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Pat Hickey: Canadiens fans may have to wait for junior prospects

Pat Hickey: Canadiens fans may have to wait for junior prospects
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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 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 NHL-ready — 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 prior to 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 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 .

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 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.

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