by Robin Brownlee
EDMONTON (CP) — He went from toiling with a Rimouski team that won just 11 games one QMJHL season to playing for a Memorial Cup alongside Sidney Crosby two years later.
Along the way, Marc-Antoine Pouliot obviously learned a thing or two, and that’s likely why he’s been one of the few bright spots of late for the Edmonton Oilers as this season winds down.
Pouliot, 21, hasn’t made the splash Crosby has with Pittsburgh, but the lanky center from Quebec City has looked like the well-rounded prospect the Oilers tagged him as at the 2003 Entry Draft since being recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL on Feb. 8. He’s been a ray of hope in a dark season.
"Of course it helped me to play with Sidney," said Pouliot, who has had two stints with the Oilers since November. "Everybody who plays with this guy looks better.
"At the same time, when I was 17, we had the worst team. I was the forward who played the most. That was a good experience for me. Both of those seasons helped me to improve my game, for sure."
With four goals and nine points in 30 games with the Oilers this season, Pouliot, drafted 22nd overall by Edmonton, doesn’t have the kind of numbers that scream for attention. That’s not his forte.
"I feel more comfortable now," he said. "I’m playing more minutes. The coach trusts me more, so I just want to finish the season very strong and earn a spot for the next few years."
Pouliot’s poise, gamesmanship and flashes of offensive flair have the Oilers thinking he’s ready to deliver on the promise they saw when they drafted him from a Rimouski team that went 11-58-3 in 2002-03.
"From what I’ve seen from him, he plays a responsible game," coach Craig MacTavish said. "There’s no reason he can’t play a third-line role if he can’t fill a top-two line spot.
"There are a lot of players, of which we have a few, who have to play on your top two lines, otherwise they’re not going to play. He’s not one of those guys. He’s a guy who can play that third-line center spot."
As a 17-year-old, Pouliot managed 73 points with an Oceanic team that had gutted its roster to secure the future rights to Crosby.
Pouliot was Rimouski’s best player by a long shot. Steady. Determined. Gritty.
In 2004-05, Pouliot had 45 goals and 114 points playing on a line with Crosby, who had 168 points, and Dany Roussin, who had 116 points, as Rimouski went to the Memorial Cup final, losing to London.
"Probably the defensive side," says Pouliot, asked what part of his game he’s had to improve on most to make the jump to the NHL. "Like every prospect, you have to work."
Pouliot showed some of his polished offensive skills in a 4-2 loss to Calgary on Saturday, setting up a pair of goals by Fernando Pisani.
With his hockey sense and defensive awareness, Pouliot projects as a third-liner, at worst. It’s not a leap, however, to believe he has the offensive knack to be a top-six forward.
"There’s a future for him," MacTavish said. "Hopefully, he can emerge into the type of scorer he was at the junior level, but that’s going to be determined.
"I wasn’t that confident in the first year-and-a-half that he’d be at the stage he’s at right now, but he can play the game. He thinks the game. He follows the puck around. He’s got a real head for the game."
Pouliot, who got an eight-game look with the Oilers at the end of last season before a bout of mononucleosis laid him low, spent most of the campaign with Hamilton in the AHL, earning honors as team MVP.
He had 29 points in 30 games with Wilkes-Barre this season.
"They drafted me for a reason," Pouliot said. "They liked what they saw, so I’m just trying to be the same type of player, the same style.
"Obviously, I have to improve a few things – defensively and my foot speed, which I have improved."