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Lions ready to launch second season light on veterans

Poirier’s sudden departure leaves void as the year begins.

Team makes final adjustments
Lions de Trois-Rivières

The Lions de Trois-Rivières, the ECHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, open their second season Friday night at the Colisée Vidéotron, as they face the Maine Mariners.

The game can be seen on TVA Sports and FloHockey, and heard on 106.9FM Mauricie starting at 7:00 p.m.

The Lions book-ended their inaugural season with the largest crowds of the season, drawing a standing-room-only sellout of 4,500 fans for their opener against the Newfoundland Growlers, and 4,200 for their final regular season game, against the Worcester Railers. Overall they averaged 3,100 fans in the 4,390 seat arena. They are aiming to beat that this season, first of all without the restrictions and hesitancy that the pandemic brought with it, and secondly by putting together a lineup aimed at being much more difficult to play against.

Although last season the team had some talented goal-scorers, this year the recruitment process was all about finding 200-foot players, as Marc-André Bergeron told Habs Eyes on the Prize in a interview earlier in the month. Newcomers like Alex Breton, Nicolas Guay, James Phelan, and Conner Chaulk were specifically recruited with this new identity in mind.

A big loss occured before the season even started, as the Laval Rocket agreed to a mutual termination of veteran forward Emile Poirier’s contract. He was going to be one of two players with veteran status on the Lions to start the season. Now the Lions will only have defenceman Mathieu Brodeur with more than 320 professional games played, with three empty slots available. According to Le Nouvelliste who spoke to a team representative, the Lions are already hard at work to find a replacement, although it won’t be easy to find one at this stage of the season.

Despite Poirier’s loss, the Laval Rocket still have eight players on loan to the Lions, and the Montreal Canadiens re-assigned Cam Hillis back to Trois-Rivières to load the team with players who are capable of playing at the AHL level. One of the more interesting players to follow should be 6’7” rookie John Parker Jones who started his journey over a month ago on the Canadiens rookie team, then main camp, then Laval Rocket camp, to finally start playing games with the Lions. He can be used as both a forward and a defenceman, which is a big advantage for the coach. If he learns to use his size effectively, he can be an interesting weapon for the team. Another case study to follow is Brett Stapley who was drafted by the Canadiens, but they did not sign him to an NHL entry-level contract before his rights expired. They did sign him to an AHL contract, and assigned him to the Lions.

The Manitoba Moose once again loaned a player this season, rookie forward Colin Bilek, who joins the Lions from the U.S. military academy Army West Point who play in the top NCAA men’s division. Bilek was the team captain for the past two season, and named Atlantic Hockey player of the month multiple times last season, and a Hobey Baker Award Nominee in 2021.

Overall, the Lions will have 11 players on their roster who qualify as rookies (less than 25 professional games played). Although these are rookies, don’t think of them as young teenagers. Only goaltender Joe Vrbetic and forward Ryan Francis are 20-years old or younger. All other rookies are players who took non-traditional path to professional hockey, completing their USports or NCAA careers earning degrees, or returning from non-elite European leagues. The average age of the team is almost 25-years old, so there is potential for some late-bloomers in the group who could yet move their way up the Canadiens hierarchy.

Players who should lead the team in points this season include Anthony Beauregard, who returns to North America after a successful year in Switzerland, and team captain Cédric Montminy who progressed as a player throughout the season in his fourth ECHL season. If William Leblanc can return to the player he was before suffering a brutal concussion last season, and if one of the rookies takes the ball and runs with it, then the Lions will have several players capable of being game-breakers.

Overall, the expectation is that the Lions will compete with the top teams in the division. Remains to be seen if they will be able to overpower their Canadian rival Newfoundland Growlers, which should be the marquee matchup for the team all season long.