When Ryan Poehling was selected in the first round 25th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, there was some concern about Poehling’s potential as an offensive contributor at the next level. He finished his rookie season at St. Cloud State with a 7-6-13 scoring line in 35 games, which was respectable considering he was the youngest player in college hockey, but not the type of numbers one would expect from a future NHL scoring phenom. From our pre-draft report on Poehling last summer:
What I Don’t Like
Lacks high-end skill
Poehling is a strong, reliable player, but doesn’t show a lot of offensive upside. He’s not particularly creative with the puck on his stick and doesn’t create a lot of scoring chances for himself or his teammates. Some of that can be chalked up to playing against much older competition last year, but when he had opportunities, Poehling doesn’t show much offensive flair to his game.
That didn’t scare away the Montreal Canadiens, however. They selected Poehling in the first round of the draft, and at the draft, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said their organization felt there were signs that Poehling had more offensive upside than he showed in his freshman season.
So far, Bergevin’s belief has been rewarded. Through the first five games of their season, Poehling has recorded two goals and six assists for eight points, which puts him second on team scoring for the #2-ranked Huskies.
I took a closer look at Poehling this past weekend as St. Cloud State hosted Boston College for a two-game series to see if there has been a big change in Poehling’s game from last year to this year, and what it might mean for his future in Montreal.
The study of military history largely focuses on the idea of what is known as Revolutions in Military Affairs—the advent of major fundamental changes in the ways that wars are fought. Think the French army showing up to the first battle of the First World War, officers clad in bright red and blue, firm in the belief that if their infantry attacked with enough elan, the push of the bayonet would be enough to overpower the German machine gun, and their subsequent change in that belief about fifteen minutes later.
When the concept of the RMA first started to gain traction in the 1980’s, there was a lot of focus placed on the then-recent Arab-Israeli wars, as an RMA that would unlock a vision for future wars. The problem was, massive as some of those battles were—1973’s impeccably-named Battle of the Valley of Tears saw over 1000 tanks deployed by each side—they weren’t necessarily significantly different from the battles of World War II, or even the end of World War I. It was basically just a matter of how many tanks you could amass.
That overdrawn analogy is a way of saying: I’m not sure I see an RMA from Poehling this year, so much as just more tanks. He’s bigger and stronger—it’s hard to believe he still doesn’t turn 19 until January—and he’s playing with tons more confidence than he did last year. But he’s largely playing the same game as last year, just better and more effective.
That’s, I guess, the bad news for anyone hoping Poehling would become an offensive juggernaut for Canadiens. The good news is that I still think Poehling will make a very good pro hockey player. He’s not having this success by accident. Looking back over my notes from the past two games, for every time I dinged him for losing the puck on the rush, or not making a play on a potential scoring chance, I have a positive note for making a hustle play or winning a 50/50 battle. He’s so good at the little stuff you don’t normally notice that it makes up for a lack of the more noticeable stuff.
His first assist on Saturday night was quintessential Ryan Poehling. St. Cloud State was on the power play, Poehling was manning the left point(-ish. SCSU uses an umbrella power play set-up, so Poehling works sort of the upper left quadrant). The puck was in the far right corner and popped out to the slot between the hash marks. As you can see from the still shot, Boston College has a defender in good position and it should be an easy clear.
But Poehling arrives at the puck faster and meaner and ends up boxing out the BC defender, allowing his teammate Jack Ahcan to get the puck.
First off, let’s take a moment to look at the slo-mo replay of just how badly Poehling dummies that defender. My goodness.
But this is what makes Poehling an elite player. He’s maybe not the guy that is going to make fancy moves and score pretty goals, but he wins the puck here and gets it to Jack Ahcan, a small defender that isn’t going to win many battles for pucks, but is extremely dangerous once he gets it, especially with that kind of time and space.
There’s a now-famous quote from Toronto head coach Mike Babcock from earlier this fall, where Toronto media asked him about moving Zach Hyman off of Toronto’s top line in favor of the more-skilled Patrick Marleau to play with Auston Matthews. Babcock absolutely unloaded on the idea:
The same could be said for Poehling. He’s a guy that gets the puck back to his teammates as well as anyone.
His first assist on Friday is another perfect example. There’s a loose puck at the side of the net. BC commits two defenders to it, including a forward that sucks down leaving the point open. From Boston College’s perspective, if they’re going to commit two guys to SCSU’s one, they’ve got to win that puck or they’re in some trouble. Poehling receives a pretty good whack and falls down, but still manages to make a play from his knees to get the puck back to the wide open point. The player at the point happens to be Jimmy Schuldt, one of the best shooters in the country, and his big slapper leaks through the goalie and gets poked in.
Last year, on a St. Cloud State that had a decent, but not great offense that averaged 2.92 goals per game, Poehling had rather middling results. This year, the Huskies returned nearly their entire team, along with adding a few nice offensive pieces and have looked really impressive offensively. Through five games, they’re averaging 4.6 goals per game. That’s not going to be sustainable over the long-term—it’s extremely rare for an NCAA team to score over four per game for an entire season—but there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for Poehling to pick up those types of assists this year than there was last year because when he is getting the puck onto the stick of his teammates, they’re doing something with it.
One of the weird things with hockey analytics is this pervasive idea that somehow second assists don’t really count, or at least not as much as primary assists. I’m not sure I buy that. Poehling received the secondary assist on both of those goals, and neither of those pucks go in the net if he doesn’t make an outstanding play. There’s a lot of value in the little things that he does.
What does all of this mean for Poehling’s future with the Montreal Canadiens? I don’t think he’ll ever be considered a true top line star forward, but I could see him being a guy you’d want your first liners to play with, and that they would want to play with too. He won’t score 30 goals in a year, but he’ll play a big part in somebody else getting to 30. For a player that made it to late in the first round of the Draft, that’s a pretty solid pick for Montreal.