The Montreal Canadiens finished last in the NHL standings on the heels of a disastrous 2021-22 campaign. On the flip side, their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Laval Rocket, enjoyed the best season in the franchise’s young history thanks to an impressive run to the Eastern Conference Final during the Calder Cup playoffs.
The success didn’t come without challenges as both the players and the first-year coaching staff showed a lot of resilience in the face of adversity.
Offseason Changes Pay Dividends
This year’s edition of the Rocket was a team built by former Habs general manager Marc Bergevin and assistant general manager Scott Mellanby who left the organization in November.
A new head coach, Jean-François Houle, was hired to replace Joël Bouchard who left the organization to join the San Diego Gulls. They were big shoes to fill for Houle considering Bouchard’s popularity and the positive impact he had on the Rocket. He passed the test with flying colours and showed strong leadership behind the bench.
Laval’s roster also underwent a bit of an overhaul with several veterans, primarily Quebec-born, brought in to give the team a new identity including Jean-Sébastien Dea, Gabriel Bourque, and Danick Martel. They managed to establish a new culture and showed great pride in playing for their home team. Meanwhile, Michael Pezzetta and Ryan Poehling graduated from the AHL to the Habs.
In December, when injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak hit the Canadiens in a big way, significant reinforcements were needed from the Rocket which left Houle with a depleted lineup. Still, they managed to keep themselves in the playoff race thanks to their depth and ultimately clinched a postseason berth after finishing third in the North Division with 85 points in 72 games.
In the playoffs, Laval once again showed their character, erasing deficits in multiple games and coming from behind to get themselves back into the different series’ they contested. Their impressive run came to an end in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against former Hab Charlie Lindgren and the Springfield Thunderbirds when it was clear they didn’t have much left in the tank.
More Big Changes on the Horizon?
It promises to be an eventful offseason for the Rocket once again with a laundry list of free agents to deal with and several young prospects set to join the pro ranks which means that the team could look quite a bit different next season.
After struggling at times during the regular season, Cayden Primeau was brilliant between the pipes during the playoffs, posting a 9-5 record and a .936 save percentage. He was calm and confident in his net, making big saves when it mattered most. The 22-year-old is a restricted free agent and should return to Laval for another year, but his postseason heroics have certainly earned him more opportunities with the Canadiens. Corey Schueneman, another restricted free agent, proved to be a capable NHL defenceman in 2021-22 and will fight for a roster spot at training camp. Forwards Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylönen also showed good progress and appear destined for Montreal’s bottom six in October.
On the unrestricted free agent front, will captain Xavier Ouellet, Alex Belzile, and Lukas Vejdemo, three of the longest-tenured Rocket players, be re-signed? The same question can be asked about Dea and Martel, who was Laval’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 15 points in 15 games.
Houle hopes that his group of veterans is brought back because they’ve been instrumental in creating an environment in which the younger, less experienced players he’ll potentially have at his disposal next season like Justin Barron, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Emil Heineman, Riley Kidney Jan Mysak, Joshua Roy, Arber Xhekaj, can thrive in.
“It’s important to have a good core of veterans that can guide the young players well, it’s essential in the American Hockey League,” explained Houle. “Not just on the ice, but off the ice as well in their daily lives as they go through the steps of learning how to become a professional. It’s important to have the right elements in place to help us continue what we started this year.”
Regardless of what changes the Canadiens’ new management team has in store for the Rocket this summer, Laval took an important step in the right direction in 2021-22. The accomplishments and lessons learned this season set them up for more future success while also ensuring that player development remains a top priority.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media & Marketing Manager as well as co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly show produced by THW. In 2006, she spearheaded the social media initiatives for Tennis Canada and Rogers Cup and was the primary person responsible for their upkeep for over 10 years. She has written articles for multiple tennis websites and interviewed the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. While her career in sports started in tennis, her first love has always been hockey. She has a journalism degree from Concordia University.