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Ryan Poehling’s mindset is behind his strong start to the season

After a tough first professional season, the Canadiens prospect is turning things around from the inside out.

Belleville Senators v Laval Rocket Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Ryan Poehling is a cautionary tale for reading too much into a debut. No, I’m not talking about his three-goal and shootout winner NHL debut. I’m talking about his struggles in his first professional season.

The expectations were high for Poehling, the Montreal Canadiens first-round pick in 2017. He was coming off of an MVP performance at the World Juniors and his NHL debut. Then, an injury cut his training camp short and he was sent to the Laval Rocket. He had one goal and one assist in 27 NHL games, and five goals and eight assists in 36 AHL games. It seemed like he could never quite get his footing.

“It’s a lot for a guy,” said Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard. “He comes in, he’s got three goals in his first game. He wants to be in the NHL, to justify why he was a first-round pick. Then he’s coming to us, he goes to the wing in the NHL. It was a good learning year for him. What I was very proud of last year is that when we went on our run and we were playing well, he was a part of it before he got hurt.”

Poehling scored his first goal of the season on Friday night — his first AHL goal since November 2019 and his first goal overall since January 2020 against the Calgary Flames. It isn’t just the goal that makes him noticeable through his first three games.

“I think this year he’s come back to where I saw him at the end of the year last year,” Bouchard said. “He’s definitely engaged. He’s more assertive. It’s going to be a process. Ryan is going to be a guy who has to be good for 200 feet. I’m playing him on the PK, on the PP, five-on-five, I double shifted him a couple of times [Friday].”

For Poehling, he says he had the best off-season he’s ever had in terms of training, but there was something else that he pointed out. He says the time off between his injury and the pandemic gave him perspective and that is just as much of a reason behind his improved play.

“Honestly, remembering why you play,” Poehling said. “I play because I love playing hockey. When you take 13 months off not playing, you miss it a lot and it made me realize how big a part of my life it is. This year I love playing hockey, I love showing up to the rink.”

His coach sees a difference.

“He’s more free than last year when he was putting a lot of pressure on himself,” Bouchard said.

The Rocket have a big roster, and that means that there needs to be a rotation. It’s not the easiest thing to get players fighting to get to the next level to understand but Bouchard and his coaching staff have hit the right balance.

“Everyone is a competitor and we all want to play,” Poehling said. “There are so many guys that you have to take your turn. It starts at the top. The coaching staff has done a great job having everyone buy in to the situation. The players have done their job too. When you’re in the lineup, you’re not going to take it for granted, you’re going to do your job. There’s a good lesson to be learned there, everyone is buying into each other and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”

Bouchard has said for years that it’s not about how many veterans you have, it’s about having the right veterans. They appear to have that mix nailed this year. Bouchard lamented “independent contractors” in previous years leading to benching and trading players who were brought in to be key contributors.

With four games in six days coming up next week, Bouchard says he has another plan for his lineup and that means there will likely be a lot more rotation.