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‘If it is my last chance, I can’t let it go by’: COVID-19 is providing opportunities throughout the Canadiens organization

The trickle down effect is affecting NHL and AHL players in positive ways.

Philadelphia Flyers v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

In March 2020, the day the NHL paused their season for the first time, Laurent Dauphin was going to play for the Montreal Canadiens. By now we all know what happened, and almost two years after COVID-19 first took away an opportunity, it provided him with another one.

For 26-year-olds on their fourth NHL organization after four different trades (Arizona both traded him and for him), chances at the top level aren’t a given, especially after 35 career NHL games over four seasons, the last coming in 2018-19.

He went into the season with confidence, and the result was 11 goals in 18 AHL games. He was among the AHL goal scoring leaders when he was recalled.

Dauphin has made the most of his opportunity so far with the Canadiens. In five games with the team, he has a goal and two assists. The three points match his most productive NHL year, back in 2016-17, in 19 fewer games.

“I said to myself that it might be my last chance, at 26 years old,” Dauphin said after practice on Tuesday. “I prepared for it, and I knew my first games would be important and the first games of this road trip as well... If it is my last chance, I can’t let it go by.”

The irony is that after COVID-19 provided the opportunity, it almost took it away again when he entered the NHL’s virus protocol on December 19. Now that bodies are returning to the Canadiens’ lineup, the numbers game will start and Dauphin knows what’s ahead of him.

“I want to pick up where I left off before Christmas, continue to take advantage of my chance and stay here for the rest of the season,” he said.

Head coach Dominique Ducharme also acknowledged the tight rope the organization will have to walk to make their roster.

“Some guys showed really good things, but it’s more complicated than we’re going to do this and that,” Ducharme said. “There are waivers, contracts, things like that. We certainly think that some guys might have taken a space on the team where they get more. Whether it’s playing more with us, or being with us instead of going back to Laval that’s a possibility for sure.”

“We have to look at the individual situation,” he continued. “For a young player, we need to make sure they have an amount of minutes and a role where they can continue to develop. In the case of Laurent, it’s a good example, it’s a guy who showed a lot of perseverance over the last few seasons. He received an opportunity, and did well in the games he received, and now he and the others like him need to continue in order to force us to make a decision.”

When Dauphin was set to make the jump to the NHL in 2020, it was at the expense of Lukas Vejdemo, who had just been sent down after scoring his first career NHL goal.

It was the last time Vejdemo would see the NHL in the regular season until he was pressed into action with a depleted lineup. The long list of players entering protocol meant that eventually he would get a chance on the top line with Nick Suzuki. It’s something he acknowledged when speaking to the media on Tuesday.

When the 25-year-old was asked about the biggest adjustment to the NHL system his response was that he was being asked to play in a more offensive role than he was used to with the Rocket. Vejdemo prides himself on his defensive play and his strong hockey sense, but he says it is something else that he has learned in his 162 AHL games over four seasons. He is the all-time leader in goals and games played for the Rocket since they moved from St. John’s.

“You can’t have any days off, you need to be good every game,” Vejdemo said. “I learned that over the years here. I feel that’s a big part of my game, more consistency.”

“We’re really proud of our players who went to the NHL,” said Laval Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle. “They gave an honest effort every night and for them it’s an opportunity to shine and show the organization what they can do. It gives them experience to play at a higher level and allows them to know what to learn in order to stick in the NHL.”

There is a very real trickle down to the opportunities. While NHL opportunities are the premium ticket, so many players getting that call means that the players in Laval are getting increased roles.

Tobie Paquette-Bisson started his first season with the Rocket as a healthy scratch. Once he entered the lineup, he became a regular. He had to earn the trust of a new coaching staff, and he enters Wednesday’s game as the team’s top defenceman. It’s a challenge he is looking forward to.

“I want to be the go-to guy,” Bisson said. “For the team, for the coaches. My role is to play the right way. My defensive game is the biggest part, especially with all the guys gone. It’s just coming back and showing the way for the guys.”

The break came at a bad time for the Rocket, who were 5-1-1 in their last seven games, including five wins in six games. It meant that the break was more difficult than simply being away from the rink. Wednesday’s game at an empty Place Bell against the Syracuse Crunch will be their first game since December 17.

“For the first part it was kind of tough, I’ll be honest,” Paquette-Bisson said. “We were on a stretch and things were going great. I had I think 23 days without coming to the rink so that was tough. For all the guys here it was a tough time but guys are excited to go back and play.”

Players on AHL contracts are often overlooked parts of a successful farm team, given that the attention is rightfully on NHL prospects. With only two NHL contracts expected to be in Wednesday’s lineup, that means a showcase for players who had already stepped up including the line of Brandon Gignac, Kevin Roy, and Danick Martel, among others.

“I think this is the time for those players to take a step and show other organizations too,” Houle said. “If they do well, the Boston Bruins can come and scoop one of our guys at any given time. For them it’s an opportunity to have more ice time, to showcase themselves in situations they may not normally be in like the power play or the penalty kill. They are players that are fully taking advantage of this and it might get them a contract to further their career. It may be here with us, we might say hey we need this player again. It’s important to have some good veterans in the AHL to help the young guys progress but also for the mental state of the team when things like this happen.”

This is the first year that the Trois-Rivières Lions are in the Canadiens organization, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Houle acknowledged that it would be very tough for the Rocket to have a full lineup without the affiliate.

“I think it’s very important and it’s a good thing we have an ECHL team in Quebec, especially with COVID and issues crossing the border,” he said.

It’s also useful because most of the players recalled from the ECHL have worked with Houle through the team’s rookie camp and the early part of training camp. They also were on a hot streak of their own and can bring that momentum with them.

Olivier Galipeau earned an AHL tryout to fill out the team’s defence after starting the season with the Lions. He had two goals and 17 assists in 24 ECHL games, and the defenceman would play his 10th career AHL game in his Rocket debut.

Devante Smith-Pelly is also on a tryout with the Rocket, and is trying to use the opportunity to earn a full-time contract. The former Canadien last played in the NHL in 2018-19, and spent last year playing 14 games for the AHL’s Ontario Reign after a season in the KHL.

When he was asked what he had left in the tank, he was matter of fact.

“I’m 29, not 49,” he said before adding he means no offence to 49-year-olds.

With 13 forwards in Laval, and only three practices under his belt, he may not play on Wednesday, but his experience will be a positive going forward.