In early December, Xavier Ouellet’s return to the Laval Rocket lineup came in three stages. The first day, he wore a non-contact jersey. The next, a regular practice. The day after that, he was back in the lineup scoring the winning goal in a 3-2 win over the Cleveland Monsters.
“When he looked at me in the eyes and said ‘I’m ready to play’, I was ready to play him,” said Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard. “He’s a competitor. I think that’s his biggest attribute. He never quits, he plays and that’s why he keeps getting better and better.”
When Ouellet was out of the lineup, the Rocket won three of the eight games he missed. Since returning to the lineup, the team has won three out of four.
“He can log a lot of minutes, he makes everybody comfortable,” Bouchard said before the team’s game on Tuesday against the Cleveland Monsters. “He’s come in with no practice really, then played decent the last [three] games for us even if it’s not perfect.”
Spending time around the Rocket, and likely any of the other teams in the American Hockey League, you hear people talk about the reality of the AHL. Bouchard, for one, says often that he knows that most players on his team are not satisfied with being in the league. The only thing he asks is that players are invested when they are in Laval and the message he wants them to take to heart is that the road to the NHL goes through the Rocket.
When Ouellet left the game on November 13 against the Belleville Senators with a lower-body injury things were relatively stable on the defensive side of the organization. Then, after six straight losses the Canadiens recalled Gustav Olofsson on November 29. On November 30, Victor Mete was hurt. On December 4, the day Ouellet returned to the lineup, Olofsson was sent back and Otto Leskinen was recalled.
You couldn’t help but notice that Leskinen and Fleury are currently a pairing in the NHL, two players that Bouchard put on a pairing with the Rocket captqain as they played their first AHL seasons. In fact, Ouellet himself smiled when he was asked about the timing of the injury and whether he would have been the one to get the call.
“We’ll never know,” Ouellet said. “There’s never a good time to get hurt. It’s always a bad time. It’s part of the game. Injuries are a part of hockey, and there’s nothing you can do about it. My job was to recover and I did and now I’m ready to go.”
Being named captain of the AHL team, like Ouellet was, is often seen as a blessing and a curse. You might assume an organization wouldn’t name someone captain they were thinking of bringing up. However, the first captain in Rocket history, Byron Froese was recalled just four days after being named captain in November 2017 and wouldn’t return to the AHL for the rest of the season.
Ouellet is ready to bring the same stability he brings to the Laval defence if he gets the call to the NHL.
“I think I can bring a solid game,” Ouellet said. “Whatever minutes they’re going to need me for, I can shut down the opponent and move the puck quick bring a little bit of offence and be a really solid defenceman out there.”
Bouchard uses the same word to describe Ouellet, a player he has known since the defenceman was 16 years old. The Rocket head coach was his assistant coach for three years in the QMJHL before becoming the team’s general manager.
“He solidifies,” Bouchard said. “He’s got a lot of experience in both leagues and is a major key to our power play.”
Ouellet has just played his 250th career AHL game. He has played 160 NHL games in his career, including 19 for the Canadiens last season.
Bouchard told Ouellet last year before he signed with the Canadiens that he hoped he wouldn’t have to coach him as that meant he was in the NHL. Now, he’s an integral part of the Rocket’s fortunes but Bouchard knows that it’s possible his captain and most-used defender leaves again.
“If I got frustrated by players getting called up and leaving, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” Bouchard said. “Everyone’s telling me I should be angry and frustrated. How can I be frustrated and angry? A few days ago I told Otto Leskinen he was going to the NHL and he jumped into my arms.”
“The call to tell someone they’re going to the NHL is never boring,” Bouchard said.