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Laval Rocket season preview: The stacked forward group

Full of returning players and new faces, the Rocket forward group is a force to be reckoned with.

Club du Hockey Canadien Inc.

It was an incredibly busy off-season for the Laval Rocket, even though almost everyone on the current roster hasn’t played a competitive hockey game in nearly a full year. The 2019-20 season was cancelled just as the team had found its identity and was pushing for a playoff berth. A post-season berth would have been their first since 2017 when the team was the St. John’s IceCaps.

While Marc Bergevin was extremely busy retooling the Montreal Canadiens, he did not repeat his mistakes in neglecting the AHL club. Every major player from last season’s team is back, with some reinforcements also joining the fold for head coach Joël Bouchard. Those additions were mostly made to the forward group, which looks very strong heading into the delayed start to the season.

The Prospects

The group is highlighted by a player who had arrived to play last season, but due to the cancellation never got to pull on the Rocket sweater. Jesse Ylönen is a speed threat with a wicked shot, a seemingly ready-made replacement for departed all-star Charles Hudon.

Joining him is another prospect who was unfortunate to no make his North American pro debut last year, Joël Teasdale, who missed the entire season with a serious knee injury. Teasdale’s relentless style of play and familiarity with head coach Bouchard is a match made in heaven and one that is well worth keeping an eye on.

There are also Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Cam Hillis, and Arsen Khisamutdinov. While the large Russian is a bit of a mystery, Hillis’s playmaking and Harvey-Pinard’s hard-nosed approach should quickly endear them to fans watching at home.

Also in the mix is a former teammate of Hillis, Liam Hawel, who stands 6’5” and played centre during his time in the OHL. He represents the Rocket and Canadiens doing their due diligence to try and find some diamonds who might have slipped through the cracks in previous NHL Drafts.

The Veterans

The Rocket didn’t just add young names and faces to their roster this off-season, they made sure to insulate their rising stars. Joining the forwards are the pugilistic Brandon Baddock, the steady Samuel Vigneault, and Jordan Weal, who cleared waivers from the NHL. Baddock was among the AHL’s leaders in fights with six on the season, and one could expect that with the ever-present rivalry with the Belleville Senators he’ll be involved physically quite often.

Vigneault comes from the Cleveland Monsters, where he was a reliable option up and down the lineup every single night after leaving the NCAA. His addition allows Bouchard some lineup flexibility, similar to what Kevin Lynch provided last year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Vigneault on the wing at some points this season.

Weal, who despite being a very useful fourth-liner in Montreal, lost a centre spot to Jake Evans and couldn’t find a spot among the very crowded wings in Montreal this season. The little time he’s spent in the AHL in his professional career has been extremely good, playing at over a point-per-game pace in all but one season. He’ll likely be relied on to help lead the prospects as they adjust to the professional game as he awaits a chance to return to the NHL level.

The CHL Guy

Four CHL players are on the roster right now. Jan Myšák is the lone forward, and comes from the Hamilton Bulldogs of the OHL and is on the heels of a really nice showing at the World Juniors for the Czech Republic. The 2020 second-round pick may not be in Laval long, as the fate of the OHL season is in the hands of the Ontario government right now.

The returnees

The strength of the Laval Rocket lies in their returning forwards, who formed a fantastic group that was leading the playoff charge when the season was cancelled. In this group are Alex Belzile, Lukas Vejdemo, Michael Pezzetta, Laurent Dauphin, Ryan Poehling, Joseph Blandisi, Jake Lucchini, Yannick Veilleux, and Kevin Lynch. Nine returning forwards is huge number for a minor-league team, especially one that is also adding a mountain of new options.

Dauphin, Blandisi, and Lucchini were all acquired in-season via shipping out players who weren’t living up to expectations. While they didn’t bring the same flash that the departed players did, the new trio provided stability and effort every night that allowed the Rocket to get their season back on track.

The same could be said for Veilleux, who nearly left for Europe before joining the Rocket. It was a great choice as he piled up 12 goals and 20 points in 26 games, nearly earning himself an NHL deal before the pandemic shut things down.

Bouchard will be looking for Belzile to be the de facto leader of this group. Even in an injury-shortened season, Belzile was one of the Rocket’s best players and the beating heart of the club. Bouchard will also turn to Vejdemo who quietly led the team down the middle as the injuries piled up last year. In depth roles, players like Lynch and Pezzetta are more than capable of stepping in at any time for the Rocket when called upon.

Last season, Laval won a lot of games by wearing down opponents and scoring ugly goals with a lot of hard work. That’s findamentally how Bouchard’s system works: if the effort is there, the Rocket can just overwhelm teams with four strong lines.

They’ll have plenty of options to mix up their attack now this year, with a mix of steady vets and exciting prospects in the fold. At the end of the day, the Rocket forward group remains its strength, and in a short season they’ll be relying on everyone to pull their weight.