Many of Montreal’s opening night lineup projections have Ryan Poehling in there. While he’s certainly a promising prospect and has one great NHL game under his belt, I’m not convinced that starting with the Habs is the best thing for his development.
The main reason for this is something that even a year ago would have seemed laughable. The Canadiens have enough centre depth that there isn’t a spot for Poehling to play an important role. It has been a while since something like that could be said.
Phillip Danault had a great season in 2018-19 and figures to hold down one of the top two spots down the middle once again. Max Domi is coming off a career year and while he may not be the best fit at centre, it’s hard to shift him to the wing after the season he just had. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (who I argued against having him in the NHL at this time a year ago) could wind up starting on the third line again but it may not be too long before he’s pushing for ice time. That doesn’t leave a lot of potential minutes for Poehling who needs to develop as a centre, not on the wing.
While some may argue that a full-time spot on the fourth line would be beneficial for him, I don’t believe that’s the case. When you’re just starting out professionally, I’ll take 18 (or more) minutes a night playing in all situations over roughly half of that in the NHL. While the competition level is certainly better, Poehling would probably only be seeing five-on-five minutes. The plan is for him to be an impact NHL player so it’s better to start him out as one in the AHL first.
On top of that, it’s not as if the Habs don’t have other fourth line centre options either. Nate Thompson is back while Jordan Weal, who was used largely on the wing with Montreal but is a natural centre, also re-signed earlier this offseason. Both of them are quite strong on the draw so it’s likely that Claude Julien will want one of them in that role. Jake Evans, Phil Varone, and even Michael McCarron will also garner a look as well.
Yes, Poehling had said in the past that he didn’t want to sign until he was ready for the NHL but let’s face it, how many first-round picks come out of college talking about how they’re excited to start off their pro career riding the buses in the minors? And it’s not as if the Habs owe him anything; they already did him a favour by burning a year of his contract for a week of action that amounted to all of one game.
This isn’t a situation where it’s justifiable to keep Poehling away from the minors to keep him away from Sylvain Lefebvre. They actually have a coach that looks like he can actually help develop young talent in Joel Bouchard. While he was quite productive against Toronto, there are questions as to how much offensive upside Poehling has. Putting him in Laval where he’ll see lots of time in offensive situations will help him improve while giving the organization a better sense of what that upside ultimately will be.
Is Poehling close to being NHL ready? Sure. He could hold his own on the fourth line as soon as October but that doesn’t mean that it’s best for his development. Patience is seemingly the name of the game with the Habs at the moment and it’s something they should be exercising with Poehling here. They’ll be better off for it.