There is a fascinating experiment going on in Montreal, though I’m not sure if the Canadiens know it. Montreal has three young centers of note in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling. While Poehling is finding his way at the pro level right now, Suzuki is enjoying his first year of NHL hockey, while Kotkaniemi is grinding through his second.
Having said that, Kotkaniemi is on the shelf right now with a concussion. It’s the second injury he has sustained this season after an earlier groin issue. Now here’s the stunning statistic: without Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens are 10-2-1 this year. When he has been in the lineup, they’re 7-10-5. The fact this happened during two different parts of the season makes it even more striking – once might be a coincidence, but twice is damning.
Kotkaniemi went straight from the draft to the NHL after the Canadiens selected him third overall in 2018. That draft class was weak down the middle, but the Habs wanted a center so they made a reach, leaving Brady Tkachuk and Quinn Hughes on the board. Ottawa’s Tkachuk has 65 career points to Kotkaniemi’s 39 while playing in six more games, while the defenseman Hughes will likely pass Kotkaniemi’s career offensive totals in his rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks.
Simply put, the Canadiens rushed Kotkaniemi into the NHL. He had a ton of raw potential and a nice frame to build on when they selected him, but then he wasn’t given the time to actually develop before being thrown into the fire.
Suzuki, on the other hand, had the benefit of time on his side. Originally drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights in their excellent maiden class of 2017, he was acquired by Montreal before last season in the Max Pacioretty trade. Suzuki spent the year in the OHL, where he was eventually traded from Owen Sound to Guelph, where the Storm were loading up for a playoff run.
Sure enough, Suzuki ended up being a superstar for the Storm. He was named post-season MVP after helping Guelph win the championship in spectacular fashion. Not only did Suzuki put up a beguiling 42 points in 24 playoff games, but he (along with linemates Isaac Ratcliffe and MacKenzie Entwistle) shut down Ottawa’s top line in the final series. Now keep in mind, the 67’s hadn’t lost a single playoff game until that last series. After Ottawa beat Guelph in the first two games, Suzuki went all Baby Patrice Bergeron on them and the Storm won four straight to take the title.
For a player who was just kinda meh at the world juniors (and to be fair, everyone on Canada was pretty meh last year), this was a huge statement for Suzuki. He was a two-way force and he was ready for the next step.
Coming to Montreal this fall meant a ton of pressure, but Suzuki has shown that he was ready. He’s been a solid possession player for a team that has beaten a lot of outside expectations and he is tied for seventh on the team with 16 points through 35 games.
As for Poehling, his season got off to a sour note due to a concussion, which wrecked his training camp. He played minimal minutes during a four-game NHL stint in November, then headed back to AHL Laval. In his last five games with the Rocket, Poehling had six points and since then, he has played four more games with Montreal. The 11 minutes he logged against Calgary on Thursday night was a season high, so clearly the Habs aren’t putting much of a load on the 20-year-old - and that’s fine.
If Poehling ends up going back down to Laval with the mandate of dominating, I don’t see a problem with that either. He will be a solid, two-way center one day and if it’s not today, then what’s the rush? The Canadiens are in a playoff position and can afford to send one of their youngest back for more seasoning. Heck, once Kotkaniemi is healthy, he should probably head to Laval himself.
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