Pouliot Earning His Keep with Sabres

Benoit Pouliot’s NHL career has been a massive disappointment.

Since being drafted fourth overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2005, the 31-year-old has dressed for seven different franchises. Now in his 10th full NHL season, he has never once eclipsed the 20-goal mark.

Most would consider him a bust, and it’s difficult to blame them. Leading up to the 2017 offseason, there was some uncertainty as to whether or not the journeyman winger would get another shot at the NHL level.

After having his contract bought out by the Edmonton Oilers just days before the free agent period, Pouliot’s career was on the ropes. On July 1, the Buffalo Sabres offered him one last chance to prove himself, signing him to a one-year, $1.15 million contract.

To the fans in Buffalo, he’s been worth every penny.

Disappointment in Edmonton

Following the 2013-14 season, Pouliot was coming off a career year, registering 36 points in 80 games with the New York Rangers, helping them reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994.

Buffalo Sabres forward Benoit Pouliot
Former New York Ranger, Benoit Pouliot (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Enthralled with his impressive possession metrics, the Edmonton Oilers offered Pouliot a five-year, $20 million deal. In an era where teams tend to overpay for unrestricted free agents, his historically inconsistent play should have given Craig MacTavish pause before committing to him long-term. Pair that with a lack of durability, and the move appears even more dubious in hindsight.

After two injury-riddled seasons where he produced at the highest point-per-game click of his career, Pouliot fizzled out last season, posting a paltry 14 points in 67 games. Fans in Edmonton lamented his lackadaisical play, clamoring for the team to deal his restrictive cap hit.

Peter Chiarelli had seen enough and opted to buy out Pouliot’s contract, absorbing an annual $1.3 million penalty through the 2020-21 season. His tumultuous tenure in Alberta had come to an end.

The Oilers’ loss has been the Sabres’ gain. Dressing in all 34 games so far this season, he hasn’t remotely resembled the declining player from a year ago.

Resurgence in Buffalo

When Jason Botterill nabbed Pouliot on the opening day of free agency, depth chart prognosticators pegged him as a bottom six role player. Some fans even expected him to be a healthy scratch.

On a team that appeared to be shifting toward a more speed-oriented philosophy, the signing of a cumbersome, under-achieving winger seemed contradictory.

Since arriving in Western New York, he has carved out a consistent role for himself on the second line, spending a majority of his time teamed up with Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo. In a season where head coach, Phil Housley has played musical chairs with his line combinations, the trio lovingly dubbed the “P.O.O. line,” has mostly remained intact.

Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley
Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

From a dollar value standpoint, Pouliot’s 11 points thus far have made him the most productive of the three. With O’Reilly and Okposo accounting for a combined $13.5 million against the cap this season, their play has left a lot to be desired, producing 21 and 14 points respectively.

Not only has Pouliot pulled his weight on the score sheet, he has also contributed significantly to the Sabres’ much-improved penalty kill unit.

Last week against the Ottawa Senators, the shorthanded specialists produced one of their best outings of the season, successfully thwarting the Senators power play which included a lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity. Shortly after, Pouliot broke the scoreless tie, going coast-to-coast on a backhand solo effort.

“It’s not always the power play that’s going to get you the momentum,” said Pouliot. “I think when you get a good kill, a big kill like that, especially 5-on-3, the boys get up, the boys rally and the boys feel good. That was huge for us.”

While at a glance Pouliot’s production doesn’t appear particularly impressive, he’s doing all of the little things right. Though he will likely never live up to his draft status, he has carved out a nice little niche for himself in Buffalo. If he can keep it up, he’ll command a modest pay increase on the open market next offseason.

Pouliot Surfacing on the Rumor Mill

As the trade deadline approaches and injuries continue to pile up across the league, Botterill could opt to flip the veteran winger to a team with playoff aspirations looking to boost their bottom-six. Though Pouliot has played well this season, he likely won’t factor into the Sabres’ future plans.

Buffalo Sabres left wing Benoit Pouliot
Buffalo Sabres left wing Benoit Pouliot (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

With several forwards in Rochester who will likely crack the Sabres’ roster next season, fans shouldn’t expect Buffalo to retain him unless he agrees to another short-term, cap friendly deal.

It’s no secret that Buffalo is open for business on the trade market and will be looking to acquire value for players in the final year of their contract. A veteran special teams contributor may be an appealing consolation prize for a cap-strapped team that loses out on obtaining a high-end rental piece.

Though it is all but certain that he will dress for an eighth NHL franchise next season, Pouliot has served his purpose and then some. His success should inspire Sabres fan’s confidence in Botterill’s ability to seek out inexpensive, effective depth contributors via free agency.