MONTREAL - When Ryan Poehling arrived at the Training HAUS in Eagan, MN to begin his summer workout program, renowned strength and conditioning coach Kirk Olson had a simple message for his prized pupil.
"I just told him that this is the one summer where we don't have any hangups. We don't have any Team USA stuff going on, the tonsils have been taken out, we're ready to go," said Olson, referencing the surgical procedure Poehling underwent last July to treat tonsillitis and a deviated septum. "Now, it's time to focus and get after it."
And that's exactly what the 20-year-old centerman has been doing ever since under Olson's tutelage in hopes of earning a roster spot with the Canadiens come the fall.
The focus thus far has really been on a couple of key areas.
"The biggest thing we needed to address was athleticism. I break it down, hockey is a sport based on two-second bursts, followed by stops, starts and turns. The better I get him at transitioning between stops, starts and turns, the better player he's going to be when he's on that ice. Obviously the strength needs to be there, too, but he's a strong individual with a big body. That's going to come," explained Olson, who works with Poehling every Monday through Thursday as part of a group program that also includes his twin brothers, Nick and Jack.
"We're also working on energy system development or conditioning. Ryan was a little limited with it from his lack of being able to breathe clearly when he had his tonsils, but he's getting in better and better shape. The difference is night and day to have the ability to open the airway like that. If I can get Ryan fast and quick so he's playing out in front of every player, guess who's going to be more tired at the end of the game, regardless of what their VO2 max might be? They are. This isn't conditioning for 60 minutes, though, but for 82 games." he added.
According to Olson, the head of sports performance at Twin Cities Orthopedics and a former strength and conditioning coach with the Minnesota Wild, the Canadiens' hopeful is a real treat to instruct.
This marks the fourth offseason the pair has spent together, and Olson is appreciating every second of it.
"What I love about working with Ryan is pretty much every day I'll walk up to him and say, 'I can't believe how far you've come.' He is such a coachable individual. You could tell him to do a pretty complicated plyometric jump, and he just nails it. Over the last three years, I've seen the explosiveness, power and athleticism just blossom. And seeing him with the added confidence now is fun to watch," praised Olson. "That's probably my favorite part with him, seeing everything unfold. He's coming into his body. He's moving like an exceptional athlete. I just enjoy sitting back after I demonstrate a drill and watching it."
But, Olson is adamant that in Poehling's case there's much, much more to come. They've only just scratched the surface of his capabilities.
"We're just starting to tap into it," insisted Olson, who believes Poehling's eagerness to pick up where he left off last April pushes him daily. "He has that extra motivation because you're playing for the most storied team in the NHL and you just had a hell of a curtain call in your first game. That's motivation in and of itself. He realizes the expectation isn't to repeat that each and every game, but he wants to prove that he belongs, that he's going to be a successful NHL player. That's even motivation for me taking this kind of untapped athlete and honing him even more."
Poehling's maturation from a mental standpoint is also something that has caught Olson's attention this summer.
The St. Cloud State University product's sense of self-assurance continues to rise.
"You could definitely see that in Ryan. I talk about that all the time with my players - living, walking, talking, everything you do is with a purpose. Ryan is 6-foot-2, but when you walk in a room, I want you to be 10 feet tall. I always tell my guys I want them to have a presence, and he most definitely has a presence now. But, he's still got that humbleness about him," said Olson. "I think he's really grasped his own identity."
And an important part of that identity is continuing to be his usual gregarious self.
"Ryan likes to have fun. He always has a big smile. I don't think I've ever really seen him down. I always have fun with him. I'll be talking about him - right in front of him, of course - and say, 'Then we've got Ryan over here, the guy dropped out of college.' He gets a real kick out of that," joked Olson. "But, I just love how he talks. You look around at guys his age and they haven't found their voice yet. He has. You can see his composure. Ryan is a thoughtful young man."