The Montreal Canadiens hired Joel Bouchard to be the head coach of the Laval rocket and help with the development of their prospects. Within two seasons, he already has coached Laval to be the top team in the AHL, and he has helped redefine the games of prospects such as Victor Mete, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling. With all his success, other teams in the NHL could be looking to make him their next head coach. If the Canadiens are not smart, they could lose the best coach in their system.
Bouchard Fixes the Mess Lefebvre Left Behind
Bouchard was brought into the organization with the expectation he would help develop the Canadiens’ prospects and bring a winning culture back to the Canadiens’ farm system. He replaced Sylvian Lefebvre, the organization’s AHL coach since 2012-13 when the team was the Hamilton Bulldogs. They would then become the St.John’s Icecaps in 2015, then eventually move to Laval and become the Laval Rocket in 2017, where the team would finish last in the AHL, and Lefebvre would be terminated at the end of the season.
In the six seasons that Lefebvre was head coach, the AHL team only made the playoffs once. That was in 2016-17, the team’s second — and last — season in St. John’s, which was also the only season Lefebvre coached a team to a winning record. During this time, many of the Canadiens’ top draft picks had issues in their development. Players like Nikita Sherbak, Michael McCarron, Connor Crisp, and Zachary Furcale never amounted to much even though there were high expectations they would be good NHL players.
In the two seasons that Bouchard has been at the helm, Laval has been a wholly different team. Before the AHL paused due to COVID last season, the Rocket were fighting for a playoff spot. This season, they are the top team in the league with a 22-6-2-1 record and winners of the Frank S. Mathers trophy for winning the Canadian Division with still five games remaining.
Bouchard Is a Master at Developing Young Players
Bouchard not only brought a winning culture to the Canadiens’ farm team, but he is also developing the players to be better prepared for the NHL. He’s worked very closely with the Canadiens’ young prospects and helped guide them to be better players on the ice. He also has managed to give quality ice time to the AHL veterans and future NHL players to get the right balance of experience and support. (from ‘Delicate balancing act for Rocket coach Bouchard in unusual AHL season,’ Montreal Gazette, 02/18/2021)
Both Mete and Kotkaniemi started with the Canadiens and were sent down to Laval due to poor play, and both had solid improvement in their game after playing for Bouchard. Kotkaniemi’s game improved the most, and he learned a lot of the little things he needs to do in his game to be a complete player at the NHL level. This improvement was shown during the Canadiens play-in and playoff rounds of last season’s postseason. Kotkaniemi’s play was so strong that it helped satisfy Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin that he had his centers of the future.
Jake Evans has also profited from Bouchard’s coaching; he has earned himself an NHL job and is quickly becoming known for his speed and defensive style of play. Defensemen Josh Brook and Cale Fleury have seen their games improve under Bouchard, most notably Brook, who is starting to return to the offensive-type defenseman he was drafted as. But the prospect who has gleaned the most from Bouchard’s guidance has been Poehling, who went from a disastrous first pro season, where he had a total of 15 points in 63 games split between the Canadiens and the Rocket, to leading the Rocket in goals with 11 and 25 points with both accomplished in 28 games.
Bouchard Is Too Valuable to Lose
With the Rockets’ record this season, many NHL teams will try to steal Bouchard away from the Canadiens by offering him an NHL job. This would prove disastrous for the Habs. For the first time under the Bergevin regime, the organization finally has a good crop of young prospects and a good development system to help bring those prospects to the NHL and be successful. Bouchard has proven that he can work with the young players and fine-tune them to become excellent NHL players.
Not only is Bouchard valuable for the development of the Canadiens’ prospects, but he could be the best coach in the system. Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme has the interim coaching tag, and if we are honest, has been mediocre at best. He hasn’t been the coach for a full season in his defence or even had much time to practice his system with the players properly. Going into next season, Bergevin has many decisions to make regarding players and his coaching staff. If other NHL teams are already scouting Bouchard, can the Canadiens afford to lose him?
Whether Ducharme stays or not will all be determined by how far the Canadiens go in the playoffs and/or whether Bergevin feels Ducharme didn’t get enough time to make the team his own. Whatever the decision ends up being, the Canadiens must keep Bouchard somewhere in the system to either continue developing the prospects or coaching the Habs and working with the young players there.