There aren’t many coaches in professional hockey who are more honest and realistic than Laval Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard.
He’ll often answer media with unexpected, forthcoming answers. If the team wins and wasn’t good, he’ll say that. If the team lost and had nothing more to give, he’ll say that too.
Following the team’s loss to the Hershey Bears on Saturday night, Bouchard said he needed to see more from certain players. He didn’t name names necessarily, but when the lineup was announced for Wednesday night’s game against the Belleville Senators it had Riley Barber and Charles Hudon centred by Kevin Lynch.
Lynch was great in the pre-season but he doesn’t fit the bill of someone to play with two of the team’s most skilled veterans. Likewise, Jake Evans was with Alexandre Alain and Dale Weise. Without being in Bouchard’s head, it’s easy to assume that Evans is being sent a message, but you could argue it’s the other way around.
Hudon and Barber both entered Wednesday’s action with underwhelming starts. Hudon had three points in seven games while Barber had one assist.
“Riley is a goal scorer. He likes to score goals and that’s a good quality for a player to have. I have no problem with that, and on the contrary, he’s been one of the players with the most ice time,” Bouchard said after last Saturday’s loss against Hershey, Barber’s former team. “The rhythm is a little bit slower for him, but it’s not like he doesn’t have chances. He’s getting chances. But on the other side of the ice, he can’t cost the team because he’s not scoring. It’s up to him and some other players to manage that. We’re not playing bad and there are a lot of guys who haven’t broken out. They are good hockey players and we’re going to get out of this together.”
Bouchard knows how to push buttons. On Wednesday, Hudon had a big check, knocking a Senators player over the bench that sparked the team when it was trailing 3-0 and Barber had assists on both Rocket goals in the game.
“There are players who came out of their shell, but there are others who are still inside,” Bouchard said on Saturday. “Over the next few weeks we’ll need to make progress. Everyone wants to do well, and there are some guys who have advanced.”
You’ll notice a pattern with Bouchard. Not only does he seem to know how to push buttons, he knows whose buttons to push. He won’t push a guy who has nothing else to give. His goal is to push players to be the best they can possibly be. He doesn’t try to get blood from a stone. If he pushes you it’s because he knows there’s more in you to give.
It’s why he seems so hard on guys like Ryan Poehling and Josh Brook. It’s why he’s tough on guys like Barber and Hudon. He wants everyone to be at their best, and if you’re not, he’ll make sure he does everything to get you there.
It’s why he praises players who listen. Players who are open to instruction. It’s why he goes out of his way to note improvement and while doing so he also downplays it. He won’t be satisfied with good enough. I remember the first time I spoke to Bouchard after a game when he was still coaching the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. The team won a game but they weren’t very good. He said the goal wasn’t to win a mid-week game in January, it was to win the Cup and they wouldn’t do it if they played like they just played. Then he said the thing that made him the happiest was that the guys in the room knew it before he told them.
After the win against Providence last Friday, he said similar things. He said the win was nice, but that if they played like that in February he would be a lot more critical. It’s a process for him. He’s happy the team is better than it was two weeks ago and in two weeks he’ll expect the team to be better than they are now.
Last week, Bouchard mentioned that his job is to develop players so that when Claude Julien gets them they can perform. He’s used to working with younger players where if they aren’t improving, they’re falling behind.
The American Hockey League is as tough as it has ever been. Every team has talent. The game is less about physicality, and more about skill and speed. The Rocket have the deepest roster they’ve had in years. But most teams in the North Division have good teams as well.
Bouchard knows what’s ahead of him. He knows that “good enough” isn’t good enough. He’s striving for constant improvement and at the end of the day, the Rocket — and the Montreal Canadiens — will be better off for it.