Laval Rocket season review: Ryan Poehling struggled in his first year as a pro

It wasn’t the season many expected, but it laid the groundwork for the forward to build on.

No matter what Ryan Poehling did this year, he was going to be under a microscope in the Montreal hockey world. A hat trick and shootout winner in his NHL debut after a standout World Juniors showing set expectations very high for the American centre. His preseason looked extremely promising too — setting up a goal for Alex Belzile with some incredible hands, and generally looking like he locked down an NHL spot before an upper-body injury put his debut on hold.

The rapid ascent of Nick Suzuki, and the early injury layoff, resulted in Poehling beginning his year in Laval under the watchful eye of Joël Bouchard. Poehling did not take off like a rocket as many fans might have wanted, but he was playing a regular role in the top nine and a penalty-killing centre, showing that his coaches had faith in him even if the points weren’t piling up quite yet.

There isn’t an easy way to put this, but Poehling struggled a bit in his first full professional season. There were stretches without points, games where he wasn’t all that noticeable, and an NHL call up that had similar issues. That isn’t unexpected, however, the AHL isn’t an easy league to adjust to for many players, and even Poehling admits that the season was loaded with bad luck and learning experiences. That didn’t deter him, he said himself he wants to be a leader in Laval and earn his NHL spot, knowing that nothing is freely handed out in Montreal.

“I want to be a leader on this team” Ryan Poehling isn’t letting a slow season hold him back

Perhaps what made life difficult for Poehling was the constant shuffling around of linemates in Laval, whether it be injuries or just Bouchard tinkering, there were constant changes to help the team. Poehling, more often than not, kept the same linemates in the NCAA and built easy chemistry, and once he found that same thing with Jake Evans in Laval his game started to show through. That’s something to chalk up to learning though, as the AHL is almost always in flux and players all deal with it in some way. For Poehling, a year of experience should more than help him in that regard.

This review isn’t meant to say Poehling was bad, just that the jump to a full-time pro gig isn’t as smooth as his debut might have suggested. There is still plenty to like about what he did this year, but I would be remiss if I didn’t first mention some of the bumps in the road along the way.

What Poehling does well is very simple. He’s a versatile forward who spent time on both the wings and at centre this year. He was deployed all over, from top-line attacking forward to a hard-minutes penalty killer depending on the lineup on a given night. In short, if Bouchard needed him to fill a role, Poehling was there to do so, and that became more apparent when Evans was recalled to Montreal. His versatility serves him well because players like Charles Hudon and Belzile became the go-to players for offence, Poehling quietly ate up the defensive zone minutes to give them the time in the offensive zone to shine.

However, that doesn’t mean Poehling wasn’t capable of generating his own offence, or playing a role in Laval’s. His relentless play around the net is where he found many of his goals by following up his own rebounds, or pouncing on the chances created by his linemates. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was often effective.

While not his strongest asset, he has a shot capable of beating goalies from range. It’s something he showed he could do in his NHL debut, and on occasion in the AHL this year. That alone is a big area for Poehling to work on, as he registered just 43 shots in 36 games, and while he was playing more defensive roles for parts of the year, he’s capable of generating more than those low shot numbers.

Another extremely interesting part of Poehling’s game is that despite him playing pretty large minutes and being put into tough roles, his penalty minutes are incredibly low. With just six penalty minutes in 36 AHL games, and four in 27 NHL contests, Poehling does extremely well to keep himself out of the box. For a player who relies on using his stick to disrupt plays and create turnovers, such a small amount of penalty minutes is impressive, and even more important when factoring in some of the struggles both Montreal clubs had on special teams points this past season.

It’s easy to label Poehling’s first full pro season as a failure, and any other similarly negative things. A lot of it is likely due to a warped perception of his offensive value based on two very minuscule sample sizes. What shouldn’t be ignored is that all the groundwork is there for a solid two-way forward to emerge. A player like Poehling could very easily follow a similar path of Phillip Danault who never lit up the AHL before becoming an NHL regular, and if Poehling becomes even part of what Danault is, the Canadiens have it made in the future.

There are some things to be worked on, but for Poehling, next year is one where we may see a far better picture of where he is in terms of his development. This year was a roller coaster between NHL and AHL stints, injuries, and getting a full season. Even in the AHL, it could do plenty for helping the young centre reach his next level and more.

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