With the trade deadline fast approaching, the Habs find themselves in a weird spot this year. They are not contending; the expectations are not for them to edge out the top teams in the Atlantic in a playoff matchup. But, what is still a big accomplishment for this edition of the Montreal Canadiens, it seem likely that they will end up playing past the regular season.
The team then sits somewhere between two scenarios. They are not full-on buyers trying to get one step closer towards the ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup, nor are they sellers looking to take away from their NHL core to better position themselves for a brighter future. Montreal has to continue taking steps forward in their rebuild while making the most out of the opportunity they have to compete this year.
With pieces moving all over the NHL, and the market of available players growing every day, it’s hard not to think about the possibilities. Especially for those who want to see trades happen.
There is one name that has been floating around in proposals — Ryan Poehling.
He was just named MVP of the World Championship and his perceived value around the NHL is assumed to be at an all-time high, making him the perfect candidate to throw in a trade to improve the team either in the short or long term. He is also a year away from professional hockey and remains a divisive prospect due to the questions about his potential, or if he can truly become a second-line center.
Looking at other top prospects in the organization: Nick Suzuki was just acquired by the team and can potentially bring a lot of offence if all goes well. Alexander Romanov is still a mystery box and fills a need if he ever reaches the high expectations, same — to a lesser extent — for Josh Brook. And, for Cayden Primeau, the goalie market is always hard to seize in prospective trades.
Considering the rest of the organization’s youngsters, and the newfound potential depth of the Habs down the middle, Poehling can look expendable and a good ‘’sell high’’ option when surveying the prospect pool for trade chips.
But, despite the outlook, I think that Montreal should absolutely hold on to Poehling, sign him, and let him develop.
Montreal has spent years trying to fill their gigantic hole down the middle. They have taken massive steps towards that by using the draft and picking up young players from other organizations. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is getting more and more promising. Phillip Danault is everything you could ask for in terms of a reliable centreman. Max Domi has showed this season that he can easily fill down the middle, and same goes for Suzuki who should be joining the team in the next two years.
But, it remains only that. Steps. Building blocks towards a strong center line. The rebuild is not done, and Poehling cannot be called a commodity in the system. Plus, he is a more natural pivot than any other prospect in the Habs’ pool.
His game is based on two-hundred foot play. His effectiveness, when he is not on the half-wall on the power play, is derived from being able to break plays low in the defensive zone to spring his team on the attack and convert off the rush. He takes pride in his game away from the puck and is at his most comfortable when slotted down the middle.
Even if the Habs end up with a surplus of centres in a couple of years (best case scenario) it will allow others who are also fitted to dig the puck out from the boards and explode between blue lines, to move to the wing and form stronger possession-oriented lines.
It’s true that Poehling’s current numbers — he just fell below a point-per-game in the NCAA — might not inspire full confidence that he will ever reach the level of play necessary to be paired with the Habs top offensive players. But, looking at his overall game, it has been more convincing than the production would suggest.
As mentioned in Catching the Torch, Poehling is on one of the best teams in the NCAA but he still doesn’t get anything close to as much offensive support from his wingers as he is able to generate himself. The chemistry of St. Cloud’s other top-six line means that Poehling only matches with the top scorers on the power play, and not at even strength.
Lately, he has been filling highlight reels with only a couple of points to show for it. And there is enough projectable elements shown in his game — his vision, use of deception, and timely net rushes — to remain optimistic that he can reach a second-line role in the NHL in the future. The evolution of Kotkaniemi from the rookie training camp to regular NHL play is a testament to what being surrounded by a good supporting cast can do for a player.
In the perspective of using Poehling as a trade chip, there is also the fact that he isn’t signed. There is a very high chance he will be at the end of the season, but right now, all the Canadiens have to trade away are his rights.
Signing NCAA players sometimes resembles an awkward dance from afar. Parties don’t seem to talk to each other as much; college prospects don’t attend rookie camps and are prohibited from getting more time with their NHL teams due to their status as amateur players. In the end, reaching a contract relies on good faith and the selling pitch the team manages thorough the years that they have the player’s rights.
Poehling has the final say in where he plays when he puts an end to his college career. This is an important consideration for Montreal, but also for teams looking to acquire him. The organization that drafted him won’t want to spread the word that they are open to moving his rights and, for the ones looking to acquire him, there is always the possibility that he won’t want to sign.
It does happen that NCAA rights are traded. The Sabres traded for Jimmy Vesey’s rights a couple of years ago to try and sign him (they failed), and reputedly asked for Poehling in a deal for Ryan O’Reilly. If the player is good enough, and the team does their homework, the trade can be worth it.
But, even in the perfect trade scenario of an established young blue-liner coming back, does such a trade immediately push the Habs into a contending status against the other top formation of the East?
Ideally, Poehling will command an entry-level deal for three years. The Habs will then have a controlled asset on top of which to add via other means like free agency. This way, they can use their cupboard of young players to build the team and available cap spaces as a resource to push it over the top instead of depleting the first one to fill the other, and taking a dangerous shortcut in a rebuild.
Ryan Poehling is not a blue-chip prospect. He is not a sure thing. But Montreal shouldn’t be in the market of expending potential solid centers at the stage they are in. Not after years of drought at the position and what promise the prospect has shown.