Laval Rocket season review: Josh Brook’s first professional season isn’t over yet

The young defenceman took strides under Joël Bouchard.

Expectations were high for Josh Brook as he entered his first full professional season. After playing seven games at the end of 2018-19, his first NHL training camp would be an opportunity to kickstart his pro career.

No one would have thought that a second NHL training camp would be how he ended his season.

Brook ended up playing 60 games for the Rocket, scoring four goals and adding nine assists. The numbers definitely do not jump off the page and may even be somewhat disappointing for someone who had a reputation as an offensive defenceman in Junior hockey.

What growth he showed was not on the scoresheet. Throughout the season, Joël Bouchard would work on rounding out Brook’s overall game. Brook played most of the season with Karl Alzner, and the improvements he showed on the defensive side of the ice were very noticeable. His gap control and ability to stop the opponent’s rushes was a big part of the success, as was his positioning. Put simply, he made plays late in the year that were a weakness at the start.

That isn’t to say that Brook’s ability to skate with the puck and play offensively went away. He wouldn’t take many chances, and his play was on the conservative side, but he still showed flashes of that dynamic side of his game.

This short-handed aggressiveness was a nice example of his controlled play. He made the zone entry, drew defenders to him, and showed patience before making the perfect pass.

He’s also able to take open space and use his speed. This is the type of confidence that he could bring to his game more often, but he was understandably easing into hockey at the professional level. Young players tend to not want to take more chances, but you could definitely see the confidence grow as the year went on.

His responsibilities, as a result, increased as well. The same methods that helped Cale Fleury get to the NHL in his second pro season were used with Brook. He and Fleury have very different styles of play, but it’s a development model that is remarkably similar.

Fleury was the much better player at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, as evidenced by him starting the year in the NHL while Brook struggled to adjust to the AHL. That one year of professional hockey made a big difference for both, and the gap between the two is now much smaller.

It’s part of the reason that Brook was invited to the Montreal Canadiens’ return-to-play training camp. The odds of him jumping into the lineup are slim, but the future of the team’s blue line may very well go through Brook and newest signee Alexander Romanov.

It wasn’t an easy path for Brook. He was a healthy scratch, the team’s seventh defenceman, and — when injuries decimated the Rocket’s depth — even a fourth-line forward. Playing forward was something that he did in Junior as well, and it helped him regroup during what was an up-and-down season.

“It helps me,” he said at the time. “Sitting out a couple games, getting in and just skating and having fun, enjoying the game. I think it helps my development if anything.”

By the end of the season, Brook was a regular in the Rocket’s top four, if not the top pairing. He had some time throughout the season on the second power-play unit, and had some chances on the top unit when Xavier Ouellet was unavailable with injuries or due to being called up.

The growth Brook showed makes it likely he will make his NHL debut at some point in the 2020-21 season, though the road to playing time on the right side of the Canadiens’ defence is tough. Shea Weber and Jeff Petry lead the way, and Brook wouldn’t be ready for those minutes anyway. Then you have Fleury, and Noah Juulsen in the mix for that final spot — and that’s before considering any potential additions, or left-handed defencemen switching sides. Christian Folin is with the team in camp and the most likely option to claim that role for the qualifiers, but is unsigned for 2020-21.

More time in the AHL wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Brook, like it wasn’t for Fleury or Juulsen even after they made their NHL debuts. Brook is only 20, and is the youngest of the three. Despite the improvement, there is still room to grow. The invitation to training camp is an indicator of his potential, and acknowledgement of his development this season.

The best sign for the organization may be that the improvement of his defensive game didn’t take away from his dynamic offensive abilities. It remains a strength, and what makes him an intriguing prospect. Solidifying the other side of his game is what will make him a regular in the NHL.

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