The Ryan Poehling Solution

Is he MTL's future 3C?

Over a year ago, journalist Nicolas Cloutier of TVA Sports asked my opinion of Montreal Canadiens prospects Ryan Poehling.

Having coached against Poehling at the AHL level, I had a difficult time imagining the former first-round pick becoming an impactful center for MTL.

“I think he will have a lot of problems. There are weaknesses in his puck play. If he tries to make plays at a high pace and under pressure, he will lose the puck.”

(May 2020)

To be an effective NHL C, a player needs to cover all 200ft of the ice defensively, be sure-handed with the puck, and set his teammates up for success by controlling the overall pace of play.

I see a lot of positives with Poehling’s 2020-21 season, during which he scored 25 points in 28 games for the Laval Rockets. LAV41 was a tireless worker on both sides of the puck, forechecked fearlessly and showed good touch around the net.

Now I think he is close to being NHL-ready.

But not as a center.

Poehling in the Offensive Zone

Let’s start with some positives, though.

I like Poehling’s ability to play the goal line position on a 1-3-1 power play. He wins a retrieval race, draws PKers to him, then moves the puck quickly twice to set up a LAV PP goal.

At 5v5 he is extremely active in the OZ thanks to his energetic forechecking game. He is determined to be first into the corner, then works to funnel the puck to the net. According to InStat, 70% of his puck touches come in the OZ, near the most dangerous scoring area.

Poehling in Transition

The 25th overall pick (2017) continues to struggle off the rush, however.

As I noted last year, LAV41 is a poor puck carrier. Though his straight-line speed and work rate are excellent, his stiff upper body forces him to carry the puck in front, exposing it to defenders’ sticks. In addition, his proclivity toward doing everything fast makes his arm movements jerky and causes the puck to bobble when he tries to evade pressure.

In the clip above, Poehling gets a pass inside the dot lane and has an excellent opportunity to create a middle entry. Instead of holding the middle and manipulating the D into turn his feet, Poehling attempts to beat his check wide.

His poor puck position (in front instead of in his hip pocket) and furious stickhandling prevent him from making a late adjustment and re-attacking the middle. Eventually he runs out of space and has to rim down to a linemate.

Poehling’s lack of transitional involvement (illustrated by the almost-blank DZ and NZ in the InStats heatmap above) creates a vicious cycle.

The less he touches the puck between the blue lines, the more nervous he is whenever he attempts a play.

The more nervous he is, the more his poor fundamentals are exposed.

In the clip above, LAV41 makes the right play but executes poorly. He fades away from the forechecker instead of aggressively cutting through his hands to improve his passing lane. Poehling, arms extended, can only muster a weak backhand pass that is easily picked off by a defender.

Next time, will he make the right play - only better - or will he gain the red line, dump the puck in and call it a day?

Poehling’s Usage

LAV41 played quite of bit of center last season, but he actually ended the year as a winger alongside AHL vets Joseph Blandisi (LAV46) and Jake Luccini (LAV24). Their line was an effective one, but Poehling’s usual role on the unit suggests that he is unlikely to be a candidate for MTL’s vacant third-line center role in 2021-22.

LAV24 delays inside the defensive blue line and finds LAV46 with middle speed.

LAV46 catches the pass between two opponents, makes a controlled entry, threatens the middle, and then cuts back to wait for help.

LAV8 (Josh Brook, RD) activates and makes a give-and-go play with LAV24 for a scoring chance.

Meanwhile LAV41 is planted net-front. He ends up below the goal line as Brook shoots.

Poehling’s Outlook

Poehling is a good player.

He’s almost good enough to become an NHL regular.

But he won’t be MTL’s 3C. Not next year, maybe not ever.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone, especially not to MTL’s front office.

According to Byron Bader’s Hockey Prospecting model, Poehling’s closest present-day comparable is Colton Sceviour, an 11-year NHL vet who is on his third organization (DAL, FLA, PIT).

Sceviour, a fourth-round pick, beat the odds to become a useful bottom-six contributor for over a decade.

Poehling, a first-rounder, is already feeling the heat to overachieve. He’ll play for a long time, too. But not at C. And most likely elsewhere than in MTL.

Time will tell.

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