Watching Aaron Palushaj chug up and down the right wing for the duration of a hockey game gives the word "relentless" a visual aid. If he were a plant, he'd be a dandelion. A piece of heavy equipment? A bulldozer. On every shift, even though he's not the tallest player or the heaviest, he goes implacably where he wants to go. That's often into the corners and out with the puck. Or to the front of the net for a quick tip-in goal.
Selected in the second round of the 2007 NHL entry draft by the St.Louis Blues, the Michigan-born Palushaj played two seasons for the Wolverines of the NCAA. In his freshman year in college, he outscored fellow rookie and Habs first-rounder Max Pacioretty, putting up 44 points in 43 games. He was just 17 when he started that season. He improved to 50 points in 39 games in his sophomore year, then decided to make the leap and turn pro.
Michigan coach, Red Berenson, was sorry to see him go.
"Well, we really liked him as a young prospect and he had a good freshman year here, and a good sophomore year, and then he left. The pros talked to him and convinced him to leave, and he's still developing in the minors," Berenson explains. "That's an issue. We're doing a good job developing players to the point where the pros will pull them out early."
The Blues, and Palushaj himself, thought he was ready to make the move to the AHL last year. He'd put up 22 points in 44 games for the Peoria Rivermen when he found out he'd been traded to the Canadiens. The move shocked him, but he accepted it as just a bump in his inexorable path to the big time.
"To be honest, I don’t know why they dealt me," he says. "But it means another team wanted me so that’s a good thing."
The Habs certainly wanted him. The team's scouting department noticed him in his draft year, and saw him up close while keeping tabs on Pacioretty at Michigan. The fact that the Blues' draftee was outscoring their own first rounder didn't go unnoticed.
Berenson, meanwhile, wondered if Palushaj would survive the rigors of the AHL.
"Palushaj has a ton of talent. Whether he's ready emotionally and physically to play with men every night, 80 games a year, is a question mark."
It's still a question mark, even though Palushaj turned 21 just before this season began. He didn't play the Bulldogs' first several games after limping off the ice at practice last week. The ankle injury shouldn't keep him out too long, but it raises some concern about his size and durability. He says he knows strength is his big weakness, and he's grinding away in the gym to get better.
"I need to get stronger," he concedes. "I just turned 21, so I could definitely develop my strength a little bit more. And I think more speed will come with that and I'll be better in the corner and stuff. That's one thing I'm going to do."
He knows what he's got to do to improve because he spends a lot of time watching himself and running self-imposed drills to eliminate weaknesses he sees on post-game tapes.
"I watch a lot of video," he reveals. "I'm in the gym quite a bit. I stay after practice and work on my shot and my hands. A lot of stuff like that. I think video is one of the most important things, in any sport, especially hockey. So I watch a lot. I like to watch the game at least once after we play it."
The 6'0", 183-pound winger has, as Berenson says, tons of talent, but it's his tireless persistence that makes him a real threat. It's not just apparent in his presence on the ice, it's in his attitude off it as well. He came into Habs camp in September convinced he would crack the NHL lineup.
"I did have a good camp. I was planning on making the team in Montreal. But stuff happens and you have to come down here and work really hard." He pushes sweat-drenched hair back off his forehead, dark eyes burning, an open cut on a cheekbone glistening red. "Keep working hard every day, getting better on the ice and stuff. My time will come. My time will come." He repeats it emphatically, as though someone would dare disagree.
A lot of prospects with that attitude get discouraged when the demotion everyone but themselves knew was coming, comes. Not Palushaj. He concedes it was a tough moment when Jacques Martin told him he was going to Hamilton. Then he readjusted his focus and decided to burn up the AHL until the Canadiens recall him. For him, making it isn't a question of if, but when.
His old coach thinks he'll do it.
"I think he'll make it," says Red Berenson. "I hope he does."
If singleminded tenacity can translate to a job in the NHL, Palushaj will make his alma mater proud.