Out of everyone in Laval who had their 2019-20 season cut short, it’s hard to not feel the most for Alex Belzile. The veteran leader, the heart and soul of the Rocket lineup most nights, had earned his first NHL contract going into this season, and even had a strong showing in the Montreal Canadiens’ pre-season schedule. It seemed that Belzile was in line to finally make it to the NHL as well, as injuries ravaged the Habs and he continued to play a leading role in the Rocket’s success.
Then an upper-body injury wiped out his season at the beginning of December, with just 20 games played. Not only did his injury derail his chances at playing in the NHL this year, it tossed Laval off course as it searched for a leader to step up in his place. While players like Charles Hudon and Jake Evans played more games, and tallied more points, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Belzile was the most valuable piece in Laval’s lineup in the opening months.
It’s not hard to see why Belzile was the lifeblood of the Rocket. He was a human dynamo who brought intensity each and every shift. In contrast to the previous year when he (much like Hudon) ended up taking retaliatory penalties, he did so without taking a rash of minors this season, with most of his 30 penalty minutes coming in a game where he was assessed a misconduct in a scrum with Marko Dano. Belzile’s ability to bring the physicality to opponents, without crossing any lines drove other teams crazy on most nights, and that often helped to get a threatening Rocket power play on the ice.
On the man advantage he provided another shooting threat on the opposite wing of Hudon, allowing Evans and Xavier Ouellet to easily distribute the puck around for scoring chances. With Belzile able to run the power play from the point and also rove around the zone looking for space, he became the cog that really helped create the best chances for a dangerous power play in Laval.
It took the Rocket seven seconds to score on their first power play of the game, quick puck movement off the draw allowed Alex Belzile to net his third goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/Vi4SlfUGaW— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 14, 2019
Belzile’s hands and skating are far better than expected for someone who was an energy-type player upon arriving in Laval. Able to quickly turn his edges to stop and throw defenders out of position, or using his hands to dangle the puck around goaltenders, almost always making him a sure bet in the shootout for the Rocket, he was often a dangerous threat.
Belzile makes up for his penalties with the shootout winning goal, that's three in a row for the Rocket! pic.twitter.com/EtEUIwVKuX— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 2, 2019
He presented a balance in the lineup for Joël Bouchard, acting equally as a finisher and setup man. His versatility made it easy to slide him around to help get any one line going, or to help support struggling young players.
It was therefore a significant problem when he went down with a season-ending injury. He was the constant leader on the ice, not only in terms of production, but all the other roles a leader plays on the ice as well. The team seemed to lack the spark and drive it had with him in the lineup. Players like Phil Varone and Riley Barber produced at decent clips, but the team success suffered heavily. Eventually Hudon and Laurent Dauphin stepped into that role in a joint effort, but their mid-season struggles all coincide with Belzile’s departure.
The NHL debut that he seemed on pace to earn may not be far off. He has signed another one-year deal with the Canadiens, and while it’s likely he’s there to be a ringer for Laval, a call to the Canadiens could be in his future.
Laval is a young franchise by AHL standards, but in their short existence it’s hard to find someone who has worn the logo and played with the same passion every night as Belzile. He has his flaws as a player, but the drive and desire he brings to the ice not only make him a fan favourite, but also a great mentor for the growing cache of young prospects breaking into the pro ranks. He steps into any role given to him and finds ways to produce points night in and night out.
With a full recovery, the veteran forward will look to pick up where he left off after an injury-shortened season, and that’s likely sweet music to the ears of his coaches and fans alike.