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Catching The Torch: Ryan Poehling beginning to discover his offensive game

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Stats, highlights, and updates on the Habs prospects from the past week.

Shanna Martin / Eyes on the Prize

Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs' prospects playing at the junior (OHL, WHL), collegiate (USHL, NCAA), and professional (ECHL) level.

The expectations are great this season for the Habs’ 2017 first-round pick, Ryan Poehling. He's a player with a strong base of attributes who is looking to push his game to the next level. After attending the Canadiens’ development camp this summer, he seemed to know clearly what he had to work on: developing his offensive game. Now, with St. Cloud State's season underway, he's already off to a great start, with four points in his last three games.

Prospect Spotlights

Ryan Poehling #11, C, St. Cloud State Huskies

Poehling recorded barely more than a shot per game last season, and some of those were tip-in attempts from the front of the net; also how he scored most of his goals. He always showed a reluctance to get the puck on net, preferring to find his teammates with quick passes.

His main offensive skill was always his playmaking ability, and it manifested itself in a few seeing-eye passes through traffic per game, feeding the one-timers of his linemates. He continued to show this facet of his game this weekend against the Alaska Nanooks in their back-to-back series; games the Huskies won 6-3 and 5-4.

Contrary to last season, he's now being used on the half-wall on the power play instead of the front of the net. This should help him change his game for the better. His offensive contributions won't be tied as much to his work in the slot. Despite having size to his advantage and a truly amazing hand-eye coordination, the sophomore will now have the opportunity to refine his playmaking skills.

Not unlike Jonathan Drouin does for the Habs, a lot of the play will go though him, and his team performance on the man advantage will be dependent on how he can manipulate opponents to open passing lanes. As good and accurate as Poehling is with his passes, he doesn't really use deception (besides head fakes) as well as he could to create spaces for his feeds.

Instead, he manages to get the puck through simply by having quick execution and great awareness of where his options are, often making passes through a couple of opposing sticks simply because the other team's defensive formation didn't have time to adjust.

Against Alaska, he had a relatively quiet game on Friday, recording a secondary assist on a 5-on-3 powerplay and another one on the empty-netter scored by his brother, Jack.

Overall, the typical game of Poehling is pretty simple on both sides of the ice. He's an effective and timely support, and this is how he played on Friday night. He was mindful of his centre duties and the puck was rarely on his stick for more than a couple of seconds. He was reliant on his linemates, Mikey Essimont and Patrick Newell, to create offence and capitalize on scoring chances.

But it was another story on Saturday. After being disallowed a goal, Poehling was visibly upset. He shifted into a new gear afterward.

It was the best game I've seen him play. He continuously attempted to carry the puck across multiple zones, tried a lot of one-on-one moves against defenders, and even turned his playmaking skills up a notch.

He failed in executing a few of those things, like his dangles versus defenders. Like I said before, he remains too predictable while handling the puck and his moves are not enough to get him past a line of defence that can easily read him. But the fact that he was willing to try such things in the first place is a very encouraging sign for a player who has been generally conservative in the past.

This following sequence is not something I would have imagined Poehling doing last season. In the neutral zone, he first fakes out the backchecking forward by making it look like he's going to cut inside, only to push the puck back the other way, successfully creating space for himself to enter the zone. He then immediately recognizes Newell skating to the slot without any checking pressure due to the other defender caught watching his move. This creates a great scoring chance for his teammate, who unfortunately can't capitalize.

He's not done though. He picks the puck from the corner after the shot rebounded off the goalie's blocker, recognizes the breakdown in coverage that just happened between Alaska's forward and defenceman (both thinking the other would go after him) and skates in between four opposing players. He evades the pokecheck, gets right to the front of the net, and ... passes back to the blue line.

There's no doubt he should have gotten the puck on net to finish that last sequence. He had two teammates and himself in good position to take the rebound on what should have been a hard puck to immediately cover for the Nanooks goalie, as the shot would have come from so close.

There's still work to be done for the Habs’ draft selection. Poehling doesn't seem to trust his shot as much as his teammates', even if they are further away. He continues to have a pass-first mentality. That is not necessarily bad, but he will need to work on being a bigger offensive threat on his own if he wants to succeed in transitioning his game to a more competitive level.

That being said, Poehling did end up getting his revenge for the goal that was taken away from him earlier in the game, tying the score with a one-timer while falling on his knee after a great feed from Jack Ahcan very late in the game.

Next week, St. Cloud State faces Boston College at home. Let's hope Poehling can build on some of the things he showed on Saturday; the main thing being, once again, recording more shots on net, as he only has two in his last three game.

The Habs prospect is not an unknown freshman player anymore in the NCAA. Other teams will pick up on his tendencies, and it could help him to become a more complete threat if he pushed to develop this other side of his game.

Nikolas Koberstein #5, RD, Alaska Nanooks

Koberstein is entering his third season in the Alaska-Fairbanks hockey program. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like he has made very big leaps in his development after being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

The back-to-back games the Nanooks played versus Poehling's Huskies this weekend were the first time I could watch him play. He has a clear shutdown role on his team, being utilized for big minutes on the penalty kill, notably getting a lot of short shifts during a 5-on-3 the Nanooks successfully killed.

He had a couple of solid hits at the blue line to prevent the Huskies from entering the zone with possession. He seems to look for those more than he's willing to use his stick in those situations.

He also has some of the tendencies of NHL defenceman from other eras in the way he tries to block shots or cut passes. Launching himself on the ice, or legitimately trying to act as a second goalie even if, once again, getting his stick on the puck might be the better option. He also tends to be early in reacting to the threat of a shot, which can put him in an awkward situation, as he's both motionless and leaving a lot of room to the forward attempting to get the puck on net.

He finished the weekend with a primary assist when he got a rare opportunity on the power play. Acting as a pivot on the blue line, he gave the puck to his teammate who scored what would be the last goal for the Nanooks in the game on a well-placed shot.

Weekly CHL performances

Player Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Pos League Team GP G A P
William Bitten RW OHL Hamilton 4 2 2 4
Michael Pezzetta C OHL Sudbury 3 0 2 2
Cale Fleury RD WHL Kootenay 1 0 0 0
Jarret Tyszka LD WHL Seattle 3 0 3 3
Scott Walford LD WHL Victoria 4 0 4 4

William Bitten has seen steady production since the beginning of the season, while Michael Pezzetta continues to put up points in bulk.

Jarret Tyszka is leading his team in shots on goal from a defenceman. The interesting thing from last week is that Scott Walford is finally recording assists for all his efforts. He has been a strong presence on the Victoria Royals’ blue line.

CHL season to date

Player Pos League Team GP G A P
Player Pos League Team GP G A P
William Bitten RW OHL Hamilton 9 3 6 9
Michael Pezzetta C OHL Sudbury 9 3 6 9
Cale Fleury RD WHL Kootenay 6 1 1 2
Jarret Tyszka LD WHL Seattle 8 0 7 7
Scott Walford LD WHL Victoria 10 0 5 5

Weekly NCAA/USHL performances

Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Jake Evans C Big Ten Notre Dame 2 1 2 3
Nikolas Koberstein RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 2 0 1 1
Ryan Poehling C NCHC St. Cloud State 2 1 2 3
Casey Staum LD USHL Dubuque 1 0 0 0

Jake Evans is in for a monster year if he keeps up this kind of production. Notre Dame couldn't beat Denver, the top NCAA team, but Evans still collected three points in their two-game weekend, scoring his goal on a rebound after driving the net on a two on one. His second assist of the night Saturday was his 100th career point in the league.

NCAA/USHL season to date

Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Player Pos Conference Team GP G A P
Jake Evans C Big Ten Notre Dame 4 3 5 8
Nikolas Koberstein RD WCHA Alaska-Fairbanks 4 0 1 1
Ryan Poehling C NCHC St. Cloud State 3 1 3 4
Casey Staum LD USHL Dubuque 3 0 0 0

Weekly goaltending performances

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Hayden Hawkey NCAA Providence 0-0-1-0 4 0.84 0
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 0-1-0 3 0,888 0
Michael McNiven ECHL Brampton 0-0-1 5.09 0.859 0

Michael McNiven was in net for the Brampton Beast’s first game of the season, a match they lost 5-4 to the Adirondack Thunder. Despite what his save percentage might say, he had a good performance. He was easily cutting all angles on shots resulting from cross-crease passing plays from the Thunder, and making some really clutch glove saves. He was the reason the game remained close until the end.

Some of his errors combined lapses in his puck tracking and trouble with controlling rebounds on what should have been manageable shots. But overall, most of the goals against came from blatant defensive mistakes from the Beast, including multiple giveaways.

If the Beast are to have a good season this year, McNiven will need to stand on his head a lot of nights, especially if the defensive breakdowns they have shown remain a common trend. The good news for them: it's something last year’s CHL Goaltender of the Year can regularly do. A bounce-back performance is to be expected from the Habs prospect when Brampton faces Manchester on Tuesday night.

Season goaltending stats

Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Player League Team Record GAA Sv% SO
Hayden Hawkey NCAA Providence 2-0-1-0 2,32 0.909 1
Cayden Primeau NCAA Northeastern 1-1-0 1,45 0.933 1
Michael McNiven ECHL Brampton 0-0-1 5.09 0.859 0

Next week will feature an in-depth look at Scott Walford. The Seattle Thunderbirds have already played more than most other teams this season, so they only get one match this week against the Moose Jaw Warriors. However, we will go back to review some games from the great start of the season the Habs’ third-round pick has had.