Ryan Poehling did something last year that very few players have done before: he spent his 17-year-old season in the NCAA. Not only did that require him to accelerate through his final year of high school, it meant that he skipped the USHL level, which is the most common stepping stone to the collegiate level.
How rare is this? Well, since 2005, just nine players have played in the NCAA at such a young age. He’s the first 17-year-old since Jim O’Brien in 2006-07, and third since Jonathan Toews did so in 2005-06.
He wasn’t just the youngest player in the league, he was a historically young player in the NCAA; a league where players are predominantly in the 19-23 range.
This is important context to remember when looking at Poehling’s unimpressive stat line, or his highlight reel littered with redirections. Against his own age group, he has been among the top of his class, and there’s no reason why he can’t be a top NCAA player as soon as next season.
He had the widest high-to-low vote discrepancy, with myself voting him fifth while he received a low vote of 37. The majority of voters ranked him in the mid-to-high teens, while three had him within the top 10 and five had him outside of the top 20.
Poehling is a power centre with legitimate upside as a playmaker. Both against his age group and in the NCAA, he demonstrates an ability to connect with high-skill passes consistently. Not limited to one “sweet spot,” he’s a playmaker across the ice, as noted by his quick give-and-go zone exits, one-time tape-to-tape bullets, slick tape-to-space passes, and a nasty saucer that he throws across the royal road.
Not a flashy lane creator, he opens up opportunities by virtue of directness and pace. He will drop the shoulder and drive the net and bring two defenders with him, only to slip the puck to a wide-open teammate in the slot. A conscious effort to draw the attention of the defence complements his ability to find open teammates, and he does this at speed. Although primarily a forehand passer, he can connect with the odd deft backhand saucer that few players can complete.
That’s not to say that Poehling is solely limited to playmaking, as he’s capable of finishing, too. His hand-eye coordination enables him to score slippery redirections. He’s a capable screen, but best when disappearing from the radar for a bit, only to return and pounce on an opportunity.
Without the puck, he plays an advanced defensive game with a relentless motor — likely why he was trusted with centre duties in the NCAA off the hop. He creates an abnormal amount of turnovers on both the forecheck and backcheck, thanks to his quickness, dexterity, and timing. He’s purposeful with his stride and dedicated to his position.
This defensive acumen pays off on the penalty kill, where he has been extremely effective while wearing the Team USA jersey. He can turn the play around quickly thanks to his speed, active stick, and anticipation, creating his own opportunities to use his deft playmaking skills.
Although his production never really took off in the second half of his freshman season, his goals-for percentage did. It wasn’t just that he began playing alongside the team’s top scorer, Mikey Eyssimont, as together their GF% skyrocketed to nearly 58%; over 25% higher than their rates individually. Save for Poehling’s two older brothers, the forwards on the team generally had a higher GF% with Poehling than without, indicating that he was driving the play. That is impressive for one of the nine players since 2005 to play in the NCAA as a 17-year-old.
The easiest weakness to spot is Poehling’s lack of success in board battles. He fearlessly engages in every puck battle he can, and wins a fair share with slick stick skills, but can be outmuscled relatively easily.
He rarely shot the puck last season, registering a mere 37 shots on goal in 35 games. He rather blatantly passes out of shooting locations unless there is no other option. He constantly looks to utilize his crafty playmaking — to a fault. It’s not that he can’t shoot, it’s that he won’t shoot. His wrist has legitimate power behind it with a decent release, but he lacked accuracy and confidence in his first year at St. Cloud.
Additionally, Poehling’s acceleration will need to improve, although this likely goes hand-in-hand with improving his physical strength. His top-end speed is above average, his lateral movement is smooth and slippery, and his motor never stops running, so it’s not a major issue at his current level. However, when projecting his game to the professional ranks where there’s less open-ice skating, it’s imperative that he gets up to speed quicker to make sure that energy expenditure isn’t for nothing.
Perhaps not a weakness per se, but rather a stylistic observation with projection consequences: he isn’t a gifted stickhandler, nor a fancy player. In the NCAA, he’s a short-touch player and sometimes passes up what would be a better opportunity if he took the puck himself. He lacks the confidence to beat players one-on-one. While deking has never been a significant part of his game, he’s occasionally unable to create separation due to his unwillingness to try a one-on-one move.
While Poehling scored at only a 0.37 points-per-game pace, his age relative to his peers is important to keep in mind. He played in a league dominated by players two or more years his senior, which is a massive difference at this level of play. Stepping into a tough league, as a historically young player, and immediately taking on a centre role is impressive in itself.
It’s not that Poehling is without a scoring résumé. Just last year he opened with a 1.5 points-per-game scoring clip at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Tournament, and was a key player on Team USA’s U-18 gold-medal-winning squad, playing a shutdown role. His production on the Minnesota High School circuit was right on par with that of Nick Bjugstad and Brock Nelson.
There have been questions about his offensive upside, but I don’t agree. He lacks in flash, but he’s effective because he makes decisions with pace, and his playmaking ability is among the very best in the prospect pool. He doesn’t require space to operate, as he creates lanes with his skill and smarts. Round that out with the defensive game that he possesses, and he’s a promising prospect.
There’s still plenty of development required, but Ryan Poehling is a skillful, power centre with legitimate upside as a playmaking second- or third-line centre in the NHL.