While we touched on Ryan Poehling’s possible trajectory over the weekend and what his future could hold with the Pittsburgh Penguins, there’s another piece of the puzzle too. It’s what went wrong for him in Montreal, or what never happened to allow the team that drafted him in the first round just a few years ago basically make him a throw in for a trade and be fine with walking away from him.
Our pals at Habs Eyes on the Prize took this perspective on Poehling’s past and where he was unable to find his footing in his first organization over the past few seasons.
As someone who watched him grow at the AHL level for two years, I can say that injuries had a large hand in hampering his trajectory. In the pre-season following his incredible debut (ed. note, this means fall 2019) he sustained a fairly serious upper-body injury that limited his time in the AHL to start the year, and he posted just 13 points in 36 games, along with two points in 27 NHL games for the Habs. It was a disappointing showing, and he didn’t feature in the bubble series against Pittsburgh or Philadelphia when a playoff appearance was handed to Montreal.
This “upper body injury” in September 2019 was diagnosed by the team as a concussion. From the Penguins perspective, we all know how debilitating the return from a concussion can be. Head injuries are always different for different people and levels of damage, and this one probably came at the worst possible time for Poehling as he started his first full professional season.
After being a first round pick (25th overall) in 2017, he went back to the NCAA for two seasons. He had his famous NHL debut in April 2019, where he scored a hat trick — and then in the shootout — to put a cherry on a magical first NHL game. But then he got derailed before he could follow up on that in the very next season.
Getting knocked off track in the 2019-20 season was a tough card to pull and try to get through.
The next year (ed. note, talking the 2020-21 season, that started in January 2021) saw a bounceback. On a line with Joël Teasdale and Joseph Blandisi in the AHL, Poehling earned top-line minutes and played at just under a point-per-game level. Again, injury forced his season to an early close, which meant, unfortunately, that he wasn’t able to take part in the Habs’ post-season run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, leaving the team rather thin in terms of bottom six centres.
By 2021, it might have looked like Poehling was back on track. As mentioned, he scored 25 points in 28 AHL games at the age of 22. In May of 2021, he suffered a season-ending wrist injury, as mentioned above. This again knocked him off track, right when he might have had opportunity to play in Montreal’s 2021 playoff run, when they were itching for better center play down the lineup, as mentioned above.
With six points in seven games with the Laval Rocket last year (2021-22), it was clear that Poehling likely had outgrown the AHL level, which was to be expected. The NHL team, however, was an unmitigated disaster, and while Poehling produced well in a fourth-line role on an injury-riddled team, with nine goals and eight assists, something still never seemed to click.
Part of it was Poehling never having long-term stability, with his most common linemate being Joel Armia, but a mix of Cole Caufield, Artturi Lehkonen, and Michael Pezzetta highlighted his mix of linemates at various points.
Last year should have been Poehling’s chance to establish himself at the NHL level. As EOTP noted, having Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans as lower line centers pushed Poehling to not find a spot, even when new coach Martin St. Louis came in and shook the roster up and injected some new energy for the club.
They summed it up as:
While the Canadiens have been notoriously bad at player development, I don’t believe Poehling’s situation falls into the category of the busts from previous years. Injuries and a directionless team left him floating in space at the NHL level, but he had shown the necessary growth in the AHL that made him worthy of a call-up. When he was drafted, most reports had him pegged as a standard bottom-six centre in the NHL, and that’s a level he was playing at in Montreal.
For a team like Pittsburgh, whose young forwards at this point are basically Drew O’Connor and then a lot of wishing and hoping, the intrigue of Poehling is evident. Poehling has mastered the AHL level, but due to injuries and timing was never able to get much of a footing in Montreal.
It’s encouraging that the 2019 concussion appears to be a one-off injury and not a condition that hasn’t been repeated afterwards. A major wrist injury isn’t a good thing, but hockey players do get hurt sometimes.
Getting traded to a team like the Pens for where Poehling is at in his career is a huge opportunity. Barring any more roster moves, it looks like Pittsburgh will be giving Poehling the chance to play in the lineup every game since his AHL production, NHL experience (85 games) and size/toolkit gives him a leg up over the similar players in the organization like O’Connor and Radim Zohorna.
If it doesn’t work out in Pittsburgh, Poehling probably will have the chance for a long professional career as a “AAAA” type player that excels in the AHL and is organizational depth, but this might already be a final chance to establish a full-time NHL niche. That won’t have to be spoken, Poehling will likely know this second chance in his playing career will be the last best chance he’s ever likely to get.
As such, that will make the start of this season very interesting for what Poehling can bring to the table. In hockey as in life, there is only one chance to make a first impression, and Poehling will need to come out firing from the start of training camp in order to start creating a foothold in Pittsburgh.
If he can be healthier than he was in Montreal and get a few lucky breaks along the way, it could pay off big time for the Pens to bring in a somewhat young player that will be going out with a lot to prove and now enough experience to know what he needs to accomplish. The fun question to answer will be if this new, young player can step up and bring a missing element for Pittsburgh.