It’s been a long time coming – the Canadiens AHL team is finally good.
It’s been a struggle for majority of the last decade for Montreal’s farm team, whether it was the Hamilton Bulldogs, the St. John’s IceCaps, and recently, the Laval Rocket. A few playoff appearances, but nothing the team could build upon. This was a major dissapointment.
However, since the move to Laval, the hiring of Joel Bouchard, the rebuild of the player development personnel and the influx of high valued prospects, the Laval Rocket look like they are primed to be a top team in the AHL. With a record of 16-4-1-1, they are second in points and fourth in points percentage, fifth in goals scored with 71, ninth in power play with an efficiency of 20.1% and eighth in penalty kill with 82.9%. A good team overall.
How has a team who has been mediocre at best over the years managed to become this good?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the team is doing well with a qualified developmental coach is in charge. For years, we heard the same thing, “the team needs someone who will push the prospects to higher levels”, and for years, we had the same problem. With Joel Bouchard in charge, who has been since the team moved from St. John’s to Laval, we’ve seen progress from Montreal’s top prospects and it’s evident this year that it’s them who are leading the charge.
Bouchard is a major reason for this success, whether it’s individual players or team success. For years, he lead the Blanville-Boisbriand Armada to farther lengths than what the team was projected to do. Multiple playoff runs and even trips to the QMJHL finals saw a ton of attention put on him and expectations skyrocketing from the hockey world. He was the perfect choice to lead the future of the Montreal Canadiens at the minor league level.
What Bouchard does well is he turns up the attention on details. He’s a process type of guy and he’s always been like this. He looks at how you get from point A to point B and where he can maximize efficiency and consistency. He also makes things work because he knows what every player on his team is able to do and does not try to fit a square peg in a round hole. Everyone plays the style of hockey that got them to the AHL and he turns it up a notch every time. Every single one of them is valued because every single one of them contributes to the overall team success. That’s why players love him; he values all of them.
Influx of Talent
Another big reason as to why the AHL affiliate has been subpar has been the lack of high-end talent.
It’s been a concern for years, and for the most part, a reason why the Canadiens and their affiliate have not made noise deep into the post season; they simply haven’t had difference makers.
It seems that those difference makers have shown up this year, not including the arrival of Cole Caufield, who just signed a three-year, entry-level contract and will report to Laval when his quarantine is over, and have taken the bull by the horns, leading the Rocket to the top of the Canadian Division.
Seven of the 10 players leading the team in scoring are considered prospects. That’s a healthy amount. Players like Ryan Poehling, who has 16 points in 21 games, has progressed a lot and has become a dependable two-way player. Otto Leskinen has also been a a key contributor, helping out in both zones and leading defensemen with 14 points in 22 games. Jesse Ylonen has been a breath of fresh air with his silky smooth skating and puck handling abilities, as well as his lethal shot at the face-off circle.
Other important players include undrafted free agents from the QMJHL; Joel Teasdale and seventh-round pick from 2019, Rafael Harvey-Pinard. Young and motivated players manning the ship is what will get this team to higher levels and keep things this way beyond the 2021-22 season.
Cayden Primeau has also been big for Laval, being one of the top netminders in the whole league. His 11 wins are tied for the top spot, meanwhile, he ranks second in goals against average and fifth in save percentage for goalies who have started in at least 10 games. These are quality statistics for a player in year two of pro hockey.
All the players named above, along with a few others, are building a solid foundation that should be sustained after some graduate to the big leagues when they get their chance.
One of the hardest things to do in the AHL is rock the same core lineup game in and game out. Your top players get call-ups, meanwhile, injuries happen throughout the season. It has been the case in previous seasons where the Canadiens would make multiple call-ups and it would often put the farm team in tougher situations even though it’s part of the process.
This year has been very stable. The top contributors have been with the Rocket from the start, and up until lately, they were very healthy.
Furthermore, the Canadiens made it clear with their top prospects that they’d play there all year, such as Ryan Poehling, Jesse Ylonen, Josh Brook and co., and that allows Bouchard to put in overtime with players, knowing he could continue the work the following practice and moving forward. This is the stability young players need early in their development as they progress and learn to adapt to a more mature playing style.
Stability allows players to develop and iron out wrinkles in their game. It’s a developmental league where you can work on your game and that’s evident this year. It’s clear that Ryan Poehling, Josh Brook and certain others got the message, as they were, for the most part, underwhelming last year. They have made a full 180 in the way they play the game and are key contributors to Laval’s overall success.
It’s not over yet. There is still work to be done, but things are looking real good moving forward. Laval is building a good developmental system, the players are learning and developing and it’s showing on the ice. They’re playing as a unit of five out there and it’s why they have been a successful team in all three zones. There are no selfish players on this team. This is what the Canadiens lacked for years and it seems that they have managed to put all the pieces together to build a good team at the minor league level. They hope to see that success join the majors soon.