Fresh off their Canadian division title last season and with a new head coach at the helm in Jean-François Houle, the Laval Rocket are hungry for more success as the American Hockey League (AHL) returns to its regularly scheduled programming in 2021-22.
With solid depth, a good mix of experienced veterans and young prospects, expectations are high, and the team is off to a strong start with three wins in their first four games. Here are six players to keep an eye on in Laval this year, some of whom may get a call up to the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens this year.
Many expected Ryan Poehling to be playing with the Habs to open the season, but a disappointing training camp with Montreal means he’s starting in Laval as an assistant captain after a career-best showing in the AHL last year with 25 points in 28 games.
He scored a pretty goal against the Belleville Senators in the home opener last weekend but is currently on the injured list after a hit to the head. Once he returns, the key for him will be to show that he can raise his level play to become a consistent performer in the NHL.
Claiming Adam Brooks off waivers means that Poehling can play big minutes in Laval for an extended period while Brooks is up with the Canadiens. The extra seasoning in the AHL certainly won’t hurt, especially if the Rocket are playoff contenders and the 22-year-old isn’t too concerned about where he plays.
“Everyone is on their own path. You can’t get frustrated with someone else’s path being different from yours and yours being different from someone else’s. It’s the best path for you. I think it’s all going to work out in the end and wherever you should be, you should be,” Poehling said.
After claiming Samuel Montembeault off waivers during training camp to backup Jake Allen in Montreal, Cayden Primeau finds himself as the no. 1 goalie in Laval for the third straight year.
Like Poehling, the Habs’ top goalie prospect will be seeing lots of action as he continues to hone his craft at the pro level. This is welcome news considering he only played 16 games last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his rookie campaign in 2019-20, Primeau posted a 17-11-3 record despite the Rocket being out of a playoff position. His 2.45 goals-against average led all AHL rookies. He had a .908 save percentage, recorded four shutouts, and was named to the AHL’s all-rookie team. That year he also earned his first NHL victory over the Ottawa Senators thanks to a 35-save effort.
Jesse Ylönen, a 2018 second-round draft pick of the Canadiens, impressed in his rookie season with the Rocket last season, putting up nine goals and 17 points in addition to making his NHL debut.
The 22-year-old was one of the final cuts in training camp and he showed that he has an NHL-ready skillset with great speed and a deceptive shot. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get another opportunity with the Habs at some point this season.
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard finished fourth in Rocket scoring as a rookie last season with 20 points. The 2019 seventh-round pick continues to defy the odds as he inches closer and closer to the NHL.
He turned heads at the Canadiens’ rookie camp last month with his leadership and strong work ethic. His hard-nosed play is drawing comparisons to Brendan Gallagher. Harvey-Pinard could surely be utilized as a bottom-six energy guy by the Habs in the future.
Defenseman Gianni Fairbrother, a 2019 third-round selection, is playing his full season as a pro after appearing in three games with the Rocket in 2020-21. Following his short stint in the AHL, he returned to his junior team, the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League (WHL) where he served as co-captain and posted 17 points in 23 games.
Whether it’s juniors, rookie camp, training camp with the Canadiens, or the AHL, Fairbrother always seems to find a way to get noticed in a good way. He plays a tough, physical game which makes him hard to play against.
The 21-year-old scored his first goal as a pro on Saturday night in Laval’s 4-0 victory over the Providence Bruins.
In his fourth year with the Rocket, Lukas Vejdemo is one of the longest-serving members of the team. He has also played seven games with the Habs and has been on the cusp of the NHL since arriving in the organization.
He’s a smart, reliable two-way centreman who does all the little things well. After another solid showing in training camp and given Montreal’s lack of depth down the middle, it’s possible Vejdemo eventually gets a call-up if he continues his steady play with Laval.
Unlike the Canadiens, the Rocket don’t have to deal with a lot of roster turnover with the major offseason change coming behind the bench. Several Quebec-born players with lots of AHL experience have been added to the fold and the team’s young players are a year older and wiser. They’ll be looking to build on the success they’ve enjoyed over the past two seasons.
Melissa has been covering the Montreal Canadiens for The Hockey Writers since March of 2020. She is also THW’s Social Media Community Manager and a 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.