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New Perspectives: Josh Brook is getting the full curriculum in his first pro season

The 20-year-old defenceman has faced plenty of challenges in his rookie year in Laval, and he relishes every one of them.

Club du Hockey Canadien

If you have a comment ready to burn the Montreal Canadiens’ management for having Josh Brook play forward in a few recent games, that is your right. But if you’re curious to know, or hadn’t seen, Brook seemed just fine playing in a position he’s not all that new to.

Brook suited up at forward for last weekend’s games against the Manitoba Moose. The lineup change occurred once forward William Pelletier was scratched prior to Saturday’s game.

The Rocket lined up 11 forwards and seven defencemen in both games, leading to Brook taking shifts with the attackers. This came after the prospect was benched for two games after failing to register a point in seven matches.

“It was good, I enjoyed it,” Brook said of the new position. “Just not thinking and just playing. That’s the big thing the coaches wanted me to do. They just wanted me to play and enjoy. I think it was a good thing for me, and I enjoyed it.

Brook made enough of an impression at forward during last Saturday’s 3-0 victory that his team gave him their player of the game honour; an old-school rugby cap with a Laval Rocket logo.

The Rocket was blown out in the Sunday rematch, but Brook contributed his team’s lone goal on the power play.

“He’s on the forecheck finishing checks,” Brook’s defence partner, Karl Alzner, said. “I thought he did well. He was aware of what he was supposed to be out there.”

This past weekend’s foray up front was not his first time. Back when he was a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors, he was moved up to forward to help with injuries while also bolstering their power play.

“I think everyone can benefit from playing all the positions,” Alzner said. “You can see what the forward has to do. Whenever you come out of the box as a defenceman and then you’re playing D-zone, and then you have to be winger? You’re like, ‘what’s going on?’ You’ve no idea, and it’s so weird to have guys on either side of you. So just being put in that situation I think you can appreciate what everybody does a little bit more.”

Brook certainly isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, to be a defenceman taking minutes at forward, or vice-versa, at any level of pro hockey. He needn’t look too far for an example. Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard was briefly thrust into the role of forward as a member of the Saint John Flames of the American Hockey League during his playing days.

“I already had games in the NHL as a defenceman,” Bouchard said. “[Coach] Paul Baxter came to me. We were in a position where we needed to have some guys playing forwards because we were thin up front. We had a couple of guys and [Baxter] said, ‘I think you’ll be a better forward than some of the guys we have right now.’

“At the beginning my first reaction was, ‘Whoa, is it going to hurt me for the NHL?’ And he said ‘No, no, it’s nothing. You’ll go back on D.’ My first game, I had a goal and two assists.”

So if a defenceman can easily fill in at forward without it affecting his development, why not have more young players do it?

“Every kid in minor hockey should play every position,” Bouchard said. “When a dad comes to me and says, ‘My kid’s a centre’ ... He’s 12. Hey, he’s not a centre; he’s a hockey player. Play him every position. This is so wrong. We should force in the minor hockey kids should play five game at each position. I’ve been saying it for years. Years. In Junior I had [forwards] playing defence and defence going forward all the time.

“You want to have a job in hockey? You can have 12 jobs if you’re a forward. If you’re a centre you have four,” he continued. “‘I’m only going to be a left D.’ Oh yeah? Okay, perfect. We only have three jobs. You play left and right, you have six.”

Brook seemed to agree with that line of thinking, and doesn’t see any detrimental effects of trying out something new.

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

Friday night’s game in Rochester was a source of many different emotions for Brook. The rookie defender claimed his regular lineup spot back after splitting time with Evan McEneny, and spending some time as a forward in previous games. He had an assist on a Kevin Lynch goal, and showcased his ability to fly through all three zones.

He was also part of an own goal that will live on blooper reels forever, as Keith Kinkaid hit him with a clearing attempt, sending the puck into his own net.

He isn’t going to let that mistake change how he plays though, taking it in stride as part of the harsh lessons that the AHL can teach a young player.

“You just try to forget about it. You move on to the next shift, and the shift after that,” Brook said after the game.

He did just that, continuing his role in the top four with Laval on the night, grabbing his assist on a power-play goal late in the game. For him, it’s a small consolation, but it also serves as a confidence booster. He hasn’t set the scoresheet on fire, but realizes this is all part of his development process.

“The biggest thing for me is realizing just how tough it is in this league. You’re playing against men, and if you take the night off you’re going to pay for it. I’ve got to show up every game and just be my best every single night.”

Even after being a healthy scratch, then a seventh defender, and even a fourth-line winger, Brook is taking it all in stride, noting that he isn’t perfect, and there is work to be done on his game still.

“Obviously I just want to play [laughs], and that’s what it comes down to. I don’t care where I play, just that I want to play and be able to help this team as much as I can.”

He isn’t going through these tribulations on his own. Bouchard has made sure to insulate Brook with two of the more experienced players on the team, pairing him up with Karl Alzner or Xavier Ouellet for much of the season.

“The biggest thing is just watching them, day in and day out, on and off the ice,” Brook explained. “How they treat every day is so important. They’ve been pros for a long time, and I’ve got a lot I can learn from them.”

Given how Brook plays the game, Ouellet is a good option to model himself after, as the veteran defender and Rocket captain continues to be aggressive with the puck, piling up eight goals and 10 assists on the season, while also playing the heaviest minutes. Yet Brook acknowledges he can learn just as much from the defensive stalwart Alzner, especially as his rookie season continues.

“My defensive-zone work is a big thing I want to work on,” Brook replied when asked about his goals for the second half of the season. “It’s something I’m trying to work hard on, and I want to be able to play a more complete game every night.”

He won’t be sacrificing his offensive talents, though. He wants to build his game from his own zone out, accepting that he’ll continue to grow if he can gain more confidence playing in his own end.

He’ll have the support of his coach the whole way, knowing that while Bouchard is an intense personality, he just has the highest of expectations for his players.

“He’s definitely very honest,” Brook says of his coach. “He’ll call a spade a spade and just wants the best from you. He’s demanding but fair, and just expects the best from you.”

As the second half of the season rolls on, it’s not hard to see the improvements Brook has made. He knows there’s work to be done, but he’s more than willing to make the sacrifices to be a part of the bigger goal.

Even with the bouncing around, one thing is clear: it isn’t fazing him, and the best is yet to come for the kid from Saskatchewan.