While the headlines on July 1 are rightfully grabbed by NHL franchises splashing out massive money for free agents, plenty of teams have begun to make moves to shore up their AHL clubs as well.
For the Montreal Canadiens, this was a clear priority heading into this season, especially after the Laval Rocket collapsed into one of the AHL’s worst teams last year. With their main stars called up to the NHL roster due to injuries, they were forced to get by for much of the year with ECHL players and tryouts, which obviously did not go well.
Factor in the team losing their two top forwards in Chris Terry and Adam Cracknell as free agency began, Marc Bergevin had to find a way to replace the almost 60 goals scored between the two of them. He also had to find potential defensive help with the departure of Éric Gélinas and the possibility of Noah Juulsen pushing for an NHL roster spot this season.
As it stands right now, Bergevin has done just that, adding more pieces to the prospects he’s already signed to ELCs for next season. Players like Will Bitten, Michael Pezzetta, Hayden Verbeek, Alexandre Alain, and Jake Evans will be joined by Czech defenders Michal Moravčík and David Sklenička.
It wasn’t just big-name prospects they added, they also began to pile in some depth, signing T.J. Melancon, Morgan Adams-Moisan, and then Phélix Martineau. These moves weren’t meant to immediately turn this roster into a contender, but add young pieces that can step into the system from the ECHL or press box as needed.
The signings also created an extremely apparent trail to who would become the next head coach. That man was of course Joël Bouchard, who immediately brought his assistant coach, Daniel Jacob, over from the QMJHL’s Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. A man known for getting the best out of his young players, regardless of their role, Bouchard was part of a sweeping coaching change that saw Dominique Ducharme join the NHL staff as well.
With coaches in place, the draft settled, and development camp impressions made (by both coaches and prospects), the next major step was to parse through the free-agent pool on July 1. The Habs didn’t just skim the AHL free agent list, they went out and made a major splash to restock the Rocket roster.
While the first major move of the day was to re-sign Tomas Plekanec, their first move with AHL implications was signing Xavier Ouellet to a one-year, two-way deal at almost league minimum. While it’s expected that Ouellet will get a fair crack at the NHL roster, if he were to be sent down, he’ll be reunited with Bouchard who was his coach during the best years of his junior career. If he does join the team in Laval, they’re getting a young defencemen who can alleviate some of the pressure put on Matt Taormina last year.
The talent is there, and this fresh start could very well restart what looked to be a fairly promising career in Detroit. It’s a low-risk signing and one could end up being a bargain; a rare occurrence on July 1.
Two of the Canadiens’ signings right after that fit into a similar mould as Ouellet, just at the forward position as opposed to on defence. Both Michael Chaput and Matthew Peca bring outstanding AHL numbers with them, and can be fourth-line fill-ins if need be.
For Chaput it’s more likely that he’ll step into one of those roles vacated by Terry and Cracknell, while Peca could start the season in Montreal, according to Bergevin.
Chaput reads as a steady, if not overly flashy, playmaker in the AHL, and looks good for about 40 points a year. Players of his make are important as they can help ease the pressure of professional hockey for rookies or younger prospects. His ability to consistently produce at the AHL level is going to be crucial for the Rocket next year. While he doesn’t have to be a star, his role as a great supporting piece cannot be understated.
As someone who has covered the Canadiens’ AHL club in depth for several years now, Matthew Peca is a name I’ve gotten to know fairly well. He comes to Montreal after leaving the Tampa Bay Lightning organization where he was a major piece on an always-competitive Syracuse Crunch team.
Our friends from Raw Charge had this to say about Peca, and what he meant to the Crunch during his time there:
Peca is an extremely versatile forward with speed and skill. He’s good at everything: he draws, plays a few instruments, knows at least a couple of languages, and makes things look easy in most instances. He was a really good sport during the Crunch’s karaoke battles and was genuinely great at fan events.
His skills translate better to the NHL because of his size, however. He tends to sometimes get bogged down at this level by the physicality. However, during the playoffs it seemed like that was less of an issue than it has been, so I think he’s really been working on it
He never complained about where he was placed by the Lightning, even though I never thought he got a fair trial up with them.
He’s not the biggest player in the world at 5’9’’, but he’s not shy about the physical aspects of hockey, and with three straight 40-point seasons in the AHL, he knows how to help his team win games. While Bergevin says he expects Peca to play in Montreal this year, there is always the chance those plans change depending on training camp and the pre-season. If an NHL spot isn’t in the cards, the Rocket are getting a versatile, hard-working player who should not only be a hit with the fans on the ice, but off it as well.
It was the next signing of the day, however, that made the biggest waves at the AHL level, as the Canadiens locked up former AHL MVP Kenny Agostino to a two-way contract. Agostino is one of the premier scoring forwards in the league today, as the 26-year-old has turned in at least 40 points every year of his professional career, including his incredible 83-point MVP campaign in 2016-17. Last year for the Providence Bruins he tallied 16 goals and 37 assists, which would have made him the second leading scorer on the Rocket, behind just Terry.
He isn’t going to fix things at the NHL level, nor should he be expected to, but players like Agostino are what turn good AHL clubs into Calder Cup contenders. All he does is produce points, and he’s still a relatively young asset for a team looking to rebuild itself with youth. He’s likely to be the main piece in replacing Chris Terry’s production, and will be counted on as one of the veterans in the locker room as well.
The marathon of signings pushed on, with Laval native Alexandre Grenier being the next to ink a deal with the club. In a smart move overall, the Rocket locked up Grenier to a one-way AHL deal, meaning he can’t be sent down to the ECHL. By signing that AHL deal, the Habs keep a contract spot open, while also inking a very good player for the Rocket.
Standing 6’5’’, Grenier is no stranger to the physical side of the game, and while he can thrive as a hard-checking forward, he’s no slouch at putting up points as well. He’s produced four straight seasons of 40-plus points, and has topped 15 goals in all of them, adding another veteran scoring presence to the lineup. Much like Agostino, he’s the kind of player who helps get a team over the hump when it counts, and he’ll be another good mentor to the prospects joining the team this season.
Grenier was the first of a flood of AHL contract signings, not to be confused with AHL players signed to two-way NHL/AHL deals. The Rocket added four players on minor-league contracts to their roster, and after last year’s disastrous ending, the depth is welcomed.
One of Bouchard’s old star players from his time in Blainville-Boisbriand was among the first to be added, the 23-year-old Nikita Jevpalovs. The Latvian forward transformed into a star for the Armada under the charge of Bouchard in the 2014-15 season, when he tallied 49 goals and 100 points for his club.
After two disappointing years in the AHL with the San Jose Barracuda, Jevpalovs returned to Latvia, where heplayed for the KHL club Dinamo Riga. The KHL is not an easy league to score in and his stats reflect that, but a reunion with the coach who was there for his most successful years as a prospect may re-ignite some of that game he had in the QMJHL.
Next up is the addition of Ryan Culkin, who signed a one-year, two-way (minor-league) deal with the Rocket, which means he can also be assigned to the Brampton Beast of the ECHL if required. After a promising, but short, rookie year in 2014-15 where he tallied 18 points in 37 games, the Calgary Flames draft pick couldn’t seem to find that level again in the AHL.
As such he’s spent the majority of the last two years playing in the ECHL for the Adirondack Thunder and Fort Wayne Komets. With 38 points in 53 games last year, he looks like he’s regained some of that scoring ability. At just 24 years of age he’s still a young player, and will more than likely be a solid add for the Beast, and decent depth if Laval should need it.
The Rocket would add one more defender before the day was done, Laval native Maxim Lamarche, who comes to the Rocket from the Philadelphia Flyers organization. Since turning pro in 2013-14, Lamarche has split time between the ECHL and AHL, primarily serving as a depth guy for the Phantoms on defence.
It would be unwise to expect Lamarche to be a major point contributor, but he’s another good option to have on the roster in case there are emergency call-ups or injuries on a three-in-three weekend.
He might not wow on the scoresheet, but when Lamarche is on the ice good things were happening for the Phantoms. He’s a positive-impact player when it comes to goals, and even relative to his teammates he’s an overall positive. That’s welcome news for a defensive group that struggled mightily last year.
The last signing of the day is someone who has actually played for the Habs’ AHL affiliate before, with Alex Belzile signing a one-year AHL deal. Belzile joined the Hamilton Bulldogs on a loan in the 2012-13 season, and six years later joins the new AHL club as a full-time member.
Last year with the San Antoinio Rampage was the first time he spent an entire year in the AHL, having previously split time with multiple clubs in the ECHL. With 34 points in 61 games, he provides another solid piece of depth for the club on any given night.
That is the main theme of this entire signing spree. While guys like Peca and Ouellet might make a name at the NHL level, most of these players will be Laval Rocket players for the entire year. Good AHL clubs — and by extension good NHL clubs — have depth that stretches down into their minor-league systems, and that’s what the Canadiens are starting to do this year.
The organization should want to build not just themselves, but their affiliates into contenders as well. With their moves on Sunday, it’s clear they believe that. They locked up big-name minor-league free agents who have a proven track record in the AHL and youthful depth signings from the CHL and elsewhere. Add a new coach to fully mark this as a fresh start, and the future is bright in Laval.
Now we wait to get this team, with the newly signed veterans and the Canadiens’ own NHL prospects, on the ice so it can show exactly what the new-look club can do.