Suzuki, Poehling could hold keys to Canadiens’ playoff hopes in 2020

Watch as Montreal Canadiens rookie Ryan Poehling scores a hat trick in his first game in NHL.

It was the goal seen round the hockey world. Nick Suzuki, on a one-on-one, fakes a shot, drops down to one knee, slips the puck through his legs as he’s spinning into a shooting position, and then backhands it into the top right corner of the net to give his Guelph Storm a 3-0 lead in an eventual 5-1 win that evened their third-round OHL playoffs series with the Saginaw Spirit at 3-3.

A night later, when Suzuki scored the series-winning goal into an empty net, it was his 31st point of the playoffs. Yet another one scored in an elimination game to bring his total to seven goals and 10 assists in the seven games the Storm have had its back up against the proverbial wall, and it helped him extend his scoring lead over the rest of his OHL counterparts to nine points.

What Montreal Canadiens fans have seen this spring from the former 13th overall pick of the Vegas Golden Knights, who was traded to their team along with Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick for Max Pacioretty last September, has left them salivating at what could be come fall. The prospect of Suzuki graduating to the National Hockey League and potentially completing a line with Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin is as enticing as it gets. And if that comes to be, think of what it will mean for a Canadiens team that ranked 14th in goals, 30th on the power play and missed this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs by two points.

Think of what it will mean for the Canadiens if Ryan Poehling, the NCAA standout who left St. Cloud State after putting up 75 points in 107 games over three excellent seasons and made his NHL debut with three goals and a shootout winner in a 6-5 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the season finale, earns a job out of training camp, too. Suzuki and Poehling can do much to balance out Montreal’s attack—and do it on entry-level contracts that don’t put much of a dent in the $14-million or so of cap space general manager Marc Bergevin has at his disposal this off-season.

Suzuki is a dynamic, cerebral scorer who offers a complete game at either centre or wing, while Poehling is an all-around centre who appears to have more offensive upside than most anticipated when he was chosen 25th overall by the Canadiens in 2017. If both prove ready for the NHL following training camp, it would go a long way towards offering head coach Claude Julien a far more varied deck to play with.

This past season, Julien had Andrew Shaw, Paul Byron, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen rotating to complete his top-six forward group. Players who would qualify as above-average-to-elite bottom-enders on most teams, but lack the scoring pedigree top-six wingers typically possess. The coach also spent the bulk of October through March searching for a fourth line that could spend most of its shifts in the offensive zone and would land on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger. He only found one he could count on more consistently after trade deadline acquisitions Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal had become acclimated with the Canadiens.

The opportunity to integrate Suzuki in a scoring role, and Poehling in a depth role, changes the picture dramatically. Both players have much to do to convince Bergevin and Julien that they’re prepared for that, but if they keep going in the direction they’ve set out on they could hold the keys to the Canadiens returning to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Suzuki’s emergence as a big-game player has enriched the story he’s authored since being sent back to junior well ahead of the final cuts the Canadiens made at last September’s training camp. The team’s brass hoped that he would dominate the OHL, and he did, statistically, with 34 goals and 94 points in 59 games split between the Storm and the Owen Sound Attack. But the way he’s taken control of games—like he did on Monday, notching three assists to help the Storm hand the Ottawa 67’s their first loss of the playoffs in Game 3 of the OHL Finals—offers the clearest evidence yet that he might be able to skip the AHL portion of his development and jump right in with the Canadiens.

You have to think that if Suzuki can do that, he’ll secure a spot amongst Montreal’s top-nine forwards. Assuming Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher remain together and form the top line, Suzuki could join Drouin and Domi on a potent second line and leave any combination of Byron, Shaw, Weal, Armia and Lehkonen playing with budding star Jesperi Kotkaniemi on a third line.

His presence could also potentially push at least a couple of those players further down the roster, or could enable Bergevin to sacrifice any one of them (without creating a hole) in order to address a major need on defence. Either option would make the Canadiens instantly better.

So does Poehling starting as the fourth-line centre. The six-foot-two, 185-pound Lakeville, Minn., native, who was named the MVP of the 2019 World Junior Championship, could be flanked by Weal and Lehkonen, or Lehkonen and Armia, or Byron and Shaw, or any other combination of those bottom-six forwards, and the result is a line that is all but guaranteed to be far more productive and effective than any of the ones Julien deployed this past season. That would also push the reliable, steady Thompson to the margin of the lineup and further stoke the competition between Nicolas Deslauriers, Dale Weise, Matthew Peca and Charles Hudon to provide capable NHL depth.

No matter what happens, Suzuki and Poehling are unquestionably key players in what appears to be a bright future for the organization. But if things work out as both players—and the Canadiens and their fans—hope, they could also play a huge hand in bringing the team to the next level as early as next season.

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