It’s not often that a team finishes well below .500 and there are still plenty of positives to talk about, but the 2018-19 Laval Rocket are just that team. Wiping the slate clean after a disastrous 2017-2018 season, when the team finished dead last in the AHL with a record of 24-42-10, the Rocket seem to have plenty of pieces in place to turn things around in a hurry.
Things also seemed promising at the start of this season. Gone were Sylvain Lefebvre and his assistants, who managed just one playoff appearance under their reign, and that ended in just four games. Gone were the gritty veterans of old like David Broll and Bobby Farnham, while youth had begun to take over the lineup as a whole. Joël Bouchard, Daniel Jacob, and Alex Burrows took over behind the bench, and a new era began for the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate.
Players who were standouts in the previous year were traded away for new blood. Kerby Rychel was traded for Hunter Shinkaruk, a young veteran looking to find some consistency in his game. Rinat Valiev and Matt Taormina were shipped off for Brett Kulak, a great AHL defender who had yet to make his mark at the NHL level. Marc Bergevin used July 1 to shore up the Rocket roster with long-time AHL vets as well, inking Kenny Agostino, Michael Chaput, Alexandre Grenier, Maxim Lamarche, and Alex Belzile to deals to help insulate the arrival of a handful of rookies.
Players like Jake Evans, Lukas Vejdemo, and Cale Fleury would all be a major piece of the lineup at various points, while Michael McCarron and Daniel Audette received much-needed help to reignite their careers.
Things looked a lot better for the Rocket, and through the early parts of the season the team played well, limiting most of their opponents to around just 20 shots a night. It was an impressive feat given the mess the team was in defensively in previous seasons. Even if they weren’t winning every game, due mostly to a struggle in net as Charlie Lindgren and Michael McNiven both started the season poorly, it was easy to see that, in the long run, Bouchard’s system would work out in the end.
Unfortunately, life has a way of never being simple, and due to a variety of injuries at the NHL level, the Rocket saw their veteran depth evaporate almost instantly. Agostino, Chaput, and Kulak were all called up to Montreal, and they all had extended stays. To compensate, the Canadiens tried to sneak Nikita Scherbak through waivers, and the skilled Russian was claimed by the Los Angeles Kings. Agostino was finally put on waivers to return, and was claimed by the New Jersey Devils, while Chaput was traded for Jordan Weal.
David Schlemko and Byron Froese (the team’s captain) were moved in a deal for Dale Weise and Christian Folin, and only Weise saw a handful of games in Laval before mostly spending time in the NHL press box. Kulak ended up being the only Rocket call-up to really make an impact, settling into a top-four role beside Jeff Petry, and playing quite well by the end of the season.
The Rocket did get some reinforcements through waivers from Montreal, most notably Xavier Ouellet, who would take over as team captain, and Karl Alzner, who had lost his regular lineup spot in Montreal’s on-the-fly rebuild. Ouellet put together a very good showing in his abbreviated term with the Rocket, serving as a mentor to Fleury for much of the season, and for Josh Brook at the end of it. Alzner, bushy beard and all, went out and did what was asked of him every night, but with his style of play he wasn’t going to make the impact Laval needed.
The impact came from the young players on the team, most notably from Evans and Fleury. It is a lot to ask a rookie to come in and immediately be a top-six star or a 25-minute defender. Fortunately, under Bouchard, they did not have to be right from the start. Fleury started the season on the third pair and had some power-play time, while Evans and Vejdemo were part of a youthful fourth line.
When the injury bug struck, and call-ups opened up opportunities, Evans made the most of it, taking over the top-line centre role and not relinquishing it until an injury ended his season. His 45 points put him in the top 10 for rookie scoring, an admirable feat given the offensive struggles of the Rocket as a whole.
Vejdemo became Bouchard’s biggest all-situation player. The young Swede played big defensive minutes on the penalty kill and at even strength, and even made great progress as a power-play piece — before he was cut down by injury as well.
Daniel Audette and Michael McCarron saw their best efforts since turning pro. Audette finally looked more like the speedy, skilled prospect from his draft year, and he set a new career high in points, goals, and assists for the Rocket. McCarron seemed poised to set new career highs as well, as Bouchard’s system had seemingly brought out the best in the young giant, before (and yes, this is a trend) a shoulder injury ended his season.
It wasn’t the immediate rebound season many hoped for. It looked like the Rocket could very easily challenge for a playoff spot with the roster they started the year with. Injuries, recalls, trades, and just flat out bad luck derailed all of that, and despite the mounting odds, Bouchard got the most that he could every night from his team. A lineup that featured 12 rookies, many of them ECHL call-ups, made opposing teams work for their victories every single night, something the previous regime couldn’t inspire when things got tough.
Now heading into a new year, many of the rookies from this year are ready to help welcome the new class to the professional ranks. Cayden Primeau, Brook, Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling could all be in uniform for the Rocket in 2019-20, and with a capable coach at the helm, they’re in good hands.
There were great moments and harrowing lows for the team, but it only serves to make them stronger for the future. Bouchard has made his mark, and now it’s time to give him some more tools so his club can carve out its spot among the AHL’s elite.