The 2018-19 NHL season was objectively terrible for Charles Hudon after a great rookie season the year before. Heading into the summer it was up in the air whether he was going to stay in Montreal or if he would be given the freedom to look for a new team. The Montreal Canadiens opted to give him a one-year deal, and a chance to rebuild himself after a disastrous sophomore campaign in the NHL.
After clearing waivers and being assigned to the Laval Rocket, there were questions about whether or not he could respond to the demotion. By the end of the shortened AHL season, none of those questions remained, as Hudon proved to be one of the league’s premier snipers.
Before a late-season recall to the NHL, Hudon had tallied 27 goals for the Rocket, placing him in the top five in the AHL, and he had played fewer games than everyone in front of him. When Hudon was rolling, so were the Rocket. He collected another AHL All-Star selection, and served as an alternate captain for Laval. He was challenged to be a leader, and to make it so the Canadiens couldn’t ignore the progress he made. He accomplished all of that and then some.
What makes Hudon so deadly, especially at the AHL level, is his ability to utilize an incredibly effective snapshot and slapshot one-timer around the faceoff circles. Typically being fed by Xavier Ouellet or Jake Evans this season, his shot became a nightmare for AHL goalies, leaving his stick in an instant and often finding a home just under the crossbar in an impossible-to-reach spot for netminders.
Good God what a rocket by Charles Hudon, his 16th goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/0iQWt9g20I— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 4, 2020
He became the catalyst for a lethal Laval power play, tallying an AHL-leading 14 goals on the man advantage. His late-season chemistry with Jesperi Kotkaniemi helped the young Finn adjust very quickly to the AHL. As the Rocket pushed on for a playoff spot, it was nearly impossible to read a scoring line from Hudon without also seeing Kotkaniemi’s name following it with another assist.
Another day, another Charles Hudon goal set up by Jesperi Kotkaniemi. pic.twitter.com/oZvKWUqR2m— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 22, 2020
It was the strong play over the course of Kotkaniemi’s arrival with Laval that earned Hudon a recall back to the NHL. That final recall highlighted that even after a brutal sophomore season, Hudon had bounced back in terms of play and used his role in Laval to become a mentor for the younger players.
His ability to click with linemates and bring out the best in them was the biggest aspect of Hudon’s play with the Rocket. Once Alex Belzile went down with an injury and it was clear that Riley Barber and Phil Varone weren’t working out, it was Hudon who took over as the leader among forwards.
An ability to get under his opponent’s skin most nights was certainly a key highlight of his year; not by doing anything dirty or against the rules, but by giving players an earful in a scrum. With that occasionally came extra penalty minutes, but more often than not Hudon made sure to at least bring someone with him to the penalty box.
In previous years in the AHL, Hudon produced plenty more assists, but he was also given an elite finisher on his line in Chris Terry, so the decline in that stat isn’t quite as shocking. It is still a steep decline, going from seasons with 20-plus assists to just eight this year. This season, the offence shifted more toward making Hudon the triggerman in most situations.
With Belzile back for next season, Hudon may have his own finisher back. That is assuming he is still within the organization. Clearly a level too good for the AHL but not quite an NHL regular is a tough spot to be in for any player. He is an imperfect but still useful piece at the NHL level when put in the right situation. As a restricted free agent, Hudon is at the mercy of what the Montreal front office decides to do with him.
There have been rumours of a move to the KHL, all of which were vehemently denied, making it seem like Hudon wants to stay within the Canadiens organization. Should he play in the AHL, he’s in a perfect spot to mentor players like Jesse Ylönen and Joël Teasdale, or even to provide a solid target for centre prospects joining the club.
Hudon passed his challenge to be a leader for the Laval Rocket. Now his challenge is to try to carry this past season’s performance into the Canadiens’ play-in series, and then into next season — whichever league he plays in.