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Josh Brook’s season of growth is a positive sign for Ryan Poehling

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It hasn’t been easy, but the rookies in the Canadiens organization are trending in the right direction.

Club de Hockey Canadien

The Laval Rocket received a large influx of drafted talent in the off-season in the form of Ryan Poehling, Cayden Primeau and Josh Brook, and expectations were extremely high for the young trio. Poehling was coming off a hat trick in his NHL debut, while Primeau had won a closet full of trophies in the NCAA. While an accomplished defender in the WHL, it seemed Brook had the most to prove going into his first professional season. With Cale Fleury making the jump to the NHL straight out of training camp, Brook was thrust into a top-four role with the Rocket, which excited plenty of fans.

Then reality hit, and Brook struggled to find consistency at the AHL level. He had some difficulty with decision-making, and with that, failed to produce at a level many expected of him. With 13 points in 60 games his offensive game hadn’t blossomed like many people thought. He even spent a few games playing as a forward when the situation arose.

Then, with Xavier Ouellet and Karl Alzner recalled to the NHL, and Evan McEneny out with a long-term injury, Brook was thrust back into a top-four role, only this time he looked like a new player. He was more confident, made smarter choices with the puck, and looked more like the player from his WHL days as opposed to the nervous rookie who started the season.

Unfortunately for Brook, as he was hitting his stride the AHL season was placed on pause due to the outbreak of Covid-19, leaving many to wonder what he had left to give as the Rocket chased a playoff spot.

There is more positive news to take away from Brook’s growth as the season progressed. However, it relates more to fellow rookie Poehling. The 21-year-old centre burst into the Canadiens organization fresh off a World Juniors MVP, and in his debut he pretty much beat the Toronto Maple Leafs on his own, notching a hat trick and shootout winner. Even in the early preseason, Poehling looked to be a shoo-in with some highlight-reel plays where he looked to be ready for the NHL full time.

However, an injury saw Poehling’s regular season get off to a delayed start. In his absence it was Nick Suzuki who claimed the NHL roster spot — an opportunity that Suzuki used to propel himself into the discussion for the Calder Trophy.

Poehling headed to Laval and eventually earned an NHL recall. But, with two points in 27 games, the shine from his debut and preseason was dulled a bit. At the AHL level, Poehling played well in his role, trusted to play top-six minutes and be a lead penalty killer for Joel Bouchard. But again, much like Brook, the points were hard to come by.

This is where Brook’s slow, but positive, progression comes in, aided in part by the coaching of Bouchard. With Bouchard’s steady hand at the wheel, players like Brook were moved into roles befitting them until they earned otherwise. For Poehling, while he may not have been producing points, his play had earned him a prominent role in the lineup each night. Brook, not yet 21, was finding his footing in the professional game, growing more confident and smart on the ice with each game.

With Bouchard behind the bench, Poehling is more than likely to follow the same growth curve as Brook has this year. It just requires a bit of patience from the fans to reap the full rewards, and it especially requires the Canadiens to take their time with these prospects. The organization is in a rebuild on the fly, and while it may make sense to thrust players like Josh Brook and Ryan Poehling into big roles where they can sink or swim, it is far wiser to take the long-term approach and allow them to grow at a pace that suits them.

Brook has plenty of talent to spare, and he showed that as his rookie season wore on. For Poehling, his slow start shouldn’t be seen as a negative. He, like Brook, is adjusting and learning and that comes with going through early struggles. Under the watchful eye of his Laval coach, Poehling won’t be far from taking that next step and establishing himself in the Canadiens organization.