As the Laval Rocket get set for their season opener against the Belleville Senators on Friday night at Place Bell, they do so coming off of the best season in their short five-year history. They made it all the way to the AHL’s final four with a thrilling playoff run.
This year, expectations are heightened, and while a final four run may not be the ultimate expectation, anything short of a playoff appearance will be a very disappointing season.
There are a lot of changes, especially when it comes to the veterans. Gone are Jean-Sebastien Dea, Cedric Paquette, Louie Belpedio, and Xavier Ouellet, among others. Newcomers include Anthony Richard, Mitchell Stephens, Madison Bowey, and Otto Leskinen.
The Rocket forward group is the best in the team’s history in Laval. It is led by Jesse Ylönen and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, and the only question may be for how long. Both players have NHL aspirations as do some of the other forwards, like Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Richard.
It remains to be seen whether the team will get the addition of Juraj Slafkovský down the road, but for the time being he seems firmly in the NHL picture.
For the opening game of the season, this is how they are expected to line up:
Les trios du Rocket ce soir. Filip Mesar va jouer!— Anthony Marcotte (@anthonymarcotte) October 14, 2022
Extras: Teasdale, Saulnier, Dubé
The top line of Harvey-Pinard, Stephens and Ylönen will be a rock solid top line that Jean-François Houle can use in best-on-best matchups without hesitation. Richard, captain Alex Belzile and Danick Martel is the first of two all French-Canadian lines that may not stick out, but will be tough to stop in the AHL.
Xavier Simoneau is another newcomer, and his first assignment is with speedy veteran Brandon Gignac and Gabriel Bourque. It’s another line that can be used offensively or defensively depending on the game situation as all three players have sneaky offensive ability.
The fourth line to start the season is Lucas Condotta with Jan Mysak and Filip Mesar. The line combines three young players on NHL deals and it wouldn’t be surprising to see this line get a lot of opportunities at even strength, on the penalty kill, and for Mysak and Mesar, even some power play time.
The extras are Joël Teasdale, Brennan Saulnier, Pierrick Dubé, Peter Abbandonato, and Nate Schnarr. Abbandonato, Schnarr, Saulnier, and Teasdale are established AHL talent that can rotate in at any moment. Dubé is a younger player, but showed a lot in the ECHL last year, and earned a long look as an invite to Canadiens rookie camp, training camp, and Rocket camp.
This doesn’t even factor in players in the ECHL like Emile Poirier, Cameron Hillis, and Brett Stapley, among others.
A thin blue line... for now
With Corey Schueneman being recalled, the team only has seven healthy defencemen, including William Trudeau. The blue line is expected to be led by a couple of youngsters in Justin Barron and Mattias Norlinder, but they are surrounded by solid experience and talent. Madison Bowey, Otto Leskinen, Tory Dello, and Alex Green are all AHL veterans and will provide a solid support system for the youngsters.
Barron has AHL experience, but none with Laval. After being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche, he went straight to the NHL before an injury ended his season.
It’s possible that Schueneman will return to the AHL at some point, just like it is that some of the rookies currently in the NHL end up in Laval as well. It’s also possible that some will be recalled.
Trudeau, like Mesar, could be sent to the CHL this season. Likely the team wants to see whether they get out of the AHL’s opening weekend unscathed (and whether the NHL club needs any additional bodies) before letting either youngster go.
Injuries are already a concern in the organization with Mike Matheson out eight weeks, Joel Edmundson starting to skate, and Gianni Fairbrother out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the pre-season.
It will be somewhat of a revolving door, but the talent is there. Also in the ECHL are Santino Centorame and Olivier Galipeau, among others who can be called upon should more injuries strike.
Expectations high in goal
After a great playoff run, Cayden Primeau is expected to take the reins and play strong through an entire season. He has been inconsistent, and last season was outplayed by his current backup Kevin Poulin. In Game 1 of the playoffs, it was Poulin, not Primeau, who got the nod to start.
Houle has said that he wants to try and make this season a bit more challenging for Primeau, including putting him in goal for the second half of back-to-backs and see how he responds.
Should Primeau be in the NHL, there is a solid backup plan. Poulin showed he was able to hold the fort in Laval, and he’s joined by veteran Philippe Desrosiers and rookie Joe Vrbetic, who will both be in Trois-Rivières to start the year.
Whoever is in goal should feel like they have a solid team in front of them.