It is a tired cliché to call a player a “bulldog,” but in the case of Alex Belzile, I will make an exception because he absolutely fits that description. He’s wasn’t the biggest player on the ice, but Belzile made sure opposing teams fought for every inch of ice while he was out there. By the end of the year, he was rightfully the Laval Rocket’s MVP for the season, and for the 27-year-old minor-leaguer, it was a career season.
Belzile played 74 games for the Rocket, finishing with 19 goals and 35 assists; solid numbers for a player I had originally thought would be a depth contributor this season. As the Montreal Canadiens organization began to see its AHL signings vanish through contract terminations, waiver claims, and long-term injuries, he kept moving up the line into a larger and larger part. By the end of the year, with the amount of roles he was playing in, it seemed like he was never off the ice for long — and he probably wasn’t.
While players like Nikita Jevpalovs wowed with their high-end skill, Belzile played a very straightforward, no-nonsense game, and it was more than effective for the Rocket. Not one to shy away from contact, he would go through anyone in his way, and get right to the front of the net to make a mess of things. That is where he made his living, in Brendan Gallagher-like fashion, posting up around opposing nets to clean up any loose pucks in the area.
Rocket gif thread!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 20, 2019
Alex Belzile's 10th goal of the year ties things up early for Laval. pic.twitter.com/3STF7UEm2J
He also used a quick but heavy snapshot to beat goalies, in addition to having an effective backhand that he utilized to great effect throughout the year. Despite a fairly limited array of tools, he used them in the dangerous areas of the ice. By putting himself in the best places for scoring chances, he was certainly one of the most dangerous players every night.
His ability to create chances was not just limited to even strength and the power play, he was part of a new-look, hyper-aggressive penalty kill instilled by Joël Bouchard and his staff. That bulldog mentality made Belzile a major nuisance even while down a man, and small opposition mistakes were turned into dangerous chances for the Rocket.
Alex Belzile gets aggressive on the penalty kill, and Michael Chaput buries the shorthanded goal. pic.twitter.com/VGjMiZfoSY— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 19, 2019
Losing Kenny Agostino, Byron Froese, Michael Chaput and, by the end of the year, Jake Evans put a major damper on the Rocket’s offensive output, and yet Belzile was still able to keep it flowing as best he could. His partnership with Daniel Audette brought out the best in the young forward as Belzile occupied the space around the net, freeing up Audette to work the fringes with his playmaking and speed.
The team was going to need a new veteran to step up after Chris Terry departed in the off-season. Agostino looked to be that player until he was claimed on waivers, and Alexandre Grenier struggled to find consistency all year. This pushed the load onto the shoulders of Belzile, who handled it all without a complaint.
That begs the question of whether the Rocket will bring him back next year, and as it stands there is no solid reason not to.
There are still a few years before a big wave of drafted prospects become eligible for the AHL, and while there are a few joining their ranks this year, they’ll need a veteran presence to help along the way. Belzile brought out a lot of Audette’s best qualities, and could likely do the same for a player like Nick Suzuki in the early stages of his professional career.
It is entirely common for teams to sign their veteran leaders on year-to-year AHL deals, like the Pittsburgh Penguins club did with Tom Kostopoulos for years. He won’t always be there to be the goal-scoring leader or even a major producer, but someone to provide solid play for coaches to lean on when they need to help younger players find their overall game.
Alex Belzile was the team MVP in more ways than one, and he has more than earned another year in the Canadiens organization.