WAIT­ING GAME FOR HABS FANS

NHL years away for prospects

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - ph­[email protected] twit­ter.com/zababes1

Some out­stand­ing per­for­mances at the world ju­nior cham­pi­onships have whet the ap­petite of Cana­di­ens fans who want to know how long it will be be­fore some of the top prospects make their debuts in the NHL. The an­swer may be dis­ap­point­ing to some fans be­cause the an­swer is not any time soon. Cen­tre Ryan Poehling was the most valu­able player at the world ju­niors and he bol­stered his stock by fin­ish­ing among the top scor­ers in the tour­na­ment with five goals and three as­sists. He was given an op­por­tu­nity for more ice time and a larger of­fen­sive role af­ter Jack Hughes, the player ev­ery­one ex­pects to be the No. 1 over­all pick in the 2019 draft, was banged up early in the tour­na­ment. When Hughes re­turned, Poehling re­turned to a sec­ondary role and his MVP award was a bit of a sur­prise. That’s not to say Poehling isn’t a solid prospect, but his value in the NHL is as a two-way cen­tre. There are con­cerns about his foot speed, but he pos­sesses a strong hockey IQ. Poehling is a ju­nior at St. Cloud State, the top-ranked pro­gram in U.S. col­lege hockey, and he is val­ued for his 200-foot game. Gen­eral man­ager Marc Bergevin would like to see Poehling turn pro af­ter the cur­rent col­lege sea­son ends, which could be as late as April 13 if St. Cloud State goes to the Frozen Four. But get­ting Poehling’s sig­na­ture on a con­tract may re­quire a sell­ing job. Sev­eral sources in­di­cate Poehling, who turned 20 last week, en­joys school and wants to grad­u­ate along with older twin brothers Nick and Jack. The twins are two years older but all three en­tered col­lege at the same time. The twins de­layed their ar­rival by play­ing in the USHL while Ryan ac­cel­er­ated his high school grad­u­a­tion. One col­lege scout sug­gested Poehling ’s out­look might change if St. Cloud wins the NCAA cham­pi­onship and he feels he has noth­ing left to prove by stay­ing in school. No mat­ter when Poehling makes the jump, he will prob­a­bly need some sea­son­ing in the AHL. But Bergevin says there is one prospect who is NHLready — de­fence­man Alexan­der Ro­manov. “He can play right now,” said Bergevin. There’s one catch — Ro­manov is un­der con­tract to CSKA Moscow of the KHL for one more sea­son. At this time last year, Ro­manov was a vir­tual un­known who was pro­jected to be a late-round draft choice. The Cana­di­ens’ Rus­sian scout rec­om­mended the team take a look at the young­ster and Martin La­pointe, Shane Churla and Trevor Tim­mins all came away im­pressed. There were some raised eye­brows when the Cana­di­ens se­lected him 38th over­all in the sec­ond round, but that now ap­pears to be a steal. Ro­manov was voted the best de­fence­man at the world ju­niors and had a goal and seven as­sists to match Poehling ’s point to­tal. And he plays the left side, which is where Mon­treal needs help. Ro­manov started his KHL ca­reer play­ing fewer than five min­utes a game, but he was ap­proach­ing 15 min­utes be­fore the world ju­niors. He has no points in 28 games, but is a plus-11. “What he’s done is im­pres­sive be­cause the Rus­sians don’t use 18-year-olds,” said Bergevin. Ro­manov turned 19 last Sun­day. Goal­tender Cay­den Primeau was a sev­enth-round draft choice in 2017, but he has been play­ing like a first-rounder. He’s one of the top goal­tenders in U.S. col­lege hockey and he fin­ished the world ju­niors with a silver medal. He made five ap­pear­ances for the U.S. with a 1.61 goals-against av­er­age and a .936 save per­cent­age. The Cana­di­ens showed their con­fi­dence in Primeau when they traded mi­nor-lea­guer Zach Fu­cale and Hay­den Hawkey, a col­lege player who is a se­nior at Prov­i­dence Col­lege. Primeau is a sopho­more at North­east­ern Univer­sity in Bos­ton and the smart money says he’ll spend two more years in col­lege. Goal­tenders take longer to de­velop and, if all goes well, Primeau could be in a po­si­tion to be Carey Price’s backup when Price has three years re­main­ing on his con­tract. There were two Cana­di­ens’ prospects on Team Canada, which lost a 2-1 heart­breaker to even­tual cham­pion Fin­land. Josh Brook played a strong game and should see sub­stan­tial ice time next sea­son with the Laval Rocket. A sec­ond-round pick in 2017, Brook has matched last sea­son’s num­bers in Moose Jaw. His path to the NHL may be slowed be­cause he’s a right-handed de­fence­man and Mon­treal is loaded on the right side. That brings us to the most in­ter­est­ing prospect — for­ward Nick Suzuki. When Max Pa­cioretty was dealt to the Ve­gas Golden Knights, Suzuki was her­alded as the key to the deal, an­other piece in the quest to fill the gap­ing hole at cen­tre. The first sign that Suzuki may not be the saviour came at train­ing camp. Jes­peri Kotkaniemi, who is a year younger, made the team while Suzuki was sent back to ju­nior. He’s been light­ing it up in the OHL but his world ju­niors play was un­der­whelm­ing and there are fears that he’s picked up some bad habits in ju­nior. As for play­ing cen­tre, Bergevin thinks Suzuki’s fu­ture is on the wing.

KEVIN LIGHT/GETTY IM­AGES

Habs prospect Ryan Poehling was named most valu­able player at the world ju­nior tour­ney but it may be a while be­fore he ar­rives in Mon­treal. Sev­eral sources in­di­cate Poehling, 20, en­joys school and wants to grad­u­ate from univer­sity along with his older twin brothers.

PAT HICKEY

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