Canadiens’ Poehling Combating Early Career Adversity

In a book entitled One Night Only, Sportsnet co-anchor Ken Reid writes about hockey players who were able to live out their NHL dream but in a very ephemeral way – one single game. Most of the names are not very familiar to even the nerdiest of hockey aficionados – Glenn Tomalty, Sean Selmser, Brad Fast. Other entries in Reid’s book are way more famous such as Don Waddell and Don Cherry. Ryan Poehling is hoping that he will not become an eligible candidate for an entry into a subsequent edition or update of the book.

The Montreal Canadiens’ management team was excited walking up to the podium in Chicago at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Although some of the big names like Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils), Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers) and Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars) were already proudly parading in front of the media with their new jerseys, the Habs were about to make Poehling the 25th player to be selected.

Ryan Poehling Canadiens
The confident smile of a first-round draft pick – Ryan Poehling (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Path to the NHL

The 6-foot-3 centre born in Lakeville, Minnesota decided on the less-traveled college route to achieve his NHL objective. He played three seasons (2016-19) for the St. Cloud State University Huskies, where he scored 29 goals and had 46 assists in 107 games. Poehling was also a fixture on Team USA, allowing him to gain significant experience at the international level. He also has the medals to prove it: silver at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2016, gold at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in 2017, as well as bronze (Buffalo, 2018) and silver (2019, Vancouver) at the World Junior Championships.

Ryan Poehling
Ryan Poehling used the college hockey path to fulfill his NHL dream (Courtesy St. Cloud State)

Following his junior year at St. Cloud State, he signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Canadiens. General manager Marc Bergevin was effusive in praise and could not wait to put his new player to the test.

He’s ready to turn pro, in our opinion. Our assessment of the young player and what he’s done the last few years, we feel it’s best suited for him to turn pro and start his pro career and become an NHL player.

Comments by Marc Bergevin during a press conference on April 1, 2019

His first game in the NHL was a Cinderella story. It came at the end of last season in the final Canadiens game of the 2018-19 campaign on April 6, 2019. Canadiens fans knew that he was a very promising prospect. He did not disappoint, electrifying the Bell Centre with a three-goal performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs before scoring the winning goal during the shootout. Although the Canadiens’ season ended early, there was a definite buzz associated with the early heroics of their young American prospect.

Ryan Poehling, Frederik Andersen,
Ryan Poehling energised the Canadiens faithful with a storybook NHL debut on April 6, 2019 (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Expectations were therefore very high on Poehling coming into his first professional training camp. Many observers, beyond Bergevin and the Canadiens’ scouting team, pegged him as the only NHL-ready prospect at camp. Unfortunately, in the span of one shift, everything changed.

Early Adversity Changes the Plan

During a routine play, Poehling was hit by Dryden Hunt of the Florida Panthers during the Kraft Hockeyville preseason game in Bathurst, New Brunswick. He suffered a concussionand missed a third of training camp participating in only one other preseason game. When the roster was finalised and submitted to the NHL prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, Poehling’s name was not on it.

Bergevin assigned the young prospect to the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League (AHL). When asked about next steps in the player’s development, he echoed his early enthusiasm for the player and stated that “I don’t have a timeframe but it won’t be long until he’s back in Montreal.” Interestingly, Poehling did not express the same optimism and positive outlook of his general manager.

I wasn’t happy getting sent down, because I felt like I did all the right things; did what they asked. And I thought I did them well. So, I was a bit shocked, I would say.

Poehling’s statement to the media on Oct. 3, 2019

Anatomy of a Comeback

The manner in which Poehling addresses this early career adversity will be closely observed. While understandable, his initial reaction and disappointment to not making the opening-night roster was surprising. Some might see it as a sign of the way the young player deals with disappointment. In that regard, his performance thus far in the in the AHL is somewhat worrisome. There is already a certain level of concern that in his first four games with the Rocket, he has only two assists and is minus-four.

Poehling has faced adversity before. In his junior year at St. Cloud State during the semi-final game of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) championship against Colorado College on March 22, 2019, he was injured when he lost an edge going for a puck in the offensive zone. The severity of the impact after crashing head first into the boards rendered the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota eerily quiet.

The injury was qualified using the vague but standard nomenclature used in hockey as “upper body.” The Huskies went on to play in the finals against the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, losing in double overtime. Poehling did not play and would only return to the Huskies in the opening round of the NCAA Division I West Regional tournament on March 29, 2019 in Fargo, North Dakota. The Huskies, seeded as the top team in the region, lost. It was an unexpected early ending to the season.

Poehling has proven that he can come back. Shortly after the disappointing end to his college career, he made his NHL debut a memorable event. It is now up to Joël Bouchard — head coach of the Rocket, who is known for his ability to help young players develop — to rebuild Poehling’s confidence and overall approach to hockey at the professional level.

Joel Bouchard
Joël Bouchard, head coach of the Laval Rocket, is known for his work in developing young hockey talent develop (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

First-Round Hopes

Similar to most NHL teams, the Canadiens’ history with their first-round draft picks shows a wide range of outcomes. Some players were eventually traded, while others simply did not pan out and are no longer in the NHL. It is a situation that continuously fuels animated debates among analysts and fans alike as the performance of the team ebbs and flows from season to season.

There is palpable excitement with respect to the team’s recent first-round draft picks. In addition to Poehling, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is in his second season with the team and the highlight reel goals of Cole Caufield are viral on social media among Canadiens fans.

Cole Caufield Canadiens Draft
Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Most would agree that drafting NHL talent is an inexact science. The now-ubiquitous use of advanced analytics and sports psychology theory might improve the odds of picking the most promising hockey players available. However, in some cases, it is the surprise fifth rounder who becomes a valuable long-lasting asset for a franchise.

Poehling is only five games into his professional hockey journey. It is still way too early to definitively write the full story of his ascent or dismissal from the NHL. Assignment to a farm team is a standard occurrence in the early stages of a hockey player’s career. Hopefully, he will find the fortitude and frame of mind that allowed him to overcome past adversity. The Canadiens and its fans are closely watching and hoping that his NHL statistics will not be limited to the performance of that one night last April.