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‘Winning is not an accident’: The Laval Rocket have lift off

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In his third year as head coach Joël Bouchard and his team are reaping what they sowed.

Rockford Ice Hogs v Laval Rocket Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

From when he first took the job as head coach of the Laval Rocket, Joël Bouchard didn’t like to talk about the history of the Montreal Canadiens’ main farm team. Rather than discuss what happened in the past, his focus was always on making things better going forward.

Consistent messaging from Bouchard is something you get used to quickly. He has told media in the past that he’s not smart enough to lie to the media, so he just tells it as he sees it. Of course, in that, there’s some omission. He doesn’t tell the media everything, but what he does tell them is the truth.

It’s how he is with his players as well. Ask anyone who has played for Bouchard and they’ll say that he calls it as it is. Even in his introductory press conference, he used some of the same messaging he uses today. You can ask him about a player today, you can ask him about a player in a year, and he’ll often use the same phrases.

Through most of the first two seasons of Bouchard’s Laval Rocket, the results were often similar. They would outshoot the other team more often than not, but more often than not they would lose. Last season, in mid February, the tide started to turn. From February 21 until the season ended on March 11, the Rocket were 7-1. If you include the start of this season — the best start the Montreal Canadiens AHL team has had since 2001-2002 — their record is 19-5-1.

“It takes time,” Bouchard said on Tuesday night after the team’s sixth straight win. “Winning is not an accident. Having good performances is not an accident. Everyone wants quick. Guys come from left and right... Now we have a bit of continuity. Guys that we started with two years ago that are here right now, Cale Fleury. Alex Belzile. Guys who joined last year, Cayden Primeau, Josh Brook. Joe Blandisi, who finished with us. And now you’re adding guys where we already have a foundation. Look at our first year versus our second year, our third year, we have a little more continuity in habits and style of play and it takes time to build a program.”

Bouchard mentioning Blandisi — who is tied for the Rocket scoring lead — among that group may seem out of place, especially considering the veteran played only four of those eight games. The trade that brought Blandisi and Jake Lucchini to the Canadiens organization for Phil Varone and Riley Barber happened on February 20. February 21 — the date the winning run started — also happened to be the first game Blandisi and Lucchini played for the Rocket.

One of Bouchard’s consistent messages is having the right mix of veterans and young players. He has said many times that it’s not about how many veterans you have, but making sure you have the right ones. Last year he called out some players on the team, saying they were “independent contractors.” A few games before Barber and Varone were traded, they were healthy scratches.

When Bouchard was asked whether he started to recognize what kind of veterans he needed to have when building the team, he didn’t hesitate before answering.

“I realized a long time ago,” he said. “I’ve been in hockey for a while. I’ve played in both leagues. I was a manager and a coach for years. I know what kind of players you need. Sometimes it takes a little time to happen. Now our young players can play at a high level, top minutes. Our veterans can join them. Now you have that mix. It’s not a magic trick. You have to go through that process of building a program. You’re developing players through a program. With attitude, with habits, pushing everybody to be better. My way of thinking, my vision has not changed. We’re getting rewarded for all the hard work we did in the first two years.”

“You have to find the right group. We weeded it out over two years and now we have a group that we know and know what the expectations are,” he said.

Because his vision did not change, it’s easy for him to stay on message. The foundation that Bouchard has built has already started to make its way to the NHL. The way some of the players are performing so far this season, there will undoubtedly be more on the way.

Three players from Bouchard’s first season in Laval have played NHL games for the Canadiens this year — Jake Evans, Xavier Ouellet, and Brett Kulak. A fourth, Victor Mete, played seven games that year with the Rocket.

That doesn’t count players like Alex Belzile, Lukas Vejdemo, and Cale Fleury who have also played NHL games after being coached by Bouchard that first season.

“To be honest, after the first year, I was very happy with the way we performed,” Bouchard said. “You have to understand, I know everything that goes on, we used 92 players in two years. Games we lost, I was happy with the performance. I’ll stick with performance and then results will come. I think that right now, we need to stay humble and stay hungry in what we do. Our performances are as good but we have players who are probably superior and understand even more how to play to win, so it’s an upgrade.”

Building the organization, and waiting for drafted prospects to get to the AHL has made it a tough road for the Rocket, but the work was being done to build a foundation for the young players when they did get there. The ability to bring in players like Jan Mysak, Kaiden Guhle, Gianni Fairbrother, Ryan Poehling, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Joël Teasdale, and Jesse Ylönen — among others — and have them hit the ground running is a testament to that.

There is still work to be done, but the Rocket’s current run is proof that putting in the work, and facing adversity, can provide results.