Xavier Ouellet was part of a very quiet July 1 in Montreal last year, signing a $700,000 one-year deal to play with the Canadiens. He had a strong showing in the preseason, and through 19 games, looked like a solid depth piece in the defence core as well. However, with Shea Weber returning, the team needed lineup space and perhaps unfairly, Ouellet was the odd-man out in favour of Mike Reilly and Brett Kulak. Kulak eventually took Reilly’s ice time and became a solid top-four piece, while Ouellet was assigned to the AHL and wasn’t given a second look at the NHL level.
Yet, his arrival with the Rocket was exactly what the club needed. He immediately became their most reliable defender and helped drive offence from the blue line. In 47 games, Ouellet compiled a near career-high 28 points with seven goals and 21 assists. Just one point off his best season in Grand Rapids and in 14 less games.
When he was reunited with his old coach, Joel Bouchard, Ouellet seemed to find a new level to his game in the AHL, making plays at both ends of the ice and exuding confidence every time he touched the puck. While not the fleetest skater around, Ouellet’s mobility was a huge blessing for a team playing with several prototypical “defensive defencemen”, like Karl Alzner and Maxim Lamarche. When given the space, Ouellet would take off down the ice with the puck to create scoring chances, or in some instances, score the goals himself.
Xavier Ouellet goes coast to coast and wins it in OT for Laval! pic.twitter.com/FSbpZjAMpb— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 24, 2019
His aggressiveness in the offensive zone was a huge boost for a struggling Rocket team, and his arrival coincided with huge strides in development by several prospects. With the way modern hockey is going, having a defender like Ouellet who can rush the puck into the zone and set up his teammates, provided a great example for young prospects like Cale Fleury.
Great zone entry by Xavier Ouellet sets the stage for Lukas Vejdemo's fifth goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/UUzCC20CBF— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 29, 2018
That might be the most important part of Ouellet’s game this year in Laval. He was the defensive leader for the young prospects, and allowed them to bloom a bit while playing with him. Fleury ended up as his most consistent partner for the majority of the season, until the final few games when that job was given to Josh Brook to acclimate him to the AHL.
Fleury had his ups and downs, but by the end of the year, looked like a player ready to challenge for an NHL spot heading into next year. Playing with a partner that has experience and a similar style to his own, Fleury was able to learn plenty from Ouellet over the course of this year, and should be in the running for a spot in Montreal next year.
So, now out of a contract, what is the best course of action with Xavier Ouellet? He clearly had a massive impact at the AHL level and, by most measures, was a serviceable NHL role player as well. He was named captain of the club after Byron Froese was traded to Philadelphia before the deadline, and it’s obvious that his leadership on and off the ice was great for the team. It would be extremely wise for Montreal to bring him back once again. Especially given the potential turnover on the left side of the defensive group, since Reilly and Jordie Benn are destined to become unrestricted free agents. Ouellet’s new deal will likely include a small raise, and even if he is in the AHL he’ll be making a huge positive impact.
Based on underlying numbers, the affordability of his contract and his level of play, it seems like a slam dunk to bring Ouellet back. His contributions at the AHL level are crucial for prospect development, and in a pinch, he’s more than capable of handling NHL minutes. There isn’t much downside to bringing back the 25-year-old defender.