Every Montreal Canadiens fan knows the story of Ryan Poehling’s NHL debut, and it’s for good reason as it’s the stuff of legends. Poehling played his first game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Montreal’s last game of the season, scoring a hat trick and shootout winner to cap off a frustrating year for the Habs. Coupled with an MVP award from the World Juniors, expectations were soaring for the Minnesota native.
And yet, just three years later, Poehling found himself as a throw-in to a trade that sent Jeff Petry to Pittsburgh for Mike Matheson. Was Poehling another chapter in a long story a failed development by the Canadiens, or was he simply the odd man out among the centre depth at the NHL level?
As someone who watched him grow at the AHL level for two years, I can say that injuries had a large hand in hampering his trajectory. In the pre-season following his incredible debut he sustained a fairly serious upper-body injury that limited his time in the AHL to start the year, and he posted just 13 points in 36 games, along with two points in 27 NHL games for the Habs. It was a disappointing showing, and he didn’t feature in the bubble series against Pittsburgh or Philadelphia when a playoff appearance was handed to Montreal.
The next year saw a bounceback. On a line with Joël Teasdale and Joseph Blandisi in the AHL, Poehling earned top-line minutes and played at just under a point-per-game level. Again, injury forced his season to an early close, which meant, unfortunately, that he wasn’t able to take part in the Habs’ post-season run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, leaving the team rather thin in terms of bottom six centres.
With six points in seven games with the Laval Rocket last year, it was clear that Poehling likely had outgrown the AHL level, which was to be expected. The NHL team, however, was an unmitigated disaster, and while Poehling produced well in a fourth-line role on an injury-riddled team, with nine goals and eight assists, something still never seemed to click.
Part of it was Poehling never having long-term stability, with his most common linemate being Joel Armia, but a mix of Cole Caufield, Artturi Lehkonen, and Michael Pezzetta highlighted his mix of linemates at various points.
Given the impact COVID and injuries had on the team, stability was a hard thing to come by for anyone. With Christian Dvorak missing time, there were plenty of chances for Poehling to lock down a spot going forward for the Canadiens. While he was far from being an issue in the fourth-line centre role, his way forward from there is difficult considering Jake Evans is likely locked into a bottom-six role this year. While his name is listed in trade rumours as well, Dvorak is slated to be back, and the arrival of Kirby Dach means there wasn’t an open spot for Poehling.
While the Canadiens have been notoriously bad at player development, I don’t believe Poehling’s situation falls into the category of the busts from previous years. Injuries and a directionless team left him floating in space at the NHL level, but he had shown the necessary growth in the AHL that made him worthy of a call-up. When he was drafted, most reports had him pegged as a standard bottom-six centre in the NHL, and that’s a level he was playing at in Montreal.
The Habs focused on the centre position heavily in recent NHL Drafts, clearly searching for a more complete player than what they had among their NHL options, and it all points to Poehling being on borrowed time.
It’s hard to say that things went totally sideways for Poehling in Montreal. He was able to earn NHL time despite ill-times setbacks, and he wasn’t fast-tracked out of the AHL because of his first-round status, either. He proved he was ready for graduation from the minor leagues. In Pittsburgh, on a team that has been top-heavy at the forward position for many years, he’ll have a chance to re-assert himself and claim a spot once again.
At the end of the day, it seems that Kent Hughes was able to give two players a new situation they needed, for different reasons. The Canadiens now embark on their rebuild with a solidified centre lineup to work outward from — barring any more moves.