The Montreal Canadiens’ 2021 Draft is best known for players like Logan Mailloux, the team’s first-round pick, or players like Riley Kidney, Oliver Kapanen, or Joshua Roy. While those four players were either at the World Juniors or playing well at their current levels, there are also three players from that draft who are playing for the Laval Rocket.
Forward Xavier Simoneau and goaltender Joe Vrbetic (recently sent back to the ECHL) are playing on AHL contracts, and William Trudeau is on his NHL entry-level contract.
Trudeau, 20, was the team’s fourth-round pick (113th overall) and it wasn’t guaranteed he’d be in the AHL this season. He could have gone back to the QMJHL, but the team kept him to start the season and they are reaping the benefits now.
With injuries to Otto Leskinen, Nicolas Beaudin, Tory Dello, and Madison Bowey plus Justin Barron’s recall to the NHL’s Canadiens, there are only three players on defence who started the season in Laval currently in the lineup: Trudeau, Corey Schueneman, and Mattias Norlinder.
Trudeau has been playing top-pairing minutes with Schueneman, and recently has taken over the top power play unit. On Saturday against the Toronto Marlies, Trudeau was the chosen defender to start the overtime period.
Jean-François Houle was asked what he has thought of Trudeau’s recent play.
“Excellent,” he said. “He’s improved so much since the beginning of the year and a lot of it for hockey players is mental. For him, it’s feeling good about himself, he’s getting the ice time, he’s getting rewarded. He’s taking the opportunity and taking advantage of it. Sometimes people can’t deal with that pressure and can’t take advantage of it but he doesn’t seem to be phased. That’s a great, great quality to play in a market like Montreal for a young French Canadian not to be phased and take the opportunities.”
Trudeau’s stat line of one goal and seven assists in 28 games won’t jump off a page, but he had a big assist on Anthony Richard’s tying goal on the power play on Saturday.
The Rocket have said all year that they look to make Place Bell a fortress and make it hard for other teams to come in and win. In January, they are 3-0-2 at home, having yet to lose in regulation. In all they are 4-3-2 in the month and have moved into a playoff spot but have another big week with three divisional games, playing the two teams behind them starting with the Belleville Senators on Wednesday and two games in Cleveland against the Monsters.
The Rocket’s current 3-0-1 stretch comes at a time when they have eight ECHL regulars in their lineup because of players injured in Laval and call ups due to injuries at the NHL level.
Despite that, the team is playing some of their best hockey all year.
“We’ve learned a lot about our team since the beginning of the year,” said Houle. “We went through a lot as a team. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. I’m a firm believer that if you learn as the year goes on you become a better team and I feel that’s the way we are as a team right now. We started a little slow and now we’re playing a lot better for each other. We learned to become a team and that’s a good thing leading into a playoff run. Hopefully we can keep playing with the energy, the passion, the intensity, and the hard work and hopefully if we do that we’ll find a place in the playoffs.”
Xavier Simoneau scored the first goal in Saturday’s game and it was his first goal since November 19, a span of 16 games that sandwiched his injuries. After scoring, he threw the monkey off his back and into the crowd.
“It feels good,” Simoneau said. “Since my injury I’ve been trying to find my game. I don’t think I played my best game and it will do some good for the future.”
Anthony Beauregard also scored on Saturday, his first goal of the season and second career AHL goal. His first goal came on April 14, 2018. Since then, the 27-year-old played in Scotland and Switzerland before coming back to play with the Rocket and Lions.
He also had a few shifts with his linemate from the 2015-16 Val d’Or Foreurs, Anthony Richard where the two led the team in scoring.
“He hasn’t played a lot in the AHL but he has a lot of games in the ECHL and in Europe so he can bring some experience from over there,” said Pierrick Dubé
The life of a minor league coach is a lot like that of a juggler. On Friday night, The Canadiens had 11 forwards, and the Rocket only had 18 skaters total.
Saturday morning, it was announced that Cole Caufield would be out for the season. Jean-François Houle received a call from Alex Belzile that he would be called up for that night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I said to myself, ‘darn, we don’t have any extra players’,” Houle said, laughing about when he got the news. “We’re trying to help Trois-Rivières and Montreal is trying to help us so we had no extra players... So I called [Lions general manager and interim head coach] Marc-André Bergeron and said ‘stop the bus! Drop [Ryan Francis] off at a Petro Canada or a Tim Hortons’ and we sent an Uber,” Houle said.
“Sometimes that’s what you need to do at the minor league level,” Houle said.
Francis for his part arrived in Laval just in time for warmup and didn’t even have the chance to meet with the coaching staff before the start of the game. He played sparingly but given the circumstances Houle was happy with his performance and the energy he brought.