“I didn’t feel out of place playing with (the Canadiens),” Laval right-winger says. “I feel confident and was happy with my camp in general.”
At age 28, Alex Belzile hasn’t lost hope of fulfilling his dream to play in the NHL. He just won’t be with the Canadiens when the regular season commences next week.
“Obviously I was a little bit disappointed. I think it’s normal. Every player goes to training camp and wants to make the team,” the forward said Wednesday after a training-camp practice with the Laval Rocket — and not long after learning, Monday night, he had been waived by Montreal.
“On the other end, I’m realistic as well. I know, with my age and the contract … my goal going to camp was to make a name for myself,” added the native of St-Éloi.
Belzile played in three exhibition games for the Canadiens, scoring a goal and adding an assist. He averaged 15:21 of ice time and had seven shots on net. He signed a one-year, two-way contract with Montreal last spring that calls for a salary of US$700,000 in the NHL and $175,000 in the minors, including a guarantee of $200,000.
But considering the 6-foot, 181-pounder wasn’t drafted and bounced around the East Coast league for years before finally making it to the American Hockey League, Belzile’s in no position to complain.
“I know I’m good enough to play in the NHL. But sometimes, when you go under the radar or you’re in the shadows, it’s tougher to get noticed,” he said. “I think I had a good impact every time I played. I didn’t feel out of place playing with these guys. I feel confident and was happy with my camp in general.
“My goal was to get out there and be noticed.”
The Rocket struggled offensively last season, scoring only 195 goals in 76 games while finishing seventh in the North Division, 12 points out of the playoffs. Belzile was one of the team’s few offensive sparks, leading Laval in goals (19), assists (35) and points (54). He also had a team-leading eight power-play goals.
While Belzile might be disappointed over his demotion, he provides head coach Joël Bouchard with one more experienced veteran. And that will come in handy as Bouchard, entering his second season, tries leading the Rocket to its first post-season berth since the franchise relocated to Laval in 2017.
“I was optimistic last year and I think our guys did unbelievable,” Bouchard said. “For me, it’s the process that’s the most important thing; the way our guys perform at camp a year after we started this program.
“The progression in our young players … we were very excited,” he added. “I’ll keep pushing them, but they’re doing their homework. I’m positive every year. I have good guys that work hard.”
Bouchard and the Rocket were plagued by injuries, recalls and misfortune last season, although he slowly has started to change the team’s culture. He lost many of his best forwards, including Michael Chaput, Kenny Agostino, Michael McCarron, Byron Froese and Dale Weise, while Nikita Scherbak and Jacob de la Rose were claimed off waivers.
Of 46 players who dressed for at least one game, 18 were AHL rookies. The team was solid defensively, but struggled on offence. Still, they competed hard; Bouchard doing his best to get blood out of a stone. Laval was tied for the fourth, and final, playoff position in the North Division in late January.
“They competed every night. I was proud of them,” Bouchard said. “We had the youngest team in the league. Some nights, even if we lost, I felt we were the better team. Guys competed hard and played the right way. They invested into what will (get them to the) NHL.”
The Canadiens have had 21 draft picks during the last two years, leading to a feeling of optimism in the organization and down on the farm. The Rocket should be deeper and more talented this season.
They should have the nucleus of a good defence, with veterans Maxim Lamarche, David Sklenicka and rookie Josh Brook, who will help offensively. Up front, Belzile, Jake Evans and Lukas Vejdemo provide Bouchard with a starting point while he awaits the status of Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki — considered the Canadiens’ top two prospects — to be determined.
“We’re more experienced, that’s for sure,” Bouchard said. “Talent sometimes is evaluated a different way. I think we have … more complete players that I feel have an NHL upside. Let’s see where they are in their development and mentally, and we’ll work with them.”
The Rocket will play two exhibition games at Place Bell this weekend, both against Belleville, with free admission. Laval opens its regular-season at home on Oct. 4, against Cleveland.