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Joël Bouchard’s handling of young players was a welcome change at the AHL level

Several of the top prospects took major steps, and that has been a rare occurrence in the minors in recent years.

Jared Book

It isn’t easy making the transition from Junior hockey to the professional level, even for a coach. It most certainly isn’t when your veteran-laden roster suffers a rash of injuries and call-ups before you can even get your feet wet.

That was the reality of what Joël Bouchard faced this year in the AHL with the Laval Rocket. He originally had a roster with a multitude of established players, mixed with some brand new rookie prospects, and it seemed like the perfect mix to get the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL club back on its feet.

Before long, Bouchard was without Michael Chaput, Brett Kulak, Kenny Agostino, Michael McCarron, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Charlie Lindgren for various reasons. The insulation for his young players was gone. And yet top prospects Cale Fleury, Jake Evans, and Lukas Vejdemo thrived when called upon.

A big part of that is related to how Bouchard handled his young stars this year, and it set the tone for next year when he’ll be given another influx of the top prospects in the Canadiens system.

Nothing was given on Bouchard’s team. You had to earn your spot, and then continue to show you deserved it every single game. While the three prospects ended the season as the Rocket’s top players, they started the year on the fourth line or third pairing. When veterans struggled, these players stepped up into bigger roles, and never gave them back.

Vejdemo was a fourth-line, defensive winger who grew into the most trusted centre for Bouchard. Until an injury ended his season, he was playing top-six minutes and eating up penalty-kill time night in and night out. His growth was unmistakable, and with constant pressure to be at his best, not only did his defensive game improve, but his offensive numbers began to increase as well.

Next year he could have competition with Ryan Poehling fitting a similar mould of player, but just because Vejdemo’s the older player does not mean he’ll be handed the bigger role; he’ll battle for it every single game until the season ends.

The same could be said for Cale Fleury, the youngest player on the Rocket last year, starting the season at 19 years old and finishing it as a top-pairing blue-liner. He started on the third pair and once Brett Kulak departed, the team needed to find an offensive leader on the back end. Xavier Ouellet obviously filled that role on the left side, but on the right side of the defence there wasn’t anyone who seemed to mesh with him. Brett Lernout didn’t have the offensive chops, and while steady, Maxim Lamarche was not a big point-producer either. So in stepped Cale Fleury.

Fleury and Ouellet went on to be inseparable for the majority of the year, before Fleury was assigned to Karl Alzner, and Ouellet shifted down to support Josh Brook on the second pair. While he is very much the best option on the right side next year, Fleury will battle Brook for the top spot, and could even see Noah Juulsen sent down to get his game back after a scary facial injury.

The point is very clear with Bouchard at the helm: reputation means very little. Connor LaCouvee earned starts in goal by playing better for stretches over Lindgren and Michael McNiven, forcing the two goalies to up their games. ECHL call-ups got time on the top lines because they hustled and played hard while some established players seemed lost on the ice at the end of the year.

This internal competition is bringing out the best in the young players in the AHL, and with budding stars like Poehling and Nick Suzuki potentially joining the club next year that competition is going to get a lot more intense.

The Canadiens’ AHL club had been adrift in a sea of mediocrity, but Bouchard is beginning to right that ship, and will hopefully guide his club to playoff success starting in the next season. If he can put together competitive games with a lineup of ECHL and AHL rookies, he’ll have a force to be reckoned with at full strength next year.