Should the Montreal Canadiens make no more moves this offseason, the team will enter next season with good depth at the center position but with minimal experience. With Phillip Danault leaving for the Los Angeles Kings and Eric Staal probably not returning to the Habs, the team is left with part-time center Cedric Paquette as their most experienced centerman. If the Canadiens decide their young core of centermen will perform just fine and don’t add any veteran presence, this could open the door for prospect Ryan Poehling to earn a spot on the team and take his game to the next level.
Poehling’s One Great Game Caused High Expectations
When Poehling broke into the league in 2018-19, he was inserted into the final regular-season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He did not disappoint the hometown crowd, scoring a hat trick and the game-winning shootout goal to give the Canadiens a 6-5 victory. Expectations were high for the 25th-overall 2017 Canadiens’ draft pick — going into the 2019-20 season, many fans felt he could be the No. 1 center the team had coveted for so long.
Unfortunately, the expectations were way too high, and Poehling started the season with the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League (AHL). He was disappointed when he was assigned to Laval after training camp, and maybe some of that disappointment led to a lacklustre season, scoring only 13 points in 36 games. Due to injuries, however, he saw time with the Canadiens, playing 27 games but ultimately producing only two points. He played just over 10 minutes per game on the fourth line and mostly played wing, not center; this could be a huge reason why he seemed invisible in his call-up to the big club.
Poehling Has Come-Back Season in Laval
Things looked grim for Poehling going into the 2020-21 season, and he wasn’t used at all during the 2020 Playoffs, even though the Canadiens had injuries and he was a member of the black aces. A crucial reason he wasn’t used was that he showed up to the mini-camp for the playoffs out of shape and was essentially benched by Claude Julien for the entire playoffs. This led to speculation that he would be traded in the offseason, which, luckily for Laval, never happened.
Although Poehling had a slow start with the Rocket last season, he finished it leading the club in points with 25 in 28 games. Sadly, it all finished on a sour note when he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. However, the season was still a huge success for Poehling and the Canadiens — as long as the wrist heals well, he should be in the NHL picture going into 2021-22.
Poehling Could Make the Canadiens Next Season
The Canadiens have some spots open at the center position next season. Although Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans will most definitely make the team, there are still questions on who the fourth center will be and which line that center will play on. Suzuki will undoubtedly play on the first line, but the rest of the lines all have major question marks after that. Kotkaniemi has the inside track to the second-line job, but his inconsistency could be his downfall there. Evans is the best of the bunch on faceoffs and has a solid two-way game, but lacks the offensive flair really needed to be in the top nine; the best place for him would be on the fourth line.
Paquette could slot in at the third- or fourth-line positions, but like Evans, he wouldn’t complement anyone in the top nine, and he isn’t a prototypical center. This leaves a door wide open for Poehling. If he can bring the same game he had last season in Laval, he could easily slot into a third-line role and be successful there. He played in all situations with the Rocket and has a good two-way game, which would be a perfect fit on the third line. If Kotkaniemi struggles, he could potentially even battle for the second-line spot, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Age is Just a Number, but Experience is Important
The Canadiens will enter next season with one of the NHL’s youngest — if not the youngest — center groups. The oldest would be Paquette at 28 — and he may not play center — Evans 25, Suzuki and Poehling 22, and Kotkaniemi only 21. Not only are they young, but Kotkaniemi has the most experience in years at the center position, besides Paquette, with 171 games under his belt. This is the big issue with the Canadiens going into next season: can these young guns carry the load, and can the team be successful with such inexperience playing on at least three lines?
The Canadiens have the talent with the young players but lack the experience, and they really need to hope that the talent makes up for the experience. If that happens, then there should be no issues. However, the key will be who plays on the third line, and Poehling looks like the one who could grab that spot and run with it. The Canadiens could get a veteran center to help guide the kids along, but then one of them, if not more, will be held back. It’s time for the organization to let the kids play and see where they take the team — Poehling is one of the kids who needs to be given a bigger opportunity at the NHL level.
Trege Wilson has been a freelance content writer for the past four years and with the THW for the past year. He is the co-host of the popular Montreal Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered on IHeartRadio.com. Trege is very passionate about all things Canadiens and loves to provide his readers with great quality news, rumours and opinions on the Montreal Canadiens. Trege has also been featured on CTV news and ESPN Radio; for interviews and guest appearances, you can contact him at any of his social media accounts listed under his photo in such articles as this one.