The 2017-18 Montreal Canadiens' defence may leave a little to be desired, currently comprised of a slow-as-molasses corps, and one that lacks the punch of a top all-around defenceman.
The same can't be said about their AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket.
The defence has been revamped with new pieces alongside the returning Brett Lernout, Zach Redmond, and Tom Parisi. Those pieces should, at the very least, result in more production from the back end.
The new guy
This off-season, Habs general manager Marc Bergevin added the reigning American Hockey League defenceman of the year in Matt Taormina (15 goals, 45 assists), who tied T.J. Brennan for most points by a blue-liner in 2016-17.
Forty-one of his 60 points were either goals or primary assists. For context, the leading point-getter among d-men for the St. John's IceCaps last season was Joel Hanley (now in the Arizona Coyotes’ system) with two goals and 20 assists.
Needless to say, Taormina can be counted on for offence, defence, and transition play for the Rocket.
Prospects making the jump
Some questions, but also some promise, lie on younger prospects getting their chance to play professionally.
After spending the last five years in junior, Noah Juulsen is primed to play his first pro season with the Laval Rocket — barring an outstanding camp where he gives the Canadiens no choice but to keep him.
Perhaps that’s not as unlikely as it seems. Martin Lapointe, the Canadiens’ Head of Player Development, raved about Juulsen's physical attributes, among other traits, this past June.
Juulsen played twice with the IceCaps in their first-round series of the Calder Cup playoffs against the Syracuse Crunch. Talk about being thrown into the fire.
Simon Bourque is another young player who has seen the end of his junior career. He was a power-play specialist in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and with the Canadiens dealing away their top puck-moving prospect in Mikhail Sergachev, the spotlight may focus a little more on the 2015 sixth-round selection. Bourque has also played a limited number of games in the AHL, but did not pick up a point.
Another potential candidate for AHL time this year? Victor Mete, the diminutive but high-flying defenceman from the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. The 19-year-old had 44 points in 50 games with the Knights last season and will be fighting for time with 60 other players at this year's NHL training camp.
The Canadiens added to their under-25 pool with the signing of 24-year-old defender Joe Morrow this summer. He was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011, but can now be labeled a journeyman. He spent some time with Pittsburgh and Dallas' AHL affiliates before landing with Boston's minor-league club, the Providence Bruins, during the 2013-14 season.
He spent time with the Boston Bruins, but fell out of favour with the organization and wasn't retained. He's a puck-moving defenceman, but with Taormina in the lineup he may not be relied on as a top-pairing option. Morrow may still have something to prove at his age, and if nothing else he can be an offensive contributor, having amassed 60 points in 155 AHL games.
Jakub Jerabek is a bit of a wild card here in that no one really knows what to expect from him. The Kontinental Hockey League All-Star signed with the Habs this past May, and many felt it signified the end of the tenure of fellow left-hander Nathan Beaulieu.
That speculation came before the Canadiens signed two other left-side options in Karl Alzner and Mark Streit. Oh, and don't forget about Brandon Davidson.
If Jerabek can't outplay Davidson and Streit for a steady spot, you'd think Laval would be a viable option for him to begin his North American journey. But, per TVA's Renaud Lavoie, Jerabek has a clause in his contract that allows him to return to Europe if he doesn't get a spot with the Canadiens. That may play a role in the team’s personnel decisions before the season starts on October 5.
Veterans and returnees
Zach Redmond quietly impressed fans during last season's training camp and split time between the Canadiens and IceCaps last season. Eighteen points in 26 AHL games is a limited, but encouraging, sample of what the 29-year-old could do in a second season with the farm team. Of course, he could also be the next man up for the Habs if the team needs a right-side defender.
Brett Lernout brings size to the lineup and has made improvements to his game, including his transition ability. While he has played a pair of games at the NHL level, he's a surefire bet to start the season in Laval.
Tom Parisi is small, but has shown flashes of brilliance — when he has received ice time from head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. His opportunities won't come any easier now that Bourque and Juulsen will be sharing the limelight.
AHL rosters fluctuate throughout the year, which means Laval will surely see more bodies on defence. But if nothing else, the Rocket should see a rise in offensive production from the back end for the 2017-18 season.