NEW YORK — Like all top-10 draft picks, Derrick Pouliot was born into the National Hockey League with the equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth. Alex Biega, by contrast, had to eat with his fingers when he was lucky enough to even find food.
But time and experience can even things, and the Vancouver Canucks defencemen are trying now to do the same thing: stick in the NHL long enough to prove they are everyday players.
Sure, Biega is 29 and Pouliot 23. And Pouliot, recently traded to the Canucks by the Pittsburgh Penguins on the eve of the regular season, is less established as a pro than Biega and possesses far more upside. The Penguins, after all, didn’t select him eighth overall in the 2012 draft at random.
But Biega and Pouliot needed early-season injuries to Canucks regulars to get their chance to play. And 10 days apart, Alex Edler and Troy Stecher left the Vancouver lineup with knee injuries. Edler returned two weeks ago and was immediately replaced on the injured list by Chris Tanev.
So, Biega and Pouliot have played for a month. And they’ve probably played the best hockey of their careers, which have been neither smooth nor easy for either of them.
With Tanev and Stecher about to return, Biega and Pouliot played with desperation when the Canucks beat the Penguins 5-2 on Wednesday.
This has become a way of NHL life for Biega, an undersized warrior who attacks every shift like he may not get another. It needs to become a way of life for Pouliot.
The depth defencemen have over-delivered on what was expected. Playing his 19th straight game, his longest uninterrupted run in the NHL, Pouliot logged 25:08 against the Penguins and has rebounded impressively on this road trip from a couple of mistake-filled games at home.
Biega has dressed for 15 games, averaging 14:25 of ice time.
Neither defenceman “deserves” to come out of the lineup, and Wednesday’s injury to blueliner Erik Gudbranson may keep both playing even if Tanev or Stecher returns Friday against the New Jersey Devils.
But it’s likely that at least one of Biega and Pouliot will be back in the press box before this six-game Eastern road trip ends.
“You’ll drive yourself nuts thinking about what they might do,” Biega said before the Canucks took American Thanksgiving as an off-day in New York City. “As you’ve seen, things change quickly in this game. Everyone’s here for a reason. Primarily, I’m here for my compete level and ability to defend. The game in Philadelphia (won 5-2 by the Canucks on Tuesday), I had five hits and six blocks. I take pride in that.
“I’m 29 years old. I’ve seen a lot of people – good players, highly-touted players. And there’s a reason why certain players stick and others don’t. The people who stick are the ones playing at 100 per cent effort every night; they’re not leaving anything to chance. I take each and every game like it’s my last, each and every shift like it’s my last. That’s how I’ve played in order to even get a chance in the NHL.”
And when Biega backs this up on the ice, he is impossible to dislike. Biega has had to believe in himself because, at times, nobody else has. That’s why he is as tough mentally as he is physically.
After three seasons with the Penguins, shuttling between the NHL and American Hockey League, Pouliot is getting mentally stronger with the Canucks. The coaching staff, especially assistant Nolan Baumgartner, is helping Pouliot with his confidence as well as his game.
“It’s something that I’ve gotten better at,” he said. “It’s just part of the mental game you have to learn, knowing that if you make a mistake, you can still go out there and play and you’ll be better the next game.”
Pouliot said playing the last six weeks has allowed him to “build my game.”
He hopes it’s enough to keep him in the lineup when Tanev and Stecher return.
“I think you just have to play your best and try not to think about it,” he said. “But once those guys come back, they’re regulars in the lineup. You’ve just got to play well and show the coaching staff you can play, so maybe someone else sits out.”
Canucks coach Travis Green said Thursday he has no problem scratching players who aren’t performing or working hard enough, but neither Biega nor Pouliot falls into those categories.
“They’ve both played well,” Green agreed. “For me, one of the hardest parts of the job is telling guys they’re not playing. (But) someone has to sit. Those are hard things to tell players. I think it’s always good if you’re honest and don’t bull—- them.
“Sometimes the truth is just the truth. Good hockey teams have good players that don’t play.”
Green said there was not yet a time frame for Gudbranson’s “upper-body” injury. The defenceman remains with the team, but won’t play against the Devils. The Canucks visit the New York Rangers Sunday before facing the Islanders in Brooklyn on Tuesday.