He may have been a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens but Ryan Poehling is fully aware that the hard work is just beginning in his quest to one day wear the jersey of the bleu, blanc et rouge.
Contacted after a morning class as a second-year student in business finance at St. Cloud State, Poehling was on his way to work out with teammates as a new hockey season quickly approaches.
One of those rare NCAA players to begin his college career at just 17 years of age last fall, Poehling joined his twin brothers Nick and Jack on a St. Cloud team that was going through a youth overhaul after the graduation of a major portion of their team.
“Last year I was playing against guys who are so much older,” noted Poehling, who has gone from 180 pounds at the end of last season to 195 with five months of weight training. “That’s really what I have to focus on – getting bigger, stronger, and faster. The offseason was big for me to do that for this coming season and I think I’ve done a good job of doing that.”
It’s not often that three brothers join a college team at the same time, and, as one might suspect, all of the St. Cloud State game were faithfully attended by their parents.
“It’s only an hour and a half away from our house,” said Poehling, who grew up in Lakeville, about 20 minutes directly south of Minneapolis. “It was nice to have three schedules combined into one for them.”
Seeing their three eldest boys on the same ice surface was nothing new to Tim and Kris Poehling.
“My dad would always make an outdoor rink for us up until I was ten, and we would always go out there and the neighbours would come out,” recalled Poehling, who discovered at an early age that to keep up with twin brothers who were three years older he had to prove his worthiness every time he was on the rink.
“I think that’s where I get my competitive nature, from Nick and Jack. Growing up I always hung out with guys two or three years older than me, and if we were playing hockey or backyard football or whatever I’d just want to fit in, so for me to fit in I would have to try harder, so I think that’s where I got my competitive nature.”
The brothers all ended up playing together for two years at Lakeville North High School, and after a successful freshman season for Ryan that saw them advance to the state championship, Nick and Jack decided to pass up on the opportunity to play in the USHL to return for their senior seasons and seek the coveted state title.
“My sophomore year we played (Casey) Mittelstadt and Eden Prairie in the semi-finals, we beat them 6-2,” said Poehling, who would win the Class 2A state championship that 2014-15 season. “Our team went undefeated that year. The year before that we ended up losing in the final to Edina where they beat us 8-2. What was pretty cool all the older guys like my brothers decided to stay, and that was kind of our goal growing up…to win the state.”
Fittingly, all three brothers would play pivotal roles, each scoring a goal in Lakeville’s 4-1 won over Duluth East in the championship game, and after committing to play college hockey at St. Cloud State the twins would play for Green Bay in the USHL for a season before joining Ryan as part of the freshman class in 2016-17.
Poehling appreciates the unique privilege of getting to play college hockey with his older brothers as they are a close-knit group, and he sees no rush in turning pro with the Canadiens.
“I would put myself at two more years of college for sure,” said Poehling. “I enjoy college a lot too and that’s the biggest part. I’m still a young kid; I mean, I’m only 18, so I don’t see the need to rush to make it to the next level because once you make it to the NHL it’s not a development league any more, and you’ve got the duty to play so even if I graduate I’d be 21 years old and still just a young kid. So for me, I’m in no rush to make the next jump, especially with how much fun I’m having at school.”
Considered by many scouts to be top 20 or even a top-15 prospect going into the 2017 NHL draft, Poehling saw his stock drop somewhat after the U-18 championships even though he played a vital role in helping the US capture the gold medal as he was assigned a checking role as a late addition to a team that played most of the past two seasons together as part of the US development program.
Poehling understood why he was given a bottom-line role at the U-18’s even if he showed convincingly at the World Junior Showcase this past month that he could easily have been the top-line center on the U-18 team.
“That team was with each other two years and that’s what they worked for,” explained Poehling, who would score three goals and be a key penalty killer despite the lack of offensive opportunities. “Do I see it as a downside that I played a third-line role? No, not at all. It would have been nice to have 10 or 15 points at the World championships but at the end of the day I did what it took to win a Gold medal and that’s what matters way more for me.
Poehling’s excellent work on the defensive side of the puck at both St. Cloud and in the U-18’s may have ended up harming his draft stock as he was written off by some scouts as being strictly a checking-line player, but he has no regrets in having fulfilled that role on various clubs the past few years.
“You take pride in it; I do,” said Poehling. “A lot of people respect how you play defensively and it’s one thing I’ve learned. People get a lot of points and stuff, but true success is mainly winning, and I think I’ve done that a lot in my life and playing defence is one of the main reasons why I’ve won so much.
“I played three years of high school hockey and two of them made it to the state championships, and then one which we ended up winning it all. With the Hlinka team and the world championships, I think I played a full game and that’s what people want to see because at the end of the day that’s what wins championships.”
Poehling dropping on draft day was a blessing for the Canadiens, who have been in search of a big centerman with skill and two-way abilities ever since Vinny Damphousse departed way back in the late 1990’s. Has it sunk in yet that he is now part of the most storied hockey franchise on the planet?
“I didn’t really think much about it until I made the trip down to Montreal for development camp and I realized what a great place it was and how great the fans are,” said Poehling. “When it first happened I guess I was just in shock, but looking back I’m glad a team like that took me because it’s such a good spot for me.”
If there’s one area of his game that scouts are unanimous about what he needs to work on it is his reluctance to shoot more, and he is in agreement with that assessment.
“Yep. That is one thing for sure that I’m working on and I think I’ve done a good job. I went down a flex in stick too. But for me, I’m trying to be more direct towards the net this upcoming season and get shots to the net. Just watching (NHL) playoff hockey especially, everyone shoots pucks…everything has a chance of going so that’s a big thing that I’ve worked on this summer.”
Poehling is fortunate to have his college coach Bob Motzko heading up the coaching staff for the US World Junior team, and this past month he gave Poehling an opportunity to prove what he could do in a top-two center role with the best junior-aged players in the country. Poehling seized the moment and was a dominant force for the US, picking up five points in just two games at the World Junior Summer Showcase.
It was a defining moment for Poehling with many scouts as it became rather obvious that on draft day his offensive upside may well have been underestimated. Certainly, the Canadiens think he has the smarts and skills to fulfill at top-two center role some day, and Poehling feels that way as well.
“I think I have second-line upside for sure,” said Poehling, who is expecting an offensive breakthrough as a college sophomore after 13 points as a 17-year-old. “I do see myself not just being in the NHL, but playing there a long time and having an impact on an organization.”
Habs’ fans can hardly wait.