The Laval Rocket locker room is not small. In fact, it’s more similar to an NHL locker room in terms of size and appearance. It is also already close to capacity. Between players on try outs and everyone already under contract, there aren’t many stalls that were empty.
That doesn’t even factor in the five players who cleared waivers on Friday and then were assigned to the Rocket. And the Montreal Canadiens still have cuts to make as well. Of course, some try outs will not be signed. Other players will be assigned to the ECHL. The room will be made.
That’s what is at stake for some players in the two pre-season games over the weekend against the Belleville Senators at Place Bell. While some players will be thrilled to stake a claim to a spot on the Rocket, the five players who cleared waivers — and potentially more to come — will have a lot of disappointment.
Nobody understands that like Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard.
“I’ve been in that situation so we let them digest the news,” he said. “All of those players want to play in the NHL. I think they all came in excellent physical condition, they played good games in camp with the Canadiens. It’s always the same thing, there are only so many players you can keep. I know how they feel, having been in that position but I also know how quickly things can change in hockey.”
Bouchard doesn’t expect any of the five players — Karl Alzner, Xavier Ouellet, Matthew Peca, Phil Varone, and Dale Weise — to play in the pre-season games. However, he does expect to see them all.
“When they come, it will be very important for me to talk with them,” he said.
Three of the players sent down played for the Rocket last season, with Ouellet taking on the captaincy role after Byron Froese was traded. Peca and Varone have AHL experience but none with the Rocket.
Unlike the NHL where the Canadiens have seven pre-season games, the Rocket have only two. It means Bouchard has to walk a fine line between player evaluation and preparing for the season.
“We’re preparing for next weekend,” Bouchard said referring to the Rocket season opener. “We have players who were with us last year, we want to implement our way of playing but we also need to evaluate players. There are players who put a lot of work in this summer and we want to give them a chance to stand out and if they are able to secure a spot with the organization.”
“This weekend we also have to get ready for the season.”
Last year was almost a transition year for the Rocket. Not only did they have a new coaching staff, but 33 of the 46 players to play a game for Laval last season were doing so for the first time. A number of those 33 were true AHL rookies as well.
It does make a difference, as second-year Rocket forward Lukas Vejdemo said.
“This year we have many guys who were here last year so most of the guys know what he wants so I don’t think he needs to explain that much,” Vejdemo said. “Last year, he talked a lot but this year we started one level up and you can see that in practice. The guys know what he wants and and I think it’s easier for everyone.”
“You can focus more on details this year when you when you have the ground system.”
Bouchard has mentioned homework assignments he gave Rocket players throughout the fall, starting with rookie camp. Vejdemo didn’t have to report to rookie camp, so his first interaction with Bouchard was after the Canadiens sent him down. That was when the teacher called him up to the front of the class to check on his assignment.
How did he do?
“He said that it seemed that I have worked on my homework. So that was good,” Vejdemo said with a laugh.