MONTREAL — With the NHL season in full swing, the AHL is on the verge of getting their 2020-21 season underway. And while some of the intricate details involving the return to play are still being ironed out, we now have a better idea of what type of roster the Laval Rocket will ice this season.
It’s a combination of youthful exuberance, depth, and veteran talent, bolstered by a coaching staff that has revitalized the prospect development pipeline in recent years.
32 players are in attendance at the Rocket’s training camp, including one player who will take advantage of the unique opportunity presented by the ever-changing sports landscape to test the waters in the AHL.
Recent first-round pick Kaiden Guhle, who turned 19 on January 18 and is fresh off a World Juniors silver medal, is the youngest player at camp, though there’s very little concern when it comes to his ability to process and adapt to the AHL level.
“With the WHL on hold, we decided to bring him to camp,” explained player development coach Francis Bouillon. “This gives us an opportunity to place him in a situation conducive to learning, as well as keeping his development on track as he faces a high level of competition.”
There are no guarantees he’ll play, though it’s unlikely he’ll stay on the sidelines throughout his tenure with the Rocket.
“Just having him in Laval is excellent,” said Bouillon. “But if he does play, from what I saw at the World Juniors, I’m confident he’ll be able to adapt quickly to the AHL. He’s a big guy that skates incredibly well. I am delighted with what I saw in that tournament. He’s has a very bright future. We’re excited to have him here”
Guhle is not the only player joining camp out of the CHL, as Jan Mysak (Hamilton Bulldogs, OHL), Jacob Leguerrier (Sault St. Marie, OHL), and Gianni Fairbrother (Everett, WHL) will also be in attendance, though they’ll be attending via amateur tryout contracts, pending further developments.
As for showing the younger players the ropes, the Rocket will count upon their established leader, who also happens to be Joel Bouchard’s favourite workhorse: Xavier Ouellet.
Ouellet does it all for the Rocket. He’s not just their captain, he also plays a ton of minutes in crucial situations, while mentoring every newcomer on the blue line. Ouellet will receive help from Josh Brook, Otto Leskinen, and Gustav Olofsson as mainstay presences in the defensive squad.
Three players will share goaltending duties, with newcomer Vasili Demchenko joining Michael McNiven and Cayden Primeau, giving the Rocket a chance to keep things fresh in the crease with a condensed schedule against a small pool of opponents.
The schedule is yet to be finalized, but as it stands, the Rocket are likely to play in a Canadian division, which means facing teams in back-to-back situations. A trio of goaltenders will not only keep opponents guessing, but will also present opposing forwards with a different challenge every night.
While the Rocket can still add a veteran or two according to league rules, they’re already well-stocked in the experience department, especially up front, with Yannick Veilleux, Laurent Dauphin, Lukas Vejdemo, Michael Pezzetta, Kevin Lynch, Jacob Lucchini, and Joseph Blandisi returning from last year’s squad — the same squad that finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league.
Bouchard often says you need good veterans rather than a multitude of veterans, and the aforementioned players are the perfect example of the theory. They understand their role, contribute nightly, and are willing to do whatever it takes to help their team win, including accepting fewer minutes if the situation arises, which is the reality involved in playing as a veteran in the AHL.
But the returning vets won’t be the only players the coaching staff will count on to make an impact. Jordan Weal, Jesse Ylonen, Rafael Harvey Pinard, Cam Hillis, and Joel Teasdale will be given ample opportunities to earn more ice time, as Bouchard has instilled a meritocracy in Laval, putting an emphasis on teamwork over individual accolades.
Put aside personal goals, have an open spirit, listen to directions at practice, and you’ll play more, it’s as simple as that.
Just ask Alex Belzile, yet another prominent member of the Rocket who earned an NHL contract with the Canadiens through solid play with the AHL squad.
But it takes time to earn an NHL contract, not to mention a sustained effort that can take years to come to fruition.
For many of the aforementioned players, the first step towards their ultimate dreams will fittingly coincide with their first strides on Bell Centre ice — the Rocket’s temporary home for the 2020-21 season.