MONTREAL — Consider what it means for the Montreal Canadiens that they currently don’t have room at centre for all three of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling.
Some would call that a good problem to have. I would say it isn’t a problem at all; it’s a luxury.
For the better part of three decades, the Canadiens have been a team in desperate need of the type of centre depth they have right now. They’ve been dreaming of a scenario like this, and not being in one since 1993 is one of the biggest reasons they’ve been immersed in the longest Stanley Cup drought in the history of their organization.
But now? They’ve got one of the game’s best two-way pivots in Phillip Danault. They have Max Domi, who has 32 goals and 84 points in the 100 games he’s played up the middle since he was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Canadiens for Alex Galchenyuk in the summer of 2018. And 35-year-old Nate Thompson, who came over from the Los Angeles Kings last February, is playing the best hockey of his career.
So when the Canadiens are forced to send a player like Poehling back down to their minor-league affiliate in Laval—something they did after Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Columbus Blue Jackets—they aren’t exactly upset about it.
Nor should they be.
Poehling played one game between Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron before Suzuki took his spot and pushed him to the wing of a fourth line that features Thompson and Nick Cousins.
Poehling’s results from there weren’t convincing, and that’s part of the reason he was reassigned to the AHL.
But as Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said on Wednesday, the decision had much more to do with the depth of his team at Poehling’s position of choice.
“The way I see it with Ryan is that Ryan is a centre at the end of the day,” Bergevin started before adding, “At this moment, here in Montreal, with the centres we have like Nick, who’s playing well at centre, and Nate, who’s playing well on the fourth line, we put (Poehling) on the wing. It’s always easier for a centre to play wing, I agree, but for a centre who’s never played in the NHL to play wing for the first time is more difficult. So I’m cutting Ryan some slack because I know playing at left wing isn’t the position he’s used to playing. He’s always played centre. He will play centre here, but he needs some mileage, so that’s why he’s in Laval.”
Bergevin rightly added that Poehling’s average ice-time of less than 10 minutes per game through his four with the Canadiens wasn’t providing the 20-year-old with his best opportunity to develop. And he also cautioned no one should discount the possibility that Poehling could return to the Canadiens in short order.
But with Kotkaniemi returning from a groin injury that sidelined him for the last six games, there’s already a logjam up the middle. And so long as the health of the roster remains intact—on Wednesday Bergevin was knocking on wood and praying for that to be the case—it will be tough for Poehling to get himself in the mix. Even if he’s physically ready to be an NHLer.
Even Kotkaniemi, who had 11 goals and 34 points as a rookie centre last year, is going to have a hard time keeping his spot in the middle.
Not that Bergevin’s planning on sending him away.
“When you have the possibility to put a young player in the AHL to develop without having to expose them to waivers, it’s always an option,” the GM said. “But at the moment, it’s not in the cards.”
Still, Kotkaniemi took turns alternating with Suzuki as the centre on a line with Lehkonen and Tomas Tatar during Wednesday’s practice.
By Friday, when the Canadiens play the Capitals in Washington, one of them will likely be forced to the wing—and that’s if both are dressed for the game. Perhaps Kotkaniemi will have to wait one more night—the Canadiens are home to play New Jersey on Saturday—but it’s most probable one of him or Suzuki will be on the wing for the foreseeable future so long as everyone is healthy.
Maybe that’s not ideal for either one of them. Kotkaniemi was drafted third overall in 2018 to eventually become the big centre the Canadiens have been missing all these years. Suzuki, who was picked 13th overall in 2017 by Vegas and traded to Montreal in the fall of 2018, has clearly shown in his short time with the Canadiens he’s a more effective player at centre than he is at wing.
But both players spent entire seasons at wing prior to arriving in the AHL, which is not something Poehling did in his three years at St. Cloud State University. That’s why the Lakeville, Minn., native is down in Laval for the time being.
He may not be happy about it, but when you look at the big picture, that’s anything but a problem.