BROSSARD, Que. — Xavier Ouellet has traveled an arduous path, but he isn’t sure he’d change anything about how he’s arrived at his current destination.
Here he is now, playing for the organization he grew up cheering for — and thriving in a way he hadn’t previously, since he was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 2011.
Ouellet has notched an assist in three of his last four games with the Montreal Canadiens and he’s had a tangible impact on them collecting 14 of an available 22 points in the standings to start the season. Averaging a hair under 17 minutes per game, he’s helped the team control 57 per cent of the shot attempts when he’s been on the ice, and he’s found a way to move the puck effectively and bring a physical dimension to the blue line that would otherwise be somewhat lacking in star defenceman Shea Weber’s absence.
This is who Ouellet wanted to be in Detroit, but it’s not who he consistently presented himself as over parts of five seasons there.
“I truly am a huge believer that things happen for a reason,” Ouellet said after practice on Wednesday. “I’m not trying to find out why, or what happened in Detroit. It brought me here to where I am today and I’m really happy where I am today. I learned from it. It probably made me a better player at the end of the day and gave me experience and made me realize how nothing’s ever guaranteed or given.”
That’s the take of a 25-year-old who had been through much before embarking on a one-year, two-way, $700,000-contract with the Canadiens — a player who was a star at the junior level and an all-star in the American Hockey League, but who also struggled to transition to full-time NHL action with the Red Wings after being selected 48th overall seven years ago.
“He got to the National Hockey League and we had Nick Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, and we had also drafted a couple of young defencemen who were in our organization within that timeframe, and as we went along here he probably never really got the opportunity he was hoping to get here for a variety of reasons,” said Detroit general manager Ken Holland in a phone interview with Sportsnet Wednesday.
“Competition was one of them, and with him being a younger guy in that competition and there being similar players to him, it made it tough. We were trying to make the playoffs year after year, trying to be competitive, and ultimately over the last couple of years in Detroit he didn’t get a lot of opportunity.”
Especially in Ouellet’s final season with the Red Wings, which closed with a buyout of the two-year, $2.5-million contract he had signed 11 months earlier.
The Frenchman, who moved to Germany when he was five and then to Terrebonne, QC., when he was 10, was a healthy scratch 37 times over the course of the 2017-18 season.
“It was tough,” said Holland. “In the summer of 2017, Xavier Ouellet made a tremendous commitment. He changed his diet, hired a skating coach, changed his training regimen, and did everything he could in his power to be ready to work his way into our top-six. Ultimately, at the end of that season, he probably was in the same situation here that he was after the ’16-17 season.
“I made the decision to buy him out because I liked Xavier and wanted to give him an opportunity for his career. I didn’t want him to be here another year, for him to be a seventh defenceman after we re-signed Mike Green — and Eriksson had time left on his deal, and Danny DeKeyser had time, and Trevor Daly had time, and Nick Jensen had time. And, barring injury, his situation here in Detroit wasn’t going to differ. When you have young people’s future in your hands, and we couldn’t provide the opportunity here after he had paid his dues, I thought he was under 25 and we could get him an opportunity to choose another destination.”
Ouellet could have buried his head in the sand. Instead, he swallowed his pride, accepted Montreal’s two-way offer, and set about pushing himself to reach new heights.
“I tried to get better at everything over the summer,” he said. “I got a little slimmer, lost some fat and got more muscle mass, worked on my explosion in my skating and worked on my endurance. I wanted to be ready to play 82 games this year and to be ready to play over 20 minutes a night, if needed. I built confidence over the summer and I worked extremely hard to get ready for this. I always knew I could do it, I always believed in myself, and I had to go out there and prove myself.”
That’s what Ouellet did in training camp, earning a spot on an overcrowded blue line.
He’s since shown with each passing day that he deserves to keep it.
“He’s done well for what we’ve asked him to do,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Wednesday. “He competes hard. Is he the perfect player? I don’t think anybody is. But his compete level is good, his will to do the right things is there. I think, if anything, I see a better player in Xavier than what I saw when he was with Detroit. I don’t know if it’s the style or the confidence or whatever it is, but he’s been good for us.”
There’s no doubt Ouellet is taking advantage of this opportunity.
“I have tremendous respect for that young man, and I’m happy to see him succeeding,” said Holland. “I always tell the story of Dan Cleary here. He was a first-round pick, 13th overall with Chicago, and only really found a home with Detroit when he was 25 years of age and on a tryout. There’s no one, direct path, and all that adversity Dan Clearly went through really paved the way for him becoming an important player for the Red Wings when we won the Cup in 2008.
“I also believe, in lots of players’ cases, and certainly in that of Xavier Ouellet’s, adversity is a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. Adversity is something that tells someone that they need to do something different in order to have success. If adversity deters somebody from reaching their potential, that probably tells you something about that person. In this case, Xavier Ouellet has a lot of will, he has a lot of passion, he has a lot of determination, and he’s learned.”