Selected late in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Ryan Poehling joined the Montreal Canadiens organization as a solid defensive centre with a relentless approach to the forecheck. These traits set him up for success and put him on a clear path to the NHL, as we highlighted in his pre-draft profile.
While he was only 17 years old when he played his first season in the NCAA with the St. Cloud State Huskies, he managed just seven goals on a meagre 37 shots on goals, along with six assists in 35 games. He had a fairly simple offensive game that mostly took advantage of whatever the opposition presented to him, chipping in the odd point when things aligned his way.
With his ceiling seemingly set at being a third-line centre, though with a floor not considerably lower, I regarded Poehling as a safe pick for a team full of similar players, in a time when what the organization really needed was skilled offensive players to go along with the more balanced options that existed throughout the NHL lineup.
As a result, he ranked just 14th in his first year in this project; one of the lowest debuts for a first-rounder in our Top 25 Under 25, and a few positions lower than a player selected a full round later who possessed top-six upside.
I was one of those who needed to see more offensive ability before granting him a spot within the Top 10. And he provided just that in 2017-18.
Last year, he doubled his goal total, tripled his assist tally, and had four goals stand as the game-winner. He was fourth on his team in scoring and sixth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference among players with no more than sophomore experience. Early in the season, he was scoring at better than a point-per-game rate, and while his production did taper off as the season went on, it was still a major step forward in the one area of his game that threatened to hold him back.
His ranking jumped across the board. After 29% of voters had him within their Top 10 a year ago, 86% have him there in 2018. The EOTP community vote placed him three spots higher than last summer, and hit his ultimate ranking at #7.
Top 25 Under 25 History
A seven-place improvement from the 14th position in his debut is one of the five largest increases in ranking this year. Four of the players in that group were drafted in 2017.
Leading to the offensive outburst was a game that became much more dynamic in the offensive zone. Where he would dish the puck off to a teammate while transitioning up the ice in his first year, he was often looking to make a play himself in his sophomore campaign.
Even in his 13-point freshman year, he showed an excellent ability to find his teammates through traffic with quick, accurate passes, but it rarely resulted in a goal as he telegraphed his intentions. Last year he was working to be more unpredictable, moving to find different lanes than the ones immediately available and catching opponents off-guard with no-look passes.
His play without the puck can be just as effective. He’s a high-energy player who never gives up on a play, with a dogged forecheck to create turnovers in the offensive zone and an ability to shut down opposition chances in his own end by challenging shooters and racing to puck battles along the boards. That style allowed him to stand out at Canadiens development camp this summer, being the most noticeable player on the ice.
He tends to be more conservative in his approach to the centre position, which lends itself to a disciplined defensive game. He rarely puts himself in a bad position by cheating toward an offensive play, being very responsible in his role.
Because of that, he is a quality penalty-killer, becoming one of head coach Bob Motzko’s top options in man disadvantage situations at both St. Cloud State and when the two paired up for the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championship. Poehling is a strong faceoff man, winning 52.4% of his draws in collegiate play last year, though that only ranked fourth on what was a very good faceoff team.
At full strength, he was one of the better offensive players in his conference, ranking eighth overall with 10 of his 14 goals goals and 11 of his 17 assists coming at five-on-five.
It’s great that so much of his offence came without the benefit of an additional body for his team, but he was a key player on the power play, and had just eight points to show for it. It was the lowest total among the top 30 scorers in the conference. He alternated between playing along the boards to take advantage of his passing skills and being in front of the net where his hand-eye coordination can be put to use, but neither approach resulted in many goals.
Hounding puck-carriers to force them into poor passes is a hallmark of his game, but he’s prone to the same tactics from opposition forwards. He’s not speedy enough to race away from back pressure, and he isn’t all that effective at shielding the puck from those looking to steal it away. He’s not particularly solid on his skates, and that prevents him from outmuscling players who physically challenge him on his way up the ice.
Taking more shots forced the opposition to stay more honest last year, but he still managed to put just 69 pucks on target. That reluctance hinders his play in the offensive zone as defenders can focus more on the teammates who will be accepting his passes. He will often attempt a pass even with a clear lane to the net open for himself.
Ryan Poehling will become an NHL player. His defensive play and forecheck alone will ensure that he reaches that goal, and that was evident even before he was drafted last year.
The question has been just how much offence he can produce at the pro level. He seems to be content to distribute the puck to teammates, and that prevents his game from blossoming at the NCAA level, let alone the NHL one.
His increased offensive output last season is an encouraging sign that one of the few areas of his game that wasn’t up to par is being developed, and that will open up opportunities that seemed closed to him one year ago.
A play he made this season forced a re-evaluation of his offensive potential, and revealed a side that had lain dormant. A between-the-legs goal scored while an opposition defender was bearing down on him was a surprising bit of skill for a player who hadn’t shown the desire to attempt such a play before.
One goal may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but this one violated all expectations observers had for him. David St-Louis highlighted the significance of the play soon after the fact, as a potential turning point in his development.
The creativity, confidence, and — more importantly — willingness to even attempt such a move sent him crashing though the third-line ceiling that had capped his projections.
He doesn’t need to score highlight-of-the-year candidates to be an effective offensive producer in the NHL, but he does need to be more of a threat to do some scoring himself to really open up his playmaking game. We now know that he has that ability hidden away inside, and should it be brought to the fore, it will make him a quality contributor for the Canadiens in the near future.