BROSSARD, Que.— Here’s something for Montreal Canadiens fans to wrap their heads around: The possibility that both Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling start the season in the American Hockey League, playing on a much-improved Laval Rocket team.
Would that be so bad? Granted, it’s not the sexiest outcome to fathom on Day 1 of Canadiens rookie camp, when hope springs eternal and optimism is at its peak for emerging players with NHL hopes and dreams.
But it might just be the best one for all parties involved.
Don’t get us wrong. It would be excellent if at least one, if not both of these talented young players proved ready to start the season with the Canadiens. A team that wants to get younger and faster could only benefit from their presence. But just knowing that they’re ready to play at the top level, and that they’ll have the time to grow into the roles they’re likely to fill over what most analysts expect will be long, successful careers, would be icing on the cake for a Canadiens team that is at least a year away from being considered a true contender.
So yeah, the scenario that sees Poehling and Suzuki thrive at training camp only to just miss out on making the team isn’t a negative one. For one, it would mean the 15 forwards on one-way contracts with the Canadiens are healthy and ready to go when the regular season starts. And, secondly—and perhaps more importantly—it would mean that two high-end prospects with one game of professional experience between them gain some much-needed seasoning before being counted on to fill important roles with the big club.
Rocket coach Joel Bouchard, who ran Friday’s skate, said he wants both players to get to the NHL as fast as possible. But he doesn’t see any downside in them having to spend some time in the AHL.
“It never hurt anyone,” Bouchard said.
Canadiens fans don’t have to search their memories for an example of how much it can help. They saw it with Victor Mete last season.
The defenceman, who was taken in the fourth round of the 2016 NHL Draft, shocked the Canadiens and their fans when he made the team outright in the fall of 2017. He had an excellent rookie season and came back primed for a top-four role in 2018.
Mete had started off last year’s campaign reasonably well, but his game began to sag in November. That’s when the Canadiens decided to send the 21-year-old down to Laval.
He worked closely with Bouchard, who also had a 15-year pro career as a defenceman, and focused specifically on his defensive game—cutting off passing lanes and killing plays more aggressively instead of using his speed to just contain players and keep them to the outside. As a result, his confidence—and his game—grew by leaps and bounds.
“Mete came to us for three weeks and when he came back to Montreal it was like, ‘POW!’” said Bouchard.
“The NHL is a performance league, it’s not a development league,” he continued. “We’re not making decisions for the same reasons. For (Canadiens coach) Claude (Julien), everything is about now. Me, I’m (about) now but soon. Claude can’t do what we do. He doesn’t have the time. I put players in situations where they’re 100 per cent going to fail, faceoffs on their wrong side just so they can learn. Claude can’t do that. It’s not like I’m doing it all the time like I want to lose the game. But there’s times at the end of the game where I’ll say, maybe I should’ve done something else but at the end of the day, it’s about development.
“It’s like (23-year-old prospect) Jake Evans (who was a rookie in Laval last season). I put him on at 3-on-3 early in the season and (it didn’t go well) and I thought to myself that I shouldn’t have done that. But it paid off at the end of the season. Claude can’t do that. That’s development.”
It’s the kind of development 20-year-olds Suzuki and Poehling could benefit from.
Sure, two kids who have played remarkable hockey since being picked 13th and 25th overall at the 2017 draft can provide youth, speed, scoring and great all-around play to the Canadiens. They might even be able to do it as early as October. But when you look at the depth of the NHL roster, when you look at the limited opportunity that exists for both Suzuki and Poehling to make an immediate impact, you have to recognize the benefit in not rushing them through the process.
Whether it’s for five minutes a game or 15, both Suzuki and Poehling want to play in Montreal this season. But neither of them would consider it a failure to start with Bouchard’s team in Laval.
“I was talking to my agent about that, and he said if you get sent down you want to be the first one they’ll call up if anything happens,” Suzuki said. “That’s good motivation, and I know a lot of guys who have been sent down after main camp and they’ll play a few games in the AHL and come right back up to the NHL and stay. So, there’s a learning curve, and I know as a young player they want me to get into pro games, so I’m not going to be devastated if I get sent down the AHL. But I want to be the first guy called up.”
Even Poehling, who recorded a hat trick and a shootout goal in his only NHL game (a 6-5 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Montreal’s last game of the 2018-19 season) understands what there is to gain from spending a bit of time in Laval. Again, it’s not where he wants to be, but he can see the benefit in playing big minutes and developing alongside several quality Canadiens prospects who are graduating to the AHL this season.
Working with Bouchard wouldn’t hurt, either.
“I like him a lot,” Poehling said. “I can tell he’s a good coach. What you see is what you get, and I like that.”
If the two end up spending a bit more time together than expected, and if Suzuki is with them both, it won’t be a bad thing.