At this point everyone knows the story of Ryan Poehling. His NHL debut was a hat trick and game-winning shootout goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Naturally, expectations were sky-high from that point on, even if most swore that they were going to keep the hype in check.
His rookie season in the NHL yielded two points in 27 games, and his AHL stint wasn’t significantly better, with 13 points in 36 games. While he did battle through multiple injuries, he was the first to admit he had much more to give, and vowed to be better the next season.
The pandemic threw a wrench into the plans for a lot of hockey prospects, but once the AHL season began we saw a totally new version of Poehling for the Laval Rocket. His partnership with Joël Teasdale and Joseph Blandisi gave the AHL club a true top line all year long, one of the most consistent across the league until injuries took out all three players simultaneously near the end of the campaign.
With a new contract in hand, and the chance to seize an NHL spot in training camp, it is a critical year for him as a Montreal Canadiens prospect.
Poehling’s production in the NCAA was solid, but not spectacular. Yet he has also been a player who is more about doing the little things right as opposed to hitting the highlight reel. A strong World Juniors showing in 2019 offered a glimpse of what Poehling can do when all facets of his game are clicking, something fans saw plenty of in Laval in 2020-21 when he piled up 25 points in 28 games.
Just one panellist had Poehling outside the top 10, while a handful had him inside their top six. The slight divide in opinion isn’t surprising as Poehling hasn’t fully established himself over a large sample size yet, so there is some expected cautiousness.
I asked staff members with the highest and lowest votes for their reasoning behind his placement to span the full range of opinions.
Anton Rasegård: “If we compare Poehling’s status from one year ago, it is a vastly different story today. This year, I think he took strides needed to prove that his future lies beyond the AHL. This is still a player who was voted MVP in the 2019 WJC, and with most of the Canadiens’ prospect pool being young and unproven, Poehling stands out as a sure-fire future NHLer.”
Matt Drake: “He has clearly improved at the AHL level. It’s encouraging, but I just think his ceiling is low compared to others I ranked in my top 10. His highest aspiration might be fourth-line NHLer, which weighed heavily on my ranking.”
Poehling started out ranked quite low for a first-round selection in 2017, but rocketed up the board with that incredible NHL debut lingering in the minds of voters in 2019. The roller-coaster ride has him climbing once more with a consistent season-long performance.
History of #6
|2015||Jacob de la Rose|
Poehling’s resurgence is what happens when a coach gets to mould someone based on what they want every player to be like. He brings solid size to the centre position, shows very good hockey sense in all three zones, and can be relied on in any situation. He’s still just 22 years old, so his game is still maturing as a whole, but the steps he took last year in the AHL are a great sign that he’s headed in the proper direction.
Compared to the player he was during his rookie season, he played in 2020-21 with far more confidence at both ends of the ice, and was particularly efficient in using his shot more often, something he struggled with in the past, which limited his offensive numbers.
It’s not just that he is now shooting more often, he’s using his hockey smarts to wait for the right moments, then putting better shots on opposing goalies. Instead of shots hitting shin pads or the goalie’s crest, Poehling will pull the puck back to reload his shot, and dangle around a defender if needed.
That's 10 goals on the year for Ryan Poehling! pic.twitter.com/HePlCaZmv1— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) April 22, 2021
Those hockey smarts translate to more than just goals, as he is growing into a true two-way centreman, something the Canadiens are desperately searching for with Phillip Danault heading off to Los Angeles this off-season. Poehling has a knack for jumping into passing lanes or disrupting offensive pressure before turning it into an offensive attack the other way.
Ryan Poehling steals, and then snipes on the breakaway for his 11th of the year! pic.twitter.com/4mQb2hhHtt— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) April 23, 2021
Plays like the ones above were missing from his game in his rookie year as he struggled to adjust to the professional game. Last season they became commonplace, and a huge part of why he’s landed back among the top players on this list.
For as well-rounded as Poehling is, he doesn’t possess the sizzle or the offensive acumen of someone like Cole Caufield or Nick Suzuki. He’s taken strides to be a more productive offensive player, but his overall projection is not as someone who is going to light up the NHL scoresheet with regularity. It sets a bit of a cap at where he might land in a modern lineup. It’s a big jump from the AHL to the NHL, and Poehling will have to make the adjustment he struggled with two years ago.
It’s not so much a weakness as it is something out of Poehling’s control, but he’s coming off a pair of seasons hampered by major injuries, and with the Canadiens depth down the middle being what it is, they’re counting on him to stay healthy. Being able to play a full season would yield huge returns for him and the Habs.
Without much hyperbole, it isn’t a stretch to say Poehling should be an NHL player this year. With Nick Suzuki and Christian Dvorak in the top two spots, Poehling will be trying to earn himself regular time as the third-line centre. It won’t be easy as Jake Evans has endeared himself to the Canadiens with his strong play, which means Poehling might start the year on the fourth line.
The competition following up behind him isn’t overwhelmingly strong either, as players like Lukas Vejdemo and Laurent Dauphin haven’t earned much more than a last-resort call-up in the NHL. That doesn’t mean Poehling can be complacent however. The Habs are coming off a Stanley Cup Final run, and want to keep their momentum rolling despite a rough off-season filled with key departures.
The signs are there that he is ready to make the full-time leap to the NHL, and if he can the Canadiens are far better off. After a stunning NHL debut a few years ago, we might finally witness his true arrival in Montreal.
Jared Book is joined by Scott Matla as they discuss Poehling’s rise up the rankings and the opportunity that lies ahead at training camp.