Growing pains are a part of hockey at every level, and more often than not young players and rookies are given time to work their way through them at their own pace. They grow and they learn with time. For the Laval Rocket this year, time waited for no one, and those rookies — the head coach included — had a proverbial baptism by fire.
Despite losing key players to injuries, trades, and everything in between, the Rocket have crafted a reasonably solid year on the back of a serious defensive overhaul under Joël Bouchard.
Things have gotten a little bit rougher as the season wears on. A disappointing 4-2 loss in Rochester set a sombre tone, but Jake Evans and Cale Fleury still put forth efforts that deserve recognition. That hasn’t escaped the eye of head coach Bouchard.
“I cannot turn on the guys too much. We have a very young lineup and we lack a bit of the experience that [Rochester] had tonight,” said Bouchard, “We have 10 to 12 rookies in the lineup every night; some of them have a lot to chew on, but some, like you said, have been impressive, especially to get us back to .500.”
That record has been due to the play of young stars like Evans and Fleury, both of whom play in every situation for Bouchard right now. Evans in particular has grown to be a budding star for Laval. His 45 points rank him fifth in rookie scoring in the AHL, an impressive feat given the rotating cast he plays with. He credits a lot of his strong performance this year to adjusting game in and game out to the speed and skill of the AHL.
“You get to know the league a lot more as the year goes on, and that helps a lot,” Evans said in his post-game comments to Eyes On The Prize on Friday.
A similar sentiment was echoed by his coach, who, despite years of coaching experience, was also in his first year at this level. “You always learn as a coach. If you aren’t learning, it doesn’t matter how many years you have,” Bouchard explained. “Even Scotty Bowman tried to learn or get better every game.”
It hasn’t been the easiest process, but the Rocket continue to grow. Evans himself mentioned that he came in without expectations, to make whatever he could out of the season regardless of the role. With the season nearing its conclusion, he noted how he has adjusted to the speed and little nuances in each play.
“As a centerman, especially, I notice who I’m going up against on the draw, and what they’re doing on those draws, and after,” Evans explained, also noting how crucial it was for big faceoffs to be won in key parts of the game.
“I like to think that even with call-ups and injuries that I’m playing in these situations because Coach Joël has a ton of confidence in me to be the best in those situations. He’s been pushing me all year to keep going, and to get that extra gear.”
Fleury reinforced a lot of similar points to Evans, noting that the biggest adjustment was the nature of the league as a whole. “You can’t take a day off in pro hockey, especially when you’re playing so often. You’re playing bigger, faster guys. You’re playing against men, not kids anymore.”
Fleury appears to have taken in that lesson very early on this season. His 21 points are top-15 among AHL rookie defenders. He’s also doing it with a rotating cast, playing Friday with Karl Alzner, but also spending time with Xavier Ouellet and Brett Lernout this year. “Playing with guys with a lot of NHL experience has helped me a ton on and off the ice. It’s made it a lot easier for me to adjust,” Fleury explained.
The word “experience” was very much at the forefront of the minds of Evans and Bouchard on Friday night. Evans had to find experience on the fly, starting the year in a smaller role on the fourth line and working his way to top-line centre in a few months’ time.
“I’ve only said it to a few people, but I like to not put expectations and pressure on myself,” Evans said. “First line, fourth line ... I just wanted to go out and do my best, building my game and going from there. I had no idea what to expect at the start of the year, and as I learned, I was given bigger and bigger minutes. If I was mad and getting frustrated on the fourth line or not scoring goals, I wouldn’t be a very good teammate would I?”
Bouchard was very direct with his message about the best road forward for himself and the Rocket in the coming weeks, mentioning that above all else in this league, talent and experience are the most important things for a growing team, experience being the biggest.
“You cannot buy experience,” Bouchard explained. “You cannot go to the University of Hockey and buy experience. You can only get that by getting out on the ice and getting it done, and that’s what the guys are doing right now.”
He’ll soon have a few more prospects joining his ranks for a few games of that critical experience. Josh Brook will play his first professional game tonight, and Ryan Poehling could soon follow. But the additions won’t change the coach’s approach.
“We’re going to bring these young guys in and work with them, like everyone else, to get them ready to be a part of this team.”
It has been a trying year, but even with the ups and downs of a professional hockey season, a rookie coach and his young roster are doing whatever they can to grow for the future.