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Joël Bouchard content with Laval Rocket pre-season showing despite losses

Evaluation takes priority for Rocket as they are outgunned by more experienced Senators.

Club de Hockey Canadien Inc.

The Laval Rocket played a two-game series against the Belleville Senators on Friday and Saturday as part of their pre-season calendar.

These were the first games coached by new bench boss Joël Bouchard in the American Hockey League, and he probably would have liked to kick it off on a winning note, but the Rocket dropped both games to their divisional rival.

It’s important to start off by presenting some context. The Rocket did not bring five key pillars to their team on the trip to Belleville: Michael McCarron, Brett Lernout, Rinat Valiev, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Byron Froese remained in Montreal. Bouchard made a note that the primary goal of these two games was to test out the players who started training camp in Laval in order to complete their evaluation process, whereas those five players were able to play some pre-season games in Montreal.

In addition to missing those waiver-cleared players, the Rocket were also without injured top-pairing defender Matt Taormina, who has missed the entire pre-season, and starting goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who remains as part of the Montreal Canadiens’ training camp. Two other rookies, Michael Pezzetta and Hayden Verbeek, (groin) were also injured.

The Senators, meanwhile, iced a fairly complete lineup that included the top line of Nick Paul, Logan Brown, and Drake Batherson, which proved to be a notch above every other trio. Over the two games, the line combined for five goals and 10 points.

Game one

The first period of the opening game was marked by a couple of fights as Maxim Lamarche responded to an open-ice hit on Nikita Jevpalovs by Chris Stewart, and not long after Morgan Adams-Moisan dropped gloves against former St. John’s IceCap Jonathan Racine.

Discipline was problematic for the Rocket as the Senators were able to convert on two power plays, and once on a delayed penalty, to score three goals in a seven-minute span to start a dominant second period after a scoreless first. It was enough to permantly shift the momentum in Belleville’s favour.

The Rocket had two chances of their own to convert on a power play, but failed to do so. It’s worth noting that in the image of their parent club, the Rocket are now employing a four-forward/one-defenceman setup for the man advantage.

Adam Plant and Lamarche hit posts, but that would be the closest that the Rocket came to beating Marcus Hogberg, who stopped all 18 shots directed at him for a 5-0 shutout win.

Michael McNiven started for the Rocket, and blocked 22 of 25 shots he faced through 30 minutes of play. Étienne Marcoux replaced McNiven halfway through the second period and allowed two goals to Jim O’Brien in the third period, on 14 shots.

After the game, Bouchard wasn’t too worried about the score. He emphasized that the primary goal was to evaluate the players.

“I want to see who is capable of playing hockey. I want to see their true colours. I want to see who can keep up with the speed, play intelligently and understand the game. The guys worked really hard this week. It’s not that I don’t think the guys didn’t work. It would be wrong to say that. Did they work well all the time? No. But did the guys know everything they needed to know? Of course not.

“There wasn’t a lot of experience in the lineup. Defence especially and in nets. We did not have experience on our side in this game. I saw some players I liked, and others I saw things I didn’t like. I won’t name them, I’ll let them finish their evaluations, but yes, there were a few guys who stood out for me. But there weren’t many. But it’s all about adding to the mileage and that’s fun.”

“This game was not negative for me at all, for me now it’s all about tomorrow. What can they do tomorrow, that’s part of the evaluation. It’s all good for me, because it’s all about who can be better. To bring more.”

Game two

The following night the Rocket were hoping to respond to Bouchard’s challenge, giving the start to birthday boy Marcoux in net, but the team started off a little sluggish. Marcoux early on stopped a short-handed breakaway by O’Brien, but was unable to stop Brown on the power play. Cale Fleury was serving a holding penalty on Batherson, which led to the man advantage for the Senators.

In contrast to the night before, the Senators did not quickly widen their lead, but rather the Rocket replied 62 seconds later when Jevpalovs received a pass from Lukas Vejdemo and, while trying to centre the puck, hit the skate of Macoy Erkamps to have the puck deflected behind Belleville starter Filip Gustavsson. The secondary assist went to Alexandre Grenier, who sat out Friday’s game, but started Saturday’s on the top line with Jevpalovs and Vejdemo.

Jake Evans gave the Rocket the lead, scoring on a rebound from a Ryan Culkin shot, just as the Rocket power play expired. Alex Belzile got the assist on the go-ahead goal.

Marcoux made his best of 11 saves in the second on Chase Balisy by lunging laterally and making the stop. McNiven came in halfway through a second period that was largely fought in the neutral zone. Plant hit his second post in as many games, and the Rocket retreated to the locker room up by a goal after 40 minutes.

In a scenario that certainly haunts Rocket fans, the team unfortunately lost their lead in the third period when a defensive breakdown left Batherson all alone in front of the net to equalize the game with seven minutes left to play. Not long after Andrew Sturtz made David Sklenicka look foolish by skating right by him to pot the winning goal. Brown added an empty-net goal with a second left to finally give the Senators a 4-2 victory.

Bouchard was satisfied with the response the team offered. “They did the work. It was a very good game they played. We learned so much, played almost a perfect game. All sorts of different guys contributed. It was much better than yesterday and there was lots of good things. What got us were the little errors when you have the lead. We didn’t do that well.

“Players simply don’t know what they don’t know. It’s our job as the coaching staff to teach them how to finish a game. We did that for years with the Armada and it worked, so we will do it here. Some would say we deserved better, but I would say no. There were lots of little errors. This will help us learn and win some games down the road.”

Who looked good?

There is little question that Vejdemo and Jevpalovs were the Rocket’s best players on both nights. Bouchard singled them out after Saturday’s game: “Vejdemo was very good. Nikita is the player I know well. He’s a good hockey player. He listens. When I say ‘go,’ he goes. When I say ‘right,’ he goes right.”

The coach also highlighted the improvement of Jake Evans from one game to the next, giving some of the credit to veteran forward Alex Belzile for taking him under his wing, showing leadership in doing so.

Michal Moravcik was probably the best defender for the Rocket during these two games, playing a tough bruising game. He will certainly have a spot on the second pairing once the season starts.

Who looked bad?

One would have to be concerned with Daniel Audette, who, as a third-year pro, should have shown more. He was practically invisible during the two games, and headed in the wrong direction in terms of his position on the depth chart.

The same goes for Antoine Waked who had a difficult season last year, and looks to continue to struggle finding his place in the roster.

David Sklenicka played a couple of underwhelming games, with two mistakes in Saturday’s game leading to the tying and game-winning goals.

Roster size

The Rocket risk having over 30 players assigned to their roster, as there is no limit in the AHL. However, it makes sense that some of these players should be loaned to the ECHL.

Bouchard did not indicate what the ideal number of players would be for the Rocket roster, simply stating that it would all come down to the players to show what they’ve got.

“We’ll keep the players who deserve it, who have the potential. This is the pros. Eventually, the players will have to show what they have. We will keep the number of guys that we think it’s good for their development, that they can contribute or it just makes sense to keep them.”

ECHL moves

Maine Mariners Vice President of Operations Daniel Brière was in the crowd at the CAA Arena, surely taking notes. Bouchard had previously said that the Rocket would work with the Mariners after their affiliation deal with the Brampton Beast was not renewed, but the number of players that can be assigned to Maine are limited.

Marcoux said that he expected to start the season in the ECHL, but his rights belong to the Indy Fuel. Two other players that risk being pushed out, Phelix Martineau and T.J. Melancon, also have ECHL rights with other teams: the Fort Wayne Komets and Norfolk Admirals, respectively. Tryouts Marc-Olivier Roy and Garrett Cecere belong to the Komets and Mariners, respectively.

That leaves players like Ryan Culkin and Morgan Adams-Moisan as candidates for a post with the Mariners. Another potential player would be Maxim Lamarche, who counts as an ECHL veteran. The Mariners currently only have one veteran slot filled, defenceman Zach Tolkinen, so perhaps one of the bargaining chips the Rocket have is the promise of a veteran for Brière’s nascent franchise.