The life of a professional athlete is like a rollercoaster. You battle for years with the dream of making it to the big leagues. When you get drafted, you’re celebrating. You know that you’re a step closer to achieving your goal. For many, that will be as far as they will go. For others, it serves as motivation to keep going. The day you finally make it, it’s a dream come through. It’s the payoff for all the hard work you’ve put into your career. And when, as a hockey player, you manage to score a hattrick in your very first NHL game, and you score in the shootout to help your team beat their arch rivals, you are on top of the world.
That is the case for Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Ryan Poehling. Can you imagine the feeling, coming in as a rookie and having that kind of impact? It doesn’t get much better than this. You come into the next training camp full of confidence, knowing that not only can you play at this level, but you can be a key contributor. Wow. The world is all yours and all eyes are on you. You’re convinced that you have done enough to earn a spot on the big club. But then, reality hits you and it hits you hard.
You look at the list of players cut and you see your name on the “cut list”, having to start the season in the American League. Your pride takes a shot but you go down there with a good attitude and work on your craft. When called back, you do so for 27 games, with limited ice time and few opportunities. Worse, there is no room for you at your natural position, and they play you on the wing at the highest level of hockey in the world. After scoring at ease in the first NHL game, you only manage a single goal in those 27 games. Earth to Ryan… come in Ryan…
The pandemic hits, the season is cancelled and like everyone else, you wait the announcement for getting back on the ice. While the teams and the league ask their players to be ready to return on short notice, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be anytime soon.
When the NHL made the call to return to play, the team, who sees him as one of their top prospects, invites Poehling to their expanded roster. Oops! It didn’t take long for the team’s coaching staff, and for Poehling himself, to realise that he’s in no shape to play, particularly not in a playoffs’ series. He was caught off guard. He didn’t prepare as much as he should have, as much as his teammates did and he ended up being relegated to the Black Aces.
Veterans Dale Weise and Jordan Weal were asked to play. To turn the knife in the wound, even Jake Evans (at his natural position), Charles Hudon and… Alex Belzile were preferred to Poehling. Rest assured, the pride took a serious shot for the Canadiens’ former first round pick and no one knows more than him what a missed opportunity that was.
At a crossroad
What’s done is done. The 21 year-old knows that he cannot go back in the past and that all he can control is what he does from now on. The NHL is on standby once again… but Poeling has learned. He’ll be ready when the puck drops next.
There are fans and members of the media who seem to have given up on him already. Sure, what happened was not a good sign. But it was a mistake. A costly one for him, but a mistake nonetheless. Remember when, back in 2015, the Boston Bruins had three first round picks from that year who failed their conditioning test? Jake DeBrusk was one of them. I bet anyone would take him on their team today.
Poehling has already seen that he’s been passed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. Jake Evans did very well centering the fourth line including in the playoffs. Then you have Lukas Vejdemo who is ready to prove that he belongs in the NHL. Joel Teasdale is coming back from knee surgery and he had shown some good things prior to being injured. Then you have Jesse Ylönen jumping to pond to play in North America and Cam Hillis turning pro after a 83-points season with Guelph in the OHL. The competition won’t get any easier for Poehling so he needs to come out of the gates strong.
Poehling needs to look at the organisational depth chart and he will quickly realise that past success won’t guarantee him anything in such a competitive environment.
This setback is all it took for Habs’ fans and media to go from seeing him as a bluechip prospects to a flop. That’s the bipolarity of this fanbase. According to some, Marc Bergevin was an idiot but now that they see the results of his trades, the quality of his picks, and the names that he’s signed in this off-season, they changed their mind.
Those who are already writing off a 21-year old prospect as a failure and dead wrong. It’s far from over for Poehling. The kid was an All-NCHC First Team All-Star, the Best Forward and Tournament MVP at the 2019 World Junior Championship. The guy oozes character and we know that he has the necessary size and skills to succeed.
My own father always told me that the day you stop trying to improve, is the day you start to regress. Poehling’s next step will be dictating the path of his career. He finds himself at a crossroad and really, there aren’t many options for him as a future RFA with no arbitration rights. It’s time for him to walk the walk or pull a Galchenyuk. To a point, he has his future into his own hands. He has little to no control on what the organisation decides. But he does have full control of what he does for himself.
So don’t give up too soon on this kid, folks. He has everything to lose and it’s when you’re cornered that the beast is at its most dangerous. Poehling will want to prove that this setback was an abnormality and I fully expect him to come out strong and surprise at the next training camp… whenever that might be. Go Habs Go!