The great George Thorogood once told a tale of a man down on his luck. The tale had been told before. This man lost his job. When his landlord discovered of his woes she promised not to judge him so long as the rent was paid. The rent was missed just once after five years of tenancy, and she immediately changed her disposition. She was ready to throw him out instantly. He was forced to beg for another opportunity. But for five years she was lovey-dovey.
For five years, Benoit Pouliot paid the rent. He missed it in 2016-2017. Now we’re acting like he’s a no good bum who ain’t tryin’ to find no job.
Now Benoit Pouliot is the favourite punching bag of a lot of people, but no more so than for the people that mistrust results-based analysis. In Edmonton, where the debate still (for some reason) rages on, Benoit Pouliot is often used as an example of “Analytics getting it wrong”. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that those who make that argument are either disingenuous or breathing too frequently through their mouths.
For two years, even though battling injury, Benoit Pouliot maintained a healthy points per game and points per 60 minutes along with some solid possession/shot attempt metrics. He was at various times a member of the first line and more frequently a second liner, but almost always a top six forward when he wasn’t hampered by injury. For two years he was the player that many in the statistics community thought he could be.
In other words, it was a win for analytics.
Then this past year happened and everything went straight to hell. So now it’s a loss for the numbers guys? I think the people who make that claim most vociferously are afraid that the numbers guys were bang on for two years, and need to desperately validate their world view by conveniently forgetting the prior two seasons to focus on this last one.
What is both fair and prudent, however, is to look at the bigger picture, including this past year. The Oilers accomplished a lot as a team this past season but secondary scoring was problematic all year and Benoit Pouliot might be part of the solution again or he might not. Is he done or was this just a blip?
So the 2016-2017 campaign for Pouliot was a disaster. It really does stand out in a very negative way. I’ve decided to show Pouliot’s numbers in three parts. I’ve broken it down to four years prior to joining the Oilers, his first two years as an Oiler and the 2016-2017 season. Here’s how a few key Pouliot metrics look when shown beside each other as broken down in those parts.
So that’s a compact table with a fair amount of information. What’s not included in that is his With or Without You splits that might give us a better idea of whether there were linemates that might have contributed to the downturn in numbers (spoiler: there are some obvious names). We can leave it to some other day or some smarter person to explain why Pouliot produced offensively with Kassian but was consistently out attempted and out-attempted the opposition with Caggiula but couldn’t squeeze a drop offensively.
The long and short of that story is I don’t rightly know.
What I am comfortable saying is that based on the results of the first two years of his Oilers tenure compared to the four years that came before it, Pouliot provided the things he was expected. His offense was bang on. He had a positive impact on attempts, unblocked attempts, and goals. He was shooting the puck a little less individually but overall the team was converting shots at a similar rate. He delivered on expectations.
He also was cut down by various injuries that limited his games and that’s unfortunate because his points per game in the first two years as an Oiler were the same as those experienced by Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle this past year. It was solid if unspectacular secondary scoring.
Last year? Woof. His offense was cut in half. The rate at which he shot took a nose dive. He had a negative impact on attempts, unblocked attempts, and goals. His on-ice shooting percentage wasn’t very good but his save percentage was just fine. Total and complete nightmare material.
So will Pouliot bounce back? I’d be a lot more comfortable saying “yes” to that if Pouliot was maintaining some of his other metrics and the shooting percentage was the only thing dipping. Frankly, I’m concerned that he shot the puck so very little last year and that looking at the bigger picture it appears as though many of his metrics are trending down over time. He’s 30 years old and has had a history of injury.
Can he bounce back? Yeah. I’d think it’s possible. I think we have to be cynical about his ability to get prime minutes on the Oilers with Maroon and Lucic ahead of him on the depth chart though. Without quality time on the top 6 the odds of changing the trajectory back towards the positive will be a hell of a lot harder, but he has been a positive possession and significantly more productive player for the vast majority of his NHL career.
I could tell you that Benoit Pouliot’s got a job and he’s gonna pay the rent. Oh yeah. But I don’t know if he’s going to pack up his things and slip on out the back door. There was a very steep drop off in Pouliot’s play and it wasn’t just bad luck. It looks like more than that. It’s certainly enough of a difference that it’s keeping me from saying he will definitely revert back completely. 2016-2017 was rough for the maligned Pouliot; the kind of year that might only be fixed with one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer.