The Lions de Trois-Rivières coaching staff were in Buffalo to see the Montreal Canadiens rookies take part in the Prospects Showcase, and their immediate observation was the quality of the youth in the organization. Eyes On The Prize spoke with Lions Assistant General Manager Alex Cousineau about the upcoming season.
“I think this year is going to be an interesting season just because there’s so many young players compared to the previous seasons,” said Cousineau. “I don’t think we will necessarily see four or five guys that will stay with us for the entire season. I feel we’ll see a lot of movement up and down, some guys will come just for a weekend or a week, just a conditioning stint to go back up to Laval because they’re so young, right? So if they have a young player just sitting in the stands, I don’t think it’s the best for their development, but coming to us and playing and just going back up after that, I feel it’s the best for them and we’re open to that. We want to be able to help Laval and Montreal develop their players, and we were really impressed by the talent that was displayed on the ice and Buffalo. So we’re really excited to to see what’s going to happen with our team.”
The Lions coaching staff had a sit-down meeting with John Sedgwick and the Laval Rocket coaching staff to discuss the player personnel strategy for this upcoming season. Cousineau did not want to venture too deeply into those conversations, but shed some light on the general plan.
“So there’s a lot of players that we would love to have in Trois-Rivières that’s for sure. I won’t mention any names just by respect for those guys. I know those guys wanna work hard and get a spot on the Laval roster, but there’s certainly interesting names that we would like to have and we think that we will have in Trois-Rivières. But just by respect, like I said, I’ll let them go to camp and see afterwards.”
Players who get sent down to the ECHL sometimes have a hard time accepting their situation, or assume that they will receive preferential treatment. It was no different for the Lions, and Cousineau cautions that ice time needs to be earned regardless of contract.
“It did happen. I do remember a situation where a guy came down and he didn’t feel like being there. And for us, we understand. We know you want to be in the American League, but we’re here to help those guys. If you’re here for a week, you’re here to develop and we’re here to help you go back to the American League and that’s our primary goal.
“Whether you’re an AHL contract, NHL contract, or ECHL contract, you have to deserve your playing time. If you’re on an ECHL contract and you’re the best player on the team, you’ll play the power play, you’ll play the PK, you’ll play big minutes. And if you’re a Laval player that comes down and you think that because you’re an AHL contract you’re like a superhero, well that’s not how it’ll work here. So you’ll have to deserve all your playing time. For us, if you’re a good player, you do the right things, you’re going to play, and if you’re not doing the right things, well, you won’t play as much.
“A great example was Cam Hillis. Cam came to us and you know for sure he wanted to be in the American League and he came to us with the desire of going back. He was the first player on the ice every day. He was in the gym every day working so hard, he would come in the coach’s office, ask questions — ‘what can I do to get better?’ — and he was able to go back to the American League. When he got traded to Chicago, he was able to play some minutes there as well. So hats off to him for all the hard work he put in.”
After hearing his thoughts on one of last year’s players, the discussions moved on those who are expected to be around this season, and what to expect from them.
“We saw our teams in the last years and we were a smaller team. We were easier to play against and that was something in exit meeting with players that we found we weren’t tough to play against. So that was the number-one thing on our list. We wanted to get bigger, we wanted to get stronger, we wanted to get more physical and be tougher to play against. Andrew Nielsen was one of the names that popped right up. He’s a big guy, he can skate, he can play a physical game, he can fight, he can score. So for us it was like a no-brainer to have Andrew join our program just because of everything he does. He plays the right way. You know, he’s a tough guy, so sometimes it leads to penalties, but that’s something we can control. We played against him last year while he was in Utah and we saw what he brought. For us, it was a no-brainer to bring him in.”
“We were really interested in Ducharme. He he just fills the box that we were looking for as well. He’s a gritty player, he plays fast. I coached him in his last Junior year (Val d’Or) and the first year of the Lions. He was certainly somebody we wanted to bring back. He was on an AHL contract the last two years. We knew that he wanted something at the American League level. We dropped an offer on him and said that we’re really interested in bringing him back and in a certain role and stuff like that. He looked at his options and when he saw that Trois-Rivières was the best option for him, he decided to sign. He was certainly interested. He saw all the change in the organization. He wanted to play for Pascal and come back to our team and all the guys and the core really like Justin as a player and as a person. So for them it was also a no-brainer to have him back and when we had mutual interest and he decided to come back, we were really excited about that.”
“He loves the city of Trois-Rivières. I have had a great relationship with him since day one. There was some stuff going on and I think that after a few months of reflection, he saw the turnaround with the team and he was excited to come back.
“His family is here. He’s been here for three years. His wife is here, his kid is here with him as well. He really likes it here and for sure he has a relationship with Pascal. So when he heard Pascal was going to come back, he was really excited.
“When Pascal left, it was a shock for everybody, but he had a good talk with with Ron [Choules] and with myself, and he’s just really excited to be here. So we’re we’re happy to have our captain back for a third straight year.”
“Anthony Beauregard was the first player to say that he wanted to be back with our team and with our captain, so it’s really exciting to have those guys wanting to play here; wanting to play for the Lions.”
On top of his Assistant GM duties, Cousineau wears multiple hats, including goaltending coach. Cousineau says that he speaks with Laval Rocket goaltending coach Marco Marciano on a weekly basis. They have spoken about several of the goalies in the system, including Zachary Emond (AHL/ECHL contract), Strauss Mann (AHL contract), and Joe Vrbetic (whom the Canadiens maintain the rights for).
“We talk even a few times a week. We have a great relationship. Since day one of the team we’ve been talking about goalies, and even when they’re up in Laval, he calls me and asks what we worked on here and where we’re at in the progression. When we have one of his goalies, then it’s the same thing. He would share some insight with me and we would talk during games when he would watch, let’s say, Joe Vrbetic. Last year, he watched Joe play and after games we would talk and see what we saw, and what we saw differently.
“Joe’s an interesting situation. So he played last year as an over-ager in pro hockey. He was, if not the youngest, one of the youngest players in the ECHL and for me I think he did a really, really good job, you know, being able to come out of that season with more wins than losses at his age, and on one of the worst teams in the league. For me it was something that I was happy with. I saw an evolution from his game from day one of camp to the last day of camp. His work ethic was way better. He was more of a professional, you know? He was young, so being able to learn from other players and from older players, I think it helped him a lot. You know, you live on your own, you’re not in the billet family anymore. You have to take care of yourself and I think he did that in a great way. He progressed through the year on the personal side.”
“I’ve heard a lot on Zach. He was in in Rouyn-Noranda when I was in Val d’Or, and we played them about 12 times during the COVID season, so I got to see Zach play a lot. I don’t know him personally. If ever we have the chance to have him in Trois-Rivières, I’ll certainly work with him. I spoke to Marco about him and they speak very highly of him and about his personality and how he is as a person. So it’s going to be interesting to see and if it’s him or if it’s somebody else or the two goalies will have here. I think they’ll be a key aspect to our team trying to win and make the playoffs this year.”
“Chris showed throughout the last years when he was in Wheeling and in Wilkes-Barre that he’s a top-end guy for an organization in the ECHL and he can be a really good depth guy in the American League. He was certainly somebody we were very interested in during the off-season, even bringing him in on an ECHL deal. He finally signed an AHL deal with Laval, which is great for him, but certainly if we have the chance to see him in Trois-Rivières, he’ll be a huge addition to our lineup. He’s a good 200-foot defenceman who can play as good offensively as defensively.
“He had some great flashes there at rookie camp. He plays the right way, so for him to be able to come to the Lions, we’ll see in the next few weeks. But it would be a a huge addition to our team for sure.”
“He’s certainly somebody we might be interested in. We will see how things evolve with him if he stays in Laval. We don’t necessarily want to trade for somebody that we won’t have [note: the Norfolk Admirals own the ECHL rights of Novak], but if there’s a possibility that he comes down, we’ll see. He’s done really good. So far at the rookie showcase and at the the start of training camp, he’s a good 200-foot player as well. He did well in college and even when he played in the ECHL last year he he had some great showings. So it’s going to be interesting to see how things play out with him.”
Along with some of those players to key upon, there will be plenty of others joining them for form the squad this season. We wrapped up the conversation with a discussion of the overall group of players available.
“There was a lot of movement, and even for the players the last year was tough for many different reasons. But I just feel the excitement of the team right now. I have guys calling and just wanting to come down to Trois-Rivières as soon as possible. We do have ECHL restrictions on when guys can come in [per the ECHL CBA, players can’t report until October 6].
“We have some guys who were here in year one who are coming back in year three. They see all the changes that happened, starting with Pascal and the team that we laid out, and then with Ron Choules. Ron had a chance to talk to all the players coming in and we see the excitement. So I think it’s going to be interesting. It’s been hard on different points for our team in the last two years, but I think this year is going to be an interesting season for our program.”
The Lions coaching staff will be in Laval when the Rocket open their camp on October 2. The Lions open their own camp on October 10, with an intra-squad game planned for the 13th.