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Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki follows the play against the San Jose Sharks in Montreal on Oct. 24, 2019.
Canadiens’ Ryan Poehling skates around Boston Bruins’ Matt Grzelcyk in Montreal on Nov. 5, 2019.
After years of viewing the centre position as a black hole, the future looks bright for the Canadiens with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling.
They are all first-round draft choices and natural centres and, while they bring different skills to the mix, they all possess the potential to thrive at the NHL level.
The dilemma for head coach Claude Julien is to find enough ice time for each player to develop.
That challenge was brought into focus this week when an injury to Kotkaniemi opened a spot for Poehling, who started the season with the Laval Rocket. Poehling was installed at centre on the third line with Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, although circumstances saw him play what amounted to fourth-line minutes.
Julien shortened his bench Tuesday as the Canadiens battled from behind for a win over the Boston Bruins.
On Thursday in Philadelphia, any idea of rolling four lines went out the window when the Canadiens were forced to kill six penalties. That meant Byron and Lehkonen had extra time on the PK, while Poehling sat on the bench.
In what amounts to a small sample, Poehling played well. He hit people, blocked shots and used his size, although he did struggle in the faceoff circle. But with Kotkaniemi set to return, the question is whether Poehling showed enough to stay in the NHL and, if he does play, what position will he play?
Prior to the Philadelphia game, Julien said Poehling is a better player at the NHL level than he is in the AHL.
Poehling agreed, noting the NHL is more structured and he’s surrounded by better players. But being a good fit isn’t enough of a reason to keep him in Montreal if he isn’t going to get significant minutes.
The Canadiens had to be creative when it came to Suzuki. It was obvious there was no room for him at centre and he became a right winger. He has joined Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins to form a fourth line that is dependable at both ends of the ice.
Julien could employ a similar strategy with Poehling or Kotkaniemi, but that might weaken the team in another area.
There will come a day when all three of the youngsters will be playing centre for the Canadiens, but that’s a season or two in the future. In the meantime, the task is to keep everyone busy and that might mean someone will be logging development time in the Laval.
Carnegie story worth revisiting
Before Willie O’Ree, there was Herb Carnegie.
O’Ree is recognized as the first black player in the NHL, but that honour probably would have gone to Carnegie if the NHL had a more enlightened attitude toward race during the 1940s.
Carnegie would have turned 100 on Friday and ECW Press in Toronto marked the occasion by reissuing his autobiography, A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story, with 30 per cent new material provided by his daughter, Bernice.
Carnegie and his brother, Ozzie, joined with Manny McIntyre to form an all-black line that dominated the Quebec Senior League during the 1940s, when the league was considered one step away from the NHL. One night, the trio led Sherbrooke to a 4-2 exhibition win over a Canadiens squad that featured Hall of Famers Rocket Richard, Toe Blake and Elmer Lach. The late Red Storey refereed many games in the Quebec league and declared: “The coloured line, as a line, could have played on any team, any time, anywhere.”
Conn Smythe, the original owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, allegedly said he would give $10,000 to anyone who could turn Herb Carnegie white. In this memoir, Carnegie recalls how years later he spoke to Harold Ballard, who said: “Herbie, you were born 25 years too soon.” Carnegie replied: “No, the powers that be were not ready for me.”
I met Carnegie several times in Toronto, where he became a successful businessman who still found time to run an inner-city minor hockey program and the Future Aces Foundation, which provided millions of dollars in scholarships across Canada. He also played golf at a high level. He won the Canadian senior championship twice, although there were events that were closed to him because of his colour.
P.K. Subban’s father gave his son a copy of Carnegie’s book and P.K. said it served as an inspiration. Black players are common in today’s NHL, but Carnegie’s book offers a look at a shameful part of the game’s history, and one man’s path to success.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019