Fresh off their best season in franchise history marked by an impressive run to the Eastern Conference Final during the Calder Cup playoffs, the Laval Rocket are poised for another eventful American Hockey League (AHL) campaign in 2022-23 thanks to an injection of skill and youth into their lineup during the offseason.
The young prospects of the Montreal Canadiens who will be getting their first taste of professional hockey will be well surrounded by veterans with lots of AHL experience and who continue to push for regular NHL duty. Familiar names like Jesse Ylönen, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard as well as new captain Alex Belzile are back and will lead the way. Here are five other players to keep a close eye on this season.
After a disappointing training camp with the Habs, Justin Barron is starting the year in Laval hoping to rebuild his confidence and develop his play on the defensive side of the puck. While his offensive skills are obvious, the 20-year-old needs to be tougher to face in his own zone if he hopes to be an NHL defenceman.
In 2021-22, Barron played five games with the Canadiens after being acquired from the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. This stint with the Rocket will help him improve his one-on-one coverage as well as his physicality and tenacity.
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He appeared in 43 AHL games with the Colorado Eagles last season, putting up five goals and 20 points. He will benefit from top-four minutes with the Rocket and play in all situations.
A second-round pick by the Habs in 2020, Jan Mysak is entering his first full year as a pro following a successful junior career with the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Czechia national team.
Related: Canadiens Prospect Report: Roy, Beck & More
The 20-year-old is a versatile centre who does many things well on the ice. It will be interesting to see whether he can be a big factor at the AHL level and effectively impose his game on his opponents. A solid progression in Laval playing meaningful minutes over the next few years could lead to a permanent role in Montreal’s bottom-six in the future.
It has been a challenging couple of seasons for Mattias Norlinder thanks to a string of injuries and a tough transition to the smaller rinks in North America. At the start of the 2021-22 campaign, the previous regime delayed sending him back to Sweden to continue his development which didn’t help matters.
The result is a once highly touted defensive prospect who has not only lost his way, but also his place on the Canadiens’ depth chart. The good news is that there is no denying his talent and he has shown a lot of it during the Rocket’s first two regular season games. A full, healthy season in Laval should be very beneficial to get him back on track because it’s much too early to throw in the towel even though he has a lot to prove.
It was a tale of two seasons for goaltender Cayden Primeau in 2021-22: an average regular season followed by stellar playoffs during which he was the Rocket’s best player. He was calm and composed in front of his net, coming up with timely saves to help give his team momentum when they needed it most.
The 23-year-old, who signed a new three-year deal with the Habs over the summer, has reached the in-between stage of his career. He’s shown at times that he’s too strong for the AHL, but on the flip side, not ready for a full-time role in the NHL. It remains uncertain whether he can be a no. 1 goalie at the highest level, but he’s going to have to find another gear if he wants to make the jump at all.
Once again, the plan is to let him see a lot of action in Laval and perhaps he’ll earn a call-up later in the year to get an extended look with the Habs. Despite Jake Allen’s recent extension, the Canadiens’ future between the pipes is still murky and the growth of Primeau will be key to helping make the picture clearer for management.
Fresh off inking a one-year AHL deal with the Rocket during the offseason, Xavier Simoneau, a 2021 sixth-round draft selection by the Habs, turned heads during his first NHL training camp for the right reasons thanks to his speed and aggressive approach. He made things happen during his preseason appearances and left a positive impression.
The 21-year-old will be looking to carry that momentum into his first professional season in Laval and ultimately convert his current AHL deal into a two-way NHL contract.
There are plenty of good reasons to follow the Rocket this year starting with the many fresh faces in their lineup who will play an important role at every position on the ice and contribute to building on last season’s success.