Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A first test

Jacques Martin has always appeared to want this moment to arrive, only to see what will come of it.

Whenever anyone asked him about how it could be that Benoit Pouliot was such a dog in Minnesota but such a thoroughbred in Montreal, Martin always responded with how important it was for Pouliot to maintain his work ethic. That was a big knock on Pouliot in Minnesota, and always remained a big question mark in Montreal.

Why? Because we never really saw a struggling Pouliot since his arrival in a trade for Guillaume Latendresse. After recovering from his wrist injury and playing his first game for the Canadiens on December 23 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Pouliot never went more than two games without a point, a streak that remains intact today.

But of late, he's been far less noticeable on the ice, less dangerous, less involved, even slower. In Buffalo the other night, after taking a potentially disastrous double minor for high-sticking near the end of the second of a 2-0 game, Pouliot played all of three shifts in the third period, none in the final 14:29 of regulation or in the overtime period.  He finished with 9:52 of ice time against Buffalo, and the very next night against Florida he played 13:28 with 11 shifts in the final two periods, compared to nine in the first alone. And even with the Canadiens trailing by a goal Saturday night against New Jersey, Pouliot got just five shifts in the third period.

Today, what appeared to be clear in those games was confirmed at practice: Martin is not happy with Pouliot. His spot on a line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta at practice was taken by Mathieu Darche, a healthy scratch the past two games, but the poster child for what kind of results come from hard work.

A subtle message from the coach? Likely, and I'd be surprised if Pouliot was not back on his regular line by the end of the first against Carolina on Wednesday, or even at practice on Tuesday. Martin has done this before, notably with Latendresse when he preferred Travis Moen for top line duties during the dire injury times.

So now we'll have an opportunity to see how Pouliot responds to this challenge laid out in front of him by his coach. Will he resent having to respond to questions today about his work ethic, about how he felt to be demoted to bottom six duty and replaced by a career minor-leaguer. Or will he try to prove his coach wrong and come out Wednesday ready to be an impact player?

That response over the next few games will give a decent indication of what kind of player the Habs have here. I find it hard to believe that playing with Gomez and especially Gionta - who have both ratcheted up the intensity over the past month or so - would not rub off in a positive way on Pouliot.

But before too big a deal is made of this (is it too late for that?), it should be made clear that Pouliot is not playing that poorly. His nine points since the return from the break are actually only one fewer than Gionta. But the intensity simply is not there, at a time when a player should be able to get amped up for a morning skate, let alone a game with massive playoff implications.

When you look at it, today was a perfect opportunity for Martin to throw a pop quiz like this on Pouliot. The team has another day of practice Tuesday and a morning skate Wednesday before playing again.

Day one of Martin's exam, should it last that far, is against Carolina on Wednesday night. If Pouliot does remain on a line with Maxim Lapierre and Sergei Kostitsyn (which is an oddly interesting combinations, and not only because each player has held a spot in Martin's doghouse this season) he will have to show some resolve and make things happen. If he doesn't show any push back to Martin, Pouliot may find his role get smaller and smaller as the games get bigger and bigger.


V said...

I love the first line in your article Arpon... 'Jacques Martin has always appeared to want this moment to arrive, only to see what will come of it.'

I think Martin does this a lot... when he put AK and Cammalleri out with a minute to go against Buffalo, I thought the same thing. When Buffalo tied it up, Martin was criticized (Boone, et al) for being outcoached, but that seens like too lazy an explanation... it's illogical to think a coach of his experience would do something that 100,000 Habs fans instantly recognize as foolhardy unless there was a different motive.

I think he just wanted to see what would come of it... to see whether these guys could step up under those circumstances. And the only way to find out is to try it. It did not work... but the odds were at least even that they would and he gained valuable knowledge he can use when it's really important. As did the players.

The whole SK episode at the start of the year felt the same way... it felt like Martin was happy SK stepped out of line because it confirmed what he expected and allowed him to take action. Wouldn't surprise me a bit if the drill was set up to test him.

Good coaches (and I believe Martin is one of those) are constantly evaluating their players and their ability to step up into more demanding situations. When the opportunity comes to test them, they should go for it... as Martin is doing now with Pouliot. Even if results in a loss every now and then, in the long run it's worth it.

Anonymous said...

While I agree Pouliot's play has tailed off some. I've got a question for you Arpon. Do you think Pouliot suffers from large man syndrome? By that I mean, lanky players sometimes appear to not be working as hard because of their size, but are still covering a lot of ground.
While smaller players appear to be going 100 mph. (And in Gionta's case 200 mph)

Olivier said...

I think Pouliot's getting the shaft (or a semblance thereoff) because of his defensive play. He's been doing it ever since the return from the olympics: turns on the jets once the puck is in the neutral zone going the right way, turns them off once the puck is out of the offensive zone and headed the wrong way. Gomez's line being set up against the opposition's top-6 night-in night-out, that can have devastating consequences.