Only three players who were in the Montreal Canadiens organization when Marc Bergevin took over the club remain: Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, and Charles Hudon. Yet, if we want to be technical, there is a fourth player, someone who spent fourteen games with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2012-13.
That player is Alex Belzile, who played that season on a tryout contract in the AHL. Seven years after the fact, it was the Canadiens who signed him to his first NHL contract. He had gone year-to-year on minor-league contracts up until this season, and with a strong pre-season showing there is every chance that Alex Belzile will get a chance to take the ice at the NHL level for the first time in his career.
The battle for spots in the Canadiens’ bottom six has been extremely competitive, with a number of players staking their claim for three to four spots in training camp. Belzile was a longshot going into this fray, but in his debut against the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night he showed that he is a viable option.
For those who followed the Laval Rocket last year, there was one name that popped up on the scoresheet nearly every night, and that was Belzile’s. With 19 goals and 35 assists in 74 games, he was rightfully named the Rocket’s MVP, and was their lone representative at the AHL All-Star Game. His point totals were probably the most impressive of his professional career to date, but there was a lot more to his game that helped him become a crucial player for the club.
Originally, I had Belzile as a bottom-six player at best for the Rocket, thinking he might be a decent fill-in option and physical presence if needed. Joël Bouchard thought otherwise, making Belzile a mainstay in the top six all year. The forward formed a key partnership with players like Jake Evans and Daniel Audette that brought out the best in the prospects’ games. Evans’s case is a particular one to take note of, as the rookie climbed up from the fourth line and soon found himself attached to Belzile for most of the season before suffering an injury. That meant time on the power play, at even strength, and during the penalty kill.
Belzile was very much the safety net to help young players adjust to the professional game, but he was a threat on his own as well. His game isn’t the flashiest, but he had no problem making high-end plays and becoming a one-man attack if needed.
"Yoink"-Alex Belzile probably pic.twitter.com/mnsQ1eI2mZ— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 16, 2019
He brought the offence in all situations, and also brought the hard-hitting, heavy hockey that a coach like Claude Julien appreciates. We saw on Wednesday and Thursday night against the Florida Panthers that Belzile is more than capable of bringing an offensive touch to an NHL bottom six, while keeping his defensive responsibilities in check.
On Thursday in particular, Belzile and linemates Alexandre Alain and Lukas Vejdemo put their best efforts forward in their 11-plus minutes of even-strength ice time. Belzile was all over the ice, compiling seven scoring chances for with none against at even strength, and a Corsi-for percentage of 90.9%.
To put on a lopsided performance like that, and be a noticeable line each period, is worth commending. It was simple, hard hockey from Belzile that got the job done, and that has to catch the eye of Julien. Every time the line stepped on the ice they were flying in hard on the forecheck and making life absolutely miserable for opponents, which in turn led to turnovers and scoring chances.
Belzile may not be a frontrunner to make the Canadiens out of camp, but that won’t stop him from giving everything he has in each game he plays to keep himself in the conversation. To those who followed the Rocket last year, these performances aren’t a surprise; he is a heart and soul player and he is leaving it all out on the ice to try and earn his NHL debut.
The Laval Rocket would be very lucky to have him back this year, and he would be a key veteran on a young team. Though with an impressive pre-season like he’s put together so far, there is every chance that after nearly a decade, Alex Belzile might finally get called upon for his first NHL game, and he’ll have earned every second of it.