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The culture change in Laval has occurred, now it’s time to focus on results

Joël Bouchard changed the way the Rocket work, next year they should take the next step.

Shanna Martin / Eyes on the Prize

The 2018-19 season for the Laval Rocket will go down in history as a necessary evil. After years of Sylvain Lefebvre and limited success — both on the ice, and in player development — Marc Bergevin made a change and hired Joël Bouchard to lead the Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate.

The optimism surrounding Bouchard and the team quickly faded as a myriad of injuries, call ups, and just bad luck led to the realization that while the culture change was underway, the results would not improve tangibly and it led to another season without a playoff appearance.

Of the 46 players who suited up for at least one game for the Laval Rocket this year, 18 were AHL rookies (technically 19 if you include Victor Mete but I won’t count him). That was one of the challenges he faced. Another was the fact that he lost his best forwards. Michael Chaput was recalled and then traded. Kenny Agostino was recalled and lost on waivers. Michael McCarron was on pace for a career renaissance before a season-ending injury. Byron Froese was traded, and Dale Weise was recalled shortly after his arrival.

Help never arrived, either. Nikita Scherbak and Jacob de la Rose were claimed off of waivers as well and the team - whose defence was solid for most of the season - struggled offensively.

There were bright spots and building blocks for the future. This season is not an indictment of Bouchard (nor is it one on Canadiens management). It was very obviously a necessary transition year. But the honeymoon phase is over and next year the rookies will be sophomores, and the team should have an influx of talent as well. It has been two years that injuries and a lack of depth has cost the Rocket. They can’t make it a third.

The Canadiens pipeline is starting to pump out talent, and it is possible that Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki skip the AHL entirely, like Jesperi Kotkaniemi did. You can’t blame the Canadiens if that happens — after all the ultimate goal is a Stanley Cup, not a Calder Cup.

But you can tell that there is a focus on organizational depth. They signed Nate Thompson, Jordan Weal, Xavier Ouellet and Christian Folin well before July. Otto Leskinen was signed and will likely see Laval. Alex Belzile saw his AHL contract turn into an NHL one. Those were moves done with one eye on the Rocket. Nikita Jevpalovs, Joe Cox, Morgan Adams-Moisan, and Connor Lacouvee all signed AHL contracts.

Add any veterans the team signs on July 1 (that is where the team did most of their damage last season signing guys like Chaput, Agostino, Belzile, Jevpalovs, and Maxim Lamarche) add them to the bones that includes Jake Evans, Lukas Vejdemo, David Sklenicka, Josh Brook, and Cale Fleury. It may include Karl Alzner and Dale Weise as well.

The 2019-20 Rocket are shaping up to be the best edition of a Canadiens AHL affiliate in many years, and the staff will be entering their second year. And with 21 draft picks over the last two years, it will just continue to improve. The Rocket have gotten praise for their facilities and the way the team is run, and word will continue to spread regarding that.

Now, the playoffs at the AHL level and winning at all costs is not the most important thing but as you build your organization, success becomes natural and it’s time for the Rocket to take that step. You look at successful NHL teams, and their AHL teams are usually successful or had success previously.

Everything is aligning for the Canadiens and the Rocket to become model franchises in the NHL and AHL. The groundwork and the foundation has been done now it’s time to get playoff hockey into Place Bell. They’re on the right path.