The roar of the hometown crowd was deafening as Ryan Poehling was mobbed by teammates at the end of his first-ever NHL game. He had, after all, scored a hat trick in his NHL debut, including the game tying-goal late in the contest, and then sealed the deal with the shootout winner. What made it all the more gratifying was that the win came against the club’s foremost rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In late August, Poehling sat in the stands at the Air Canada Centre for a tenth consecutive postseason game, watching his Canadiens get eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs feeling helpless, angry and confused. The former first-round pick had gone from the adoration of bursting Toronto’s bubble to alienation in the Toronto bubble in the span of 16 months.
In a sense, it was a fitting conclusion to a two-year period for Poehling that has seen more ups and downs than a CN Tower elevator on Canada Day. If adversity indeed makes you stronger, then Man Mountain better not be challenging Poehling to an arm wrestle any day soon.
Not long before his amazing NHL debut, Poehling saw his first-ranked St. Cloud University team lose to the lowest seed in the first round of the NCAA regionals for a second consecutive year. Earlier in the season, Poehling scored three goals for the US in the final 6:30 to erase a 4-1 deficit all by himself in a World Junior game against Sweden, only to lose in overtime. He was named the tournament MVP, but his team lost 3-2 to Finland in the final.
Poehling came to Montreal’s training camp as the only player in NHL history with a three goals-per-game career average, and left it dealing with a concussion and a demotion to the team’s AHL affiliate in Laval.
Ups and downs.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” said Poehling from his parents’ home in Lakeville MN on Thursday. “It’s hard to do it at the time, but when you look back at it…that’s what sports is, and you’ve got to be prepared for anything at any time. That’s just what it was…an emotional rollercoaster. I think it’s going to help me a lot in the long run, especially in the last year going through the amount of ups and downs that I had. I hope that I can take it and turn it into positive things.”
Poehling has had plenty of time for reflection since Montreal’s season ended, and the end result is that he’s a 21-year-old that has done a pile of growing up.
“I think that it also makes you realize what’s important and what’s not,” said Poehling. “Regardless of whether I was doing well, or if I was not doing so well, I think there were people that still texted me and reached out and it just made me realize that no matter what’s happening in your life, they are there to support you and excited about what you do. I think I learned a lot about my friends and family, and that is kinda the biggest part for me. Having them on my side regardless of what happens.”
What happens next is that Poehling soon heads for Montreal’s training camp with renewed determination and ambition after failing to dress for one playoff game.
“Yeah, I was definitely upset,” said Poehling. “I don’t know if I deserved one (game) or I didn’t but I was definitely upset. It’s hopefully just going to help me grow. I have taken this offseason a lot more seriously than I have in the past, which is a good thing. I just want to be ready to go into camp and just let them know I am a guy they can trust hopefully in the future. I just want to give them the faith in me to hopefully get the opportunity to do that.”
Poehling spent two months in Florida at the onset of the pandemic, and needless to say, it wasn’t the optimum location to stay in peak condition.
“At the start of the pandemic I didn’t really know what was going on, so for probably two months I lived in Florida,” said Poehling. “We got locked down and I figured we might as well spend it in Florida. The weather is nicer..it’s still pretty cold in Minnesota (in March and April). Then once I figured out that I was going in the bubble I came back to Minnesota and trained for six weeks, then ended up going to Toronto.”
No Florida vacation for Poehling this time around after sitting in the stands for ten playoff games. He received the message loud and clear.
“I’ve been skating a lot more during the offseason, doing more things to be more explosive…just getting bigger, faster and stronger,” said Poehling, who came to camp in the fall of 2019 weighing 200 pounds. “I’m about 210 now, so that will hopefully help me in the corners.”
Poehling spent a lot more time in the corners last season than in previous years as he made the adjustment to playing predominantly on the wing for the first time in his career. When he was drafted in 2017, the hope was that he could be a top-two center one day in Montreal. The subsequent drafting of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and trade for Nick Suzuki has altered those expectations, and he ultimately may end up playing beside either “Zukes” or “KK” in a top-six role on the wing.
“That would be great,” said Poehling. “They’re both great players and they’re great people too. I can’t really predict the future, but whatever happens happens, and if they do it I just have to deal with it. Playing wing won’t hurt me.”
When interviewed by Recrutes three summers ago, Poehling announced his ambition to be the future number-one center on the Canadiens. Today – he just wants to win a regular spot in the lineup, regardless of position.
“I don’t mind playing the wing at all,” said Poehling. “I think it’s a little easier in the defensive zone as well…knowing what to do away from the puck.”
As a center, Poehling could loop back into his own zone to receive passes in the middle of the ice, and be on the move to avoid hits as he cleared the zone either with a pass or by carrying the puck. Having his head up the instant he received a pass wasn’t always a necessity.
On the wing along the wall in his own zone, Poehling is usually stationary and in close proximity to opponents. He quickly learned that having your head down in that instance left him vulnerable to big hits, and the rookie NHLer found himself kissing the ice far too often.
“Yeah…my first year playing wing ever, so I’m learning the hard way,” noted Poehling with a chuckle. “The dman screaming down on you…you have less time on the wing. You definitely learn quickly. The defencemen are a lot bigger and a lot stronger (than in college), so you don’t want to take many of those hits.”
Poehling admitted to reporters last fall that he pouted when the Canadiens sent him to Laval. Poehling had suffered a concussion in training camp, and Nick Suzuki simply outplayed him for a roster spot to start the season.
Poehling, at first, bristled somewhat at the suggestion that he may have subconsciously thought he had a spot sewn up in training camp after his spectacular debut the previous season.
“I think that regardless of what had happened before, I give it my all and do what I can,” said Poehling. “But you can look back at it and unconsciously, it could have happened. You do this (score three goals in your debut)..and…(perhaps I thought) ‘it’s not going to be as hard as I expected’ type of deal. Maybe that’s what could have happened with me. Once you’re in the NHL I think the biggest thing is just performing on a consistent basis. With it being such a long season and such, I think I could have done a better job of controlling that.”
Poehling picked up his work ethic once he got acclimatized to the demotion and realized, like a lot of college graduates, that the AHL was a top-notch level of hockey.
“It’s a great league, and it’s a good learning experience,” said Poehling, who scored five goals and 13 points in 36 games in Laval. “There are a lot of good players.”
Poehling received a couple of callups to Montreal during the season, and soon realized he wasn’t going to be scoring three goals every game unlike in his debut. Poehling managed just one goal and one assist in 27 games with the big club, and struggled at times to find his confidence even if he was working hard. Poehling soon came to realize that his demotion to the AHL was probably a good thing, and that he hadn’t in fact been ready at training camp to earn a regular spot in the NHL lineup.
“The NHL…it is not a learning league,” said Poehling. “It’s a league you’ve got to be ready to play in. You wanna play your best. What I learned was that when I become a full-time NHL player I want to be a guy that they can count on every night.”
He sounds very much like a player who isn’t averse to being sent down to the AHL to begin his second pro season, and reminds one of the last big American first-round Canadiens’ pick that had a similar epiphany when he wasn’t producing at the NHL level…Max Pacioretty.
“Playing in the AHL is a way for me to get my game reaching that full potential that I used to have, and think that I still do have,” said Poehling. “The learning curve in the AHL I think is going to be a good part for me.”
One reason that Poehling was switched to the wing in Laval was because he was struggling to win faceoffs.
“I think in college I was more just a guy that was, ‘Let’s drop the puck and just play hockey,'” admitted Poehling. “Once you get in the NHL you realize how important the faceoffs are and you realize how strong the centers are.”
Poehling’s not convinced that he was moved to the wing predominantly because he wasn’t winning faceoffs.
“I think they just thought we had a lot of centers, and just wanted to see if I could play the wing,” said Poehling, who nevertheless expects to be playing center when NHL training camp opens. “I think that’s a good thing to have as part of your game; the ability to play either position. It’s good for them to know that they can count on you regardless of the situation.”
One of the positives about playing on two teams last season was that he got to know a lot of players in his age group, and soon came to realize that we Crazy Canucks aren’t such bad folks. He has become fast friends with Suzuki, Jake Evans, Cale Fleury, Josh Brook and Michael Pezzetta…Canadians all.
“I’m really close with Zukes, Jake and Fler,” said Poehling. “All of us hang out no matter where we’re at. I go to Zuke’s place quite a bit. When I was in Laval I got close to Josh Brook, Mike Pezzetta, Jake and then Cale at the end of the year.”
Those friendships have helped Poehling adjust to a somewhat foreign culture as he struggled to find his footing in the pro game.
“It’s nice to have those young guys that you can fall back on, and when hockey’s over you can be friends with off the ice…which can be hard to do in pro hockey,” admitted Poehling. “You just realize you are blessed to have a lot of young guys there. You can just feel like you’re friends and talk about stuff other than hockey.”
He’s also befriended the city of Montreal. It wasn’t difficult after the welcome he got in his very first game.
I love it, it’s a great city,” said Poehling. “It’s a great spot to have a sports team. The fans are so great and so passionate. It makes it a lot of fun to play. you feel like a king there every night. You want to make the fans proud; they care so much. I think it’s just a great atmosphere to have and be a part of.”
Montreal’s a great city to live in when things are going your way.
“Yeah, it is,” said Poehling. “It’s up and down, but you wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s a fun place to play, and they reward people for doing well, and when you’re not playing well they’ll get on you, and that’s just because they care…and you’ve got a lot of people who care.
Ups and downs.
The season may have ended on a down, but a maturing Poehling is feeling up about this coming season and his future with the Canadiens. He has come to realize that if he puts in the hard work, he will be rewarded once again.
Perhaps his next great ovation will be after eliminating the Leafs with an overtime goal in Game 7 of the division finals. Montreal’s rabid fans would be willing to wait until then.
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