importance. After that, the Rangers have to find a center to replace Brad Richards. And who knows what else Sather has up his sleeve in terms of trying to find a powerplay quarterback or breaking the bank for a Joe Thornton or Jason Spezza or Matt Moulson or whomever else. Ultimately, Pouliot is not a plug, but of any player whose future is in doubt, he’s probably the easiest to replace.
Oh, and those penalties. Those annoying, untimely, offensive zone penalties.
At breakup day, Pouliot said that he “really wants to” stay with the Rangers and that his “main thing” is trying to get something done this summer to make that happen. That does not mean Pouliot’s going to sacrifice his own security to make it happen. Still, it does indicate that he’s not going to simply auction himself off to the world and that he will work with the Rangers to come up with a deal that works for both sides. The question is if such a deal exists. If Pouliot does stay then it’s likely going to be in the range of a 2-4 year deal worth between $2.3M-$2.85M annually. It also pretty much ensures that Brian Boyle is a goner, while making it that much harder to lock up Anton Stralman. It may very well be the case that signing Pouliot is something the Rangers only do after the futures of those two have already been determined one way or the other.
If Pouliot does leave, for whatever reason, then he’ll be missed. As I said above, though, if there’s one player the Rangers will not have trouble finding a substitute for, then it’s Pouliot. One of the few positives of the Rangers’ current prospect group is a cornucopia of offensively competent wingers who are close to NHL-ready. Danny Kristo, if he can make the jump, has the skillset to slot right in with Zuccarello and Brassard and play their brand of hockey. Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller aren’t as perfect of a fit, but players can be moved around. Depending on what the Rangers do at center, maybe you move Zuccarello and Brassard up with St. Louis while filling the third line with Hagelin, Miller/Fast, and a third player.
In free agency, there are a few high-possession players that might interest the Rangers. Jussi Jokinen is a free agent and would probably be the ideal replacement for, if not upgrade upon, Pouliot. His 8.6% Corsi Rel is by far the best available on the free agent market, and while that is definitely inflated by playing with Crosby for some time and because of Pittsburgh’s awful depth, he’s been a very good possession player his entire career. Another option would be Ales Hemsky. He’s been linked to the Rangers forever, is a good possession player, and showed in his brief stint in Ottawa what he’s capable of when healthy and not in the black hole that Edmonton have become. He’d certainly cost more, though, and I’m not sure he’s that much of an upgrade to justify it. Mason Raymond has been a decent possession player during his career and spent parts of six seasons playing for Alain Vigneault. Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Ray Whitney, Devin Setoguchi, and Milan Michalek are all solid offensive players on the market as well.
This also depends on what cap space is available, but maybe the Rangers strike out on re-signing Stralman and going after a high-marquee center and instead use the available funds to make a major upgrade from Pouliot on the wing. Tomas Vanek, Matt Moulson, Jarome Iginla, and even Marian Gaborik (stranger things have happened) are free agents. I can’t imagine it would be a priority, but if Sather fails in upgrades elsewhere then he might as well explore the idea of adding one of those wingers in Pouliot’s place.
Like I said, there are a whole slew of ways the Rangers can supplant – or even upgrade upon – Pouliot should he depart. Still, Pouliot is a good player himself, and replacing him is something Glen Sather hopefully won’t have to worry about. The preference should be re-signing Pouliot and keeping what worked this past season. No reason to screw around with success. Only if the re-signing of other players leaves no money for Pouliot, or if they’ve exhausted all negotiating options without any resolution, will this matter. For now, re-signing Pouliot is the intention. We’ll see if the two sides do, in fact, get it done.
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